Daniel Liebeskind

Co-founder and CEO Topia

Daniel Liebeskind is the Co-founder and CEO of Topia, a fully customizable spatial-based virtual community platform that launched in May 2020 and has had close to 1 million visitors and hundreds of events every week.


In this episode, we talk about what is the Metaverse and what does it look like to build for it with Daniel Liebeskind, co-founder and CEO of Topia. Daniel talks about what goes into building something for the web3 space like Topia, where the line between something being a part of the Metaverse and not being a part of the Metaverse is, and what the future of the Metaverse might looks like.

Show Notes


Printer Friendly Version

[00:00:05] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today we’re talking about how to build apps for the metaverse with Daniel Liebeskind, Co-Founder and CEO of Topia.

[00:00:19] DL: You know, I did like what most people should do and built an MVP and it wasn’t the perfect stack, but I tried to build it in a flexible enough way where I would be able to evolve it.

[00:00:29] SY: Daniel talks about what goes into building something for the Web3 space, like Topia, where the line between something being a part of the metaverse and not being a part of the metaverse is, and what the future of the metaverse might look like after this.


[00:00:53] SY: Thanks so much for being.

[00:00:54] DL: Yeah, great to be here. Thanks for having me on the show.

[00:00:56] SY: I am super excited to dig into this topic because the metaverse is everywhere. I feel like we talk about it all the time. I see so many headlines, so I’m really excited to dig into just, you know, high level, what it is, what it is really, and then to hear about how you’re implementing your own version of the metaverse with Topia. So really excited to dig into all of that. But before we jump in, tell me where your coding journey began.

[00:01:22] DL: So I actually started building games in QBasic when I was a little kid with my best friend. I think my first game, I was 11. And then I built Java games throughout high school and built websites. And I decided to go into finance because I always aspired to be an entrepreneur or a VC.

[00:01:38] SY: Wait, how old were you when you said I might want to be a VC?

[00:01:42] DL: You know, what actually happened is I went on a trip to Detroit, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually said this out loud, but I went on a trip to Detroit with my school and we went to a Viper factory and I saw a guy who was buying a Viper and he just seemed really cool and like on top of it, and he told us that he was a VC and I was like, “That’s. The thing I want to be.” It sounds perfect.

[00:02:01] SY: Okay. Wait, how old were you at this point?

[00:02:03] DL: Fifteen or sixteen.

[00:02:04] SY: Oh my goodness! That’s amazing that you knew what a VC was at 15 and 16.

[00:02:09] DL: Well, I didn’t really know. I just knew that that guy was awesome and I kind of wanted to be like that. And then I discovered it was somebody that helps businesses to succeed. And I was like, “That sounds amazing.” But I went into finance basically to learn how businesses worked. And so I studied finance in university. I wound up going to investment banking and I was an I-banker at Lehman Brothers, during the collapse, went to Barclays, then I became a VC, late stage VC at Summit Partners, which is a large growth equity fund. And while I was there, I talked to a lot of entrepreneurs. I realized that entrepreneurs were really just normal people that had a burning passion and desire for something. And so I realized, “Hey, I’m ready to do that.” And so I quit and realized that I didn’t want to be subject to other people in order to actually build stuff. And so I went back into learning to code and then I went to Hack Reactor. It was a hacking bootcamp kind of early in that whole trend. I think I was Class 6, something like that, and just started building things. I had my first startup in 2015. I led a dev shop and built something like 22 different applications over the next eight years.

[00:03:14] SY: Wow! That is intense. So it’s really interesting that you started coding as a kid, coding significantly. I mean, you’re building real stuff. But then you switched over to finance and did that for a while. Did you ever consider studying computer science instead when you were in school?

[00:03:30] DL: I thought about it, but I always had this idea in my head that… I was a big fan of Harry Potter.

[00:03:37] SY: Okay. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:03:37] DL: And I sort of thought that becoming a coder is kind of like becoming a wizard and becoming technical is learning sorcery. I already kind of had an inclination for it. And I was afraid that if I just learned to code without understanding how businesses worked, then I would never actually be able to build something that mattered that people loved.

[00:03:59] SY: Interesting.

[00:03:59] DL: But I’ve also always thought of my life itself as kind of like a video game and skill acquisition. Being good at a bunch of different things, to me, felt like something that was really important. Some of my models in life are people like da Vinci that are just masters of a few different disciplines. It just sort of seemed like the natural course for me. I did consider it though.

[00:04:18] SY: So when you think back to your experience in finance, in school, doing the I-banking thing, kind of going through that finance journey and what it’s been like in reality today of starting a company from scratch as a co-founder, as a CEO, how much overlap was there? And did you feel like your finance experience actually helped in what you’re building today?

[00:04:42] DL: I think the interesting thing about skill acquisition is that you’re not always sure exactly how it’s going to be helpful. And a way to think about this for coders is that if you learn C and then you build applications in JavaScript, you’re not using C directly, but the typing, the structure of lower level language actually informs the way your mental model around coding and probably makes you much more structured and even like pining for some of the structure in a lower level language. And so I think that that’s also true for things like finance. My experience in I-banking definitely didn’t directly relate to anything I’m doing right now. There’s totally different skill sets.

[00:05:23] SY: Right. Right. Right.

[00:05:24] DL: But I learned accounting. I learned a lot about public markets and earnings per share and stock options and those kinds of things that definitely are helpful as I’ve navigated this plane. Even when I wasn’t building my own startup and I was just running a dev shop, I gave a lot of advice to people and I was able to sort of help them on their journeys and build a community and contribute some of my skills from the finance background.

[00:05:51] SY: So you did the bootcamp, graduated from that experience. Tell me how you got from there to creating your first virtual space. How did that happen?

[00:06:04] DL: I heard about something called WebRTC during the bootcamp, which is Web Real-Time Communication. Some people around me were experimenting with it. I didn’t really touch it at the coding bootcamp, but I was talking to a friend about a year later. And I built a drone operating system. That was kind of my first big passion project out of coding bootcamp.

[00:06:21] SY: Whoa! Okay.

[00:06:23] DL: Which was just really complicated.

[00:06:25] SY: That sounds really hardcore. Is it as hardcore as it sounds?

[00:06:27] DL: Yeah, it was silly. I mean, I was way out of my league.

[00:06:31] SY: Okay.

[00:06:32] DL: But I built something cool, a little interface. It was a much bigger journey than I was actually prepared for in a lot of different ways. But I was hanging out with one of my buddies about a year later and he was really into the fitness space. He had been building a fitness hardware company. And he was basically saying that it would be amazing to do kind of like what Google Meet or at the time Skype. Zoom wasn’t even a thing then, but Skype for fitness classes and let fitness instructors teach more immersive classes. I realized that this WebRTC thing that I’d been hearing about and played around a little bit with could actually be used for that. And so in 2014, we started BODY, which was my first metaverse platform and it was a way for fitness instructors to create their own virtual fitness studios and then teach live interactive classes where they could see the participants and participants could see each other. And it was kind of like a Google Meet, but with a lot of fitness, like Tabata Timers and scheduling and workshops and different things that you actually could build into your experience itself, making it more of an actual immersive fitness experience. And so I did that for a couple years. And I didn’t really love the fitness space. We got a couple buyout offers that were more like acquihires and I decided that I didn’t really want to be in that space. And so we shut it down in 2015 after we went through Y Combinator Fellowship and we pivoted a couple times. And then from there, I basically started a dev shop and for both clients and for myself, just built out many different applications over the course of essentially eight years.

[00:08:04] SY: When you think back to your goal as a teenager, when you were thinking, “I want to be an entrepreneur, I want to be a VC,” and you think about the eight years you spent building all these products, was that in search of the idea, the thing that you would build into something big? Or what were you kind of looking to get out of those eight years?

[00:08:24] DL: It all started with me trying to build something big and wanting to be an entrepreneur and run a company. But I actually fell in love with the creation process, the idea of being a creator of manifesting something from an idea. And also frankly, just having community around that. I was a digital nomad for a couple years and traveled the world building these applications and building small teams and kind of getting people excited about different concepts, even having to actually get customers and get them to pay and sort of run the business. So I kind of fell in love with that whole process. But my ambition the whole time has been to build stuff that people really love and that makes them inspired.

[00:09:01] SY: And over those eight years, you said you started a dev shop. Were you actually doing a lot of coding yourself or were you kind of moved into a more managerial, more CEO role where you’re kind of overseeing products versus coding yourself?

[00:09:15] DL: I coded most of my time. Yeah. I kept everything pretty lean. I considered myself a rapid prototyper.

[00:09:22] SY: Nice. So what’s really interesting about having a dev shop and even calling yourself a rapid prototyper is, that’s a really great way to kind of capture it. How did you know when to move on? Because I think what’s really interesting about your background that I think a lot of developers don’t have is you have the technical skills and then you also had the business acumen and you thought like a business person as well. And so when you are running this dev shop, you’re going through the 22 applications, as you said, how did you decide I’m going to keep going with this, this is worth the time, the investment, and maybe this isn’t the idea, this isn’t the thing, I think it’s time to move?

[00:10:00] DL: For each one it was quite different. I think I was really focused in those days on building MVPs and much less focused on distribution. And so I typically would move on when the creative process became less fun. And focus much, much less during that time on distributing the things I built and more on building them for other people, building them for myself or for a team, but not so much on trying to scale any of those to an actual company.


[00:10:49] SY: So today, you are CEO of Topia, which is in the metaverse space and we’re going to dig into what exactly Topia is in a moment. But before we get there, I want to spend some time just talking about the idea of the metaverse in general. On your website, the pitch is, “Bring your community to the metaverse for real-time connection and play.” And so before we talk about your interpretation of the metaverse and kind of what that means for your company, I want to take a step back and just talk about that word, because I feel like that word is both very new and very old at the same time. I think that Facebook renaming itself to Meta definitely put a certain level of expectation and kind of spin and assumption on the term “metaverse”. But I remember reading an article by Angie Jones some time ago when I was first looking into this space. And she talks about how... if you think about the things that make the metaverse the metaverse, which is more about the virtual space, the online interactions, the real-time connection, the real-time communication, those features, those elements existed way before headsets. Right? And she mentioned Sims and Second Life as examples of that, of places where people were very, very invested in this life that was in a totally different space, different world, et cetera. And so when you think about the term metaverse, what is it and what is it not?

[00:12:18] DL: So metaverse to me is two different things as you’re sort of alluding to here. One is the real-time synchronous experiential interactive layer of the internet, which has existed in many forms for the last decade or even longer. MMORPGs is an example. Multiplayer games are kind of these things. They’re synchronous experiences. You’re there with other people real-time having experiences that are in different contexts. You’re talking to them. Obviously, we have things like Zoom and Google Meet and even Skype back in the day that were also a way of synchronously coming together online. And we can talk more about where that’s going, but that’s one aspect of the metaverse. And then the other is Web3, as people call it. And this idea of the internet evolving into something that is more decentralized, where we have shared backends, public databases, and blockchain really is just a way of reaching consensus around transactions that are occurring in a public database where everybody needs to collaborate and they aren’t necessarily going to trust each other. They’ll use a blockchain as a technology in order to facilitate those transactions being added to the database. And so the metaverse means different things to different people, usually kind of across those lines. But when we think about the future, it’s actually the merging together of these two concepts. And the reason that’s important is for community in particular, is that in a public database, you can have a community that exists, unlike in a sort of walled garden within one application's environment. And so if your community exists in a public database, then all of these different applications that are out there, things like Topia, which is very much a Web3 utility layer, make it possible to create value for that community. You can bring your community in. You can restrict access to events or spaces or give people superpowers by being a part of your community within some application, and then bringing your community together real time for real interactive experiences where they can strengthen the bonds between each other, as sort of nodes in this neural net. Being able to do both those things at the same time is incredibly empowering for what it means to be a community online and really enhance access to being a member and being a deep member that has real connection and real experiences with the other nodes that are within that community.

[00:14:40] SY: Okay. So what isn’t the metaverse? Because one thing that I’ve seen, especially recently, I want to say in the last like six months or so is it just feels like everyone is using that word in a way that feels suspicious. I remember seeing a couple websites where it was really just a live stream for the most part. It was technically digital versus a video live stream. But at the end of the day, it was still just a live stream. It was a one-way interaction. But they still marketed as the metaverse and they were like, “Look at our metaverse concert experience,” or whatever it was. And I was kind of like, “Okay, we got to draw a line somewhere.” Something has to separate a traditional website to whatever we agreed that the metaverse is. So when you look at the many products who you frankly feel like they’re just kind of jumping on a bandwagon and trying to raise some money, trying to get some attention by using that word, how do you separate the real version of the metaverse with the things that don’t quite feel right and feel more co-opted than authentic?

[00:15:49] DL: Yeah. That’s a great question. I don’t necessarily want to pass judgment on different platforms and say that we’re doing it the right way and others are doing it the wrong way, but I think that anything that broadcast one-way streaming and there’s no capacity for people to have real interactive experiences with each other in a real time within space, within context. I think if you’re just broadcasting or only one person is able to actually speak at a time, even in things like Zoom, I don’t think of those as real-time interactive experiences, right? Those are not really synchronous serendipity platforms that are very much on one side of the metaverse. And then I think on the distributed backend side of metaverse, something that has a singular database and all of the information is stored there and there’s no interoperability or connection into shared distributed blockchain technologies like Ethereum or Solana or the dozens of others. If it’s a company that’s claiming that they are Web3, but actually is not interoperable with any kind of public database, I think that they’re probably mislabeling themselves.

[00:16:56] SY: Yeah. Okay. So what I’m hearing you say is kind of some of the elements that lend itself to being more metaverse than not or real time, real time within space, real time within context, being interactive. I think there’s always been an assumption, at least for me, that there’s a very visual element to this as well. So for example, if I think about a Slack community or a Discord community, that’s real time. That’s within context, that’s interactive, but I would not put that in the metaverse category until I added maybe some avatars to it and some kind of movements, some visual aspect, maybe a little bit of world building. And that’s when it feels like it kind of crosses over into the metaverse territory. Is that a fair distinction to make or what do you think of that?

[00:17:41] DL: You know, it’s an interesting distinction to make. I think there are elements of Slack that might be metaverse adjacent or might even be considered metaverse. Real time texting, I don’t think is metaverse. That actually is asynchronous. Even if you’re doing it at the same time, one person writes something. Then sometime later, somebody responds. That is an async interaction, even if you’re both like there and you have your dots blinking. If you go into a voice chat with a bunch of people, that may be considered metaverse. Right? I could see that as an argument. I think even things like Clubhouse had elements of metaverse, but even with them, it’s more of a broadcast. Right?

[00:18:21] SY: Right.

[00:18:21] DL: It’s a panel. It might be like three people speaking at a community. It’s not the ability for the community to interact with each other. A good way to think about this is what are the kinds of capabilities that you have in person at an event, right? If you go to a gala or a fundraiser or whatever, you’re able to both receive content from somebody. Maybe that’s speaking on a microphone, but you’re able to interact with the people around you. And that’s really critical to how humans evolve to have community and how they evolve to socialize with one another. When we think about the metaverse and the real-time component, the sort of parallel is what kind of real-time experiences can you have in the real world and then does this thing online even resemble that at all. If it’s just text and you’re hiding behind a screen name and you don’t hear people and you don’t see them, then it’s probably not metaverse. And to see them is one thing that Topia has that not everybody else goes for, which is the ability to actually see each other, look into each other’s eyes, if you choose. So you can go off camera if you want. But we think that that’s really important to the human experience and to being able to see each other’s body language and pick up on nonverbal communication. Again, something that’s really hard to do in text-based conversations, there is no body language. There is no non-written side information that you can pick up even from voice intonations and the like. I think having space as well, having world building, perhaps, I don’t know that that’s a prereq for metaverse. I almost think of the metaverse as just the evolution of the internet. And so it’s a little bit like in the ’90s what’s internet and what’s not. Right? And the debate over that is actually kind of similar to the debate over the metaverse.

[00:19:58] SY: Tell me about the debate over that actually. What was considered internet and not back in the day?

[00:20:03] DL: I think the reality is it was probably very similar to what we’re seeing. What you’re alluding to that we’re seeing with metaverse is that everything was internet. And part of the reason is because you got much higher valuations if you were an internet company.

[00:20:14] SY: Right. Fair enough. Okay. So if I go to Topia right now, what do I expect to see? What does that experience actually?

[00:20:25] DL: So if you go to our homepage, there’s a button that brings you right into Topia.io/welcome, and that’s kind of our welcome lobby. At any time, there’s 5 to 20 people just hanging out there, working or playing games and connecting with one another. So if you go in there, you’re likely going to find people. And you might go into the world and you’re alone, but you realize that there’s little arrows that point to where everybody is in the world. You realize there’s like 20 other people in there and you click and you go find somebody and then you connect and you have a really interesting conversation with them. And then you leave that conversation. You go connect with another group of people that are talking about something completely different. And that’s kind of the whole point of the platform. And so we do that for ourselves. And what we kind of realize is that that’s actually really useful for businesses as well for demand generation, for sales so you can have sort of your demo button right on the homepage and people come into a world that’s completely branded to whatever that company is all about. They have product demos in there. They have videos. They can have customer and prospect events. And so then people are coming in and doing a lot of the same thing that we’re using Topia for ourselves. That’s been a really interesting use case to see kind of emerge organically.

[00:21:34] SY: If we talk about the intention behind the metaverse, the elements, what it feels like, at least on the user end, maybe not so much on the back end, because I appreciate that blockchain wasn’t a thing decades ago. And so there’s definitely a lot of significant differences in terms of the technology used and what’s being implemented. But when we think about the intention behind these virtual worlds, behind the metaverse, it definitely feels it’s not new. Right? There’s been some version of it in some capacity, whether we’re talking about multiplayer online role playing games or other things that we’ve done in the past. What do you think has made it so hot right now? Why is it that we’re talking about it almost as if it’s a new concept? It’s kind of taken over definitely all my tech headlines. Why is it presented as such a new hot trend when a lot of the intention kind of the essence of the metaverse has been around in different forms over the years?

[00:22:33] DL: I think it’s a little bit like remote working, right? Which has also been a trend towards digital nomads and having more tools at your disposal, like Slack and Discord and Asana Project Management and whatnot, that really has empowered people to increasingly go remote pre-pandemic. I think with remote work should come remote community and remote play and water cooler time, and actually forging bonds with your coworkers and with others, if you’re moving out of the major city, for example. When the pandemic hit, that’s really what happened. So this trend was already happening and then the pandemic hits and everybody goes remote. Just like that, right? A trend that was going to happen over a decade plays out over the course of six months.

[00:23:17] SY: Right.

[00:23:17] DL: And at that point, the need and the opportunity, it 10X or 100X overnight. And I was actually building a VR platform. My plan was over the 2020s to basically build a metaverse platform. We didn’t necessarily call it that at the time. But when the pandemic hit, I realized that the opportunity to build this thing was not over the next 10 years, but immediate, right? People needed this right now. And so I actually threw out the whole VR system, started from scratch, browser-based, not even 3D, make it really accessible, make it really easy for people to use, to build experiences. And so I think that a lot of others in the industry did the same kind of thing. I think Facebook, as an example, they bought Oculus years ago, right?

[00:23:57] SY: Yeah.

[00:23:57] DL: And they’ve been planning this as probably their 2020s, 2030s strategy. And then the pandemic hits, their opportunity is right now as well. And so across the entire industry, everybody that already saw the signs on the wall and were planning this over a longer period of time realized that the opportunity, and frankly, the fleeting opportunity. If you don’t do it right now, you’re going to miss the way.

[00:24:20] SY: So, so far we’ve talked very philosophically a little high level on what the metaverse is, what the future is. What does all of this mean for developers, especially early career developers, people who are trying to figure out how to navigate their career, what to focus on next, what skills to invest in? What does the conversation, the current state and the potential of the metaverse in the future,  what does that mean for developers of today?

[00:24:46] DL: I think one of the big opportunities for entrepreneurs and developers right now is to think about the middle layer of the metaverse. You can get into building your own platform, but that’s hard and there’s already a lot of competition there and people have been working on this for a couple years now. The gigantic opportunity right now is the service layer or the API layer and building technologies and businesses on top of all of these different metaverse architectures. So Topia, as an example, launched a public API a few weeks ago, and we already have people that are spinning up companies, building interactive experiences, building world generators, interfaces on top of our architecture and then selling that as a service. You can build a SaaS solution on top of our architecture even right now. The people that do it right now are going to have a huge advantage in the future. And so I’d encourage people to do that, whether it’s Topia or another platform. Think about that middle layer, kind of like AWS, right? It’s almost like we have the AWS layer right now and then people figured out how to build businesses on top of that as a stack. That’s the opportunity right now.

[00:25:54] SY: So what kind of technologies, languages, frameworks are we talking about when we talk about that middle layer? What kind of skills does that require?

[00:26:03] DL: It really can be whatever you want. We have a REST API. So you can use the REST API to build whatever infrastructure you want and then use the API to actually modify the world's real time and display them. We use canvas technology, WebGL, JavaScript. So I’d recommend those kinds of things. Unity is also a great gaming engine to know for right now and for what’s coming. But I think an ability to just like with most coding things, for me, what I really specialize in is rapid prototyping. Even the first version of Topia from the first line of code to having our first event was three weeks. So what that actually means is being really good at figuring out how to use a lot of different tools to make something novel, bring them all together, Frankenstein something that is novel and unique. And I think that’s the same kind of thing that you’re seeing with the metaverse as well is what are the different elements that you can combine to make something really useful for people right now. And it’s probably metaverse platform APIs like Topia’s. It’s probably being able to stand up a web application using React and maybe some JavaScript. There may be a need to use Canvas API or WebGL if you want to actually display what a world looks like, but you don’t really even need to do that because we make it, for example, where you can embed Topia inside of your domain, inside of your application. And so you don’t really need to replicate the metaverse tech. It’s really just building a front-end interface for people to be able to interact, have options, and interact with our API.

[00:27:41] SY: Coming up next, Daniel dives deeper into his metaverse social connection platform, Topia, after this.


[00:28:01] SY: So when you first were thinking of Topia in your mind and you were kind of building what I assume is the first prototype, that’s kind of your thing. What did that look like? What did you envision it to be? And what did it end up actually turning out to be?

[00:28:16] DL: Well, the first version of Topia was actually in 2019 and it was a VR platform. It had an AI layer. It used Bitcoin Lightning for microtransactions. And the idea was to enable communities and creators to collaborate and create immersive interactive experiences and get paid real time as people were actually consuming those experiences with each other. That was kind of the first idea. It was very much a community platform for creators, really empowering creators and event organizers. And then when the pandemic hit, I essentially realized that things like Burning Man desperately needed a way to bring people together in a way that wasn’t really like one person at a time is talking to a thousand people, but all a thousand people are interacting with each other. And so I started socializing the idea of building something that was more like a video game in some ways than something like Zoom, but still really easy to access. And as I was telling people about that, I got connected to somebody that wanted to throw an event just like that who had at his event in three weeks. And I was like, “Well, what if I could build this for you?” He was like, “That’s impossible.” I was like, “Well, what would you pay me if I could?” And he said yes. So I did. And the event was amazing. People were crying and laughing and dancing and connecting to each other and saying that it was the best experience they’d had online, since the start of the pandemic. And this was in May of 2020. From there, it just kind of grew. We landed Burning Man. We wound up having Asana when the IPOed. They brought a thousand people into the platform and had a lot of fun and the CEO was broadcasting and everybody was connecting and doing scavenger hunts. It kind of just happened organically. In the early days, we were throwing events on the weekends, finding different events to be part of and then iterating and getting feedback. We’d go to our own events just as like ordinary people and solicit feedback from people on the platform essentially, and then just improve it during the week and throw events and improve it and really building in public.

[00:30:15] SY: Tell me a little bit more about actually building Topia on a technical level. I know you mentioned that you built a lot of your own technology. You use peer-to-peer technology. You’re using some Web3 stuff in there as well. How did you figure out what stack to even pick, especially at a time when there’s so much new technology happening in the Web3 space and the idea of the metaverse at least your limitation of it is very different? How did you make these technical decisions on what tools to use and how to put it together?

[00:30:52] DL: Well, I was building, like I said before, a VR platform. I was also simultaneously building a browser-based game. And so I already had a decent amount of experience with that. That’s why I was able to go so fast.

[00:31:04] SY: Nice.

[00:31:04] DL: I also, from my experience with BODY in 2015, was pretty experienced in WebRTC. And so in the beginning, I did like what most people should do and built an MVP. And it wasn’t the perfect stack, but I tried to build it in a flexible enough way where I would be able to evolve it. But I did have to throw out some of what we did in the early days and sort of just restart in some ways, take other aspects of what we had done. But it’s never really clear exactly what you need to do. I think as long as you try to build flexibly, at least for us in the early days, building flexibly was really, really critical. I just had a lot of conviction. For the first year and a half, we actually had no distribution, which I would not do again, but we didn’t have any marketing. We didn’t have any sales people or anything. We were really, really product oriented. And frankly, even building our peer-to-peer tech, it took us a lot longer to really go to market in a big way, because we were so focused on getting that right. And that’s the kind of tradeoff that’s hard as a startup, going to market versus building the architecture and the technology more intentionally. There are always tradeoffs to that. And luckily, we were able to kind of do both without really having much outbound distribution. But the peer-to-peer tech itself was very much an evolution. That was just a conviction that me and my co-founder had, that we needed to do that, that that was the future of WebRTC, of the way people would want to connect, that privacy was going to be something that was really important to people, that it was way more scalable and way more affordable than server-based stacks. If this thing became what we wanted it to be and what we thought it could be and what the whole industry thought it was going to be that not having everything you say transcribed was going to be something that people found to be important. I think we’re starting to see that people do care about that. So that’s been really positive for us. But I think when you’re building something, you just try to figure it out as much you can and just go for it. Right? Don’t spend too much time over optimizing for it because you can always evolve whatever you’re doing.

[00:33:08] SY: How did you learn the technical skills you needed to build the app that you have today? If I think about learning JavaScript or learning React or those kinds of things, there’s tons of bootcamps and online resources and courses and stuff that you can use for relatively cheap or ideally free to help you kind of level up. But for the stuff that you are doing, is there a lot of online content and resources to get you started? Or how did you kind of navigate this type of technology?

[00:33:41] DL: Well, the thing that I became best at is Frankensteining things together. Right? So finding lots of different technologies, APIs, and then learning how to actually turn them into something cohesive to a unified system. And the only way to really learn how to do that is by just building things over and over again. And you’re kind of forced to problem solve and to create novel intersections and integrations. And so that’s really been my journey is just having an idea and then finding what are all the different technologies out there that I could use to smash them together and solve whatever this problem is. And so I did the same thing with Topia. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to build it, but I was an expert in looking at all the different technologies, all the different stacks that we might want to use to solve these problems. Here are the problems, how do we solve them? And then it was just kind of an iterative process of one feature system after the next.

[00:34:37] SY: One of the things that has come up a lot, especially as metaverse and more specific to, I guess, VR, has solely, but surely gained some popularity is etiquette. It’s just kind of social norms, how do we treat people in a virtual space. And I don’t think we do a great job of treating people well in just regular online interactions, whether it’s just being mean or straight up trolling people. So when you think about building your world and building Topia, how are you integrating moderation tools or kind of ways to keep people safe, to establish some good behaviors and etiquettes and norms? How are you thinking about creating a place where people can be free, be expressive, but also be kind and feel safe on your platform?

[00:35:32] DL: Yeah. We think a lot about consent-based products and trying to create safer spaces. That’s something that my team is really passionate about. And that manifests in a few different ways. One is when we’re thinking about building product features, do these create safety red flags? Right? Are the features being built in non-consensual ways? So for example, on some platforms, like you can follow somebody and they can’t really do anything about it and you’re just like in their face all the time. That’s not a very consensual feeling. Right?

[00:36:03] SY: Right. Right.

[00:36:04] DL: And so we try to avoid those kinds of pitfalls. And in moderation, empowering communities to moderate themselves is really important for us. So you have different permission tiers inside of Topia and you can label people as moderators, editors, advanced editors, producers, owners, and all of those different permissions enable you to ban, do some other moderation like ranger, essentially. But what happens a lot is that a community will assign lots of different moderators, kind of like what you have in Reddit or really any other community platform. And then it’s up to the community leaders to do the moderation. We try to provide tools to make that easier. There’s a lot of ideas we have around being able to use our API, even to flag to all of your different moderators that there’s an issue going on and enable you to respond to those. There’s some of the questions around moderation or how deeply should people moderate. So for example, what kind of content can be put into worlds? Should we have a strong opinion about that? Right? And I think we all agree that things like hate speech shouldn’t be in a platform, just period. But what about pornography? Right? Where’s the line between these different things? And that’s something that we really in any community platform, in any metaverse experience are grappling with together and trying to figure out what the answers are. I would say that we’re in the middle of that journey and certainly have not figured it all out either.

[00:37:29] SY: So tell me about the future of Topia. When I go on the website, it seems to be focused on creating social experiences for your brand. So it feels like kind of a B2B product. But when we talked earlier, you mentioned that you think of it as kind of this middle layer and you have an API and people can build different products on it. So when you think about the direction of Topia and what you hope it evolves to, if all things go well, what do you think is the future for your company?

[00:37:57] DL: The intent really since the beginning has been to empower people to create whatever experiences they want and to really be a platform and a technology that people can leverage to create even really deeply customized experiences. And so I think we’re still very much on that. We’ve actually gone even deeper into that, allowing people to embed Topia within their own domains, allowing them to have a whole configuration layer where they can change the UI, change the branding, the typography, even change the avatars themselves. And so that’s kind of the mission we’re on. We’re really more of like a metaverse engine than a strongly opinionated experience type. In some ways, it’s like we’ve gone out to the world with Topia.io, the experience type, the 2.5 dimensional, little avatar moving around, connecting to each other on audio and video customizing the world. That’s really just one type of experience that you can use our technology for. I think as we think about the future, creating more and more tools for developers, for entrepreneurs, for creators to be able to craft their own metaverse experience is something that we’re really passionate about.

[00:39:09] SY: When you think about the future, how do you see the metaverse coexisting with the regular world, the real world? Where does it kind of fit in on a daily basis, on a weekly basis? What does that future look like to you?

[00:39:26] DL: I think like many things in technology, it sort of happens slower than people think in the short term and faster than people expect or anticipate in the long term, and it happens quietly. Right? You probably, in the real world, if, for example, you go to NFT.NYC, you’ll be in a hybrid metaverse experience. You’re going to be in person, but you’ll be unable to interact with people in a digital context that are all over the world. You may attend in person, but then go to the follow-up event in the metaverse a week later and you probably won’t even realize that you’re going into a metaverse experience because it’s so accessible and it actually feels a little bit more like Zoom meets Minecraft or something, but really easy to use. And so I think those kinds of bridge experiences are likely going to be what happens in the next couple years. It’s very unlikely, I would say, just not going to happen that people are suddenly going to just don VR headsets and use that as the way that they meet with each other and not travel and not go to in-person experiences anytime in the near future. One of the reasons for that is the technology, first of all, you can’t actually see each other on video when you’re wearing VR headsets. It has to be avatar based, which is one of the reasons that we didn’t do it. Also, being in an experience for more than 45 minutes in a VR headset right now is challenging. And especially if you’re not a gamer or grew up with this kind of tech. For normal people, it’s just not really realistic. They may do it as a novelty for a short period of time, but they’re not going to do it day after day, week after week. And so we’re not going to see that kind of stuff. What we are going to see is adoption of bridge experiences.

[00:41:10] SY: At the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Daniel, are you ready to fill in the blanks?

[00:41:17] DL: Yes.

[00:41:18] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?

[00:41:21] DL: I was told in 2015 by a PM at a very large tech company when I was building BODY that the future of the internet is asynchronous and that I should abandon all of my efforts towards synchronous real-time efforts.

[00:41:33] SY: Oh, wow!

[00:41:33] DL: And that’s really stuck with me as just being profoundly bad advice.

[00:41:36] SY: What made that person feel that way? That feels like very random, bad advice. Where did that come from if you know?

[00:41:44] DL: Well, they were a PM at a platform that was a very well-known, asynchronous platform at the time, at least.

[00:41:51] SY: Got you. Right.

[00:41:52] DL: Their perspective was that there’s way more leverage in async communication, which is true.

[00:41:57] SY: That’s fair. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:41:58] DL: It’s hard to schedule synchronous get-togethers. And so that’s where that was coming from.

[00:42:02] SY: Okay. All right. That makes sense. Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?

[00:42:07] DL: A product only matters if you figure out some sort of market and how to actually distribute the product.

[00:42:14] SY: Amen! Oh my goodness! Yes, I think that, we developers, that’s our weakness, right, is focusing on the marketing part, the distribution part, the validation part and the coding part is a part that’s fun. Right? The solution part is a part that’s exciting. So yeah, that’s really good advice if you’re trying to build a product and trying to build a business. Number three, my first coding project was about?

[00:42:36] DL: Well, technically it was a snake-like game with my best friend in QBasic when we were 10 or 11.

[00:42:42] SY: Nice.

[00:42:43] DL: But I actually left VC to build a personal CRM. I was building a personal CRM in Excel, and I learned to code basically to try to turn that into a higher fidelity, more useful application. But I never actually wound up finishing it. My first adult project was a sort of drone operating system in 2013.

[00:43:02] SY: Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code?

[00:43:06] DL: I think the first language you learn doesn’t really matter. You’re on a journey to become technical, to become a wizard. And once you speak code, once you understand how coding works in your mind and can think technically, then you can learn anything. I think a lot of people, including myself, get a little bit hung up, especially at first on what language to learn first. That whole thing just doesn’t matter that much.

[00:43:32] SY: Well, thank you again so much for joining us, Daniel.

[00:43:35] DL: Thanks for having me on. This was a really fun conversation.

[00:43:43] SY: This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, hello@codenewbie.org. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.

Thank you to these sponsors for supporting the show!

Thank you to these sponsors for supporting the show!