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Dune: The Data Must Flow

Crypto’s leading analytics platform is a tamer of blockchain information. It’s also a portal to a new kind of economic empowerment.

IN tHis BRIEFING
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ACTIONABLE INSIGHTS

If you only have a couple of minutes to spare, here's what investors, operators, and founders should know about Dune.

  • Run lean, and persevere. If Dune’s burn rate had been higher, the company almost certainly would have failed in the dead of crypto winter. Instead, founders Fredrik Haga and Mats Olsen spent conservatively, giving them the chance to flourish in better conditions.
  • Lean into what’s unique. Dune 1.0 offered paid dashboards of crypto data. Investors pushed back on that premise, given the availability of blockchain information at no cost. Rather than fighting, Haga and Olsen recognized the wisdom in this feedback. Dune 2.0 leaned into this characteristic. 
  • Wizards make magic (and money). At the center of Dune’s “figure-eight flywheel” are the platform’s creators, better known as “wizards.” These data analysts create the dashboards that consumers view. In the process, they construct a resume of their skills, get paid via bounties, and discover professional opportunities. 
  • Tokenize with caution. At first blush, Dune seems perfectly suited to a token. It has a thriving community doing meaningful work to benefit the ecosystem. Though they’re not opposed to the possibility of a native currency, Haga and Olsen are wary of doing so too soon.
  • Omnichain is the future. Or, perhaps, the present. The emergence of Solana has spawned a wave of chain-specific projects. Dune will need to support consumer desire to understand the data behind these initiatives better. The company’s upcoming “Dune Engine v2,” internally dubbed “Arrakis,” seeks to do just that. 

In 2019, Dune was dead. 

At least, it was as close as a startup can get without officially closing its doors. Founders Fredrik Haga and Mats Olsen had spent the better part of a year trying to raise money for their blockchain data analytics platform without investors taking them seriously. More than a hundred conversations had led unrelentingly, unmercifully to the same response: no. 

No, we will not give you money. 

No, we do not believe crypto is the future. 

No, we do not think there is a large market for crypto analytics tools. 

No, we do not think you will succeed. 

The playwright George Bernard Shaw famously remarked that since the reasonable person adapts to the world’s demands, “progress depends on the unreasonable man.” The comment has become a tagline for entrepreneurs – but what does it mean to be unreasonable? What does that look like?

It must have run through Haga and Olsen’s minds that persisting made little sense. Neither of them had taken a salary for more than seven months. And, the market had not only spoken, it had repeated itself many times over. 

In the face of failure, Dune’s founders did the unreasonable thing: they persevered. What did ten dozen rejections mean when it would take just a single supporter to change their fortune? Thankfully, for both the company and the broader crypto ecosystem, Haga and Olsen found their believers. 

Two and half years after its near-death and Dune is not only surviving but flourishing. The data analytics platform has established itself as the standard for blockchain data by embracing an innovative user-generated model that empowers the world’s data analysts – “wizards” in Dune’s parlance – to showcase their skills and make a living. It is a powerful, accessible utility for consumers blessed with the network effects of a potentially generational business. Now awake to the opportunity, investors have poured in $80 million, with Dune’s most recent round setting a valuation of $1 billion. 

From near-collapse, Haga and Olsen have minted a unicorn that highlights the unique strengths of crypto data. It is a hero’s journey that even Frank Herbert, author of the sci-fi fantasy with which Dune shares a name, would have found especially tidy. Indeed, Dune’s founders seem to take pleasure in riffing on the beloved saga, borrowing vocabulary and metaphor to describe the strange blockchain wilderness of which they help make sense. In today’s piece, we’ll unpack Dune’s iteration of the monomyth, discussing: 

  • Certain failure. Dune courted collapse several times throughout its history, struggling to raise money, pivoting, and risking its customers. Its existence is a testament to the endurance of its founders and the value of an iterative approach.
  • Crypto data. Financial data is typically reported quarterly. The blockchain changes this configuration, making mass amounts of information available instantaneously. Dune is built for this radical new reality. 
  • Multi-sided platforms. Dune’s genius is how it orchestrates mutually-beneficial relationships between three stakeholders. It resembles Github, with an extra-dimensional twist. 
  • Business model. How do you make money from free data? Dune seems to have found a way to create a consumer platform with a monetization motion that resembles large enterprises. 
  • Vibrant culture. Near-death experiences are supposed to give survivors a new lease on life. Dune seems to be proof that the same goes for companies. Few startups seem so resolute in soaking up the joy of work. 
  • Risks. Even the most invulnerable seeming of crypto companies can find their footing destabilized. Though Dune seems to be making sound strategic decisions, there is always the potential for disruption.
  • Future. Dune’s core platform is undergoing a significant renovation. “Dune Engine v2” will allow for cross-blockchain querying at scale. A new API may also help unlock another step-change in functionality and growth.

Let’s get to it.

Origins: Strange water

Every founder’s journey requires grit, but few have necessitated quite as much as Dune. The analytics firm ducked death several times over before becoming a breakout hit.

Dune blooms

In 2018, Mats Olsen decided it was time for a change. He had served as a software engineer at Schibsted Media Group for two years, operating out of the company’s Oslo office. He enjoyed his work at the conglomerate, owner of the Nordic’s most prominent publishing houses, and several large online marketplaces. Schibsted had given Olsen an outlet for his burgeoning blockchain obsession, allowing him to build a series of smart contracts for the freight industry as part of an internal experiment. 

While that had sated his interest for three months, the desire to follow his curiosity deeper into the world of cryptocurrencies forced his hand. That summer, Olsen turned in his notice. He immediately told his now ex-colleague, Fredrik Haga, what he had done. 

Though Haga and Olsen had only met the year prior, they’d become fast friends. Like Olsen, Haga had developed a fascination with the blockchain several years earlier, finding it more intellectually stimulating than his Master’s Program in Economics. “It got me to think about a lot of deep questions that I hadn’t really learned or asked myself,” Haga recalled, prompted to ponder queries like “What actually is money?” 

Like his friend, he’d succeeded in bending his initially traditional role at Schibsted into an experimental one, moving from the advertising group to join Olsen on a two-person blockchain team. Schibsted showed a willingness to explore new areas, but Haga quickly realized that such flexibility meant little in the context of a large legacy business. All the faith in the world couldn’t convince a firm founded in 1839, centered around newspapers, to embrace a radical new financial and computing paradigm.

So, when Olsen told his friend he had quit, it took Haga “half a second to realize he would do the same.” It was time for an adventure. 

Dune Enterprise

Depending on one’s vantage,  Olsen and Haga picked either a perfect or a dreadful time to start a crypto business. In January of 2018, crypto prices cratered, with bitcoin falling from a high of over $19,000 to under $4,000. As enthusiasm curdled into fear, scammers and speculators fled the industry, leaving only those with a genuine interest in the technology and the willingness to endure the pain an unproven, volatile market can produce. 

That was the good news. The bad news was that many venture capitalists were among the retreating parties. While any half-assed token project was capable of raising millions twelve months earlier, the pall of a bear market meant that even serious builders struggled in 2018.

Haga and Olsen were among them. After a few weeks of ideating, the pair settled on an idea that fit the adage that selling picks and shovels is the best place to be in a gold rush. If crypto turned out to be the epic upheaval both thought it would be, owning infrastructure could prove extremely impactful. In particular, they decided to build out tools to analyze and visualize blockchain activity, a “Mixpanel or Google Analytics for crypto,” as Haga described it. While the need for such tooling seems obvious today, Olsen recalled that it was “non-existent” at the time.

They settled on the name “Dune” without too much deliberation. It was a strong, evocative word. Better still, the undulations of dunes brought to mind the fluctuations of a data set, each hill and hummock a change in value. Olsen and Haga were aware of Frank Herbert’s classic book bearing the same name, though their company pre-dated the blockbuster film. Had he been familiar with them, Herbert’s words might have been apt preparation for the following months: “Survival is the ability to swim in strange water.”

Dune’s life began simply enough. Not long after its formation, the company won a Norwegian governmental grant that enabled its founders to attend blockchain conferences worldwide. It wasn’t much money – a few thousand dollars – but it was enough to get Olsen and Haga to Berlin and then San Francisco. They saved money by booking downtrodden rooms in the less salubrious pockets of each city. They also shared rooms and even beds, despite Haga’s impressive snoring. 

While Dune’s travel meant the grant money was quickly leaving the company’s coffers, Haga and Olsen did succeed in bringing a little in. At ETH San Francisco, the pair convinced Dharma co-founder Nadav Hollander (now CTO of OpenSea) to become their first customer, paying $600 per month. An indication that Dune had yet to cement its value proposition, Hollander had little interest in the company’s dashboards, focusing instead on the data they had cleaned to create them. 

Dharma was followed by a second customer, CredMark, a financial modeling platform for crypto. Together they gave Dune monthly revenue of $1,000 – hardly a jaw-dropping figure and yet tangible proof of demand. In the often diaphanous world of cryptocurrency, real dollars flowing in put Dune in elite company. “We had a paying client,” Haga said, “And that was very, very rare in crypto at the time.”

Haga and Olsen quickly learned that didn’t count for much. Any optimism the pair had heading into their first fundraising round was knocked out of them by a string of rejections. Over and over, they heard the same refrain. 

Why would anyone pay for data that’s freely available on the blockchain? 

How could this market be worth more than a few hundred million dollars?

“It was absolutely brutal,” Haga said of that period, “We got rejected fifty times. And going into Christmas we were absolutely broke.”

Dune Community

The dismissals of dozens of investors would have been enough to end the adventure for many. Haga and Olsen could say they had tried and failed despite their best efforts. The market simply wasn’t ready for a product like theirs. 

Instead of giving up, Dune’s founders forced themselves to take stock. Did they genuinely believe essential applications would be built on Ethereum and other protocols? They did. And what of the feedback investors had given them – how much of it should they take to heart? 

Over a series of conversations, Olsen and Haga realized the VCs had a point. “It wasn’t a fast-growing business, and it wasn’t that defensible,” Olsen remembered. Simply cleaning public data was interesting enough to attract a few customers but insufficient to build a new global giant. 

In returning to the drawing board, the pair found a new direction. What if the fact that crypto data was freely available wasn’t a bug but a feature? What would that mean for their model? Olsen recalled the moment when the lightbulb went off: 

We were using dashboards to showcase the value of our data. We realized that we had everything we needed for anyone to create dashboards for any Ethereum project or protocol.

Rather than acting as a bottleneck for the dashboards and datasets created, Dune could be the platform on which others built. Haga thought: “Let’s flood the world with dashboards and be the enabling layer.”

Though both founders saw the elegance in turning Dune’s greatest vulnerability into a unique strength, they nevertheless wrestled over what this shift meant for their business. For one thing, they’d have to give up the cash flow they’d worked so hard to win. “Are we really going to rug this revenue?” Haga thought. 

By the time 2019 swung into life, the founders had made their decision: it was time for Dune 2.0, a community product. 

The shift didn’t manifest an immediate change in fortune. Haga tried to pull together a round for two more months, receiving another fifty or so brush-offs. The team’s confidence reached its lowest ebb at the ETH Denver conference. With the benefit of hindsight, Haga believes that he and Olsen were two weeks away from giving up. 

Enter: Binance.

Teck Chia was impressed with what he had seen. The head of Binance’s accelerator didn’t see many startups with real traction, given the group’s focus on early-stage businesses. Though Dune had given up their paying customers, the fact they’d had them at all put them ahead of the curve in Chia’s mind. Moreover, the team was attacking an obvious problem space – Chia knew crypto analytics was an ample opportunity. He decided to take a bet on the two Norwegians, inviting them to participate in Binance’s program, an offer that came with $250,000 in investment. 

Haga recalled the balm that moment provided: 

After the acceptance, I remember getting on the phone with Mats and simply laying down on the floor in joy and relief that we’d finally secured Dune’s continued existence. The following $4,000 paycheck was the best payroll of my life after seven months of no salary.

Dune was officially a funded business with one of the world’s biggest crypto companies behind them. Not that it smoothed discussions with venture capitalists much. By Haga’s count, he tried to raise a seed round four times over the next fifteen months without luck. Trips to San Francisco created good connections that would later prove influential but at the time looked like little more than industry friendships, sans capital. 

While struggling on the fundraising front, Dune began to find its footing with new customers and users. In large part, the company’s success relied on the tenacity and commitment of its founding pair. Haga and Olsen ran the business with tight fists, giving themselves lean salaries to maximize runway. Dune wouldn’t hire another full-time employee until late 2020. 

The company’s founders also modeled the canonical advice from Y Combinator to “do things that don’t scale.” That included teaching users SQL, the programming language used to navigate and query databases. 

One such pupil was Matteo Leibowitz. In 2019, the now-head of Uniswap Labs Ventures served as a research analyst at crypto publication, The Block. Keeping a keen eye on the ecosystem, Haga noticed Leibowitz’s writing on DeFi and recognized he was the kind of influential user Dune needed to win over. He reached out to see if Leibowitz was interested in using the platform. He was – but there was an issue: “I didn’t know how to write SQL,” Leibowitz said. 

Rather than letting that be the end of the conversation, Haga struck up an unlikely tutorship. Every week, Haga would get on a call with Leibowitz and teach him the basics. “He was incredibly patient,” Leibowitz noted, “I wasn’t always doing my SQL homework.” Olsen also gave Leibowitz his Telegram handle, making himself available for any questions. Leibowitz reportedly found it challenging at first, but “miraculously, several months later, it clicked.” With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see how Haga and Olsen’s willingness to do these kinds of unscalable activities aided Dune. By bringing Leibowitz into the fold, they ensured their dashboards would feature prominently in The Block’s articles, giving them distribution that would have been difficult to manage otherwise. 

Into 2020, Dune continued its rise. Data “wizards” flowed to the platform to build and display their own dashboards, while consumers visited to gather information on whatever project they might be exploring. Thanks to a paid premium plan, Haga and Olsen reached $60,000 in annual recurring revenue (ARR). 

A failed fundraising trip to San Francisco in early 2020 put a dampener on that momentum, with Dune unable to raise a $1 million seed round. As Haga would later write: 

In hindsight, it is pretty absurd that someone could have gotten ~10% of Dune for $1 million less than two years ago, but not a single investor in Silicon Valley was interested. 

Haga and Olsen’s decision to operate with a lean budget began to pay off in the summer of 2020. Known in crypto circles as “DeFi Summer,” it marked the end of the bear market in which Dune had built. Suddenly, enthusiasm returned to the space from both investors and consumers. As dollars flooded into different on-chain plays, Dune established itself as a vital source of information. “Overnight, Dune was everywhere,” Olsen remembered. “By the end of that summer, we were on a lot of people’s radar.” 

The tide seemed to have turned in the strange waters where Dune swam. In September 2020, Dune raised a $2 million seed round from some of crypto’s most forward-thinking investors, including Multicoin Capital, Dragonfly Capital, Coinbase Ventures, Alameda Research, and Hashed. 

Dune rising

Haga and Olsen put the money to work, hiring two full-time employees. The capital arrived not a moment too soon. Though DeFi Summer had spelled good news for Dune’s traction, with the business growing 5% a week by most key metrics, it had also put a strain on the core architecture. “Our infrastructure was being torn to pieces,” Olsen remembered. 

In large part, that was caused by Dune’s scrappy provenance. To get up and running, Olsen had forked an open-source analytics tool called, Redash. Though it was a good enough base to start with, it hadn’t been built to handle thousands of simultaneous users. New engineering recruit Vegard Stikbakke remembered that “if you tried to execute a query, it took forever.” 

It was time to level up. With a team of just four full-time employees, Dune rebuilt its entire application and querying execution layer from scratch. It was the kind of massive upgrade that might have taken a much larger team a year or more to complete, and yet under Olsen’s leadership, Dune’s engineers managed it in just two and a half months. “The more I think about what we built, the more impressed I am,” Stikbakke said.

Aided by its improved infrastructure, Dune continued its remarkable organic growth. Soon, its dashboards seemed to be everywhere, dotting blog posts, peppering Twitter timelines, and surfacing in Discord channels. As Dune’s presence grew, investor interest escalated. Haga went from his outreach emails going unanswered to venture capitalists reaching out to him. 

With most of the seed money still in the bank, Dune didn’t need to raise, but they decided to seize the opportunity. In particular, they reached out to Nick Grossman, General Partner at Union Square Ventures (USV). Over a walk on the Stanford campus in early 2020, Grossman had made an impression on Haga and Olsen, demonstrating a thoughtfulness and humanity that didn’t always appear in fundraising discussions. That warm reception had been mutual. Grossman remembered that he had a “real, visceral personal reaction to both of them.”

Though USV ultimately hadn’t invested in the seed round, the two parties kept in touch. Over the intervening months, Grossman’s conviction in Dune mounted. As crypto flamed back to life, it became more apparent than ever to him that “the information universe of blockchains was expanding exponentially.” Dune wouldn’t just support a few dozen protocols or projects but thousands. When Haga reached back out, Grossman was ready – though he and the USV team didn’t have much time. 

In stark contrast to Dune’s previous attempts, this raise moved at lightning pace. Haga remembered he and Olsen decided in favor of raising a Series A on a Friday. To jumpstart the process, they emailed a few investors. Over the weekend, Haga put together a deck and booked a few calls. By the next Tuesday, Dune had two term sheets. “It was a total change from all of our previous experience,” Haga said.

What followed was the “most intense week” of Haga’s life. Suddenly, he found himself amid partner calls between Europe and the United States as VCs jockeyed for consideration in the newest raise. Grossman remembered Haga and Olsen pitching the USV partnership and “blowing everyone away.” Competing offers bid up Dune’s valuation, but in the end, Haga and Olsen knew with whom they wanted to work. 

On that Friday, a week after starting the process, the duo signed a term sheet with USV. Haga described the firm as his “dream” partner, combining a deep understanding of crypto, community-based businesses, and pure-play software. 

Dune moons

If Dune’s Series A showed Haga and Olsen what it meant to be in high demand, the Series B demonstrated how it feels to be courted. 

With the $8 million Series A wrapped up in the late summer of 2021, Dune found itself in a comfortable financial position. It had expanded its team but done so carefully, without over-extending itself. 

But the investors kept calling. What might have started as a trickle turned into a deluge, with Haga receiving “many, many” messages a day. Though Dune turned the vast majority away, one managed to slip through: Coatue

Over a thirty-minute call, the now-departed partner Kris Frederickson demonstrated a strong understanding of what Dune was building and inquired about a fundraise. Though Haga politely told them Dune wasn’t looking to add investors, Fredrickson followed up a few weeks later with an update. In the intervening period, Coatue had conducted deep due diligence on the company from the outside and was impressed. Perhaps he could walk Haga through their findings? 

Those findings turned out to be a detailed forty-slide deck. Again, Fredrickson asked if Dune would consider raising. Again, the answer was no.

Two weeks later, Frederickson returned, armed with a term sheet. How about $50 million at a $500 million valuation? The figure represented a meaningful mark-up from the round that had closed just months earlier. While tempting, Haga and Olsen found themselves negotiating from a position of strength. Instead of accepting the terms outright, they countered. They would consider taking a deal if Coatue doubled its valuation, making Dune a unicorn. 

In forty-eight hours, Coatue had agreed. Not long after, Dune announced a $69,420,000 round at a $1 billion valuation. The size of the Series B had been Haga and Olsen’s idea – what better way to celebrate such a wild milestone than with a sense of humor? 

Three years earlier, Olsen and Haga had worked together at a legacy publishing business in Oslo. They finished the first quarter of 2022 at the helm of crypto’s newest unicorn. 

Product: The revolution will not be reported quarterly

Haga and Olsen have created a business that serves the crypto industry and leverages its unique characteristics. The result is a product with a simplicity that belies its power. 

Crypto data as a living thing

Any investor that passed on Dune’s early rounds deserves some understanding. While the company’s value is evident today, Haga and Olsen have built a novel business and one that relies on a new kind of data. 

There are four primary differences between traditional financial information and crypto data: 

  1. Availability
  2. Actionability
  3. Connectedness
  4. Scale 

The most obvious is availability. Because crypto projects are built on transparently auditable blockchains, information is immediately visible. Discussing this point, Nick Grossman described crypto data as “available in real-time, 24/7.” Compare this to a business whose activities do not run on-chain. If you want to see how much revenue Starbucks brought in over the last week, you’ll have to wait until earnings time rolls around. The Dune team articulates this distinction, noting, “the revolution will not be reported quarterly.” 

Because data is continually available it is also more actionable. Consumers, investors, and builders can make decisions based on changes that occur from one moment to the next. For example, a DeFi farmer might trace small changes in interest rates to improve their yields. Or, an NFT collector might track the precise financial health of a project to justify apeing in. More granular data facilitates a different kind of activity. 

Because of the composability of Ethereum, Solana, and other protocols, crypto data is also fundamentally more connected. Actions in one part of the ecosystem have a direct impact elsewhere. Grossman described crypto data as something close to an “organism” for this reason, while a Dune blog post refers to it as the equivalent of a “living, breathing quarterly report.”  

Finally, there’s a fundamental difference in scale at work – at least, when extrapolating out to a state of maturity. Today, most traditional business data is tied up in silos, accessible only to large enterprises. Crypto makes it almost entirely open. Suddenly, a top-down B2B industry becomes a bottom-up consumer one. The impact is a massive TAM expansion for providers of data tooling infrastructure as they manage many times more information and greater complexity. This is part of the reason why juxtaposing Dune to a web2 business analytics platform is logically untenable, a little like comparing Ctrl-F to Google. Both help you find things, but the universe of information queried is of a different scope.

To understand how this comes together, we must take a closer look at Dune’s product. 

Consumers and dashboards

The majority of visitors to Dune arrive as consumers. They are looking for information about a specific protocol or project and use Haga and Olsen’s creation as a method of discovery. 

Looking for OpenSea’s monthly volume? There’s a dashboard for that. 

Want to compare it to LooksRare? No problem.

Intrigued by STEPN’s recent rise? Dune has you covered

In total, Dune has more than 22,000 different dashboards. Given that these are user-generated, quality varies. Some may be professional-grade and easy to scan, while others result from a SQL student’s early lessons. These are searchable by name or tags.

Dune

To help consumers find the best possible resource, Dune leverages a ranking system based on “stars.” If you like a dashboard, you can choose to “star it.” Those with the most stars are featured most prominently, incentivizing creators to do their best work. For example, if you search OpenSea, Dune’s search elevates those that are “trending” within a specific time range. The accumulation of stars over that duration broadly defines this ranking. 

Consumers can drill down into different datasets within dashboards to get a more granular view. If they want, they can re-run queries to refresh data, get an embed code for their website, or fork the query. Once consumers begin to write their own SQL and create new dashboards, they join the legion of Dune creators, better known as “wizards.” 

Wizards, wizards, wizards

In Dune’s internal year in review presentation, Haga outlines a focus for the company in 2022: “Wizards, wizards, wizards.” Like Steve Ballmer screaming the word “developers” at a Microsoft conference until he grew hoarse, Haga and the team are fanatical in their desire to serve the stakeholder at the heart of Dune’s model.

Wizards are the creators of content. Using their SQL skills, these stakeholders create the dashboards that consumers view. Every graph or table on Dune’s platform is user-generated, put together by this group. 

Why do wizards do this work? 

The short answer is that there are both financial and social incentives that drive creative contributions. To better understand the work of this group, I spoke with one of the platform’s most prominent wizards, Hildebert Moulié or Hildobby, on Dune

As a crypto-curious data science Master’s student, Hildobby gravitated towards Dune. He loved getting a better sense of different protocol activities and soon began to create dashboards himself. He started with a focus on DeFi before migrating to the world of NFTs. That gave Hildobby his first taste of consumer demand: “I saw that some people liked my work, so I made my dashboards a little easier to view for everyone.” 

Soon, Hildobby’s work attracted attention. The leaders of different web3 projects began reaching out to ask if he would create dashboards for them. Some of these gigs could be well-paid. For example, before launch, decentralized NFT marketplace LooksRare paid Hildobby several thousand dollars to produce three such dashboards – a task that took him a little over a month. In addition to inbound interest, Hildobby has supplemented earnings by participating in Dune’s “bounty” program, which surfaces paid web3 opportunities for wizards to complete. 

Hildobby accumulated social and career capital in addition to financial rewards. Not only does he consider Dune stars “as valuable as Twitter followers” in this line of work, but as he explained, “work on Dune is a better CV than my studies would be.” Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Hildobby has left his Master’s program to focus on Dune full-time. 

While Hildobby is Dune’s third-most starred wizard and thus in high demand, his story is not isolated. Thanks to the platform, dozens more wizards are thriving, either earning new jobs or hefty bounties. A survey conducted by the company in October of 2021 showed that 92% of wizards were active supporters, and none were detractors. Haga and Olsen will hope to maintain such an impressive level of satisfaction as Dune’s population of full-time wizards numbers in the thousands. 

Loops within loops

To what company does Dune bear the closest resemblance? Across my conversations, one name cropped up most frequently: Github. 

It’s easy to see the merits of this comparison. Dune is a place for technical users to host and share their work and fork the efforts of others. Tom Schmidt, a partner at Dragonfly Capital, remarked, “it’s open-source software, but for data.”

Haga noted that while there’s value in the comparison, Dune adds another stakeholder to the mix: the consumer. While the code hosted on Github draws in other developers, there is no use case for the non-technical user. On Dune, that couldn’t be further from the truth, with most visitors acting as viewers rather than creators. 

The result is an intriguing flywheel that Olsen refers to as the company’s “figure-eight.” When creators build more dashboards, more consumers come to the platform to view them. This incentivizes creators to improve and expand their work, bringing onboard new data suppliers. As more data becomes available, more dashboards are created, and more consumers visit. It is a virtuous cycle capable of picking up speed from multiple stakeholders. 

Dune

Model: Monetizing melange

The scarcest resource in the Dune of Frank Herbert is the fictional narcotic “spice,” also known as “melange.” As commentator Jon Michaud once wrote on the subject, “Imagine a substance with the combined worldwide value of cocaine and petroleum, and you will have some idea of the power of melange.”

In some respect, data is the melange of Olsen and Haga’s Dune, serving as the source of the platform’s value. Unlike Herbert’s confection, though, data is readily available. It is not a scarce resource but plentiful and – at least in theory – easy to access. 

This presents a challenge: how do you monetize? What revenue can be earned by charging for melange that is somehow ubiquitous? 

For now, Dune has taken a light touch. Monetizing the platform at scale may require an addition to the product and a slight shift in model. 

Freemium

Today, users can access blockchain data, create dashboards, share charts, and fork existing queries without paying Dune a dime. Only if a customer needs to run several queries at once, skip the query queue, export results, keep information private, or remove watermarks must they upgrade to “Dune Pro,” a premium plan that costs a flat $390 per month. 

Dune’s approach here is generous. Not only is the free tier very fully-featured, but “Pro” costs little compared to other crypto data providers, with some charging thousands per month. Pumped-up protocols and prominent investors are unlikely to bat an eye at such figures. 

So, why not raise prices? 

Dune is wary of monetizing at the expense of growth. As explained in an internal document, Haga and Olsen are keen to ensure the company’s flywheel can spin freely. As long as users create value for the whole platform – making dashboards, forking queries – they should be allowed to do so unfetteredly. Only once users “jump out of the flywheel” does Dune take a cut. 

The strategy appears to have had the intended effect. Dune’s user and engagement figures have proliferated to reach more than 150,000 queries and 17,000 wizards. Monthly queries created rose to roughly 23,000 from about 3,000 a year prior, representing a 766% increase. 

Dune

Monthly pageviews also increased impressively over the past year, rising 670% to hit 3.9 million. Dune has succeeded in encouraging growth, even if it comes at the expense of short-term revenue. 

API

If Dune wanted to 10x its revenue, it could probably do so overnight. Putting up a few paywalls, introducing rate limits, and raising prices would do the job. But in the process, the company would gum up the flywheel it has worked so hard to grease. 

A better approach might be by offering an API. As things stand, the only way users can access Dune’s data is via the graphical user interface or through exports. Neither is ideal. A graphical interface is ill-suited for technical usage, while exports are, by nature, not real-time. An API would address both issues, allowing for more complex, programmatic use without sacrificing availability. 

Pursuing this path would open up many new – and perhaps better aligned – monetization levers. As with the current “Pro” plan, Dune could price based on usage and prioritization – but at a much more granular level. Simultaneously, offering an API would deepen the business’s connection to customers, transforming it from an external data provider to core infrastructure. 

The company is aware of the opportunity and seems to be pushing hard to address it. The upcoming “Arrakis” update, discussed below, will enable precisely this kind of API. Growth Manager Hugo Sanchez noted that many of his conversations with current and potential clients center on the availability of such an approach. “There is huge demand to access Dune data via an API,” he noted.

Culture: Never Gonna Give (You) Up

It’s said that a scrape with death can give even the most jaded among us a desire to embrace all that life has to offer. Dune’s brushes with failure seem to have engendered a similar sense of joy – in both the big and little things, Haga and Olsen are committed to bringing fun to their work. 

Let me explain what I mean. 

Earlier this year, Haga closed on purchasing the Dune.com domain name. Purchasing the domain had taken time and considerable negotiation. After the deal was finally done, it came time to announce the news. 

But rather than a stock “we’re thrilled to share” message, Dune’s team decided on something more creative. Before realizing the new domain, they redirected to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” music video. Then, they tweeted it out to their audience. 

Who else uses a moment like this to Rickroll the internet? While the domain has since become Dune’s homepage, the episode says something about the sense of fun that permeates the company. When faced with a decision, Haga and Olsen almost always look for a more playful path. 

Though this may be Dune’s most prominent personality trait, it just a part of what makes the business special. Haga and Olsen have created a culture of hunger, focus, ownership, and craft. 

Stay hungry

“They’re honestly some of my favorite founders in a lot of senses,” Multicoin Capital’s Managing Partner Kyle Samani said of Dune’s leaders. When explaining why this was the case, Samani emphasized the hunger and scrappiness of the team. Because of the company’s troubled fundraising history, Haga and Olsen have learned to do more with less. Haga himself remarked that “such hardship really shaped us.” 

This trait also stood out to Vegard Stikbakke. When he was considering joining the company as an engineer, what tipped him over the edge was the intensity of Haga and Olsen, coupled with the playfulness mentioned above. “It was really a bet on the founders,” Stikbakke said, “They seemed to have this relaxed fun vibe about them while still being hungry and persistent.”

To their credit, Dune’s founders have not let that characteristic slip in the wake of Coatue’s investment. Though the pace of hiring has increased, the company remains small, with just thirty-five full-time employees. Only sixteen were in place at the time of the Series B, which means that Dune’s team effectively succeeded in producing $62.5 million in market value per person – leverage of which masters of scale like FTX would be proud. Even more remarkably, Dune’s burn last year was just $1 million according to Haga. That represents a stark contrast to many well-capitalized, high-growth companies. 

In describing himself, Haga summarized this hunger: “I’m both happy and chasing more. Almost always.”

Focusing until it hurts

On Growth Manager Hugo Sanchez’s first day, Haga pulled him into a business development meeting. On the other side of the video conference call was the representative of one of the world's most powerful venture capital firms. 

As Sanchez remembered it, the VC wanted access to Dune’s data via an API, and they were ready to pay. Haga turned them down. Dune’s founder explained that the company was not yet prepared to serve them in that manner and that they couldn’t re-engineer their roadmap until they were ready to roll out an API to the entire user base. 

To Sanchez, it was extraordinary proof of Dune’s focus. Haga could not be distracted by the possibility of serving a lucrative, prestigious customer – he knew what the business needed to build next. “That blew my mind,” Sanchez said. 

Asynchronous ownership

Dune operates remotely with a team dotted across Europe and North America. Employees work from London, Lisbon, New York, Oslo, and Toronto. Rather than try and wrangle competing timezones, Dune avoids synchronous communication, not unlike Levels. According to Olsen, “we discourage recurring meetings and try to ensure that communication flows better asynchronously.” 

Product Manager Bernat Fages described the team’s communication process. Instead of meetings, most discussions occur in long-form written memos or via task management platforms. Despite little “face time,” Dune’s hiring filter seems to have created a well-balanced group with a sense of camaraderie. Fages recalled how an offsite in Italy brought him face to face with many of his colleagues for the first time – and yet, the group got along quickly, all seeming to be on the same wavelength. 

While alignment with the right communication tools is an integral part of running an asynchronous playbook, a culture of ownership is even more essential. Florian Barth, Community Manager, identified this as one of Dune’s core traits. The company’s managers don’t handhold or micromanage – instead, employees are expected to solve problems that emerge proactively. “If you’re not good at Googling, you’re at the wrong company,” Barth joked.

To maintain leverage and shipping speed at scale, a sense of ownership is non-negotiable.

In pursuit of beauty

At times, Fredrik Haga seems an unlikely person to run a crypto data analytics business. A visit to his Twitter profile feels rather different from perusing other crypto builders' pages. Amidst updates about his company are observations about art house films, callbacks to classic rap albums, and evocative black and white shots of brutalist architecture. 

In describing Dune’s CEO, Vegard Stikbakke noted Haga’s integrity. “Not just in the ethical sense,” he clarified, “But in the artistic sense, too.” 

Stikbakke’s observation echoed other conversations, including those I shared with Haga. When I asked about his aspirations for Dune, Haga compared it to the euphoria provoked by a great piece of music. “I want us to have that same vibe in what we do,” he said, “The way I click this button, the way I get that response. There should be passion woven into everything.” 

This sense of opinion, of taste, shows up throughout Dune’s product and the broader business. In recent weeks, Haga published a lookbook for the company’s swag collection, featuring the tongue-in-cheek tagline, “Dune is a streetwear brand that monetizes through crypto data tooling.”

Dune's lookbook featuring international model Teo Leibowitz

It is yet another example of Dune’s commitment to creating something of genuine beauty and doing so in a manner that balances the serious and whimsical.

Risks: Fear is the mind-killer

In Frank Herbert’s space mythology, protagonist Paul Atreides utters a brief verse to calm himself. “The Litany Against Fear” begins with, “I must not fear./Fear is the mind-killer./Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” 

Startups that spend too much time terrified by failure may meet the same fate. For their part, Olsen and Haga exhibit no such fear, though they remain aware of the vulnerabilities of their particular business. Though Dune does not show any gaping flaws or holes waiting to be patched, there are risks to navigate. 

Slow to monetize

As mentioned earlier, Dune has been slow to monetize. Its free offering is robust, and it makes little effort to upsell users. While this tactic has facilitated user growth and engagement, it has drawbacks. 

Firstly, this decision may favorably position competitors. Other data providers that secure paying customers may find themselves able to create lock-in over time. As clients tie more and more operations to their data provider, churning becomes an increasing liability. By the time Dune is ready to offer an equivalent solution, the cost to switch may have risen considerably. 

Secondly, Dune is not learning how to convert customers by following this gentler methodology. When the time comes to extract value from its user base more efficiently, the team will need to learn what levers to pull. 

Are either of these major hindrances?

Dune has already established itself as a vital player in the crypto tooling landscape, making it unlikely to get locked out of big accounts – especially given how quickly market needs change. Were that to happen by some strange quirk of fate, it wouldn’t matter. The space is growing, meaning that new clients emerge each day. Finally, while Dune may not have developed a sophisticated sense for customer conversion, this doesn’t feel like the right expertise to prioritize at this stage in the business’s life. 

Overall, sluggish monetization appears to pose a minimal but present risk. 

Slow to tokenize

In every crypto founder’s life, they will get the same question: “when token?” 

Given Dune’s community focus, it seems a natural extension at first glance. SPICE could be granted to wizards and other stakeholders in exchange for building dashboards, improving existing work, or sharing the platform’s creations. Incentivizing these already existent behaviors could supercharge them, accelerating Dune’s proliferation and drawing activity from competitive platforms. 

Haga and Olsen are wary of making such a move, recognizing that it is an irreversible decision. You cannot remove an ecosystem’s token once it has been introduced. Furthermore, neither seem sure a token would create tangible long-term value – at least for now. “Tokens and NFTs are tools that you can use to solve problems,” Olsen remarked. “If you want to bootstrap a community, introducing a token is a great way to do that. But we already have a community – this isn’t necessarily a tool that works for us.”

Could Dune’s reticence leave them open to a competitive incursion? 

Both Sushi and LooksRare succeeded in drawing users away from Uniswap and OpenSea, respectively – but only for brief periods. After its initial surge, Sushi has slipped far behind Uniswap by volume; at the time of writing, the fork processed $587 million in volume over the last seven days compared to Uniswap’s more than $10 billion. Though LooksRare has handled $24 billion in volume since it launched – surpassing OpenSea’s $15 billion over the same period – it has done so with a fraction of the users and amid suggestions that much of that figure owes to the wash trading of whales. Recent weeks have seen the incumbent regain its dominant position. 

Dune

Nevertheless, though neither Uniswap nor OpenSea have been toppled, they are certainly not thrilled by the presence of competitors capable of juicing engagement and stealing market share. 

A fresh upstart or risk-taking competitor could pull off a similar maneuver against Dune. That does not mean Dune itself should take the plunge prematurely. “We’re not opposed to a token,” Olsen said, “But if we do it, we will do it right. We always build for the long term.”

Slow on tech

Demand for analytics on Solana projects is orders of magnitude higher today than a year ago. That’s a reflection of the speed and fluidity of the crypto sector – what can look irrelevant one month may become essential the next. 

Dune will need to ensure it can keep pace with the market without sacrificing its performance. In some respect, it is uniquely equipped to do so. After all, no other provider has an army of users constantly creating new data visualizations and dashboards. Conversely, this approach produces an incredible burden. As the focal point of hundreds if not thousands of simultaneous queries, Dune must bear a heavy load without significant delays. The platform must be flexible, reliable, and efficient to serve its scores of wizards. It must accommodate new datasets without slowing querying down to a crawl. 

As USV’s Nick Grossman noted, “this is very much a data infrastructure company.” Dune’s success rests on its ability to build tech that can withstand the challenge it has set itself. 

Future: Voyage to Arrakis

As befits its name, Dune is an expansive landscape. In the years ahead, we should expect the platform to grow with the economy it powers, supporting new platforms, bringing even greater opportunities to its wizards, and expanding its functionality. 

Arrakis

Dune’s response to the final risk mentioned earlier is Arrakis. Named after the planet in Herbert’s novel where melange is harvested, Arrakis represents a massive upgrade of Dune’s architecture. In particular, it will allow for querying across different blockchains. 

The implications of this shift are profound. Wizards will eventually have the ability to create dashboards for projects built on Avalanche, Fantom, and beyond. Moreover, consumers will see the consolidated figures for particular projects – tracking Uniswap’s total volume across chains. 

Once complete, Arrakis will unlock new functionality and reduce scaling costs. As Olsen explained, since Dune’s current architecture runs on Postgres's open-source database management system, increased traffic can only be managed by adding more databases. While these add throughput, they’re not the most efficient solution and can prove expensive. Arrakis’ data lake is built atop Amazon S3 and leverages Apache Spark as the compute layer. Olsen expects it to be cheaper, faster, and more flexible. 

Developer Vegard Stikbakke noted the complexity of constructing Arrakis. In particular, he remarked that supporting Solana, for example, requires Dune to handle three orders of magnitude more data than it does via Ethereum. 

Dune appears equal to the challenge. Whenever Arrakis does arrive – likely sometime over the coming months – it will represent a step-change improvement in the platform. As Herbert wrote, “You never talk of likelihoods on Arrakis. You speak only of possibilities.”

Wizard economy

During our conversation, Mats Olsen recalled how he felt the first time a wizard completed a bounty on Dune. “It was more than three months my salary,” he said. “That was both a good feeling and a bad feeling, at the same time – but mostly good.” 

With the benefit of more favorable financial circumstances, Olsen can look back on that event with unblemished pride. It was the first indication that Dune was more than just a resource but a portal to a new kind of economic empowerment. Thanks to Haga and Olsen’s creation, data scientists can showcase their skills, take on clients, and find new jobs. 

And yet, when it comes to the wizarding economy, there’s plenty more to come. An easy addition would be to create an actual marketplace on Dune. At the moment, to hire wizards, protocols must issue a bounty which is shared via Twitter. All coordination and payment happen off-platform. To streamline this process – and perhaps secure a share of payment volume – Dune could orchestrate this directly. In doing so, the company might make it easier for clients to level up their dashboard pages, improving the product for the rest of the ecosystem. 

Another way to increase wizards’ earning potential is to give them tools to monetize their creations. Though it might impact the consumer experience, Dune could provide pay-gating functionality so that wizards could make some of their creations exclusive. Doing so might work best if the company introduces new tooling for this cohort. As PM Bernat Fages remarked, “There’s so much we could be doing there to help wizards express themselves and tell stories.” 

Endless data, endless functionality 

The longer you look at Dune, the more ideas spring to mind. So powerful is the core platform that it seems capable of spinning off in any number of directions. In discussions with team members, investors, and wizards, common areas for improvement arise. As follows: 

  • Collaboration. Dune is a single-player experience right now. It doesn’t have to be. In the future, collaborators may be able to work together to create a dashboard with nuanced permissions. Like Github, Dune could enable the ability to submit pull requests to other dashboards, allowing busy wizards to accept changes and keep their work functional. A multiplayer experience would represent a significant upgrade.  
  • Improved curation. While Dune’s star system works, it isn’t the most elegant solution. More thoughtful curation could improve the consumer experience and give underloved wizards a better chance of being appreciated. 
  • Alternative protocols. Arrakis is built to accommodate new chains like Solana. But is it extensible enough to support fundamentally different projects like Filecoin, Arweave, and Ceramic? These storage and data layers may pose an alternative technical challenge but would add meaningful functionality to Dune. 
  • Off-chain data sources. Why stop at crypto data? Some believe Dune could eventually incorporate off-chain data, whether that be sentiment information from social media or traditional financial inputs. It’s intriguing to think of what might be created by combining on-chain information with external data sources, though it does feel like a departure from the core business. 

More than any single feature addition, though, what is perhaps most exciting about Dune’s future is what it could become in its totality. While others liken Dune to Github, Nick Grossman thinks there’s an even more apt comparison: Google. “Dune is very, very similar,” Grossman argued. In his mind, what Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s business did to index the web’s open, accessible data, Dune can do for the world of blockchains. 

It is a huge ambition. Dune’s founders, Fredrik Haga and Mats Olsen, will enjoy nothing more than striving to fulfill it. 

“I have always loved the desert,” the author Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote. “One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence, something throbs and gleams.” 

In crypto’s vast wildness, it is data that courses through the bedrock. Like the illicit narcotic of an alien planet, it draws attention while simultaneously shielding the fullness of its fruit. Though they may not have realized it at the start of their journey, Haga and Olsen’s construction is uniquely suited to this world, capable of extracting the data and bringing it to those that can give it shape.

In the years to come, we may find ourselves increasingly in the position of Saint-Exupery: eyes cast toward the Dune, toward the horizon, watching as it gleams.

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