Editorial: The Current Business Land Rush in the Blockchain-Based Virtual Worlds (and the Forgotten Lessons from Second Life’s Corporate Boom)

It’s déjà vu all over again.

—Yogi Berra (source)
The virtual office of accounting firm Prager Metis International in Decentraland (image source: The Wall Street Journal)

This morning, I read a January 7th, 2022 article in The Wall Street Journal titled Accounting Firms Scoop Up Virtual Land in the Metaverse (archived version), which discusses how PricewaterhouseCoopers and Prager Metis made acquisitions last month to begin operating in the metaverse. Please go over there and read the article in full; below is the section pertinent to my editorial today:

Businesses across industries, including real estate, technology and cryptocurrency, have been purchasing digital land on platforms such as Decentraland and the Sandbox. Executives have started drafting business plans for operating in those virtual worlds, which are typically conceived by videogame developers.

Prager Metis International LLC, a New York-based accounting and advisory firm, on Friday said it opened a virtual three-story property on a site it bought for nearly $35,000 in late December. The firm, which operates 23 physical offices in the U.S., Europe and Asia, made its purchase on the Decentraland platform in partnership with Banquet LLC, a firm that funds and manages blockchain ventures.

Prager Metis plans to use its virtual building to advise companies and other new and existing clients on tax and accounting issues, Chief Executive Glenn Friedman said. The firm expects that many of its clients, particularly those in the entertainment and fashion industries, will seek its services in the metaverse as more companies decide to conduct business there, according to Mr. Friedman. “If the metaverse is going to replace the internet, then certainly business is going to use it,” he said.

Other accounting firms are also venturing into the metaverse. PricewaterhouseCoopers in late December said its Hong Kong unit acquired virtual real estate in the Sandbox, a subsidiary of software firm Animoca Brands Corp., for an undisclosed amount.

“The Metaverse offers new possibilities for organizations to create value through innovative business models, as well as introducing new ways to engage with their customers and communities,” William Gee, a partner at PwC Hong Kong, said in a statement.

And, like Yogi Berra once famously said, I got déjà  vu all over again.

In November 2017, in the earliest days of the RyanSchultz.com blog, I wrote:

I still remember the crazy heyday of Second Life, with the hype machine set to maximum, from 2006 to 2008. Everybody was going on about how virtual worlds in general, and Second Life in particular, were going to revolutionize business and education. News organizations like Reuters, countries like Sweden, and big corporations like American Apparel and IBM trooped into SL and set up sims.

(Of course, most of those organizations trooped out of SL just as quickly as they trooped in, leaving the field to the many mom-and-pop businesses that give SL its vibrancy.)

And in July of 2018, I wrote:

Second Life went through a period (around 2006-2007) where many real-life companies, like American Apparel and Playboy, trooped in and set up shop. Almost all of those corporations left after a year or two, not seeing any real value for their investment of time and money in SL.

But, you may say; but!! It’s different this time around, you may say. And you may well be right. Perhaps, this time, all the stars will align and people will create an avatar, go into a social VR platform or a virtual world like Decentraland or the Sandbox, figure out how to dress themselves, move around and talk, locate your virtual office or shop, and actually transact business. But, for anybody who was in Second Life between 2006 and 2008, during a previous iteration to the current metaverse hype cycle, this all has a rather familiar ring to it.

Businesses who want to set up a virtual office or shop in any metaverse platform—Decentraland, the Sandbox, venerable old Second Life, wherever—need to stop and ask themselves the following pertinent questions (and yes, a consultant like Cathy Hackl, Godmother of the Metaverse, would probably charge you a pretty penny for this advice, but hey, me, I’m going to give it to you for free!):

  1. What is your use case? Prepare a written-down description of the ways in which a user would interact with your virtual office. Yes, I’m serious! WRITE IT DOWN AND THINK IT OUT. A formal use case would establish the success scenarios, the failure scenarios, and any critical variations or exceptions to your plan, before you commit.
  2. Who is your target audience? Who are you hoping to reach by setting up a virtual office in social VR or a virtual world, that you you wouldn’t already reach? NFT enthusiasts? Crypto bros? Your Joe or Jane Average consumer? If there’s a mismatch between your target audience and the people who actually use the platform, you need to take a step back and rethink this. You shouldn’t expect a sudden influx of people who are different from the demographic of the current userbase, either.
  3. How technically savvy is your target audience? For example, during Second Life’s boom, many academic libraries set up virtual versions, only to later close them when they realized that expecting people to install and set up a Second Life client, just to look for information or ask a reference question, was too steep a learning curve. In other words, the price of admission was too high. (Yes, I know, Decentraland is web-based, but that, too, has a learning curve and its tricky set-up bits, particularly if you are new to cryptocurrencies, blockchain, and NFTs.)
  4. Will this virtual office be staffed? Or will it just be a place where an avatar can get information, kind of like a fancy, three-dimensional brochure, but with NFTs and videos? 😉 And, if you do plan to staff it, will you have posted office hours? Keep in mind that most metaverse platforms operate 24/7/365; will you have people working in shifts? At the same time, paying someone to hang around in Decentraland or the Sandbox, waiting for someone to wander in, could potentially be expensive.
  5. Seriously, ask yourself why you are doing this, and keep digging until you hit bedrock! Are you setting up a virtual office just for the bragging rights? Are you just responding to all the recent articles about the blockchain-based metaverse which are triggering your FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)? Are you responding to someone else’s FOMO (e.g. your CEO or CTO)?

    So go look into the mirror, and ask yourself why. And whatever answer you give, keep asking yourself why, again and again and again, until you strip out all the corporate-speak and bafflegab and bullshit and you hit your underlying bedrock, your true motivations and intentions. THEN act.

There, you see? Auntie Ryan could definitely give the Godmother of the Metaverse a run for her money! 😜 (Seriously, love you, Cathy! Don’t change what you’re doing!)

Look, people (and by “people”, I mean corporations); I’m not saying don’t do this. I’m saying: if you choose to do this, then carefully think about what you are doing, and why you are doing it, before you jump in feet-first, and start flailing about. And (shout-out to Cathy!) hire consultants who will advise you. (Hey, forget Cathy, hire me! Me!!!)

I remain optimistic that this iteration of the metaverse will take off (unlike Second Life’s relatively short-lived and now seemingly-forgotten corporate boom). But my optimism is tempered by my 14 years of experience in SL…I often joke that I got my Ph.D. in the Metaverse from the University of Second Life! 😉 That experience informs my perspective as I passionately explore and write about the ever-evolving metaverse on this blog.

Second Life is the perfect model of a mature, fully-evolved metaverse platform, which newer entrants into the marketplace would be wise to study, and learn from both its many success stories and its failures, controversies, and scandals.