Irene Zhao’s name and reputation are often tarnished with terms such as “simp” and “cash grab.” Unflattering at best and ruinous at worst, such terms have earned her the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, but beneath her glamorous Instagram posts and meme-inspired NFTs, is a sharp, entrepreneurial and ambitious woman.
At a time when some of the biggest names in crypto have fallen from grace amid crypto winter, Irene Zhao has retained a relatively quiet profile compared to earlier this year. But, make no mistake, the Singaporean-based influencer is craftily navigating through the market turmoil with vigour and ingenuity.
Damn Good DAO
Zhao’s decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), Irene DAO, might already be yesterday’s news, but five months on, the web3 project has proven its worth. Explaining to Blockhead, Zhao said, “We created 117 Irene DAO NFTs, and then gave them all away for free. We didn’t make any money from it; any money we made from the royalties went to the Irene DAO treasury and charity.”
Despite what was previously perceived as a “cash grab”, the DAO NFTs may have seen US$7.5 million in trading volume, but the founders pocketed none of it. “It was more of an experiment and proof of concept for SoCol,” Zhao tells us.
SoCol is a web3 creators’ platform backed by the likes of Animoca, DeFiance Capital and even 3AC (don’t worry, 3AC’s seed funding was through tokens). Irene DAO is parked under SoCol and is being used to demonstrate the power of creator platforms.
Holders of Irene DAO NFTs instantly become members of Irene DAO and are able to vote on initiatives and propose partnerships. “The members actually took it upon themselves to initiate work. The amazing thing is, you just need to tell the leader what you want to do – whether it’s supporting women, children, or charities – and the members will do the work as a community,” Zhao explained.
I have two personas on the two social media platforms
SoCol and Zhao believe the model is applicable to celebrities such as Kpop stars who have “fans that are already spending a lot of time and money simping for creators. By holding an NFT of the creator, fans can tell people that they’re a superfan. You can say you were there for the partnerships and proposals; it’s proof you’re a superfan. It’s also much easier for celebrities to interact with the fans!”
For all those looking to start their own DAO, Zhao offers a heads-up. “Getting responsible leaders is a challenge,” she said. “They’re publicly elected but they can also be not capable enough. They keep on coming up with new ideas but there’s no execution.”
To overcome it, Zhao said releasing announcements through the DAO would help to encourage the leaders to step up.
Surviving Crypto Winter & FUD
Crypto winter has caused a countless number of projects (and even companies to fold), but Zhao’s prospects remain strong.
“Yes, Ethereum dropped a lot so it affected our treasury but it’s OK because we’re tightening costs,” she says. “It’s really fine for us.”
In terms of encouraging influencers to jump from web2 to web3, Zhao still remains confident. “The reason most people fail is because they don’t have utility. Look at Chris Brown, only around 30 of his 10,000 NFT collection sold. You can’t just have a profile picture of yourself, you need to define clearly what the NFT does so you can have more people buying it.”
Zhao also believes in the strength of the creator economy to overcome crypto winter and FUD. “Web3 people buy NFTs for investments but for web2 people, it’s not much about the investment. For the creator economy, people just want to support the creators and want to contribute to their careers so they come up with new and much better work. The incentive is very different.”
“I really don’t think crypto winter is affecting this area much – those supporting creators in web2 will also do so in web3.”
Web2 vs. Web3
FUD and crypto winter are not diminishing Zhao’s outlook on the potential of web3 either. “Compared to web2, web3 allows you to manage your community like never before. With OnlyFans and Twitch, the interaction is only one way: fans pay money to support you. But the thing is, they don’t get any monetary returns except exclusive content. If you have NFT ownership, you can potentially make money by selling it on the secondary market.”
There are many easy ways to make money in the web3 world
“As more people hold the NFTs, the value of the NFT will increase and fans will have a way to make money. This can never happen in web2.”
Zhao believes that moving forward, creators are still incentivised to adopt web3 irrespective of market turmoil. “It revolutionizes how creators interact with fans and creators can make more content out of web3 because with SoCol, your social media content can become NFTs. For example, your post in 2016 has no value in web2 but if you turn it into an NFT, people who want to hold a piece of your memories can buy it.”
A Different Irene for a Different Crowd
Before jumping into web3, Zhao had already amassed a strong following on Instagram. With many non-believers of web3 lurking in web2 social media, Zhao has strategically realigned her online presence to tailor to her fans.
“Most of my followers are guys,” Zhao acknowledged, “And guys are generally more interested web3 technology. There was a smooth transition from Instagram to Twitter for those who are more interested in the technical stuff.”
“I portray a different image on Instagram compared to Twitter. On Instagram I rarely talk about crypto stuff because most of my fans follow me for lifestyle, fitness, happiness and personal stuff. They’re really not interested in crypto, so I tend not to talk about it.”
“For those who are interested in crypto, they can follow me on Twitter. I have two personas on the two different social media platforms. People can choose which one they like more.”
Despite Zhao’s largely male following, female creators are also inspired by her work. “Female creators want to create their own DAOs. When they saw Irene DAO, they wanted to try their own NFT stuff and mobilize their fan community. Right now, their only way to make money on something like OnlyFans is through advertisements or sponsorships, and most of them don’t really want to do that.”
“After seeing Irene DAO they realised there’s a better way to make money just by doing what they’re good at and producing content. The DAO has incentivised a lot of female creators to get into the web3 space and know more about what’s going on.”
For better or worse, Zhao made headlines for being a cash grab. “Everyone thought we made $8 million on Irene DAO but the truth is that it’s just transaction volume. The royalties were only about $300k-400k at that time. Now Ethereum has dropped a lot too.”
She also wants people to know that the DAO’s initiative was not money focused. “It’s not really about the money. We want to do something to change how the creator economy works. For me, there are a lot of ways to make money – I could just launch another NFT selling at 0.2 ETH, and could make a few million easily. But we chose to make a product instead; it’s the hardest thing to do. There are many easy ways to make money in the web3 world but building a product people use is the hardest.”
To overcome these misconceptions, Zhao believes the proof must be in the pudding. “After we launch the product, people are going to see that we’re really doing something right, it’s not just NFTs. Right now, people won’t spend the time to find out what SoCol is about. All they know is Irene DAO because there’s too much (wrong) media coverage.”
“So I think once we have the product ready, we can onboard some creators and actually create NFTs for them, and then they have good engagement with the fans and form really great community on SoCol, it’ll change people’s minds.”
Although Zhao isn’t scared of the market downturn, she isn’t oblivious to it. “I think crypto winter is going to be here for at least a year,” she said bleakly. However, she’s quick to see the silver lining in the clouds. “The good thing is that all the bad projects are going to die because they don’t really have the correct market fit. If they spend money like crazy, they don’t have enough runway to sustain that kind of cost.”
“It’s a good thing for all the valuable and legit projects because right now, there’s much less noise. If it’s a bull market, everyone is raising money like crazy and nobody is focused on doing the project.” Taking this approach to her work, Zhao says crypto winter has given them the opportunity to throw all their efforts into their product. “So right now for SoCol, we want to launch a really good product with a really nice UIUX that’s attractive for web2 users so they can use the platform seamlessly,” she said.
“Crypto winter has also forced us to tighten our team and be much more efficient. We let go some of the not-so hard working ones,” Zhao said. “It’s a good thing that we can’t raise money as easily as in a bull market because we are left with a much more efficient team and everybody’s boded together.”