Coolman’s Universe Digital Creator, Danny Casale, and Community Manager, Ryan Dunlop, spoke with Carla Gatt on the future of the NFT Web 3 Space, its mass adoption, and regulation.
1. Danny, could you guide me a bit through the trajectory of your career as a creative?
In kindergarten, I was always that kid doodling and making home movies. Back then there was nowhere to post it on social media. It wasn’t until I got into fifth, and sixth grade that YouTube started becoming important, which was around 2006 and that was when I started uploading my creations on the internet. I was as young as ten or eleven years old back then. So, I had been uploading videos online really for as long as I could remember and it’s been most of my life. I didn’t know anything different and through that journey of posting my stuff online, I would get a bit of an online audience. So, in 2010 and 2011 with my Justin Bieber swoopy hair, I would make comedy skits online and even that was before Instagram or before Tik Tok and before all these other platforms started coming out. It wasn’t until 2017 that I posted my first animation ever. It was just a dumb three-in-the-morning idea.
I was living in Brooklyn, New York City at the time with five other roommates at the time just shooting music videos for like €200 a pop to pay the bills.
I was like ‘Hey I have this dumb idea! Let me try to animate it.” I posted it and this was like after ten years of me posting stuff online never truly going viral. The first animation I ever made was a video called ‘Snakes have legs’, and it was my most viral hit to date with hundreds of millions of views.
That was my first epiphanous moment where I saw that this could work. People resonate with my method and the messaging of my storytelling even though the characters and the animation are relatively simple. That is what started it!
Now five years later, here I am with all this cool stuff going on and doing it for a living now.
In December of 2019, right before the pandemic, I made it to the list of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Class of 2020. It made my parents proud; it was right before I made the move from New York to Los Angeles and that was a huge honor to get that. That is what validated and cemented what I am doing now and for a lot of people. This was for the Forbes 30 Under 30 Arts and Style.
2. You sold 10,000 one-of-a-kind NFTs of the beloved character, Spesh. Did this happen in December of 2021?
Yes, this happened close to six months ago. It was January of 2021, and we were still during Covid. I was living in my first apartment in LA. I heard of the word NFTs, and it piqued my interest. All my buddies were hitting me up saying “You should get into this. You have been doing digital art for all these years. It is a natural fit.’ I was looking at all these other NFTs that were selling from other artists, and I thought the whole concept was cool, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to make it fit into my ecosystem. I wasn’t even sure how it worked exactly. I still wanted to sit back and watch and learn a little bit longer.
Then in March of 2021, I uploaded the first few NFTs. They were video loops on Open Sea and I just wanted to see what would happen. They were sold separately from my main social media pages. This sort of showed that there was interest and demand, separate from me shilling it on my pages and shilling it to my fans. These were a few digital pieces that sold through Ethereum, and which proved there was excitement around that. It wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that I saw what Bored Ape Yacht Club and Cool Cats were doing. I could see then that was where my work could fit. All these generative collections were mixed and matched randomly and independently. The rare traits you have determined your rare total combo of NFTs, and I thought that was the coolest. That is where it made sense in my head because the experience is gamified and you truly could get a one-on-one piece of art. That was the point when I started getting excited about it. My buddy David Roa, who is now the Co-founder of Coolman’s Universe and who’s been my friend for years in New York was calling me every day and saying, ‘You would be crazy not to do this.’
Once I finally said ‘Right! Let’s do it!’ he helped put together the team of developers and coders and we got to work at the end of August. Fast forward to December, we minted it out in about two and a half minutes. They were a wild few months of building in between.
3. I read there is another ‘Babies’ collection. Could you tell me more about it?
Danny Casale: So, in the current collection, you have Spesh and a few other Speshies holding their cute little animal or little alien or robot. These were called Spesh’s babies. These were cute little companions that Spesh met along his journey throughout the universe. They range from dinosaurs to little goo monsters to a little Frankenstein. I sort of thought of that when coming up with the art while I was building Coolman’s Universe in September/October 2021. The main character has a cute little sidekick and I thought there was a lot of fun that could be had there.
I didn’t think too much of it at the time. There was so much to be explored from a storyline perspective and an artistic perspective. I thought a second collection from those characters would be awesome. Thus, we started building what that could look like. Essentially what this upcoming Babies collection is going to be is another generative collection- exploring exactly that- the Babies as in the previous collection but also introducing a bunch of new babies, which are to be announced and which I am very excited about.
Ryan Dunlop: We wanted to take a different approach to this. A lot of projects have released second collections. Oftentimes that is another version of the first collection; it may have mutated, or something changed but it has that similar character. It was thus important for our team to provide something fresh and new that can stand on its own but is part of the Coolman’s Universe ecosystem. It will have value and be a part of the story. As Danny said, any great story has character development and introductions and new characters coming into the fold, so these characters are part of Coolman’s Universe already, but they play an integral part of the story and the lore. So it was really important for us to bring them out for what we have coming in the future. The new collection is minting in June, so it is coming up this month. It will be 10,000 pieces that are free claim to our interested holders.
If you have a speshy, you can claim one of them for free- one for one. So every spesh you have, you get one of the babies, and then there will be an additional allotment on top that we’ll have as a public raffle, an allow list process that started at the end of May and the next few days and will continue throughout June. So, we want to bring new people into the community as well and allow them to join the Coolman’s Universe family and get a piece that to us is important to the future of the brand and the projects. You will see also that Spesh is always going to be our main priority and our focus character, and that collection will remain, but you will see this additional collection coming into focus. We are excited about it. Danny has put together some art on this that is a level-up even from the current collection. There is such a uniqueness to it because all of the babies are different and there are so many different variations. Oftentimes, even with that character collection, there is mainly that Spesh character. There are a few other characters as well but those are rarer ones mainly, it is that one body. With this collection, they all have unique bodies and that represents some very different challenges but also our opportunity is to create some amazing art, so we are thrilled for that piece of it as well.
4. How about your collaboration with Timbaland?
Danny Casale: With Timbaland, it was a separate project, which is now closed.
Ryan Dunlop: That was a super-limited collection through TIME magazine so that came about through their timepieces collections which have been amazing. They brought together some fantastic artists in the past and this was a first-of-its-kind opportunity here, where a very select group of artists were to collaborate with Timbaland and he made a unique beat. Everyone did amazing artwork, and Danny created some lyrics to it as well.
Danny Casale: I think Time Magazine and Timbaland as well sent me the beat and they were like: ‘Create some cool visuals on it. Have some fun with it.’ They sort of didn’t specify whether I was allowed to rap on top of it and I just went for it: I didn’t wait for permission, and they loved it. It is a dream come true to have Spesh rap on top of a Timbaland-produced beat and then distributed through TIME magazine. It was a wild thing to check off the bucket list there as well. I hope that song goes into the Billboard Top one hundred someday or top 40.
5. You also collaborated with Aleksandra Artamonovskaja and Sia for a Web 3 initiative relief to raise funds for Ukraine. What was this project?
Danny Casale: Our buddy Andrew Wang put together a relief drop, which had one purpose and that was to raise funds for Ukraine. A part of that first drop was a bunch of really talented artists or leaders in this space who I believe raised one million dollars with that first drop alone and then it was so successful that Andrew put together a second drop and that is the one that I believe included Sia, myself and that raised an additional half a million and those two drops combined raised over 1.5 million dollars for Ukrainian efforts. It was sent to the Ukraine wallet address, which was smart on their end and it showed how powerful this space is, and how much good it can do when you have a place like Ukraine going through what they are going through.
It is such an amazing effort for all this group of people from tech leaders, artists, and everybody in between to come together in this space to do some real-world good and just raise whatever money they could through some cool initiatives around Art and NFTs and digital art. You know you have the likes of Sia coming in and it is such a prime example of how much real-world positive change this very digital space can make. Many people find it is easy to think this is a fantasy crypto land like it all stays within the ecosystem there. We were directly able to help through the enthusiasm in this community, through the power and just the ideas that come out of it, and the people in this space.
That was the first time I was able to be a part of that and it felt amazing.
Ryan Dunlop: It also shows a great proof of concept in the mechanism of NFTs. Obviously, on secondary sales, you can continue to reward artists for their work as it gets sold and artists will get their royalties, which is fantastic and really, important but additionally when you direct that towards a charity, secondary sales from a relief drop as well. Since these will also go into Ukraine, they have money coming in which will continue to be redirected so it is not a one-time thing. The one drop was very impactful, but this space enables us to continuously add more funds. These works of art thus can speak to the relevance and importance of this space and how we can move forward on a lot of different fronts, not just collecting great art or building great communities with these brands but also having great real-world impact. I think it is a great use case.
6. There has been a lot of criticism surrounding the NFT Web 3 space recently, especially with the crypto crash and the lack of regulation. Some people are saying it is dumb and that there are too many techies who are not well-versed in Art pieces waxing lyrical about it. What is your response to this?
Danny Casale: Think of it as a radical change, right? It is also very new. As with anything novel, people are wary. And appropriately so! I waited six to eight months before I got into this space and learned by doing. And just creating Coolman’s universe. Still, I took all that time to sit back and learn and made sure I knew what I was about to jump into, and this is coming from someone who thought it was cool, to begin with. So, there is just a lot of learning to be done for sure. It can only be done the right way by allaying to real, authentic, cool, and fun projects and just pushing the culture forward. This is not going to be done by quick money grabs and pump-and-dumps, which unfortunately is happening sometimes. We need to also focus on the positive.
As more cool stuff happens that encourages positive change in the world, it is going to be easier for people to look around and say: ‘Oh I get it! I see what is going around. I want to be part of that party.’ I see so many parallels to what YouTube was when I was in fifth or sixth grade. Nobody else was doing YouTube- not in my school, not in my town. I think not even in all of New York. It felt like no one knew what YouTube was. Then I found this whole community of like-minded people around the world who were doing YouTube. I found so much joy in that, I was able to express myself and do cool things. And then it wasn’t very long until YouTube events started happening. You would get to meet others IRL and collaborate. When I was in 7th to 8th grade, in 2008/2009, YouTube started getting on people’s radar and they thought it was dumb. I would get made fun of for doing YouTube. They were telling me that I was making a fool of myself and putting myself out there. And then ten to fifteen years later, you see what happened with the content creation ecosystem. So, this is what happens when cultures push forward positively by letting cool things happen. So anytime there is a very focused group of people that are excited about something new, people are too quick to be skeptical. With the people that I work with like Ryan, we need to see where this is going five years from now, ten years from now, and twenty years from now.
Ryan Dunlop: I think that inherently as humans we are going to be fearful of new things, that promulgate change, and that we do not understand. Probably, the most important thing for this space to be highly relevant five years from now, or ten years from now, is allowing people to understand it better so we have to allow people to understand it better and we have to break down those barriers to entry. Right now, it is still a very big barrier to entry into NFTs. In crypto, it has become much easier. You can open a brokerage account the same way you trade stocks like Coinbase and Voyager. To trade NFTs is not that simple. And so, we do have to work as a collective space more straightforwardly, making it easier for people to access. As we can do that, I believe that in the future, the space will be used for a few things. For a project like ours, we are focused on building a brand for the future, so we do believe that the Coolman’s Universe and similar projects that have great brand appeal and mass appeal across the board are going to win out. Those will become the entertainment companies, the merch companies, whatever you can imagine in the future. Whoever those brands are in the future will be created right now. Similarly, tech across the board that we are using for the NFT projects right now will have a tonne of massive applications.
Right now, we are working on ways to use NFTs for ticketing, for merchandising. You already see artists using it for albums in ways that cut out the middleman. This is unbelievable for digital and physical artists, but musical artists as well. So, the applications of Blockchain technology are endless and that is the exciting part. If we can use these technologies to further the art and create connections with our community, that is probably the last thing here. Communities and relationships are being built. I have been in brand building and community building across social media and traditional business for a very long time. You don’t find the connections being created, the type of connection to a brand, and characters being created on Facebook, YouTube, or any other social platform. You have passive comments there and you have fans, but you cannot connect with them in the same way.
You can certainly do that with NFTs and with the technology that allows us to create communities around them. In five to ten years, we will be looking back at this in the same way we have been looking back on AOL, Yahoo, and Google. We will be looking at them in the same way we looked back on Saturday Morning Cartoons and the brands that were built there. I think we will look back at all this in a very similar fashion.
7. Do you believe that there needs to be some sort of regulation?
Ryan Dunlop: I think you are already starting to see a lot of centralized aspects being introduced into this space and you see money coming in and it has been quite welcomed and well-received. This is because you are going to have many different groups in this space: you are going to have the purists that believe that the decentralization of crypto and NFTs is of the utmost importance. Those people are important if the NFT space stays. There is going to be another group that is going to value that trust in centralization and that comes from challenges that NFTs have had around projects that have been rug-pulled or that have not been set up with the best intentions. That is unfortunate. Not everyone is responsible! A level of regulation is necessary as we must keep people safe and protect the space, but I think that just inherently the blockchain is meant to be decentralized and that is the beauty of it. That is what allows things to be created that cannot be created in Web 2. So, we must find a way to maintain that but also keep people in this community safe. If we don’t, I don’t see a way that we can get and grow to mass adoption without some level of safety and regulation. It needs peace of mind and that must happen. I do think it is going to take the thought leaders in this space to figure out how to do that in a unique way that is right for Web 3 and that is right for NFTs, and it is not just pulling from a playbook of the major social media companies or big business or Fortune 50s. That playbook is not going to be right for this space and certainly won’t work the same.
Danny Casale: Yes, from a mass adoption front, the only way someone like my mother is going to be able to get into this space and know how to operate and navigate it, and the same goes for a thirteen or fourteen-year-old, is if we set it up differently. Right now, it is not set up to be quite that yet. I think the only way we get there is just by refining and maturing it in the right areas so that everybody can enjoy the space, and everybody can get into it and learn more because part of why so people are scared right now is just that they cannot navigate their way around it like around other communities, platforms, other spaces, and social media. It is happening slowly and surely like on platforms like Open Sea which you can open and get around and click around to see how things feel but I think it will not truly be as easy as it is to download Tik Tok in one click. Once we can get into that sort of level, that is where we will truly see the culture get pushed forward.
8. How is the sale of the book going? When did that come out? Would you do another book?
Danny Casale: The book is the perfect example of old-fashioned media as old as time itself and how my art and my characters still perform well on that. It is like Web Zero. The book sales have been great, and it is cool to see people taking pics with kids and their favorite characters. To see the characters, perform well on paper is cool.
I remember some of the books I read when I was young like Dr. Seuss. To make this and to see that the messages they spread work so well, no matter the medium is a dream come true.
I always loved the idea of being at that level of intimacy with these characters and having people get to know them. You get to spend 30–60 seconds with the character on the internet but then with the book, you get to spend twelve chapters with these characters and sort of follow them along their journey. They teach you life lessons and everything from how to deal with your self-conscious thoughts to how to make a bowl of cereal.
It would be nice to do another one someday.
Ryan Dunlop: We do connect the book with the NFT audience as well, in the sense that the kind of engagement we have created on our Discord is that if you have bought the book, you can show a photo of the book in your Discord and we will give you your special role that is kind of a book role. We have been building that up over time and so one thing we have done last month is having characters like Spesh accompany small messages on mental health. Since May was mental health awareness month, we made sure to spread that message via the book. So we took the number of all those who bought the book and are in our Discord group and we matched the number of books they bought. It is a lot of books and so we are going to donate those books from Coolman’s Universe to schools around the country. We want to get that message into more kids’ hands, so they are growing up with that message of self-love, mental health, and positivity. We will be doing that this month, which we are excited about and excited to get into more people’s hands as well.
9. What is next for Coolman’s Universe?
Ryan Dunlop: The only other thing that is recent to Coolman’s Universe is the airdrop that we did to our holders just now, a few weeks ago so that was an airdrop to all the ten thousand pieces in the collection, one for one. It’s called ‘The Infinite’ and it started as a covered box underneath an enchanted blanket. The blanket has since been removed by Iggy, Spesh’s sidekick, and now Iggy is attempting to solve the combination that is on this very strange-looking box that has been locked up very tightly. If something important is inside, then our community is solving a series of puzzles to unveil what is inside this box. The first puzzle was solved last Wednesday. It was a Twitter spaces puzzle of our first broadcast of Spesh SM. You can still find it on the Coolman’s Universe Twitter and encourage anyone to check it out. Inside that, there were embedded clues that needed to be pieced together to get the first digit on the lock so that has been done.
Last week at our community town hall, we mentioned the person who had managed to solve the first puzzle and what that first combo was, and we will also be updating the NFTs which will continue updating until it has been solved. Eventually, we hope that we will unveil what is inside once the community can solve this. This will play a role in the Babies’ collection and a role in Coolman’s Universe’s future.
Danny Casale: We have been having a lot of fun and whether the market is up or down, the goal has been always to have fun. It’s my pleasure to say that our Coolman’s universe community folks are having an absolute blast with the stuff that we are doing as we are just continuously looking for opportunities to keep people feeling good. It is going to be fun in the next few months.
10. Lastly, what advice would you give young people who want to get into this space, either as a creative or as a tech/business partner?
Ryan Dunlop: Well, I think that both sides are essential. The way we work even with Dave is that we have all specific skills that complement each other. I think in any business endeavor, even in just any creative endeavor, it is important to have all those things aligned. So, the advice that I would give is just to start creating, start finding things you are passionate about and do it in a space you are passionate about.
For me, my background comes from the fact that I was in Fortune 50, I was in social media startup culture for a long time and those areas fulfilled me but once I found this space, it gave me that sense of purpose and the sense of building something new and something fresh and different. I think it is finding ways to get into that and offer up your skills.
When people ask: ‘How did you get into this project? How did you start working in Web3 and NFTs?’ I think the best advice I can give anyone is: Put yourself out there!
Offer something that you can give of value and expect nothing in return. If you do that, you are going to find that the people that you need to partner with like in my case somebody like Danny, who is extremely creative and can bring about amazing art and storylines. They are going to find value in what you can bring and complementary skills for everyone. Do not expect anything in return. Just ask: ‘Hey what can I bring into this?’ if you are passionate about this, that could drive you ultimately to your goal at the end of the day.
Danny Casale: I am just blown away by how art can bring about people together and I have seen that happen with my characters and my art over the years. It is cool to see how much has happened in the NFT space in the past few months. How I met Ryan is a prime example of that. I attracted this very smart individual who wanted to help and who wanted to work with me and push the narrative forward. And offer his expertise and services. The fact that this could happen is a testament to what art can do and the people it brings together.
Allow yourself to become an artist! Start calling yourself a creative or an artist. I was going through my old doodles a few days ago. I saved all the sketchbooks from really as old as eighth grade and I am looking at all these sketches from 2013/2015/2010 and I am like- These are pieces of art but I did not think it was art back then. I was just doodling during Spanish class. You look at it now and it feels like art. Yet, it is somehow cocky and pretentious. But allow yourself that. I always say: Just put your stuff out there. If you spent five years coding a video game, just put it out there. Even if you think it is not quite done, it is never going to be fully done. Just put it out there. See what happens! If you think your ideas are too dumb or too imperfect and you think nobody is going to like them, you are not going to find those folks who will like and appreciate them. If you are too romantic and protective of whatever it is you are working on, it is just never going to see the light of day. You must give your art a chance and I am very grateful that I gave my art a chance with that dumb 3 am idea in 2017. If I didn’t do that, I would not be sitting here today. That random middle of a night idea changed my life and if I hadn’t uploaded it, I would still be making music videos for €200 a pop in New York City.
Ryan Dunlop: If this space has shown us anything, it’s that our idea of art has evolved now beyond what it ever was before. This is because the number of artists that have been platformed thanks to NFTs has introduced the world to so many characters and types of art that anyone knew possible. Art is historically intimidating or maybe the most elite buyers and now that has completely changed. And there is no definition of ‘This is good art!’ Danny notoriously refers to his art in animation as bad but for an insanely large group of people, it is unbelievably good. So that is the perfect comparison for me. It doesn’t matter if you think it is bad; other people are likely to appreciate it and that is just something that Danny brought to life and shone the light on. I think it tells people: ‘Hey it doesn’t matter what you think about it. If it is something that you enjoy, get it out there and now you have the space where you can uniquely do that and that is special.’
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