Life is a story and the more you act it out, the more it becomes true, but a life without purpose is dark and empty. Beyond the basic necessities, people need a reason to get up in the morning and a set of responsibilities to attend to. Unlike other forms of political change, startup societies put the responsibility on individuals and small groups to put their ideas into action. If one wants a better world, they must pursue that purpose themselves, not argue and delegate to others. Many often ask, “How can an individual do something so large?”
I started to learn the answer on a particularly dark and cold Minnesotan winter in 2014.
For about three years I had been an active libertarian activist on my college campus, working on municipal, state, and federal electoral campaigns. I had just finished the Koch Summer Fellowship Program, one of the the most sought-after liberty internships in the United States, certain that I wanted to dedicate my whole life to liberty activism.
However, I quickly realized that the work left me empty and without purpose. Electoral politics were cynical and ineffectual, while standard think tanks were trivial and self-indulgent. Like everyone else, I joined to make an impact and better the world, but it became clear that change via elections is not easily found. Whenever it was, it was unethically seized.
While I have suffered from anxiety and depression my whole life, this emptiness pulled me into a deeper hole. I began to take steps to end my life. I drank myself into oblivion, and one night I gathered the “courage” needed to jump off a bridge overlooking the Mississippi river. Thankfully, my friends at the time grabbed me and talked me down.
One told me something that changed my life’s direction. She said, “You’re always talking about how the world should change. Why don’t you stop talking about those ideas and put them into practice?”
That was a shock to my system. Suddenly, a torrent of business and non-profit ideas began to flow. I spent the next three hours writing down a business plan. The meaning behind this exercise was a life preserver keeping me afloat.
However, my past had already taken a toll. My mental health disqualified me from a program to be a legislative aid for a member of Scottish parliament that I had previously been accepted into. Moreover, while my friends had previously been extraordinarily patient, they cut ties with me after my continual suicidal actions and substance abuse. I became too overwhelming and toxic. I don’t blame them. Soon, I was floating alone, clinging to my newfound goal. While painful, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I met a co-founder, Thibault Serlet, at the 2015 Students for Liberty Conference. Our new business, Proudsource, was a proto-ICO startup that allowed small businesses to crowdfund in exchange for shares of revenue. The intention was to demonstrate that the free market could provide alternative means of helping the less well-off. Upon graduation, I moved into Thibault’s apartment in Fairfax, Virginia. We formed a technical team and got started, despite having no idea what we were doing. We soon ran out of money and had to subsist on a single 1lb bag of rice for one month.
While near starvation, Thibault, Preston Martin, and I began talking about a side project—The International Coalition for Human Action (ICHA). Our goal was to create a network for all the free market enclaves we’d been reading about. While Thibault and I focused primarily on Proudsource, Preston and Thibault took the lead with ICHA. We all thought it was a much cooler project than Proudsource, but less likely to succeed. It took our ethos to the extreme. We would demonstrate new forms of governance on a small scale, not just vote for it.
ICHA’s first success was its study of Operation Atlantis, the first attempted libertarian seastead. Preston and Thibault had been researching past enclave attempts, but found many holes in their research about Operation Atlantis. They began interviewing surviving participants, and even found the last known pamphlet describing the project. ICHA published their research on their blog. Later, it was cited in a peer reviewed publication about Operation Atlantis.
Proudsource was gaining some momentum. We developed enough of our project to move to the Silicon Valley in hopes of finding technical developers and funding. Miraculously, upon moving I was able to find a part-time, remote job. It paid just enough that I could eat and afford rent in an illegal co-living space in Palo Alto. My room was a bunk bed in a garage with four other tenants, sleeping on yoga mats. It was great!
I woke up every morning serving the purpose I set out to do—in the heart of Silicon Valley! The connections I made had changed the pace of my life. I was even invited to speak about Proudsource at a conference in the Netherlands. However, when Thibault and I arrived at the conference, we discovered that it was completely disorganized
Thibault said, “Screw it - I was invited to a conference about microstates in Crete, let’s go there instead.”
As someone who two days prior had never been abroad, it was an adventure. When we arrived in Crete, the atmosphere was thick with historical importance. Everyone there, however, was sick of ordinary politics and wanted to focus on building a new future. They wanted to stop bickering about theory and get down to brass tacks. All the discussions revolved around negotiating with government, establishing vital infrastructure, and assembling teams. Attendees included Titus Gebel of Free Private Cities, Joe Quirk of The Seasteading Institute, and Vit Jedlička of Liberland.
I saw grown men tear up, overjoyed to be with like-minded people taking practical steps to change the world. We were given a profound sense of meaning by being in the right place, at the right time, dedicated to our self-imposed duty. Passion, work, and right timing turned a dream into a plan; and soon, into action.
Riding on this enthusiasm, we decided to do our own conference with ICHA in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In order to market it, we called the conference the Startup Societies Summit and began calling enclaves “startup societies.” Only 40 people attended, and it was poorly organized, but the speakers were amazing. Despite the disorganization, the attendees were incredibly enthusiastic, as if we stood on the edge of something huge. Many of those original participants still attend our conferences.
It was shortly followed by a 50 person event in Palo Alto. At the event, Joe Quirk announced for the first time that French Polynesia signed an MOU with the Seasteading Institute. In short succession, we hosted a six-day conference in Rhodes, Greece, co-hosted by the same organizers of the original Crete conference we attended.
After this series of successes, I decided to leave Proudsource. While I had to move into an even cheaper abode (a pantry under the stairs so small I had to sleep on dog beds), it gave me infinitely more meaning. I started to work on the newly renamed Startup Societies Foundation full-time. However, our impact was still small. We needed to turn a blog and an occasional conference into an actual movement.
We started small. I built an online community around a Facebook group and page. At first it was just me posting articles multiple times a day that I found through my startup-society-related Google alerts.
I resorted to more annoying forms of promotion by posting content to hundreds of Facebook groups every day. Initially, this only annoyed people, but endeared some. Finally, others began liking our Facebook page and joining our group to see what all the fuss was about. Comments became more frequent, and daily posts from new members became the norm. We had the beginning of a small movement on our hands.
Once we hosted a 100 person conference in New York City, we were confident that we would find funding, so I bought a ticket to Prague. The plan was to live cheaply there as a digital nomad while benefiting from their cryptocurrency and liberty community (although at this point I was no longer a libertarian).
However, our potential funding source turned us down. Without a guaranteed source of income, I became homeless in a foreign country, sleeping on friends’ couches and floors. Our last chance was a think tank competition in Montenegro. I used what little money I had left to buy a ticket, excited for the prospect of making SSF a sustainable organization. We lost.
I felt like I had traveled to the end of the world on a great adventure, only to find out that I used the wrong map. I was certain that the Startup Societies Foundation would crumble with barely a whimper. I hadn’t felt that desperate since looking out into the Mississippi river. Perhaps everyone was right; it was naive to think that a group of young people could succeed with such an enormous task.
Then I received a call from Matt Mckibbin, the founder of D10e. He wanted to host a joint conference in San Francisco, highlighting the ways blockchain technology and startup societies can change governance. The chance of redemption energized me, which was helpful because the next six months would be a long-distance sprint.
Through a chaotic birth, we delivered a conference with 45 speakers, 35 sponsors, 305 attendees, two VIP events, a decentralized dance party, and a psychedelic cruise. When we finally had a chance to breathe, we looked out at the San Francisco Bay bridge, thinking how surreal it was. We had moved from starvation to a Silicon Valley cruise—from a Facebook page to a movement.
The consequences were rapid. We gained many new board members and advisors, including Balaji Srinivasan, Parag Khanna, Patri Friedman, Matt Mckibbin, and Mark Frazier. We soon received general funding for SSF, allowing us to establish an academic research arm for the Foundation. We called it the Institute for Competitive Governance, headed by professor Tom W. Bell.
Furthermore, many of the founders of SSF created a startup societies consulting and blockchain governance development firm called Nuhanse Network, a for-profit venture that would aid existing startup society projects. Like the original Hanseatic League, it would connect the movement together in a web of mutual support and commerce. At the end of 2017, Nuhanse Network received funding and its first clients. Now many of the founders of SSF are actively building applications for the most exciting startup societies in existence.
To house our team, we founded a co-living space called Elysium on the Maltese island of Gozo. When I stand on 400ft cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean, I think of the times we were told to soften our dreams for pragmatic reasons and that an impact could not be made by a small group of determined people. I luckily learned through desperation that the direction out of despair is towards adventure.
My co-founders and I are not special in intelligence or creativity. The difference is that we needed to take on some meaningful responsibility in order to make life worthwhile. Often, when I used to dream, I would wake up depressed because my dreams were infinitely more epic than my waking life. For the last three years, my life has been more epic than my wildest dreams, making every anxious moment worthwhile. In fact, entrepreneurship has been like exposure therapy. The more you expose yourself to chaos, the stronger you become. After “chewing glass and looking into the abyss” for three years, you will scarcely recognize yourself as your success grows exponentially.
Peter Thiel says the biggest risk of our time is taking none at all. I believe that you have what it takes to get there, just as many of you believed in me. Without your trust and passion, the Startup Societies Foundation would not be were it is today. Let me repeat that. Everything we have done is because of all of you in the startup societies movement. You have proven all the naysayers wrong. Your impact is real, and you aren’t playing a mere fantasy game...and we are just at the beginning.That is precisely what our next conference is intended to show. You have the ability to change the world, even something immensely important as Puerto Rico.
If you haven’t begun it already, it’s time for your adventure. For everyone looking over the edge, nervously peering into you next life: JUMP! And fly.