Blue Whale: Building the Decentralized Version of Upwork

  • 19 July 2018
  • Expert Insights

The following is an interview we recently had with Will Lee, CEO of Blue Whale Foundation.

1. What gave you the idea for Blue Whale?

WL: Moby Dick…hahaha not really, I’m kidding but the idea behind the Blue Whale Foundation was really born when I was running my startup called Verlocal. I really wanted to create a platform for local creatives such as bakers, artists, crafters, musicians, and coaches to be discovered. There were a lot of online platforms out there, but none of them really addressed the needs of these local communities who often were white-collar refugees from the corporate ladder, trying to make a living pursuing their passions.

But while running Verlocal, I realized that there needed to be more than just a mere platform – there were fundamental challenges faced by the freelance economy, and when I looked into it, I discovered we weren’t alone. There were millions of other freelancers struggling to make a living on platforms like Uber and Upwork for very similar reasons. The more I studied the problem, it became obvious that we needed to build an ecosystem outside of the one today that’s dominated by faceless corporations and tech giants. The Blue Whale for us represents that icon of scale and sustainability that we want to achieve in the Sharing Economy.

2. What problem does Blue Whale solve for freelancers in the sharing economy? How is it different than something like UpWork or Fiverr?

WL: Well platforms UpWork, Uber, and Fiverr rose so rapidly to prominence because they connected demand to supply – they were a way of facilitating discovery, matching, dispute resolution, and ratings. But they’ve come to exploit their monopoly over the flow of information and data to charge ever-higher commissions without necessarily delivering much value. Remember how in the 20th century, Europe was complaining about the “rentier class” who were making money simply off controlling the land upon which people had to build businesses and homes? I think we’re starting to see the emergence of a new “digital rentier class”. What’s worse is that many of these genuinely faceless, placeless corporations pay no taxes, offshoring their profits in tax havens, or throwing it at killing off competitors rather than genuine innovation.

What the Blue Whale Foundation is trying to do is to build protocol-level functionalities that will govern and incentivize all of those critical functions which these tech giants today provide – such as lead generation, verification, arbitration, and rating. We’re also partnering with decentralized applications in verticals such as logistics, video-based skill-sharing, and more so that we can rapidly scale to cover various freelancing market segments together with our partners.

3. Why is the sharing economy ripe for disruption?

WL: On top of the problems with the existing competitive landscape in the sharing economy, the sharing economy is a market that’s ripe for disruption because its a rapidly growing one. The increased pace of technological and economic restructuring means that in order to remain employed and valuable, people are quickly realizing that the days of lifetime employment are over.

Flexible, temporary work is here to stay – it makes sense for businesses who can’t afford large payrolls, and it makes sense for employees who want to keep growing. Estimates suggest that employees who jump ship every two years can earn as much as 50% more over their careers than employees who remain within a single company. By 2027, freelancers will make up the majority of the U.S. workforce. I think as we see welfare states come under increasing strain in Europe, and across the developing world in Asia, this trend will come to be the future of work.  

What we do now, will determine whether or not the sharing economy turns out to be a dream or a nightmare for millions of new digital economy talents.

4. What are the top three trends in the sharing economy you see gaining traction by the end of 2018?

WL: Well at the top of my head, I can definitely say that blockchain is the number one megatrend that’s shaping a number of industries, and the sharing economy is one of those areas that are going to be impacted in a major way, as I’ve explained with what Blue Whale is trying to do. This is one trend that regulators, innovators, and investors cannot avoid paying attention to.

Secondly, I think that another big trend we’re already seeing is the role of states in the sharing economy. Now I know that there tends to be an anarchic neoliberal political economy behind the blockchain community. But whether we like it or not, states play an important role in balancing the interests of the public and the private sphere – and the crackdowns on Uber and AirBnB are evidence of that. I think we’ll begin to see states catch up to the need to get involved with designing smart regulations for the sharing economy which balance technological progress and social protections. We’ve had a bad run with neoliberalism in since the 1970s, and as we enter the fourth industrial revolution, we’re going to have to think sustainably and socially or we’ll risk major human conflicts like in the 19th century.

The third major trend in the sharing economy I think will be the rise in fractional ownership. Up till now, the dominant players have provided fractional access – essentially renting. I think as blockchains make fractional ownership – actual ownership – of assets like property, capital machinery, automobiles, etc. – more accessible to the masses, the sharing economy will start to take off in a major way among more users. Sharing will no longer be a peripheral phenomenon, but start to become a way of life for a majority of us.

5. What are some limitations in the evolution of blockchain and the sharing economy?

WL: Like any industry, blockchain development suffers from design and scalability issues. Also, in some cases, blockchain isn’t the answer to some of the problems we’re trying to solve. Not every violin piece needs to be played with a Stradivarius. Going to the convenience store doesn’t require a Lamborghini.

Other issues involve integrating with existing legal structures like labor laws, taxation, and property law. Can smart contracts bypass them? Or will we eventually run into the need to meet in the middle? So those are important questions and considerations all of us in the industry will have to deal with regularly.

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