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Nick Dunford: The Maverick Who Traded Uber for the Wild World of Web3

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People leaving their lucrative careers in the pursuit of something more fulfilling is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it has become pretty commonplace in recent years. In 2022 alone, a total of 50.5 million people quit their jobs for reasons like changes in priorities, better opportunities, passion projects, etc.

Such is the case with my Humans of Web3 (HoW) guest, Nick Dunford, Director of Ecosystem Growth at Parity Technologies, the engineering organization that created Polkadot, one of the top few names dominating the global blockchain development niche today.

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Decentralized to the core, Polkadot is considered a supremely innovative project in the blockchain space. It was co-founded by Gavin Wood, co-founder of Ethereum, and is constantly striving to promote a heterogeneous multi-chain framework as a next-gen blockchain.

In fact, Polkadot has laid such a foundation that it has consistently been assuming its place in the list of the most secure, efficient, and cost-effective blockchains in the Web3 space. Additionally, it is one of the most versatile and adaptable blockchain ecosystems that has the tendency to accommodate a wide range of blockchain applications.

There will come a time when blockchain infrastructure will become a fundamental utility, much like AWS servers. Businesses will rely on this infrastructure, but it won’t necessarily be at the forefront of their identity. It shouldn’t be because, at its core, it’s infrastructure.

As the Director of Ecosystem Growth, Dunford is responsible for driving the largest business development team at Parity, charged with helping drive the growth of the Polkadot ecosystem. Many would go to unimaginable lengths to own such a crucial position at a Web3 organization of Polkadot’s stature. While that is true, it is also important to notice that many would also not easily relinquish their current roles and step into a different industry. 

However, with no relevant work experience in the Web3 space, Dunford was gutsy enough to do so. One of the key decision-makers for Polkadot today, he was once Head of Uber for Business for the ANZ region for almost 2 years before he entered the Web3 space. Being the regional Head of the world’s largest taxi company, which operates across 72 countries and has an annual turnover of over $30 billion, has its own perks and recognition.

So, what convinced Dunford to enter the Web3 space? Turns out, there is history to this decision and to unfold it, it is important to start from the very outset of his journey.

The Dunford Beginnings: From Sports to Business

Born to parents who served as university academics in Australia and blessed with the resources to make his own decisions and try and fail, Dunford chose to pursue cricket from very early on in his life. He played Australians’ favorite summer sport well into his early 20s, on a semi-professional level, until he realized that true excellence demanded more than just natural ability.

Dunford got admission to one of the best undergrad programs, Bachelor of Commerce, at Sydney University in 2004. When he got his first full-time job at an accountancy firm in 2008, he learned that contrary to what he thought, his passion lied in building things. This realization came to him courtesy of his coworker-turned-friend who offered him to become the co-founder of a well-funded pre-Uber taxi startup called Locol.

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Dunford, who possessed minimal business development (BD) experience and marketing knowledge, took the risk and joined hands. Although he gave his everything to the startup, it could not sustain itself and had to consequently shut down in 2010.

Locol may not have been a successful project for the world but it paved the way for Dunford, propelling him towards chasing a career focused on driving sales and developing businesses in the tech industry. His trajectory after leaving the startup is a classic example of linear growth.

For the next few years, he worked as an Account Executive at different enterprise software companies, and in every role he was rewarded for his excellent contributions as an individual with impeccable sales and BD skills.

Down the Web3 Road, Across Oxford Street, as an Uber Head

In 2014, Vitalik Buterin and Wood introduced Ethereum to the world. Dunford, who already knew about Bitcoin, became more interested when Ethereum came up with smart contracts and dApps. But because blockchain technology hadn’t burgeoned yet, he did not think of it as a field to pursue on a professional level. Little did Dunford know that this was the path he would ultimately walk on.

By 2015, Dunford realized that he needed to go out of Australia and have a more global experience. Therefore, he decided to go for an MBA at the University of Oxford in 2015. When he came back, he co-founded yet another startup called CoVentured and did advising for a bit. However, he was constantly on the lookout for the next big thing. Amidst all this chaos, one thing remained constant, his interest in blockchain, which was only driven by curiosity at this stage.

Blockchains today have a pretty unsophisticated model where there is a certain throughput and you pay the validators to secure the blocks.

In 2020, the Uber team was hiring for a role that Dunford was perfect for. And just like that, he became the Head of Uber for Business in Australia and New Zealand that very year. At this point, although the blockchain industry had progressed to unprecedented heights, Dunford was still unsure about pursuing it as a career. Yet he continued to play around with protocols in the DeFi space to familiarize himself with the technology.

Later on, when NFTs came out, Web3 became a very Gen-Z field and it surely attracted many to the space. But it still failed to impress Dunford. Although the NFT boom did not spark a light in him, he still took his time to extensively research the ecosystem and its growing popularity.

Throughout his time working at a Super Unicorn, founding startups, and helping tech companies drive revenue, Dunford had learned a bunch of things. He knew that organizational structures played a pivotal role in the success of a company or a startup. “Once I saw the vision of Web3 is to help the world and change the structures of organizations that have potential implications on politics and money, I could not unsee it. You know, it was something I wholeheartedly believed in”, he shared.

Directing Polkadot Towards a Sustainable Future

Therefore, with conviction and a firm belief in Web3’s untapped and unmatched potential, Dunford left his job at Uber in 2022 and started working with Parity, in the Polkadot ecosystem, as the Head of Ecosystem Growth. He has been associated with the organization for over 1.5 years now. An average day at Parity for Dunford is one filled with different sets of responsibilities.

“Polkadot is a complex ecosystem because we’re playing at a lot of different levels like talking to devs, talking to teams interested in deploying blockchains. There are infrastructure players, too. There is no playbook here and that is why I enjoy doing what I do”, he said.

Polkadot is working on the mass adoption of blockchain as a grand mission. Its tool is to make Web3 as seamless to use as Web2 so that people don’t even realize that they’re leveraging the former. One way Polkadot is doing so is by changing the very structure of blockchains.

“Blockchains today have a pretty unsophisticated model where there is a certain throughput and you pay the validators to secure the blocks”, Dunford pointed out. Polkadot aims to diversify this model by introducing concepts of elastic scaling similar to what Cloud did to Mainframe where businesses are able to tap into this infrastructure when and as needed and be able to temporarily boost or reduce their throughput.

Other than that, the ecosystem is also working on a new design space of how you can schedule and distribute access to what is called blockspace. Dunford believes this will open up a fascinating and uncharted market, offering new opportunities for innovative business models. Polkadot will lead this advancement and is potentially and uniquely positioned to take advantage of the new design space that is going to allow new business models.

Web3: A Cause Worth Chasing

Dunford shared that it is on purpose that the BD aspect of Parity is significantly smaller when compared to the structure and size of other ecosystems. This is because Parity does not want itself to be a monolithic organization controlling the ecosystem but rather empower others to provide what is necessary for the ecosystem. Prioritizing decentralization is critical to building a resilient and, in some ways, unstoppable system.

Currently living in Brazil with his wife and children, Dunford shed some light on the volatility of the Web3 and blockchain space. He shared that it is difficult to predict the future of blockchain 3 months from now, let alone 5 years. “I believe we are currently at the very beginning stages of blockchain development. At this early phase, there’s often a lot of emphasis on the stacks we are building. People tend to debate which stack is superior, and that is understandable. However, it’s important to recognize that what we are primarily constructing is infrastructure” he elaborated.

As we reached the very end of the interview, I asked him a question about what he thinks should be the end goal and future of blockchain. “There will come a time when blockchain infrastructure will become a fundamental utility, much like AWS servers. Businesses will rely on this infrastructure, but it will not necessarily be at the forefront of their identity. It should not be because, at its core, it is infrastructure”, Nick Dunford concluded.

Humans of Web3 is a flagship program of Metaschool and its sole aim is to highlight and bring to the fore individuals’ Web3 journeys that go unsung. If you are someone or know someone who has had such a journey, you may reach out on Twitter (@0xmetaschool) for a quick chat.