Startups are supposed to specialize, but OpenSea’s founders thrived by building a wide-open market for creating and trading all manner of NFTs, whether art, music or gaming. Now that they’re centimillionaires and poised to become billionaires, they have other worries: competitors, fraudsters and the next crypto crash.
In March 2020, as Covid-19 began to spread, OpenSea founders Devin Finzer and Alex Atallah held a gut-check phone call. Their five-person startup had built a platform on which users could create, buy and sell all sorts of nonfungible tokens (NFTs)—computer files used to track ownership of unique digital assets like art and music on a ledger known as a blockchain. Yet 26 months after going live, they had just 4,000 active users doing $1.1 million in transactions a month, which translated (given OpenSea’s 2.5% sales commission) to a paltry $28,000 in monthly revenue. The NFT market had a “dead feeling,” recalls CTO Atallah, who conducted his side of the call from the basement of his parents’ Colorado home, where he had gone to work as New York locked down. Ominously, Rare Bits, a direct and better-funded competitor, had just announced it was folding. The pair set a do-or-die goal of doubling business by the end of the year—and met it in September.
Finally, in February 2021, the NFT market roused from hibernation—and went crazy. In July, OpenSea processed $350 million in NFT trades. That same month, in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz, it raised $100 million in venture capital at a $1.5 billion valuation. In August, as NFT hype (and FOMO) reached a fever pitch, volume spiked tenfold to $3.4 billion—an $85 million commission windfall for OpenSea in a month when it likely burned less than $5 million on expenses. Although transactions have since retreated to around $2 billion a month, the platform now has 1.8 million active users and a dominant share of the market. It’s up to 70 employees and is scouting for dozens more, including much-needed customer service reps.
Recently, there’s been talk of another round of venture investment at a valuation that could reach $10 billion. With a 19% ownership stake each, CEO Finzer, 31, and Atallah, 29, are centimillionaires on the cusp of becoming crypto’s newest billionaires.
Yet Atallah was humble as he chatted in November at a restaurant in New York’s kitschy new Margaritaville Resort Times Square, sitting near its 32-foot Statue of Liberty replica, which hoists a cocktail instead of a torch. He was there for the third annual NFT.NYC convention, which boasted 5,500 registrants with 3,000 on the waiting list. Young enthusiasts prowled the hotel wearing Bored Ape Yacht Club sweatshirts—a tribute to a collection of 10,000 simian NFTs whose owners treat it as a social club as much as a collectible or investment.
You might say humility was at the heart of Finzer and Atallah’s successful strategy. Some advisors had urged them to specialize in an NFT niche—say, art, gaming or music. But they opted to build a category-agnostic platform because they didn’t think they were prescient enough to predict which NFT types would catch on.
Beyond casting a wide net, Finzer says, OpenSea has thrived simply by “being in the right place at the right time” and listening to users about what they want. The platform tracks NFTs on ethereum and other blockchains, and all purchases are made in crypto. Sellers can opt for a fixed-price or auction format. Artists can reserve a percentage of each resale price. Ultimately, Finzer sees the NFT ownership verification model working for anything from concert tickets to real estate—he’s just not sure what will succeed when. “I’ve always had a pretty gray view of the future,” he says.
Despite its sudden success, OpenSea faces big and varied risks—from fraud and another NFT market bust to new competition. In October, Coinbase, the nation’s largest crypto exchange and an original investor in OpenSea, announced it will launch its own NFT peer-to-peer marketplace. Within weeks, Coinbase had 2.5 million sign-ups for its waiting list, and CEO Brian Armstrong was predicting the new business “could be as big or bigger” than its core crypto trading business.
OpenSea’s open-market approach heightens the risk of counterfeits, scams and fraud—just ask Amazon or eBay. For example, a scammer can copy an image of someone else’s art and sell it as an NFT on OpenSea. Finzer says the site is working on an automated way to spot fakes and has moderators who investigate suspicious offerings. Still, people can present problems too. In September, Finzer requested the resignation of OpenSea’s head of product after Twitter users discovered a crypto wallet linked to that executive was buying NFTs shortly before they appeared on the price-moving OpenSea homepage—in other words, he was allegedly frontrunning his own employer’s decisions.
While they come across as humble, OpenSea’s founders are hardly low on ambition. Raised in the Bay Area by a physician mom and a software engineer dad, Finzer says he was “devastated” to be rejected by Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale. (He settled for Brown.) After a short stint as a Pinterest software engineer, he cofounded his first startup, Claimdog, in 2015 and sold it to Credit Karma a year later.
As a kid, Atallah, the Colorado-born son of Iranian immigrants, made spreadsheets to compare the attributes of everything from birds to browsers. After graduating from Stanford, he worked as a programmer before teaming up with Finzer. In January 2018 they entered the Y Combinator startup accelerator with an idea for paying users crypto to share their Wi-Fi hotspots. But at that point, CryptoKitties—the cartoonish virtual cats whose ownership records were digitally inscribed on the ethereum blockchain—had captured the public imagination. “It was the first time people who didn’t really care about crypto were suddenly getting interested in it for reasons other than flipping a coin. I thought that was really powerful,” Atallah says. They quickly pivoted to OpenSea and later moved their operation to New York City.
Much like Beanie Babies, their cloth-and-stuffing ancestors, CryptoKitties turned out to be duds as investment-grade collectibles—the supply was too great to make most of them worth much. After spiking in early 2018, interest in both crypto and NFTs went into hibernation.
What awakened the market in early 2021 wasn’t OpenSea’s doing. Instead, platforms like the billionaire Winklevoss twins’ Nifty Gateway captured attention with curated, high-quality art. Last March, Christie’s auctioned the NFT for digital artist Beeple’s “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” for $69 million, the third-highest price ever paid for work by a living artist.
As NFTs fetched eye-popping prices, more and more ordinary folks decided they too wanted to become creators, collectors or speculators—and turned to OpenSea, with its anyone-can-be-an-artist ethos, built-in secondary market and handy features. For instance, the site has an advanced filtering system so users can find NFTs with the rarest—and theoretically most valuable—attributes. (Only 46 Bored Apes have solid-gold fur, and they command a hefty premium.) When a new NFT is created and recorded on ethereum, the site automatically spawns a webpage displaying it—a nice feature as NFTs became a status symbol, with people sharing their OpenSea pages and changing their Twitter profile pictures to an NFT they own. “It became this circular feedback loop, driven by envy and desire. And OpenSea really captured that market,” observes Richard Chen, a partner at VC firm 1Confirmation and an early OpenSea investor.
Dani, 27, a former fashion designer living in Georgia, has turned a $17,000 investment in NFTs like the World of Women into a portfolio worth $715,000. AJ, a 37-year-old former gaming company CEO from North Carolina, put less than $10,000 into NFTs and now values his digital assets at $1.3 million. He recently convinced his gastroenterologist brother to start buying NFTs. The brother, in turn, hooked his own buddies. “They’re pretty much doing colonoscopies and then checking their phones for new NFT drops,” AJ says.
Sounds like a bubble, all right, raising the question of how OpenSea will fare when it bursts. Responds Finzer: “We have a large amount of padding in case we need to weather a winter.”