How Jonathan Hillis’ cabin became a DAO
He left Instacart with an unclear vision. What came next — a decentralized city for creators, by creators — has proved an experimental success.
Written by Shreeda Segan
Photography by Erica Schroeder
For some, online friends and connections are as important, if not more important, as those they make in person — in these cases, digital-first identities reign over geographic ones. What does a world where this is true for more people look like?
Former CTO of Coinbase, former general partner of Andreessen Horowitz, and all-around web3 expert Balaji S. Srinivasan has an idea. In his newly published book, he outlines steps for creating a network state, a digital-first alternative to a country, and romances a future where network states are widespread. His formal definition reads “[a] network state is a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated cryptocurrency, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real-estate footprint to attain a member of diplomatic recognition.”
In other words, a network state is a decentralized country. And, as his book goes on to explain, the first steps to starting one aren’t predicated on owning land, but on cultivating an online community that, when equipped with the right blockchain infrastructure, can eventually crowdfund physical nodes and collectively make decisions.
Building a fully-realized network state is a huge dream that may be out of reach today. But, to Instacart’s former Director of Product Jonathan Hillis, building a decentralized city is not.
It’s a warm spring afternoon when I visit Hillis, founder of the decentralized city Cabin, at his home in the middle of Texas Hill Country. It’s the same house he woke up in on Christmas mornings as a kid, which he inherited from his paternal grandparents. And it’s the same land that Hillis hopes can house a shifting collage of web3 creators and DAO (decentralized autonomous organizations) operators.
The first physical node in Cabin’s decentralized city, Neighborhood Zero, is the land that Jonathan's house is on and includes the four-bedroom cabin behind it. And it’s supported by one digital community: a Discord server made up of four guilds that manage all the digital, physical, business, and social aspects of the DAO.
Close-up of the cabin on Neighborhood Zero
Cabin is built by creators, for creators. On web2, creators might have made money off YouTube, TikTok, Gumroad, or Substack. On web3, the same creators might make money at Cabin.
“People underestimate the extent to which low barriers of entry to work completely change the nature of a firm,” Hillis explains to me over cups of tea, speaking quickly despite the need for caffeine. He drinks earl grey. My choice is spearmint.
“If you look at a typical company, the founders and investors own 80-90%,” he goes on. “All of the employees own the other 10-20%. It doesn't make sense. It's not who is producing most of the value. We wanted to flip that model on its head. With the DAO, the community controls 80% of the tokens; the founders and strategic partners control 20%.”
Members of Cabin have opportunities to complete “bounties,” or small commissions of work like writing a blog post or answering the DAO’s Twitter DMs. In turn, they get paid — but not in USD or other currencies you may be familiar with. Instead, they get paid a quantity of the Cabin token ₡ABIN. Members can either hold onto these tokens, which come with perks like inhouse voting rights, or sell or trade them for cash and other cryptocurrencies on platforms like Uniswap.
Cabin has no formal job application process, geographic requirements, or time-bound commitments for completing bounties. It’s like playing Minecraft. You have some agency and all these tools. You get to decide where to apply them.
The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs
In the months since we've talked, Cabin has added two more neighborhoods (both in California). Hillis points to a book lying on his armchair, The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs. He sees the creators that are part of Cabin — community members like writers, carpenters, artists, and developers that set their own terms, often working only when and where they want — well-suited to do what The Economy of Cities describes: replace city imports and build their own city using “local resources” and “local labor.”
“A lot of DAOs right now look like companies,” he explains. “But that is skeuomorphic and an adolescent phase that DAOs can grow out of. They’re not necessarily going to distribute profits or have dividends. In the longer term, DAOs are networks. Ideally, they are capable of developing their own internal economies. This means that DAOs can look more like cities than they do like companies.”
When COVID-19 hit, Hillis was working at Instacart as the Director of Product. He was hired to help onboard new shoppers (the gig workers who buy and deliver groceries). With the pandemic, Instacart saw massive growth. By January 2021, its valuation more than doubled to $18 billion; its reported revenue grew to $1.5 billion. But a slew of factors caused by the pandemic rendered the work environment complicated.
Hillis, citing burnout, left Instacart in early 2021. But he had already been thinking about his next step. Before leaving, at the encouragement of his boss, he took a trip to an island off the western coast of Thailand to take a break. Here, like at other times in his life, he turned to books.
He followed the suggestions of Designing Your Life, a book by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans that teaches readers how to use design thinking to craft a meaningful life. Hillis journaled five different life paths he could take. One involved building a cabin in the woods. Another involved writing science fiction (Hillis’ favorite childhood author, science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, wrote about decentralized cities and “the metaverse”).
Hillis first tried to blend the two, thinking he'd write science fiction about decentralized cities at the cabin, but quickly realized that science fiction wasn’t a fit for his skills — he decided it would be, in computer scientist Alan Kay's words, "easier to attempt to build the future than write it." But he didn’t exactly give up writing. He signed up for Write of Passage, a course and community on accelerating one’s career through writing online, where he riffed on Srinivasan’s vision for a network state and wrote about decentralized cities. Write of Passage was also where he met his co-founder Zakk Fleischmann.
Hillis returned to Texas Hill Country to build a cabin; Fleischmann, along with six others, eventually visited Hillis. The two discussed the potential of the cabin, which then morphed into a plan for building a DAO — specifically, Cabin.
"All the successful DAO founders I know weren't trying to start a DAO in the first place — they were just self-actualizing in a community and that’s what came out of it."
Building a decentralized city is a big dream, but some things have helped Hillis’ situation. Hillis started Cabin from his earnings at Instacart; his family gave him land and a house. And the physical Cabin is a premade build that Jonathan was able to get from the brother of Write of Passage’s partner, Tiago Forte.
Books found inside Jonathan's house, belonging to his grandparents.
Plus, he comes from a family who shares his love of experiments. His grandfather was a virologist in the Air Force working on hepatitis research on chimpanzees (”they were starting to send chimps up in the space program and needed to understand if the chimps were going to give diseases to humans,” Hillis says) and his grandmother was a biostatistician.
They raised their kids, including Hillis’ father, a professor at UT Austin, and Hillis’ uncle, a pioneer of parallel computing, across the Democratic Republic of the Congo and India. Eventually, they all ended up in Texas Hill Country, right on the land where Hillis is now planning a decentralized city.
Decentralized cities have been written about since at least 1941 and have resurfaced with the collision of several forces — COVID-19’s effects on remote work, the proliferation of subcultures born on the internet, innovations in blockchain technology, and progress in DAO architecture.
They’ve also been aided by recent writing. In 2021, Srinivasan first started writing essays about the network state, the “sequel to the nation state.” Similar to how the Indonesian government oversees 17,508 islands (even if some are closer to Malaysia or Singapore), a network state might have a clear leader and govern an online community, even if its members are distributed across the world.
However, for the network state, a cryptocurrency can be used for much more than transacting funds; it can be used for making collective decisions, keeping a census of members and locations within the state, and more. Vitalik Buterin, who first conceptualized DAOs in 2014, asked in his writing about crypto cities if “it make[s] sense to have a city with a coin, an NFT, a DAO, some record-keeping on-chain for anti-corruption, or even all four.”
Cabin certainly thinks it could. Their hope is to become the go-to place for DAO operators and creators to meet and collaborate, both online and then in-person at the cabin, when there’s a need — though it will take some time. “All the successful DAO founders I know weren't trying to start a DAO in the first place,” Hillis tells me after more sips of tea. “They were just self-actualizing in a community and that’s what came out of it.”
The Cabin Discord has over 3,400 members. Notable people who have visited Node 0 include Matt Condon, who helped fractionalize the Doge meme NFT, which was worth a total of $336M in September 2021, and Julian Weisser, investor and co-founder of On Deck who worked with Hillis as a core contributor to ConstitutionDAO.
Cabin has accomplished most of their initial roadmap for 2022 early. They sold out on retreats for their second and third seasons, ran residencies, and hosted conferences. They developed DAO content. They've held Build Weeks where DAO members built physical infrastructure. And they are building more cabins this fall to increase the capacity at Neighborhood Zero.
Their new 2022 roadmap focuses on neighborhood development. They plan to support their three existing neighborhoods and expand to more neighborhoods.
Hillis explains that for DAOs to grow into their full potential, they need a protocol: a seamless on-chain system for managing interactions in the DAO. In Cabin’s case, this is designed around their token, ₡ABIN, which allows them to govern the DAO and curate the catalog of neighborhoods.
One subgoal for the year is to continue building NFT passports, which help members signify membership to the DAO (unlike the Cabin token ₡ABIN, which is used for purposes of governance and managing incentives).
I’m not surprised that the former Director of Product of a web2 company is thinking about products the DAO can build. Hillis digs up his NFT passport from a room upstairs to show me. It looks like a business card with a chip. His phone can scan it.
He also wants Cabin to build Token Curated Registries (TCRs), which allow token holders to vote on what gets included in a registry, thereby keeping the quality of the registry high. That registry might just be a list of pediatricians in a neighborhood, or like in Hillis’ vision for Cabin, a list of physical nodes (which Cabin refers to as neighborhoods).
Hillis believes TCRs can serve as the crucial technology defining the bounds of a decentralized city — they just haven’t had their moment yet. And for Cabin, TCRs will allow anyone to put a deposit down to have their property considered a part of the decentralized network of neighborhoods (contingent on the vote of ₡ABIN holders).
Despite having these clear goals, Jonathan tells me that no one has exactly figured out “how to DAO.” For him, even identifying as a DAO is a sort of misnomer. He points me to a tweet by Rafa, an active member of the DAO: “[a] DAO is an organization that builds a DAO.” The ecosystem and tools for DAOs are still growing, the same way the organizations that are finding the best applications for these tools are too.
When asked what success means to him, Jonathan surprisingly shares that he’s already fulfilled it. He’s made friends through Cabin and that alone is enough for him.
When I come home later that night, I pencil the words Jonathan has high agency but low expectations into my journal. I wonder if this mindset is key to operating as a DAO founder. After all, DAO founders are choosing to share ownership of their vision with others.
I don’t think Jonathan is exactly sure how this will all play out, and maybe that’s why it’s hard to say exactly what Cabin will look like beyond a two-year horizon. But the advent of web3 and the DAO ecosystem has been an enabler for those whose dreams are shaped like networks, rather than companies. Now, there are tools to manifest these dreams.
Towards the end of my tour at Cabin, Jonathan leaves me with two sayings that Cabin’s core contributors (like him and Rafa) are trying to distribute among the community: “The DAO provides” and “Manifest your role.” He also leaves me with a sticker of their logo.
For Jonathan Hillis, building Cabin is very much an attempt at self-actualization. Except he is not alone in his vision; he’s bringing a whole community along with him. What if we all had the tools and community resources to build the world we wish exists? Perhaps DAOs are an attempt at making this true.
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