Rarible co-founder Alex Salnikov wants to reimagine how you pick up your NFTs. He speaks to Leo Nasskau about his web3 journey as a crypto-native, decentralising the Rarible protocol, and being bullish on new IP. Léa Rose Emery tells the story.
How would you build a genuinely community-led marketplace? That is the question that lies behind Rarible’s vision to redefine how we engage with NFTs. With no-code tools that empower anyone to create their own NFT marketplace, Rarible lies behind a wide range of collections — from mainstream brands like McFarlane Toys to web3 leaders like Pixel Vault to individual creators. That ability to speak to a range of needs, without losing the integrity of a community-led operation, comes from the founders’ resolute vision and passion for learning.
Co-Founder Alex Salnikov is a digital native. “I was born in crypto,” he explains. “I’ve been here all my time.” Since his university days, specifically, when he built the first version of CoinOffering, a crypto markets news site. His deep immersion — and belief — in the space stems from a very real frustration that Alex encountered as he began his digital journey.
“I think what motivated me most was when I started working on the Internet,” Alex says. He was studying at the time, looking for ways to make money on the side, and found no end to opportunities, from rewriting copy to building websites. But instantly, there was a barrier.
“I was born in crypto.”
— Alex Salnikov, Co-Founder, Rarible
“I found that it’s extremely hard to accept money. I am originally from Russia and every other website was asking for a passport. Half of them blocked my country. When I discovered crypto, it felt like a revelation.” That was in 2012. Jumping straight in, he took the time to study, learn, and experiment with crypto — and immediately realised the potential.
“This is how it should work, finally,” he recalls thinking at the time. “I was sold on the idea of internet-native money.”
After that, he began tackling a use case with a friend: a crypto-fiat exchange, helping customers “from off-ramp to cart,” as he puts it. “We were looking at solving that same problem of accepting money — you still need to convert to fiat, like pound sterling. We started solving that.”
Solving is what Alex does. He speaks in direct language, breaking down any issue into small, digestible pieces. And this clear-eyed, methodical thinking, this ability to take on new challenges with both enthusiasm and rigour, has sent his career in the ecosystem snowballing.
For his exchange, he onboarded local payment providers, built the front-end website, and integrated the backend, writing the code himself. “I was studying computer science and I was in those early years of, ‘Oh, I can do everything. I’ll write the whole project.’”
It’s a similar story across all of Alex’s projects. He decides ‘let’s do it’, which is followed by the learning phase. A “few years,” even. There is a sense of decisive goals and then follow through — even if that means a little scrambling and a lot of self-teaching on the go. “We let our dreams go forward and built everything very fast,” he explains.
“This is how it should work, finally.”
— Alex Salnikov, Co-Founder, Rarible
With Ethereum as with Bitcoin. “I remember precisely the time when I was going around and asking, ‘There’s this thing called smart contracts. Who can explain how it works? Which book should I read to understand it better?’” Soon, he delved into the white paper, which set him up for the 2017 boom.
As brands moved into the space, there was an explosive demand for ERC-20 contracts and 2017, for Alex, was busy with agency work, “Selling picks and shovels to people who rushed into the crypto gold mine.” And Alex recalls “crazy times when there was an idea: ‘let’s do everything on the blockchain’.” That meant tickets, carbon credits, computing power. Corporate blockchains, private blockchains. “All of it.”
It was an exciting time, but also an overwhelming one. Alex talks about the sheer “amount of noise” that dominates the web3 ecosystem during the good times. But then, the noise slowed down. Though, when Alex looked around, the potential had only grown.
“I found out that ‘okay, it looks like there is a lot of infrastructure built’. You have wallets, you can connect them to dApps. We’ve gone a long way.” It was during the boom period that Alex met Alexei Falin, soon to be his co-founder at Rarible.
They were going to build infrastructure as well. At first, their project was a tool to help users create NFTs. But, as they started to research, trading and using NFTs, and discovering that this represented a fertile market for innovation as well, “It clicked,” Alex recalls. “The mechanic of trading NFTs is very fun. There was a great feeling of ownership. You can change the wallet and you’ll still have the same NFTs. You can connect to OpenSea or Rarible and you’ll have the same NFTs. It’s not in the wallet, it’s not controlled by a corporate middleman. It is stored on your address, which is your identity. So it’s yours.”
Rarible launched in November 2019. It started slowly, until it didn’t. A few months in, volume on the platform jumped from low four-figures in volume to $30,000. “Wow. Wow. At the time we had only been doing organic marketing. But then everything began to scale up,” Alex recalls.
That was only 5 months in. Three and a half years later, Rarible has become one of the de facto leaders in the NFT marketplace ecosystem. But he is undettered by how that ecosystem has evolved in 2023, with Blur capturing a majority of daily volume share in NFTs, roughly $50m out of $80m. Alex is unfazed by what this means for his own platform. “Today we’re seeing the market diverge between professional traders and retail traders. But we think that NFTs were created for something more like a commerce market. For digital goods, for art, for something that you want to buy just to use. And that’s why we’re going the e-commerce route.”
For context, the total volume of sales processed on Shopify is almost half of the $500bn in sales done on Amazon. Selling picks and shovels can be profitable too. If OpenSea is the Amazon where you buy everything, Rarible wants to be the Shopify where anyone can sell on their own store. “We believe that for NFTs, you want to have specialised experience for NFTs.” That rules out the kind of ‘default-average’ level of quality that characterises most of Amazon’s vast range of goods. Instead, they’re empowering creators, large-scale and individual alike, to create their own marketplaces that let holders remain in the creators’ community as they buy and sell.
“We believe that for NFTs, you want to have specialised experience for NFTs.”
— Alex Salnikov, co-founder, Rarible
It is an option hugely relevant for new brands entering the sector as well. “There will be established brands that come to the space and use Rarible technology to bring their IP,” he explains. “We have a partnership with McFarlane Toys, with Fox, with several others that are yet to be announced.”
What unites these different marketplaces is the common Rarible protocol, which was created by Alex, Alexei, and their team, but is now governed by the community that uses it. From a monetisation perspective, it’s a bet that software governed by its users can earn the founders a larger return because, whilst the co-founders’ take is smaller, the overall pie is larger.
For many, ‘community-led’ is a buzzword — and ‘decentralisation’ is often the same. But for Alex, there’s a sense of trial and error, an unphased admission of when things don’t work and why. How they’ve learnt. “We set on the path of progressive decentralisation,” Alex says, noting that decentralisation has been the mission right from the start.
“It all started with community and that’s why we are always loyal to the community.”
— Alex Salnikov, co-founder, Rarible
Today, Rarible’s RARI Foundation is a decentralised autonomous organisation that operates the Rarible protocol, i.e. the software that lies behind the marketplace. But Rarible’s decentralisation has evolved in a range of ways since it was first created. The first DAO, Alex explains, was “a lot of community and a lack of execution”. In the second iteration, they sought to balance that out. “Let’s do more work in the DAO, let’s do more execution, let’s do working groups, grants, marketing, business development, developers,” they said to themselves.
But, they found, it still lacked focus. “We’re now in the third iteration. It’s fully onchain, fully decentralised.” Alex adds that the Foundation controls the treasury, which holds just shy of $2m. “The ultimate dream is to have a fully decentralised protocol governed by a robust community of token holders.”
But Rarible has never just been about the money. A product created in its very first days alongside user feedback, the people who use and rely on their software have always been important to the organisation. “Community helped us build, gave feedback about the products, gave feedback about who we should verify,” Alex explains. “It all started with community and that’s why we are always loyal to the community.”
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