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My Crypto Conversion, Part Two
Gradually, it seeped in: this technology was just different.
Last week I told you about the first leg of my journey into crypto: first, deep Bitcoin skepticism (2008-2012), and then a blooming curiosity in the tech underlying Bitcoin (blockchain technology) following my 2013 in-flight conversation with a researcher named Bettina Warburg.
Looking back at my story, I note that the first, skepticism-laden leg of my crypto journey was characterized by me fiddling around with inert bits of technology, finding them confusing and uninspiring. But the second leg of my crypto journey was characterized by human connection, intellectual discussion, and global travel. I think at root, one of the most exciting things about becoming a crypto investor is that crypto is deeply intellectually stimulating –– the province of philosophers as much as technologists –– and forged by human relationships as much as technical innovations.
To become invested in the crypto space is to embrace a deeply human, and deeply intellectual, adventure.
But I get ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the story of how I finally arrived at this realization.
2013-2014: Vitalik Buterin expands the blockchain’s uses –– and my mind
A major turning point in taking crypto seriously was a white paper published by a Russian-Canadian computer programmer named Vitalik Buterin. I’ll try to avoid getting too technical here, but “Vitalik,” as he came to be known in the crypto community, pointed out that with some tweaks, a new blockchain network could do much more than merely transact a currency, as the Bitcoin network did. Rather, Vitalik showed how a blockchain network could basically itself behave like a mega-computer, running countless applications. Vitalik called his envisioned network Ethereum; early posited uses included things as wildly different as crop insurance and running decentralized organizations.
Most exciting to me: I saw how Vitalik’s vision could solve or ameliorate big technological problems that had worried me for years: for instance, a big problem like “platform risk” (the risk that a large centralized platform like Facebook could someday turn off your app, make it disappear, and launch their own version of it moments later).
Vitalik’s paper, and the discourse that rapidly emerged around it, changed everything for me. Crypto –– not cryptocurrency, crucially, but the set of cryptographic and computer science technologies underlying it –– had transformed, in my mind, from something inchoate, odd, and borderline useless, into something novel, exciting, and full of possibility. I was on my way to becoming a convert.
My head buzzed with an excitement I hadn’t felt since that airplane ride I had enjoyed with the think tank researcher Bettina Warburg.
Early 2015: new partner, new podcast, new path
By the turn of 2015, I had sold my stake in Rally.org, and was ready for new things. In January of that year, I thought back fondly of that 2013 in-flight conversation with Bettina, and reconnected with her, inviting her to coffee.
Fairly soon, Bettina and I were inseparable, partners in both work and life. We spent hours talking about the future of the economy, of politics, of governance. Together, we created a podcast called “Tech on Politics,” interviewing fascinating thinkers in the crypto world. One conversation that stands out in my mind is one on “Digital Nation States” with Jutta Steiner, former Chief Security Officer at Ethereum. I began to more deeply understand the notion of a “DAO,” or decentralized autonomous organization. I began to see how technology could permit people to affiliate in ways the world hadn’t seen before.
Casting about for what to do next, I landed at the consulting firm BCG, where I developed a speciality in consulting with Fortune 100 companies about their crypto strategy. Since Vitalik’s paper and other developments, crypto was more and more a part of the mainstream conversation. I traveled all over the world –– sometimes visiting three countries in a single day. I might spend a morning in the conference room of a corporate client, then get beers in the evening with a furtive crypto founder in some run-down outskirts of a European capital.
I’ll never forget, for instance, nearly walking right past the first offices of Ethereum: a nondescript door with graffiti all over it, in the Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg.
Late 2015-today: From crypto consultants to crypto investors
By 2015, it’s fair to say my crypto conversion was complete, and that I was deeply excited about this technology opening up all sorts of possibilities.
Bettina and I soon decided to hang out our own shingle as crypto consultants. As part of that, we also architected a plan to become crypto investors, which we felt would be the most strategic way to influence and help grow the space. In 2015, we formed the consulting company Animal Ventures. And through early 2016, Bettina and I spent months working on how to explain blockchain to a global audience in just 12 minutes –– since Bettina had been invited to speak on the topic for TED.
The talk went very well. Proud of how it turned out, we marketed it on Facebook and Twitter in late 2016, eventually garnering 4.5 million views, and minting Bettina as a sought-after speaker on crypto. Continuing in our mission to make crypto widely understandable, we also launched a Udemy course and cowrote a book (along with Professor Bill Wagner of Villanova University) explaining the basics of blockchain.
My journey from crypto skeptic to convert was complete –– and I hope if you’ve signed up for this newsletter and agree that there’s something to this crypto thing, that we can continue to explore the space together.