Zach Burks squinted at the sun, as he offered to shake my hand on the rooftop of Mintable’s loft office in Little India. I was there to film a documentary project about non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and I did not have much expectations about the meeting.
I was pleased to find how jovial and approachable Zach was. He looked like your average jolly American who chugged beers at parties and ate hot dogs while camping in front of his trailer. He had brown hair and bushy brown beard, an easy smile, a glint in his eyes that bordered on mischief. He wore a T-Shirt that said “Ethereum”.
“I was in the military for a number of years”, Zach recalled. “I did not go to college. I stumbled into crypto randomly on the internet”.
Hailing from California, Zach told me he had always been a laid-back nerd. He was not the kind of person who followed established mainstream paths, however he was perpetually curious and he loved to learn. “Probably you could tell why I was drawn to crypto”, he grinned at me. “I have always been a rebel, a risk-taker, and an innovator”.
Zach discovered Bitcoin early, around 2012–2013. “Early on, I did not really understand what it was. It was just kinda a thing on the internet. I played around, and I opened an account on Mt. Gox, that’s it”. He bought some crypto, used some, and he took a break from it when he served in the military.
Afterwards, around 2015 when Ethereum launched, he decided to become a smart contract developer. “Discovering Ethereum and smart contract applications was a different story. Non-fungible tokens were also a different story. Even before the Crypto Kitties, I was already seeing the possibilities of using a smart contract to represent different objects”.
Zach then worked on a smart contract application to track sapphires for traceability and authenticity certificates. He saw Crypto Kitties at a hackathon, and became the first of the few people who made money out of this NFT. “For the very first time ever the concept of NFT as we know it today clicked in my brain. I fell in love. I saw the possibilities for NFT application across different industries – it was endless”.
In 2018, he came up with the genesis of Mintable, which was projected to be an NFT generator. It was only a proof-of-concept. He saw that there was a gap in the space for NFT generators, so he seized the opportunity to be among the first players to fill in this gap.
Mintable was built as an NFT marketplace with a proprietary smart contract that shifts the gas fees from creators to buyers. Zach left California and moved to Thailand, and then to Singapore to launch Mintable. Mintable beta was released in 2019.
“I like Singapore because it is a much friendlier environment to build a cryptocurrency business. It is very progressive, it has clear cut regulation and taxes are friendlier to businesses”, he said.
So far, Mintable has achieved several important milestones. It became the first platform to auction off a physical painting from the 18th century – broadcast by CNBC – and the auction generated a bidding war among multiple billionaires.
Mintable has seen many successful “drops” and grown to accommodate hundreds of thousands of users and millions of dollars worth of trading volume, making it one of the biggest NFT platforms to date.
“One day I was walking my dog at a neighbourhood dog park in Singapore,” Zach recalled. “I was wearing my Mintable T-Shirt. Suddenly this guy came up to me and talked to me about using Mintable, and asked me what my role was with Mintable. When you start running into random people who are using your creation, this is when you know you have sort of ‘made it’”, Zach said.
Rule Number One in Crypto: Be Comfortable with a Rollercoaster Ride
We often have this faulty impression that people who are successful today due to cryptocurrency got there due to pure luck. This could not be further from the truth. Most people who’ve “made it” in crypto today believed in crypto, despite the rollercoaster ride over the past decade, through the flurry of changing landscapes and infrastructure, regulation and price changes.
Zach launched Mintable in the dead of crypto winter in 2018, and he did not think it was a low point in the industry. “I barely even noticed it”, said Zach.
The bear market was a quiet gestation period, abounded with true blue players in the industry who kept churning hard to make their dreams a reality. “Before the crash there were so many noises in the industry – lots of ICOs and scams and everything was inflated. You could not sift the good ones from the bad ones”, Zach said.
When the crash happened, it was almost a relief. Zach was working and networking a lot. There was some gloomy unhappiness in the air but the hardcore believers kept their heads down and continued to build the ecosystem. In the NFT space, people in the know were exploring this new technology and getting all excited.
Zach told me that he could not have been more blasé with the volatility of prices in crypto. “Man, I’ve had my portfolio 80% down so many times already, I don’t care. I could gain millions and lose millions overnight. If you want to be in crypto, your conviction has to be super strong”.
Zach kept telling everyone to get into cryptocurrency, including his own family members. He told his Dad to buy Bitcoin when it was only $5. So strong was his conviction that he could not care about all the naysayers among his social circles and family members.
To date, Zach’s unwavering belief in the technology of blockchain and cryptocurrency has not changed. He is bullish about the industry’s long-term prospects. What has changed is his belief that Ethereum was going to be the standard go-to for Layer1 blockchain. As new alternatives are sprouting left and right, his views have changed. He thinks the landscape is going to be more democratised, with a lot of options to choose from. However, everything has to be interoperable with each other, and cross-chaining should be made easy. He is convinced that eventually all major traditional businesses will incorporate blockchain technology in one way or another.
“As a cryptopreneur, I have to plan for the worst, hope for the best. Be resilient.” Zach repeated the motto that he learnt from his military days. “I think the most important thing that the military has taught me is to be steadfast and resolute”.
As someone who prided himself as an autodidact, Zach’s proudest personal accomplishment was publishing a paper in the journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), explaining how NFTs or ERC 721 can be used to trace food supply chain systems.
“So yeah, this was my way of telling the world that I do not need to go through a formal education to be educated”, he said.
Challenges and Vision Moving Forward
Currently, Mintable’s main challenge is dealing with high gas fees in Ethereum. However Zach saw this challenge as an opportunity. Mintable went through an upgrade and optimized their smart contract even more, in order to reduce the gas cost by 70%. Being able to optimise the gas for users for such a large amount is another milestone for the company.
Zach envisions Mintable to be the biggest NFT marketplace by volumes, items and users, and the most user-friendly at that. They recently just released a big collection that lists every single ERC 721 ever minted from 2017 to present time. Other new features include the comments function on the marketplace. They are also working on multiple Layer-2 integrations that will improve user experience and create a seamless NFT shopping experience, as seamless and as easy to understand as Amazon, Etsy or Lazada.
Zach is not deterred by the abundance of scams and rugpulls in the industry. In his opinion, blockchain and cryptocurrency exist on the Internet, and hence they attract very diverse people from all over the world. There are fraudsters, but also evangelists. There are negative, toxic, scamming communities and shadow industries, but there are also great communities online who give out free things, including education.
The blockchain technology itself, according to Zach, does not encourage scams. The internet in general is just a democratic, chaotic place that opens a pandora box of all sorts of good and evil. All in all, blockchain is a positive force for humanity – the great equaliser – as it enables someone in a remote part of the world to be as financially empowered as someone in New York.
“These days, people are teaching kids how to create NFTs. Anyone can make an NFT and get started early. Children could be starting a potential career as a creator, and blockchain technology allows for automatic financial feedback for creators”, Zach said.
“I got lucky that I discovered cryptocurrency early”, said Zach with a laugh, when asked about just how much profit he was sitting on from his cryptocurrency investments.
“I can’t tell you how much, but just know that you won’t find me retiring early on a yacht in Monaco. Instead, I will be pulling long hours with Mintable and have huge eye bags. I’m in this for real. I want to make an impact”.