YC startup built 15,000 developers community in 2,5 months

YC startup built 15,000 developers community in 2,5 months

Maciej Budkowski, Web3 Talks: Hello Madhavan, I am very pleased to see you here.

Madhavan Malolan, Questbook: Thanks man, thank you so much for having me today. So we’re excited to what we’re going to be talking about.

Maciej: Is it the first time you talk to the general public about your project?

Madhavan: Actually, yes I have of course been tweeting about it on and off, however, I think this is going to be the first podcast per se in which I’m going to be talking about the product in detail or audio or video whatever.

Maciej: Okay, cool. I will start with my questions because like I have seen Questbook being called, an open, free digital university. I saw it on Twitter, you called it something like 15K web2 developers getting crypto gigs in their free time. And I also heard about the metaphor that you’re kind of free web3 Lambda school.

So I am wondering what’s your way of seeing your product, what’s that about?

Madhavan: Interesting. You probably picked up various descriptions that we have probably been putting out. All of them are fairly accurate in some sense of the word. However, the way that we like to describe ourselves is more like the developer community scaling solution for web3.

So right now there is a huge deficit of developers in the ecosystem, especially in web3 a huge gap in talent, and look web3 itself will not grow if there are no developers building on top of it. So we have probably a dozen thousand developers all over the world who are really seriously developing on web3.

And when you contrast that with the number of developers in the world, just like in web2, there are like 20 to 30 million people, depending on what numbers you want to count. there are 30 million developers in the world and they’re only like maybe 20,000 developers in web3. And that’s a big problem for web3 to progress forward.

Right now we keep talking about, the technology is lagging or take so much time to complete transactions, the gas fees are so high. I think in web3, the growth of web3 itself is not so much a technology problem, but there’s a more fundamental problem. I think it’s a developer mind share problem.

If you’ve not captured the developer mind share right now in the entirety of the developer ecosystem. We’ve not gotten enough people excited to come and contriube. There are a lot of smart people out of those 30 million. So many of them are really, really smart folks who are still not contributing to a web3 who are not progressing, Ethereum, Solana, Bitcoin, whatever doesn’t really matter. 

But we need to bring in more people into this ecosystem. And yeah, that’s the business we are in. Like without somebody just as Ethereum is trying to solve the scalability problem through sharding or zk-rollups. Somebody also needs to solve the developer community scaling problem, like who is doing that?

That’s where Questbook comes in and says, Hey, look, we are going to scale the developer community ecosystem so that we as web3, kind of progress making roads into the future.

Maciej: Okay. So you’re like a gateway to web3 for developers. If they want to switch or just learn the skills to do it in their free time, Questbook is the place to go.

Madhavan: Yeah, so when you talk about scaling the developer community, there are two parts to it. Right now, the biggest problem is that we just don’t have enough people in the ecosystem. So the first job is to bring in more people. We need to bring in people from web2 to web3.

So we will be helping that transition happen, helping people transition from web 2 to web3. Once that happens, we need to then provide opportunities to these people who have made that transition of sorts. It’s going to be an ever-evolving process, but how do you capture more and more mindshare of the developers, in this new crypto-economic developer ecosystem? I think that is something that is exciting us as a company. That is what we are moving towards.

Maciej: Okay. I feel that you kind of succeeded in the first part at least because what caught my attention when I was just going through different discord channels is that Questbook’s discord channel is one of the most vibrant, intense communities I’ve seen.

There’s so much going on. A lot of people talking about projects about gigs and so on. And I am wondering, how have you done it? How have you built such a big, it’s like thousands of developers talking about web2 or 3 how have you built such a community?

Madhavan: That’s a really tough question. So here’s one of the things that really worked out for us. I think all of this growth that we’ve seen on our platform has happened in the last two to two and a half months. like two and a half months, we were at probably 0 developers in our community. And now we are at about 15,000.

All of this has happened in like two, two, and a half months. And it’s not that this was when we started working. Like we’ve been trying to build this community for quite a while, but nothing was really working. But there’s one thing that worked for us and that was just giving to the community selflessly. So what we did was in the last two to three months, we’ve created a hundred tutorials, more than a hundred tutorials actually 120 we are touching now.

120 tutorials for people to transition from web2 to web3 completely free of cost. Like we’ve just given it away. And I’ve been in this ecosystem from 2015, 2016. So I kind of like, I’m a hardcore developer in this space. I know the technology pretty much. So I just sat down and wrote all these tutorials along with a few of my teammates and just give them out for free.

All of our content is there on Github. Not only is it free, but we’ve also taken a stance that, “Hey, learning on Questbook is always going to be free and we don’t want to charge for it”.

And I think that was the insight that we’ve stumbled upon in the process. That is the only way to build a community is to give selflessly, like just give, give, give, like in the last two, two and a half months, not once have we thought about, “Hey, how are we going to make money out of this? Where will this take us? What will we do with 15,000 developers?”

All of that is a non-conversation at the company, at least in the initial few days, the intent is to just give selflessly to the community. And that’s the only way to build a community then opportunities on top of it will open up happy to talk about that also on this call if you deem it appropriate.

But yeah, the only way that worked for us to build the community is to like, just selflessly give, give. And if anybody of your audiences like trying to figure out how to build a community, I think that’s the only way.

One more thing I should definitely call out is a mistake that we made in the early days was to try and hire a community manager.

“Hey, we want to build a community. Let’s go get a community manager.” We worked with some really, really talented folks but it didn’t really click. It really didn’t take off. But the inflection point came about when two of my co-founders, Sriharsha and Abhilash kind of took over and said, “Hey, you know what? Let us control this company. We are required”.

That’s when that inflection point came around and now Sriharsha my co-founder spends 16 to 18 hours every single day on Discord. That’s what he does for a living now. Like he spends time on Discord and just like continuously answering doubts, helping people navigate through our Discord, connecting people in the Discord, just having fun conversations. 

Every single day we have these live sessions at 7:00 PM ISD in which every day we have these 200 odd people who join our community and we have an onboarding session for them saying again “Hey, welcome to the community. Here’s what you can do. Here are the opportunities. Here are the people that you can hang around with.”

And all of that’s done by Sriharsha like, I will not take any credit for this. And he’s the guy who is running the show. He’s the guy who’s built out the entire community. These are the two good insights. I think one is just to give selflessly to the community. And the second is a co-founder who has skin in the game stepping up and spending 16 to 18 hours every single day on Discord is what has made the company happen.

Maciej: Yeah. When you said that, I was thinking about the parallel between that and web2 startups because in a web2 the standard idea is to have Hacker. 

That was called this product and a hustler like a guy who does marketing and sales and so on. I’m wondering whether in the web3 it’s like, okay, Hacker, is there but the other person and is not a marketing or salesperson per se, but it’s more like a community manager. Community manager might become a new, marketing and salesperson and web3 startups. 

Madhavan: Yeah in a web3 startup. I think the community person has to be a co-founder. Just like in the past, we’ve always talked about whenever you’re building a company, you need to have a technical co-founder. It’s a non-negotiable in most of startups.

I think the same way in web3, a community manager needs to be a co-founder. I think there are no two ways about it. Because web3  is all about cultures. It’s all about communities without a community web3 does not exist. Bitcoin does not exist without a community. Ethereum does not exist without a community. It’s because all of us believe in Bitcoin, all of us believe in Ethereum is the sole reason it even exists. So yeah community is super, super important. I think it would be foolish for any quote-unquote web3 project to try and build this without somebody owning up the community completely.

Maciej: Okay. Thanks a lot. It was very interesting. So,  you said that you don’t think about making money yet, or you just want to give to the community. But d you have any rough idea what might be the Questbook’s business model in the next 6, 12, 18 months?

Madhavan: Small correction, before I answer that, it’s not that we don’t think about making money. Like we cannot sustain this if you don’t make money, we’re not going to sustain. So we do think about making money, but the context in which I made that previous statement is when you’re building community, we need to give selflessly and believe in ourselves that hey, once the community starts to form business models will start to unlock.

And that’s the belief with which we operated. We didn’t like try to take everything to a business model. That’s something that we stayed away from very deliberately. And now that the community is beginning to form, all of these business models are coming inbound to us now. 

So what has now happened is there are all these developers. So if you think about it, there are about 20,000 developers in the world who know crypto and we in our community have 15,000 people. So we are almost single-handedly doubling the number of developers in web3 around the world. If all of these web developers turned out to be contributors to core projects, we would have, single-handedly doubled the number of developers in the world.

When such a rich community exists, that in itself becomes the asset. So now there are opportunities that are coming to these developers. Because these developers are all in one place.

Like there are side gigs like what you were mentioning earlier. There are a lot of these companies who are coming and offering side gigs to the developers in our ecosystem. There are all of these, companies that are trying to come and hire. That’s, probably the tweet that you were referring to when you said, hey, we are Lambda school for web3. 

So all of these business models are beginning to evolve. However, that is something that is also unique about web3 that’s beginning to happen. That is there are, all of these protocols, right? Like you have Ethereum you have Solana, you have Neo, you have Polygon.

All of these protocols need more developers to build on top of them. That’s when the underlying protocol underlying chain kind of accrues value. And this is fundamental to crypto. This is fundamental to composability like everything that you build in crypto is fundamentally composable. That is a layer on top of layer on top of layer.

And these people are willing to encourage more developers to come and build via grants, via bounties, and stuff like that. So this does happen in the web2 world also in some cases you have Microsoft, Google who do pay out some bounties, but in web3 it’s rampant, it’s almost the default mode of operation.

You see a lot of grants people want to incentivize building on top of Solana, building on top of the Polygon. Because that’s when the entire ecosystem kind of starts to accrue value. Those are the various business models that have now coming inbound to us.

So, in 6 to 12 months, we are going to be agile. I think that’s our business model. The business we are in is in scaling the developer community for web3 and connecting them to the best opportunities that exist in the market right now. Like today that might be a business model that might enable the best opportunities for our developers, for our community.

Maybe six months down the line that might change, maybe we are in a bear market, and the kind of capital available goes down. There’s a different kind of opportunity that will spin up over there. Then our business will be like connecting our developers to those kinds of opportunities, which are now specific to that blip in time.

Maciej: Yeah. I’ve seen some matchmaking being done on your Discord channel. I don’t know whether it was done by any moderator, but it felt very natural that someone says, “Okay, I have this kind of gig. I can give it to you.”.

And I’m wondering about this job offer that you made on Twitter. It was pretty, like … I sent it to my friend, this developer and he said, “Holy f**k like what?”

Because like for people who haven’t seen it, it’s like, yeah, like I’m looking for, someone doing like web3 blockchain kind of stuff, blah, blah, blah compensation is 2X of your present compensation. Like how it’s even possible?

Madhavan: Actually there is something even more specific about that tweet.

What I mentioned in that tweet is “Look on Questbook we have quests. If you have done 5 quests, I’ll not take an interview. No technical interview. Just one call with me for 20 minutes and I’ll 2X whatever your current salary is.

In fact, we rolled out that offer within probably eight hours of me making that tweet. So that was interesting because what’s happening there is number one, the talent is scarce. There’s no way I can attract the best minds without, beating the competition, that is a demand-supply problem we appreciate it. Like when in Rome, live like a Roman. Like, yeah, we’ve got to play by the rules.

The reason that I put it out is because I trust the content that we’ve created. If you’ve done 5 quests on our platform, I’m very confident that you understand the basics. You may not be an expert, but that’s okay. Like you understand the basics.

You’ve at least gotten accustomed to the mental models and, there’s no way you can do 5 quests on Questbook without being interested in web3. So I also know for a fact that, “Hey, you are interested in web3 if you’ve done 5 quests on Questbook”.

So all of those things kind of came together and it didn’t make sense for me to do technical interviews because I already know that they have completed 5 quests. I know that they have already written code. So it’s pretty straightforward.

I know on a, on a quick call and we will see if they are bluffing it or if they’ve cheated or something. That’s the only thing that I checked on the 20-minute call and also a little bit of cultural fit. But other than that, that’s not too much I had to check because I already knew the technical capabilities and I was willing to pay 2X the amount because well, good talent is scarce. And I stuck to it. By the way, it was not a hollow tweet. We actually followed through, we made the hire.

Maciej: That’s cool it sounds very different from typical tech interviews. And I’m wondering how have you– because I’ve tried this Questbook, but I’m not a – as I said to you – when we were chatting on Discord like, I’m not the dev. I know how to code more or less, but, I’m not professional by any means.

So I was wondering, how do you check, whether they finished? Like, do you store it on some blockchain or is it connected to their Github? 

Madhavan: We’ve launched an app in which people can write code directly on mobile phones, by the way. Fun fact we’ve not made the public announcement yet, but you guys hear it on this podcast first.

We have the way to read through the Quest, actually write code on mobile. And we have a mechanism to test whether you’ve actually written the code that was required of you.

And once the code kind of succeeds, you actually pass the test, we give you an NFT. And that NFT resides on the blockchain. So there’s always a permanent record now that, hey you know a few concepts from, let’s say, Ethereum, Solana, whatever, depending on the quest that you’ve done.

Maciej: And you don’t do this kind of very common web3 strategy, which is like, airdrop tokens do a lot of referrals and so on. At least I haven’t seen it yet, but I am wondering how to acquire new users apart from this viral growth that you experienced by just giving selflessly stuff to learn.

Madhavan:  Hey, so thanks for answering the question. I think the trick was in giving selflessly, but there are a couple of things that work in our favor.

Number one is there just doesn’t exist good content out there for you to get started in web3. So just putting out the content and putting it free of cost, attracted a lot of eyeballs.

People were probably searching for it couldn’t find anything. Interestingly, a lot of people are searching for this on Twitter. People are searching, not on Google people are searching on Twitter and landing up on Questbook. And that was quite an insight for us.

So yeah. How did we grow? I think the initial sort of people came to us because there was not much other content available. I think that’s how people came in. And then once people started liking this, they started tweeting about it and probably sharing our links in other Discords, we get a lot of traffic from Discord as well.

So yeah, basically the community kind of sharing about us on social media, on other Discords. That’s what kind of– we do not like explicitly incentivize them to. At least not in terms of coins. We do give them a high five once in a while for referring their friends. But that’s about it.

Maciej: That’s an interesting thing that you said about Twitter because it’s very point on. For me whenever I’m looking for something about web3, I look on Twitter. Twitter is a discovery machine for web3 stuff. Google is not. Cecause Google is delayed. It needs like SEO needs to work for quite a long time. You wait for like a month for five or seven to get positioned and Twitter is instant.

So whenever something’s popular, I think Twitter might be a very interesting way of acquiring users on web3. Taking care of your profile, taking care of the founder’s profiles as well. Very interesting take.

Okay. So I got another question like as far as I understand, you’re a pretty community-driven company. You listen to people a lot. And I’m wondering, do you have any plans with further decentralization, like turning into a DAO or something like that or not? And if you do why and if you don’t, why as well?

Madhavan: Hey, for sure that’s a really good question. We will be de-centralizing completely. However, now we need to look at this from the perspective of the problem that we trying to solve. The problem that we’re trying to solve is “Solve the developer community scaling problem that we have in crypto”.

So now we need to do what it takes to bring in more developers or make the community more vibrant. And we’re always going to make the decision based on what will give us the maximum reach, the fastest. How can we deliver more value back to the community.

So right now it might be premature for us to like completely decentralize and it’ll actually slow us down. And we are cognizant of it, even though ethos level.  We are still operating pretty decentralized. We are still, I wouldn’t say completely decentralized but we are still operating like community first, at least, which is a major step towards decentralization itself.

So we are laying the foundations, but the moment that we think that, “Hey, our growth is getting stifled by the fact that we are centralized” is when we need to pull the trigger and say, okay, “Hey, we are now ready for decentralizing because that is how we’ll be able to reach more people faster and bring them into web3, give them that opportunity faster”. That’s when we’ll make that decision.

And it looks like very much in the near future. We are well on track. That’s as much as I think I can reveal at this point, but, we definitely have the plans but we are also cognizant of the fact that completely decentralizing it prematurely is going to be a bad, bad decision.

Maciej: Okay. And do you have any investors or are you bootstrapped? Like how does it work?

Madhavan: We have, investors, we have done equity rounds. So this includes Y Combinator. We went to Y Combinator in winter 21. And our investors include CEOs of large companies here in India, like Flipkart and Academy, Redbus, Michaud. So these are all like multibillion-dollar companies here in India. So, we’re very lucky to have those investors on our cap table.

Maciej: Yeah. Great to hear that. So we are getting to the end, so I have 3 more questions for you. One is – what’s the funniest thing that happened during the development of Questbook so far?

Did you have any, crazy situations that just blew your mind or made you laugh a lot?

Madhavan: What has made me laugh a lot? A much easier question is what has made me cry a lot instead of what has made me laugh.

Maciej: You can share both.

Madhavan: No crying is easy. Like just, just the lack of… how poorly structured web3 documentation is onboarding is that definitely made me cry.

What made me laugh or what made me really happy is a lot of people young people are coming in and building very, very ambitious projects. And when I say young people these are teenagers people who are like 13 years old, 14 years old who are building projects that.. if you look at the projects, you won’t even guess that this has been built by a 13-year-old, 14-year-old. Like top, top class projects.

And I think that’s also the opportunity that web3 brings in. Given the stage at which we are like very, very early in web3 you can become the world’s best web3 programmer in less than two to three months. But if you want to become the world’s best NodeJS developer or Java developer, probably like six years.

So yeah, that’s something that I’ve fallen in love with like how early we are in this ecosystem and how this technology itself is such an enabler for great talent across the board. That’s something that I’ve been super delighted with.

Maciej: Cool. And you mentioned ambitious projects and what’s the most mind-blowing web3 project that you’ve seen so far? Something that you said, like “How they connected these dots, like how it like even happening?”

Madhavan: Yeah, for sure. My favorite pro like, oh damn I need pick one. There are 2 I love to projects like very, very dearly.

I love the Loot project, like when I looked at it and it was so refreshing for me to see the fact that you actually do not need to connect all the dots.  Like it’s a very open-ended project. It leaves it to the community to imagine all of these things on top of it.

In fact as soon as the Loot project launched within the next 24 hours, I launched a game on top of it. Like I just, yeah, it’s, there, on Github. It’s also deployed to, I spend like $200 deploying that game to the mainnet which won’t be played, unfortunately. But anyways, like it captured my attention. Like it made my day that day, quite literally. Loot project is one that completely captured my imagination. 

The other is the Nouns Project, Nouns Project is also like, it’s a beautiful game, like game in the sense that it looks like a toy from the outside. Like why are people buying those weird-looking profile pictures?

But I think there’s something deeply, fundamentally groundbreaking in what Nouns Project has done. And I think it’s a precursor to the future.

Maciej: Okay, perfect. Thank you a lot. So we are getting to the end and I have one question who do you think I should invite next? Do you know any people that run cool web3 projects and would be a good fit for this kind of conversation that we had?

Madhavan: For sure. Have you talked to Rohit Goyal from Mesh Finance? 

Maciej: Oh no I haven’t talked to him.

Madhavan: Oh wow. You should. You should 100% talk to Rohit Goyal from MESH Finance. He is one of the most idealistic web3 builders that I have seen and very grounded as well. Great guy to talk to. I think you’ll enjoy that conversation Rohit Goyal from MESH finance.

Maciej: Okay. I will try. I haven’t heard about Mesh finance. Could you also describe it in a few words?

Madhavan: Mesh Finances de-centralizing DeFi development. Or bringing DeFi to masses as he brought [Inaudible 27:00] which they started off the are very young. I think they are only a few months in, so that’s probably why you haven’t interacted with them as much.

The coolest thing about Mesh Finance is it’s by two co-founders and they made a decision that they never going to hire. So all of the development on Mesh Finance is actually going to be done by the community. So I’m going to be following them closely to see how that kind of pans out Rohit Goyal from Mesh finance.

Maciej: I will try, it sounds very intriguing to just let the community develop. Very open-sourceish, kind of idea. So I’m very happy to follow that.

Okay. So thanks a lot for this half an hour that we had, and I’m very glad to have this conversation. It was very refreshing.

Madhavan: I hope so I don’t know if I answered all your questions to your liking, but I did try my best, but it was good fun, great fun. Thank you for, asking really good questions to the point. I appreciate the kind of podcast that we just had. 

Maciej: Thanks a lot. Have a good day.

Madhavan: Thanks Maciej See you then.



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