A Thiel Fellow turned unicorn CEO, Dylan Field is known in tech and design circles for his software startup Figma, which powers much of the visual design happening at companies like Airbnb, Slack and Twitter, but increasingly also non-tech companies like several big banks. Backed by a who’s who of investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, Greylock, Index Ventures, Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia, Figma was valued at $2 billion last April.
Last week, Field has become known for a very different role: NFT collector. Last Wednesday night, he sold a non-fungible token of a computer-generated face – an avatar of a pipe-smoking, hat and sunglasses-wearing teal alien – for the equivalent of about $7.5 million in Ethereum, the cryptocurrency. The sale was a record for CryptoPunks, the limited series of 10,000 collectible avatars created in 2017, and an eye-popping sum just hours before Beeple set an NFT sale record when his work “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days” sold for $69.3 million at Christie’s auction. Then that Friday night, Field took to Clubhouse, joining popular room “The Good Time Show” to compare his sold punk, called CryptoPunk #7804, to a digital Mona Lisa.
Forbes caught up with Field over the weekend to talk about the sale and NFTs. Highlights of that conversation were first published in the Midas Touch newsletter on Sunday. Here, Field goes deeper on digital art, NFTs and his anticipation of a “metaverse” to come.
The $7.5 million avatar
Field purchased #7804 in January 2018, a year after Matt Hall and John Watkinson created the limited set of 10,000, which were initially given away for free. (The two came out of the Toronto-area university tech scene, as did Field’s now-wife Elena Nadolinski.)
lready interested in cryptocurrencies and especially Ethereum, Field saw the buy as a potentially viable investment. But he was more excited to support activity happening over ETH, especially digital artists playing around on the blockchain. “I was on a road trip with Elena, and I said, this is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. And I had total conviction in it, which is what I’m going to try to listen to in the future: when I think something’s both really stupid and I have conviction, I think it’s a good sign now.”
After a month spent closely tracking a CryptoPunks Discord channel, Field sold last Wednesday to an anonymous investor known on Twitter as “Peruggia,” who tweeted a thread explaining the rational of their purchase (recommended reading in its own right). Field says the financial gain of the sale was meaningful to him, but he was also motivated by the desire to spread the gospel of crypto art through #7804, sharing it with more people through the subsequent publicity. He feels a deep bond to “Peruggia,” whoever they are. “Owning #7804 is a paradox and also a curse,” he said on “The Good Time Show.” What Fields means, he says: if you believe in NFTs or digital art like CryptoPunks, you’ll want to hype them and spread the word – which eventually means selling at an eye-popping value, to prove the point.
Digital art to last
As money and interest have only continued to flow into digital art and NFTs since last week’s sales, some challenges have appeared, too. The buyer of Beeple’s record work was revealed as Vignesh Sundaresan, a cryptocurrency entrepreneur offering digital tokens, or digital pieces of ownership of works, including Beeple art, raising questions of ulterior motives. Other artists noted the risk of their own works being offered by others as NFTs without their knowledge or benefit. And Beeple himself nodded to concerns about the environmental impact of electricity-hungry crypto mining by announcing that he would donate several works to a charity auction to benefit the pursuit of climate-friendly blockchain technology.
Field remains an owner of a range of digital artworks, despite having sold another CryptoPunk, fedora-wearing ape #6965, for about $1.5 million in February. (That means of about $39,000 invested, Field’s sitting on profits of about $9.5 million.) He still owns 11 CryptoPunks, though they’re not as rare as the pipe-smoking alien, as well as one work by Beeple and several by the creators of CryptoPunks in a newer project, Autoglyphs. (List prices for those already run more than $100,000 in ETH.) Field says he might like Autoglyphs even more – not to hype their value, he says but as an experiment in generative art, meaning each glyph was generated by code running on the Ethereum blockchain itself.
Looking forward, Field believes digital art – and digital objects more broadly – will continue to enter the vernacular, especially as it comes to an area he expected to embrace the NFT before the art world: gaming. At the same time, Field admits that current NFT prices are being driven, at least in part, by a “hype cycle right now about crypto in general.’ “I think we are going to see more wealth generated with cryptocurrency, and when that happens, people want to do things with it,” Field says.
But Field thinks plenty of NFTs will remain cheap and accessible, at least in their early stages. A bigger issue to Field: the scalability of the Ethereum platform, which is currently limited in how many transactions it can support. More computer “mining,” meanwhile, could compound the environmental problem. “I think it’s important that cryptocurrency mining creates a bounty for better and more efficient energy,” Field says. Another idea he floats: a federal subsidy for such research.
As for authenticity and ownership in the digital art category, Field believes technology is already in development to better identify whether art has already been published as an NFT to avoid resharing. Technical layers of abstraction make it difficult to spoof ownership already, but Field says it “will fall on the platforms” to help determine original creators are the ones posting an NFT. Field just invested in one, Open Sea that announced $23 million in funding today in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz.
Where will such art be enjoyed? Figma’s CEO envisions a world parallel to our physical ones, in which people will increasingly invest their time, money, and identities. “We’re going to have a metaverse where people will be able to transport themselves across different areas, different spaces, and have digital items that are unique to the metaverse,” Field says.
Field says he has already had dreams about his CryptoPunks, but so far still about the real-world transactions – not as a CryptoPunk itself, at least yet. In the metaverse, he’ll have to prepare to go face-to-face with someone else appearing as his old friend, the alien #7804.