When we started, no one thought it would work
Nicolas Cary labels himself a technologist and has long been interested in the power of technology to solve real world problems. He tells Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame how he was among the first to see the transformative potential from Blockchain and cryptocurrencies.
It may seem a significant leap from teaching creative writing in India to managing a Blockchain start-up, but for Nicolas Cary each informs the other. The insight he has gleaned from his travels around the world helps him identify and address major challenges.
He holds a business degree, but has balanced this experience with personal journeys around the world. Importantly, he’s always been commercially-minded, with a flair for entrepreneurship: his first venture on returning to the US was working for PipelineDeals.com, a company specialising in customer relationship management (CRM) systems. He spent six years building that business and held nearly every position in the company during his time there. It was here he saw the potential for technology to solve problems.
In 2013, he co-founded Blockchain.com. The early days were tougher: Blockchain and cryptocurrencies had not yet achieved the levels of excitement they generate today. Understanding was poor and funding limited. Nicolas says: “I learned about the Bitcoin network and thought it could be a significant and important innovation in computer science. Most importantly, it meant that digital goods could not be replicated or ‘double spent’. The closest analogy is in photos sent to a friend. Once these have been distributed, it is not always clear which is the original. That had been a huge problem for digital goods. Until now.”
For Nicolas, the economic system in which we participate didn’t treat everyone equally and this was an opportunity to address it: “When we started, no one thought it would work, but our view was that money could be designed in better ways. Often we don’t even think about why money has value. In the past, ‘money’ has been everything from sea shells to features to gold to cash. It used to be backed by real world resources like gold, though that isn’t happening any more. Money needs to move around the world as quickly as possible. Blockchain allows money to be sent securely, anywhere on the planet, almost for free.”
Appropriately for a digital business, Nicolas met his co-founder over the Internet. Less intuitively, they moved to York in the UK. While they now have offices in New York and San Francisco, the UK base gives them notable advantages: “In the UK, you can fly to Washington or NYC, or Asia. There is talent in the UK – it has been a leader in financial services for years.”
Funding has got easier as the opportunity in Bitcoin has been more widely recognised. In 2014, the group raised $30.5m in series A funding. This enabled the business to grow its team. Google Ventures then took a stake, raising another £40m in series B funding.
Nicolas recognises that the key to the long-term acceptance of cryptocurrencies is wider use. With this in mind, he’s recently taken the unusual step of giving away $125m in digital currency Stellar. In order to receive and use the digital currency, people need to have their own Blockchain.com wallet. By doing this, he hopes to drive mainstream adoption of cryptocurrency and build a bigger community of users. Blockchain now has over 32 million wallets in use.
He is careful in his hires, noting that it takes tenacity and grit to hold to the path and to build a level of success. “You need to handle a significant degree of stress when you are doing things for the first time. This takes grit. Crypto is about building a new global capability, anywhere in the world. We believed it would work, but it takes a long time. As it stands, only 1% of people own any kind of cryptoasset. These are still very early days.”
His mission is no smaller than taking Blockchain technology to the whole planet. He wants to give people the tools to send and receive exactly whatever type of value is meaningful to them, wherever they are in the world. That means building software that is used by millions of people. That brings certain pressures.
Nevertheless, the business has some wise heads to help. The board includes Anthony Jenkins, formerly of Barclays, and Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. They have spent their whole careers building financial networks and, for Nicolas, have provided valuable insight.
For the time being, Nicolas continues to take Blockchain around the world, striving to make progress with regulators in countries where he believes this type of currency could make the most different – in India, for example. He concludes: “To build legitimacy, you need to take the extra steps to protect and secure people’s money and you have to be very serious about that.”
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