Just as many of the ugliest online fights begin these days, Brian “Box” Brown, an Eisner-winning illustrator and comic book artist, sent a seemingly innocuous message tweet. It read, in part, “my former regular freelancer employer warned me that they will be… Hugging NFTs 🙃 so… we had to part ways.” The then-unnamed business, Gumroad, retaliated the next day with a now-fixed answer denying that he had plans to enter the controversial cryptocurrency collection space and has since lashed out at detractors of his corporate account, provided conflicting information and alienated a growing portion of the artist community he serves. How did it get so bad?
Gumroad, for those who don’t know, is a digital product sales platform, which hosts everything from art to e-books and self-help courses. It was built in 2011 by then-CEO Sahil Lavinglia, then 19 years old, who is perhaps the only consistent figure within the company. After a period of growth, Lavinglia had to lay off employees in 2016 for not being able to raise more money. The company survived, but as it is currently structured, Gumroad is something of an anomaly. The number of full-time employees, according to a CEO blog posts is “none. Not even me”, preferring to maintain an outsourced workforce. It also advocates a version of radical transparency, choosing to make its product road map and board meetings public.
The image of a completely remote workplace, free from deadlines or meetings, belies a somewhat haphazard business. Some former workers apparently did not sign contracts beyond basic tax forms. Some contract work has been compensated through Venmo. At least one of the contracts signed by Brown related to royalties and intellectual property rights for book illustrations listed a Kun Wu Yu as the main part and the address as what appears to be a cancer research center in Taiwan. (When asked about this, he first flippantly replied that “cancer research is an important cause” and then stated that he did not remember the contract.) To say that Lavinglia is not an especially careful founder might be an understatement. According to one former contractor, whom we granted anonymity for fear of retaliation, “It’s not the ideal work culture it appears to be.”
Brown, by all indications, was among the permalancers who filled Gumroad’s ranks, and one busy at that. “There’s never been a moment in the last couple of years where I’ve slowed down,” he told Ploonge for the “20+ hours a week” he’s made, which he estimates has become a “big part of my daily work” and has contributed about $2,000 for your monthly income. Then, in January, he alleges, Lavingia ceased communication. In 15 years of freelancing, he said, “I’ve never experienced a situation where a regular show for so long suddenly disappears without even an email saying ‘we’ll let you go,’ you know what I mean?” He believes he was no longer assigned to work because of his refusal to get involved with the company’s apparent NFT ambitions.
Once the differences of opinion between Lavinglia and Brown turned into open hostilities, this penchant for transparency turned into a club. Both parties have started posting screenshots of the company Slack (something Brown claims has been removed) that reflect uncharitably — although Gumroad deleted many of those tweets.
Is not true. It’s just that it’s something we’re exploring (as all tech companies should do with new technology). This is the entirety of the conversation. pic.twitter.com/oXnhFhGyHo
— Sahil Lavingia (@shl) February 5, 2022
In one, after Gumroad the ghost, Brown asks if there’s any illustration work available, to which Lavinglia states that “the only idea I have is an NFT project unfortunately 😔” – a possible commission to help create 7,777 art characters generative. “Looks like you need someone who likes [NFTs] going forward,” says Brown. “Yes, probably,” Lavinglia replies.
The context is missing here that the issue of NFTs, according to Brown, has come up repeatedly over the past six months. Each time, Brown refused, though some more tactfully than others. (In another tweet print Screen dating back to September, Lavinglia launches NFTs as an option, and Brown opposes alleged involvement in such a scheme that would cause his readers to “cancel” it.)
The anonymous former contractor mentioned above told Ploonge that “my understanding is that Gumroad would enter NFTs sometime in 2022/2023.” Gumroad is in the midst of a website revamp, for which it appears to have enlisted the services of powerful brand manager and former Google design director Karin Soukup; in an email introducing Soukup to Brown, Lavinglia sent an email last October with the subject line “Illustrations for Gumroad rebrand (+ NFTs…?”). (When asked via a DM from Twitter, Lavinglia wrote “Yeah, I don’t remember. But the relatives and ? seem pretty clear 😂.”
In his personal capacity, Lavinglia has been a small booster for NFTs and cryptocurrencies in general. He coined an NFT of his Twitter avatar and sold at OpenSea, apparently to Unacademy founder Guarav Munjal, for the equivalent of around $3,000 — and promising to split the profits 50/50 between himself and the artist (his own wife). he tweeted last September, a statement was only made weirder by the knowledge that Gumroad itself is funded in part by equity crowdfunding.
It’s unclear how any of these screenshots lend credence to Lavinglia’s position that the company is not pursuing NFTs; on the other hand, it seems evident that if Brown had agreed to the project, Gumroad would likely be entering the crypto space. On his personal account he tried make a distinction between “make a collection of NFTs” and “spin to NFTs” – later declaring “We may do an NFT collection in the future, but no plans.”
While plenty of evidence suggests Gumroad isn’t being fully transparent about the degree to which it’s investing in some sort of NFT game, it’s also not entirely clear that the digital tulip craze is to blame for the loss of a constant show of brown. According to the same anonymous former contractor, there have been several similar cases in recent months. “Most of the marketing team was recently laid off and it came as a surprise to all of us,” they wrote. Others confirmed they were no longer working for Gumroad, but declined to go into detail about the nature of their departures. It’s unclear why the company is thinning its ranks yet again, and Lavinglia declined to comment. Gumroad’s jobs page states that the company is freezing hiring until April.
Employees aren’t the only ones leaving Gumroad — or at least trying to. Some of those who abhor NFTs, as well as viewers who felt the company’s public discussion with Brown was inappropriate, promised for get out the platform. However, several of them – including Brown – found themselves unable for delete your accounts. “We found the bug around the deletion and are working to fix it now. The problem is that all these users have made money from Gumroad but haven’t been paid yet (due to not connecting a bank account, for example)”, Lavinglia told Ploonge, “working to allow them to delete if they want to anyway ”. The bug seems to be impacting at least a creator no outstanding money balance on the platform.
Lavinglia has been as tactful with his site’s irate users as he has been with his former illustrator — at one point, and in apparent violation of California’s privacy laws, he cross-referenced an account’s email address with the user’s information. from the website. “Never used Gumroad, never will,” tweeted Jacob van Loon. Gumroad replied “According to your bio email address, you already have it”. The reply was hastily deleted. Van Loon maintains that this account was never created.
The backlash against cryptocurrency has been a recent source of conflict for a number of companies. Creators of several tracks were enraged learning Kickstarter was a drift into blockchain technologies; comic book artist Spike Trotman recently released his own crowdfunding initiative to avoid entanglement in the crypto space. Chat app discord came back plans NFT and crypto integration plans last November following user backlash as Electronic Arts smoothed their own optimistic view of the technology for similar reasons. An increasing number of artists have expressed concern about NFTs, in general, as a vector of theft, while the entire market for these digital goods seems, at best, terribly bloated and full of bad actors. These incidents were also an opportunity for some companies to win over skeptical creators, such as the brazen indie game market Itch.io:
Some have asked about our position on NFTs:
NFTs are a scam. If you think they are legitimately useful for anything other than exploiting creators, financial scams, and destroying the planet, we urge you to re-evaluate your life choices.
— itch.io (@itchio) February 6, 2022
But it’s not just customers that companies can lose by entering this space. While Brown maintains that working for Gumroad, until recently, was an excellent job that paid well and gave him a lot of freedom, when asked if he would ever consider working for the company again in a non-NFT context, he responded with an emphatic “hell no. .” He considers the whole affair a breach of trust. “I’m married, I have two kids, I have a mortgage, I have all kinds of accounts […] and then I need to plan for it. I can’t suddenly miss my regular show and they won’t tell me. They lost all my trust there,” he said. “And then when they lied online from their Twitter account, you know, I would never work for them again, at this point. I just don’t have confidence at all with them. It’s irrelevant whether they actually do NFTs or not, because they’ve already made a lawsuit about NFTs making me leave the company because I didn’t want to work on it.”
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