The 0xMert Interview
0xMert's introduction to Solana, dropping out of college to work in web3, building Helius, his favorite xNFTs and advice for new developers.
We sat down and talked about Mert’s introduction to Solana, dropping out of college, Helius infrastructure tools, his favorite xNFTs and advice for new developers.
What kind of projects were you working on as a software engineer fresh out of college?
0xMert: I was first working as a cloud engineer at BlackBerry, managing the cloud infrastructure that hosted BBM (if you remember BBM!). I then worked at a few banks doing cybersecurity, trading infrastructure, ABM/ATM software, and digital payments.
I worked at a few startups too. First a company called Flashstock which then got acquired by Shutterstock. Then at a company called Clearbanc/ClearCo that was named one of the only unicorns in Canada, mostly working on digital payments infra.
Finally I joined Coinbase right before they went public and got to work on some really cool things like MPC wallets, portfolio APIs, historical balances, fund movements, etc.
What was your experience like working with the Coinbase team?
0xMert: It was fantastic. The systems I got to work on were some of the most critical in the entire industry - if we messed up you’d see news about a Coinbase outage on the news and Twitter.
I met an insane amount of very, very smart people who were extremely early to crypto and helped build things like Coinbase Wallet, USDC etc. Most of us actually ended up building our own companies. I have never seen so many passionate and smart people working towards a common goal like that before.
Of course, this mostly changed as the company added 2,000 more in headcount.
You’re a college dropout - sort of - what made you decide to leave your Masters degree program to focus on blockchain development? Do you think you will ever return and finish the program?
0xMert: No, absolutely will never return to that program and in fact I regret doing any school at all.
A bit of background there is I had started a Masters [of Computer Science] program at Georgia Tech University and wanted to work mostly on Communications & Robotics tech (by communications I mean satellites and signals).
I then realized that I just hated the way people teach you things in school. It’s a few boring lectures or readings and then some questions and then maybe a project afterwards. That always felt really stupid to me.
The way I learn is just building something first and then refining it with theory after.
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The mertimus GitHub repo has a “Solana NFT Sales Bot” repository that dates back to November 2021. How did you find yourself building on the Solana blockchain?
0xMert: I was doing a lot of research into different L1s at Coinbase and stumbled across Solana. I read the whitepaper and was quite impressed with the design, it had interesting overlaps of what I had studied in school (communications engineering and math) + my Masters interests (communications/robotics).
I then did a few tutorials and it felt really fun to just write code that could move money at lightspeeds.
Around that time I started getting into NFTs and Crypto Twitter and saw a lot of “influencers” posting a lot of nonsense like “floor prices go down when the price of SOL goes up and vice versa” or “low mint prices mean your project will be more successful” etc.
It’s pretty empowering to realize you can write code that just moves money to anywhere else in the world.
So I would basically write my own scripts and data pipelines and start creating charts and different kinds of analysis to answer some of these data questions. This was before Solana Floor or Flipside or literally any other data analytics tool really.
I would then post my findings as threads on Twitter and people generally liked them and it kind of took off from there.
What else have you built for Solana?
0xMert: I’ve built a good amount of those early Twitter/Discord sales bots or listings snipers for a lot of NFT projects, probably about 50 at least.
Mostly though I had my own in-house parsers and data pipelines that helped me produce reports and writing. Obviously this was all before Helius and while I was still at Coinbase.
Your name pops up in relation to numerous web3 projects. What is your role with Blockchain Labs?
0xMert: Blocksmith Labs is an interesting one! I actually co-founded that project and even named it. I helped put together the initial team with Alex and Harmy and 1 other person and had big ideas on it to pursue DAO tooling etc.
After some thinking, I decided that I was interested in solving different problems and stepped down.
Helius raised funds from a number of notable VCs, including Solana Ventures, Alchemy Ventures, Big Brain Ventures, and Propel VC, among other firms, along with angels like Magic Eden co-founder Zhuoxun Yin and Squads co-founder Stepan Simkin. - Decrypt
The first Helius news article indexed on Google appears in October 2022. Tell us about the Helius story leading up to your seed funding round. Who formed the initial team? When did you start building the products?
0xMert: While at Coinbase, I knew I wanted to start a startup. I also knew that building on Solana was full of friction and “glass chewing”. I had a lot of other ideas at the time but decided that the highest leverage impact I could have on the success of crypto was to build tools that would help others bring their ideas to life.
People didn’t really believe in Solana but I thought it was a very obvious play.
Initially, I had started a company called Polyweave with a co-founder from Coinbase and we were going to APIs for all blockchains. We raised funding for it, formed a team, but then quickly realized that pretty much all chains were in a different part of their lifecycle.
What Solana teams wanted wasn’t what Ethereum teams needed and vice versa.
There was a lot of founder disagreement there. People didn’t really believe in Solana but I thought it was a very obvious play so I decided to just go for it and form a new team with my super talented friends from University (Liam and Nick) and build APIs and data infra exclusively for Solana.
This was during a time during some outages and uncertainty around Solana. We built a quick MVP for human-readable transactions APIs and got our first few customers (first one was Formfunction!) and then raised from there.
What problems does Helius solve for Solana developers?
0xMert: Helius’ mission is to accelerate the adoption of crypto-powered software.
We build the tools and infrastructure to help developers bring their ideas to life. Building on Solana can be costly (due to hardware requirements and the amount of data you’re working with), slow and unreliable.
It can also be hard to understand due to its programming model. We build a platform to abstract away all of this pain so that devs can ship and grow their businesses faster.
We build the construction equipment (bulldozers, cranes, etc) that make it possible to create new houses, condos, and skyscrapers.
How has the Helius mission changed since first launching?
0xMert: Solana transactions are generally quite hard to read because either the code is close sourced or developers don’t publish their IDLs (which helps you decode the transaction data). So at first we wanted to purely make the chain entirely human-readable.
We parsed all NFT transactions at first but then realized two things, the RPCs we relied on were either too slow, too costly (with many hidden costs), or too unreliable. A lot of our customers had the same issues and would always ask us if we had RPCs.
From there, we made a pretty gutsy decision to actually start building our own RPCs in house even though the common wisdom was to not do that.
Basically, the thought process was that if Solana is to have a shot at becoming a big deal, the RPCs absolutely have to be perfected, they can’t be in this weird state.
You can think of RPCs kind of like electricity or water, without it, blockchain devs just can not function. And so we tackled that head on.
What is in store for the next chapter of the Helius story?
0xMert: Many things! Too many, in fact. We want to improve the RPC even more, add new features to NFT Compression and the new DAS API, build a bunch of other infrastructure and most importantly on board a ton of developers onto Solana and crypto.
We also have a very big focus on devrel, education, and content so we’ll be making videos, blogs, deep dives etc — basically anything we can do to excite people about building crypto-powered products.
What is the Helius ELI5?
0xMert: We build the construction equipment (bulldozers, cranes, etc) that make it possible to create new houses, condos, and skyscrapers.
How do you explain the blockchain to your friends and family that are outside of the web3 world?
0xMert: It really depends on that person’s prior knowledge and understanding of general computing. If they know computers, I’ll just tell them that instead of a few massive companies controlling all the computers, it’s a network of everyday people doing it.
If it’s someone who doesn’t know computers at all, I simply tell them it’s groups of people’s computers talking to each other without needing corporations or something in the middle.
It’s never perfect to be honest and I generally prefer to actually explain *everything* to them from first principles.
What is a good strategy for web2 developers looking to enter the blockchain?
0xMert: Use helius.dev ;) Honestly, just build something. Download solana/web3.js, airdrop yourself some fake SOL and write a script that moves it around. It’s pretty empowering to realize you can write code that just moves money to anywhere else in the world.
Blockchain infrastructure talk puts mere mortal normies to sleep.
Helius has began to ramp up its education content on the YouTube based Helius Explains series by Noah and the Solana Dev 101 blogs.
Most developers are quite awful at advocating for themselves and getting their apps in front of people but with something like xNFTs, they have much more power so I love that.
You have been a vocal supporter of Backpack and xNFT technology. Describe your experience working with the Backpack team, with Tristan and Armani.
We’ve always been their RPC and API provider and helped them with the Madlads mint (we were even on a call together trying to stop that person trying to bot the mint!). It was a ton of fun.
The experience has honestly been great. They are 2 of the most talented founders in this entire space (not just Solana) and it’s a pleasure to consider them my friends.
What problems do xNFTs solve? How will Backpack impact product distribution?
0xMert: I haven’t built one myself (but my intern has!) but it’s quite clear they help a lot with distribution. Most developers are quite awful at advocating for themselves and getting their apps in front of people but with something like xNFTs, they have much more power so I love that.
Another thing that comes to mind is cross-platform distribution. Any platform (Chrome, Mobile, etc) that I can download a Backpack wallet from, I will have access to my xNFTs because they’re just NFTs! That’s pretty cool.
What is your favorite use case of xNFT technology so far?
0xMert: I really like the different staking mini-apps that I’ve seen. When you click on your wallet and you see some spare SOL lying around it’s a very natural flow to then go to your xNFTs and stake with something like Jito.
I also really liked the Madlads minting experience and how integrated it was.
Canada is a breeding ground for web3 talent and Backpack maxis. Wen Mert x MadCrab David x Jakey meetup? What are some other Canadians building in web3 that deserve love?
0xMert: I think David is in Montreal now and I haven’t met Jakey sadly! I’m generally in my dungeon anyways.
What’s the story on Dripped Out Bearded Tech Bros? Did you design the artwork? Is this your personal collection?
0xMert: It’s just a random collection I made to learn how to use Midjourney. Only thing I did was give it the right prompts.
I do want to drop some collections soon though in the spirit of creating a mini Solana community!