Careering through communities — a conversation with NATION Co-Founder Ryan Shea
Since he was 14 years old, Ryan Shea has contributed to Web3 startups like Glider, Gitcoin, Decentraland, and Radar Relay before landing at Solana Labs. Now, Ryan is ready to tackle his latest venture: starting NATION. Read the interview with Elle Bland on our blog.
Interviews

Since he was 14 years old, Ryan Shea has contributed to Web3 startups like Glider, Gitcoin, Decentraland, and Radar Relay before landing at Solana Labs. Fueled by his passion for community, creativity, and collaboration, Ryan is ready to tackle his latest venture: starting NATION. In conversation with Elle Bland, they look back on the road that brought him here, and forward into a vision for the company.

Elle: You were still in high school the first time you started working in start-ups. How did you start breaking into tech?

Ryan: It started after I attended Ignite Boulder, the main attraction for Boulder Startup Week, which was the best event to go to if you were interested in early-stage tech in Colorado.

The only problem was, the event was 21+, an age limit I was 7 years too young for. So, my parents drove 14-year-old me there two hours early, dropped me off, and I wandered around pretending I was a student volunteer to get in the event.

It worked.

As I walked around the venue, I started to feel that sense of community I felt all those years ago. People were so excited to be together and build something. So I went up to the event organizer and convinced him to hire me. I just walked up and asked him if I could have a job. His name was Andrew Hyde, and he ran Startup Weekend, Ignite Boulder, and TEDxBoulder. He was the first person to give me a shot in the start-up world. I think he enjoyed how energized I was about being there, so he asked me to get in touch after the event.

We emailed back and forth for a few weeks. Eventually, he offered me a summer job as an event coordinator. Over the course of the first seven months of working, I put on events that had over 4,000 people in attendance — and a lot of them leaned into crypto.

Elle: And what made you stick around? Was there something specific about Web3 that you enjoyed?

Ryan: I loved that Web3 didn’t care how old I was.

Like I said, I was a 14 year old kid. I remember being even younger — maybe 11 or 12 — and cold emailing tech startups, begging them to take me seriously.  They probably looked at my emails and laughed, thinking “who is this kid?”

In Web3, there was an atmosphere of acceptance. It was a vertical that had no credentials associated with it. Nobody asked how old I was. Nobody asked for my resume.  All that mattered was whether or not I was committed to the project, and if I was creative enough to contribute to it.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I was able to work for multiple Web3 startups, specifically Gitcoin, Decentraland, and Radar Relay. One day, a friend of mine started talking about this tech company called Solana — a new blockchain that does 65,000 transactions per second. I very vividly remember being in Boulder, talking to him in the middle of Pearl Street, and thinking, “this is ridiculous.”

He asked if I would want to work with them, and I politely declined. To be fair, I never did my research. I just thought it sounded too good to be true.

But later down the line, I was introduced to Raj Gokal, the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Solana. We were all in San Francisco for Bitcoin 2019.

After the event, Raj invited me to come to the Solana headquarters and check out the office. Once I did, I understood all of the enthusiasm around the project. The culture was captivating.

Everyone working for Solana had a similar goal: make crypto more accessible. Decreasing the gas fees, increasing transaction speed — these were steps that needed to be taken if we wanted web3 to expand, and Solana was taking them. Two months after that visit, I was full speed ahead at Solana Labs — coordinating marketing initiatives, and working with the engineering team to improve UX.

I loved it, but not just because I wanted to be part of Web3. I wanted to be a part of  the impact. It was clear to me that Web3 had the tools to improve how we collaborate — DAOs, in my opinion, being an obvious avenue.

But as much as I love this industry and its propensity for trying new technical things, I find it's really challenging to get people to get involved. DAOs have been around for years — they were mentioned in the 2014 Ethereum white paper — but we still have yet to see an explosion of these organizations.

If we can solve that problem, if we can translate technology through design, we can tap into a new wave of progress.

We imagine a world where creativity is pioneered by communities, not executives. Where marginalized communities can start powerful movements by organizing in new ways. Where everyday citizens can become owners of the structures in which we live.

It seems like an idealistic perspective, but it’s something I knew DAOs could do. It’s something I knew communities could do, especially with the right tools. The next step for me was finding the right team.

That’s when I reached out to Diego Segura, who became our co-founder and Head of Design.

Elle: How did you two meet?

Ryan: He stole my job.

Just kidding — but it’s not far off.

We both applied for the same job at Collins, a renowned design agency in Manhattan, and Diego ended up getting that job instead of me. One day, I saw his name on the website and all I could think was, “Who is this guy? Why did he get the job?” — not because I was bitter, but because I was intrigued. Landing a job at Collins is a difficult thing to do, and he did it as a high-school dropout. I had a habit of reaching out people with a lot of drive — and Diego certainly seemed like one of them.

After shooting emails back and forth, we exchanged phone numbers. The first time we got on a call, we talked for about six hours about our goals, our careers, and everything in between.

At the start of 2022, we started to meet in person and co-work on projects. I was already working for Solana at the time, so we started talking about ways to weave his skill in design with my experience in Web3. That led to our first conversations about NATION.

Elle: Now that you two have become co-founders, what is it like to work alongside someone who doesn’t share your experience in Web3?

Ryan: It’s a blessing, actually.

When you bring someone into Web3 for the first time, it forces a lot of thinking to be challenged. You have to be able to contextualize the technology in a way that not only makes sense, but seems like it’s worth exploring.

Diego had experience working on the best brand and product experiences in the world, so he had the opportunity to translate this technology into something a broader audience can understand and connect to.

I think that is part of the reason why we have a better chance at bridging the gap between Web3 and the world outside of it. We aren’t a tech company. We’re a design company that happens to work on DAOs.

Other start-ups are doing an incredible job of building Web3 platforms, but that’s not our goal. We want to build a platform that merges the familiarity of Web2 with the opportunities of Web3, because we believe that is the best way to deliver their utility to the broader community.

Elle: You’ve now gone from working for multiple tech companies to becoming the founder of your own. What is the biggest lesson you learned about leading your own organization?

Ryan: Execution is the only thing that matters.

I've seen a lot of projects come and die. Everyone knows, “Ideas are cheap. Execution is hard.” It's true. We were successful at Solana because we shipped faster than any other engineering team I’ve ever witnessed.

I think a lot of builders are slowly poisoning their own project without realizing it. And that’s because they’re focused on perfection — not progress.

Of course, a product needs to be fully functional before it’s launched. But every product is going to change. There will always be updates, rebrands, and alterations. But if you’re holding on to a technology that has the potential to make an impact, the most important thing is making sure everyone has access to it.

Preferably, as soon as possible.

We saw the first signs that NATION could have real-world impact when we launched Aid for Ukraine, which raised over $3 MM after the Russian invasion. That’s when I realized that NATION was more than DAO tooling. It was an opportunity for micro communities to become movements. To make impact accessible.

In doing that, we can accelerate positive change — in every vertical of the world.

Elle: Thank you again, Ryan.

Ryan: Thank you.