A decade ago, only a few people had heard of the obscure and, at the time, essentially worthless cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. Today, Bitcoin is valued at north of $20,000. It exists alongside hundreds of similar cryptocurrencies, with a combined market cap above $1.5 trillion.
At the same time, a whole industry has emerged featuring some of the world's most innovative companies that are leveraging crypto assets and the underlying technology to build the next generation of the digital economy.
In our new series, My career in crypto, we'll speak with various pioneers in this industry. We want to understand how they started working in crypto, what excites them the most about the space, and how they see the future of the digital economy taking shape.
In this first edition, we spoke with three members of our crypto team: Max Rothman, VP Crypto; Ashley Paulus, Global Director, Crypto Customer Success; and Avishkar (Ash) Sharma, Director, Crypto Partnerships.
Here's what they had to say.
When did you first become aware of crypto? And what path did you take that led you to work in the space?
Max Rothman: I got into crypto when Coinbase was starting to put together its Series D. I was at a conference with several VCs and CEOs. Everyone I spoke with said it’s the absolute next big thing. This naturally piqued my interest. I tried to get involved in Coinbase's next investment round. Unfortunately, that didn't work out.
After this, I started looking into crypto, specifically Bitcoin, which was valued at below $1000. Regrettably, like many others, I entered the market at the wrong time and was crushed when it crashed in 2018. I had to step back and lick my wounds, so I became a less active participant for a time. But I maintained my interest and followed developments in the space closely.
When I joined Checkout.com a few years later, I was asked to spearhead our push into crypto. It's been a great experience. It's hard not to be inspired working with names like Binance, Crypto.com, Coinbase, and FTX. What these companies are building is incredible. And being at the forefront and supporting these companies is a passion of mine.
Ashley Paulus: My journey began with the least advanced tech ever: land titles. It was 2016, and I worked for an ecommerce startup in Uganda. We were looking to buy property for our operations, but the process was so challenging; very bureaucratic and opaque.
I came across a group working to put land titles on the blockchain in East Africa as I searched for a solution. It was a fascinating concept and, in theory, could have solved many of the issues we faced. Unfortunately, the project was a little ahead of its time, but I remember thinking about how transformative this technology was and became excited about its potential use cases.
A year later, I moved to Asia in the middle of the Initial Coin Offering (ICO) boom, and crypto was gaining widespread adoption. It then became apparent how this technology could touch and impact every aspect of our lives. And not just through the impact it could have on the financial system, but also in the use cases it could power for social good and financial inclusion in developing nations.
And, just like Max said, joining Checkout.com and working with the leaders in the crypto community has amplified my passion for the space. Working with businesses helping make crypto and this technology mainstream is incredibly gratifying. The technology they're developing is revolutionary and, I think, has the potential to solve some of the biggest challenges we face as a society.
Ash Sharma: My story is a little different. I came to crypto from the fiat world. I was working in the Treasury and Trade Solution team at Citi when the banks were attempting to understand the applicability of the technology — and the risks.
At that time, Citi was analyzing the types of flows it could facilitate and whether or not it could provide banking services for emerging crypto firms. It was interesting, but I was mainly focused on compliance and risk.
In 2019 I moved to Visa and sunk my teeth into the crypto space. My job at the time was to identify new markets Visa could sell issuance into. Naturally, I was able to direct efforts into fintech, BaaS, remittance, wealth, and, most notably, the emergence of crypto exchanges.
I knew I needed to understand the industry inside out to succeed, so I opened a Crypto.com account and started trading. I also started researching how the exchanges work, the technology, processing, and formation of cryptocurrencies, and the retail and institutional use cases that underpin the need.
You've all got diverse previous experiences in different sectors. How would you say working in crypto is different from those you've worked in before?
Ashley Paulus: It's new, so everything is evolving quicker than in other industries I've worked in. It’s fun watching businesses and investors try to predict the next trend or the new use cases being developed. If you look at NFTs, even a year ago, nobody was expecting the impact they'd have. The technology and the market are evolving in their own way, and there’s nothing to benchmark this against.
Startups and fintech use the term "disruption" a lot. And that word is used to describe crypto: 'crypto is disrupting traditional financial services' is what gets said all the time. I don't see it that way. This technology is standalone. It’s not about applying a new lens to something we’ve been doing. Much of what's happening in the space has never been done before. And that's exciting.
Max Rothman: It’s also the inclusivity. Historically, change has come from companies or banks deciding to do something differently; to move money between buyers and sellers differently. But with crypto, everyone can contribute to developing the ecosystem because there’s no central party in charge. So you have this decentralization of not just the technological rails, but also responsibility and knowledge. That gives crypto a global scale, which will drive growth.
What about the challenges? Working in a space as new as crypto must create some headaches that you wouldn't get elsewhere?
Max Rothman: Navigating the evolving security concerns and regulations is a big challenge. As you said, crypto is a nascent space. That has its benefits, as we've discussed. But it does mean that there are potentially more risks businesses and consumers need to consider. For instance, you see new apps getting hacked and crypto getting stolen. Then there’s the DeFi world, where there's a risk of exploitation through unvalidated, uncertified smart contracts.
These challenges aren't going away overnight. They're never going away, in fact. Risk is ever-present, just like in the fiat world. But, as regulators provide more oversight and players in the industry continue developing more robust technology, that risk will diminish. Hopefully, these issues won't be as much of an everyday challenge then.
Ash Sharma: I couldn't agree more. We’re working with fiat regulation and emerging crypto regulation, and the latter is a lot less developed. So it’s about how you marry those two worlds to maintain regulatory standards while not stifling innovation.
On a personal level, it’s about keeping up with the pace of change: working out what's relevant and how that plays into the schematic of security compliance, new technology messaging, front-end L2 services, or whatever’s next.
It’s not a difficult challenge to solve. You listen to your customers, stay academic, and build forward with that knowledge. But it takes time, and the speed of change means you must always pay attention to what's happening.
Despite the progress made in recent years, crypto is still broadly regarded as a niche market. When does crypto stop being niche and enter the mainstream? What does that tipping point look like?
Max Rothman: It depends on what you define as ‘mass market’. It’s very subjective. If we look at cryptocurrencies, then my view is they become mainstream when we stop referring to their dollar value. So, one Bitcoin is one Bitcoin, and everybody understands what that means.
It's a different conversation if we're talking about blockchain technology. When we start to use it to digitize tangible everyday assets, like passports, that’s when you're getting into real mass-market territory. And we're certainly heading towards that.
Ashley Paulus: I agree. You might say we’re already there. Principle blockchain technology has been used for FX movements by banks for years. So it’s already gone mainstream in some industries.
However, there are more visible signs of mass retail adoption we could point to. For example, lending platforms now provide mortgages using an individual's NFT portfolio or crypto investments as security. These allow people to use their digital portfolio as collateral for a physical asset is a strong argument you could make that this technology is already hitting mass adoption.
Ash Sharma: You’ve just got to look at the circulation supply: fiat currency is around $40 trillion, and crypto is around $3 trillion, so there’s relevant scale now.
Another indicator is how many people around the world have crypto wallets. The data is unclear because people hold multiple wallets, but it suggests that, relative to bank accounts, the numbers are creeping up to a point where it's almost matching. And that's why there’s a lot of talk about the rise of crypto neo-banks with a full suite of products that challenge traditional banking, such as loans and credit by staking, debit and credit cards etc.
And then you also take a look at governments exploring CBDCor even El Salvador's adoption of cryptocurrencies as legal tender, or how Paxful (peer-to-peer crypto acceptance) is favored over certain African fiat currencies. You start to see nationalized and systemic adoption.
Another indicator that we can't ignore is the billions of dollars in VC funding going into crypto and blockchain-only businesses. That type of backing suggests crypto has arrived.
The more interesting question is how deep will it go? How embedded into financial systems will it become?
There are more unknowns than knowns. But I don't think there can be any doubt that we are seeing a fundamental shift in how we transact, consider money, and live. If you look at other innovations in history — electricity, radio, cellphone, the Internet — mass adoption tends to take place over ten years. Crypto is right in the middle of that journey and trending with the same uptake rate.
What are the most important developments in crypto? What impact will these have?
Ashley Paulus: With the introduction of web3, we’re also seeing crypto used in people's digital lives as much as their physical lives. Digital Twins is a developing concept that allows people to enhance their online personalities in the metaverse by creating NFT replicas of real-world assets. The ability to add social value in the real world and the digital world is a fascinating concept taking off.
And we have to say it — NFT gaming and the play-to-earn model are revolutionizing the gaming space. I'm obsessed with Axie Affinity, and the idea of giving ownership to players and creating an open marketplace, which has created income streams in developing markets, so lots of boxes are ticked for me personally.
More broadly, the industry is creating real social change.
Ash Sharma: I'm also interested in the social reform aspect and the redistribution of wealth. There are some exciting projects taking place that are making a big difference. The Built With Bitcoin Foundation, for example, is using crypto to build schools in countries where corruption regrettably means a lot of 'traditional' aid and charitable donations don't reach the desired end recipients.
I’m also excited about the emergence of interoperability blockchain tech from crypto gaming. I'm trying to keep on top of the partners there. And also the convergence of physical assets to the blockchain, whether it’s a watch or your house.
Max Rothman: I think processing and settling transactions using crypto and/or blockchain is an important development in crypto today. We’re looking into this at Checkout.com as we see the future of payments having this naturally integrated everywhere. As we get to a place of more adoption, people will happily transact fully in crypto, and the merchants and customers need secure mediums to do so.
How might traditional businesses, say retailers, adopt crypto in their everyday operations?
Ash Sharma: There’s no doubt that web3 represents a huge shift — decentralized, everyone verifiable, tokenization, self-governing, permissionless. For payments, I think it means being natively built and built-in and the experience to pay for everything. So web infrastructure and how companies build and consumers identify will be key.
Then you consider the metaverse and start thinking about how payments may work. Perhaps you walk up to a merchant, pick up the Nike store shoe, and then make the payment in the metaverse with a token, which is virtualized on your wallet. It will be a question of convergence of web3, digital experience and the tokenized economy coming through in the metaverse.
What advice would you give to someone starting their career in crypto?
Ash Sharma: The number one thing is to use crypto; play with it, feel it. Get yourself a wallet and an exchange, and get started. You don't have to buy currency, but at least you're engaging with the market. Becoming used to the utility is the best way to learn, so take the plunge.
Ashley Paulus: Also, keep an academic attitude. No source is a bad source. After all, the whole point of blockchain and crypto is about leveling out the world. So listen to everybody’s views while crafting your own. Everyone in crypto is very approachable, so don’t hesitate to ask for their perspectives. A developer’s view on crypto is as important as a crypto executive’s. And then work out where it sits in your tapestry of thoughts.
Max Rothman: The more you learn, the more you'll find it will take you down so many pathways to explore. There is the underlying technology itself, but then there are the L2 or L3 applications built on blockchain that'll unlock many different use cases and business models. Once you start a career in crypto, whichever specific rabbit hole that may be, you’ll never look back.