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ConsenSys: 'Everyone has a piece of the Web3 pie'

This is a conversation between Coin98 and Marouen Zelleg, Director of Strategic Accounts at Consensys - the company behind MetaMask.
10 min read
Published Aug 09 2023
Updated Apr 10 2024
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The recent GM Vietnam event was an opportunity to attract popular figures in the crypto industry to come to Vietnam and talk about the future of blockchain. Marouen Zelleg, who is the Director of Strategic Accounts at Consensys, the company behind MetaMask, is one such figure. Zelleg was open and kept telling jokes during his conversation with Coin98 Insights, but also showed that he is very serious about what he is pursuing.

The Spotlight is a series of conversations between Coin98 and industry builders about hot topics in the market.

stay fresh or become the uncle selling fax machines
You earned a master’s degree in computer science at a French university, then worked for cloud computing companies to build applications and systems. What motivated you to get into crypto?

Zelleg: I am from a computer science background, so you can consider me a bit of a geek and a nerd.

At the cloud companies I worked for, the primary trend was digital transformation. People were trying to reform the business by moving paper processes into employee and e-commerce apps. I found it to be quite interesting for a while.

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But after turning 30, I started to ask: How long do I have to work? If all goes well, maybe 2-3 more decades. I realized that if I stayed in this industry, I could become the uncle who still sells fax machines today because he didn't upskill or change his domain.

Then, I came across a Gartner report (2020) about emerging technologies like AI and blockchain, which are predicted to reach their peak in about 10-15 years. I knew it was time to leave and learn something new: crypto. Maybe I will spend 10 years here and then continue to explore other areas. I think the most important thing is to keep yourself fresh.

You’re from Tunisia, which experienced the Arab Spring movement with seemingly important changes in government. However, you said that, in retrospect, this resulted in the same system with different faces. How do you think the decentralized vision in crypto helps with what is happening in your country? 

Zelleg: I'm going back to Tunisia for a holiday, so I have to be careful with my words. I don't want to be stuck at the airport (laughing).

Tunisia is a third-world country and it has growth and social problems. For example, you can't bring money out of the country easily. If you want to travel abroad, you can only bring a maximum of $1,000/year.

This restriction creates unemployment because businesses cannot spend money to buy equipment from abroad to expand their business. One of the consequences is that Tunisians illegally immigrate to European countries in the hope of a better life. This situation is not only happening in Tunisia, but also in many other countries, and it shows that these systems are broken.

This is where blockchain technology lights up a glimmer of hope, eliminating the need for central authorities (be it a bank, government, or corrupt official) and allowing everyone in the world to connect, trade, build, or do whatever they want.

Before knowing about the existence of Web3, I already had this thought. Around 2016, while running in Singapore, I wondered: What if there was a society where people could define rules through software and get rewarded based on their contributions? I started asking my friends: “Do you want to join my utopia? You will be citizen number three.”

One day someone asked me if I had ever heard of Ethereum. And, that was my light-bulb moment, as I found in Ethereum what I had long cherished: decentralization, a lack of borders, the ability to bring people together, coding into smart contracts, and tokens as a reward for governance.

You've been in Web3 for a while and are still optimistic about this space. It hasn't become dystopian yet?

Zelleg: I was a crypto and blockchain user for a few years before officially joining this space by joining ConsenSys. Of course, when you work for a Web3 company, it becomes your daily life. And, I've had a long learning journey.

Of course, when you work for a Web3 company, it becomes your daily life.
Marouen Zelleg, Director of Strategic Accounts at Consensys

When I first joined this space, I thought everything was ready. However, after talking to people much smarter than me, looking at what they're building, and seeing what's missing, I realize there's still a lot of work to be done.

So, this is not a story about optimism or pessimism, but reality. It’s also shown in the fact that we always ask the same question over and over again: Does this particular project really need blockchain?

users no longer need a centralized exchange
Talking about ConsenSys, not long before the launch of Linea, the company's ZK-rollup solution for scaling Ethereum, Polygon and Matter Labs also launched their own zkEVMs. What do you think about this competition?

Zelleg: I think this is good news because you can't build a good product without competition. However, calling it competition is probably a bit of a stretch. The pie in the Web3 space is huge. There's enough room for people to come and build good products.

There was a time when many chains announced they would replace Ethereum. This was a necessary testing phase that helped us learn a lot because Ethereum has some limitations, especially in terms of scalability.

And, here's what's going on with the Arbitrum and Optimism rollups: they're solving real problems. For example, you can see the boom of DeFi on Arbitrum; they solve the scalability problem, but still benefit from the security of Ethereum.

There is a real need for these types of solutions, and from a development perspective, we think ZK technology is better than Optimistic rollups. But, back to being realistic, the fact that ZK is out doesn't mean it's ready. There is much to improve, especially in decentralization. To do that, you need to optimize the testnet, so that anyone can run a stack from home. And, it's important that we have multiple parties trying to solve this problem.

Another angle is that these blockchains are the infrastructure for an ecosystem. I like to think of them like cities; each project is a city serving a specific purpose. For example, you come to Ho Chi Minh City to meet developers, but if you want to go on vacation in Vietnam, you will probably choose to go to Da Nang for some beach, right?

Therefore, a scenario may exist where Polygon will provide a specific set of applications, serving a certain group of communities, while Linea serves another. Of course, we will bridge everything together, in the hope that users can have a smooth experience and no need to think about which chain they are using.

So, I think this is not a competition, but a continuous journey as we all work together to improve this technology.

Earlier this year, ConsenSys acquired HAL, a no-code blockchain development tool platform to enhance Infura's blockchain automation and notification capabilities. Why did Consensys choose to focus on building blockchain development tools with Infura?

Zelleg: Among the products ConsenSys develops, many users know and love MetaMask, but Infura and other products are equally important.

At ConsenSys, we often talk about flywheels between developers and users. If you provide the right tools, developers will use them to build apps that attract users. As a result, users will come and they will demand more from developers - which will attract more developers to come and build.

For now, our goal is to allow low-code or no-code development, so developers can build more quickly and easily. HAL is the perfect example of this. For example, with HAL, I created some notifications that alert me via Telegram if my NFT collection reaches a certain price. I did all this without touching the code because honestly it's been a long time since I last coded.

In particular, these features help everyone to be productive, both developers and non-developers. At ConsenSys, these two groups are equally important because they go hand in hand.

Speaking of NFTs, you said you used them as Christmas gifts for non-crypto friends to gauge their reactions. ConsenSys itself also has an NFT platform. So how do you think NFTs will help attract new users to the Web3 space?

Zelleg: I give NFTs to my friends and they hate them (laughing).

I think NFTs are a very important element of e-commerce. They are the fundamental thing that allows people to own and transact in the digital economy. Their applications are tremendous. Currently, you have PFPs, which are picture collections, but eventually, they will expand to tickets, ownership, and rentals.

At ConsenSys, we have an NFT team to help developers build NFTs, help creators create collections, and help users find, collect, and own NFTs without being stuck with technology. Specifically, we have Palm Network, where Netflix and other brands come to mint NFT and create collections.

By providing basic tools for people to easily interact with NFTs, I think their application will multiply and have the opportunity to attract up to a billion users.

This year, centralized exchanges like Coinbase and Binance have had many problems with the SEC. Do you think this is a good opportunity for crypto wallet development?

Zelleg: Centralized exchanges have done a great job helping make people aware of crypto and onboarding new users with good experiences. They have even gone through the regulators’ difficult requirements to get licenses to operate in many countries, so the exchanges can have on-ramps and link up with banks.

However, the ultimate purpose of our use of blockchain is to eliminate these centralized parties. So, the idea is to get to the point where we don't need these entities to support that anymore. For example, with MetaMask, we recently launched a portfolio Dapp, and in the future may add staking, on-ramping, and bridging services. These features are almost the same as in a decentralized exchange.

The end of the journey is when users think they don't need an account on a centralized exchange; they have self-custody over their assets with features on par with or even better than these centralized exchanges.

Of course, we are not there yet. There is still a lot to build in terms of capabilities, security, and user experience. But, the pressure from enforcement agencies on centralized exchanges is a signal saying: Speed up, work harder to get there faster.

before reaching out to the world
Recently, Asia, with countries like Hong Kong and Singapore, is emerging as a hotspot for crypto. A few days ago, we had a conversation with the founder of Newman Capital in Hong Kong, and he thinks Singapore is a falling star in this space. You have lived and worked for a long time in Singapore, what do you think about this?

Zelleg: I think Singapore has always shown itself as a careful regulator. They do not rush to announce or make decisions just to attract large capital without regard for the safety of users.

For example, they recently put in place a requirement for crypto service providers to segregate user assets and put them in custody solutions which are well documented. To come to this decision, they conducted a survey to get feedback from the blockchain community and had dialogues with them. I think Singapore acted in an adult and calculated way.

They can rush to open the door and allow the industry to self-regulate. But, is this a good idea? I think not. In blockchain or any industry, there are many people who don't pay attention to these issues, either because they don't look at them carefully or they don’t know. In the end, they can cause disasters and leave a bad impression of the industry for the citizens of that country, and even globally.

So, I think it's important that countries recognize the importance of digital assets and have clear regulations for them. The speed and method of regulation will vary from country to country, and we can hardly say if there is a right or wrong approach.

What do you think about the prospects of crypto in Vietnam?

Zelleg: Vietnam’s crypto awareness is one of the top rankings in Asia and the world. Looking at it from this angle, I think the market here is ripe. Vietnam has a good hub of developers, not only building services for companies in Vietnam but also abroad.

However, ideally, you should build products specifically for this market. In the early days of crypto, we had international DeFi protocols, targeting no specific country and open to everyone. But, I don't really believe in this. You have to look at the specific community you are serving. Who are you building the product for?

For example, if I were to build a DeFi protocol for Vietnam, the Philippines, or Singapore, I probably wouldn't do it the same way. If you make a product that is successful and widely used in one country, you probably have more active users than all the projects out there, as the number of active users in most Web3 projects is not very big anyway.

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If I were to build a DeFi protocol for Vietnam, the Philippines, or Singapore, I probably wouldn't do it the same way.
Marouen Zelleg, Director of Strategic Accounts at Consensys

In short, Vietnam already has a high level of crypto awareness and possesses a lot of talent to build robust systems. What remains to be explored is: What do society and the people here need? What problems can I solve just for them and then expand? If I want to apply the product to Filipinos next, I need to change it a bit. Then, if I want to apply it to Southeast Asia, I need to change it more.

If you want to grow, you grow in this fashion. This is the pattern I see in many successful companies in Southeast Asia.