When former Nike CIO Anthony Watson departed from his role at the sportswear firm last year, he had the option of returning to the financial sector.
Having established his career with a series of senior technology posts at some of the biggest lenders in the world - Barclays and Wells Fargo among them – it would have been easy to settle back into the familiarity of a large bank.
However, Watson had a different plan. He opted instead to join virtual currency firm Bitreserve, swapping the staid corporate world of massive workforces and dense regulation, for the dynamism of a fast-moving startup.
“The good thing about working for a startup is that there is no bureaucracy,” he says, speaking to Techworld in central London recently. “You get to define the processes to be effective and efficient from the start. Most companies, when you get a lot of people together, they ask ‘why jump through seventy hoops to do something you can achieve the same with just two'. Creating inefficient processes just makes no sense.
“It is actually very liberating working for a startup versus a big, fat and flabby company that is all about bureaucracy.”
At the same time, despite the clear difference in size and complexity, Watson says that the demands of the job are often just the same as that of a CIO at any large organisation.
“I find that whether you are working at a big company or a small company, you are always on. These are 24/7 jobs: you don’t really take time out. I would take calls at two in the morning, when I was Nike or Barclays, and I’ll get the same at Bitreserve - there is no difference and I love it.”
Shaking up payments
The digital payments firm was founded in 2013 by tech entrepreneur Halsey Minor, whose CV also includes creating digital news platform CNET as well as co-founding a string of companies, most notably cloud computing pioneer Salesforce.
The company is headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina with offices in Braga, Shanghai and San Francisco – while Watson splits much of his time between the UK and LA, handling day to day business operations as Bitreserve COO.
The premise of the Bitreserve payments platform – which has received £6.3 million through crowdsourced funding – is to let users hold bitcoin as stable real-world currencies in a digital wallet. This helps avoid some of the notorious volatility problems of cryptocurrency that have kept mainstream use at bay. Payments and transfers can then be made internationally using the method of choice, incurring much lower transaction fees than the typical charges demanded by banks and other providers.
However, the platform has expanded to offer a range of fiat currencies and commodities such as gold, and Watson is wary of the 'bitcoin' label. "We are not a bitcoin company. In terms of bitcoin’s relevance to us, it is a means to an end," he says.
"The technology behind bitcoin was critical to our business model, but its not the centre of our business model. That said, bitcoin as a form of value we will continue serve and support. It just won't be the centre of what we do moving forward. It's already happening. Today we support nine currencies and four metals and that will just grow and grow - bitcoin will be one source of the very many forms of value we support.”
Fairer banking system
The main aim of the startup, says Watson - who has campaigned on issues such as improving diversity in business and supporting gay rights - is to create a fairer financial services industry that reduces the cost of payments and transfers.
According to Watson the opportunity to provide a more level playing field for all bank users was a big part of the draw for him to join Bitreserve, rather than returning to the banking sector.
“When I left Nike I decided to really look at my options. I had been approached by several banks to go back into banking, and I wasn’t interested at the time,” he says. “What got me very excited about Bitreserve is that [one of the reasons] I left banking is it is an inherently unfair system.
“When I sat down with Halsey I said to him the only way I'd come back into financial services is if I could add demonstrable and positive value to people's lives. My vision for Bitreserve is to democratise banking, so that, no matter who you are or where you are in the world, you get the same financial benefits," he says.
"That is why I am personally interested – I am openly gay, I have fought for equality all my life, and this is the next frontier of equality without a doubt."
One example he cites of the how financial industry skewed in the favour of the big banks are the huge fees that Mexican immigrant workers in the US are forced to pay each year to send money home – reaching billions of dollars in total. This no longer makes sense, Watson says, in a world where information and data can be sent and received internationally so easily via the internet.
"It's always been a source of deep frustration for me, and I've worked in financial services for years. Those who can least afford it always end up paying the most. Its not fair. It's not right. Quite frankly it's disgusting.”
"We [Bitreserve] have a very strong social mission and vision to democratise financial services - regardless of where you are from, who you are, you won’t be penalised just because you are in a percentage of the population where traditional financial services firms charge you ridiculous rates, or as a horrid and patronising banker would say 'the unbankable'.”
Stealing the big banks’ lunch
Bitreserve is one of a number of startups hoping to transform the way payments are made. Watson believes that these fast-moving digital firms - which are unencumbered by legacy technology and processes - are set to 'steal the lunch' of the big players.
“Well it is not just their lunch: it’s their breakfast and dinner too,” says Watson. “They feasted off the fat for too long, adding too little value.
“What we are trying to do at Bitreserve is transforming how the financial sector operates so it is fair, equitable, transparent and realtime".
“If you think about, financial services companies have purposefully tried not to innovate, because they have no incentive. For example, in the UK the four big clearing banks have zero incentive or interest in changing the status quo. Keeping things just the way they are in the UK makes these institutions very, very rich for very little effort.
"That is what we are interested in – changing the status quo for the betterment of all people, not just the few at the top.”