It's becoming hard to ignore crypto's potential to reimagine how money moves, and the proof is in the fact that one of the world's leading payment networks now has global divisions dedicated to expanding its applications. Nikola Plecas, Visa's European Crypto Business Lead, says the payments giant is determined to act as the bridge between traditional finance and the exciting new world of crypto, blockchain and web3—and that his team has been hard at work to make that a reality.
At Visa, Nikola's role is all about enhancing financial experiences for both businesses and consumers through crypto, and about identifying impactful ways for the company to add value to all forms of money movement, whether on Visa's network or beyond. Visa has immersed itself in this space in a few ways, including evaluating blockchain protocols, implementing capabilities like digital currency settlement and launching an NFT creator program. Still, Nikola says in the fast-evolving world of crypto, there is always more to explore.
"We see these as effective ways to contribute to this segment by trying to uplift everyone, everywhere, with a better way to pay and be paid," he says.
Nikola's background in management consulting saw him working for leading firms like Bain & Company, but in 2017, he made the decision to pivot to an industry in the midst of a promising shift: payments. "I wanted to experience an industry at an inflection point," he notes. "There were a number of payment trends that were effectively creating new experiences, driving innovation, and making new ways of working possible."
That's when Nikola started his first role at Visa's European wing in the corporate strategy team. Joining just a few months after Visa Inc. acquired their European subsidiary, he recalls his early days at the company as busy and bustling, as his team worked on an array of transformative projects focused on fusing their European base into a wider global family.
A few years down the line, Nikola decided to shift towards more direct client work, a decision that ultimately led him to join the company's nascent European fintech team. At a time when crypto was still in its infancy, Visa was in the process of determining how it would interact with the industry, figuring out its best role and strategy to serve its clients.
As his team began to work with a number of crypto players, Nikola grew more intrigued by the underlying technology. Having followed the topic for some time, he says he was fascinated by the promise of payment systems that presented a new, decentralized way to interact with money. He recognized that it wasn't all about Bitcoin; at the root of it all, developers were working to implement ideas that could solve a variety of problems beyond the exchange of monetary value for goods and services, reimagining the capabilities of financial services altogether.
"That really attracted me to the space—that there was this force building in the back and really potentially changing the ways we're interacting with our clients and their consumers."
Over the last three years, Nikola highlights the evolution of perceptions of crypto and blockchain. "We've seen a big shift in mindset from 'this is irrelevant,' to 'this is interesting.'"
He says the shift is evident when considering the rising phenomenon of some of Visa's traditional banking clients building teams that are solely focused on blockchains and digital currencies. He points to the expansion of Visa's crypto division, noting that whether on the client, product, or sales side, crypto has "become a part of our day-to-day operational DNA," an event he sees echoed across their client base.
Nikola credits this rise in adoption to increased regulation. Across both European and North American regions, a strong push to regulate elements of the crypto industry has been especially impactful when it comes to shaping perception and increasing confidence in the underlying technology.
"We're seeing a lot of interesting developments as we push towards a regulated space, in which things will be much more beneficial for scaling and launching products globally," he says. "Regulation is a great boon to the crypto industry and can help kickstart the next wave of innovation and building in the space."
In some regions where there are limited existing payment rails, the adoption of crypto is increasing. One example he points to is the consumers in sub-saharan African region adopting stablecoins like USDT and USDC to address remittance use cases, an application of one of crypto's initial promises. In situations like these, he expects that a regulatory overlay to govern those transactions is both necessary and inevitable.
To Nikola, that's a step in the right direction. "Regulation and innovation work in parallel for the future growth of the crypto industry," he says. "We need a regulatory overlay on all the various use cases to scale so that players in the space can push the technological boundaries and add meaningful value to existing propositions, inciting both consumers and businesses to apply this new technology for everyday needs."
Using the technology to improve existing infrastructure and consumer-facing products, whether on the back- or front-end, is what will ultimately drive the future global adoption of crypto, Nikola states. He believes that in the future, crypto has the potential to power the back-end of financial services money movement without consumers ever even knowing it.
In a challenging year riddled with disruption, uncertainty and high-profile bankruptcies, Nikola says to look beyond asset prices—"they were never the most interesting part of the crypto to us." Instead, look at all the exciting new experiences being enabled by a technology that opens so many doors.
"Crypto is open source. You can build on top of someone else's work to constantly improve, paving a very interesting future," he says. "I'm really excited to see where we'll go in 2023 because while there have been some setbacks, I believe they will only make the crypto story stronger."
Today, Visa's embrace of crypto is clear. The company's crypto journey has focused on innovation and research; from using digital currencies for settlement to the launch of the Visa Creator Program to their purchase of a crypto punk. It's this attitude of willfully experimenting and approaching everything with an open mind that Nikola recommends any crypto newcomers to adopt.
"Experimenting and learning more about the different technologies and how they can be integrated is invaluable. You'll gain some important learnings that you can translate to your own product development, and find the best way to deliver the new solutions to the market."
Another key to success in the crypto space? Be patient, Nikola advises. In an industry that is constantly evolving, you have to be open to continuously learning and relearning to evolve and add value. As overwhelming as it may be, he says, it's important to look at a wide array of sources and critically analyze what's being said.
"A billion-dollar valued app has been done, but a billion-user app hasn't hit the market yet. The potential is out there, and I am excited to see how crypto will be used to build the apps of the future."
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