When it comes to the various bounties of the crypto world, there is arguably none more tantalizing than being the next big smart contract platform.

While no chain has yet successfully dethroned EthereumETH
since its launch in 2015, network congestion and high gas fees have caused developers and investors to search for viable alternatives—an incredible opportunity for competing protocols. With every chain deploying its own method to acquire new users, smart contract platform SolanaSOL
is placing bets on a notably low-fi technique to pull ahead: in-person Hacker Houses.

Co-opting the popular Silicon Valley term, these Hacker Houses (hosted by the Solana Foundation) invite everyone from new developers seeking guidance to existing developers seeking collaborators and investors. Originally born out of an informal offshoot of coders at Breakpoint Lisbon in 2021, these global events (now 29 in total) have grown to be an integral part of the Solana ecosystem—one of the only consistent IRL bridges for a community almost exclusively connected through online channels.

Hacker Houses occur once or twice a month, often in popular cities like Barcelona, Paris or Miami. Their most recent U.S. event, branded Sol.Ladies, was a first-of-its kindgathering—highlighting women developers in the Solana ecosystem. At the event, attendees sit at long tables facing a center stage, where various developers present their projects over the course of four days. On one side of the room is a display of NFT art hung in physical frames, while Solana developers and sponsored hosts hold “office hours” on the other. Upon checking in, a QR code prompts attendees to download a crypto wallet, which includes $3 USDCUSDC
—the only way with which to claim their daily “free” coffee.

The benefit of hosting these events appears logical. With hundreds of blockchains vying to be the next big platform, the network effect becomes as important as tech itself. By reducing the barrier to entry and collaboration, the Solana Foundation hopes it can foster increased activity in its community—in turn strengthening the value of its chain.

“Blockchain is so global it can feel disconnected if done incorrectly,” says Hacker House mainstay and crypto personality Amy Street. “Just because everything lives in the cloud doesn’t mean it can’t also be in person… Solana saw that. That’s why it feels so different than any other blockchain.”

This community draw may be of particular importance right now as the industry is still reeling from an extended crypto winter, that has seen crypto’s value reduced 60% from its all-time high. In the absence of meaningful price data, on-chain metrics like user adoption, dApp integration and new developer count are among the most popular ways to evaluate the value of blockchains. These Hacker Houses should in theory incentivize all three.

And it seems to be working. According to data by DeveloperReport.com, Solana showed the highest developer growth rate of all large crypto ecosystems in 2022—growing its developer base a whopping 83%, compared to Polygon’s 40% and Cosmos’s 25%. This growth launched Solana to become the second most popular developer platform behind Ethereum, with roughly 2,200 total active developers (though it’s worth noting Solana has since lost almost 50% of its developer base in the wake of the FTX collapse).

While it’s not possible to isolate exactly what’s led to Solana’s growth, the event’s attendees (many of them repeat visitors from around the globe) provide anecdotal evidence that the Hacker Houses do incentivize on-chain participation.

“This is one of the best ways to naturally network if you want to find a job in Web3”, says Elizabeth Eidelson, a developer who had first attended a Hacker House in her home city of Miami. “I’m a full stack Web2 developer, but I didn’t know anything about blockchain until I went to one of these…I ended up interviewing organically just by going to office hours. I don’t know many other conferences where you can meet the head developers.”

Another participant, Adam Karren, describes meeting both artists and collectors for his NFT marketplace at Hacker Houses. As a sponsor for one of Solana’s office hour booths, he says he sees a direct business benefit by attending the events.

“There are a lot of people who go Hacker House to Hacker House…last year I went to six of them,” he says. “We view it as an investment. The more people use Solana the more buyers that can buy art from creatives.”

Perhaps the most prominent example of Hacker House success is cryptowallet Decaf, an early Solana adopter which has grown to be one of the sponsors of the event. According to their founder Scott Martin “We were born out of Hacker Houses”, citing direct funding from winning three Hacker House bounties, connecting with their first investor, and also finding several of their first vendor partners at the Hacker Houses.

“Every single time I go I come away with something different,” says Scott who’s flown in from Australia to attend the event. “No one comes close to the developer community of Solana.”

This sentiment is echoed by Scott’s co-founder and brother, Rick, “The reason we came was because of the tech. We stayed because of the community”. He explained that while other platforms like Ethereum or Stella were great on the tech side, they lacked community structure, which was noticeable at their events.

“You could tell at NEAR they didn’t spend much money…the Miami Hack House was sad”.

Despite the endorsement of the Hacker Houses, Rick does also lament that it feels their vibe feels distinctly “early stage”, and the benefit of these events will diminish as the chain itself matures. With the familiar over-exuberant optimism of early tech scenes Hacker Houses can be great for fostering new interest, but at a certain point excitement must give way to structure.

“I don’t think Solana is a mature organization yet. They have tremendous growth and talent but there’s not yet a clear communication on what their intentions are and what they stand for…I think they can take off faster than anyone else if they get that together”

There also is the question of how much the events act as an incentive compared to the technology itself. When asked what the largest factors were that drove them to work on the Solana chain, developers at the conference invariably responded speed and low cost.

Community is appealing, but not as appealing as cheap gas fees, it seems.

On the other hand, while cheap transactional costs are undoubtedly a large driver, recent winners in tech such as TikTok or Telegram successfully edged out their competition largely through user adoption, not particularly exclusive technology. As more players enter the crypto space, there will likely emerge other fast and cheap alternatives. Building a platform where developers feel valued (and happy) seems harder.

Ultimately, the adoption of any protocol will likely be from a combination of reasons, as preferences on fees, security, and functionality always differ by use case. However, it’s safe to say that in an ecosystem where the technology is literally built and powered by its users, having a strong community could prove to be quite the valuable hack.

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