Chewing glass is what Solana developers do. Introducing the fifth episode in a new series on the Solana Podcast, Chewing Glass. Chase Barker (Developer Relations Lead at Solana Labs) talks shop with the most interesting builders in the Solana ecosystem. It’s for devs, by devs. Today's guest is T.J. Littlejohn, the founder of MtnPay and
Chewing glass is what Solana developers do. Introducing the fifth episode in a new series on the Solana Podcast, Chewing Glass. Chase Barker (Developer Relations Lead at Solana Labs) talks shop with the most interesting builders in the Solana ecosystem. It’s for devs, by devs.
Today’s guest is T.J. Littlejohn, the founder of MtnPay, which won 1st Prize in the Payments Track of the recent Riptide Hackathon.
- 01:30 – Origin Story and Background
- 05:12 – MntDAO
- 08:42 – Building with Solana
- 12:04 – MntPay
- 13:25 – The APIs
- 15:43 – Winning at Riptide
- 17:37 – From starting in Solana to winning
- 20:41 – Starting to build in Solana
- 23:38 – Improving onboarding on Solana
- 25:26 – The Developer ecosystem
- 27:07 – Missing Tooling
- 29:30 – Advice for newcomers
The information on this podcast is provided for educational, informational, and entertainment purposes only, without any express or implied warranty of any kind, including warranties of accuracy, completeness, or fitness for any particular purpose.The information contained in or provided from or through this podcast is not intended to be and does not constitute financial advice, investment advice, trading advice, or any other advice.The information on this podcast is general in nature and is not specific to you, the user or anyone else. You should not make any decision, financial, investment, trading or otherwise, based on any of the information presented on this podcast without undertaking independent due diligence and consultation with a professional broker or financial advisor.
Hey everybody and welcome to Chewing Glass, the show where we talk to developers building in the Solana Ecosystem. Today we have with us, TJ LittleJohn. He is the founder of mtnPay, winner of the most recent Solana Hackathon Payments Track for Riptide. TJ, how’s it going, man?
Dude, it’s going good. We’re stoked to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Yeah, man. You and I basically met, I feel like a few months ago when you were building some stuff for iOS. Basically some IDL stuff with Anchor and we were talking about potentially getting you some work going on and then next thing you know, a couple of things happen and here we are. But before we dive too much into that, let’s hear a little introduction. I know a lot of people probably don’t know a ton about you. Where’d you start your journey and how’d you end up here, building in the Solana Ecosystem?
Yeah. Wow. For sure. Abridged version. So, I’m from Florida originally born and raised. Grew up in South Florida, went to school in Tallahassee, Florida State Granoles. Originally I was a big Math guy. Always wanted to do pure Math and trying to see how I could make a career out of that. Finance was an option. And so I was exploring that and someone told me I should learn to code. So, I started learning to code, from that found Hackathons, from that found iOS development. And just down the rabbit hole there. At a hackathon, I ended up securing an internship at Apple, which turned into a job. And then I spent four years there doing research and development and experience prototyping. And then about a year ago I decided I was done with that and I wanted to be in startups. And so I left, joined a startup. Five months after that I found Solana through some friends and I just noticed the point in time we were at. And I was just stoked. And so I quit and I just immediately started building.
Wow. So you don’t have a CS degree, you’re self-taught programmer and landed an internship at Apple dealing on the development side of things?
No, I do have a CS degree.
Oh, you do?
So, I did both. I did Math and CS, but the CS portion to me was the less interesting one. I loved pure Math. I thought it was so cool. CS was more of the necessity one. And then I thought it was cool when I started doing it. But I think I learned a lot more through just the apps I built outside of class. So, partially self-taught. Because that was the more important part, but my education was super important too.
You have a CS degree, you ended up interning for Apple. You did that for how long was it again?
It was four years.
Four years. And you said research, were you actually doing development while you were there?
Yeah, so we did data collection for new products. So think how face ID was trained on millions of images. We built the software to facilitate those user studies that captured the data to train the models, to enable face ID. So we were brought in super early product.
Oh, so I mean, I guess that’s a little more interesting, like somebody who’s into Math, you’re dealing with lots of data and information, or opposed to just writing a high level code or something like that.
Not exactly. The Math thing, it’s like pure Math. I don’t do with data and numbers and processing. I just think pure Math is fucking cool. And when I have an itch about something, I just want to dive. And so, that was the Math thing for me. That was just pure. I love it and I think it taught me how to understand stuff, which I think I still, every now and then, I’ll see, I have the power to do that, which is really cool. The thing with Apple was that it let me just hack on shit. I had month long projects and software efforts that, because I get bored really quick, which is a blessing and a curse. Historically. Apple just let me work on a project and then a month later I was working on something else.
Yeah, we’ve had some conversations, like you said, you get bored really quick, it comes through a little bit in your personality. You get super excited about things and bounce around and that’s why I like your energy, it’s super crazy and incredible. So it’s nice to have people so excited about these things and especially considering the fact of some of the more recent, great things that have happened. I want to really start this whole conversation outside of your past on where it all truly, truly began, which from what I understand was really mtnDAO. That’s like, lit this whole fire off. I don’t know if everybody knows about it and if they do, maybe not how great of a thing that it turned out to be. Maybe about Barrett and Edgar and what they set up and how it was and then how that whole month went for you, that led to this moment.
So yeah, mtnDAO, for people that don’t know was a month long hacker house in Salt Lake City, Utah, where people from all over just congregated and we spent a month working on whatever it is you want to work on, in this co-working space called The Shop. And like you said, Edgar and Barrett, they’re actually the ones that got me into Solana. They were the first people to introduce me and they just threw this hack house to grow the ecosystem out of the kindness of their own hearts and love for co-working and developing and hacking. And so yeah, a bunch of us came through and we just were chilling in Utah. We’d go snowboarding on the weekends. We’d throw parties on Fridays and bring in people from around the City and just strips, just get after it.
And that was the best part. We’d be working from like 10:00, 11:00 AM was when I would roll in till like 1:00, 2:00 in the morning, most days. And a good crew of people were always there doing that too. Maybe if you wanted to go grab dinner, you could and people would come back. But yeah, it was just a lot of incredibly focused work and a nice little crew formed out of that. And so I’ve seen a lot of the same mtnDAO folks at the next hacker houses and stuff, and that’s always fun. And you just become friends with these people.
Yeah, it seems like there was a lot of building going on. I’m not going to lie, I saw that notion that Edgar and Barrett, or I think it might have been Edgar, correct me if I’m wrong, put together this notion. And I was like, a Dev did this? Just because it was so organized and well put together. And then, those guys pretty much put this thing, from start to finish, got this thing going.
Yeah. There was a lot of people that participated in the setup of it. I know Sam had a big part, Edgar and Barrett had a big part. A lot of those core Salt Lake City people were doing this stuff. But yeah. I mean, they took out the trash. There was, under the tables the first day, taping extension cords. So they, I mean, yeah, they did the stuff.
Yeah. I talked to him in Miami and he was like, yeah, I have a room and an office that’s filled with about a hundred monitors. I can’t remember what it is at some point, but it looked like there was tons of building going on there. Whenever I see the community, they didn’t really ask for permission. And a lot of people would say, why don’t you bring a hacker house to our city or this or that? And the reality is, you don’t need that. You have an idea, you execute, you make it known. And people are going to come there and you’re probably going to likely get some sponsors to help you put it on because this is like an incubator. And obviously mtnPay came out of this, which is incredible. Let’s talk a little bit about that. I’m pretty sure, maybe I’m wrong, is that Solana Pay, was it announced before you got to mtnDAO? Or was it announced while you were there?
It was actually the same day. February 1st is when I rolled through.
I was on a phone call with you actually, whenever you showed up, you remember that?
Yeah, you were like, I just got to mtnDAO. Yeah. We were…
I probably called you from the airport. Yeah. I’ve been like–
Probably over-committing myself. And I remember we were talking about doing a possible grant or something for that IDL stuff. And I was like, just trying to not lose that. Not doing my end of it. You were like, TJ, if you just write a notion page on your idea, I can move it through. And I was like, ah, I don’t know. I’m building. And yeah. So we never got through there, but yeah.
Well, I think it worked out pretty well. So, you got there, Solana Pay’s announced, and you were just like, okay, well I’m just going to build something with this.
No, not at all.
There was two funny touch points with Solana Pay that got me rolling. The first one was, I hopped out of mtnDAO to go to the LA hacker house for a two day stint, because I was working with these people. And then as I was about to leave, I remember my friend Greg from Solana News was like, I missed the news cycle on Solana Pay. They must have had insider information, that was a couple of days after it was announced. And I was like, what do you mean, dude? It’s been going on. He’s like, what? I’m like, yeah. Are you not on Twitter? Do you not see this stuff? So, that was funny.
And so, that had top of mind a little bit, but the idea for mtnPay, it was Friday night, it was the night of the first party we were having, we had parties every Friday or Saturday. And I was grabbing a Red Bull from, they had this self-service checkout kiosk, as I do. I just consume just stupid amounts of Red Bull. And I was buying another one and you pay through square, tap your phone. I don’t know. I just had a random idea that it was like, yo, wouldn’t it be hilarious if we rebuilt this self checkout experience and then just added the Solana Pay stuff, because we’re all Solana people here for a month, this the first week and that would just be funny.
And I told him, I was like, I’m just going to do it. And they’re like, that’s hilarious. Do it. And then so on Sunday, my boy Scott was in town and we were at the hacker house just trying to think of things to work on for Riptide. And we were skating through all these different ideas on creator tokens or I don’t remember all the different things. And it was like, what if we do that Point of Sale thing? That’d be cool. And whatever, we could probably build this in a two day stint. Not a big deal and yeah, that’s why we built it.
Yeah, I remember starting to see a couple of days after Solana Pay launched, I started to see all these videos of people filming themselves and you guys paying with Solana Pay. I was like, this is crazy. This just came out. I can’t believe, well, I could believe that you had put that together already. And then from there, Solana Pay’s really gained a ton of traction, but you were really the first person to come out and be like, look, hey guys, I did it. And it’s actually live in this place right now. And it’s still there to this day? They keep that?
Yeah. As far as I know. Our customer success could use some work. And so I haven’t followed up with them in a couple weeks. But we got them set up on our new version, which was a more self-service thing. So as far as I know, it’s still running there. There’s even a week where it wasn’t working and Barrett was texting me nonstop. Like, bro, you need to get this working again because I need this. And so, that’s that classic, build something, people would be upset if it goes away. And so we did that.
Yeah. So you did this in a short amount of time and since then, there was a lot left in the hackathon to go. So, since that first day or that you got that live, I guess you’ve been doing a ton of work up until the point where you made your final submission, tell us a little bit about mtnPay and what work was involved and what are the features and maybe what’s the future of mtnPay.
Yeah, for sure. So the first half the gate was just, it’s an iOS Point of Sale app that enables users to use Solana Pay to pay. And then the second thing is a square integration. So, we use the square APIs to tie it into your current Point of Sale System. So the transactions show up in line. Chase bought a Red Bull here for $3 with his MasterCard and then he bought a cookie for a dollar using Solana Pay. And so that was the core thing. And we had built it specifically for The Shop. We got a bunch of inbound of like, how can I set this up? How can I do it? So we had to take a step back and use a couple weeks to make it more robust and actually usable in self-service. Which was our base for what we wanted to submit to the hackathon, was just like a usable Point of Sale by everyone, it’s still in test flight.
And then Solana Pay evolved to a new spec while we were there. And then immediately became gas on that. And ever since the wheels have been turning there and then that initial spec change is what led us to where we are today, which is honestly, and not a lot of people know this, but we’re more of an API company now. We’re more like SaaS APIs and stuff like that.
I guess, doing the API side makes it a little more versatile so that anybody can use it and they don’t have to use a specific device or framework or anything like that.
Yeah. I think the APIs, to be honest, they came more out of this idea of defensibility, because with a lot of the attention we got, it was like, what’s the opportunity here? Is there something worth building out? And in that, there’s a lot of things that could make you super existential, like just square adding Solana pay themselves. And so how do we actually build a moat in this industry or something. And so we were like, this transaction request thing came up, which enables you to use APIs in Solana Pay, what if we open that up to people and then let that be our defensibility and our moat. And so we spent a lot of time thinking about what that API suite would look like and then realize that, that’s the bigger opportunity from our point of view, but probably more importantly, it’s what we want to build in this space.
I think there’s a lot of opportunities for a lot of people to participate and building out the client that people would use. There’s also a lot of stuff that we weren’t interested in building. Like inventory management and tax reporting and accounting. Like, nah. I want to do the Solana stuff. And the APIs is the Solana stuff. And so that’s where we’re at now.
Now. Yeah. I mean, it makes sense. Here’s the thing, you build a project and you don’t want to start taking on things that you don’t enjoy because then you probably stop enjoying your job. So you do what excites you and then you offload or allow connection points for other people to build that stuff who see that opportunity. But it makes a lot of sense. I’ve talked to people who have created businesses and then they pull in, maybe not this specifically, but like the tax stuff and all these different sort of inventory management. And then it becomes like, I don’t really like this anymore. This is not what I signed up for.
That’s what was happening. And so it was like, really I had to focus on something specifically in there and that’s, we picked the APIs and it’s been cool. We’ve been working with different protocols to add their functionality to our APIs. And yeah, it’s been fun since we started focusing there.
So obviously it was the right move because you, just to circle back to this is, you won the Payments Track of the Riptide Hackathon. There was a lot of competition. There was a lot of good stuff in there. So I’m just curious, how did that feel when you saw that?
I’m dumb competitive. And so it was so funny because it was like, it started off as people are, oh, you going to submit this to Riptide? And it was like, yeah, probably, but we’re not really focused on that. And the closer we got to Riptide, we’re like, we want to win. And then so we had been paying a lot of attention to other people that were building in this space, seeing where people’s attention was. The whole time we were like, I don’t know, fairly confident we would do well to some extent, but then I think it was up to, what did the judges value? You don’t know. But we were super proud of what we built and we’re hoping other people saw what we saw and seeing that we won the Payments Track, it was just like a pat on the back. It was like, we agree.
Yeah. That’s what it was. And there was some chest pounding, there was something like, yes. But I also think the part I was more stoked on was just the attention that would follow and knowing that we could leverage that to build something. Because I think the attention is just like, it’s fuel. And you can’t do it with only attention you have to follow it up. But we knew it would empower a lot of the things that we wanted to do.
Yeah, for sure. And I think these aren’t necessarily your classic typical hackathon, where you hack on some little thing for a week or a month. These sorts of events are actually catalysts to build real businesses. And this is meant to be inspirational to developers that are watching this, that may or may not have dipped their toes into Solana. Maybe they have, but they haven’t gotten anywhere. These stories are super inspirational. So I want to put it in context. What is the timeframe from the day that TJ wrote his first piece or read his first Solana doc to winning Riptide Payments Track? What’s that timeframe?
September, August. I was reading, I was staying up late. I was still working at the startup and I was staying up till like 3:00, 4:00 in the morning, reading that classic, Paul article on doing an escrow. It was partly that it was partly that Packy podcast.
On Solana Summer. That was super dope. I remember I was at the gym and I was listening to him talk about the DJ Apes Mint and two weeks prior I was at Miami hack week, it was like, I remember I was chilling with Barrett, I met him for the first time, we had met through our friend Eve, shoutout Eve. And it was just me, Barrett, Edgar and Eve in this apartment and they were just talking about crypto and I knew nothing. So I wanted to fit in and I was like, oh, I bought some Ethereum lately.
I thought I would impress him. And he is like, nah, and he’s looking at me, he’s like, fuck Ethereum. And I was like, what? And just turns around and he goes, Solana. And I was like, what is Solana? I thought it was like some shit coin. And that was just when it got on my map. And then I saw the Packy thing. I did that. And then all these NFT things were popping up and I’m like, all right, what’s going on? And then Candy Machine pops up. So I’m like reading that contract and I’m reading the Levi’s thing and trying to set one up for myself and it feels like explosions all around me. And I’m like, what is this world? And people are just shipping and I can’t keep up. And it was like overwhelming. And then I quit.
So it’s been about, from zero to hero in seven months, basically. Is what I’m hearing right here. Seven or eight months.
Yeah. Something like that. Yeah. I feel like I got onboarded fairly quick. I feel like I was doing stuff to me that felt like mattered, immediately. All that iOS stuff that I was doing, to me felt groundbreaking.
And I felt like a hero then, honestly. That stuff made me feel more of a hero than what I felt like with Riptide.
To be totally honest.
So it was more so just that you win Riptide, like, wow, I got this thing, but the more part for you was the personal win of actually just starting on this new journey and figuring out how to build on Solana.
Like I said, I’m dummy competitive. So winning Riptide was great. It was a good job power, but with mtnPay, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything yet. I think there’s opportunities too. And we’re on a path to actually really contribute to the Solana Ecosystem. But I don’t feel like I’ve had a major accomplishment there yet. But with the iOS stuff, I totally did. I, from native iOS code, minted an NFT through Candy Machine. I figured out how to talk to Anchor programs from native iOS code. And that to me was like, that gave me so much energy.
So tell me about that. You started building on Solana, did you start messing around with Rust? Did you start messing around with Anchor? Or did you go straight to those SWIFT SDKs that existed? What was your process for getting rolling on Solana?
Yeah. That was the process. And it was great. And I think we have a long way to go before developers can step in and build incredibly easily and efficiently, but the process is still fun. And there’s a lot of toys you get to use when building this up, a lot of exposure, you feel super low level. And yet, they encourage everyone to just dig in and start building shit.
In your opinion, what are some of those things that need to improve to make this easier for the new guys or the old guys? It doesn’t really matter. What needs to happen? And what do we need?
It is like, you will get like, Error A4, and there’s nowhere to go. And you’re digging around. I’m like, dude, you literally got to clone the repo and go line by line and figure out what’s that error? What are we doing? It’s fun. And from when I got into it to like what Armani’s done with Anchor now and the Anchor books, that’s there, the Solana Cookbook, that’s all there now. So it’s easier to do it now. And even when I try to do more on-chain stuff or build out stuff that I’m not comfortable with, I’m able to go reference those materials, but they weren’t there in September.
And that was kind of fun though. It was like a point in time. And I was always envious of people that got to code in machine code, because they had to and what a point in time that must have been to get to be a part of that. And that’s why I started building in Solana, I saw that point in time again, I thought Solana was going to pop and I was like, I’m not missing it.
You were basically like, I see Solana, I see that not everything’s been created and there’s massive opportunities and I’m going to carve myself out a slice of that and just do it. So it’s pretty crazy to be talking about this now.
Yeah, it’s been a journey.
Yeah. And a lot of this was all Discord Support. It was a huge pain in the ass. You answer the same questions 5,000 times a day. Shoutout to the [inaudible 00:25:16] team at Solana labs that really just spent way too much time in Discord and the core engineers that shouldn’t be there all.
Yeah. Alan has actually been obviously incredible.
Fun story, in that with Alan, we were working on that iOS stuff till dumb hours at night, I think it might have been 2:00 in the morning. And we were having these errors we could not figure out. And so we posted in Discord and Alan answered and we’re going back and forth with this guy. Didn’t know him at all. This is our first thing. He’s like, I’m happy to hop on a call with you to help you sort it out. And we were on that call for three hours. But that to me is such a story of people in Solana. There is so many people that just are cool with just helping you. And they’re in the weeds with you and it’s that developer ecosystem that attracted me and I think is going to attract so many people after me.
Which to your credit, I think you’ve set up a lot of it. Being the dev relations at Solana, just creating the environment for those developers to thrive and giving them the resources. I think that’s where this has come from, but yeah, that was just a monster classic Solana moment for me that I wanted to highlight.
Yeah, for sure. And there’s a lot of people. It started with Toly and Raj and then that attitude and welcomeness humor came down to me and Armani and so many different people that feels like you can approach anybody in the ecosystem. And I agree, I think this side of tone and vibe is what will attract a lot of younger developers.
There’s lots of different complaints out there. One of the biggest ones we’ve been hearing a lot is about tooling. If you agree with that, what web tooling or blockchain tooling are we missing right now at Solana? Do you have anything personally that you would like to see?
No, I don’t have the most robust engineering background. When I was at Apple, we used Apple internal tools. So that was all I really knew. And so, even now, I’ll be coding on something with someone at a hackathon and they’re like, wait, you’re not using this plugin. You’re not using the Anchor plugin for VS code. I’m like, no, what is that?
Here’s the old-school.
Yeah. They’re like, baby come here. They would set me up with some stuff. So, that’s so cool. I think examples are going to be great. I think just like getting examples out there for people so that they could learn that they can do it too is going to be really cool.
Yeah. Self-onboarding’s massive. And that’s one of the ways we want to go with mtnPay, because we’re just like a set of APIs. I think we can open up these APIs to iOS native developers to be able to build apps, they don’t need to do the exact transaction building. We can have just a normal API that lets them build the transaction themselves. So that’s one of the directions we definitely want to go into and we feel like can bring native developers to Solana, hopefully.
Yeah. It’s about giving the tools, the education to onboard people like mtnPay and the rest of the ecosystem who then drives in the users and then that it just spreads outwardly from there. So it’s pretty incredible to watch right now, I’m not going to say, like I started last May about, next month will be my one year. And the difference in one year has made, like you said, even in September, you didn’t have half the things that are available now. It’s happening at the speed of light and it’s, who knows? In one year from now it’s going to be, again, unrecognizable. So I mean, it’ll be unrecognizable in like six months, most likely or less. We’ll see.
Yeah. Just being along for the journey, I feel grateful.
Just what a point in time that we’re in. I was talking with Edgar the other day, I was like, we got to remember, we’re in the good old days right now.
I guess, to round this off and you kind of already touched on this and I always do this at the end of every single episode of the show is, to just give some advice to whoever you want to give to advice to, maybe it’s the new devs looking to come into blockchain that might be scared or intimidated by just the name, blockchain, scares some people.
I mean, just start. Just start and just build. There’s so many opportunities within yourself to push things off and it’s so easy to complain or give yourself reasons to not build stuff. Even within myself every day I’d catch myself either complaining or giving excuses or whatever. But reality is, just build because when you just start building, you’ll figure it out. You can ask the questions, you’ll get there. And then that building really gives you momentum to keep going.
Yeah. And it attracts people to you and then those people are going to give you energy and it just, it all cycles. But you have to be the one to start.
Yeah. I mean, I don’t think anybody’s really given that advice and it is, like, we’re all engineers, we’ve all just put things off. We\ all have 200 projects that we started one night and then never got back to. So it’s really just getting started and just following through.
Yeah. And don’t be afraid to chase the energy. There’s so many things I’ve tried doing in Solana that I would work on for a week and then stop. But even now I go back to them and they’re just tools in the belt. And you’ll be able to leverage learnings later on.
Yeah. For sure. Well, TJ, congratulations for winning the Riptide Payments Track with mtnPay. Glad to get you on the show. Glad to have a conversation. Love the energy. Just keep it up, man. And thanks again for doing what you do. And thanks for being here.
Yeah, no, I appreciate the opportunity. I feel there’s definitely the longest we’ve been able to chat for how long we’ve known each other. It’s funny. I feel like we kept missing each other in Miami. So, I’m glad we got this opportunity and hopefully I’ll see you in The Bahamas.
Thanks for coming on.