Go put the kettle on, settle into your favourite chair, get comfortable, and let's learn a little bit more about some of the companies that are operating in the volatile, controversial, but exciting cryptocurrency and blockchain space.
Sound good? Great, we'll start with the good folks at UTRUST, then.
And by the way, this is not your common puff piece on a company. Rather, we'll be looking at the people involved, the goals they've set, and the struggles and challenges they face every day. So please set any judgments and opinions about cryptocurrency aside and join us as we take an in-depth look at a very young and ambitious company in a very young and ambitious space.
When we sat down to talk to Filipe (he's one of four Founders at UTRUST) the first thing we wanted to ask the team was why they'd jumped into the cryptocurrency space in the first place?
It's not a well-established industry and, over the final 12 months, in particular, it's taken a pounding at the hands of the mainstream media. However, perhaps it's the inherent risk and the opportunity to be a part of the evolution of an industry still finding its feet that provides the allure?
Filipe, also the CIO of UTRUST by the way, told us “ The initial concept for UTRUST came about after a series of unpleasant experiences with existing cryptocurrency-centric payment services. I recall one particular instance while attempting to purchase an online trip with another payment gateway, only to not get either the ticket nor the funds back.”
“When contacting the provider, they declined all responsibility, directing any inquiries instead to the merchant (who also did not reply). In the end, there was no recourse. The reality is that most existing provider payment providers are simply transaction facilitators, offering no fraud protection to consumers.”
So it is, in essence, the opportunity to solve a problem that drew UTRUST into the cryptocurrency space. That's not so different from the millions of businesses that start up across a myriad of other industries every year.
But what exactly do UTRUST do? What's the elevator pitch? Filipe obliges, “UTRUST is the first cryptocurrency payment provider in the world with consumer buyer protection and instant settlement for merchants. We allow e-commerce businesses to start accepting multiple cryptocurrencies under a single API and receive fiat currency in their bank account.”
Nothing too complicated, then (at least the idea isn't too complicated – we're sure the development and execution side of it is super intricate, complicated, and way over our heads).
Wanting to delve a little deeper, we asked Filipe what the USP was. We wanted to know what the thing was that's going to make UTRUST a success where so many continue to fail in the crypto-space?
“We believe our success will stem from solving a real problem that exists in payments today. Our value proposition is simple and straightforward for business and consumers alike – we're creating simple, fast and secure crypto payments.”
“For consumers, we start by simplifying the process of paying with cryptocurrency online, by making it a seamless and uncomplicated experience. We follow-up by protecting transactions from fraud, assuring that they will either obtain their purchases or get their funds back if not, and offer an avenue to escalate a refund claim.”
“For merchants, we offer an easy way to integrate multiple cryptocurrency chains (past and future) in their existing systems with no up-front cost. We provide direct bank settlements and extremely competitive rates versus other fiat-based solutions. As a merchant, you do not need to understand cryptocurrency markets, chains, protocols, conversions. We will do all of that so you can focus on business revenues and customer satisfaction.”
And it's that aspect of people not needing to understand cryptocurrency markets and technology to be able to use it and see the benefits that we think is key here.
But who are we talking about when we say 'UTRUST'? There's Filipe, of course, a self-confessed tech enthusiast who has had a “career in software development and venture development.” By his own admission, he is somewhat of a seasoned public speaker, regularly finding himself on stage to advocate for the adoption of blockchain tech and crypto-assets in the world of finance.
But who else makes up the senior team?
Well, there's Nuno, Co-Founder, and CEO. An “early cryptocurrency advocate and investor who has been deeply involved in crypto markets and communities since early 2011. He has a background in Law and Marketing and is a serial entrepreneur.”
There's also Roberto, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer. Roberto “has led different venture teams to create reliable and scalable software products. Previously, he worked for major international companies such as AT&T, Betfair, Airtel, and Uphold."
The final Co-Founder is Artur, who also holds the title of Chief Compliance Officer. A former CTO in a leading digital payment platform company, Artur was also “Head of Development of a Swiss-based cybersecurity company. He particularly excels at researching and developing software-related payment systems, and is an MIT and IST graduate in Computer Science.”
Filipe continues, “Sanja is our latest hire and VP of Partnerships. She is a senior digital executive and has held previous key roles at eBay and Paypal. She has more than 10 year's combined experience in developing and executing global digital strategies, delivering sustainable revenue growth in multinationals within the worlds of e-commerce, fintech, and telecommunications.
That's a lot of experience and enthusiasm on the UTRUST management team. Sanja's appointment, in particular as a non-Co-Founder, is interesting, especially given her background working for the likes eBay and Paypal (the latter being a company operating in a very similar space to UTRUST, of course).
There are many more people outside of the management team that will be integral to the success UTRUST hopes to achieve, as is the case with every business. In fact, we wanted to know just how big the team was, and if there are any recruitment issues faced by cryptocurrency companies compared to those not operating in the space.
“At the very beginning, there were only three founders,” says Filipe. Humble beginnings, then. He goes on, “Currently, we have 40 team members (mainly in product development and UX) and are actively in the process of hiring more.”
The story really isn't any different to that of an early stage software company. And the rapid and continued growth of the team shows, at the very least, a commitment towards building a workable product and delivering on their promises.
There's also a lot to be said for the fact that UTRUST is now a significant employer – something that's oft overlooked by cynics when discussion crypto-companies. Many of them are big employers and jobs are jobs. More companies creating more of them is always a good thing.
But has growing that team been difficult? Are there any issues that crypto-companies face when hiring talent, or is it typical of the overall tech landscape?
“The tech landscape is a competitive market indeed, with companies struggling to capture the best talent. We do have a significant number of applications, so attracting people has not been a significant issue, but we do go well beyond simple technical skill evaluation and, ideally, want someone with a strong "cultural fit" with our core values. Engineering has been our core priority, but it's quite challenging to hire and retain great talent and form a cohesive company culture at the same time.”
So it's not that there's a lack of technical skills in the marketplace, but finding people that fit into those more intangible boxes is always key. That's something that highlights the similarities between a crypto-company and a non-crypto-company in the tech space – these days everyone's looking for people who fit the culture.
But what about differences? Are there any major ones between crypto and non-crypto startups?
“Yes, quite a few!” says Filipe. “First, the pace is extremely high compared to “traditional” start-ups, due to the underlying nature of cryptomarkets. They're global and open 24/7. This can lead to a constant stream of news and events that may affect our roadmap of features on short notice. Another big difference is that we need to manage multiple facets as a venture - product, community, and token, leading to more pressure to excel on every level."
"Another one is ensuring communication and marketing focus is on point, as we need to proactively keep engaging with our community, publicly announcing milestones, partnerships and ongoing developments.”
It seems to us that crypto-companies are far more 'visible' in their early stages. In fact, many of them actively run Reddit boards and Telegram groups to communicate with their, often very large, communities of supporters and token holders.
This is a practice that's common in the crypto space, but almost unheard of outside of it. And, while it's probably great at keeping teams accountable, and it's certainly admirable to be so transparent, it must be a double-edged sword – every decision made by the company is heavily scrutinised and every delay criticised by an often vehement mob* of followers who are looking to earn huge profits from their early stage investments.
*Side note: We've been in some of those Telegram groups and they can get vicious.
UTRUST have been around for over 12 months now and have witnessed both the highs and lows of the volatile crypto-space. But how quickly did the idea go from concept to ICO (Initial Coin Offering – the process by which most cryptocurrency companies raise capital)?
“The idea came right after our initial search for funding. We had the concept and the initial team in place when we decided to obtain seed funding, turning in the first instance to angel investors. Although we did gather substantial interest, we decided that the amount of equity we would give away for the small amount of funding was not worth it.”
“Since our solution is inherently crypto-native and the market conditions were favourable, we decided it would make sense to tokenize our business model. It was quite a hard journey to implement the crowdsale mechanism though, as we decided to not rely on any external consultants or out-of-the-box solutions and instead build the tech infrastructure ourselves. This allowed our team to obtain valuable experience for the product stage.”
And what about the move from a successful ICO (raising over $20 million in the process) to the MVP stage?
“Transitioning from the token sale to the MVP was and is a challenging process, which I reckon very few ventures make successfully.”
Filipe is not wrong. You only need look at the vast number of crypto-companies that have fallen by the wayside, or still haven't been able to produce a working product despite years in the space. It really is the young industry's greatest failing.
“While raising awareness and funds during the ICO stage relies on strong marketing and community engagement (soft skills), the latter relies on strong engineering, UX and commercial partnerships. It's only after the MVP is built that marketing and engagement should retake center-stage.”
“A balanced team, therefore, not only has to have all those skills but to be flexible and evolve accordingly to venture forward and create the best conditions for success. Developing a great product is hard work, takes time and dedication to build. Like any startup we need to balance using our resources effectively, growing fast and managing expectations.”
As with any startup, there have been struggles along the way, but Filipe singles out hiring at the pace they need, without compromising on core values and getting the right cultural 'fit' as the greatest of them. This is a narrative you hear so often when it comes to startups that it's become almost cliché. Whether you're involved in the crypto-space or not, it seems hiring the right people is always, always a struggle.
At this point, we wanted to switch the focus to successes. We always make time to dwell on struggles and to learn from mistakes, as we should, but not enough time is spent celebrating the successes.
The very successful ICO that raised over $20 million springs to mind as an obvious success, but isn't something Filipe focuses on, instead highlighting what has been achieved by the team since then.
“Our greatest successes so far have been the string of successful commercial partnerships we have achieved with UMT AG, Gambio, and Payrexx to name a few. Our acceptance as part of the '500Startups' family was also a highlight. The reason for picking those above all other achievements is that they not only validate our business model and overall venture to the rest of the world, but we also believe they also set a precedent for success for crypto-based projects.”
Having gone through a significant period of growth with what is, in essence, a startup, and having dealt with all the highs and lows of the cryptocurrency space, we wanted to ask Filipe if he had any advice for anyone out there thinking of starting up a crypto-company.
“If you are planning to build something, think of the problem you are attempting to solve first, then how to make it sustainable. From there you need to validate your assumptions. Never assume your vision is what the market wants. If that all goes well, go find others that share your view. Ultimately, build something you believe in, and only with people that you trust.”
We'd label that as sensible advice for businesses in any space. You see, those crypto-companies and crypto-enthusiasts aren't so different from you and I, are they?
Finally, the conversation moved to the future and what the plans would be over the next five years.
“Over the next five years, we plan to continue to work towards realising the UTRUST vision of bringing cryptocurrency payments to the mainstream. That means growing as a company along with our product, expanding to new international markets, continuing building a better user-experience tailored to user need, adapting to new regulations, and working with great merchants and partners.”
We'd like to thank Filipe for taking the time to answer our questions and give us this 'behind-the-scenes' look into a young company in the cryptocurrency space.
We hope you enjoyed this article, and we also hope that this article goes some way to dispelling some of the myths about companies in the crypto space. It's not all fraud and scams, is it?