Josh Ong has played a key role in helping the Bored Ape Yacht Club become a cultural icon worn by the likes of Eminem. He speaks to Leo Nasskau about the early days of BAYC, when to leverage decentralisation to let a permissionless brand thrive, and how to manage the delicate balance between exclusivity and openness. Clovis McEvoy tells the story.
These days, Josh Ong is well known as one of the core holders in the Bored Ape Yacht Club, but long before our current era of yachts, apes, and supposed boredom, Josh was a tech reporter keeping a close eye on a new technology called Bitcoin.
“I was writing about Mt. Gox and that era of wild price swings,” he recalls. “I told my editor at the time that I would be interested in buying some Bitcoin and he was like, ‘I don't want you covering crypto and also investing in it’. So, that was a pretty costly ruling from my boss!” That prohibition against getting his hands dirty did not last. A few years later, by which point Josh had moved into in-house communications for mobile and other firms that, at the time, were cutting edge, Josh was at liberty to buy some crypto and start investigating the early NFT projects.
A scroll to the earliest days of Josh's wallet reveals eager breeding of CryptoKitties, trading cards in the Gods Unchained collection, alongside other prescient mints with the Decentraland metaverse and RTFKT, later acquired by Nike in December 2021. Alongside those mints came less long-lasting projects that did not survive through the various waves of the crypto chronology: collectibles and cultural projects like Apymon, Jabbaforms, and VoxoDeus, a film by the Arabian Camels that never made it big.
With so many ill-fated projects in the crypto ecosystem, it was not until the arrival of NBA Top Shot in early 2021 that Josh began to take NFTs seriously. It is this project, created by the original makers of CryptoKitties in partnership with the NBA, that he describes as a “gateway drug to NFTs”. Having always been a fan of physical trading cards, the idea of digital ownership and collecting had now clicked. “I was a collector before,” he explains. “Anything from sports cards and trading cards to sneakers and streetwear. It was really fascinating to explore what that could look like in the digital world.”
His interest piqued; Josh began hosting web3-focused Twitter Spaces, and getting increasingly excited about how NFT holders could organically form their own communities. “I remember thinking about CryptoPunks,” he says. “Even though it was this experimental art project, it created a form of membership. It became this credential within the crypto world.”
Not long after these musings, Josh’s interests lined up with a new PFP project, set to take tokenised community building into the stratosphere: the Bored Ape Yacht Club. In a now familiar tale, he recalls minting his ape, tweeting about it, going to bed, and waking up to news that the collection had sold out and a new community was already taking shape. “People were going crazy in the Discord,” he recalls. “Everyone was really excited about it. So, I just fired up some Spaces, like, ‘hey, what's going on here? Let's take a look at the roadmap.’”
“That summer really was magic — it attracted the curious.”
— Josh Ong
The months following that initial mint were a golden time of experimentation and creativity, with the community playing an active role in shaping BAYC into the web3 icon it is today. “We had a lot of freedom as a community, as members of this club, to just explore,” Josh says. “A lot of us minted and didn't even realise that we had commercial rights to our apes. So, we just talked it out together and people just started creating stuff. That summer really was magic — it attracted the curious.”
Of course, BAYC was not the first project to give commercial rights to holders but, as Josh points out, the sheer extent to which the community took that opportunity and ran with it stands out as a turning point for web3 and NFT communities. What began with derivative artworks has now grown into a sprawling metaverse that incorporates comics, a novel, fantasy sports teams, and food franchises; even Eminem and Snoop Dogg are now onboard.
Loosely tying everything together is the BAYC lore, an evolving narrative driven jointly by Yuga Labs and the community itself, the next chapter being The Trial of Jimmy The Monkey, an interactive storytelling experience that brings new levels of sci-fi weirdness and seafaring ennui to the Bored Apes’ universe this January. “What's really fun about BAYC lore right now is that it is collaborative,” Josh says. “Canon in the Bored Ape world is achieved through consensus. In a way, it’s not too dissimilar from how blockchains work: in order for lore to be accepted by the community, it has to be agreed upon.”
Perhaps therein lies the key to BAYC’s rapid horizontal expansion: any member of the club can throw out ideas and start projects, but to scale up those initiatives, a member can access support from the wider community and Yuga Labs itself. It is that permissionless culture, coupled with consensus building, that empowered Josh to organise some of the first IRL meetups for BAYC, but it is the central spine of support that meant it quickly evolved into the totemic ApeFest annual event.
“What I love is that we didn't need permission to gather the community,” says Josh. “And after our first couple of meetups in LA and New York, I started hearing from Apes around the world saying, ‘hey, I'm going to do a meetup in my city’, and that's so much stronger than if you waited for BAYC to give the go ahead.” But nonetheless, mentioning the idea to Yuga Labs — Josh and his fellow BAYC Council member Peter Fang had originally planned to rent a rooftop — quickly demonstrated that their more radical idea was something that the central team would happily support.
And so it happened that ApeFest 2021 would take place on an actual yacht. “We brought it to the Yuga team, they said 'we'll fund it', and it ended up as Ape Fest,” Josh summarises. “The initial idea for a festival was just 'we like doing meetups'. But we have this chance to go bigger; do we want to partner up with BAYC? The Yuga team took it and turned it into something bigger than what we could have built.”
Of course, all of this requires being part of the club, and the tension between maintaining the exclusivity that defines a community, whilst feeling inclusive for the millions who they hope to attract as fans is, says Josh, something that Yuga Labs and the community have consciously tried to balance. “When you create a boundaried community, through a limited token, there is an exclusivity to it,” he acknowledges.
“For me, the idea was ‘what does inclusive exclusivity look like?’, and what I found is that a lot of people who had minted Mutants had joined the space a little later, were super interested, but just weren't able to invest in an Ape. But they were able to get into the club at a more affordable level, and now some of those folks are incredible members of the community.”
“The idea was ‘what does inclusive exclusivity look like?’”
— Josh Ong
Josh now takes a central role in helping to balance this dilemma, amongst many other concerns, with a seat on the new BAYC Council. “A lot of what we do is just to be present, to hear from and understand the needs of different community members around the world — and then bring that feedback to Yuga Labs and help them to think through what it means for their initiatives.”
In doing so, they help holders make the most of their IP by providing the central support that serves as a foundation for them to create something of their very own. For himself, a music graduate of UC Berkeley, Josh has been exploring the narrative around his own ape, Maui Prime, a budding producer. Most recently, Maui dropped his first track, Clappin, a collaboration with world-famous singer, songwriter, and rapper, Aloe Blacc. “We're thinking about what it looks like to create a virtual artist and to build a story around that,” Josh explains. “I follow a lot of what isgoing on in music NFTs. There's so much potential there and it’s a thread I'd love to continue pulling on.”
“Canon in the Bored Ape world is achieved through consensus.”
— Josh Ong
Outside the realm of the Bored Apes, Josh is also the co-founder of Bored Room Ventures, a consulting and marketing agency that support the start-ups powering web3’s next evolution. “I continue to be inspired by the new communities that have emerged in web3, and a lot of our investments are focused there. There are always the ‘picks and shovels’ companies trying to build new tools for this digital world, and we spend a lot of time on that. But also, some of it is just about continuing to dream big — saying ‘hey, what is possible here and how can we support that?’”
In many ways, that is the attitude the has taken the Bored Apes to web3's loftiest heights. In barely 24 months, Yuga Labs and the BAYC community have redefined what is possible in web3, putting decentralisation into the global conversation. But as far as Josh is concerned, the journey is just getting started. “I think we’re going to see some really amazing projects emerge, and a whole world of storytelling. It's going to be crazy.”
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