growing up i loved robots. except .…
for a brief aspiration to be a pizza-chef when I was nine, the robotics thing meant my path was pretty set, and made my early career decisions straightforward; maths and sciences at school, and engineering at University. While still an undergraduate at Bath in England (everyone should visit this wonderful place!), I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Engineering that basically awarded me a sizeable chunk of money to spend on ‘personal development’. I spent the majority of it on a few months in Japan to study robotics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and the rest on a summer in the USA to work at a robotics spin-off from MIT. If you also count the year-long, mid-study placement at OC Robotics in the UK, then by the time I finished my Masters I had already worked at 3 different robotics institutions in 3 different continents.
My early career was spend designing, building and selling robots for the aerospace, medical, nuclear, and defense industries in the UK (the company was later acquired by General Electric). High-tech engineering was fulfulling but my previous experience of living and studying in Japan had made a big impression on me. Rather than keeping my head down walking the graduate beaten path like most of my peers, I began wondering whether it was plausible, even possible, to go to Japan more permanently to live and work. Someone in my network pointed me to the Daiwa Scholarship, a unique 19-month programme of language study, work placement and homestay in Japan, which I promptly applied for and was fortunate enough to be among the six people to receive it. A few months later I was packing my bags, and 2 weeks after arriving in Tokyo I was essentially being paid to sit in a classroom surrounded by Taiwanese, Koreans, Chinese and others, with only basic Japanese skills as our common denominator. It was great!
Although the Daiwa scholarship had Japanese language at the heart of the programme, it also mandated a 6-month work placement “to access expertise and knowledge relevant to [your] career goals”. Of course it would have been straightforward for me to go deeper into robotics (obvious, right?). However, this didn’t feel right. Despite still being relatively early in my career, experience had taught me that I was pretty skilled at explaining engineering stuff to “the business guys”, and vice-versa. I enjoyed mediating between technology and commerce. Somehow it just didn’t seem enough for me to double-down on high-tech engineering, and I resolved that I wanted to learn about business and acquire commercial skills. I picked finance (specifically, investment banking) as an ideal crash-course to quickly learn these skills. I emailed my prospective boss out of the blue, confessing I had no banking experience but wanted to come and work for him. Thankfully he agreed to take a chance on me (probably helped that he too was an ex-engineer), and before long I was a walking-talking M&A banker, pitching clients by day and working spreadsheets by night. They later offered me a permanent contract, and ultimately I gave 6 years to that company.
The best thing about banking is the learning curve. Working in M&A meant I was working extensively with a huge breadth of companies; one day it was precision oil pumps, the next it could be luxury handbags, electronic chemicals, hot-spring resorts or yoghurt drinks. I had to quickly become an expert in a new industry many times over, and then not just analyse financials and make valuations, but use good story-telling and a mastery of presenting/publishing to help these companies sell. This was the role where I polished my front-office, client-facing skills. The more I learned about the M&A process, however, the more I started to see inefficiencies, duplications and opportunities to improve how we were doing things. I started a series of mini-crusades to remedy this internally, at first just as side-project initatives, but increasingly more meaty global projects that I was rolling out across our 10 global offices. As I increasingly spent more time working on operations, it started to make less sense for me to officially remain as a banker, and this ultimately led to my promotion to COO, 3 years after joining the firm as an intern. It was about that time that I transferred from the Tokyo office to the London office and back to my home country. To make that homecoming trip interesting, I took two flights: one from Tokyo to Beijjing, one from St. Petersberg to London, and a 3-week train ride through China, Mongolia, and Russia in-between. That must have been the last time I was truly off the grid!
When I first heard about Bitcoin in 2012, I did what most people do, and completely dismissed it. Magic internet money for nerds; just another tradable fad, or so I thought. It wasn’t until mid-2013 that I came across the Satoshi Nakamoto white paper and, not expecting a fad to have a white paper, was curious enough to give it a read. There began a journey down the rabbit hole, and from that moment I was hooked. Perhaps it was a result of a career path that had ventured through both finance and technology chapters, or perhaps it was because 5 years prior I had written a dissertation on the benefits of decentralised systems, but I saw the potential of bitcoin (or more specifically, the Blockchain technology that underpins it) immediately. For me, Blockchain was the missing piece in the internet revolution; a decentralised digital scarcity in a world of digital abundance. Convinced it would do the same for value that the web did for information, I dedicated myself to becoming an expert, with the hope of one day pivoting my career into this exciting space.
The first chance for this came when I was invited to join the now-renowned Entrepreneur First programme, a new kind of startup accelerator that helps people meet a co-founder and start companies from scratch. Unfortunately I was unable to find a co-founder who knew much about blockchain or wanted to work on a blockchain project, so I instead started a B2B retail technology company (A.I. meets e-commerce). We didn’t find product-market fit and the company was wound up about 15 months later, but I learned so much from this entrepreneurial venture that I still consider it my ‘real-world MBA’. Anyway after that I got back to my own blockchain research and side-projects.
My second and real chance for a professional blockchain position came when I was headhunted as General Manager / COO (Europe) for bitFlyer, the largest bitcoin & crypto-currency exchange in Japan (by some measures the largest in the world at time of writing). bitFlyer was dominating the crypto exchange market in Japan and based on this strength they were expanding into Europe and looking for someone to run this expansion project. I was selected from 800 candidates because I combined domain expertise, COO credentials, and entrepreneurial mindset (it also helped that I could read and speak Japanese). The catch? This position was in Luxembourg, a tiny European country of 500,000 people. While it was never on my roadmap to move to Luxembourg, I quickly discovered that this country was punching above it’s weight in a big way; it’s the 2nd largest fund center globally, a cornerstone of the EU, a promising FinTech hub, and an incredibly attractive place to live (especially for those with children which by now I had). With the UK meanwhile chaotically fumbling its way through Brexit negotiations, I felt it was an opportune moment to take a time out from London for a while.
So that brings us to the present. At bitFlyer Europe we are moving from strength to strength. We received our Payment Institution license from the financial authority in November 2017, making bitFlyer the first bitcoin exchange in the world to be licensed in Japan, the US and Europe combined. It feels good to finally be part of a world-changing movement that I’m truly passionate about, and as co-head of bitFlyer Europe I’m learning a lot about leadership, priorities, and growth. And while on paper my career-to-date can to some people seem quite colourful, for me it was a pretty natural progression. I always felt that I was good at bridging the gap between different disciplines, and I always believed that in today’s fast-changing world, those people that have a diverse career skill-set (and actually use these skills in combination adaptively) can add the most value. This is why I deliberately chose to put myself in these different roles, different organisations, and different continents. Given my background it’s no surprise that I ended up in FinTech, and no suprise that blockchain and crypto, with it’s immense promise for the future, is where I found my passion. I look forward to seeing how it unfolds.
Thanks for reading.
(Note: You can go here for more information about any of the projects described above)