At the end of JanuaryParis Hilton appeared as a guest on The show tonight. In a segment that was widely mocked for its boosterism, Hilton and host Jimmy Fallon each released prints of their “Bored Apes” – digital images from a collection of 10,000 unique designs. Fallon had bought her last fall for about $216,000, and Hilton had just bought hers for over $300,000. Together, the pair had spent half a million dollars on non-fungible tokens, or NFTS: unique digital assets that only exist on the blockchain, a decentralized digital ledger with no trusted middleman.
Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), a collection of simian avatars created by four pseudonymous founders, has quickly become a hugely lucrative business in a growing space. It recently overtook its competitors to become the most expensive NFT collection – the floor price to buy the cheapest is now over $280,000, and the collection currently has a market capitalization of approximately $2.8 billion. Yuga Labs, the company that makes BAYC, is reportedly in talks with venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz on an investment that would value him at $5 billion (Andreessen Horowitz, also an investor in BuzzFeed, did not respond to a request for comment).
How do you hold them accountable if you don’t know who they are?
BAYC makes money not only from the initial sale (about $2 million) of its NFT monkeys, but also from a 2.5% royalty on future transactions. He’s done real-world licensing deals with companies like Adidas and been involved in a concert event with Chris Rock and the Strokes. Now owned by dozens of celebrities, the Bored Apes have become a flashpoint for both excitement and skepticism over NFTs, which boosters claim will revolutionize art and commerce by creating level playing field without race or gender, and critics say they are a speculative bubble at best and a rip-off at worst.
As the value of the asset they produced skyrocketed, the identities of BAYC’s founders became the subject of intense interest – not all positive. people have underline that monkeys in streetwear-inspired outfits and gold teeth are a racist trope (Yuga Labs reps strenuously denied this). Others have expressed concern than Seneca, the young American artist of Asian origin who actually drew the main work, has been under-recognized and under-compensated for her work. Nicole Muniz, CEO of Yuga Labs, which fronts the public, told BuzzFeed News, “Each artist of the original five was paid over $1 million apiece.” (Seneca did not respond to request for comment). This reveals a unique problem with the idea of a billion dollar company run by a stranger: How do you hold them accountable if you don’t know who they are?
BuzzFeed News can now reveal the identities of the two main founders of Bored Apes: 32-year-old writer and editor Greg Solano and 35-year-old Florida native Wylie Aronow.
Neither man immediately responded to a request for comment.
BuzzFeed News Wanted public business records to reveal the identities of the two main founders, who go by the pseudonyms “Gordon Goner” and “Gargamel”. According to publicly available documents, Yuga Labs, the company name behind BAYC, is incorporated in Delaware with an address associated with Greg Solano. Other records linked Solano to Wylie Aronow. Yuga Labs CEO Nicole Muniz confirmed the identities of the two men to BuzzFeed News.
Speaking as Gordon Goner and Gargamel, the founders gave interviews to outlets such as rolling stone and the New Yorker discuss the origin story of the idea of a group of wealthy monkeys living in a swamp clubhouse. The outlines of their biographies match Solano and Aronow: they’re both in their 30s, met growing up in Florida, and both had literary aspirations (one earned a master’s degree in creative writing, the other dropped out for health reasons, according to their interview in CoinDesk). They were both interested in crypto and wanted to create some sort of NFT collection. They came up with the concept of wealthy monkeys living in a swamp clubhouse, hired a freelance illustrator to draw the monkeys, and teamed up with two engineers as co-founders to run the collection. The identity of the two co-founding engineers, “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” and “No Sass”, remains unknown.
Greg Solano, “Gargamel”, appears as an editor and book reviewer on a few websites, and attended the University of Virginia. He co-wrote a book on World of Warcraft with one of the game designers.
Wylie Aronow, 35, is also from Miami. Aronow lived in Chicago for a time, where he was interviewed by the Chicago Grandstand in a “Readers of the Week” story where he and a friend were asked about the books they were reading (he said he had recently enjoyed a translation of Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s work).
In May 2021, a crypto firm called Bitmex took Aronow to arbitration over a disputed domain name. Aronow had purchased the bitmex.guru domain name in 2018, which Bitmex said was clearly designed to mislead people looking for the real Bitmex website. Aronow failed to show up and the arbitrator ordered the domain name transferred after he defaulted in the proceedings.
Nickname is a rooted part of Web3, the umbrella term for a vision of a decentralized, user-owned internet with cryptocurrency payments and NFTs at its core. Web3 supporters see it as a chance to cure some of the ills of Web2’s toxic social platforms. Holyn Kanakea former Twitter employee and influential crypto enthusiast, wrote in her Sub-stack newsletter about the potential for communities not required to use their legal names – but held accountable by their blockchain reputations – to reduce harassment.
Playing with the concept of identity has also been a source of creativity for NFT artists. A popular NFT artist who only goes through “shl0mssold an NFT of an image revealing his true identity details – but all of that information was written in unreadable white type. Other artists have used it to play with traditional copyright concepts, like copy Damien Hirst’s famous polka dots at the Olive Gardens Image Sale (Disclaimer: This reporter owns one of these Olive Garden NFTs).
Artistic merit aside, the people behind BAYC are courting investors and running a business potentially worth billions.
As NFTs continue to expand into popular culture and as Web3 becomes mainstream, the issue of pseudonymous businesses dealing with real money – and lots of it – is a new economic and legal reality.
There are reasons why in the traditional business world, the CEO or founder of a company uses their real name and not a pseudonym. For publicly traded companies, officers must be named in Securities and Exchange Commission filings and reports. For even smaller private businesses, there are banking regulations and “know your customer” laws that require real names for banks lending money or holding accounts for businesses. These laws are intended in part to prevent terrorists, criminals, or sanctioned nations from doing business in the United States.
Solano and Aronow don’t seem to have any particular red flags (aside from Aronow domain name squatting). But what if in another NFT collective, the founders turn out to have a long criminal history or extreme political leanings that might make collectors regret spending huge sums of money on their products?
“It shouldn’t be hard to know who you’re dealing with,” Gary Kalman, US office director for advocacy group Transparency International, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s a pretty basic thing.” While a sophisticated venture capital firm might know more about who is really behind a company, the average NFT holder cannot. “Without transparency and openness, so ordinary people who can’t do their due diligence like big business does, it can create problems – and there’s no reason for that.”
“It will significantly open up opportunities for people who otherwise have the odds against them.”
Some believe blockchain heralds a new and improved form of corporate transparency. “Yes, there can be liability,” said Mark Cuban, entrepreneur and owner of two Bored Apes. “The reason for this is that all transactions are based on smart contracts and written in the blockchain, which is the antithesis of traditional commerce. What other collectibles company publishes all of its sales and business processes?”
It is possible that pseudonymous companies will become our new reality. Soona Amhaz, a partner at crypto-focused venture capital firm Volt Capital, believes there could be benefits to that. Unlike the traditional startup world, it frees founders from judgments about their physical appearance, school, social class, gender, or race. “This will significantly open up opportunities for people who otherwise have the odds against them because they don’t come from the right school, the right companies, or because they live in a place where coming forward might mean become a target,” she told BuzzFeed. News.
According to Amhaz, it is possible for investors to learn how to do their due diligence with pseudonymous founders; they just need to adjust and adapt. In the recent case of a founder of a decentralized finance protocol revealed to be someone who has already been convicted of fraud, the information had been sitting there in the blockchain if someone had just pieced together the links. “It’s an unfamiliar way of doing things and relatively new,” Amhaz said, “but I really believe it’s going to be a meaningful part of the future of work.” ●
Emily Baker-White contributed reporting for this story.