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Barefoot Innovation Podcast

Mar 2, 2016

Welcome to our first episode focused on Bitcoin, digital currency, and the blockchain. My guest is one of the most thoughtful people anywhere on this topic and on payments overall: Circle CEO and Founder Jeremy Allaire.

I met with Jeremy at his office in south Boston's "Innovation District," a few blocks from where I live myself. They have quintessential startup space in an old brick warehouse, and we sat down on a New England winter day for a really fascinating conversation.

I often talk about the five huge technology trends that are revolutionizing financial services. Number 4 on my list is digital currency. Not long ago, even senior leaders in banks and regulatory agencies dismissed Bitcoin as insignificant and weird at best, and dangerous at worst. Today, many people still think it's weird and dangerous, but no one thinks it's unimportant. I'm going to assume our listeners know the basics - that Bitcoin invented the "blockchain," which is an open "distributed ledger" of transactions, visible on the internet, and that being on the internet makes it (like everything else there) instant and free. Most people also understand that this can transform our slow, high-cost payments system, and also any other system that is, in effect, a chain of transactions or records. Most people also know the blockchain record is unfakeable, unbreakable, and again, visible - attributes that can fundamentally change how we organize things from money and contracts and legal titles to operational systems and markets of all kinds.

I once wrote a blog post called "The Benefits of Bitcoin", arguing that the cheap and instant movement of money can bring incredible upside potential for financial consumers, as well as new risks. It will eventually change everything from remittance services to the struggles facing people on tight budgets who now rely on cash, since it's the only way to be sure a bill gets paid exactly when it's due.

As understanding of Bitcoin has spread, a new conventional wisdom has emerged - the notion that the crucial innovation here is not digital currency, but rather the blockchain, including closed chains inside companies and closed networks. In our conversation, Jeremy challenges that idea head-on. He argues passionately that the big power in this technology is its openness.

He reminds us, for one thing, that the internet initially spurred hot debate over how to secure the unprecedented free-flow of information. In a widely-circulated article on re/ last November Jeremy wrote,  "Remember, the Internet was unreliable, insecure, and filled with creeps and hackers. People wanted safe, secure, trusted and proprietary networks. That was the future...(yet) We all know what happened. Smart creators and engineers from all around the world got inspired by the open Internet...Permissionless innovation took hold, and we changed the world." He thinks we now need to take the basic DNA of the Internet - open protocols and distributed and decentralized networks - and apply them not just to sharing data and information, but to the sharing of value.

He also emphasizes a core power of this - the fact that if you don't have to trust a single centralized institution to facilitate value exchange, amazing things become possible. Jeremy refers to bitcoin as a distributor of trust, one that "provides a highly secure ledger to exchange value around the world." He believes that just as the early Internet disrupted media and communications, this wave of innovation will transform the "trust and assurance" industries - "which includes government, law, accounting, insurance and, last but not least, finance."

Entering into a global economy in which everything from social identities to commerce flow instantly and freely is discomfiting to some. Even though today's closed and proprietary technology and networks create frustration and high costs for consumers, Bitcoin critics still doubt the soundness and resilience of the model. For innovators like Jeremy, though, it is creating a whole new set of solutions that use financial technology to build "smart rules" and business logic that can eventually shape the new laws of global commercial and legal governance.

Jeremy's "aha" moment on this came in 2012, and inspired him to start a company that would use blockchain technology, which he calls the "global trust and transaction ledger," to change the way we store and use money. That company is Circle, a provider of mobile apps "aimed at enabling greater ease-of-use in online and in-person payments, enhanced security and privacy for customers, and the convenience of free, instant, global digital money transfers." A revolutionary idea. As I say in our conversation, I'm a Circle customer myself.  Every time I use it, it amazes me.

Before Circle, Jeremy was an entrepreneur who'd already spent two decades building and leading global technology companies. His first startup, Allaire Corp, pioneered the use of the Web as a platform for commerce and business applications, and grew to serve over 1 million customers around the world. In 2000, Allaire Corp was acquired by Macromedia, where Jeremy became Chief Technology Officer and helped transform Flash into a platform for rich applications and video that became the most widely adopted piece of software in the history of computing.

He then founded Brightcove, the first Internet video publishing platform for websites, smartphones, tablets and connected-TVs. The company has customers in more than 100 countries and powers video operations for 25 percent of the top 10,000 websites in the world. From 2003 to 2014, Jeremy also served as a Director at Ping Identity Corporation, an industry-leading software and online service provider for securing identity on the Internet whose clients include many of the largest financial institutions in the world.


In our conversation, Jeremy explains his vision, his long background in technology, how Circle works, their business model and plans, and his thoughts about regulation of finance and fintech.  The regulatory challenges are obviously huge. Circle sought and received the first-ever (and at this writing, still only) New York State "bit-license." Jeremy talks about the challenges of becoming licensed as a money transmitter in the U. S. state-by-state regulatory patchwork. He also recognizes that, importantly, governments throughout the country and the world see potential as well as risk in these innovations. An example is that Jennifer Shasky Calvery, Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, has testified before Congress that FinCENrecognizes the "potential for abuse by illicit actors," and that the agency has for almost five years worked with its regulatory partners on designing rules that provide the "needed flexibility to accommodate innovation in the payment systems space under our preexisting regulatory framework."

Jeremy Allaire has an exceptional gift for making mind-bending technology and regulatory challenges easy to understand - and for provoking thought. This is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating episodes we've had.

Enjoy it, and please be sure to click the "Donate" button HERE, and to write a review on ITunes, to keep supporting the show.

And.....Introducing my video series: Regulation Innovation

Meanwhile, I have a video for you -- two of them, actually.

Many listeners know I have long been a consultant to the financial industry, first on regulatory matters and more recently on fintech. A couple of years ago, someone suggested that I take the kind of advice people pay me for as a consultant, and distill it into video briefings that are accessible and affordable for a much wider market. It was a great idea, and so I began building a video series offering my advice.

I've focused the videos on the most important question facing consumer financial services -- How to survive, and actually thrive, through the twin disruptions that are hitting the industry:  technology innovation, and regulation.

I think everyone in fintech will enjoy them, but the series is specifically designed as a guide for financial companies - it's informative, thought-provoking, and practical. It's for both traditional companies and innovators. And it's for the people working on innovation, regulation, and building the business.

I am very confident in saying there is nothing else remotely like it.  Please check it out!

And while you're there, check out my little bonus video because it answers, at long last, this burning question: "Why does Jo Ann Barefoot have an Xbox, since she's never played a videogame in her entire life, and what the heck does this have to do with financial innovation?" See you there!

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