Painting DAOs: What Are We Doing Here?

The hard things about building a DAO are the hard things about painting a good landscape portrait.

June 15, 2022 | 5 minute read

I wanted to be an artist when I was young - a painter, specifically. I grew up in East Scotland, in a small city along the coast of the North Sea. My high school had a small van that the art teacher would pack with easels, brushes, paint, and students. We would drive out into the hills, the old-growth forests, or the coast to spend an afternoon painting landscapes.

Dunnottar Castle, a ruin not too far from my high school we would go and paint often

Painting landscapes is difficult to do well. As you paint a scene, you must decide what is in-frame and what is not. If you’re not careful, you can easily blow the composition of your entire landscape by including an object that is mostly—or entirely—out of frame. You must also balance the details of an object and it’s relationship to other objects in the landscape. It is common for junior artists to paint a tree that is too big for its position in the middle ground. It is easy for two parallel objects in the scene to be out of proportion.

To help us learn, my art teacher made little frames of balsa wood that we could hold up to a scene and check the frame of our landscape. These frames helped us measure, but also introduced a third challenge: returning back to the same frame with each measurement.

These three hard-things about painting a landscape are also the hard things about building a DAO.

Defining a Frame

As a new frontier, the scene in front of DAOs is enormous. It contains at least the future of work, coordination, governance, and finance. Too many DAOs haven’t looked at this scene and defined their own landscape. That is, they haven’t consciously decided what is “in-frame” for them. Scenes are great to look at but make for terrible landscape drawings - you just can’t fit everything on the page. We must define what is in-frame and—in so doing—define what is out.

The DAOs we’ve seen be most successful have so far had very narrow frames (not at all a criticism):

  • ConstitutionDAO: raise money to buy an original copy of the constitution
  • Rehash: produce a podcast on web3 by and for token-holders
  • SquiggleDAO: buy more squiggles!

Narrow frames are easier to define, maintain, and measure but are, by definition, small. It’s one way to solve this problem of frame definition. Should ConstitutionDAO launch an in-person residency program? Absolutely not. Where this gets tricky is when your frame is larger and something could conceivably be in frame. Should FWB run an in-person residency program? Maybe. But also maybe not. The edges of the frame are the hardest to negotiate.

I’m picking on residency programs because they were center-frame for Cabin, maybe still are, and probably are not for most other DAOs. But this idea should give you a lot of permission to pick your battles. Does your DAO need to figure out a novel legal structure? Does it need to figure out self-management at a large scale? Are these really center-frame for you?

Maintaining the Frame

As a student learning to paint, I remember getting most frustrated by proportion. I would get drawn into a single object, get it perfect, only to lean back and see that it was now way too large for where it was in the scene. It’s an easy mistake to make. Difficult as it may be, you have to keep the big picture in mind as you fill in the details of a single object.

In DAOs, this looks like: an organization with a big mission to govern a thing and 10 podcasts, 4 newsletters, a blog, and very active social media channels. I’m not talking about scam projects or vaporware here - legit DAOs and startups alike can fall into this trap and set a positive flywheel spinning faster than it needs to be, given the maturity of the organization. A team working on a supporting function does well, so they attract more talent and resources. They do even better, which then attracts more talent and resources. Before long an organization with one stated mission is spending most of their time and resources on something else. They’ve leaned in to focus on one object in the scene and lost sight of the bigger picture.

It’s challenging to be detail oriented about a single object while keeping the entire landscape in mind, especially as a group. But proportion and balance are what make the difference. The solution is two-fold: ensure everyone has a clear sense of the entire frame and ensure people are routing to parts of the frame that need attention.

Returning to the Frame

Good landscape painters don’t need to hold a physical frame up to a scene. But using a physical frame helps someone learn in the same way training wheels do. You just have to bring the frame back to the same exact position each time you measure your scene.

Each measurement is a renegotiation of what is in or out of frame. The center is easy, it’s the edges that have to be revisited. How much of that cluster of trees was originally in frame?

Cabin does this by getting the core team together for one week, every quarter. This has been so effective for us that it’s hard for me to imagine how other teams might do it otherwise. And if you’re interested in something similar, email us at I know our friends at Krause House do something like this weekly through their governance process. I worry most DAOs don’t have a clear sense of their frame and the ones that do aren’t making the time to revisit it.

The essential practice is to survey your DAO (i.e. taking a step back and looking at everything holistically) while also looking at what you’ve collectively decided is the frame and trying to spot the differences. Where have you over-invested, effectively making an object larger in the landscape than it needs to be? Where have you misread the boundary of the frame, spending time on something that is really out-of-frame?

Parting Thoughts

There’s a difference between defining a frame and defining scope. The latter has to do with how well you can fill in the details of a single object, given your current resources. With more resources, you’d fill in more details. But that’s independent of how much space it takes up in your frame (its proportion) or whether it’s in frame at all (its position).

There’s a linguistic tool in this metaphor: in-frame and out-of-frame. My hope is that you’d take this to your teams and use this language to visualize your DAO and where it allocates time and money. After all, most conversations about priorities are really frame negotiations.

A strength of DAOs is that they’re able to explore divergent paths quickly and effectively. However, the other side of this is that it can be very easy for DAOs to lose focus. Most DAOs will fail (most organizations of any type do). And most of those failures will be from a lack of focus: a lack of a clearly defined, shared frame that you’re filling in together.