My Architect career and its end
I had been working for 5 years as an architect. I designed public buildings, participated in urban plannings, and had golden clients in both Europe and China. No matter where I went, I was treated as a top professional. I failed no one.
But by autumn of 2019, it started to bubble inside me. My friends were so careful to bring up the question: “Why are you so unsatisfied?”
On the surface, everything in my architect life looked divine. I worked in solid studios, opened my own studio, enough clients. But after one hard working day in the office and finally coming back home and sitting in the darkness, it started to peel out. “Is that so?” It felt like an illusion, a security play. A self-taught lie that I was happy.
I've always been a thinker and a problem solver. Even back in my school days, I handed my thesis by raising the right question without a single building designed, and it created a great impact and earned me honor. As the old saying goes, “Choice is more important than effort”, and potential impact starts with asking the right question.
In my Master’s study in Politecnico di Milano, being radical always has a reason and a rational exit to it. Even back then, I questioned the tools the university thought and the industry used. The collaborations between stakeholders in real estate were just dated and not suitable to shape modern society anymore.
Here is a snippet of the conclusion from my Master’s thesis (Page 110–111):
And another snippet:
This is the reason why the formalistic city, as we used to consider it, becomes irrelevant. Or as the name of the thesis: “The city does not exist”.
Revisiting my thesis, I was fascinated by how accurately we raised the questions years ago. Five years of actual architecture practice just proved our visionary findings.
Undeniable, I was about to leave architecture. It felt like a breakup. A betrayal, almost. But losing the meaning to build, I needed to clear my head. So, I left the studio I founded in 2019 and bid farewell to all my great colleagues. I was venturing out to the unknown.
The reunion with reading
Without work, I felt foreign.
I thought I would enjoy the freedom like the desert meets the falling rain. However, soon I came to the realization of Sartre’s famous quote:
I was a passionate reader since a teenager. I'd read one book per day if I could. I can't recall the exact time my passion for reading went away. It was replaced by a young adult’s ego trying to prove to the world a thousand things, or the hit from reality on how difficult it was to make a living. I started telling people with a smirk and a broken heart that I’m a hypocritical reader. Meaning, I say I love reading, but I no longer read much.
So in this transition period, I went to my balcony every day and made sure to open a book. And it never failed. It felt like a reunion.
One day the book was from Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” He started the book with despair, and confronted the anxiety and absurdity of life, but he did not advocate its madness. Yes, time is limited, but human beings can embrace the romance, the passion, and the adventure of philosophers, just like Sisyphus did, and finally become a happy man.
I wonder how much love towards life and people it took him to have such courage to discuss such an issue. Beautiful, but unreachable.
A hidden question inside just got answered: Why would people suffer to work, and how to search for meaning. The short answer was by offering oneself a proactive responsibility, we become our own meaning definer and the owner of our lives.
Meanwhile, some interesting thoughts came along. Blockchain was my hobby area for quite some time. I had crypto friends hanging out weekly and talking about funny facts in the space.
One day, I made a crazy association. I had discussed blockchain mechanics with my friends, Proof-of-Work vs Proof-of-Stake specifically, which was a hit topic back then. Later I further studied the topic myself. I started to think of reading as Proof-of-Work just like in Bitcoin mining. Instead of wasting electricity, people would gain something out of it.
I asked myself:
A Utopian wish. But it hit strong.
That day, I wrote fast:
“When this work gets captured by the network and utilized to make information more accessible, your reading time achieves consensus or connectivity. This connectivity is the foundation of value. That’s the square value of time, that’s t².”
The first page of t2
The next day, I wrote the first one-pager of t². I discussed what is the human’s essence value compared to AI. How to design a new consensus regarding the values of human existence, and potentially how to monetize it with blockchain technology, so that people would no longer lose their living when AI replaces 90% of the job market. Instead, they could just do what they like and get paid like a universal income.
I showed that one-pager to my husband, “Nice fiction.” he said.
But it did not stop there. In the next six months, I studied around 50 blockchain whitepapers. I sat in all the available cafes in my neighborhood, and wrote down my initial solution for the addressed question. I utilized all blockchain tools I found suitable from my solo deep research.
It took me a long time. It almost felt like writing a thesis from an academic year but without any colleagues. But there it was: t2’s white paper version 0.1.
It was 35 pages, without even a single chart or diagram, pure writing. It was a novel basically. That was August 2020. And after touring all the cafes and sipping away the flat whites, I was left with 100 dollars in my savings. Before any big opportunity hit, the covid pandemic hit first, and life was like a tornado.
I shared the paper with a couple of friends, and the common feedback looked like this:
Here’s some difficult questions that arose through the writing work:
How to know if someone really reads it? Hard to prove, unless you install some chip in people’s heads.
Rewarding everyone means rewarding no one. The forever inflating token model preserves no value.
After the book or article has been read thousands of times, there is no new value to be accumulated from curation.
These questions had to be addressed. I started to build up expertise through my crypto friends.
Reaching out to old friends
In order to keep pushing this thesis, I needed some money to support myself. In the next four months, I designed three interiors in Shanghai to help with my cash flow. Thanks to my previous colleagues and happy clients, getting some solo projects was not difficult.
Sarcasm — after four months, one of the cafes I designed became a city sensation and even won a local design award. Many new clients approached all of a sudden as if architecture was trying to win me back one last time.
But some big decisions were made. I needed a team of experts to work on the t2 thesis. So I contacted everyone I could ever think of and browsed through all contacts on my phone, including Stephen, my high school classmate. He had turned out to be the tech lead in Facebook living in Seattle.
We hadn't spoken in more than a decade. I still remember when he came back to me the next day after I sent him the t2 whitepaper: “This is fantastic. Everything can be built.” That was the most positive feedback I heard in the past year.
Since then, Stephen joined me in the work. He was followed by some of his other friends in tech, who were all top professionals in their fields, including game theory, data simulation, and artificial intelligence. To have their eyes on it was magical. Everything started to form a solid base that it would just work out like imagined. It only needed a bit of development from the tech perspective.
As expected, in March 2021, the t2 Whitepaper v1 was done, with a better-elaborated product vision and economy design and quite an ambitious technical solution. Right after that, I made the first t2 pitch deck.
On the business side, though, there still wasn't any light. It was out of my reach and others’ responsibilities to reach out for resources. Again, there was that familiar helpless feeling, as if I was a blind person riding a blind horse crossing a deep pond in the middle of the night.
However, I could still hear Camus shouting:
Creating my own luck
It was already mid-2021. The question was simple: “You want to do it or not.” If the answer is yes, turn off all self-reflections and ego, reach out and strive for resources. Be selfless.
In mid-2021 I ran into Illia Polosukhin (co-founder of NEAR) on an afternoon during a crypto meetup. I used all my courage and charm, opened my laptop and started pitching him the idea. I had no expectations except a cute conversation, but it went great, surprisingly natural. Illia’s follow-up questions and feedback were spot on and valuable. I couldn't have asked for anything more.
Not long after, I raised the first $50k from my two crypto friends that I was initially too shy to ask them for. When I finally did and offered them the pitch and deal, one of them was like: “Mengyao, all you need is to ask. We have seen how you worked for the past year, it’s a great thing you are building. Just let us know how we can help.”
Looking back, this $50k provided us with a 6-month runway, delivered us a demo product, opened entities, and paid the lawyers drafting our legal documents. Most importantly, I built a deeper bond with my two angels, that are still advising me today.
On the other side, an unintentionally planted seed sprouts. I got an email from Corey from the Open Web Collective accelerator program, asking if t2 wanted to have a call to be one of their batch 3 participants. And surprisingly, it was Illia from NEAR, that gave us the introduction.
What a worthwhile crypto meetup. :)
Entering the Open Web Collective (OWC) accelerator & raising the funding
My utopian wish of ‘How could people get paid by reading’ never stopped evolving.
Long story short, we entered the OWC accelerator and made so many great friends who helped us tons, and the whole project moved much further.
They not only supported the t2 economy and defined the product, but they also introduced us to a bunch of great investors in the blockchain space.
After three months of full speed development with the OWC family and our cohorts, finally we presented at the Demo Day.
I still remember last year’s fall with my friend Carl driving back to Shanghai. He was trying so hard to understand my motives for building a start-up. He knew me well — outrageous success and fortune were never in my book, to pay such sweat and blood for that long.
I didn't know where to start. Camus was too profound, the whitepaper was too long, and the pain and gain were too precise. So instead, I told him my memory of the 18-year-old me: romantic, effortless. Solitude was a blessing rather than a burden. I had the strongest desire to express myself. I wrote all those beautiful self-invented stories with such ease, and read during midnight with laughter or tears, and then pretended it had never happened. “Do what you love”, the last whisper I got from my deepest dreams, where she was still around.
Carl stayed silent for a minute and said, “So, you are building a life you could hardly have, for others, so you could cure yourself, ultimately.”
How clever. Something I would never dare to say but would give it all. Even to exchange for a related uncertainty.
The last few weeks
During the last few weeks, we’ve been building a stellar team, defining the product and economy. I’ve been meeting more and more amazing people in the space to keep getting inspired with potential collaboration. It has been a tough but fulfilling period, beautiful, but achievable as well.
I can hardly believe the journey we’ve already travelled since I wrote the humble first page of t2’s white paper. Currently, it almost feels like the myth of life as Paulo Coelho wrote in The Alchemist:
We'll have positive news to be announced soon.