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Bitstamp’s CEO on cryptocurrency’s race towards the financial services industry

Interview by Doug Beck, Executive Search Specialist at X4 Technology.

Annual funding of blockchain companies more than doubled in 2020 compared to 2017, and in January 2021, the Bitcoin market cap reached a record high. The increasing global interest in cryptocurrency makes it an incredibly exciting time both for those working in and joining the industry, as well as for those investing and trading.  More than 80% of central banks around the world are exploring their own cryptocurrencies.

We interviewed Julian Sawyer, CEO of Bitstamp, whose career spans 30 years’ in technology and has worked for the likes of Starling Bank and Gemini. Julian shared his thoughts on what it takes to cultivate a high-performance culture, the importance of having a single clear vision, when the industry will move into mass-adoption and how the merging and coming together of financial services professionals is shaping the industry.

Bistamp is the world’s longest-running crypto exchange who provide a secure venue to over 4 million customers, enabling them access to crypto markets.

How would you describe cryptocurrency culture?

There’s two aspects to this. The first is the culture of the technologists, who are the people deeply ingrained in the blockchain technology.

The second part is the really interesting pivot which we’re seeing where financial services professionals are joining the crypto industry, making crypto no longer just an island in the middle of the sea. Crypto is becoming part of the ecosystem of financial services.

What do you think it takes to cultivate a high-performance culture?

Having a crystal-clear vision on what you’re trying to do and why you’re doing it.

Effectively, it’s about hunger, agility, and having a single vision, which is often a do or die scenario. If a Fintech doesn’t get their product and market fit right, they’re dead. Whereas if a big incumbent bank doesn’t get market fit on one of their 20-yard lines, it doesn’t matter as their employees still get paid.

How you lead, how you bring teams and people together around that vision, and your ability to make decisions quickly is also super important.

What is interesting about Bitstamp, is that we’re 10 years old, which is old for a Fintech, and that puts us in a very privileged position. It also means that we’re now learning how we develop the next generation of leaders while also finding ways to stay true to our roots. Using our original vision that has been very successful, we’re pivoting to the new future vision and that makes this a very interesting time for us..

What has been the biggest learning curve for you over the last 12 months?

It’s still very early days for me at Bitstamp but the learning curve overall is if you have amazing people, and you empower them to do things, they will do some amazing things for your customers.

It’s less about hierarchy and more about open communications and empowering people to make decisions in a safe way. Things won’t always go well, we may launch products and do things that will be suboptimal for various reasons and what you need to be able to do is have the confidence to make decisions, stop things and pivot.

A recent survey reported that the ‘average Bitcoin user’ is male (96%). Do you think there is a link between the lack of female talent in the industry, and the lack of female users?

A lot of people jump straight to gender and age, but those are probably the two wrong ways of segmenting your market. There are different types of people that want different things, so actually, what we should be looking at is who are the people that are looking for innovative investment opportunities? Who are the people that are looking for ways of making payments differently? Who are the people that are looking at ways of understanding and managing their money differently?

It goes back to what I said at the beginning, which is the convergence of crypto and financial services. If you think about what we do, which is help people get access to and from crypto assets, we are therefore linked to the financial services space. So, we need to look and focus on those people who are interested in managing their money in a slightly different way.

Without a doubt, technology industries have a lack of representation from both from a gender and ethnicity point of view, and that is something we as an industry should look at. It is certainly on my agenda, not only to ensure people at the top table have that diversity of opinion and views, but also that we bring in the right young talent.

For instance, in our Slovenian office around 10% of our employees are students who come from universities and work with us as interns. It brings smart, inquisitive talent. We need to help young talent come through by developing them as well as having leaders at the top table who role model the skills and capabilities that are needed.

Do you think more diverse teams will contribute to crypto becoming more widely adopted?

There’s two perspectives. One is that a company should reflect its customer base, and the other is that the customer base should reflect the company, which is where I think we have an opportunity to move that dial.

We must make products and services that solve customer problems that are simple and easy to use. As an industry, we’re far too technical and geeky in terms of what we’re doing. We shouldn’t be talking to customers about mining or hash rates, we should be talking about crypto as a place where they can invest and trade in a safe and secure way. That is when we move away from the innovators and early adopters and on to the mass market.

What we’re seeing in crypto right now is people who wouldn’t have had conversations 6 to 12 months ago that are now talking about Bitcoin and crypto assets. They may be investing very small amounts with us, but they are still doing it and engaging.

What do you see being the industry’s biggest future trends and developments?

If you think of crypto being at one side of the room and financial services at the other, crypto will continue to race towards the financial services industry and rapidly move into normalisation. This happens consistently when new technologies in financial services arise. They’re initially seen as outliers, and then brought into normalisation as they become more trusted.

You can really see this in Bitcoin and DeFi. DeFi, for example, is not regulated, it’s an outcast at the moment but as soon as it starts getting scale, regulators and banks will engage. Bitcoin has now become the norm and that means that we are protecting customer’s money with the same mechanisms that other financial institutions do.

We’re doing a lot at Bitstamp to ensure we’ve got the right team building out the customer experience, ensuring our product is the best on the market and that we’re offering the best digital assets. We’re very pleased to have recently been named one of the top 3 crypto exchanges by CryptoCompare. There’s only a few other crypto companies in the world that have proven to deserve that kind of trust so it’s a really good example of where we need to educate customers and build more trust across the industry.

How do you think the future of crypto will change the skills that are needed within the industry?

There are two dimensions here. One dimension is the technology to financial services balance. We have seen fintechs in the past that are great at technology but don’t understand financial services and risk and compliance, therefore they don’t get the necessary approvals.

The other is between building and running. We need people who can build things, and then people who can run. We’re 10 years old and have a proven track record of running very stable infrastructure, being able to onboard customers in a 100% compliant way, but we also need that growth mind-set.

We need to have the capacity for innovation that comes on top of the stability our excellent operations afford us. And that’s something that you can build from experience and from having the right people on the right seats on the right bus. Very often the people who are very good at building cannot run and vice versa. I’m always passionate about people who can build but actually have total respect for those who run operations.

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