Where Stani Kulechov is looking next to make blockchain mainstream

David Harrington
June 13, 2023
“You could help any person’s life regardless of their background” — Stani Kulechov

What's the secret to making the internet a fairer place? According to Stani Kulechov, it's blockchain. One of web3's leading entrepreneurs, he's the founder of social media protocol Lens and billion-dollar DeFi market Aave. Stani tells us how blockchain is going to transform the internet into a place for choice and genuine human connection.

From teenage internet entrepreneur to creator of one of the most impactful projects in web3, Stani Kulechov’s journey has been one of invention, innovation, and challenging the status quo. Best known as the founder of Aave, the decentralised finance protocol through which users manage billions of dollars in assets, and now the creator of decentralised social media protocol Lens, Stani’s first foray into blockchain occurred many years ago.

“I've always been super excited about peer-to-peer sharing,” he recalls, noting how decentralised protocols can run autonomously and can neither exclude users nor be shut down themselves. “The idea that you can create something anywhere and have a global audience always attracted me. With blockchain, I saw potential for wide accessibility, where you could help any person’s life regardless of their background.”

Even as a teenager, the Finnish programmer was inspired by how the internet let him reach anyone in the world. Stani jokes that “I got my first paycheck from Google” as a fifteen year old for hosting adverts on popular websites he had built. Later, as a law student at Helsinki University, he saw in the blockchain the ability to run applications that nobody could shut down, in contrast to his earlier websites that relied on his continual work to run.

Stani Kulechov, founder of social media protocol Lens and DeFi market Aave. (Image: Slush)

But simply sharing ‘information’, like a website does, wasn’t interesting enough. Instead, the Finnish programmer chose to focus on finance, embarking on a mission to democratise access to money for everyone. Still a student at the time, in around 2017, he found in this sub-subculture of ‘decentralised finance’ a vibrant ecosystem and community.

“The transition from building websites to diving into finance-related applications was an extension of my curiosity, bringing a new layer of potential. Finance was the organic step towards what could be built in blockchain,” he reflects, charting how, in 2008, Bitcoin introduced in the concept of transferring money between two peers, online, without relying on any middleman for the privilege.

“You could help anyone’s life regardless of their background.”

— Stani Kulechov

2015 saw the introduction of the Ethereum blockchain, which allowed people to programme ‘smart contracts’ which govern how money is used, rather than doing so manually. “This journey has been about solving and improving finance,” Stani says; it was the launch of Ethereum that made the whole field of decentralised finance possible, including Aave.

“In DeFi, you have a peer-to-contract relationship,” he explains. “This is about building a future of finance that improves over the existing system. Aave is governed by its community, not by us. It's enforced by blockchain, not a single entity.”

Since its launch in 2017, Aave has become the world's largest open-source liquidity market: anyone can look at the code that Aave runs on. In traditional finance, savers and borrowers are connected via a bank, or some other financial institution. Savers deposit money, and the bank lends it out to borrowers, who put up collateral, and pay a fee that gets distributed to depositors as interest on their savings, with the bank taking a cut.

Aave is reshaping how money works with blockchain. “This journey has been about solving and improving finance” — Stani Kulechov.

Aave plays the role of the bank, but instead of being run by people who decide which customers and which borrowers to accept, that job is done by code. Anyone can deposit assets, and if they put up collateral, anyone can borrow. It’s a revolutionary alternative within an otherwise highly centralised financial system which many around the world have not had access to.

Stani sees his creation as much more than a financial protocol for that reason. “Aave is a catalyst for choice,” he says. “Offering developers and users varied opportunities to interact with the protocol, it caters to the diverse needs of its community.”

As for the code itself, that is governed by the people who use it, who vote on which assets customers should be allowed to save, offer as collateral, and borrow; how the interest rate gets calculated; manage risk; and much more. At time of writing, you can borrow US dollars at an interest rate of 3.31%, and save dollars with an APY of 2.48%. The total value managed through the Aave protocol is just shy of $8 billion.

“Aave is a catalyst for choice.”

— Stani Kulechov

“Aave's design balances between immutability and innovation. While some protocols remain unchanged post-deployment, Aave incorporates community-guided enhancements to meet changing needs,” Stani details. “Both models exist: the unchanging, ensuring certainty and stability, and the evolving, driving innovation while adhering to a rigorous process.”

With access to financing almost ‘completed’, Stani turned his attention back to information in 2022. But it wouldn’t be websites that Stani focused on, but social media. Like money, where what actually happens to it is typically information held privately by the financiers in the middle, modern social media, like Facebook or TikTok, is an enormous black box, where user control over their data and content is heavily limited.

In theory, blockchain makes it possible to build social media ‘protocols’ which can guarantee to the world that they’ll never exploit your content or shut down your app. Today’s social media is characterised by platforms which monetise user content whilst retaining an enormous portion of the profits, whether it’s YouTube taking a 50% cut on pre-video ads, or Facebook or TikTok refusing to share the revenue gained from ads placed in between user-generated posts.

Modern social media, like Facebook or TikTok, is a black box, where user control over their data and content is heavily limited.

What makes this one-way relationship possible is that users are locked into their respective platforms. There is very limited ability to, if you wished, reach your Instagram followers via TikTok. “The internet today,” Stani summarises, “is not a fair place.”

If it existed, that ability would transform the social media landscape, with creators far more empowered to reap the rewards of their creativity. “Choice,” he continues, “effectively changes the dynamic between where we are now, versus when things are more fair and equal.”

What could this choice look like? If Instagram, for example, refused to share advertising income with creators, those creators might choose to migrate to a more welcoming platform, and take their follower relationships and existing content with them. It would transform the dynamic between social media platforms and the creators who make them valuable. 

Powering this creator-first dynamic is Stani’s mission at Lens, which launched last year having raised $15m from a slew of widely-respect blockchain investors, including former Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan and Variant Fund, a leading web3 venture capital fund co-founded by Andreessen Horowitz alumni Jesse Walden and Li Jin.

Lens works in a similar way to Aave, but whilst Aave focuses on finance, Lens is about media. Like Aave, Lens is a protocol, with code running on the blockchain which users govern themselves, rather than being a platform itself. Lens records the data about which accounts follow who, and more, on the blockchain. In turn, developers can build different platforms on top of that protocol to access the data from the blockchain, and display it to users who can seamlessly jump between those different apps and access the same content on each. “Your data isn’t locked in a platform,” Stani summarises, whose protocol brands itself as The last social media handle you’ll ever have to create.

With Lens, users can seamlessly jump between different apps and access the same content on each.

The impact of this lies in the range of choice that this gives users. Some platforms might offer algorithms with a focus on sharing nuanced conversation or highly-moderated content, whilst others might make their USP delivering the best entertainment or children’s media. “When you change that relationship between users and platforms,” Stani explains, “it means that platforms need to actually start thinking, ‘how do we build for the users’. As a user, you can start choosing algorithms.”

Today, a plethora of different social media apps are built on Lens. LensPlay and LensTube are platforms built for sharing video, whereas Riff and Buttrfly focuses on music. Enso Collective focuses on community-curated shopping, whilst Lenster and Phaver look and feel a lot like Twitter. Blockchain-based social media platforms can even access content shared via other social media protocols like Farcaster, an alternative to the Lens Protocol itself. Orb, Yup, and Firefly, for example, all aggregate content across different social media ecosystems, like Lens, Farcaster, and Twitter. Orb has a killer music player too.

“The internet today is not a fair place.”

— Stani Kulechov

Creators can bring their communities across each platform without skipping a beat, users can prioritise the platforms they enjoy best, whilst developers can build their own competing social media app without facing a cold-start problem. 

Indeed, Lens itself is a major supporter of developers seeking to build on the community-governed protocol, offering grants and other resources to aspiring teams. And with over 100,000 accounts, there is a large audience to build for. “The past year has been a whirlwind of learning and development,” Stani says, recalling how in the early days Lens was just a protocol, without any platforms built on top to make it actually useful. “When Lens Protocol first launched, it existed without a client interface. Today, we're supported by fantastic mobile and desktop applications built by the community. I'm genuinely thrilled about what our community will accomplish in the forthcoming years.”

“Choice effectively changes the dynamic between where we are now, versus when things are more fair and equal.”

— Stani Kulechov

Stani’s vision for the future brims with transformative possibilities. As the landscape of the internet evolves, decentralised tools like Aave and Lens pave the way for a future where user empowerment takes centre stage, redefining how people interact with each other, and the world, online.

“We've been building Lens for two years now, but it still feels like we just started yesterday,” he says. “We’ve learnt so much. And there’s the community. I'm amazed at how quickly these developers are building apps [on Lens], and I can't even imagine what it’s going to look like in a year from now.”

Momentum, he hopes, will only increase, as more and more people join his vision to create the infrastructure for a more inclusive and pluralistic future. “There are 5 billion internet users,” he notes. “How do we bring ownership back to users? How do we make a future that benefits all?” In blockchain, he sees a technology that brings this vision within reach: an internet that allows for greater choice, and a genuine stake in our online lives.

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David is an independent writer working at the intersection of decentralised technology, culture, and commerce. His writing has been featured in media outlets such as Forbes Technology Council and Tech in Asia, and he loves telling unique stories about the transformative potential of web3. His current interests include decentralised science, NFT sports collectibles, and creator-owned economies.