“We didn’t make any money”

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Earlier in January, Singapore-based crypto influencer Irene Zhao launched her NFT collection IreneDAO. It was an immediate success, recording S$7.5 million in trading volume within the first week.

Zhao worked on the collection along with developer Benjamin Tang, whom she had met six years prior. Tang often helped out behind the camera when she first began posting on Instagram.

The two would attend social media events together, and as Zhao’s following grew, they began collaborating with mainstream brands as well.

Fast forward to 2021, both of them found themselves involved in the crypto space. Zhao was working at a crypto company along with a friend, while Tang looked to exit his role at a travel startup in pursuit of the NFT wave.

“At the time, crypto only had one primary use case,” Tang recalls. “People could use it to make more crypto.” Although concepts such as GameFi and SocialFi were emerging, Tang felt that they were just different wrappers of existing decentralised finance (DeFi) tools.

When I looked into NFTs, I thought that these could finally change the way people perceive crypto. They had a different use case.

Last time, people would buy expensive watches and cars for social status. Now, instead of buying all of that, people can just buy a monkey as a profile picture to show off how rich they are. That’s a real world value.

– Benjamin Tang, co-creator of IreneDAO

It’s a surreal quote to read, but true nonetheless. NFT collections such as Bored Ape Yacht Club feature artwork of monkeys and are valued at millions of dollars. Tang saw potential in this use case.

bored ape yacht club
Bored Ape Yacht Club is the most valuable NFT collection to date. It consistently records over US$1 million in daily trading volume / Image Credit: Bored Ape Yacht Club

“If we want to get mass adoption, people need to stop seeing crypto as an investment. Because, it is a bad investment — overall, it’s a negative sum game,” says Tang.

“When I buy coffee, I don’t expect to sell it at the same price or more. It’s the same with NFTs. Of course, some people will continue to speculate, but those NFT collections which have real world value will be treated as an expenditure.”

The birth of IreneDAO

benjamin tang irene zhao
Benjamin Tang (left) and Irene Zhao (right) / Image Credit: @ben.tang via Instagram

Enamoured by the concept, Tang and Zhao came up with the idea for IreneDAO in October 2021. They believed that NFTs could be a game-changer for creators and social media influencers, and that there was potential for a new mode of monetisation and better community building.

In the past, we had the old model where the influencer posts photos and everyone else observes. The only way for them to make money, even if they had a million followers, was to post advertisements or promote products.

This is a very inefficient way. Let’s say they promote a shampoo, for example. For every 1,000 dollars worth of sales, the influencer might only get $10.

– Benjamin Tang, co-creator of IreneDAO

Next came the subscription model with platforms like Patreon and OnlyFans. Creators could use these platforms as a paywall and earn money for premium content, reducing their reliance on external brands and advertisers.

Tang and Zhao are now working on a Web3 social media platform, So-Col, in hopes to revolutionise the way in which creators and fans interact.

But there were still flaws to be addressed, Tang reckons.

“The OnlyFans model is very transactional. Its a one-way flow. The creator makes premium content and the fans pay money for it. The fans don’t really get to interact.”

Tang believes that influencer fan bases have the desire to support and engage with their favourite creators, beyond what’s allowed in the realms of existing platforms.

Along with Zhao, he decided to tackle this problem with a concept which they branded ‘SimpFi’. “People have a lot of simping energy. Take BTS fans, for example. They pool together huge sums of money to buy a billboard in Times Square (to) wish Jimin a happy birthday.”

“But did they ask if he wants this billboard?” he continues. “What if there are other causes which he wants to support?”

Building a community

The idea behind the IreneDAO NFT collection was to mobilise Zhao’s Instagram following and allow her supporters to form a productive community.

“We created 1,107 NFTs and gave them out for free,” says Tang. “All of the royalties went to IreneDAO. The members now get to create proposals, vote for proposals, and vote on how the treasury is being spent.”

irenedao nft
IreneDAO NFTs are now trading at almost S$3,000 per NFT. The collection has recorded over S$10 million in trading volume / Screenshot of OpenSea

As the success of IreneDAO was reported on mainstream media, the headlines were often misinterpreted. People seemed to get the impression that it was a cash grab, and Zhao was walking away with S$7.5 million.

We didn’t make any money from it. It’s a non-profit. All of the money is going towards charitable causes.  People want to put fake news as headlines to get attention – they don’t want to look at the real story.

– Benjamin Tang, co-creator of IreneDAO

Through IreneDAO, Zhao’s fans are able to support the causes which she feels strongly about. The revenue generated from secondary sales of her NFTs goes into the treasury, and the members are able to decide how to use them.

“Recently, we had a partnership with ECPAT, the largest anti-child-sex-trafficking charity,” says Tang.

“Irene had a high level vision that she wanted to support women’s and children’s charities, and all of these DAO members did the legwork for her,” Tang explains. “This is a way fans in which have ownership of the community. The pass gives you social value and a sense of membership and identity.”

All of this begs the question: why use NFTs for this? Why didn’t Zhao simply ask her followers to donate to her favourite charity instead?

“Everyone could donate individually, but by doing it as part of the DAO, it becomes a movement. It fundamentally changes the relationship between a creator and their fans,” Tang counters.

As fans interact with each other and come up with initiatives, the “value of the community increases the more they simp,” he adds.

Featured Image Credit: ben.tang via Instagram / IreneDAO





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