Meltem Demirors: 'If I Dress Like a Disco Ball, Let Me'
I first met Meltem Demirors in Singapore. This was in 2018 – a lifetime ago in crypto years. This was before DeFi, before NFTs, and before even Larry David, Tom Brady and Matt Damon began hawking crypto.
“I just don’t give a f**k,” she told me back then, explaining that in any given conversation, the best thing we can do is “take the proverbial mask off” and act like our true and authentic selves. I liked her right away. Smart, fearless, funny and even delightfully profane – what’s not to love?
This article is part of Road to Consensus, a series highlighting speakers and the big ideas they will discuss at Consensus 2022, CoinDesk's festival of the year June 9-12 in Austin, Texas. Learn more.
She also happened to be prescient. True, it’s almost a cliche for crypto OGs to say “I’ve seen bear markets before, and it’s always the same,” but you get extra credit for calling the shot early. In the spring of 2018, Demirors sensed that the crypto space had gone through an “orgy of unfettered capitalism” and told me that she was “excited about a period of depressed prices where we can focus on really building.” She nailed it. This is precisely what happened.
In these past four years – seven since she joined the space, helping to launch Digital Currency Group [parent company of CoinDesk] – Demirors has been building, investing, inspiring and tirelessly memeing. What’s her role in the space now, exactly? “That’s a really good question,” Demirors tells me over Zoom from her home in New Hampshire. Officially she’s the chief strategy officer of CoinShares, an investment firm. Unofficially? “I think my role has always been sort of the same,” she said. “I like connecting the dots. Whether that's connecting ideas, people or capital together, that's what I like to do.”
And in our wide-ranging (and cheerfully profane) conversation, Demirors somehow connects the dots between investing frameworks, crypto twitter, how it’s “really hard to get punched in the face every single day,” why style can be empowering, the highest ROI activity in crypto, why haters can “go eat a d**k,” and why she’s toying with the idea of starting her own cult …with her as the high priestess.
Welcome to Cult Meltem.
Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Meltem, it has been four years since! And the space has changed so much. What has surprised you most about how it has evolved?
Meltem Demirors: Just the speed at which the narrative around Bitcoin and crypto shifted. It happened so suddenly and so quickly and from so many places that, historically, have been so anti-Bitcoin.
And the pace at which crypto has become a part of the cultural zeitgeist and popular lexicon. Seven years ago, when I started in this industry, it was impossible to find people who knew what Bitcoin was. Now I can't go anywhere without people telling me about Bitcoin or NFTs or some token they're into.
I’m imagining some crypto bro mansplaining Bitcoin to you …
Oh, this happened! At a dinner, I sat next to this younger person, and over three hours he explained how Bitcoin works to me. I'm like, “Tell me more. I'm fascinated. I've never heard of Bitcoin. Tell me everything.” It was fun.
You’re “very online,” and you’re also a big picture thinker. How do you structure your day to preserve your sanity and to not get swallowed up by Crypto Twitter? What are your productivity hacks?
I don't manage it. It's just chaotic, and I happen to operate well in chaotic environments. So that's good. A big thing that helps is I just let my curiosity sort of guide me to where I need to go.
Spending more time in New Hampshire has certainly helped me stay focused, because there are no distractions. It's just me in the woods. My family is nearby, and I have some friends nearby, but it’s very much going to bed at 10:30 and waking up at 5:30. Finding space and time to think has been really important for me.
And I do a lot of experimenting. Interacting with online communities, joining DAOs, and s**tposting on the internet is actually really informative and really helpful, because it exposes you to new people, new ideas. One of the things I learned early on is: The highest ROI activity in crypto is putting your ideas and your thoughts out into the universe and seeing who and what comes back to you.
Interesting. Can you elaborate?
My best relationships, my best investments, my most productive collaborations have come from interacting with people, from bonding over shared appreciation of something. Whether that’s a sci-fi book, a meme or a thought about the inflationary economics of DeFi tokens. And pursuing that further in a smaller forum, and then that evolves, and then it's all of a sudden, “Hey, I'm starting a company. Do you want to help me with this?” And I'm like, “Yes. Also, I'd like to invest.”
And then most of my friends at this point are crypto people, so my social life is crypto. I go on vacations with crypto people, and so you're just kind of immersed in it. To some people, that sounds like hell. For me, it's fun.
Let’s talk investing. Is there a framework you use for potential investments? Any core investing principles you can share?
Look, I'm a novice investor. I've been doing it for about five or six years now, which in the world of venture investing in particular, it's very difficult to tell if you're good or lucky, right? It takes much longer than five years. So, it’s to-be-determined if I’m actually a good investor. Step one is admitting you have no idea really if you’re good or bad.
Fair caveat! But with that said, how do you view potential investments?
I do think there are few basic ideas to anchor around. One framework I find really helpful is thinking about things in terms of categories. I hadn’t figured out how to articulate this until I read a blog post from Galois Capital, which categorized projects into a two-by-two matrix.
On one axis is “Utopianism,” and that can be Very Utopian, like a pie-in-the-sky idea, or not at all Utopian, and just sort of super practical.
As in, “We’re going to reduce a customer’s call-time by 14%?”
Exactly. And on the other axis is Grift. It could be High Grift or Low Grift. So you have four quadrants.
Love it. What’s an example?
So in quadrant one, you have infrastructure companies. They're very mundane. Not sexy. They’re like, “We are going to solve a very specific, very practical problem." Doing your taxes, that is not inspiring or utopian, but it's very practical. It’s also not high grift. It’s like, “Hey, we're gonna help you do your taxes. You pay us a fee." That's a very infrastructure-y business. Or take Coinbase. That’s a very practical business. Low grift, right? So that's Quadrant One. That's what people tend to call picks-and-shovels core infrastructure.
Category two is low grift but high utopianism. These are sort of your moonshot, super aspirational ideas, but they're not scammy.
Then there's quadrant three, which is high utopianism but also high grift. Like dog coins, right? Dog coins are like, "Somebody buy my f**king bags, please, so I can exit.”
And a lot of crypto is very high grift, with quick unlock schedules, no founder vesting, and massive allocation goes to investors and insiders, all optimized around short-term value extraction.
Like many of the 10,000-piece NFT drops, right?
Yeah. The 10,000 pixelated animal PFP drop is high grift, low utopianism. There's nothing innovative about it. And then there’s the interesting category High Utopianism but also Very High Grift, all of these moonshot protocols that are like, "We're going to tokenize human knowledge.”
When you’re assessing a project, what do you look for in a founder?
My biggest thing is, no assholes. I think a tiger doesn't change its stripes. So if someone has a reputation for being rude or dismissive or disrespectful or manipulative or dishonest, they could make me a lot of money, but I’m just not interested. It's just going to cause me stress and anxiety.
I like working with people who are honest, who are straightforward, who are transparent, who are good people. I do background checks on people.
Good rule of thumb. What else do you look for?
Just the level of passion that someone feels about what they're doing and the problem they're solving. It's very easy to tell when someone is excited about getting rich or being successful. I think there's so much “hustle porn” out there right now, and there’s this founder culture where everyone's a founder of something, right? I see people walking around and they’re like, “I’m founder and CEO of X," and I'm thinking, “Right, but you’re the only person who works there.”
So with true founders I ask, why is this person motivated to solve this problem? What unique insight do they have? Or what's the personal story? And at the end of the day, if you're really excited about what you're doing, it’s just gonna be really hard to get punched in the face every single day.
What do you mean by that exactly, getting punched in the face?
In the crypto investor space, it’s nice when things are on the up, and things are looking good, investors love you, and customers love you. But there’s always the struggle. I've been doing this for seven years. I experience struggle all the time. And people from the outside are like, "Oh, you look so successful." I'm like, "Bitch, my job is getting punched in the face every day in like five different ways.”
I've gotten punched in the face more times than I can count. There’s that meme of a duck, and you look at a duck that’s sitting on a pond. It looks so peaceful. But below the water, its little flippers are just paddling like crazy. I think that's everyone in the space, which is why empathy and kindness and just being a good human goes a long way. Because it’s very difficult to know what people are going through, and it's helpful to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Are you open to sharing some of those struggles, of getting punched in the face?
Yeah. I mean, look, in March of 2020, when bitcoin plummeted to $3,500, my business partners at CoinShares and I got on a call. We’re like, “What do we do? What do we do now?” Luckily, it was okay, and we figured it out. We had issues with regulators trying to shut us down, and it was like, “Is our business over?" And we figured it out. And in my early days at DCG I definitely got punched in the face a bunch. But I learned a lot from that experience and how to take care of myself and how to look out for my own best interest. So you just learn.
And I've also had personal experiences, right?
Can you share what happened?
I had a stalker at one point, which taught me a lot about privacy and security, and how to choose very carefully what you share and do not share. I've had people in the industry form WhatsApp groups about taking me down or humbling me. All-male groups where they're like, "This bitch needs to be taken down."
If you look at my YouTube videos, literally half the comments are like, "Kill the girl. I hate her. Make her stop talking." It's so gendered and so misogynistic." And it's fascinating, because a man could say the same things I'm saying, and they're like, "Oh my God, he's a genius." But because I come in a different package, it's like, "F**k this bitch." And I'm like, well, that's really fun to deal with. And you learn to deal with it.
But I think that's definitely a huge factor in the space, especially in the Bitcoin community, that is deeply problematic. But look, at the end of the day, I’m not going anywhere. Try harder.
On a topic that’s kind of adjacent to this, you wrote a great essay for Des Femmes about style. Can you elaborate on how style is important to you, and why it matters?
Style isn't just what you wear. It's how you interact with the world around you, right? It's that energy you bring. It's your attitude. Like, I'm here. I'm here to have a good time. Yes, we're gonna change the world, but we can also have fun while we're doing it. We can look great while we're doing it.
A lot of people criticize me for my voice because I have a Valley girl voice. It's like, "Yeah, that's my f**king voice."
You have a great voice!
I'm gonna keep talking like this. Or sometimes I talk like a Gen Z person. I love saying things like, "It's lit," or, "That's fire." I love those turns of phrase. And people are like, "That's not professional." And I'm thinking, "Go f**k yourself. Honestly, go eat a d**k." Excuse my language.
We don’t f**king care!
Style is about, I think, creating space for other people, and going into the world as your whole self, and being expressive and being unapologetic about it. And I think there are a lot of people in crypto who have great style, whether that's the way they present themselves physically, or whether that's the way they act online. And I think it creates space. It creates more room for all sorts of people because they look at that, and they say, “Oh, if there's room for this person, and if this person is comfortable like this, then maybe there's rooms for me as well.”
And it's incredible because so many women, when I meet them, they're like, "You doing X makes me feel so much more comfortable. You going out there and feeling comfortable saying this or that, or wearing that, makes room for me to also do things that I want to do but haven't really felt comfortable doing."
That feels really important.
It's really important for there to be room in this industry for a lot of different types of people. And my approach is very unique to me. Like, I want to be fun. I want to be irreverent. I want to be a little bit cheeky.
Like, we work in magical internet money. So if I dress like a disco ball, let me. But I do think it's really important that this is a welcoming space where people could see a place for themselves. And I think that's really difficult if we all try to conform to the crypto bro look of disheveled T-shirt.
Zooming out a bit, how would you describe your overall world-view?
That's a good question. I think I'm an optimistic nihilist, if that makes sense. In many ways it’s like, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." I like to use the phrase “clown world.” We live in a clown world where I'm like, "This is clown ... this is preposterous."
But at the same time, I'm really f**king optimistic. Look at this community. Over the last 13 years, we have memed a world reserve currency into existence, right? That's an oversimplification, but we have. We did that. And there hundreds of millions of people who contributed to that happening. That's f**king amazing. Like, what a time to live in. Poverty is at its lowest level ever in human history. There are so many things that are really, really amazing that are happening all the time. And there are also so many really f**king terrible things.
Let’s finish with something you’ve joked about on Twitter before – forming your own cult.
I’m going to be speaking about this at Consensus; I’m finally ready to start my own cult.
Excellent! What does Cult Meltem look like?
I mean, look, it's half tongue-in-cheek, it's half serious. I think that in so much of our world today, there is a massive crisis of meaning. The world's largest religion is a religion with no name, which is the spiritual-but-not-religious movement. Over 40% of the U.S. population prescribes to this "ideology." And I think one of the reasons why crypto is so popular is because it gives people a sense of community and belonging. It gives them an ideology and sort of a manual on how to live their life. Crypto, and Bitcoin in particular, is quite dogmatic in terms of having a specific set of values and having a certain code of conduct.
For better or worse.
Absolutely. And now we’re actually, full-on building cults through DAOs. We call them decentralized autonomous organizations, really these are communities of belief. And I also think that many corporations and large companies are cults, right? Berkshire Hathaway just had their annual conclave in Omaha, Nebraska, where 55,000 people descend to listen to their prophet, Warren Buffett and his apostle, Charlie Munger, preach from on high.
Right, I’m with you so far …
The connotation that people have when you say cult or religion is generally negative, but I'm using it in the most abstract sense, where really religion has historically been about a set of symbols and about a set of narratives that informs how people construct their sense of reality, their sense of the world around them.
One of the cool things is that crypto is bending the arc of reality. It is bending our perception of what is possible. I think it's inherently optimistic in some ways. It's much more optimistic than the alternative, where if you look at the state of the world, the credibility of institutions of all types is crumbling. And the credibility of these sort of ephemeral online communities is growing very quickly, right? It grows and declines very quickly.
So I do think there's this interesting new sociological trend that's taking place in the crypto space. There are elements of mysticism in it, there are elements of science in it, but it's largely faith and belief-driven. It centers around these figures in our community. There's a lot of cult worship and hero worship of these figures in our industry.
Tons of cult worship in the space!
That's where it started. But now I'm kind of serious about it. I'm like, "What if we created a community and it has its own capital in the form of crypto?” What if we create a citadel in New Hampshire? We have our own source of power, whether that's in the form of solar or small-scale micro nuclear reactor. This produces enough energy to power, say, 100 homes, and also run a data center where you can mine bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. That's how you earn capital.
You build an institution of higher learning attached to this community, you build a religious organization. So it's a nonprofit, and people can donate to this without paying capital gains. You could donate your appreciated crypto into this entity to build things that are social goods. People have historically called that religion. But it doesn’t need to anchor around a Judeo-Christian idea. It can anchor around any shared set of beliefs.
Any other ideas for this cult?
We can build open-source tooling and infrastructure. You can spin up all of these small-scale communities – physical and digital – and because the underlying substrate you're using is an open-source protocol, these communities can be interoperable. They could trade with one another, transact with one another, connect.
You can build this really interesting mycelial network of self-sovereign, small, little pockets. They can all have slightly different ideologies. But they share a core set of beliefs where the future is self-sovereign, decentralized and insert your favorite crypto trope here.
That's what I've been hacking on. That's what Alex and I are gonna talk about at Consensus. I'm hyped.
What’s your role in the cult?
High priestess. I think high priestess is a good honorific. And I’m still trying to figure out what our rituals should be. They’re gonna be metal though. They’re gonna be real weird and real heavy metal.
Happy to help brainstorm.
Think about your honorific. Think about what color robe you want to wear. Maybe some face tats? The world is your oyster!
Thanks Meltem. Let’s do this again before four more years. See you at Consensus!
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