I first met Meltem Demirors in Singapore. That was in 2018 - an eternity in crypto years. This was before DeFi, before NFTs, and before even Larry David, Tom Brady, and Matt Damon started hawking crypto.
"I just don't care," she told me at the time, explaining that in any conversation, it's best to "take off the proverbial mask" and act like our true and authentic selves. I liked her right away. Smart, fearless, funny and even delightfully profane - what's not to love?
This article is part of Road to Consensus, a series that features speakers and the big ideas they'll be discussing at Consensus 2022, CoinDesk's festival of the year, June 9-12 in Austin, Texas. Learn more.
She was also very forward-thinking. While it's almost cliché for crypto OGs to say, "I've seen bear markets before, and it's always the same," you get extra points for taking the shot early. In the spring of 2018, Demirors sensed that the crypto space had gone through an "orgy of unbridled capitalism," and told me she was "looking forward to a period of depressed prices where we can focus on really building something." She nailed it. And that's exactly what has happened.
For the past four years-seven since she entered the industry when she helped found Digital Currency Group [parent company of CoinDesk]-Demirors has been building, investing, inspiring, and writing memes relentlessly. What exactly is her role in the industry now? "That's a really good question," Demirors tells Zoom from her home in New Hampshire. Officially, she's chief strategy officer of CoinShares, an investment firm. Unofficially? "I think my role has always been the same," she says. "I like to connect the dots. Whether it's connecting ideas, people or capital, that's what I like to do."
And in our wide-ranging (and happily profane) conversation, Demirors somehow connects the dots between investment frameworks, crypto Twitter, how it's "really hard to get punched in the face every day," why style can be empowering, the highest return activity in crypto, why haters can "go eat a d**k," and why she's toying with the idea of starting her own cult ... With her as the high priestess.
Welcome to Cult Meltem.
The interview has been shortened and slightly edited for clarity.
Meltem, it's been four years now! And the space has changed so much. What has surprised you the most about how it has evolved?
Meltem Demirors: Simply the speed with which the image of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies has changed. It happened so suddenly and so quickly and from so many places that were so against Bitcoin in the past.
And the speed at which crypto has become part of the cultural zeitgeist and popular vocabulary. Seven years ago, when I started in this industry, it was impossible to find people who knew what Bitcoin was. Today, I can't go anywhere without someone telling me about Bitcoin or NFTs or some token they're interested in.
I'm just imagining a crypto-bro explaining Bitcoin to you ....
Oh, that happened! At a dinner, I was sitting next to this younger person, and he spent three hours explaining to me how Bitcoin works. I'm like, "Tell me more. I'm fascinated. I've never heard of Bitcoin. Tell me everything." It was funny.
You're "very online," and you're also a big picture thinker. How do you structure your day to keep your sanity and not get swallowed up by crypto Twitter? What are your productivity hacks?
I don't manage it. It's just messy, and I'm good at working in messy environments. So that's good. A big help is that I just let my curiosity guide me to where I need to go.
When I spend more time in New Hampshire, I can focus better because there are no distractions. I'm all alone in the woods. My family is nearby, and I have some friends nearby, but I go to bed at 10:30 p.m. and wake up at 5:30. Finding space and time to think is very important to me.
And I experiment a lot. Interacting with online communities, joining DAOs, and posting crap online are really informative and helpful because you get to meet new people and new ideas. One of the things I learned early on is: the highest return in crypto is to put your ideas and thoughts out into the universe and see who and what comes back at you.
Interesting. Can you elaborate on that?
My best relationships, my best investments, my most productive collaborations have come from interacting with people, connecting over a shared appreciation of something. Whether that's a science fiction book, a meme, or a thought about the inflationary economics of DeFi tokens. And if you follow that up in a smaller forum, that evolves, and then all of a sudden it's, "Hey, I'm starting a business. Do you want to help me with that?" And I'm like, "Yeah. Plus, I'd love to invest."
And then most of my friends at that point are crypto people, so my social life is crypto. I go on vacations with crypto people, and so you just get immersed in it. To some people, it sounds like hell. To me, it's fun.
Let's talk about investing. Is there a framework you use for potential investments? Are there any basic investing principles you can name?
Look, I'm a newbie to investing. I've been doing this for about five or six years now, and especially in the world of venture investing, it's very hard to tell if you're good or lucky, right? It takes a lot longer than five years. So it's yet to be seen if I'm actually a good investor. The first step is to admit to yourself that you actually have no idea whether you are good or bad.
A valid reservation! But then, how do you view potential investments?
I think there are a few basic ideas to consider. One framework that I find very helpful is to look at things in categories. I didn't know how to phrase this until I read a blog post from Galois Capital that categorized projects into a two-by-two matrix.My best relationships, my best investments, my most productive collaborations have come from interactions with people.
On one axis is "utopia," and that can be very utopian, like an idea growing into the sky, or not utopian at all, but just super practical.
Like, "We're going to reduce a customer's call time by 14%?"
Exactly. And on the other axis is Grift. That can be high grift or low grift. So you have four quadrants.
I love it. What's an example?
So in quadrant one, you have infrastructure companies. They're very mundane. Not sexy. They say, "We're going to solve a very specific, very practical problem." Doing your taxes is not inspiring or utopian, but it's very practical. It's also not grandstanding. It's like, "Hey, we're going to help you do your taxes. You pay us a fee." It's a very infrastructure-heavy business. Or take Coinbase. That's a very hands-on business. Very little rip-off, right? So that's quadrant one. That's what people call the core infrastructure of picks-and-shovels.
Category two is low grift, but high utopianism. These are kind of like the moon landing, super ambitious ideas, but they're not fraudulent.
Then there's the third quadrant, which is very utopian, but also very fraudulent. Like dog coins, right? Dog coins are like, "Somebody please buy my damn bags so I can get out."
And many cryptocurrencies are very sophisticated, with quick release schedules, no lock-up period for founders, and massive allocations to investors and insiders, all optimized for short-term appreciation.
Like a lot of the 10,000-unit NFT drops, right?
Right. The PFP drop of 10,000 pixelated animals is a high on crookery and a low on utopia. There's nothing innovative about it. And then there's the interesting category of "High Utopianism," but also "Very High Grift," all those "moonshot" protocols that say, "We're going to tokenize human knowledge."
When you evaluate a project, what do you look for in a founder?
My main criteria is: no assholes. I think a tiger doesn't change its stripes. So if someone has a reputation for being rude, dismissive, disrespectful, manipulative or dishonest, they may make me a lot of money, but I'm just not interested. It just causes me stress and anxiety.
I like to work with people who are honest and sincere, who are transparent, and who are good people. I do background checks on people.
That's a good rule of thumb. What else do you look for?
The level of passion someone has for what they're doing and the problem they're solving. It's very easy to tell when someone is excited about getting rich or being successful. I think there's so much "hustle porn" right now, and there's this startup culture where everyone is a founder of something, right? I see people walking around saying, "I'm the founder and CEO of X," and I think, "Right, but you're the only person working there."
So with real founders, I ask: Why is this person motivated to solve this problem? What unique insight does she have? Or what's the personal story? And at the end of the day, if you're really excited about what you're doing, it's just going to be really hard to get punched in the face every day.
What exactly do you mean by getting punched in the face?
In crypto investing, it's nice when things are looking up, when things are looking good, when investors love you and customers love you. But there's always a struggle. I've been doing this for seven years now. I'm always struggling. And people on the outside say, "Oh, you look so successful." I then say, "Bitch, my job is to get punched in the face five different ways every day."
I've gotten punched in the face more times than I can count. There's this meme of a duck sitting on a pond. She looks so peaceful. But underwater, her little fins are paddling like crazy. I think that's how everyone in this room feels, and that's why empathy and kindness and just being a good person are so important. Because it's very difficult to know what people are going through, and it's helpful to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Are you willing to tell about those struggles, about getting punched in the face?
Yeah. I mean, look, in March 2020, when Bitcoin dropped to $3,500, my business partners at CoinShares and I were on the phone. We were like, "What should we do? What should we do now?" Fortunately, everything was fine, and we figured it out. We had issues with regulators trying to shut us down, and we were like, "Is our business over?" And we figured it out. And in my early days at DCG, I definitely got punched in the face a few times. But I learned a lot from that experience and learned to take care of myself and look out for my own interests. So you just learn.
And I also got some personal experience, right?
Can you talk about what happened?
I had a stalker once who taught me a lot about privacy and security and how to carefully choose what to share and what not to share. I had people in the business who formed WhatsApp groups to bring me down or humiliate me. In those groups, which were all men, it was like, "This bitch needs to be taken down."
If you look at my YouTube videos, half the comments are, "Kill that girl. I hate her. Make her stop talking." It's so gendered and so misogynistic." And it's fascinating because a man could say the same thing I said, and they're like, "Oh my God, he's a genius." But because I come across in a different package, it's like, "Fuck that bitch." And I'm like, well, it's really fun to deal with. And you learn to deal with it.I think that's definitely a big factor in this area, especially in the bitcoin community, which is very problematic.
But I think that's definitely a big factor in this area, especially in the bitcoin community, which is very problematic. But look, at the end of the day, I'm not going anywhere. Make an effort.
On a topic that's kind of related to this: You wrote a great essay for Des Femmes about style. Can you explain how style is important to you and why it's important?
Style is not just about what you wear. It's how you interact with the world around you, right? It's the energy you bring. It's your attitude. For example: I'm here. I'm here to have a good time. Yes, we're going to change the world, but we can also have fun while we're doing it. We can look good while doing it.
A lot of people criticize me for my voice because I have a Valley Girl voice. It's like, "Yeah, that's my fucking voice."
You have a great voice!
I'm going to keep talking like that. Or sometimes I talk like a Generation Z person. I love to say things like, "It's on fire," or "That's fire." I love those phrases. And people will say, "That's not professional." And I'm like, "Go fuck yourself. Honestly, go eat some dick." Excuse my language.
We don't fucking care!
I think style is about making space for other people and going out into the world with your whole personality, being expressive, and being unapologetic. And I think there are a lot of people in crypto who have great style, whether it's the way they present themselves physically or whether it's the way they conduct themselves online. And I think that creates space. It creates more space for all kinds of people because they look at it and say, "Oh, if there's space for this person, and if this person is so comfortable, then maybe there's space for me."
And it's amazing because so many women, when I meet them, they say, "When you do X, I feel so much more comfortable. When you go out there and you feel comfortable saying this or that or wearing that, it creates space for me to also do things that I would like to do but haven't really felt comfortable doing."
I think that's really important.
It's really important that there's room for a lot of different types of people in this industry. And my approach is very unique to me. I want to be funny. I want to be irreverent. I want to be a little bit sassy.
We work with magic internet money. So if I dress like a disco ball, let me. But I think it's really important that this is a welcoming space where people can see a place for themselves. And I think that's really hard to do when we're all trying to fit the crypto-bro look with ruffled t-shirts.
How would you describe your worldview if you expand a little bit?
That's a good question. I think I'm an optimistic nihilist, if that makes sense. In many ways, it's like, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." I like to use the phrase "clown world." We live in a clown world where I think, "This is a clown ... this is absurd."
But at the same time, I'm really freaking optimistic. Look at this community. In the last 13 years, we've memorized a world reserve currency, right? That's a gross oversimplification, but we have. We've done that. And hundreds of millions of people have helped make that happen. That's pretty darn amazing. What a time we live in. Poverty is at its lowest level in the history of mankind. There are so many things that are really, really amazing that happen all the time. And there are also so many really f***king horrible things.
Let's close with something you've joked about on Twitter before - starting your own cult.
I'll be talking about it at Consensus; I'm finally ready to start my own cult.
Excellent! What does the Meltem sect look like?
I mean, look, it's half ironic, half serious. I think there is a massive crisis of meaning in much of our world today. The largest religion in the world is a religion without a name, which is the spiritual but not religious movement. Over 40% of the U.S. population belongs to this "ideology." And I think one of the reasons crypto is so popular is that it gives people a sense of community and belonging. It gives them an ideology and a kind of manual on how to live their lives. Cryptocurrencies, and Bitcoin in particular, are pretty dogmatic about having certain values and a certain code of conduct.
For better or for worse.
Absolutely. And now we are actually building cults through DAOs. We call them decentralized autonomous organizations, in reality they are faith communities. And I also think a lot of corporations and big companies are cults, right? Berkshire Hathaway just held its annual conclave in Omaha, Nebraska, where 55,000 people came to listen to their prophet Warren Buffett and his apostle Charlie Munger preach from on high.
Right, I'm with you that far....
The connotation that people have when you say cult or religion is generally negative, but I use it in the most abstract sense, where religion historically has been about a set of symbols and about a set of narratives that determine the way people construct their sense of reality, their sense of the world around them.
One of the cool things is that cryptocurrency spans the arc of reality. It changes our perception of what is possible. I think it's inherently optimistic in some ways. It's much more optimistic than the alternative, where if you look at the state of the world, the credibility of institutions of any kind is crumbling. And the credibility of these ephemeral online communities is increasing very rapidly, isn't it? It's growing and declining very quickly.
So I think there's this interesting new sociological trend that's happening in the crypto space. There are elements of mysticism, there are elements of science, but it's largely driven by faith and belief. It revolves around these characters in our community. There's a lot of cult and hero worship for these figures in our industry.
There's tons of cult worship in this field!
That's kind of how it started. But now I'm kind of serious about it. I'm wondering, "What if we created a community that had its own capital in the form of cryptocurrencies?" What if we built a citadel in New Hampshire? We have our own energy source, whether it's in the form of solar panels or small micro-nuclear reactors. That generates enough energy to power, say, 100 homes and run a data center where you can mine Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. This is how you earn capital.
You build a higher education institution that is connected to that community, you build a religious organization. So it is a non-profit organization that you can donate to without paying capital gains. You can put your valuable cryptocurrencies into this organization to build things that are social goods. People have historically called that a religion. But it doesn't have to be about a Judeo-Christian idea. It can be about any kind of shared belief.
Do you have any other ideas for this cult?
We can build open-source tools and infrastructure. You can bring all these little communities - physical and digital - into being, and because the underlying substrate is an open-source protocol, these communities can be interoperable. They could trade with each other, transact with each other, and connect with each other.I'm still trying to figure out what our rituals should look like. They will be metal, though.
You can build a really interesting mycelial network of small, self-governing pockets. They may all have slightly different ideologies. But they share a core set of beliefs that the future is self-sovereign and decentralized, and insert your favorite crypto trophy here.
That's what I've been chipping away at. That's what Alex and I will be talking about at Consensus. I'm really excited about it.
What's your role in the cult?
High Priestess. I think high priestess is a good honorific title. And I'm still trying to figure out what our rituals are going to be. They're going to be metal, though. They're going to be really freaky and really heavy metal.
I'm happy to help brainstorm.
Think about your honorific title. Think about what kind of garb you want to wear. Maybe some face tattoos? The world is your oyster!
Thank you, Meltem. Let's do this again before the next four years. See you at Consensus!