Since 2019, influencers have graced the halls of the Hype House, a Los Angeles hotspot for aspiring content creators. Although the house’s bathroom serves as an iconic backdrop for some of the world’s most popular Tik Tok videos, the current residents are unlikely to film themselves dancing there. The team at Nya Labs is busy tapping into the influencer space in a different way — by developing a platform that allows fans to purchase Non-Fungible Tokens from their favorite content creators.
Nya Labs was founded by two MIT students, Kevin Jiang and Sam Mitchell, who have both always been interested in technology and entrepreneurship. Jiang, for instance, has been involved with numerous start-ups and businesses, from the Collegiate Series of Poker, an online poker league for college students, to Oda Studio, a photo editing and management company.
Last November, Jiang and Mitchell founded Nya Labs to explore NFT business opportunities with social media stars. Jiang explains that he followed programmer and author Paul Graham’s framework for brainstorming start-up ideas: “Live in the future, then build what’s missing.” In this case, Jiang and Mitchell saw an opening in the world of content creation.
Jiang says that we can think of NFTs as tokens. “The core essence of tokens is that you can own some kind of programmable asset, whether that’s a currency, a piece of land, a JPEG, or a building,” he says. Through a lot of complex computations, it is possible to claim something on the internet as yours and yours alone. Anyone who looks at it will know, and that ownership and scarcity creates value. Most people recognize NFTs solely as JPEGs, or online images, but the technology can extend to anything that exists digitally. A fan of a certain creator can own an online token which represents their connection to the creator, like membership to a club.
To capitalize on the promise of this technology, creators need to understand how NFTs are made, which is a high barrier to entry. As Jiang explains, “Creators shouldn’t need to know how to set up wallets to make NFT drops. What they should know is how to utilize NFTs to build a better community, to build a better audience, to better monetize your audience.”
This is where Nya Labs steps in to create an accessible “marketplace” that connects buyers and sellers, handling the technical side of NFT collections for creators.
However, as is often the case in new, growing, and untapped marketplaces, the incredible hype surrounding NFTs has built similar opportunities for misuse. While increased connectivity is enticing, this new financial dimension to creator-fan relationships creates conditions rife for exploitation. “Rug pulls” are a common scam in which creators of an NFT collection or cryptocurrency discontinue a project and disappear with the investments. In many cases, enticing new projects are advertised by popular content creators, only for millions of dollars to disappear in seconds. In 2021, NFT rug pulls accounted for nearly $3 billion dollars in losses, 38 percent of all cryptocurrency scams.
Because the industry relies largely on a select group with the know-how to navigate the technically complex world of NFTs and crypto, Nya Labs is focused on abstracting the technical concerns away and making the promise of NFTs accessible to a broader audience.
But Nya Labs isn’t just selling the tech: they are selling the possibilities it unlocks. “You don’t see Google advertising PageRank to people,” Jiang explains, referring to the algorithm Google uses to determine how to rank websites in its search results. Instead, Jiang continues, Google capitalizes on a tangible function:the ability to search for anything and find results in seconds. Similarly, Nya Labs isn’t selling NFTs themselves, per se, but rather opening up a new marketplace in the realm of content creation.
The philosophy of imagining the future and building “what’s missing” might be a good way to build a million-dollar startup, but it is unclear if this philosophy builds the best future. This uncertainty is particularly salient when it comes to NFTs — blockchain technologies have come under fire for the outsized environmental impact that results from the complex computation required. Plus, is it really the end of the world if the future lacks a marketplace to invest your money into a David Dobrik NFT?
At the same time, many notable technologies have adopted the “build first, ask questions later” approach. Several branches of mathematics were considered useless, until the advent of the computer, for example. In British mathematician G.H. Hardy's famous essay, A Mathematician’s Apology, he argued that math has value regardless of its potential applications.
As Jiang puts it: “We know that NFTs are pretty big, so we’re just kind of building towards that.” Much like Hardy’s defense of pure mathematics, Nya Labs’ work is a building block — it just remains to be seen what future the final construction will create.
— Magazine writer William S. Hahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.