The new masters of the universe are those who control the latest and greatest memes.
A secondary effect of the 2020 pandemic has been the rise of the retail YOLO investor and the crossover between social media influence and real world value creation. Gamestop, AMC, and Dogecoin are just the beginning of the new era of meme investing.
Something that might be missed by investors who use the term “YOLO investors” with derision is that this isn’t some pump and dump scheme that is duping retail investors, but a new path towards genuine value creation. Memes are low context forms of information sharing that drive virality by making it easy for meme viewers to repost and show that they “get” the meme. This in turn means that more people will see the meme and if they don’t understand why their friend has shared it, create a sense of FOMO and cause them to look up the underlying context that led to the meme’s creation. Attention is the currency of the 21st Century, and the value created by meme creators who drive attention towards their topic of choice is real.
Elon Musk, master of memes, has almost single-handedly turned Dogecoin into a legitimate cryptocurrency. Chamath Palihapitiya leveraged his reputation as “King of the SPACs” to lead the 2020/2021 SPAC wave and has created real value for himself and investors by embracing his “meme” personality. Anthony Pompliano has basically built his career around bitcoin related memes. Even legends like Warren Buffett are associated with timeless pieces of wisdom such as “be greedy when others are fearful”, which essentially amount to memes that have been repeated to the point of becoming parables:
Berkshire Hathaway is a meme stock for the generation that grew up without cell phones.— Pomp 🌪 (@APompliano) May 28, 2021
Memes are the entry point to Community
If attention is the modern day currency, then storytelling, personality-constructing, and world building are the modern day marketing strategies. A “better” product loses to a product that has a more engaged audience. Oatly is an order of magnitude more valuable than other plant-based milks for the social cache it has garnered and the personality it exudes, not because the product is much better. Peloton has a cult following and a market cap that defies any form of fundamental analysis. A16Z and places like Collaborative Fund may have been first movers, but these days almost all forward-thinking investors and companies are developing in-house content and media arms in order to cultivate their personality and embellish their reputations in a direct-to-end user landscape spread across Twitter, Podcasts, and email newsletters. They all stand to benefit from the halo they generate for themselves through content creation and curation. As Collaborative Fund’s Morgan Housel puts it as eloquently as anyone else: the Best Story Wins.
I’ve had this conversation with my roommate for the past year, @realjdowner. In the crypto-sphere, shitcoins like Dogecoin have been pumped “to the moon” thanks to the ridiculously impressive meme-army that has generated an endless amount of humorous content. Everyone knows it was created as a joke, but while it remains funny and continues to capture the attention of millions, that humor generates real value. It is different from a pump and dump scheme. The ones doing the pumping are believers, and if they can covert enough non-believers then the dump may never arrive. Meanwhile, crypto-projects like CELO or Decred have interesting technology, governance structures, and missions that sounds great on paper. But they have a fraction of the value as Dogecoin because it has struggled to attract the same levels of attention from anyone apart from a (to-date) niche audience of crypto-developers and speculators. Both projects have large treasury reserves – I argue that it would be an excellent use of capital to incentivize the creation of memes around the projects as a way of generating increased engagement from the broader crypto-world.
If memes have utility and attention is currency, then community is the end goal. Creating a true sense of belonging in the 21st Century is both the hardest and the most valuable product any person/company/organization con offer. We live in a world of abundance, but when we are no longer bound by physical or social restraints (where we live, how we choose to behave, what we do for fun) it is easy to be overwhelmed by the choices available to us and lose ourselves in anonymity. A sense of community, of belonging to something greater than ourselves, is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. But the paradox of choice in the 21st century makes it harder than ever to truly feel like we belong. I find myself torn between the real-world Ross who talks about food, coffee and restaurants all day, and the twitter-Ross who is focused on VC, Startups, Crypto, Climate Change, and e-bikes.
Memes offer an entry point to an online community of like-minded people, even when there is no other context to form the bonds of connection between random usernames and strangers, and when those people truly feel like they have found their sense of belonging, it is incredible the leverage they can utilize to make impacts in the real-world. In the internet-age, a small but laser focused-community can move markets, capture the attention of the broader media landscape, and ultimately impact policy and high-level decision makers. Crypto is a very pure form of showing the value of community – there are no intellectual property rights and I can easily copy the code on which the network runs and create an identical network, but the value is ultimately derived from the community who believe in the network – but it applies to companies who have an engaged community (Tesla, Netflix, Beyond Meat etc…) as well as politicians or celebrities who generate buzz and not just blandness (AOC and Bernie Sanders etc…).
I’ve been reflecting on this in the wake of the dogecoin run-up, but I think it also needs to apply to my Pizzeria, Pizza Paraiso. I enjoyed listening to in this Invest Like The Best episode with Jonathan Neman, founder of Sweetgreen, who stated that food is content, too, and as such needs to have all the meta context associated with it: how is it pitched to the customer? how is it packaged? what story is the customer telling themselves and their friends/colleagues when they pick that food item?
Pizza should be associated with fun, and the Pizza Paraiso Instagram account should be a representation of the fun you associate with pizza, not necessarily just about selling pizza. I want people to come to our Instagram account daily to smile at the funny memes we post that they can relate to, or to actively enjoy the chalkboard messages we put outside the shop, and only occasionally remind them that btw, we actually sell pizza. I want it to be obvious that we are just a bunch of goobers who love both pizza and the laughs that can be shared over a good pizza with friends and family.
One of the best things I’ve done recently was to hire an administrator who looks like a hard punk but has a hearty laugh that makes you feel at home. He represents both the coolness and the warmth of the place that I want to convey. The other thing I did (with KC) was to commission some of our favorite street artists to design stickers for the pizzeria that we deliver with every delivery. It is part of the personality-constructing, world-building aspect that we did just because we wanted to do something cool, but it very much fits in with the thesis of this post.
Investing in Community vs. Building Organically
My conservative side has long hesitated from investing in areas that I feel we can build organically or get by without: paid photography, paid publicity, social media influencers, fancy team uniforms, merch etc… I have always told myself that we can grow organically based on word-of-mouth publicity and our self-managed social media channels, relying on the quality of the product to do the work. I’m always happy to be patient if I see signs that we are headed in the right direction.
But if paid photography, well-designed pizza boxes, and merchandise help us shape our customer’s perspective of who we are, then it is not only a worthy investment but the right decision for building the community over the long term.
I’m am not a natural meme maker. I didn’t grow up on reddit or 4chan. But I have come to appreciate memes for their ability to create a viral cycle and build an easy jumping-off point for those looking to build or get involved with a community online. It is their low friction nature (easy to create, easy to share) and the meta context surrounding them that makes memes a true product of the internet age, and a potent community-building tool that can create real world value. To conclude true to form: