Last December was a stressful time for 42-year-old Nicole d'Avis. She had been working remotely for months because of the pandemic. Then, she was laid off from the music entrepreneurship program she ran at the Berklee College of Music.
"It was definitely, like, a rocky and emotional time," d'Avis said.
With her experience in management, event planning and communication, she hoped to find work in the music industry, but landing the right job proved tough.
"My resume was definitely not getting through any of the algorithms at, like, bigger music product companies I was interested in," she said.
D'Avis took on some consulting and freelance gigs. She also became more active in online communities that shared her passion for music and technology. When some of the people she met online decided to host a virtual conference in March, she jumped in to help organize it.
"I was like, 'yeah! I can do that,' " d'Avis said. "I need something to, like, occupy my brain space other than trying to keep my kids on their [school] zoom and arguing and printing out a million worksheets."
The conference went well, and she decided to keep working with the group, called Seed Club. She became a full-time employee in July.
But Seed Club is not a traditional employer. It's a DAO, which stands for decentralized autonomous organization. Decentralized means the organization's structure is flat, so it has no headquarters, and typically no corporate hierarchy or bureaucracy. Employees decide as a group how to move forward.
Since decentralized also means it's not a government-recognized entity, d'Avis doesn't get a W-2, so she's still trying to figure out how to do her taxes.
"DAOs are often or can be thought of as like a Reddit or a Discord or a group text with a bank account," d'Avis explained.
"When you are working to create value, are the people who are doing the hard work in an organization benefiting from that work and having a long-term stake in the thing they’re building?"Nicole d'Avis
People who put work or financial support into a DAO become members. Those members can then vote on all of the decisions in the organization, which can range from who to hire and what projects to take on, to how to resolve conflicts between members.
"At the core of it, it's just a group of people that really care about something, and they want to work on it together," said Anne Connelly, who teaches blockchain and social impact at Boston University.
The first DAO started in 2016, and they’ve been growing more popular in tech-savvy circles. Deep-DAO, a company that analyzes the growth of these decentralized organizations, estimates there are currently 1.3 million DAO members — a number that Connelly expects will keep growing.
"DAOs really are the future of work," Connelly said. "I think as our world gets increasingly global, and we've seen this with COVID, this notion that you're going to show up to one geographic location every day to work for one company in one regulatory jurisdiction (...) is already an outdated notion, even just in the digital world."
The DAO d’Avis works in is trying to build something new. She helps creators, such as musicians, filmmakers and media personalities, to promote their work using blockchain technology. The goal is to make them less dependent on big platforms like Spotify or Facebook.
"DAOs really are the future of work. I think as our world gets increasingly global, and we've seen this with COVID, this notion that you're going to show up to one geographic location every day to work for one company in one regulatory jurisdiction (...) is already an outdated notion.Anne Connelly, Faculty at Boston University Questrom School of Business
D'Avis's monthly salary comes in two types of cryptocurrency. One she's able to convert into dollars — that's what she uses to pay her mortgage and bills. The other comes in tokens specific to her DAO, which are similar to shares in a company.
The more work d'Avis puts in, the more tokens she gets, and the more she has a stake in the DAO. This arrangement gets at a core belief d'Avis has about work — and a question she keeps coming back to: "When you are working to create value, are the people who are doing the hard work in an organization benefiting from that work and having a long-term stake in the thing they’re building?"
So far, Wyoming is the only state to officially recognize DAOs. And because DAOs are so new, they are still figuring out how to reinvent parts of "traditional" jobs, such as benefits and human resources. Mostly, they're figuring out how to run a workplace when everyone gets to vote.
This governance model can add transparency to companies, but the majority decision isn't always the right one, warns Emin Gün Sirer, a computer scientist based in New York.
"We know from many different failed democracies around the world that just because you've opened something up to potential votes by people doesn't mean you're going to get good outcomes," said Gün Sirer, who helps write computer programs for decentralized entities like DAOs. "So we have to be a little bit careful about what it is that we are wishing for."
Gün Sirer says it's important for DAOs to create checks and balances — and be thoughtful about how they design their voting systems.
For D’Avis, transitioning to an unfamiliar kind of company did make her nervous. She was excited, but she worried about financial stability, especially as a mom of two young children. Ultimately, she decided it was worth it.
"I'm happy with the risk that I took," d'Avis said. "It was also just really hard to think about going back to something where you're part of this, like, bigger institution, and you're executing on somebody else's vision and you're just kind of a cog in that machine."
This segment aired on October 28, 2021.