Are NFTs all about hype? Are they just a way for the rich and famous to earn another quick buck? Or maybe they're just another type of clique, a way for those in the know to flaunt their status.
Erwin "Benedicto" Valencia, founder of the Gratitude Gang NFT project, thinks NFTs can be used for good. As indicated by the name, Gratitude Gang is all about helping others and being thankful for what we have in life.
Valencia is a true third culture kid. He was born in New Jersey but grew up in Houston, Texas; San Jose, California; and Davao City, Philippines.
He then returned to the Philippines for high school and university, after which he came back to the States. He's also lived in Japan and Indonesia.
"I'm very blessed to have lived in many places. I got to see the world with my own eyes. I also learned how to be independent at a young age."
Valencia and I are chatting on Zoom. The first thing I notice about his background is that the wall is covered in hats. He laughs and admits that he's been an obsessive hat collector for years.
“There are plenty more that you can’t see right now,” he says.
Valencia has a smiling, calm demeanor. He speaks with enthusiasm, but it isn't excessive.
Valencia's background is in health and wellness, an industry where he's still active today. In fact, he's currently the team physiotherapist and wellness lead of the New York Knicks, where he's been for the past eight years.
He also co-founded a sports medicine education company in South Korea and New Zealand called KinetIQ, which is now operated by his former business partner.
Valencia has always been physically active. He began meditation at age 7, became a taekwondo black belt at age 12, and got into basketball as he grew older. Valencia decided that if he couldn't become a professional athlete, then he was going to take care of them.
"Somewhere along the way, I discovered that my true gift was my ability to take care of people."
He got into crypto in 2018. He'd just sold a house, and instead of putting the money into a bank, he decided to invest.
Three years later, Valencia was introduced to NFTs through a Clubhouse room.
"In the spring of 2021, Clubhouse was full of conversations about NFTs. I was in the room when the creators of BAYC were talking about their project."
Valencia says he's known media entrepreneur and NFT evangelist Gary Vaynerchuk for more than six years. Vaynerchuk has been a major influence in his approach to crypto and NFTs.
"He's actually a Knicks fan. I bumped into him one day when he was waiting for a client from the opposite team."
"It wasn't until recently, however, that I became interested in the utility of NFTs and in the communities that form around them."
NFTs for good
Community is one of the operative words in the foundational vision behind Gratitude Gang. As someone who's driven to help and care for people, Valencia wanted to find a way to use NFTs to empower non-Western artists and disenfranchised communities.
When Typhoon Rai hit the Philippines in December 2021, Valencia realized this was his time to help. Instead of conventional methods like GoFundMe, he decided to raise money through NFTs.
"The country was already ravaged by COVID. When the super typhoon hit, I realized that I could use NFTs to raise funds and generate a community to help Filipinos."
Gratitude Gang is an NFT collection of more than 2,000 sunflowers. According to the project's website, each sunflower is unique, with more than 200 hand-drawn traits.
The project's artists are Filipinos. Gratitude Gang directly funnels profits to support these artists and to help Filipino communities rebuild schools affected by the typhoon. Gratitude Gang also funds efforts to digitize schools' infrastructure.
Before the project's official launch, Valencia and his team organized a marketing campaign called "22 Days of Gratitude" in February 2022. The project's whitelist, Grati-List, launched on Feb. 2, 2022, at 22:22, via a Taco Tuesday-themed real-life event in New York. (Gratitude Gang's held its pre-sale on Mar. 21.)
"Basically, we used Twitter Spaces and asked people to tell us what they were grateful for."
Valencia also held a meeting with Vaynerchuk, who offered some advice.
"He told me that our community needs to be strong. He also said he wasn't going to buy one of our initial NFTs, because the purchase would attract the attention of flippers. He told me to build our community first."
Valencia says he tapped the NFT community in the Philippines to achieve this goal, working with personal contacts and local artists.
"A lot of people don't know this, but around 28 to 30 percent of NFTs in the world belong to Filipino users, largely because of Axie Infinity."
(Axie Infinity is a play-to-earn game in which players can breed and trade characters known as Axies, which are represented by NFTs.)
Valencia admits he also probably got some help from Vaynerchuk.
"He asked for our Discord, so I sent it to him. I'm not sure what he did with it, but it went from 130 people to around 4,000. Our Twitter also exploded to around 1,800 within a few days."
Ultimately, however, Valencia credits the power of the Filipino community for the platform's growth. He says Filipinos are craving more projects led by Filipino entrepreneurs and creators.
The unexpected explosion in potential users came with its own set of issues. First off, Valencia’s team had only minted 2,000 NFTs for the initial white list, but now they had 10,000 potential buyers. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but the team was worried that the Filipino community would be pushed out by big spenders.
Valencia and his team decided to limit purchases to one NFT per person, while also going through a rigorous vetting process.
"I tend to be cautious about things that grow too quickly. You have to step back and assess things. Is this real or fake? Are these actual people or bots? How do I capitalize on this interest without damaging the project’s reputation and sacrificing our original vision?"
When the hype train leaves
After three weeks of vetting, however, the hype stage was over. People shifted their attention to other projects. The Discord community was dwindling. The haters started talking smack.
"People tend to think that if you don't sell out in the first 24 hours, you're not a success in the NFT world. That's how quickly things move."
Valencia was disheartened. He felt like he'd let the Filipino community down. With things cooling down, the flippers and hype chasers were leaving.
"My main goal was to support local Filipino artists, rebuild schools ravaged by the super typhoon, and to spread gratitude and positivity, and now people were accusing me of being a fraud."
Valencia points out that all his social media handles are his real name. His identity is completely exposed.
"As a guy that coaches people on mental health, I found myself in need of coaching myself. I was losing my personal rituals and experiencing anxiety. I started getting headaches."
Don't forget to live
Valencia then remembered Vaynerchuk's advice: Focus on your community and the people you care for.
"I was so focused on the metaverse that I forgot that I'm still alive. If you don't stop and realize that you're a human in the real world, your mental health will decline fast."
Valencia reset his mindset: When the flippers bail and the hype train departs, that's when you focus on those who actually believe in your mission.
Gratitude Gang is currently working on a speaker series on Discord, which will allow members to get coaching on everything from spiritual and mental health to business and finance. They're rewarding their OGs and loyal followers with "baby" sunflowers, which are the platform's reward system.
"There's this culture in Web3 that often glamorizes the hustle. Work 24/7. Don't eat or sleep. Look at Discord every second. Hustle, hustle, hustle. The NFT world is also in danger of turning into a Wall Street situation, where speculation can change everything."
Valencia believes, however, that when the smoke clears, heart-centered projects will come to the front line. Hype can only go so far. Now, he's working at taking things a step at a time, instead of fixating on short-term results. Near the end of our conversation, he hints that he wants to leave New York and come home to Asia.
"I don't want to spend my entire career in basketball. There's so much I feel I can contribute to the elevation of consciousness in Asia, and even more specifically in the Philippines and maybe even Korea -- whether in basketball, sports medicine, wellness, NFTs, and beyond. That's where I feel I can truly make a difference. "
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