Learn about the ups and downs in leading in the tech space from prolific entrepreneur, adviser, and investor
Josh Fraser, a prolific technology entrepreneur, advisor, and investor, has been a disruptive force in emerging technology spaces—and a pioneer of important new ones. Having worked across different types of tech as a CEO, cofounder, and CTO, he has a nuanced perspective on what it means to lead in technology. As cofounder of Origin Protocol, a pioneering blockchain business, he shares lessons learned from navigating the fast-changing terrain of emerging technologies.
Josh, who grew up in Scotland, has basically always been an entrepreneur. After studying computer science, he realized he was “unemployable” due to a distaste for authority, so he promptly set out on his own.
He’s been building tech startups ever since. He first created EventVue, a social network for conference attendees; and Torbit, a performance optimization tool for websites, working with companies like Microsoft and Intel. After founding PriceSlash, a bill negotiation business, he learned what he didn’t like to do. “Managing a call center of people is not my cup of tea,” he laughs.
The last five years building Origin has been “the wildest rollercoaster of all,” he says. Origin Protocol brings decentralized finances to the masses, and they’ve powered multiple record-breaking NFT sales for top creators.
Benefits of Leading from a Deep Tech Background
Technology empowers founders to reach multitudes, reaching millions through code. “We all only get 24 hours in the day, 7 days in a week. And so no matter how hard you work, there’s only so much you can do,” Josh emphasizes. “You’re looking for a way to get leverage and break that threshold. And there’s a lot of different ways you can do it, but technology’s my favorite way.”
But having the best tech or product isn’t enough, he adds—a technology entrepreneur must also figure out how to market it and get investors. So, developing human skills probably played an even more critical role in his success than tech skills, he asserts.
“Businesses are about people,” he says. “It’s the best part about business, it’s the worst part about business, it’s the hardest part about business by far.” So he actively works to become a better manager and more persuasive leader. If a team member voices even seemingly minor concerns, he’s learned to take them very seriously. “If someone’s not happy, you treat that as an existential threat to your company,” he asserts. “You treat it as a major issue, because if you let those things fester, they can become this much bigger problem later on.”
“Becoming a master of human relationships is really pretty critical to running a business,” he continues. “When I look back at all my success that I’ve had so far, it’s all because of other people around me and the network that I have.” Whether someone gave him an idea that he could connect with another one, invested in him, or made a crucial introduction, it all came down to the human element—so he strives to curate and strengthen that network.
Choosing the Right Business Partners
Josh highly encourages people to have a cofounder. “Businesses are really hard, and so I highly encourage people to have a cofounder. Even with a cofounder, they’re incredibly hard, incredibly lonely at times, and so it’s good to have someone there with you that’s got shared financial interest in whatever it is you’re trying to do.”
First, look for someone who’s both smart and driven. If you have to choose between the two qualities, choose motivation, he urges. Also look for someone who is very ethical and loyal, who will have your back.
Second, look for someone whose skills and interests complement yours. He does well with a cofounder who’s great with finances, for instance. A great partnership can go the distance; he wants to work with his cofounder Matt Liu for the rest of his life—what Freddie dubs “business soulmates.”
Emerging Technologies He’s Watching
Blockchain platform Solana is one of the biggest companies Josh has been advising, but he sees many opportunities in crypto. Outside of crypto, he likes technologies that are really big bets, like Boom, a company working to bring back supersonic flight.
Meat alternatives will become a big category in the future, he predicts—like veggie bacon made from mushrooms, or lab-grown meat. Though there’s some hesitancy about the latter, people will begin opting for it as a less expensive option, he predicts.
His Greatest Oh Ship! Moment
Near the end of 2020, his team had designed a new product idea for yield-bearing stablecoins, known as Origin Dollars today. People could deposit their money and then, placed into the decentralized protocols, it would earn yield.
“No one had done this before,” he continues. “Stable coins existed, DeFi existed, but no one had combined the two ideas into one.” They wrote some code and deployed the idea, adding a big disclaimer to acknowledge that they hadn’t audited these contracts—basically saying, “Use at your own risk.”
“As an entrepreneur, the biggest question you have is always, ‘Does anyone even want this thing?’” he says. Some of the top auditing firms had a six-month wait, and they wanted to test the idea—and it took off. “People started using this thing, even though we were very upfront about the fact that we sort of slapped this thing together. This was a prototype at best … quite experimental at this point.”
They saw $100,000 come in—then $500,000, then a million. Soon it jumped to $3 million. He was staying in Taiwan at the time, and at four in the morning, he got a call from his team saying they’d brought in $7 million. Everyone was excitedly talking about what features to add next.
He went to sleep for a couple hours and woke to someone banging on his door. “You’ve been hacked, you’ve been hacked,” his friend told him.
Crawling out of bed, he realized, “Seven million dollars is gone. Oh ship.”
They’d left out one critical line of code, which had opened the door to disaster. But they took accountability right away.
“The team really came together; we were immediately very upfront and transparent with our community, told them what happened,” Josh says. “Every step of the way, we were just communicating, ‘Here’s what we know, here’s what we’re gonna do,’ and ultimately we decided to make everyone whole.”
Fortunately, they were in a position to repay everyone, and they paid some people back in their token. “Our token appreciated so much in value that everyone ended up being incredibly happy at the end of it, because they made so much more money than what they’d lost,” he recalls.
Their approach to smart contracts and security has completely changed since then. Now, they use extensive checklists and automated tests, and multiple senior engineers review every line of code. External auditors review it all in turn.
In fact, they now use some of the best security practices in the industry, and they’re one of only six such projects to have an AAA security rating.
The State of the Crypto Space
The crypto industry is maturing considerably; one can’t ignore it anymore, Josh asserts. He discusses two key challenges to address within the space.
FTX, one of the largest exchanges in the space, just imploded because they were apparently taking customer deposits and handing them off to a sister trading firm for reckless bets, which they lost—to the tune of $6–8 billion, Josh explains.
Crypto is supposed to keep money safer by boosting transparency about what’s happening with it, which clearly wasn’t the case with FTX. What’s the solution? Decentralized finance, which lets you store your crypto yourself, he asserts. “We shouldn’t be holding it on decentralized exchanges; you can hold it in your own wallet, and you can know exactly where it is, or if you’re trading with a counterparty, you can use decentralized technologies,” he explains. These solutions let you swap one kind of token for another. “You don’t need to give up custody of your assets.”
Using a decentralized system based on “code that’s technically incapable of scamming you” provides a safer option to something like FTX. “The code is immutable, open source, can’t be changed,” he says.
The transparency of a decentralized system also lets you see exactly where your funds are. “You don’t have to put your trust in any government, in any corporation, in any one entity,” he emphasizes. Instead, you can simply trust in mathematics and the incentives driving the system.
The average person still feels daunted by these technologies, and they’re not ready to embrace key concepts like being your own bank. “There’s a steep learning curve on how to hold these assets securely and safely,” Josh says.
Further, the U.S. has a tough environment in which to operate a business like this, so people have gone overseas to riskier options (case in point: FTX). “So many businesses were pushed offshore, where they didn’t have those good financial practices, and the lack of regulatory clarity here in the U.S. was part of that forcing function,” Josh notes. In this way, regulators are making it more dangerous to participate in this growing space, he emphasizes.
Origin is most excited about bringing the next 100 million people into crypto. They have a wealth of experience in building user-friendly products that have reached hundreds of millions or billions of people, and they aim to give people a much better experience than they’d get with their bank. “Our role is bringing mainstream people into crypto and educating them along the way,” he asserts.
Find Josh at @JoshFraser on Instagram and Twitter, or on Facebook. And be sure to like and share for more inspiring interviews!
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