There are few better clues to the growing legitimacy of crypto than one of the world’s leading financial services firms appointing its first Head of Digital Assets.
Ian Taylor's role at KPMG is not just new but extremely broad. Officially, he has been recruited to "support clients in developing innovative products and services for the next iteration of the internet." With over 20,000 cryptocurrencies in circulation and concepts like DeFi, Web3 and the Metaverse still in their infancy, the first challenge is where to begin.
His answer to that question would be, "with what we have". He's been spending the first six months of his new role looking across KPMG's organization to coordinate the relevant capabilities that already exist. "A lot of what a business needs to get going with crypto are things we already offer, such as subject expertise, risk management and procedures around KYC and tax compliance. These are obvious starting points in developing our go-to-market strategy."
But different businesses need different things. This is where things get exciting, says Ian. "Early-stage firms that are growing rapidly need support developing internal process and control systems. Traditional players are looking for strategic help in understanding what products and services they should be building to enter the market. Others will simply want the ability to offer the right custodial solutions for their clients' crypto holdings (and their own) or a broader investment thesis. Ultimately, we want to cater to everyone."
It's a considerable brief. But for Ian, the overwhelming can be appealing. "One can only grow when outside their comfort zone."
It's hard to call anyone in the crypto space a veteran: the sector is that young. But Ian comes pretty close. A degree in finance and economics led to the trading floor of the global investment bank. So far, so normal. But while his peers were busy buying and selling traditional assets and commodities, Ian had his interest piqued by a new instrument called Bitcoin and the blockchain technology it ran on. "I've always believed in the power of technology to revolutionize society, and suddenly here was something with that potential."
Ian also saw the risks and the need to ensure governments protected people. That led to a role on the advisory council of Global Digital Finance, where he had a front-row seat to the development of standards and policies around crypto, digital assets and, more broadly, digital finance technologies. Since 2020, he has served as the Executive Director of CryptoUK, a non-profit trade body that works with policymakers to develop regulatory operating frameworks around crypto and digital asset use.
He says: "I've always seen what I do as facilitating a community of market participants. On the one hand, it's about developing mature legislation that is fair and proportionate, while also really advocating and pushing the government to understand the benefits of crypto and web3 at a corporate and citizen level."
His influence contributed to the recent announcement by the UK government of plans to become the global hub of the cryptocurrency industry and new rules for stablecoins, NFTs and a range of other measures designed to attract digital asset companies.
Ian's excitement for Bitcoin and blockchain technology in those early days is now being mirrored by the emergence of DeFi. He points to research suggesting that by 2030 it will be contributing to a web3 economy, generating up to $13 trillion of commercial activity, and will have five billion users worldwide.
His background in professional investing provides some context to these estimates. "As someone who's spent his career in this world, I immediately saw the promise of DeFi to give people access to all sorts of investment vehicles, without them being at the mercy of a single entity."
In the middle of this chronology has been the rise of stablecoins, another area of the crypto space that has Ian excited. "We've already seen during COVID how cash has become vulnerable, and cards have the perennial problem that they can get lost or stolen and are becoming more expensive to transact with. Stablecoins, and more generally blockchain, have the potential to be a completely separate primary or reserve payment rail."
Ian explains that this coexistence of the "old" and new—stablecoin and fiat payments; DeFi, and traditional investment products—is a subtle but significant shift in the crypto narrative. "Lots of aspects of traditional finance and payments are fine, and we shouldn't steer people away from their value. Rather, it's about saying where crypto and digital can add value and operate in tandem with what's already working well."
There is some pragmatism to that statement. Stablecoins have not enjoyed the best of times lately, with the collapse of Terra and then Tether losing its dollar peg more than once. Meanwhile, iconic crypto assets like Bitcoin and Ethereum have lost almost half their value over the last 12 months. But Ian has unshakeable confidence in the long-term. "Price volatility sells newspapers. But what I prefer to see is people building revolutionary tools and services that are increasing financial inclusion and transforming businesses and society."
Ian also explains that web3 needs to be seen in the context of non-financial use cases. "When NFTs took off in 2021, it brought a whole new cohort of people to the space—music lovers, artists, sports fans. They'll begin to add their own ideas and needs to the ecosystem. So, measuring progress by purely financial metrics is too crude."
Equally, he stresses the need for patience. "When you innovate, things break. That's just what happens. It happened in the dot.com bust, and we're seeing some of it now as web3 takes off. It's important to have these shakeouts."
Directing the fortunes of KPMG's crypto future is a big job. For Ian, it feels like more than a job. "I live, eat, breathe crypto. I consider myself very fortunate to be paid for my passion.
But don't mistake this passion for untamed energy. Ian is considered and strategic. It's a study in balance: one eye on imagining the future of web3, the other leveraging his experience of traditional finance; his insistence that innovation needs regulation, and vice-versa; a belief in the transformative powers of decentralization, while valuing the role that incumbent institutions can still play in mitigating risks.
What reconciles these seeming contrasts is a conviction that the world of web3—crypto, DeFi, blockchain, tokens—offers so much potential that it is worth investing time and effort in now to get it right. "It's not necessarily about moving fast. It's about having the scale that, when you do make a move, you do it with real impact."
Scale shouldn't be a problem now that Ian has the resources and capabilities of KPMG to now call on. Yet he's conscious of continuing to "walk the talk" of the advice he gives to young professionals just starting their crypto careers. "Do your homework. Understand the technology. Take a proactive role in developing the community. And ask questions. I know what I know. But it's more valuable to listen to what others know."
Ari Redbord, Head of Legal and Government Affairs at TRM Labs shares insights into his career that has taken him from the US Government to the forefront of protecting the crypto ecosystem. Read his story.