Hannah Siegel-Gardner: What’s Next for NFTs?

Hannah Siegel-Gardner: What’s Next for NFTs?

Imagine getting a phone call from your high school friend offering you the second best career opportunity of your life. Sounds too good to be true, right?

That’s exactly what happened to Hannah Siegel-Gardner who first entered the non-fungible token (NFT) space after her high school friend Erick Calderon called her to join his Ethereum-based NFT project Art Blocks.

“Erick and I went to high school together. So we’ve known each other for a very long time. He has always been an innovator and creator. I was very curious as to why he thought this [Art Blocks] had bones and where he was going with them.”

For Siegel-Gardner, Art Blocks was the perfect platform to integrate her diverse professional experiences. She had worked in contemporary art and with technology firms, which is why this move felt more like a symbiotic integration of her talents. Siegel-Gardner left no stone unturned in its understanding of ever-evolving NFTs.

“I just had my third child. And she was nine weeks old. So I was up a lot at night and that’s when I got my Ph.D. in NFTs. Because I just wanted to read everything [could] get my hands on,” she told CoinDesk in an interview.

Today, Art Blocks is known as a pioneer in generative art, which takes styles and palettes chosen by artists and then, using an algorithm, creates a randomized image. Last year, the company generated more than $172 million in primary sales, while total lifetime sales have topped $2 billion.

It took a lot more on Siegel-Gardner’s part to establish a successful company in the crypto world. Think of her and Calderon’s efforts as a fusion of centralized rules with decentralized values. They worked to create a corporate culture that is growth-oriented, empathetic and supportive of their employees.

“We respect both the decentralization that is at the heart of what we do, but we also have some centralized processes in terms of how we conduct our finances and how we operationalize our company,” she said.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What made you move to NFT’s generative art space? Especially since your background was in traditional media platforms like public radio.

Everyone looks at public media in my background and is like, “That’s a bold choice!” And I’m like, “Oh, is that a backhanded compliment?” So I was the fourth employee at Art Block, and I think a good 75% of Art Block employees would say that many of us came to work at the firm because of Eric Calderon, aka Snowflow.

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So Eric called me one day and he had a really compelling vision. He was so excited about this thing that he called it his passion project, which is kind of a funny way to describe it at this point. And the vision was at the intersection of this interesting area of ​​work for me. I have an art background, I’ve worked in contemporary art and I’ve worked in technology, and I’ve never seen this kind of symbiotic relationship come together in the way he described. So it was very interesting to me.

The other parts of this was that Eric and I went to high school together. So we’ve known each other for a very long time. He has always been an innovator and creator. I was very curious to see why he thought this one had bones and, sort of, where he was going with it. And then I just had my third child, and she was nine weeks old. So I was up a lot at night and that’s when I got my Ph.D. in NFTs, because I just wanted to read everything myself [could] get my hands on

And were you nervous about doing it?

The other part of this was Eric and I did everything, including my job responsibilities, which at the time were legal, HR, accounting, marketing, very traditional like Web3 stuff. So it was really about building for me, and I’m very happy. It’s my sweet spot when I build. I can really do anything. So yes, it was scary, but also Art Block was already profitable at that point. So to join his startup to capitalize and have a profitable project, it felt like a pretty safe bet. And I trust Eric.

Has marketing ever felt like lying in your experience?

Oh, interesting. It has in the past. But now I meet a lot of big brands that are, like, what’s the secret sauce to what Art Blocks is doing? How did you create this community? Why are people interested in this project? Like there’s a magic prayer I can hand down, when quite frankly it’s about being honest and transparent, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

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This is an audience that can review the information. They don’t like brands that are recessive to what community is. And for one of the first times in my career, you’re not hiding behind a cell. You have to be like a real person with other people. I love it. It is demanding because of its freshness, novelty and immediacy. But it doesn’t feel like there’s anything to hide.

Coming back to your work on Art Blocks, how much do you think artists are willing to embrace [artificial intelligence] in their work? Do they see it as collaboration or interference?

So I’m not an expert on AI by any means. I think AI is a tool in the creative process. It can be a tool used by artists, just as a unique algorithm is used by an artist to create creative content. I’m interested in seeing what the future holds, like how these tools come together and how people decide what lies in the purpose from an artistic point of view. Personally, I see it as a tool.

What is the most interesting metaphor you can think of to describe Art Blocks?

I think our brand reflects Eric, honestly. I think we are like geeky tinkerers who really love to build and understand the next proof of concept. Like, what’s next? Where is this going? How far can this take us?

Okay, I’m curious now. What is Erick Calderon aka Snowfro like in person?

I would say one of our core values [at] our company is humble and empathetic. And he is a reflection of that. He is also very enthusiastic and will give you time, probably to his own detriment, on any subject of interest to you. Like, his full attention and time. A really great example [is] when I started [at] Art Blocks early on I would email him an idea and I would get a whole thesis back about how he had thought about it, what might be the next step, where he could see it out in the world. So he is very thoughtful.

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What does it mean to be a “mature” company in the crypto space?

Early on, I think we did some basic culture building and business building. And much of it was put together by our operations manager, who understood that we really had to take the regulations into account. That we both respect the decentralization that is at the core of what we do, but also have some centralized processes in terms of how we run our economy and how we operationalize our company.

I think a startup can work where it’s super brash, all hands on deck or hair on fire all the time. But to retain employees, you need to understand that there is a life outside of this company, and have a consistent set of values. So we worked really hard to understand what our company values ​​were, and then translate that into actionable steps and pieces of cake that employees could access. We have three months of maternity leave. I’ve never actually had that. So I think we formalized some things that we had always probably wanted in our own corporate lives and made them come to life in Art Blocks.

What do you think of Doodle’s attempt to rebrand itself away from NFTs? Would Art Blocks ever make a similar move?

Generative art works on the blockchain. It is like [a] blockchain-native form of creative expression. Who knows what’s going to happen? Never say never, but I don’t think media is a next step for us. Like I said, proof of concept and understanding the edges of where this is going is really where our hearts are. And it is directly linked to creative expression with blockchain.

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