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Tampa Bay Tech Leaders: Michael O’Rourke, CEO of Pocket Network

Tampa Bay Tech Leaders, An Interview Series: Michael O’Rourke, CEO of Pocket Network

Michael O’Rourke, CEO and Founder of Pocket Network, took some time out of his schedule to speak to Full Stack Talent about Tampa, blockchain, and tech as a whole.

We sat down with Michael at Blockspaces, an amazing coworking space that hosts many blockchain-related meetups.

Pocket Network’s Banano Quest app

Roxanne Williams: So you guys have been working tirelessly on Banano Quest. I was actually under the impression that it already came out at the hackathon you competed in.

Michael O’Rourke: It’s not out yet! We’re testing it internally right now. The first quests were actually completed this week. We’re super excited! We’re gonna send beta invites in a week or two. Banano Quest is banano because we, the founders, are all from Latin America, and that’s how you say banana in Spanish. We were at an Ethereum hackathon in Buenos Aires and we were very sleep deprived and that’s how we came up with Banano Quest as the app idea.

Roxanne: Can you tell us a little bit about Banano Quest?

Michael: Banano Quest is a game that’s a mix between Pokemon Go and geocaching, and it’s on the blockchain. You earn rare bananos. You can create quests and say how many bananos are in that quest – so if you create a quest with one banano, then only the first person who completes the quest gets that banano. It really highlights the strengths of the blockchain, in a really fun way. With the UX, we’re trying to make it so that it’s really easy for people who don’t know crypto that well to get acclimated to it.

Pocket Network Michael O'Rourke - Full Stack Talent Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Banano Quest

Matt Vaughn: For the layman, can you speak to what quests are, and what do they accomplish?

Michael: Quests are geocaching. So instead of using coordinates to walk somewhere, the quest creator puts in a hint. So the hint could be ‘the blockchain center of Tampa Bay’ and people would come here to Blockspaces, find the banano, and complete the quest. It’s really up to the quest creator to determine how hard the hint will be to find the bananos. As a launch, for next month, we’re probably going to do a banano pub crawl and put a bunch of quests in St. Pete.

The quests all get sent to a smart contract, and everything is reading directly from Ethereum. There’s no backend or server running. This is all completely client and Ethereum. The entire app is open source, too. We hope that people take it, and if they want to remix it, change the skin and extend it, they can. The smart contracts we wrote, we call them Tavern because we’re all gamers and nerds.

Roxanne: Ah yes, the standard tabletop intro scene where you all meet in a tavern.

Michael: Exactly! The Tavern contracts are extendable too, so if developers want to create their own version of it, it’s just a couple lines of coding they’d apply to Ethereum, and then they could use all the same stuff we wrote too. It’s really meant to be like ‘here, have fun using our tools.’

On Pocket Network

Roxanne: What brought you to start Pocket Network?

Michael: I met my co-founders 2 and a half years ago. We lived in Bradenton at the time and we worked at a startup down there called TimeSet – it’s like a mix of reddit and instagram. You’d follow bucket lists. For example, one would be ‘show off your socks’ and then people would take pictures of their socks and complete the bucket list – I guess this questing thing is a theme for me!

Pocket Network Michael O'Rourke - Full Stack Talent Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Centralization

We met there, and we worked together for a year. They came from the Dominican Republic and Colombia, they didn’t have cars, and they happened to live in the same apartment complex as I did. So every day, to and from work, we’d drive together. 25 minutes each way. They spent more time with me than with their spouses, actually. That’s where Pocket Network came out of – those car rides.

We wanted to do this thing called TelCoin initially, where you’d tokenize your cell phone minutes. Like, I have T-Mobile, I can go to France and use the same frequency provider, and have that done through cryptocurrency. We did so much research. But we realized that the whole ecosystem isn’t even close to that being possible yet.

We ended up kinda falling on Pocket Network with this problem of people running full nodes and not being incentivized for it. Miners are incentivized to mine. They earn money. But there’s a problem right now in the space where, because it’s a fully decentralized network, if there are not enough nodes around the whole world, transactions take a lot longer to go through. And there are some centralization risks. Right now, one company does 90% of all Ethereum transactions. They do 10 billion API requests per day. One company.

Matt: Your decentralized system is bottlenecked into a centralized system.

Michael: Exactly! And they even recognize that this is a problem. In fact, we work with them every month. They’re super awesome. They recognized an issue and are trying to help decentralize it more. But it’s a real problem, and that’s kind of what we realized about 18 months ago.

On the future of blockchain

Roxanne: What do think we’ll see in the future for blockchain? We’ve been hearing about blockchain in real estate.

Matt: Yeah, there’s a real estate agent in California that runs entirely on blockchain.

Michael: We’re actually working on a real estate project. I think that digitally-native stuff is going to be the first mainstream use case we see. For example, with gaming. The whole idea behind non-fungible tokens has people really excited. If I’m playing World of Warcraft and my shoulders that I got for a 2k rating in the arena were actually sellable or transferrable to other games, that’d be really awesome, right?

There’s this popular app using the same technology that Banano Quest uses called Cryptokitties. Someone built another game called HyperDragons. If you feed your Cryptokitty to your HyperDragon, the dragon gets new powers. But they have nothing to do with Cryptokitties. So, all of the sudden, you get these games that can learn and build off of each other, and that’s really interesting.

Cryptokitties - Full Stack Talent Tampa Bay Tech Leaders -

Cryptokitties!

Right now, there’s this whole issue with deepfaking – for example, there’s a video that went viral of Barack Obama with Hulk Hogan’s voice, and it’s very well done. I think the issue of deepfaking is going to become interesting and huge, and as a result, I think eventually we’re all going to be signing our digital messages with private keys to prove the message came from us. AI is becoming so good that it’s easy to fake things on the internet, and I think incentivizing long-form journalism is gonna be interesting. It’s gonna take a long time for that stuff – a good 5, 10, maybe 15 years. But that’s the stuff that gets me really excited – identity, voting, that kind of stuff.

Matt: Everybody under the sun, whether a tech company or food company or whatever, is saying ‘we’re working with AI and blockchain’ as sort of the buzzwords of the day. What are the most hopeful examples you’re seeing of companies where blockchain is actually being applied?

Michael: We’ve got Dharma Protocol, which is doing lending (whitepaper here). You can send microloans to people. They’re based out of San Francisco. We’re starting to see more financial applications, like decentralized exchanges. Anyone can list anything they want, which has its risks and rewards.

I think the idea of prediction markets are really interesting. There’s a project called Augur where you can make a bet about pretty much anything (whitepaper here). I lost a couple hundred bucks during the world cup betting on the wrong team. But you can put a prediction market for any binary outcome, which is interesting with certain things like insurance.

We live in the lightning capital of the world. So what if I placed a bet on my home, let’s say $10 per week, that my home will get hit by lightning. Then another person comes in, and they’re providing the collateral for the other side of that bet. So all of a sudden, I get 1000:1 odds on my $10 bet if my house does get hit by lightning. The odds are very small, but when my house does get hit by lightning, I’ll get paid out for that.

However, because this is a completely open-sourced system, there’s also a dark side to that. There are already assassination markets out there, which is crazy. It’s like a national bounty on people’s heads – public figures and such. So it’s an interesting space. There’s a conversation going on about how we can avoid getting a Black Mirror situation going on. Seriously. And this is all happening today.

I think the main idea behind blockchain is to provide a lot more opportunities to earn money off things we know or things we do on a daily basis. We’re all these beings of energy that push things out every day. Whether I’m just posting on reddit, facebook or twitter – I’m providing value, and they’re capturing all of it right now. But the idea behind a lot of this is that we, the creators, should capture some of that value. Maybe not all of it, but some of it.

Matt: I’m gonna place a $1 bet every day that I’m not gonna die for the rest of my life.

Michael: You laugh, but someone could take the other side of that! That would leave something for your family. It’s a real possibility. There are inefficiencies with that, but people are really thinking about that for insurance. There are actual insurances in smart contracts on Ethereum that are for flight insurance. If your flight is late, they give you $5, $10, or $15 depending on how long it’s delayed, stuff like that. The other issue for insurances is privacy. Bitcoin is actually not private at all, but there’s a whole bunch of technology coming, like zk-SNARKs and mimblewimble.

This is why the crypto space is so amazing, by the way. The best technology is called mimblewimble, and I don’t know if you’ve ever read Harry Potter, but it’s a tongue-tying spell. No one actually knows who created it, but some guy with the name Lord Voldemort in French dropped it on a forum. I’m not kidding, this happened 2 years ago. A lot of people have taken it and ran with it, and now we’re starting to see the first applications of mimblewimble, which are truly private and scalable blockchains.

Roxanne: Doesn’t that kinda terrify you at the same time? True anonymity?

Michael: Yeah. With true anonymity, I do think that there’ll be other real life mechanisms we can use to catch people. There are tradeoffs, for sure, but society, give or take, worked ok when your government couldn’t spy on you.

Talent in Tampa

Roxanne: In Tampa specifically, is there good talent for blockchain?

Pocket Network Michael O'Rourke - Full Stack Talent Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Blockchain

Michael: Yeah. The thing with blockchain is you just have to be hungry to learn. Those are the people who excel with blockchain. Granted, you need talented engineers, but I think that here in Tampa, we have a ton of those – they’re just working in different jobs. We have a bunch of awesome PHP developers here. They could be working on blockchain if they wanted to.

For me, the talent comes with being able to understand abstract concepts and read through it and learn. This space tends to attract people who are thinking about this stuff already, so it self-selects. For example, you have people who participated in the Synapse Innovation Summit, and the stuff that they came up with was amazing, and most people who participated came from Tampa.

The people who come to our meetups, they’re already curious. So yeah, it’s very self-selecting, if you will.

Roxanne: Are there any good, specific resources you can point to for people to learn about blockchain?

Michael: Outside of Blockspaces, there are so many resources online. If you know zero about blockchain and you want to become an expert, there’s a GitHub repo that has everything you’ll ever want to know. Granted, it would take a long time to get through it and understand it, but it’s all there. People are so willing to put knowledge out there. That’s the thing about this space, it just moves so fast that you can watch a video from 2 months ago and everything is deprecated already. That’s the daunting part about jumping into this. The longer you wait, the more things are going to move.

Twitter is actually one of the best resources to get a pulse on what’s happening today. Everything used to happen on the bitcoin subreddit, back in 2013-2014, but unfortunately that started to get censored by the mods.

Roxanne: I used to like the cryptocurrency subreddit, but it’s pretty much all memes now.

Michael: Yeah, it’s a lot of drama and you don’t get to actually hear thought leaders say anything. Naturally, everything moved to Twitter.

Roxanne: Can you think of any accounts off the top of your head that would be good to follow?

Michael: @VitalikButerin obviously (founder of Ethereum), @naval (founder of angellist), @APompliano (founder and partner at Morgan Creek Digital), just to name a few. They’re great to follow.

Matt: Earlier, you mentioned the Synapse Innovation Summit. I thought that was so funny – do you know Brett Lee, one of the lead devs at Mad Mobile? Him and his buddy did the browser-based donation program.

Michael: Not sure who that is.

Matt: So the Metropolitan Ministries hackathon at Synapse was about making their facebook chatbot more AI tie-in, in its responses, ways to move people to either donation pages or volunteering or getting questions answered, etc. Brett and his partner made a browser-based mining platform that would mine some coin and then donate it to Metropolitan Ministries. It wasn’t exactly what the hackathon was about, but it was so cool for what they built. And you could dedicate how much percentage of your CPU on your computer or phone you wanted to give towards mining for the cause. They didn’t win, but it was awesome.

Michael: So the winners did this really interesting project. A lot of the entrants had issues with APIs for fitbits and things like that. One thing I didn’t realize is that the Apple watch actually opens everything up as long as you get the user’s permission. So these guys created basically a constant feed of your healthcare data – like heart rate, etc – there are probably two dozen metrics that the Apple watch monitors.

For each person that used the app, they created an individual, private blockchain for them. The blocks remind you every time you have to get some pills dispensed. They actually built some hardware to do the automatic dispensing. For me, the idea of having a separate, private blockchain for each individual was really interesting. It’s very proof of concept, but the idea behind it was fascinating.

We actually ended up hiring one of the kids from Florida Poly, who worked on an interface using Ethereum. We definitely want to do more hackathons like that.

Matt: It’s an incredible way to find talent and create awareness.

Tech in Tampa

Roxanne: To get back to the Tampa thing, personally, what do you hope to see in the next few years in Tampa Bay when it comes to technology?

Michael O'Rourke - Full Stack Talent Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Tampa

Michael: A lot more startups getting proper funding. I’m super excited for Embarc Collective next year. That’s gonna be great for the community. I hope to see other events like Ignite and BarCamp, and for those two to keep growing. Those have been some of my favorite startup events.

It seems like we have some momentum to start really attracting talent, keeping people here, and having people build stuff. One of the earliest people who started coming to my developer meetups was writing smart contracts longer than mine after a couple weeks, and a month later he contacted me to tell me ‘hey dude, I’m moving, I got hired by Amazon’ and I was like ‘nooooo!’ What was cool, though, was I got a really good compliment from him. He checked out blockchain meetups over there in Seattle, and he said it’s not the same thing. He said he missed the meetups over here. I’m trying to hire him now.

Obviously, I want to see the blockchain community grow here – that’s why I run the meetups (for those who are interested, you can find Michael’s meetup here). I want to see more blockchain startups. There’s a really cool one in New Tampa called Om.Cash and they’re doing really cool stuff with remittances, and they just got some funding. We’d love to have them down here, but maybe eventually we’ll coalesce downtown.

Matt: That’s one of the questions we’ve been talking about with most people. What do you want to see more of down here in Tampa? And we always get the same answer: more startups and funding. I’m pretty unfamiliar with cryptocurrency-based startup funding, and if there even are funders in the area. So what are your thoughts on that? How do you get money to this subsect specifically?

Pocket Network Michael O'Rourke - Full Stack Talent Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Coin

Michael: This is a new space, and even the deals in this space are unique and different from traditional deals. A lot of us have a token. It’s hard to separate the business from the token sometimes, and it’s entirely possible for the token to be the most valuable thing, as opposed to equity. So how do you tell someone who doesn’t know anything about crypto, “Hey, I’m telling you the stock isn’t the most valuable thing in my company, the tokens are.” Bridging that gap has been a challenge.

At this point, it’s mostly education. When I first started raising capital, it was just explaining and talking about what we’re doing, and over time, people took risks. Investors doing smaller investments for purely educational purposes would do great in this space. Just understanding, “I’m betting on these people, I have no idea what this thing does, but in the process I’m going to learn so I’ll be able to make better decisions down the road.” I’d love to see more investors doing that here. I think that would be great. And some have, and are learning, and are off the deep end in crypto now! Having a physical space like Blockspaces that you can come to is really important too.

Blockspaces

Roxanne: On that note, can you tell us about Blockspaces?

Michael: Blockpaces came from Gabe Higgins and Rosa Shores. Gabe has been running the Bitcoin meetup since 2013. For the first 3-4 years, there weren’t more than 2 or 3 people at his meetups, but he still hosted them every other Wednesday. We used to do it at a restaurant in St. Pete because they accepted Bitcoin as a payment method. So we’d all pay in Bitcoin, and it was cool.

However, because of all the growth in the space, our meetups started hosting 20 people, then 30, then 50. We outgrew that restaurant and switched to one in Safety Harbor that could accommodate us, and then we outgrew that one too! So we just had to get a dedicated space.

Michael O'Rourke - Full Stack Talent Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Blockspaces

I actually started hosting the first meetups here at Blockspaces before it was all nice and renovated. There was no air conditioning. The first 4 or 5 months of me hosting the developer meetups, we had to bring fans for people. People were just sweating. But yeah, it just kinda grew into this. We renovated everything, got air conditioning, and now it’s turned into this comfortable underground-feeling place, but it’s cool.

Tampa’s different because it’s not a tech hub in the traditional sense, and Tampa Bay is really spread out, so all of us who are into crypto coalesced in this one meetup group and formed a really strong base for the community. There are about 25 of us that helped kickstart this whole thing, and now we have a core group of about 50. I really think Tampa Bay is a unique place to start communities because of that ‘spread out’ feature. People drive from Sarasota, Brooksville, and Orlando to come to these meetups.

That’s where Blockspaces came from. It’s all community-run, community-driven and we all host a bunch of meetups. There are meetups every single weekday evening and everyone does it for free because we want to teach. That being said, now that this space is open, they do need to pay rent, so we have coworking space. We’re also working on some other ways to make money that are in the educational realm, like doing executive courses, things like that.

Plus, they have this really great vision for turning Blockspaces into an alternative to college. It took me almost 8 years to graduate from USF. If I had known, when I was 18 or 19, that a place like this existed, I wouldn’t have gone to USF – I’d have come here. I would’ve paid $1000/month to live here and absorb and learn to code. They have a really big vision for that – turning it into a hacker house and cowork space. So keep an eye on Blockspaces.

Cryptocurrency

Roxanne: What’s your favorite coin? Ethereum?

Michael: Pocket! Outside of that, Dogecoin. I love the privacy ones like Monero. Obviously Ethereum. I love Ethereum. The thing about Ethereum is the developer culture. The founder just wears unicorn shirts every day. If you go to the conferences, it’s an incredible feeling. You don’t have that kind of business feel where people just want to sell you stuff. It’s people focused on community and building, and I think that comes from the open-sourced culture in general. Ethereum is leading the whole blockchain space in scaling. The ideas that are coming from Ethereum, other blockchains are copying. Pocket is copying many ideas from Ethereum. Dogecoin is awesome because it’s a fun way to get interested in crypto, and that’s needed.

Matt: I love the interviews with Jackson Palmer (the creator of Dogecoin), at the height of Bitcoin’s most recent peak.

Michael: Back in the day, the Dogecoin community sponsored a NASCAR car in a race, and you saw the big Doge face logo on a NASCAR 3-4 years ago. It was hilarious.

Tampa Bay Tech Leaders, An Interview Series: Michael O’Rourke, CEO of Pocket Network - Dogecar

Yep, that happened.

Matt: So what do you tell people looking to buy into Bitcoin?

Michael: Wait. Don’t buy immediately. Gosh, none of us knows what’s gonna happen! There could be a security flaw – this technology is less than 10 years old. It’s the most expensive honeypot in the world, so people are constantly trying to hack it. It’s been good up until now, and we believe in it, but we still don’t know. We tell people not to invest more than they’re willing to lose. If you put in money and it would hurt you if it lost 80% of its value tomorrow, don’t put in that much.

Plus, you should really understand the technology first. When I got into it, Bitcoin was $600. It got up to $1000, then the Mt. Gox thing happened, and it crashed – for 18 months. I was in the negative for 18 months. I believed in it so much that I kept buying it. But I understood the technology and how world-changing this was. Read the whitepaper. Even just the first 4 pages. That’s all you really need to read, and those pages aren’t super technical. Do your research.

The price isn’t reflective of the development that’s happening. So even though the price of Ethereum is tanking right now, the amount of GitHub repos that have Solidity are exponentially growing. For me, those are the real metrics that matter: how much development interest is in the protocol, how people are using it. The price really doesn’t matter. The amount of developers flocking to Ethereum right now is insane.

The future of Pocket Network

Roxanne: Is there anything exciting coming down the pipeline for Pocket Network?

Michael: We just released our whitepaper, if you wanna go through 20 pages of technical jargon… We actually got listed on the Ethereum wiki, so that was really cool! We’re about to release Banano Quest. We finished all our tooling and stuff, so now we’re trying to partner with different blockchains to be able to provide infrastructure for them. We’re planning on raising a big round in the next few months, and then we’ll build the blockchain. That won’t be out until late 2019 probably, I’d expect.

Shoutout!

Matt: Who is a person and/or an organization that you think is doing something right and innovative in the area, and why?

Michael: Chris Williams. He worked for IBM and helped build Hyperledger – that’s like the enterprise blockchain. It doesn’t have a token or anything. It’s purely a corporate blockchain.

Tim Mesker as well – he’s doing crypto art. He’s working on artpiece.io. They’re gonna commission art from artists in New York and the artist is gonna agree to something like ‘there will only be 10 tokens for my piece of art ever in existence.’ Then they’re gonna store the piece of art in a really safe storage facility, and the first person to connect 7 or 8 of those tokens gets the piece of art. So it helps make artists’ life more sustainable, because every time someone transfers a token, the artist gets a piece of that royalty.

Right now, if you’re aware about how the high-end art marketplace works, the artist gets paid like $20k for a piece of art, but somewhere down the road someone sells it for $3 million and the artist gets nothing. So Tim is doing some cool stuff with that. Every time you buy one of the tokens, a piece of the Ethereum gets transferred over. He’s an 18 year old genius. Not even kidding. Genius. He was running his entire middle school’s IT department when he was 14.

I think the world is now optimizing for creativity. So if you can be a creative person in any sense of the word, your job can’t be replicated.

About Pocket Network:

Pocket Network is decentralized infrastructure for developers who want to build peer-to-peer applications. The company was founded to make the exponential growth of cryptocurrencies coming into existence easier to use and more accessible for people worldwide. Learn more about them here.

They are soon to release their new app, Banano Quest, a mix of Pokemon Go and geocaching. Users will be able to search for hidden bananos that will appear in designated areas, find the bananos using hints provided on each quest, and claim banano tokens for doing so! Non-fungible tokens reward players with tokens that can be transferred outside of the game and possess actual market value.

Roxanne Williams is the Marketing Director at Full Stack Talent, a technology staffing agency in Tampa, FL. Find her LinkedIn here.

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