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 gleaned from his travels around the world helped 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 was a huge problem for digital goods.”
For Nicolas, the economic system 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. In March 2021, the group raised $300 million in a mega fundraising round, which valued the company at $5.2 billion. It came just one month after a $120m fundraising.
Nicolas recognises that the key to the long-term acceptance of cryptocurrencies is wider use. In 2018, he took 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 72 million wallets in use and has managed over $620bn in transactions since 2013.
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.”
He brought in 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 careers building financial networks and, for Nicolas, have provided valuable insight along the way.
Nicolas is also co-founder and chairman of the skysthelimit.org, a digital platform that connects aspiring, underrepresented entrepreneurs ages 18 to 29 with experienced business advisors and mentors. “Our mission is to empower underserved communities nationwide by providing them with the right support, from the right people, at the right time in their journey.”
His mission is to take Blockchain technology to the whole planet. He is a founding member of the Board of Commissioners of the Blockchain Commission for Sustainable Development, which seeks to use blockchain-based technologies to develop local, national and global solutions for the most pressing issues of the day. The Commission believes that Blockchain could be a solution to everything from the conservation of natural resources, to the empowerment of communities, to financial inclusion and security.
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