Beyond the Interface is a fashion-tech series that explores the vibrant spectrum of next-gen designers and artists in the Web3 industry. The series provides an inside look into the digital ecosystem’s most promising names and explores the radical shifts challenging all creative practices.
For the second installment, Hypebae spoke with Akash Nihan, founder and CEO of Genies, the industry’s leading avatar-building platform. In a dazzling conversation, Nihan walked us through Genies’ journey, why the metaverse should not be called that way and how Web3 can be extremely identity-affirming.
Imagine if they had told you a few years ago that it would be easy to have a daily hair refresh, lollipops for arms or hot pink eye contacts. Actually, imagine if they had told you a few years ago that you would want those things. We have entered a time where our identity has become an ever more abstract concept, a time where we have a physical and a digital identity. We’ve all heard about metaverse, NFT, crypto and many other words we do not fully understand. The world of Web3 feels inaccessible, complex and esoteric, yet, when done right, is extremely liberating.
Digital ecosystems are redefining the way we understand ourselves and how we portray ourselves. Perhaps it is finally making everyone understand that human identity is a concept in flux. The way we sense, feel, reflect and present our sense of self is being redefined, with the lines between IRL and URL identities becoming blurry. In Web3, identity is not viewed as a gender but as a dimension. The idea of a new coded self, human’s next evolutionary stage, sparked Genies to find a solution for digital identity.
Since 2017, Genies has had a mission of allowing people to freely express their authentic selves through digital avatars. Whether your avatar looks like you or completely different, Genies is open to everybody. Defined by Gen-Z as “culture’s go-to digital identity,” Genies always puts the control in the creators’ hands through self-serve tools that without physical constraints allow you to express yourself according to what’s inside. With its “Cut N’ Mix” program, users can create and edit fashion pieces for their avatars. The platform has also launched “The Warehouse,” an avatar wearable NFT marketplace where creativity knows no boundaries.
Scroll down below to read our interview with Akash Nihan.
First things first — could you introduce Genies to our audience? And, who is beyond the Genies interface?
Genies is an avatar tools company empowering humans to create and own their personal avatar ecosystems. We first started out creating digital avatars for celebrities like Justin Bieber, Cardi B, and J Balvin, but our vision has always been to put control in the hands of individual creators through self-serve design apps and creator tools. In Genies’ ecosystem, anyone will be able to become a business, a creator, a fashion brand, a destination, or all of the above. At Genies, we believe that avatars are a mode of communication and a vehicle for emotions. Genies currently has 150 employees based out of Los Angeles, where engineers and technical artists have created the anatomy of a Genie and what controls it, allowing people to build their own avatars and be able to conduct themselves in our ecosystem.
Genies was recently valued at over $1 billion USD. What would you say were the factors that made your digital startup grow into a successful leading avatar technology company?
Our innate focus and disciplined approach are centered around making avatars a mode of communication for the right audience, allowing them to express themselves and connect with like-minded individuals. In our mind, that comes down to Gen-Z, specifically, what we’ve denoted as the “cool kids” of the internet, which happens to be a lot of Hypebae’s readers and followers. If I’m talking to anyone within culture, one relatable point has been talking about any character from Euphoria. From that perspective, people get exactly who we’re going for. That focus has been helpful and in that vein, we have been building out a roadmap and technology that supports that audience and their specific use cases.
The people that tend to popularize a new social mechanic are the people who are the newest on earth. They are the ones that want to be able to find new connections more than anyone. They haven’t experienced as many connections or emotional latitudes compared to people that have been on earth longer. If you take Gen-Z specifically, they’ve been born within a context way different than what I was born within. For Gen-Z, every single billboard is a TikTok, every single commercial sound is a TikTok sound, and they need something way more than just text to be able to express themselves within this new world and context — and we believe an avatar is very fitting for that.
I understand Genies prefers the term “Avatar Ecosystem” to “Metaverse.” Could you elaborate on this, and why is it less restrictive to utilize the first one?
I think metaverse is a word that was created by the media to make everybody believe that the future is just about existing in a virtual realm. What they’re forgetting is the concept of freedom, which is something that resonates with Gen-Z quite a bit and is becoming a growing movement. If all of them left TikTok, Instagram, and Youtube tomorrow, then none of those platforms would exist. They rely upon the content they bring. What people want is not to exist in Meta 3.0, they want to exist in a free environment. When we talk about avatar ecosystems, it’s not really “Avatar Ecosystems” vs “Metaverse,” it’s more about how we don’t want to create the Genieverse, we want to create tools that allow people to create their own universe. We think avatar ecosystems are a way to define that more holistically where one can create their own avatar ecosystem, which can be divided into avatars, fashion and collectibles, spaces, and experiences.
How do younger generations use Web3 to affirm their identity?
We’ve seen communication evolve through time; it started with pens and letters and eventually got to phone calls, the internet, and social media. It goes back to what the context in which we were born is like and what we have at our disposal to express ourselves. This context nowadays is the world of Roblox, TikTok and being constantly digitally immersed. I think an avatar is a great beginning point and it’s not just the artistic encapsulation, but it’s also the behaviors, the vehicle and the mode to change our identity fluidly based on the situational context we’re in. We don’t have to be bound by physical constraints and we get to reinvent ourselves regularly based on our emotions at any given point.
Genies recently launched “The Warehouse.” What are the possibilities for users to showcase their creativity while connecting with like-minded individuals?
Possibilities are endless considering we are providing tools to create whatever you want in your own avatar ecosystem. This includes a marketplace where you can showcase some of your greatest and latest collections that other people can access. I don’t think it’s only going to be for a monetary outcome. Anybody can go ahead and buy one of the creations (which technically will be an NFT) and then can go ahead and DIY it into their own interpretation. So I think the community aspect of this is going to be through the collaboration of creations. It goes back to my first point where we don’t want to create and own our metaverse, we want to empower people to have the tools to create whatever their perception of the future of the internet is going to be.
What is so special about Genies’ avatars?
We’ve been building avatars since 2017 and we’ve developed a very strong technology that’s been able to help craft and create the aesthetic and behaviors of avatars today, but then also have become the most popular avatar of tastemakers and people of notoriety over the past few years. We’ve adopted 99% of the celebrity avatar market share and specifically have signed deals with UMG and WMG to become the official avatar and digital goods provider for all talent under those umbrellas.
How is Genies helping Web3 creativity be explored and understood?
I think digital craftsmanship is understood through web2, but it’s not being realized in web3 quite yet. I do think that it will be the next region of entrepreneurship. As we get more digitally immersed and people become more socially connected through different platforms, they start to realize the tools that are being offered. TikTok and Instagram have been the eras in which influencing was born, people started to make businesses out of their lifestyles. I think we are going to see that with avatar ecosystems as people start meeting like-minded individuals through the form of being able to create. They will also become more shrewd and more talented in how to create these ecosystems.
Web3 and digital art can often seem inaccessible and hard to understand. What was the process like to create an accessible platform that Gen-Z could easily use? I particularly like the visual aesthetic of Genies — it feels Web2 nostalgic yet Web3 innovative.
I think most people equate web3 with crypto, NFTs and the metaverse. However, it’s important to think around and acknowledge the relatability and actual nerves of what Gen-Z wants when they think about connecting with other individuals. Genies serves as more of an art form and expression vehicle versus something you can only monetize off of. Our main priority is a mission to allow people to express their authentic selves and swing the pendulum back to authenticity on the internet versus the money-making business side of things. We have been able to build the right way and prioritize our users versus our business model.
Why is promoting empowerment and freedom of expression vital to Genies?
Web2 has always been about platform first, tools second, and companies wanting to make sure they own the entire ecosystem and environment. Moving into a more decentralized future, we want to give people the freedom to create their version of what the future internet, ownership, and social interaction looks like. If we consider freedom to be an inherent characteristic of how people interact in the future, we want to make sure we empower that and not take it away by simply becoming another platform. We are a tools company that allows people to manifest whatever speaks to them.
How important have virtual dynamics of fashion experiences become for Gen-Z and non-binary users? How does the Genies fashion world encourage confidence and inclusivity?
In digital ecosystems, there are no physical world constraints so forget inclusivity as it pertains to race, gender, etc. If you want to identify as an inanimate object you can do that, if you want to create something that isn’t able to be physically constructed in the world today, you can do that. The virtual world is amazing for expression because it goes past the limitations of the real world.
Do Gen-Z’s digital twins usually resemble their physical appearance? What about yours?
A lot of the time, Gen-Z’s “digital twins” resemble something aspirational, an alter ego, or something that they can create multiple versions of themselves with. Think of it as expressing all the different moods you may have. Sometimes that manifests itself in a wildflower garden or devilish persona — it truly is just an artistic expression of how you want to perceive yourself at the moment. As for mine, it definitely does not represent my physical appearance. My current avatar is headless, has lollipops for arms, and a dope sweater with a smiley face on it. It doesn’t represent my physical appearance, but if you know me it’s pretty on point.
Finally, what does the future of Genies look like?
Genies holds a very long-term and ambitious vision — we believe that we will become the mobile apps of web3. We want to empower users to be able to create their own avatar ecosystems, in which virtual and freedom will meet at the intersection of a new culture. The future of Genies is way beyond digital fashion and if we are successful you will see millions of genie avatar ecosystems with a multitude of different use cases very similar to what is seen on the app store.