At the beginning of May, I started on the communications team at Aragon with the goal of telling the story of Aragon, both from a product and an ecosystem perspective.
The term Aragon probably brings up a variety of different ideas of what that organization is, so I'll provide some answers from the "inside."
Aragon is a software company that creates and maintains Ethereum smart contracts (and their respective front end interfaces) for DAOs. The first contracts were written in 2017 by co-founders Luis Cuende and Jorge Izquierdo. Today, Aragon contracts secure billions of dollars in value. Projects like Lido, API3, and Decentraland use Aragon.
There are many different "arms" of Aragon, which are kind of like subDAOs (but also not really like subDAOs, I don't know what to call them). These "arms" include the Aragon Association, Aragon Labs, Aragon Network DAO, and the Aragon Committee. Also throw in the loose term "Aragon Project" and the deprecated Aragon One, and you have a crowded room of Aragons.
Over the next few months, all of these arms are merging or deprecating or dissolving into a general Aragon Network DAO that encompasses everyone who works on Aragon products. Transitioning from a traditional org to a DAO is one of the biggest challenges I've been part of (more on this below) and makes daily work exciting.
One of the main reasons I applied to Aragon was that, over the last year, I became completely obsessed with DAOs and wanted to dedicate my work to improving and growing them. And, to be entirely transparent, I couldn't feasibly make a living off earning bounties from other DAO work (although I tried mightily!).
I was also drawn in by the manifesto. Below, a line that resonates with me:
"We will either see technology lead to a more free, open, and fair society or reinforce a global regime of centralized control, surveillance, and oppression. Our fear is that without a global, conscious, and concerted effort, the outlook is incredibly bleak."
I believe technology can be revolutionary in ways both good and bad (if you've read my piece on superintelligence, you know what I mean). Working with people who also believe this has been refreshing and challening and beautiful. I've had a fun few months, and I want to share some rambling thoughts on what I've come away with so far, with a short Q&A from Twitter comments at the end.
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Learning: Progressive decentralization without serious safeguards is scary (and stalls the decentralization itself)
One of the reasons this transition has taken so long is because of the legal and safety concerns that come with transitioning a $170 million treasury into a smart contract.
The "what if"s become quickly apparent when designing a governance model to hold this much money. At the end of the day, it's just another smart contract...that happens to hold the entire project's funding future inside of it. And smart contracts, like everything else online, are exploitable.
Many DAOs today run with a multisig at their center as the main funding driver, or as a backstop in case a malicious proposal passes. That means the DAO's treasury isn't directly subject to malicious proposals as long as you trust the multisig signers and their respective security measures (hardware wallet, good online security practices, succession plan, etc.). While this might be more secure in some cases, it's not trustless. We're trying to move away from a central multisig at Aragon, and honestly it's just a hard thing to do safely.
It's also taken a long time for a simple reason: it wasn't a DAO at the beginning. Back in 2017, DAOs were essentially nonexistent. Jorge and Luis created the tools for DAOs to run, but weren't focused on their own operating system yet. The longer decentralization gets kicked down the road, the harder it is to put into practice.
I've been pondering on if it's better for DAOs to start decentralized, or if a progressive decentralization model is best. I'm not sure about that yet—hoping to write on it in the future. Right now, I'm 50/50 split: it's just as hard to go from unstructured community to structured DAO, as it is to go from structured traditional org to structured DAO.
We'll see if my thoughts change in a couple months.
Realization: DAO contributor uncertainty and instability is holding DAOs back
With the move away from a multisig and siloed groups, and toward more of a DAO-like framework, the fear became quickly apparent. Real-life, "meatspace" fears became part of the day-to-day. As DAO contributors rather than company employees, how can we get approved for a mortgage? How can we have any kind of job security? How can we get health insurance for a good price? How can we get paid time off and paid parental leave? How can we know we won't be personally liable for legal issues the DAO faces?
There are no cut-and-dry answers for any of these questions in current DAOs—questions I call "contributor uncertainty." In order to serve those in our org who have more IRL responsibilites—a mortgage, a family—we need to think carefully about payments beyond a basic bounty structure.
We cannot throw away everything about web2 in our search for a better way of organizing in web3.
Being in an org where this transition is occurring makes that even more apparent to me. For DAOs to attract and retain talent, we need to give contributors an opporutnity to work more like employees, less like freelance contractors.
I think the key here is optionality. It's great that DAO contributors can pop in, grab a bounty, then head to their next gig. But we need balance—we need to serve the long-term, full-time contributors as well. I hope we can strike this balance at Aragon.
Goal: Becoming more technically proficient
I'll be the first to say that not everyone needs to be an expert in computer science to get into web3. But, I've realized that I need to get much better at the technical end to do my job properly. From understanding basic differences between an SDK and a fully-built app, to knowing the precise capabilities and limitations of solidity and smart contracts, to being able to read the basics of our Aragon smart contracts, I'm working on growing my understanding of the technology behind my work.
One of my biggest near-term goals is to finally invest time in not only being able to read a smart contract, but being able to speak confidently about all the capabilities of one. While the soft skills are very important—and the reason I'm employed right now—I believe that if you're building tech, you should deeply understand that tech. (And I'm the biggest culprit. Hellooooo to past me thinking Snapshot was on-chain voting for far longer than I'd like to admit.)
Working at Aragon has made me realize how critical it is that we all have these basic fundamental understandings of smart contracts. DAOs are about humans, but they're also about tech—having a balance of both is critical. And I'm going to work to improve my own balance of it.
Realization: There were many aspects of a web2-style work environment that I missed while working in a DAO
A couple things I was grateful for when returning to a more traditional work environment:
- People signing off on weekends and evenings: I was a huge culprit of this in DAO work, but I've learned what a bad habit it was! (I'm sorry to all BanklessDAO members who dealt with my all-hours messages.)
- Camera-on meetings: While I still feel like I can make great connections via audio-only, there's something really special about being able to connect with another person face-to-face. I didn't realize how much I missed this, and how easy it was for me to slack off and start multi-tasking during my camera-off meetings, until I went back to a mostly camera-on environment. Don't get me wrong, I still turn my camera off in many situations, especially if trying to focus on a collaborative exercise like a Miro board. And I don't believe in requiring people to do something they're not comfortable with. But having about 70% of meetings with cameras on has been a positive change that I'm grateful for, because of the deeper connections forged.
- Dedicated mentorship: Finding mentorship was very hard for me in my DAO work. In a DAO, it can be hard to know what peoples' work backgrounds are, so asking about past work can be tough. I've loved getting to learn from co-workers at Aragon who have dedicated expertise in different areas, and who are willing to share that expertise often. It's also easier to ask for help from specific people when you know their past work and skillset. I'm sure this can be acheived other ways (onchain reputation, anyone?) but for now, I'm happy with the web2 version of it.
- Alleviated stress from constant bounty-hunting to get paid: In my DAO work, a large chunk of my salary came from bountied-work, which meant I had to be constantly producing output to get paid. If a couple weeks went by with me working on back-end operations but no article coming out, I saw that reflected directly in my earnings. Not having the pressure of bounties hanging over my head is refreshing and relaxing, and makes taking time away from work easier.
- More trust in contributor continuity: There were a couple instances of ghosting in my DAO work that frustrated me. It's also hard to start long-term projects in DAOs with high turnover. So, being in an environment where people stick around longer has felt good. It just feels more secure.
Learning: Over-communication is a good thing
A big challenge of working in an organization spread across different subDAO-guild-ish groups is communication. Throw in the time zone differences, and communication becomes a critically important skill.
I've been working on "over-communicating," which is sharing updates and information to everyone who I think needs it, to help prevent siloing. If they don't need or want those updates, I trust that they'll tell me. The more decentralized an organization, the more important it is to over-communicate. If you don't over-communicate, chances are that someone who needed to see it missed it. The worst you can hear is "I don't need to know this in the future" or "you can leave me off these updates."
One of the most important things to over-communicate is when something is in a pre-launch phase and is about to get released. All relevant parties need to know about this "thing" and have sufficient time to give feedback. Communication the only true way to build transparency and trust.
Realization: Lack of unified strategy is a common problem plaguing all DAOs, big and small
I felt the challenges of lack of unified strategy in previous BanklessDAO work, and thought this was a symptom of the DAO being so new. I didn't think about the lack of strategy hurting the older DAO space players, like Maker. Reading Hasu's forum post on MakerDAO's governance issues and lack of strategy made me realize that the struggles Aragon is facing are the same as the rest of the ecosystem.
How do you create high-level, unified strategy without centralization?
My first response to that question would be that centralization is not always a dirty word. Without centralized strategy, there will be no DAO—it will be just a bunch of groups working to achieve different goals, yet getting funded by one entity.
But how do you set strategy without millions of consensus-seeking meetings?
This is something I'm still grappling with, and I don't have the answer for. Part of me thinks the early group—whoever founded the DAO—should set a clear mission with guardrails. Another part of me thinks that mission can be collectively decided early, and groups can fork if they want to take it another direction. A third part of me is still just floundering!
Short Twitter Q&A!
On Twitter, I asked people what they wanted to know about two months of working at Aragon, so I'm sharing the questions and answers here:
Question: Why is Aragon one of the OG DAO OSs but only now trying to do a DAO transformation?
Answer: Right now, Aragon is basically a multisig with off-chain voting. One of the "arms" of the organization (where I work) operates more like a non-hierarchical software company. The funding of this software arm depends on the multisig signers, not a community vote, making us not-DAO-like. However, many discussions and votes occur on our off-chain platform, Aragon Voice, making us DAO-like. We also have a token (ANT) for membership and voting off-chain, and a forum for debating, both of which are distinctly DAO-like. The best way I can describe it is that Aragon is a hybrid of a DAO and a software company, with a multisig at the center. The goal with the transition is to have a smart contract at the center, not a multisig. Secondly, the goal is for all guilds to be accountable to ANT holders rather than just to the multisig signers.
One of the reasons the transition has taken so long is because of the size of the treasury. Finding a way to securely transfer those assets without risk of a malicious proposal stealing them is actually very nerve-wracking! Some team turnover and different organization choices (deprecating Aragon One, acquiring and integrating Vocdoni) net-improved the project but slowed down the org transition. I don't have all the information on exact timeframes, but the TLDR is that Aragon has had "DAO-like" qualities since its formation, and it's finally time to put the icing on the cake.
Question: What are the functional differences between the templates they offer when you first spin up a DAO using their tool?
Answer: In Aragon Client, there are a few options for setting up your DAO:
- Company template: token-holder governance, similar to shareholder voting in a traditional org. This means that the more governance tokens you hold, the more voting power you have.
- Company board template: token-holder governance, but with a small core team with specialized powers, such as creating more tokens. The board members each hold one non-transferrable token for voting on separate board decisions. Token holders can remove or add board memebers via a vote, which will burn or mint the non-transferrable board token. Major organization changes can only be proposed and voted on by token holders, not board members.
- Membership: cooperative-style governance with one-person-one-vote. Think of this as an allowlist of wallets that can vote, because they each have a non-transferrable token.
- Reputation: intended to represent a meritocracy, voters use non-transferrable tokens. The difference from a membership template is that they can have more than one token, meaning voters can have different voting weights that aren't determined by wealth.
- Open enterprise: open and customizable template.
Question: To what extent do people in Aragon discuss power explicity?
Answer: I've had many discussions around the trade-offs of financialized voting (larger token holders have more voting power) and different aspects of power, including the simple power of recurring presence (how much someone is commenting in forum posts, for example). Nothing concrete to share at the moment, but different aspects of power definitely come up in conversation and are being explored by the team.
Question: What do you understand much more deeply from those two months that you didn't fully appreciate before?
Answer: A few things:
- Progressive decentralization is very difficult.....even more so than I expected. Everyone has different ideas of what decentralization is, and what a DAO even is. This means that someone will always think your DAO is "too centralized," no matter what you do. I've learned that I need to stop chasing the mythical concept of "decentralization" and start chasing a structure that allows us to get good work done in an equitable and empathetic way, with elements of both collective decision making (teal org, holocracy stuff) and trustlessness (blockchain stuff) baked in.
- A strong brand is one of the most valuable assets you can have, no matter which "web" you're working in. The last two months have been a crash course in powerful branding of Aragon, thanks to brand mastermind Adri who has been with Aragon since day one. I've also been reflecting on the distinct and powerful Bankless branding and its role in onboarding so many to crypto. Brands, and the feelings they invoke, stick with you more than products or services.
- Time zone coordination might be the hardest coordination challenge of all! Let me know if you figure this one out.
It's been a fun ride, and I'm excited for more challenges to come!
Aragon has been some of the most enjoyable work I've done and the most exciting challenge I've come up to. I plan to keep sharing some ramblings on working here, and would love to hear what you want to read about next!
- My co-worker Ivan's story of his first year at Aragon
- Hasu's forum post: Simple MakerDAO—Governance from First Principles
- A Quorum newsletter post I wrote that touches on the problems of contributor uncertainty
- A transparency initiative I'm working on at Aragon: The Eagle newsletter.
Check out more of Cosmic Clancy's work on Twitter!