Dispatch from Denver: Ethereum Builds through the Bear Market

Jeff Benson
March 5, 2023

Tens of thousands of enthusiasts gathered for the world's largest Ethereum conference in Denver, Colorado. Jeff Benson explores how the builders are shaping up during the bear market.

When ETHDenver 2022 kicked off last winter, the industry was at the tail-end of an extended sugar rush of high token prices, crazy startup valuations and, of course, the pandemic. Lines to get into a crumbling Sports Castle snaked around the block. People I spoke to – regular people like lawyers, business owners, artists – said they came just to see what crypto was all about and how they might get into web3.

That was a year ago. 2023 is very different. Layoffs are piling up, depressed token prices aren’t inspiring the general public to buy the dip, and NFT might as well stand for “no friggin’ thanks.”

So you might expect this year’s ETHDenver, which ends today after a multi-week series of hackathons, speakers, and side events, to be a smaller and more subdued affair than last year.

And you’d be wrong.

My first clue that this was going to be a bigger deal than ever was the line to get in. There were the typical technical issues slowing things down, but it’s also just hard to register over 10,000 people per day. I waited for two hours to get my credentials on Thursday — and that was in the “express” lane. By the time I reached the desk, I discovered the WiFi wasn’t working and the check-in system was busted. The volunteer wrote my name down on paper and handed me a media pass. Welcome to Denver.

Crowds at ETH Denver. Tens of thousands of attendees descended on the Mile High City for the 2023 conference.

The National Western Complex, where ETHDenver is being held for the first time this year, is an expo center designed for agricultural trade shows and cattle events. It’s sprawling and was crawling with crypto fanatics — all hawking products and protocols or talking the latest in Ethereum development.

“It’s a bear market and look at how many vendors there are,” says Anett Rolikova, from Hyperlane, a blockchain interoperability company. “There are so many sponsors that this venue feels more like an expo and less like a conference.”

That’s just the main level. There’s a massive cavern of coders working beneath as part of the hackathon. It wasn’t until Day 3 that, while wandering around the inside of the building, I stumbled upon a poker tournament, a maker space, and rows and rows of tables for builders.

The increased space to play with has let projects get creative with their booths. Ethereum wallet MetaMask and infrastructure provider Infura ran an escape room, Giveth, the crypto donation platform, coordinated a POAP scavenger hunt, DAO Game7 set up an entire videogame neighborhood, and venture capital platform CultDAO was handing out masks and hinting at mischief. Hundreds of booths, filled with stickers and swag, filled the space. Rarely, if ever, has such a large group of people been so enthusiastic about Ethereum infrastructure and decentralised apps.

If crypto is dead, nobody’s told these folks. Talk was mostly devoid of prices and valuations, which is normal for this conference. ETHDenver sees itself as the “longest running Ethereum #BUIDLathon in the world.” It’s a builder crowd.

Anna Stone, Executive Director of the universal basic income project GoodDollar and Head of Impact at eToro, tells me “it is clear that the Ethereum community is really strong despite what’s happening with prices, speculation, and the external capital markets. There’s a lot of innovation and building happening here.”

Hyperlane’s Rolikova mostly agreed. “Last year, I probably felt a little bit more of a builders’ energy from the actual conference itself. But I feel like the spirit is still very high.”

Any drop in ‘building’ energy is in partly due to the layout of the venue. In previous years, the centre stage was near the entrance, with booths and a few side stages relegated to the upper levels. Everything was all mixed this year, making it hard sometimes to hear what speakers were saying. The main stage was down one level, in the depths of the building. Though it was isolated from the hubbub, you could also attend the whole conference without realising it was there.

ETHDenver 2023 took place at the National Western Complex. (Source: ETHDenver)

Nonetheless, things were buzzing. “People are really excited,” says Sadaf.eth, community advocate at ENS Labs. “The energy has been super uplifting. The foot traffic is nonstop all day.” Sadaf's colleague Nic echoes the spirit, noting that the conference represented a time to regroup and remember why they’re here. “I think with the news most of the year so far — with Terra, with the exchanges going down, with all that — I think the vibe is really here.” He noted a groundswell “toward decentralization and the importance of decentralised protocols” now that FTX, a centralised exchange, had collapsed.

Beyond decentralised finance, a strong theme of regenerative finance emerged in Denver, championed by Colorado native and Gitcoin co-founder Kevin Owocki. On Saturday, he publicly announced Supermodular, an incubator for ReFi products.

“The foot traffic is nonstop all day.”

— Sadaf.eth, ENS Labs

Stone could feel it in the thin Rocky Mountain air. The GoodDollar Director observed “a real discussion around public goods and what is the role of crypto in developing public networks and advancing public goods.”

She was discouraged, however, that the conference was not more representative, though she admits it has become more diverse every year since she first attended in 2018. “It’s still such a poor representation of what our world looks like. There’s a lot of white men in every room all the time. That does not necessarily bode well if we’re looking at the future of finance and trying to make that more inclusive.”

It could be said that the bear market had stalled some of the progress in onboarding a more diverse user base. To be sure, there were signs that this wasn’t your bull market crypto conference. Haseeb Qureshi, founder of Dragonfly Capital, participated in a fireside chat on how bear markets were good for building. Acknowledging that a lot of the general public that hopped on the crypto bandwagon had hopped back off when it became too difficult to navigate web3, he encouraged attendees to focus on building solutions that people could actually use.

A group at ETHDenver. Whilst ETHDenver 2023 was the most diverse ETHDenver ever, web3 remains unrepresentative of the broader public. (Source: Kevin Jones)

While a venture capitalist was preaching getting back to basics, this year’s side events indicated a return to pragmatism as well. One sponsored breakfast I went to was well-attended but not at all flashy. “Can you believe the line for some bagels?” one attendee asked.

It’s a small point but a useful indicator; side events are designed to lure conference attendees from the main attraction, often with open bars and fancy spreads. One account manager for a major PR firm told me that the side events were “weird” this year. She noted that many were co-sponsored by multiple entities, a sign of belt-tightening in marketing budgets.

Others are feeling it too. By coincidence, I shared a Lyft from the airport with the head of a web3 production company that had been built on Terra, now also collapsed. He was there to shoot video for a Cosmos side conference. In years past, he explained that he would have come out for a whole week; at any one point, he might be working with a team of 70. He was down to a team of three and just flying in for the day. Still, he was thankful to be there: “it can get smaller.”

“It is clear that the Ethereum community is really strong despite what’s happening with prices, speculation, and the external capital markets.”

— Anna Stone, Executive Director, GoodDollar

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Jeff is the former crypto and web3 editor at Andreessen Horowitz's Future and was a senior editor at Decrypt. He now writes for multiple outlets.