Rocket Science: Colin Johnson
The Freeport co-founder on communal ownership of fine art, sports as a cultural import, and the most overused phrase in Web3.
Colin Johnson is the founder of Freeport, a blockchain-friendly platform that allows users to invest in, collect and display fractional fine art.
What’s your favorite wall decoration in your home?
It’s a sort of mandala, an Eastern design with intricate circles and overlays and wooden carve-outs. I am a fan of artwork and I’m a fan of Eastern religions, and I found it to be so elegant. It’s also massive, and I like big, bold, massive things.
What’s the most unexpected lesson you’ve learned as a founder?
The most unexpected lesson was likely that it could be both so easy and so hard to raise money. When we first launched, we cut off the first round because we’d almost doubled the target raise and we thought, “Well, we’ll just raise at some point in the future.”
It was so easy, it took us three days to almost double the first raise. And then the markets all tumbled and we found out that raising is not quite so easy in down markets. We still found success, but it’s been interesting to be on both sides of that seesaw.
When you give people the proverbial elevator pitch for Freeport, what do you say?
We’re allowing people to purchase incredibly rare and expensive fine art they could never have afforded before. And we’re allowing them to engage with it like true collectors would, not just as someone who has a financial incentive.
What was the “aha” moment when you thought fractional investing was gonna be the path for Freeport, and for you?
It started with the very idea of crypto. Tokenization is a group concept, right? We all own tokens in a thing because we believe in it. Uniswap, Aave, SushiSwap, financial tokens … we believe the protocol is doing something of value, and that value can aggregate to us as collective owners of the thing.
Airbnb or Uber are examples of different kinds of communal ownership. “I’ll share my ride with you, or I’ll share my home with you, temporarily.” Crypto introduced the idea of tokens that represent all these things. Historically there were things like stocks, but you weren’t really involved with the company you own stocks in, right? It wasn’t your belief system represented by a token.
But crypto did that. Here’s a concept, and you represent your belief in this concept by virtue of owning these tokens. That’s where fractionalization set the light bulb off in my head. We can all show we’re part of this community by virtue of owning these things on a public ledger.
When we looked at doing it with artwork, the real rationale was like, “It’s kind of bullshit that historically only the wealthiest have had access to fine art, both to look at it but also for the financial upside. What approach can we take to allow more people to access this thing that’s awesome?”
Much like crypto, tokens represent belonging to a community. Our fractional artwork represents your own ownership, your own belief in the art itself, and your ability to connect with other people who own it.
What’s the most overused phrase in Web3?
“We’re all gonna make it.” WAGMI. A very frequently-used, untrue phrase.
Also, the word “decentralization.” The fundamental philosophical aspect of its meaning is very important. However, without describing its importance in an understandable way, it becomes tenuous.
Decentralization, in my mind at least, removes a historically prerequisite layer of trust in some other institution. So, rather than E-Trade telling you you own a specific thing, ownership is actually distributed amongst many thousands of nodes that tell you you own that specific thing and no one of them can take it away from you.
The power of that will only become relevant once centralized institutions start abusing their power, and people will realize a decentralized platform is absolutely necessary.
What is the biggest misconception people have about NFTs?
Different groups have different misconceptions. The “in” crowd, people who have NFTs, have the misconception that the value of the thing they own goes beyond their community or goes beyond hype.
Hype is ok sometimes, as art often needs the hype projected by certain social groups. But that community misappropriates the idea of “utility,” and oftentimes they don’t want to admit it’s very much culturally hype-based.
But then the folks who aren’t in Web3 who just see the word “NFT” and automatically think “scam” are completely glossing over the fundamental value of what an NFT is. It’s a permanent receipt that lives on a decentralized ledger. And because we know there’s an absolute history that cannot change, NFTs represent that absolute history.
An NFT is symbolic of decentralization. It allows us to have faith in a digital system that isn’t reliant on a third party.
When you were naming Freeport, was your initial inspiration from video games? Was it piracy? Where’d the name Freeport come from?
You hit the nail on the head. It’s very much inspired by the video games of my youth, and we liked the two-syllable sharpness of it.
We researched the idea of free ports throughout history, and it turns out they are these locations existing in tax-exempt zones where the wealthiest people in the world trade art back and forth so they don’t have to pay taxes on it. They’re all over: Singapore, Switzerland, even Delaware.
We’re subverting this idea a little, trying to bring art out of these enclosed places and allowing people to access and invest in it, as opposed to them just being hidden away forever.
Between Premier League viewership, Wrexham, Ted Lasso, etc., what do you think about the rise of English football interest in America?
Are you asking this because I’m an investor in WAGMI United? Yes, I think it’s high time other countries had cultural exports that actually impacted the U.S. in a significant way.
It’s all been one-directional with us exporting our sports. I’m a big fan, and I go with a group of friends to Atlanta United games all the time. I decided to hop onto that train and it is wildly, wildly exciting. I’m waiting for cricket as an export too. I love the idea of going to a cricket match, and it’s impossible right now.
I also think folks in the US really like the idea of being first and being cool before other people are cool. You can still get away with that with soccer in the U.S., but not for long.
What’s a piece of art, any genre, that inspires you?
I’m gonna reveal a little bit of my nerdiness here, but I was a huge Lord of the Rings fan growing up. I have probably read that trilogy more so than any other trilogy.
It inspires me because it gives such a pure sense of what is right and what’s wrong, and what it takes to be a good character versus a bad character. Unlike, say, Game of Thrones. All the characters are effectively good and bad in a lot of different ways.
But the ability to sort of twist the tale around people who are perpetually brave and courageous and who overcome all odds in the hopes of helping other people – right? – not helping themselves, that, I can come back to time and time again and still feel sort of a hint of inspiration.
What’s your favorite outdoor space?
That one’s easy. I go to New Hampshire every year with my family. We’ve gone up there since we were small kids, to a tiny town called Randolph. You can just pop out of the front door and walk up trails right alongside the house. You can go all the way to the top of the White Mountain range — Mount Washington, Mount Madison, Mount Adams.
It’s incredibly peaceful there. It’s unlike Colorado or Lake Tahoe or a lot of locations in California where people recognize the beauty and decide to move there and live there forever.
New Hampshire is still relatively untouched by all that. It’s not super wealthy. You can be out in the wilderness, soak up Emerson or Thoreau moments by lakes or ponds or streams, and not be overcrowded by society too much. It’s a good way to get away from electronics.
What’s a non-digital thing you own that’s designed really well?
We have a long, Viking-style table with dark wood I bought, actually, in San Francisco and liked enough to ship across the country to Atlanta. It feels like it’s 800 years old, like they pulled something together that brings the essence of this long-ago time.
You can do a podcast on anything, what would it be?
Ok, even though I need to learn a lot more about it, AI, for sure.
I think it’s going to be blowing up at such an insane rate. There are going to be so many interesting use cases and so many people in different technologies that touch it. There will be an endless amount of content. It’s very important people understand what the implications are going to be.
Give us a book recommendation.
I just finished Zero to One by Peter Thiel. I have conflicting opinions about Peter Thiel on a lot of things, some of which are political. But when it comes to describing what’s necessary to start a company, scale it, then actually make it profitable, he builds the narrative in such a way that makes you feel empowered as a founder.
Another really good one is Ogilvy on Advertising. Ogilvy, one of the founders of Ogilvy & Mather, is pretty old school. But he has a core grasp of how to describe what people want and how to speak to people in a simple, effective fashion.
Give us your favorite small museum or art space.
It’s not really small, but the High Museum here in Atlanta is actually a fantastic, fantastic place. On the first Friday of every month, they have a big dance party and thousands of people show up.
It’s consistently an incredible time and an incredible party, and a brilliant way to get younger people into the museum ecosystem.