Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Brian Armstrong (@brian_armstrong), the co-founder and chief executive officer of Coinbase. Founded in 2012, Coinbase is building the crypto economy—a more fair, accessible, efficient, and transparent financial system enabled by crypto. Coinbase serves over 103 million verified users, 14,500 institutions, and 245,000 ecosystem partners in over 100 countries. In April 2021, Coinbase listed publicly on NASDAQ as COIN.
Before founding Coinbase, Brian served as a software engineer at Airbnb, where he focused on fraud prevention. Before Airbnb, Brian founded and was CEO of UniversityTutor.com, an online tutoring directory and a subsidiary of Johnson Educational Technologies LLC. Brian also previously served as a consultant for the enterprise risk management division at Deloitte & Touche LLP. Brian has a BA in computer science and economics and an MS in computer science from Rice University.
Over the last three years, Coinbase has worked with ten-time Emmy®-winning filmmaker Greg Kohs on a documentary about cryptocurrency and Coinbase. COIN is now available on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Vimeo on Demand, and other platforms.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferris. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. I’m going to keep my preamble short because I want to get into the meat and potatoes of this conversation with my guest, Brian Armstrong. He is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Coinbase. Founded in 2012, Coinbase is building the crypto economy, a more fair, accessible, efficient, and transparent financial system enabled by crypto. Coinbase serves over 103 million verified users, 14,500 institutions, and 245,000 ecosystem partners in more than 100 countries. In April, 2021, Coinbase listed publicly on the NASDAQ as COIN. Before founding Coinbase, Brian served as a software engineer at Airbnb where he focused on fraud prevention. Before Airbnb, Brian founded and was CEO of UniversityTutor.com an online tutoring directory, and a subsidiary of Johnson Educational Technologies LLC. Brian also served previously as a consultant for the enterprise risk management division at Deloitte and Touche LLP.
Brian has a BA in computer science and economics and an MS in computer science from Rice University. Over the last three years, Coinbase has worked with 10-time Emmy award-winning filmmaker Greg Kohs on a documentary about cryptocurrency and Coinbase. COIN—that is the name of the documentary—is now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo on Demand, and other platforms. You can find Brian on Twitter, which I suggest you follow at Brian_Armstrong. Brian, nice to see you. Thanks for making the time.
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, thanks, Tim, for having me on the show. Appreciate it.
Tim Ferriss: And sometimes in the course of doing research, I find a gingerbread trail that leads me to the story, before the story, before the story, and this may be a dead end, but I’m going to give it a shot. What was StartBreakingFree.com? Does this ring a bell for you?
Brian Armstrong: That’s impressive you found that. Yeah, so that’s a blog that I started. And I actually decided when I was right out of college, I was working on that tutoring company. Somehow I got the idea in my head that I should write a book. And I think what I was doing was whenever I want to try to learn something or figure it out, I try to write it down. Now, I just do blog posts. It seems a lot easier. But at the time I was like, I really wanted to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to build a company that was meaningful, and most people would probably go do that first and then write the book. But I somehow got it backwards and was like, “You know what? Let me write the book to figure out how to do it.” So I wrote a book called Start Breaking Free, and then after I wrote this, I didn’t have a publisher or anything. I was kind of doing a self-publishing thing.
And I read a book called How to Market Your Book, and I basically realized that I had to go make a blog or something to try to market the book. So I created this blog. Honestly, the blog probably was more impactful in my life than the book in the sense that I just put something out every week. I got reactions from the audience in real time. So now I guess my takeaway from that was, if I was going to do that again, I’d probably just go with the blog. And if I had a blog that had 10, or 12, 15 posts that had really resonated with people, I’d maybe later package those into a book, and add a few more that were unique or something like that. But yeah, at the time, I got the order wrong and I was just trying stuff. So that’s what I put out there.
Tim Ferriss: Well, sometimes it’s the things you throw against the wall that sort of in retrospect form the puzzle that helps you to do so many things. And I suppose one of the experiences I’d love to at least bring up, since we have this shared time in Argentina, is your period of time in Buenos Aires. And it’s hard for me to say it that way, Buenos Aires. And I’d like to hear specifically what you took away, not just the experience of witnessing hyperinflation, which I do think we should talk about, but anything else that struck you culturally or otherwise. And also why Argentina in the first place, of all the places you could go. And if you could just place us in time in terms of how old you are, when in your life this happens.
Brian Armstrong: I think I was probably 28 or 27 something in that timeframe. And I graduated from college, I’d been working on this tutoring startup. I had tried working at a couple different companies like Deloitte. Frankly, I wasn’t feeling very successful. I hadn’t really found a company that I wanted to work at. I thought I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But the tutoring company I had started was kind of limping along, barely successful. I was kind of paying my rent type thing, but barely. And it wasn’t really growing. And I had this sense of, okay, I want to go have some adventure in the world. I want to learn how to do a startup in a different way. I had never really tried living abroad, studying abroad. And there was part of me that was like, I need to grow up. I need to try something crazy, and just get adventure in my life.
And I had never been to South America and I knew a little bit of Spanish from high school, but I was not very fluent at all. And so I decided, you know what? I’m going to go do a year, spend a month in every major city in South America, travel around, try to find myself. I was kind of doing a vision quest to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And I can’t remember how I chose Buenos Aires, but that was intended to be my first destination of many, one per month, roughly. I think I just read some stuff online. I don’t remember what timeframe you were down there, but I think I read your book maybe a couple years after that or something. The timing was kind of odd. But I basically made it down there to Buenos Aires. Didn’t really have a place to stay or anything. I was intentionally throwing myself into an unfamiliar situation. And I ended up staying at a hostel. I found finally a room to rent. I figured out how to use an ATM, got a local cell phone.
And after a month I was finally settled a little bit. And I was like, “All right, I don’t want to go have to do that all over again in Brazil or Chile.” So I was like, “Let me stay here a little bit longer.” Long story short, I ended up staying there about a year, and did a few trips into neighboring countries and things like that, but mostly planted myself in Buenos Aires. And I don’t know, I guess the root of your question is what I took away from it. I can tell you at the time I felt very lost. And in hindsight you can look back and connect some dots and think about, oh, hyperinflation and that kind of stuff. But I don’t know. One of the other things I guess I haven’t talked about before that I sort of realized while I was there was that the culture of that country was just incredibly different from the US, which is maybe an obvious statement. But the thing that stood out to me was that, I felt like there was just a bit of, there wasn’t optimism about the future.
People kind of had this vibe, keep your head down, don’t do anything too crazy because everything could get taken away from you tomorrow. And I saw rampant corruption in various places where businesses were all kind of operating in the gray. Occasionally, the fire official would come in and close a restaurant for safety issues, but they were really trying to get some payout. It was kind of a gray market. And what I saw was, I think what happens when you have a once great superpower, like Argentina, I think was the number-eighth largest economy in the world or something in 1900. And then a hundred years later, it was basically a hundred years of just mismanagement, corruption, bad government, endless protests. And the people misplaced their faith in the government to do good things. Whereas ideally, it would’ve been individuals empowering themselves and free markets.
And that is, in my belief, what caused the United States, to this unique experiment in the United States to really turn it into a world superpower. And so seeing the change of optimism to pessimism in that country just after a hundred years of bad outcomes and feeling like you were powerless, that was something that did sort of stick with me. And so hopefully it doesn’t come across too negative. Argentina has many beautiful things about it as well, culturally. And then I learned many things just about valuing family, and good food, and experiences, and things like that. But from an optimism about the future point of view, it could not have been more different.
Tim Ferriss: I can corroborate that. I was in Argentina 2004 to 2005, and so this was a few years after the 2001 economic meltdown, which they seem to almost like clockwork have every five to 10 years, which we could talk about separately. But the degree of apathy was jarring almost. And I do think that for the porteños, there’s the people in the capital, they’re famous for complaining even by the standards of the people on the provinces. So you have to take a little bit of that along with things. But as you said, there was very little sense of optimism. And I remember talking to a shoe store owner who said at one point, the equivalent of the first lady came in with security guards, shut down the store, and just grabbed anything that she wanted. And she was like, “Thank you very much,” and walked out of the store without paying. And that I think is a reflection of the broader perception that people had of the government.
And I remember walking around in 2004 and still there was graffiti all over the banks, which, some of which still had chains locking the doors shut from when people were prevented from withdrawing their cash savings in panic mode because of hyperinflation. But the banks themselves effectively closed the doors and wouldn’t allow them to withdraw. So you had “vultures,” and “thieves,” and so on in Spanish on the sides of all these banks. Let’s hop to present day. I’m very curious because I think there are many ways to spin apocalyptic scenarios that are not all together likely. But when you look at the macroeconomic climate currently, we’re recording this in October of 2022, are there any facets in particular that you find concerning or think that people are not paying enough attention to?
Brian Armstrong: In the broader economy? The main thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is Ray Dalio‘s recent book, Principles for a Changing World Order. And I thought he did a really good job of just looking back at history and teasing apart some of these patterns. And so I found the book convincing, I haven’t dug into the data myself. He put a lot of it online. But it’s not just his opinion, he’s trying to base it on facts of history. And I don’t know, my observation is that I don’t think America is in any kind of imminent danger of rapid decline, but I do think it is in slow decline. That part seems pretty likely to me. And so you see a lot of these telltale signs of increasing polarization, and media starts to get more polarized and captured by various political organizations. We’re seeing higher inflation, obviously, and that’s worrisome. You kind of go on down the list.
So I think this particular moment whether we’re in a recession or not, my guess is that will be, you know, something kind of like the 2008 crisis or whatever, which ironically is the birth of Bitcoin, and what came out of that. So I don’t think it’ll be massive in terms of the whole… The US isn’t going to just fall apart overnight. But I do think it’s in slow decline. And so it raises a lot of interesting questions about what is the next world order? Is that China, is it something that’s going to be more decentralized and internet based, the network states that Balaji has written about? And I think crypto probably has a big part to play in this future because we really are building a new economy, the crypto economy, it’s more global and decentralized.
And I think a lot of people were thinking in this current macro environment when we saw high inflation, hey, maybe people will now go to Bitcoin as the reserve currency, or not the currency, but the digital gold equivalent. And it didn’t, Bitcoin went down along with the broader economy. And so it seems like people are still treating Bitcoin as a growth tech stock equivalent or something. But my guess is that that’s going to change in the next five years or 10 years, something like that. And we will start to see the crypto economy start to become maybe over 10 or 20 years, it’ll become the main thing. It’s sort in the way that e-commerce back 20 years ago was sort of a sideshow, but now it’s kind of the main thing. And so I think we’ll see that happen with crypto too.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s rewind for a moment, and then we’ll go back and forth chronologically, because I like the Memento style of conversation. But if we go back to very early decisions and V1 Coinbase. So I watched the COIN documentary, which I enjoyed a lot. I’ve many questions and maybe we’ll get to later related to being a private person, but also inviting a film crew to follow you around, especially in many of those private contexts. But one of the key moments appeared to be the decision to put a Buy Bitcoin button on Coinbase. So I’d love for you to just paint a picture for folks who may not know any of the genesis story, what the traction looked like, what the activity looked like for Coinbase prior to that. And then most important or interesting to me is how you arrived at that decision, and thought about that decision, and then what happened afterwards?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, for sure. So before that decision to add the Buy Bitcoin button, we had no traction, really. Things were flat. And this is not uncommon by the way. In startups, there is something called the startup hype cycle. I think if you Google that, you’ll find some Google images. And it beautifully illustrates the process that a lot of startups go through where you have this, you launch and there’s a big spike, and then it comes down to zero because nobody cares. They’re just busy with all the other stuff they’re doing in the world. And you have kind of the trough of sorrow, and then you keep working on the product. And that’s where a lot of startups die. But if you go through it, usually for years, you have to do this iteration of talk to the customer, improve the product, talk to the customer, improve the product. And if you don’t die, you don’t get distracted, you don’t get disillusioned, you’ll sometimes see these wiggles of hope and eventually maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll find product market fit and the thing will take off.
So this is what they drill into you when you go through Y Combinator, which Coinbase did, and it’s sort of a startup incubator where they teach you all these kind of war stories. And so that’s what I was doing at this time as an aspiring entrepreneur. I had launched an early version of Coinbase just on Reddit and places like that. I’d gotten a couple hundred people to come sign up and check it out, and then nobody would come back. And so what I did was I followed the Y Combinator advice and I just emailed five of the people who had signed up and I said, “Hey, I made this app, I’d love to get your feedback. Can I hop on the phone with you? Here’s my cell phone number.” So I talked to five of these people. And I think it was the third or fourth person I was talking to. And the guy was like, “Yeah, the app seems cool and everything, but I don’t really have any Bitcoin. So I just signed up, and then I didn’t have any Bitcoin, and I didn’t come back.”
And some kind of light bulb… This was probably the second or third person who had said something like this. And a light bulb went off in my head. I was like, “Well, if there was a Buy button right in the app, would you have just done that?” And he was like, “Yeah, probably. Because I don’t know, it seems difficult. You have to wire money to Japan. There’s this site Mt. Gox. I don’t know, it was too much of a hassle, so I just didn’t do it.” So I went about putting this simple Buy button basically as a hunch based on the user feedback. And the button was simple, but the thing to actually get that working was very difficult. We, basically, I say we, it was kind of just me at the time, very shortly after Fred Ehrsam joined, and he and I co-founded it really.
But I had to go find a bank partner that would allow us to integrate with the ACH network in the US, and convince them what our anti-money laundering policy was. And then code up that integration and make sure that we were sourcing the Bitcoin once people bought it. Anyway, long story short, we got all that working, and we launched a simple Buy button. You could now connect your bank account. That was the first time that had happened in the US where you could connect a payment method and just Buy Bitcoin really simply. And that’s the moment we had product market fit. It started to grow organically every week after that. And it was like a boulder we were chasing downhill. I think I said that in the film as well.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it goes from pushing the boulder uphill to chasing it downhill. What was the timing on that? Was that late 2012? When would that have been, that you implemented that button?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, probably late 2012, early 2013 was right around then.
Tim Ferriss: That would’ve been also exactly at the encouragement of Kevin Rose that I bought my first Bitcoin on Coinbase, would’ve been literally a few months after that button was introduced. So thanks for that.
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, yeah. Actually I did an interview with Kevin, I think right around that time. I did an interview with him at his house and I think that’s a fun interview to go back and look at too. But yeah, crazy times.
Tim Ferriss: He makes a cameo on the doc as well, which he may or may not know, but I’m sure he’ll be pleased with. So I’d like to talk about influences. And maybe we’ll start with a shared figurehead, and that is Richard Feynman. So I’ve read quite a few of your blog posts. And you’ve written about books that have had an impact on you or that you recommend to others. One of them is, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, that’s a classic on my bookshelf that I revisit pretty often. And there’s a lot of backstory there. But let’s begin with that book. Is there anything about Feynman or that book that really stands out to you or you would reflect to people who are not familiar with the book? And then what other books come to mind that have had maybe a disproportionate impact on your thinking or that you’ve simply gifted a lot or recommended much to other people?
Brian Armstrong: That book definitely did stand out to me. And I think the thing that was exciting about it was he just had this kind of curiosity for life and a boundless energy to go try different things and tinker around and experiment. And I guess what I loved about that was, first of all, it’s just funny, it’s quite a humorous book. But I guess what I loved about it was like it gave you this kind of zest for life of never stop learning, always be curious. And also just you can kind of treat life like it’s a video game. Other people have talked about this, this is not my original stuff, but I think there is something to that, where if you stop taking life so seriously and you realize anything around you, you know. There was that Steve Jobs’ everything around you was made by somebody else who just decided. You don’t have to just consume the world. The world is not happening to you. You can go create things in the world.
And so once you start to think of it like that, it really changes your perspective. Just one example would be, if you’re going through something really difficult, you might start to get kind of down, you’re like, “Oh man, this sucks. And this person hates me, and I’m losing on this or whatever.” But if you start to think about, if life was a video game, the hardest part of the game might be kind of the most interesting or the most fun. It’s the part that you really need to pull together. And so anyway, it just changes your perspective entirely. You asked about other books too. Let’s see, I already mentioned Dalio’s book, Changing World Order. I thought that was good. I’ve gifted that to a handful of people.
I think Milton Friedman has this book called Free to Choose. I actually have never read the book, but there was a TV series he did on PBS back in the day that was also called Free to Choose. And I thought that was kind of interesting. It’s kind of Libertarian, so some people will like that, some people won’t. But I found it actually quite interesting just to get his view on the global macro environment and different countries and how they work. And that was something I’ve also gone back to look at once in a while. I think it did influence my thinking in hindsight.
Tim Ferriss: I want to come back to something you said, which was “Talk to the customer, iterate, talk to the customer, iterate.” And just to maybe state the obvious, which is very often entrepreneurs try to iterate without talking to the customer. And one of the things I appreciate about many of the founders who’ve gone through Y Combinator, this includes the Airbnb founders and others, is in the early days doing things that don’t scale. Really taking a manual approach to interacting with customers. What else would you consider core principles or learnings that you took away from Y Combinator or specifically or anyone else involved?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah. Well, I don’t know if this came up in your research, but actually I worked at Airbnb before starting Coinbase. So yeah, I think I was employee 40 there or something like that. And then I got to learn a lot from them too about the perseverance and how they ran product and all, it was really cool. But I guess some of the lessons just generally from that ecosystem, because it all came from Y Combinator and Airbnb and all that stuff. Another one of my favorite kind of Paul Graham-isms is action produces information. So there’s many times where you’re sitting around and you’re like, “All right, well what if this happens? What if that happens?” And you’re kind of staring into the abyss, into the cloud, the fog ahead of you, and you don’t really know what to do. And so people sometimes get stuck in those environments and they never take any action basically.
But if you just take some steps into the unknown, you might not be doing the right thing, but oftentimes by doing that action, you’ll realize what you should have been doing instead. And there was a great story that kind of went along with this where the early days at Coinbase, actually before it was even called Coinbase, I was just tinkering on some stuff nights and weekends while I was at Airbnb. And I remember I built this very simple app with a friend of mine, I think it was just called Bitcoin Wallet or something. It may still be on GitHub somewhere, but it was basically an Android app. And we decided, hey, we want to make a Bitcoin wallet that runs on Android. It was supposed to be very simple. And we didn’t have any kind of cloud thing behind it. It wasn’t any sort of a company or anything like that. And so we basically ran a full Bitcoin node right on the Android phone, people might laugh at it now, but at the time Bitcoin nodes were very small and lightweight and they could run on phones.
And so we coded this thing up and we launched it. I was just trying stuff. I didn’t know what I was doing. We weren’t even trying to make a company. We were just kind of trying to learn this stuff in the evenings in our free time. And I launched it, and I remember the minute that we launched it, Wired wrote some little article about it. I was like, “Wow, that’s so cool. Wired wrote an article about it.” But the minute we launched it, I realized we had built it wrong. And the reason I realized that was that we were trying to, again, we were running the whole Bitcoin node right on the phone. And it would take forever. Every time you opened the app, it would say “Syncing,” and it would have to sync for three, four minutes or whatever to catch up with the latest blockchain blocks.
And so that was a good example where I knew it instantly we built the wrong thing. And then what went off in my head was, “Okay, someone’s going to have to make a company around this that has truly a lot of this stuff running in the cloud where you can do all the backups and security, and sync with the blockchains.” And I remember thinking at that time, “Well, that’s not going to be me because I have a day job. And that’s a really serious company to run. And someone will probably try to hack into it and it’s like, you’ve got to have a lot of money for that.” So I didn’t immediately get to the next step was maybe I’ll start that company. But that was a good example of just taking action produced information, which made the next step a little bit more clear.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any favorite essays by Paul? I have one bookmarked that I reread often. I mean, he has got so many good essays, but “The Top Idea In Your Mind,” not that you should be familiar with that one, but that’s one. Since I have a creative project that I’m focused on at the moment that I revisit with some regularity. Any favorite essays or other Paul Graham-isms that come to mind?
Brian Armstrong: There’s so many good ones. I think people should read them all. But I think it’s about how to build wealth or something. It just really nicely explains kind of the idea where people think money is zero sum. And it’s like, well, for me to have money, you have to take it from somebody else. So it’s inherently evil. And he’s like, “No, if you just assemble a bunch of things, either natural resources or you improve a car…” I think is the way he described it. He’s like, “You haven’t made anybody else worse off. You made the mechanic better off. You made yourself better off in the process. And so value is not zero sum.” I think that’s really important for people to understand. And once in a while I go back and read his essay, I think it’s called “Haters.” Whenever I’m feeling down. Whenever I accidentally read the comments online, which is not a good idea, that’s a good one to go back and read too.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing. So I’m looking at two of them. So “Haters,” that’s January, 2020. And then I think this is the wealth essay, which is “How to Make Wealth” from May, 2004, which originally came from his book Hackers and Painters. So I will put both of those in the show notes.
So let’s talk about the psycho-emotional response to outside scrutiny or criticism for a second. Because what is covered quite extensively in the doc and certainly was covered even more extensively in the news, was your decision not that long ago to offer generous severance packages to people who disagreed with your statements about Coinbase as a mission-driven company that provides a refuge of sorts. With that focus, and please correct my description if it doesn’t fit, but in so being a mission-driven company wanting to avoid political and social conversations within the company that chew up time and energy and resources and attention. Feel free to set the table a little better than I did. But could you describe the situation, the action, and then what is of greatest interest to me is how you thought about making the decision, how you thought about the possible ramifications of making that decision and prepared yourself for what might happen and then what did happen? Just weathering that.
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, so a few years back we put out this blog post that Coinbase was going to become a mission-focused company, which basically meant we were going to be apolitical, not focus on broader societal issues in the workplace. And so how did that all come to be? I mean, really, I’d say for the couple of years prior to that, there was something that was sort of bubbling up inside the company, which initially was very slow and subtle and I didn’t really pay too much attention to it, but eventually it culminated in a walkout. But a bunch of employees being so upset that they kind of closed the laptops and decided not to come into work in protest. And that was sort of a big moment in the company history because that had never happened before. And so what led up to that? Well, that basically there was a lot of… COVID happened, people were at home, they probably had less of a sense of belonging and cohesion as, hey, we’re all one company, we’re one group of people, we’re all trying to do good stuff in the world.
So there was a little bit of frustration there, there was probably a lack of cohesion there. And then I’d say it became more popular in society, I’ve since gone back and read some books on this. Jonathan Haidt‘s book about The Coddling of the American Mind, and all these things that kind of started on college campuses. I’d sort of loosely read a few things here and there about this, but I never really took it that seriously. I figured this was just, there’s always been activism on college campuses, whatever. We’re trying to build something in our company, I didn’t pay much attention to it. But what happened was we started to get basically more activism inside the company. Whereas initially I was always thinking, hey we’re on the same team. We’ve got competitors, we’ve got regulators, we’re trying to create all this change, we’re all on the same team.
And internally, people started to think, actually, we’re not all on the same team. My job is not to help the Coinbase mission, it’s to speak truth to power, or to hold this other team to account or something like that. And so it manifested in strange ways like at the town hall meetings that we’d have every two weeks, we’d have an open-mic Q&A. And more and more of the questions started to be about things not really related to what we were building as a company, but to about broader societal issues. And it almost became this thing where who can make the exec team squirm the most on stage with these very difficult questions. And of course, I didn’t have great answers to many of the biggest, broader societal issues. We were trying to all focus on building more economic freedom in the world.
So as I was noticing this was happening, this was around the time of the George Floyd riots and everything like that and the murder there. And so there was a moment, I think, where somebody in one of the all hands kind of came up and said, is Coinbase going to publicly support Black Lives Matter? And I basically deferred to answer the question. I hadn’t really read that much about it. I was like, we’re going to go look at this, I don’t know, to be determined. And that wasn’t good enough. And they kind of held the mic and they pressed the issue, and this is where a bunch of people walked out of the company. So I was frankly shocked. I was like, at first I was just so surprised. We all got in a room as an exec team, and I was like, I don’t understand. What does Coinbase have to do with police brutality?
We’re not related to this. But of course this thing was erupting all over societies, all over the world. And people just felt every company, every person had to make some kind of a stand on this. And so it was a very difficult leadership moment. I remember calling some people into the room telling me and asking them, what does BLM actually stand for if we’re going to go out there and say something positive about it? And they’re like, well, it’s basically equality for people. And I was like, great. Okay, if that’s what people want to hear, I don’t understand it, but let’s go out there and say it. And so I basically went out and made a statement supporting BLM as many companies did at that time. And people came back to work, which was fine. But as the months ticked by, I started to feel increasingly uneasy about it.
First of all, I subsequently learned that BLM supported other things like around defunding the police and all these things which I was like, all right, we shouldn’t be getting involved in those issues. I don’t know what our point of view is on that. And I basically realized there was not a clear agreement amongst all the people in the company, that some people felt the company should actually be engaging in broader societal issues to try to go help out, and other people felt that we should be focused on our mission, which was a very big and important thing already, increasing economic freedom in the world with crypto. And I was in that latter camp. And I felt like that’s already a big enough thing to focus on, we can’t be jumping to every issue of the month or the year, we have to try to focus.
It might take 10, 20 years for us to make a dent in that problem, that’s a really big thing. And so I realized the company was divided on this issue and I was kind of failing as a leader if I didn’t come out and make it clear. So basically after a couple months of deliberating, and this is where you were asking about my thought process, I was really torn about this because basically this is where I sat down to write. And I tried to write a blog post because when I’m trying to formulate my thinking, I try to write. So I wrote probably two or three or four drafts of this where I just discarded it and tried to write it over again. And was reading books, talking to people at this time. I eventually settled on this language around mission first. And I remember sharing it with some leaders inside the company and with our board.
And there were some people inside the company who were like, do not share this under any circumstances, this will be a terrible thing for the company. And I was like, I know it’s going to be controversial, but we have to solve this problem. I don’t really care so much about a couple bad headlines. I care if we’re, are we building an aligned culture that can actually accomplish this mission long term? And some people told me things like, an underrepresented person will never work at this company again. And I was like, really? Is that true? I went and talked to some of our employee resource groups and they told me, I asked them, what’s the most important thing to you to want to work at this company? They’re like, we just want to be respected at work, learn things, be able to build cool stuff. It was basically what everybody else wanted.
And so my instinct from talking with people directly, my hunch was that was not going to actually play out. But that was a fear people had. And I think the thing that finally pushed me over the line to do it, because I’m kind of a conflict diverse person by nature. I don’t want to be, I didn’t really want to be known for this. But I think the thing that pushed me over the line was, I was thinking, God, the CEO job is just not that fun, to be honest. If I have to come in every day and be put in front of the hot mic and have to answer all these crazy things that I don’t have an answer to, that’s not what I signed up for. I want to build cool stuff with technology that changes the world. That’s what I’m good at.
And so I was basically thinking, either I have to go, like if this is just what the job of being a tech CEO is in modern day, I’ve got to go because this is not fun for me ,or they’ve got to go. And from talking to a couple of friends and mentors and whatnot, I basically realized they’ve got to go. And it was strange because it felt like such a vocal, it felt like maybe it was 50% of the company or something. But it was a very vocal, tiny percentage of the company.
And so I basically made this exit package available. I said look, this is the direction we’re going in. If you’re not okay with that, I totally get it. I didn’t make it clear up front, that’s my fault. So we’re going to give this great severance package, whatever. 5% of the company left. It created a bunch of drama for a few months, a couple journalists wrote hit pieces on us and things like that, but afterwards it was better. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for the company to be honest. Because now we’re fully aligned, we’re making faster progress, everybody who joins the company knows what they’re signing up for. And it was an incredibly important leadership moment for me because I was terribly scared to do it, I didn’t want the controversy, I knew it was people were going to hate it. So hopefully that gives some clarity.
Tim Ferriss: No, it does. And it, just for clarity, hopefully you don’t feel I’m asking this question to make you squirm. That’s not the objective. I’m genuinely curious about the thought process surrounding what is inevitably on some level going to be an unpopular decision. And I think that is a hallmark of good leadership. Otherwise, I mean you’re just taking votes and consensus and doing what the larger group would do anyway. So it seems to me that integral to effective leadership is having the ability to make unpopular decisions when it is in the best interest long term of the company and the mission in this case, right?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So that is why I asked. So thank you for answering.
Brian Armstrong: Totally.
Tim Ferriss: Now, I was chatting with Katie Haun, who’s a mutual friend, and certainly has played a role, continues to play a role with Coinbase. And she phrased it I think very well.
I’m looking at some notes here. And she effectively said that you seem to embody this kind of sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me set of attributes, or at least you seem from the outside unfazed by criticism or a lot of criticism. And I’m not asking you to bare your soul and tell me about all the things that have hurt your feelings. Also don’t want to give people sort of directions on how to attack you effectively. But I am curious if that is something you have, to what extent is that something you have developed and cultivated, if that’s even an accurate perception?
Brian Armstrong: So I think that definitely is something that I’ve cultivated. I don’t think I was naturally that way. I’m probably more sort of steady than the average person, but I definitely have ups and downs and a lot of stuff has really affected me over the years. So it’s definitely not something that— I think it’s a skill people can learn and develop and it’s a muscle that gets stronger and stronger. I mean, basically this is something that was very counterintuitive to me. I assumed that when starting a company there’d be many hard things. Raising money, finding product market fit, even just a bunch of people being skeptical that it would ever work. I kind of anticipated all of that. What I didn’t anticipate was that people would actually root for you to fail, or actually misunderstand someone’s intentions and think that they were bad or evil or whatever that would be.
And that was surprising. If you’re just a normal person in which I am as well, you’ve gone about your life, you’re not going to make everybody happy, but you’re basically a good person, you try to do whatever. It’s kind of rare, maybe once in a while someone will get upset with you or something, you go smooth it over. I had never had the experience of having a thousand or a hundred thousand people mad at you at the same time, which is a very uncomfortable thing the first few times it happens. And I would respond to the stress of it. Just oftentimes I wouldn’t be able to sleep well at night. I would wake up or in the middle of the night with these stress dreams, or just ruminate on these things, it’s not great. And so, I don’t know, I think I developed some strategies for sort of coping with it over time.
I mean, one of them is that, again, I try not to read the comments. It’s really true. Whether it’s Twitter or Hacker News or even a lot of stuff, just notifications coming on your phone or whatever. There’s a moment every day where you have your own time and mental energy ready and your calendar is cleared, and I really feel like you’ve got to tune out all that bullshit and basically think about, if I only got one or two things done today that would actually advance what I want to get done in the world, what would that be? Turn off your phone, turn off and all that stuff, and just try to get the one or two things done that you want to get done that day. And then later you can turn on your phone and read some stuff if you want to do some self-flagellation. And so there’s a real art to preserving your mental focus.
I think that’s the most valuable scarce resource you have, and so you have to really preserve that. And then I also just try to, I basically… You don’t want to isolate yourself so much that you’re not getting feedback from people, because then you can just become reclusive or turn into Putin or whatever. I don’t know.
So you want to make sure you’re getting input from people that have your best interests at heart. So I try to like, my family, they don’t treat me as, they don’t defer to me at all. They’re just like all, whatever, take out the trash. You want to have your board be like that, you want to have your friends be like that, my co-founder Fred Ehrsam and now Emilie Choi, who’s the President/COO. We have that relationship where she can just tell me, “Brian, you’re being an idiot. Don’t do that.” And so you always want to have people around you that have your best interest at heart and can tell you when you’re being an idiot, that’s very important.
But there’s a lot of other people that are playing their own game that don’t have their best interest at heart. They’re trying to build their own status game in some virtue signaling thing. They’re trying to get clicks on their article, whatever they’re trying to do, and you don’t really need to listen to that stuff. In fact, it’s really harmful to your progress if you are listening to that stuff. So there’s a real art of just tuning that out and caring less, I guess.
Tim Ferriss: Is there any other advice that you would give or perhaps you have given, of course you’re very involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and I have to imagine that you invest in some startups and private companies, although you can correct me if I’m wrong. What advice would you give to someone who is in a company that is beginning to scale and they’re starting to get hit with the hundredth, then a thousand people, or maybe it’s just 10 opportunistic journalists who are really just smashing the rock against the head of this poor startup because it gets a lot of clicks. What advice would you give to this person, or what might you say to them?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, well, one thing I always remember is that if you go talk to other CEOs, they’re all going through the same thing, but you haven’t read any of their other articles. I remember talking to a friend recently and Bobby Kotick at Activision, he’s been getting all this negative press about whatever, I don’t know. Anyway, I actually hadn’t seen any of the articles, the negative articles about it. But for him it’s like, well he was kind of at the center of this storm, and whatever, he’s a great guy, he’s going to pull through it. But it just made me realize like, wow, he’s at the center of this hurricane and I hadn’t even heard about it. I’m too busy doing my own world, doing my own thing. And that’s what’s true of 99% of people, they see some article, whatever, there’s a million things that they’re thinking about, they actually don’t care that much about whatever the thing is that feels so existential and awful to you.
The other thing I would just say is, it’s a rite of passage. Honestly, you should celebrate it. If the first time you get a New York Times hit piece or whatever, I mean, congratulations, you earned your wings as an entrepreneur. And the moment that you realize it didn’t really matter and you can keep doing whatever you think is good in the world, and… You’ve actually, you level up. You kind of earn your stripes, and you become a more powerful CEO because you’re like, okay, I’m not going to make a decision in the company based on how I’m afraid of how other people will react, I’m going to do what I think is best for the long term of the company. And so that’s actually a superpower. I think it’s great when people go through it, and even when it feels like shit, I’m like, “Congratulations, you’ve just made it to the next level.”
Tim Ferriss: I like the reframe. It makes me all the more want to read this “Haters” piece by Paul Graham also. How do you think about, and this is related to Paul Graham in a sense, in the building wealth and the non-zero sum game of wealth creation in many capacities. So looking at things from a lens of abundance rather than scarcity, but this brings me to the question of competition. How do you think about competition? I know that seems very broad, but I’m going to leave it broad and just see where it goes.
Brian Armstrong: On the one hand, I’ve got some competitive spirit too, and I think it’s useful to have competitors. It actually makes us better, it gets me fired up, it gets the team fired up. Honestly, if you don’t have a competitor — people are naturally tribalistic — you’ll sometimes get to see tribes will start to form inside the company and people start fighting each other, and so it’s actually better to have something outside the company that you’re struggling against.
Now, on the other hand, I do think in general, startups probably focus too much on… On the other hand, you’re just too much focused on competitors. You should almost ignore it. Another Paul Graham ism is, startups die by suicide, not homicide. And that’s kind of a gory thing to say, but what he means of course is that companies blow up because they’re bureaucratic, or the founders have some big fight, or the board has some drama and they run out of money or whatever.
They die due to dysfunction internally. It’s almost never because some competitor directly hurt you, it’s like, you just get out-executed because you’re so focused on the wrong things. And so I think that’s very true, and especially in the crypto space, we have lots of really great competitors around the world, and I think it’s good that we’re competing with them and we get fired up. But ultimately, I care a lot more about how do we grow the size of the pie 100x than I do trying to win a few points of share from some other company in crypto.
So I try to mostly just be friends with the other companies that are ostensibly competitors. I try to stay friends with those CEOs and just learn from each other, and sure, we’re competing, but we’re all trying to grow the size of the crypto economy 100x, and that’s how I think about it.
Tim Ferriss: There are several directions that I want to go, and I’m trying to pick the most appropriate direction. Well here we go. In today’s climate, what do you think the crypto bears or skeptics most miss, or should pay attention to? And conversely, the manic bulls on, let’s just say NFT and crypto Twitter, what are they missing about the landscape, or should they pay more attention to?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So the extreme skeptics and the die hard fill in the blank or die crypto aficionados.
Brian Armstrong: Yeah. Well, I guess sort of a common theme in my personality is I try to reject tribalism. And so I try, It’s never as good as it seems, never as bad as it seems, in crypto. Neither side is correct. So I guess what the skeptics of crypto miss is that this is early days, right? It’s kind of like if you had looked at the internet in 1999 or 2000, you might say, ah, dial up modems are kind of slow, it’s too clunky to use for the average person, why would I go read an article online when I get the newspaper delivered every day?
You can’t trust anything that you read on the internet, it’s full of scams and people writing crazy things on their blogs. And so they’re looking at it through the lens of, well, compare it to the traditional financial system in every aspect today, but they’re not seeing what the potential of it is. And the fundamental underlying technology is something that’s inherently more global and can be more efficient and fair and free. And so anyway, they’re not seeing the potential.
I guess the people who are insane crypto bulls are just, I think they’re basically too focused on getting rich quick. I mean, it’s not just… Everyone’s trying to find some shortcut or whatever and pump something or buy it and flip it, and I just think there’s no free lunches in life. And go do the hard work of building something actually useful and take a longer term perspective, and that’s where you’ll see real value emerge.
And by the way, it’s not to say that crypto it’s all future potential value. I think a lot of people miss that today too they’re like, well what are the use cases? Well, there’s a lot of people using crypto today, not just for trading. They’re using it to make art and to make payments to each other in different countries, and to raise money and to do games. So there are tons of people actually using it for real stuff already. Borrowing and lending and earning a living, and paying for tasks, and earning yield on their assets and all kinds of stuff like that. So one of the metrics we track at Coinbase is kind of what percent of our active customers are doing something with crypto other than trading? And that number used to be like 10%, maybe three or four years ago. Now, I think over 50% of our active customers are doing something other than just trading with crypto. So it’s emerging.
Tim Ferriss: If you were to take that pie chart of doing other things with crypto, what are the main slivers, the use cases?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, so again, it’s not just one, but it’s a mix of a bunch of things. So people earning yield on their assets with things like staking, it’s people doing commerce with crypto, it’s people buying, selling, minting NFTs. DeFi has been a really big use case as well. Some of that by the way is trading. There’s decentralized exchanges, but it’s not all that, it’s other aspects of defi. Things like Coinbase Card have been really useful in terms of getting people using crypto in the real world, brick and mortar or online, anywhere that Visa’s accepted, they can spend crypto, so we’re seeing that as a emerging use case. Coinbase Earn is another one that we’ve seen that’s driven a lot of that activity. So yeah, peer-to-peer payments, it’s a bunch of things.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m going to come back to art and NFTs momentarily. But first, just to return to the skeptic question, and you mentioned it’s still early days. If you wanted to use data to make that argument, and that, I suppose this will be slightly outside the purview of data, but if you also wanted to talk about maybe watershed moments or shifts that are either in progress or that you anticipate as almost inevitable that still haven’t happened, that should accelerate things.
How would you make the case with data or anticipated shifts that haven’t yet happened? And just to speak for a second to the second portion of that question, I know this is a long question. I remember, as I mentioned, first started buying Bitcoin late 2012, early 2013, had been involved since quietly doing my thing, and there are a lot of good reasons for the quietly part.
But yeah, I remember watching some of the early hedge funds getting involved and taking crypto positions, and I was like okay, that’s very interesting. And so I started to ask myself well, they’re, some of their LPs, limited partners, “Are these institutional investors, whether they’re endowments or pension funds, or fill in the blank?” And I started asking, “What would it take for those types of institutional players to begin to allocate even a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of their total assets under management to crypto?”
And then I started asking, “Well, what would need to happen, what social proof would be required for a sovereign wealth fund to then allocate a small sliver to crypto assets?” And it just seemed, inevitable is a strong word, but highly likely that there would be a certain cascade of events. And that’s how I kind of backed into, maybe because I’m just, what do they call it, pumping my bags, right? Because I have a vested interest. So there might be a bias there, but if you wanted to make the case to the skeptics that actually, let me show you a couple of slides, let me show you a couple of historical examples, this is why I can make the case that it’s early.
Brian Armstrong: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How would you do it?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah. Okay. So I guess going to your first point, I agree crypto adoption is kind of following a similar trajectory of internet adoption, and there’s probably 200, 250 million people or so in the world who have crypto now, and we can probably share a link that kind of shows a similar chart kind of with the internet, and I think that’s important. And then to your point about sovereign wealth funds and these, a lot of, I think 90% of the wealth in the world is actually blocked up in institutions.
So we analyzed that early on and we realized, okay, we had to launch an institutional product and Coinbase Prime, and we have actually been successful at getting more and more of these large institutions to move, starting to move their percentages of their portfolios into crypto. That includes, I don’t think we’ve been able to announce any of these yet, but I know of at least, there are some sovereign wealth funds out there that have now done it.
And we’ve started, we’ve closed these deals with BlackRock and the largest asset manager in the world to get more and more of this money flowing in, and there was a bunch of work that went on behind the scenes of that. So what are the major inflection points that can cause that to happen? I mean, the biggest one I think in my mind is regulatory clarity. That’s the one that when I talk to institutional investors, they always bring that up. And the good news is, we’re starting to finally see regulatory clarity, and we can talk about what that is if you want. And I think even more regulatory clarity in the next year or two will actually drive a bunch more of that money. The other major inflection point that I focus on is scalability of the blockchains. Because very similar again to the internet with dialup moving to broadband, the initial blockchains, I think Bitcoin was doing about seven transactions per second, Ethereum was doing 25 transactions a second.
And basically PayPal does about 500 transactions a second, Visa does about 4,000 a second, so we needed a couple orders of magnitude to get to those more Visa levels. Which, in computer science, an order magnitude is not that crazy. So it actually sounds, it’s easier than it sounds, probably. So the good news is we’re starting to see that. Things like Ethereum’s merge that just happened has been an incredible technical accomplishment. And I think the future pieces that they’re going to launch with that are going to improve the scalability even further with charting and things like that.
So we’re finally starting to see the blockchain, and other blockchains have been working a lot of really great scalability stuff too, Solana and others. So I think we’re seeing the Lightning Network, all the L2 stuff. So we’re seeing a lot of really good focus now happening on scalability of the blockchain. So the regulatory clarity, scalability of the blockchains, to me that’s like, we’ll probably get another order of magnitude or more out of that, just those two things alone.
Tim Ferriss: So let me ask you a question that popped into my head, which might be a ridiculous question, but maybe that’s my specialty. If you were getting started right now with the technical chops and knowhow that you have, including the expertise you’ve developed, the management capabilities, et cetera at Coinbase, but you could not work at Coinbase. Nonetheless, you had to remain in, loosely speaking, the crypto Web3 world, let’s just say. Is there a company that you would put on your shortlist for where you would work? Or a type of company? Maybe focusing on a specific aspect of any of these technical pieces?
Brian Armstrong: Well, I can tell you, there’s certainly some cool ideas in crypto that I would consider doing. I mean, maybe that’s kind of the root your question, but-
Tim Ferriss: It is.
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, I think-
Tim Ferriss: Thanks for translating my very convoluted question to simplicity.
Brian Armstrong: I was trying to think of what our comms team would think if I was like, “I’d really love to work at this other crypto company.” What the hell? No, but-
Tim Ferriss: Abort, abort, yeah.
Brian Armstrong: They teach you in the PR training. Pivot the question to the one you wish was asked.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s a good question. Let me tell you a story that’s unrelated. Yeah, exactly.
Brian Armstrong: I think decentralized identity is really cool. I think once we have… It’s already starting to happen, but once we have canonical identities, it makes payments easier, it makes reputation easier, it makes decentralized social media easier. There’s probably a lot of stuff there. Decentralized social media I think could be a big one. I think that-
Tim Ferriss: Could you give an example of decentralized identity? Are we talking about ENS or are we talking about something else?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah. ENS is probably the most well known standard right now, but there’s a handful of proposals out there. And the same way to think of it is, the internet, initially people were using IP addresses to connect to them, and then we’ve got domain names. And so domain name is human readable. You can have timferris.com and that IP address is machine readable. So right now, Bitcoin addresses and Ethereum addresses, they look machine readable. They’re kind of these long random strings of characters. They look like a giant password or something. It’s impossible for humans to really remember them or even know if you’re sending it to the right spot. So we’re getting closer and closer to having human readable names everywhere with… And ENS is a really big piece of that.
So actually with Coinbase wallet, we recently set this up where anybody can go in there and claim a free ENS name and it has, you can get tim.cb.id at the end and trying to make that super simple. If people can buy their own as well and get tim.eth, but we’ll give you a free one with the cb.id on the end if you want. So anyway, long way of saying, I think decentralized identity is a big piece of the ecosystem that’ll come together. I think we need to have in the crypto economy, I think we need to have a currency that’s actually not linked to fiat. We have USD coin, which is really great. It’s kind of backed one to one by US dollar, and there’s decentralized stablecoins like DAI, but it’d be nice to have a stable coin or a flat coin that’s actually linked to purchasing power.
And like if one coin buys you a McDonald’s hamburger today, hopefully in five years, one coin will buy you a McDonald’s hamburger again. And there’s various ways you could imagine constructing that. Yeah, I think it’d be cool… There’s a lot of ideas. I think I keep thinking about how we could get crypto stored at various latitudes and longitudes. Like, I don’t know, did you ever see Pokémon GO, how people were like they had these AR experiences and they could kind of geocache things and go find them. And anyway, there’s lots of cool stuff we could probably do. I’ll give you three more ideas if you want, but I’ll pause there.
Tim Ferriss: Sure, yeah. No, let’s do it. Let’s do three more ideas.
Brian Armstrong: Okay. Well I keep thinking… By the way, these are not, I don’t want to take credit for these. This is from talking with lots of random people. I think there’s an opportunity to do something with media and crypto where— A lot of articles are out there. It’d be nice to have a community come together, probably backed by a crypto coin that sort of helps. It’s a reward coin that helps people kind of fact check articles, develop sort of truthiness scores on every article publication journalist out there. I think that that could be a nice community that comes together.
There should probably be a stripe atlas for crypto in the sense that a lot of people are… And some people are doing this, they’re trying to make it easier for people to create a company. A DAO would sort of be the new Delaware C Corp, if you will, but just make that whole thing of issuing a token, managing a coin table, payroll, fundraising, all that stuff could probably be powered in a new kind of app. There should probably be jobs in marketplaces all based around crypto kind of eBay for crypto, Elance for crypto, Amazon for crypto, all that stuff. So a lot of stuff out there that could probably be worked on. And I think we’re seeing so many venture dollars go into crypto. It’s kind of remarkable. I think even in the down market, there’s just probably about ten-
Tim Ferriss: Mind boggling. It’s a lot.
Brian Armstrong: It’s probably five or $10 billion of dry powder in venture right now ready to go to crypto startups. So that’s a rough estimate. Somebody might have a better one, but it’s a lot.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well let me segue away from that back to art/NFTs. And I recognize NFTs are not solely the domain of art or expensive JPGs, but I happen to be very interested in this world for a number of reasons. One of which being the JPG parallels with contemporary art, I think just provide a nice on-ramp for a lot of people who would otherwise be intimidated by blockchain technologies and so on to become part of the ecosystem. But let me ask you specifically, what did you learn from the launch of your NFT marketplace? What are some of the learnings from that?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, well, I’ll talk about of NFTs generally for a second, and then I guess the NFT marketplace we did to specifically. So NFTs I think are going to be a big thing in crypto. And obviously these initial use cases around collectibles and art has been great in one sense, but I think the idea of NFTs is actually much bigger than that. It could be representing any unique digital item in the metaverse, right? It could be property in the metaverse, your spaceship, your close, whatever in the metaverse. It could be people kind of issuing concert tickets that are digitally unique. It could be people doing citizenship in certain… I actually got an NFT that was for the CityDAO in Wyoming, which is this plot of land that they divided up. And I think I have access rights or voting rights or something now with my passport, which is this provably digital thing.
So I think art and actually getting creators paid, because a lot of creative people have really bad contracts with record labels and all these things. So just getting all the creative stuff going is a huge thing in itself, but it’s actually going to be even bigger beyond that then. So yeah, Coinbase launched Coinbase NFT and just all things, we want to make it easier for people. We noticed what people were doing often was they’d coming to Coinbase buying crypto and then they would have to move it to a Chrome extension in their browser, visit one of the many other apps out there, which are all very good and good things to say about them where I’ve invested in some of them. But then it’s just kind of a hard, convoluted process, especially once you introduce these layer two solutions. Sometimes you’d have to buy a theory and move it to the Chrome extension, bridge it to Polygon, and then people were losing their NFTs and they don’t understand how to manage their passwords and these things.
So this is an example where the thing that Coinbase always tries to do is we just try to make crypto more trusted and easier to use. That’s kind of our brand. All the products that we’ve made are just like, let’s make it more trusted, let’s make it easier to use for the average person. So we figured, all right people, they already have some crypto on Coinbase, they’ve already got their identity and all that connected. Let’s just give them a bunch of NFTs there that they can click a buy button. So with Coinbase NFT, we’ve now launched that. The very first version of it is out there, which nft.coinbase.com, we’re doing some work now to more deeply integrate it right into the actual main Coinbase app so that you don’t really have to go to a separate website, you can just click buy right in there.
We’re also doing something where, this is what’s cool about blockchains in general is that a lot of the other marketplaces out there, they’re all built on these open protocols. And so what we’ve done is we’ve actually aggregated the supply out there of basically wherever people are selling their NFTs, it’ll all be exposed in Coinbase NFT, and if you click buy, it’ll transact and that marketplace will get their fee. So in other words, we don’t necessarily want to be so competitive with these other marketplaces as much as just provide a simple trusted interface. And if they were the ones who put out the smart contract for that, and that’s where the customers are listing it, so be it. We’d want to kind of make it simple for people to transact regardless of where the supply aggregated from. So there’s a few things like that that we’re doing that I hope will just make kind of NFTs even easier for people to collect and own and buy and sell. And yeah, it’s one of the many things that we’re working on.
Tim Ferriss: Now, my apologies in advance if this is already something you guys have launched, but if not, do you have plans to provide, I suppose, the equivalent of custody for NFTs as opposed to cryptocurrency? For instance, I know quite a few people, I may be one of them, who’ve collected lots of pretty JPGs, and the value of some of these makes me very uncomfortable in terms of just having it hanging in my driveway, metaphorically speaking. Do you or have any intention of providing the capability to basically safe-house, store, guard NFTs themselves for people who want additional layers of protection for their portfolios?
Brian Armstrong: Yes, and we offered this today. The first app that we launched it in was Coinbase Wallet, which is our self custodial wallet. And that’s been an easy way for people to do with— interact with NFTs for quite a while. But as you pointed out, some people may—and I’m not sure if this is exactly what you’re referring to, but—some people don’t want to have to be responsible for the one password kind of ruling everything in their self custodial wallet. And so we now offer the ability to store NFTs in the main Coinbase retail app, which is we’re storing it on your behalf, and you can do that in our, we call it our DAP wallet.
It’s kind of a decentralized app wallet anyway. You can store NFTs there. Even in Coinbase Prime for institutions, we will very soon be able to store NFTs there as well if you have a family office or some of these institutions that now increasingly want to be storing NFTs as well. So lots of good options there. And yeah, there’s a lot of funny stories in crypto where somebody had something on a thumb drive or whatever, and then they realized, “I probably shouldn’t just be carrying this around in my backpack, just walking around with $40 million in my backpack every day, if it happens to get stolen, it’s not good.”
Tim Ferriss: Well, yeah, there’s losing the USB drive or it getting stolen, then there are wrench attacks, then there’s all sorts of craziness. And I think… And I respect a lot of people in this camp, there’s “not your keys, not your crypto” folks. And I think a lot of their arguments have some validity at the same time having dealt with death threats and crazy people, and I’m sure you’ve dealt with a lot of that, once you get a taste of that experience, your appetite for some degree of self management goes down, I think.
And the really volatile unpredictability of some of those situations becomes a little realer to each person who experiences it. So just to grab onto that for a second—so there are folks who would be critical of Coinbase as a trusted third party, and then there are, I think, also some very compelling arguments to have robust infrastructure and security, protecting high value assets. Where do you think the “not your keys, not your crypto” arguments have validity, and where do you think they’re maybe missing the forest for the trees or missing certain aspects of what you’re doing that have a real utility that can’t be replicated in a decentralized way?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, sure. So to be clear, we’re actually very aligned with this “not your keys, not your crypto” crowd as well, in the sense that Coinbase Wallet is built for them. It is a self custodial wallet. So we don’t hold the keys, the customer holds the keys. And I think that’s actually a really important aspect of crypto because there is a danger that basically if crypto gets big enough that… and too centralized—and Coinbase is one of those companies that could be storing a lot of crypto; we are—that eventually there could be seizures or various governments around the world that we have to interact with who may put our employees in jail or whatever. It’s not going to be… I don’t think that’s likely, but I think just the fact that it’s possible, it means that you need to have some kind of escape hatch, if you will, or lifeboat. So anyway, we built Coinbase wallet for that exact purpose. I use it as a customer, like everybody. And I also use our custodial app.
I try to use both. And so we want to make it essentially easy for people to store their own crypto if they want to do that. I’ll come back to the personal threats you have to deal with in a second, but we also want to make it easy for people who don’t want to have to worry about that to store it. We will store it on your behalf. And I think we’re the best company in the world to do that. We’re the most trusted. We store more crypto than anybody else I’m aware of both for retail customers and institutions. And we’ve built a lot of really cool stuff, distributed across many data centers all over the world where— I personally don’t have the ability to do it. And there’s consensus mechanisms and there’s disaster recovery mechanisms that contemplate all kinds of things from nuclear war to natural disasters and whole countries going offline and things like that. So we can do that for institutions in retail really well. And I think a lot of institutions, they don’t have any interest in self custody. I think it’s important.
My TLDR, there was a lot of debate about this in the crypto community for a long, long time. And what I came away from it is with both of these are going to be massive segments that we need to address. We need to build products for both of them. It’s not in either/or it’s going to be both. So to win these deals with BlackRock and Meta and to land the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world and pension funds and those kinds of customers, and I would say even a large amount of retail customers, we have to have custodial solutions for them. They don’t want to have to be managing their own keys.
So now coming back to, I guess, your original thought about self custody and how that’ll play out. I mean, I think— So, self custody is evolving to a place where I think if you’re storing the amount of money that you would have in your physical wallet as you walk around, that’s fine. If it’s just you’re the only one with the password, and if you lose it or you get robbed or whatever, it’s getting robbed on the street. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not a life existential thing. And so how are people going to be able to store like meaningful amounts of money or their life savings or whatever? And I think they’re going to be able to do it basically with multi-party computation or something. Multisig was what kind of what people called it originally. But they’ll be wallets where… It’s not that Coinbase doesn’t have a quorum of the keys, but Coinbase might have one key, you have another key, there’s a backup key with somebody else that you trust.
You can create these two of three or three of five type signature schemes that have redundancy in the event that one or two of the pieces are lost. But it also prevents any one or two people from running off with the full amount of money. And I guess in the sense that if somebody experiences a personal security threat, they literally cannot send the funds, at least not in some short time period. And it would get into a situation just like you would have if your money was at Goldman Sachs or something like that, and you got kidnapped in Mexico. I mean, somebody would probably call them and there’d be some negotiation or whatever.
And so that’s the kinds of technology that’s being developed, and Coinbase is sort of building a lot of that into our Coinbase wallet product over time. Yeah, it’s an unfortunate thing. There is a GitHub that Jameson Lopp maintains on all the physical security threats that have happened with Bitcoin. And if you want to go scare yourself, you can go read that. Luckily, a lot of them haven’t happened in the US but there have been a couple of armed robberies and things like that. Law enforcement in the US is generally pretty good at cracking down on these kind of organized crime type things. But yeah, it’s a new financial system for the world. People are going to have to ultimately take responsibility if they want to do self custody. And I think a lot of people are going to want to do that with these new sorts of multiparty computation tools that have come out.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, thank you for laying that out. I suppose I have spooked myself. I haven’t read that GitHub repository, but just from a lot of names you would recognize just chatting with people who are deeply involved with this space. You don’t have to look very far to see some pretty intimidating examples of security threats. Let me shift gears and ask you about self-improvement. So you are very, as far as I can tell, consistent with a focus on self-improvement. What would you change about yourself or improve about yourself or what are you most interested in improving about yourself at the moment?
Brian Armstrong: Well, you’re correct. I mean, I did get pretty into self-improvement, I guess in my 20s and read a bunch of books on that. And I started to like this idea of whatever you have top of mind every day, it’s just what you tend to focus on. So if you’re surrounded by negativity and things like that, you just tend to be more negative. And if you wake up every day and you try to listen to some good podcasts or read some stuff or write down your goals or your affirmations, whatever, you can rewire your brain. I’m not into the metaphysical woo-woo stuff about it. I just think it’s more practical than that.
It’s like, all right, what am I choosing to focus on today? And so there’s how to even just get things done efficiently. And I like David Allen, I think his name is, has a good book, Getting Things Done. I mean, I roughly follow some kind of a process like that. And there’s a lot of things I’ve read that, over the years, once in a while when I wake up in the morning, and I was supposed to be exercising, but I just don’t feel like it today and I’m like, I’m being kind of lazy. My best motivation hack is just to type David Goggins into YouTube and watch a random video that comes up and then you’ll be working out shortly, otherwise you will feel like a total wimp.
But I guess your question was what do I want to improve about myself right now? I mean, I don’t know. I think I’ve noticed… So I’m 39 now, and just going from 29 to 39, I’ve noticed, I’m starting to feel like I’m getting older. It’s kind of a scary thing. Jet lag affects me more, and if I get injured, it takes longer to recover. And I think even my memory has gotten a little bit worse. I feel like my short term memory was really good. If people told me five or six things, I’d be like, “Yeah, I’ve got them all in my head.” And now it’s like I’m trying to say, think two minutes later, I don’t remember what they were really talking about. So I start to write down a lot more things. So I’m noticing now that age is something where I feel like, hey, maybe I only have another ten, 20, 30 years of really productive stuff, and what do I want to do with that?
So I started to think more about longevity, health. I’ve gotten a lot more into being healthy and even started a longevity company. At least it funded, it helped put some money into it. So we can talk more about that later if you want. But trying to think what else. I’m also just trying to… I don’t know. I’d say the other thing I’m really focused on is I’ve had some success and some liquidity with Coinbase. And so early on I think I was driven by just doing something meaningful in the world and making some wealth. And I’ve sort of done that. And so I’m basically just driving my motivation from other things, which are like, what do I actually like doing? Which is I tend to like learning new things. I like to build things with technology. So I’m trying to make sure that I can have really high motivation and energy for hopefully many decades to come and keep building more and more cool stuff.
Tim Ferriss: Anything in particular you were taking a stab at learning at the moment? I rewound and watched, there’s a very maybe half second or one second snippet in the doc where you’re packing a bag for travel and you have three books. I couldn’t identify the one on the bottom. There was, I think it was Seven Days to the Perfect Puppy on the top. And then another one that it was hard to get a full read of, but it was something like The Healing Brain or The Healing Mind, something along those lines. I can’t remember the exact title. So that may be a dead end, but there was a freeze frame of it. It was the second book in a stack of three. Anything that you’re focused on learning at the moment or would like to learn in the next six to 12 months?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, that’s funny. I actually haven’t seen the final film. I saw a rough cut of it, and I think I saw that perfect puppy book, and I was like, “Someone’s going to ask me about that.” That’s funny.
Tim Ferriss: That’s me on cue.
Brian Armstrong: We were thinking about getting a dog at that point, but we ended up getting some cats instead, which, who knows, maybe they’ll make an appearance behind me here. But yeah, so I’m always kind of reading books like that. Those two in particular were not super memorable, but I’m trying to think what else would be helpful right now. I mean, I’m actually, I’m trying to learn more about biology right now. I started off trying to read some textbooks on this, and there was a couple books out there that was kind of for… Basically I had never gotten a chance in college to really study biology and I didn’t have a specific reason to. But now as I’m learning more about health, I’m like, why don’t I know more about biology? I kind of wish I did. One thing that I did was I actually hired a biology tutor, so I was trying to go through these textbooks and I was doing it, but it was taking me a long time. Little read five minutes every evening.
Tim Ferriss: It’s not light reading.
Brian Armstrong: I mean it’s—
Tim Ferriss: No Seven Days to the Perfect Puppy.
Brian Armstrong: Yeah. So you know, you get really demoralized when you read a sentence and you’re like five of those words, I have no idea what they do. If it’s one word every couple sentences, I can maybe hack through it, but five words in the first sentence, you’re in trouble.
Anyway, I grad students are woefully underpaid, and some of these people are just brilliant teachers. And so I asked a few friends of mine and instead of trying to wade my way through this super dense textbook every night, it’s actually been way more fun, basically just for an hour on Sundays, usually I meet up with this guy. He’s such a great teacher, and he can jump around to teach me whatever I’m most interested in instead of having to wade through the whole book. So that’s been a pretty cool hack.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s deep dive on biology. What context have you provided this tutor? Because biology is kind of like physics, right? I mean you can go in a million different directions. Are you starting with just the basic basic building blocks? Okay, what’s the Krebs Cycle? What’s this? What’s that? What are the essential amino acids? How do they factor into A, B, and C? What context or direction did you give your tutor?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, so I gave him the context of I want to learn all the fundamentals so I at least know the basics so I don’t sound like a complete baby. And part of the context was also this—
Tim Ferriss: Those babies suck at biology. It’s true.
Brian Armstrong: Well this is kind of how I sound when I try to speak Spanish, I sound like a five year old or whatever. And then I was also in the process of funding this biotech company NewLimit, and we could talk about that later, but I was trying not to sound like an idiot in front of the team, basically. And so, yeah, the cool thing is he’s been able to not only… We went through a bunch of basics around cells and things like that, but we’ve also started to get into just how do people develop these tools in biology like PCR or flow cytometry. And in a biotech context, we’re trying to leverage the latest tools to of course advance the state of the art. How do you sequence these cells now and what kind of data do you get out on the latest techniques?
But he’s also kind of helping me understand the history of a little bit of this. Well, previously everybody used this technique and that was considered the state of the art. But somebody eventually at some point had to find a way to do it at ten or a hundred x throughput and the Human Genome Project. And how did they finally sequence this thing, which seemed like an insurmountable project. And so I’ve been getting to learn a lot about the really cool history of how people found something that already existed in biology in some heated pool somewhere. And then they sort of hacked that to do our bidding and some. Anyway, that part has been really interesting for me to understand the history of it and how to try to advance, put another leaf on the tree of knowledge. That’s kind of what our goal is with the biotech.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m going to ask you about NewLimit. I would strongly encourage everyone to read more on the history of science. I think it would be such an incredible boon and gift to everyone involved if more people read up on the history of science for a lot of reasons, because you can a deconstruct how thorny problems or seemingly insurmountable problems were tackled successfully, which is like a reading a detective novel in and of itself a lot of the time. And also I think it is a nice remedy to certain epistemological arrogance that humans tend to have. Like, oh, well nah, there are a few things left to figure out, but we really have nature pretty much on lock.
I think we’ve got it dialed. It’s like, no, no, no, no, we really don’t. So you should read up just the amount of confidence that people have always had at different points in history with the most ludicrous coping mechanisms for just shoddy interventions and so on. There’s no reason to think it’s any different now. So that’s also another reason to read up, just to give everybody a dose of humble pie when considering not just what we know but the possibilities moving forward. What is the goal of NewLimit? Why are you involved?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah. Well last year Coinbase went public and it’s a good liquidity event for everybody involved. I think actually, I think over a thousand millionaires were created in that IPO just from various employees and investors who had worked on Coinbase over the last ten years. So that was incredibly fulfilling. And one of the things that caused me to do is kind of pause and think about, all right, well what do I want to do for the next ten years, 20 years? And I was like, Well, I want to continue to be the CEO of Coinbase. That’s going to be my first priority. I think we’re just at the very beginning of creating the open financial system for the world. And I’m going to keep doing that, but I’ve got some liquidity now. I want to try to do something useful with it because I think we’re kind of in this golden age of software where fortunes are being made. But some of that wealth, even in crypto, is now being directed into hard science, hard science problems, atoms, not bits. And I think that’s a really good thing actually, because it’ll probably create a secondary effect, like a boon in these other areas. So I started to host these dinners basically with friends of mine that were either other people like biotech experts, CEOs, investors or scientists, and especially in this space around like CRISPR, I had read about that and CAR T-cells, and I was like … My spider sense is like there’s something happening in this area in biology where it’s starting to feel more like engineering, not science, where we have some of these tools to actually go do unique stuff. So I just started hosting these dinners randomly and I basically just went around the room and asked everybody, “What’s the thing you’re most excited about right now?” And one of the topics that came up during these dinners was something called epigenetic programming of cells, which I can try to give a brief overview of that, if it’s helpful.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, please.
Brian Armstrong: Okay. So long story short, back in 2006, Shinya Yamanaka got the Nobel Prize for discovering that you could turn a skin cell back into a stem cell by exposing it to these four transcription factors, which are just like proteins that you can expose a cell to. And it was kind of like a mind blowing thing at the time, which is like, “Wow, we can change the cell back to a stem cell.” And since then, people have learned that they can change a cell into other types of cells. So for instance, you could turn a, I don’t know, a skin cell into a neuron cell or a muscle cell or something like that by exposing it to different transcription factors. So just in the last five years or so, several labs have shown that basically, you don’t want to change the cell state. You don’t want to turn it all the way back to being a stem cell, but you can basically rejuvenate or move the cell to a more functional earlier state by exposing it to some of these factors.
And it’s not really … We have an existence proof of this, if you will, because we know that some animals in nature can regenerate, like a salamander. Its arm, if it’s cut off, it’ll kind of regrow or jellyfish, some of them seem to live indefinitely. And even human beings, I guess if there’s an infant in a womb and there’s a prenatal surgery, it’ll come out, there’s no scars, right? And so we’re seeing, even in our own human biology, there’s sort of an existence proof for some amount of rejuvenation capability. And so I basically realized this could be an interesting area to pursue. I talked to a bunch of my smart friends about it, because obviously I’m not a scientist in this field, which is always a dangerous thing to go into. And so I reached out to a couple friends of mine, and Blake Byers is a PhD in this area who star
Brian Armstrong: So I partnered with Blake Byers on this since he’s a PhD within the … You know, he actually is a scientist and he started a successful bio company before. And as a partner at Google Ventures, he invested in a bunch of biotech companies. And I basically decided, all right, let me try to put some money into this with Blake and see if we can help this company get off the ground. And even if I’m not running it or anything like that, I can probably hopefully help this thing get off the ground. And so NewLimit is basically going to try to build a platform that tests a lot of different transcription factors with different cell types and uses machine learning to do that in a virtuous cycle. Because it’s a huge search space of complexity that you could imagine. The number of transcription factors, the number of combinations of it is like 10 to the 15th different possibilities. And so you need some sort of way to do a more directed search through this giant space. Yeah, so they’ve been able to build an incredible team to date, so there’s about eight or nine people there. Brilliant scientists, young people, machine learning folks with an office in South San Francisco. So if people are interested in that, I would encourage them to go check out the website and apply for a role if they’re interested in the space.
Tim Ferriss: So, NewLimit. And to try to ensure I understand the basics of this, they’re looking at different sort of combinatorial cocktails of transcription factors that are optimal for producing certain types of changes in cells. Are they focused on reversing cells in essence? So reversing let’s just say cell aging, is that a primary objective? Or are they also looking at productizing in some fashion the conversion of one type of cell to another? Or are they really just creating the database that will then be used by other companies? Could you explain the business model a little bit?
Brian Armstrong: Right, I should have mentioned that earlier. So yeah, the goal of NewLimit is really to radically extend human health span. So the moonshot of the company is really it’s a longevity company. We’re trying to help humans live much longer, not just a little bit longer. But I think in any good moonshot company, you want to have intermediate milestones along the way. And so the intermediate milestones are more like, could we get a specific type of cell to be rejuvenated and be younger? And an example would be if you … Older people when they get the COVID vaccine, they don’t have as strong of a response to it because their T-cells are older, they’re more exhausted. So if we could in some sense rejuvenate T-cells, right? Or pulmonary fibrosis is another issue that affects people. Maybe there’s a way to rejuvenate those cells to get them to be younger.
So oftentimes people get hung up on this definition of, well, what does it even mean, aging? Is the cell older or younger? And we don’t worry about some big fancy rigorous definition. We’re just saying we’re trying to restore function in these cells to get them to behave like younger cells. And so hopefully we can find with this platform to test this rapidly at a scale that hasn’t really been done before, an industrial scale, to test this with different cell types, different tissues. Basically we’ll hopefully find hits here for different indications, whether that’s T-cells or pulmonary fibrosis or others and developed therapies for that. But the ultimate long term goal of the company would be eventually, some therapy that you could take that would actually just help humans live longer in a healthy state.
Tim Ferriss: And hypothetically, what might administration of these therapies look like? I don’t know enough about the transcription factors to speak intelligently about them, but would these effectively end up as molecules that are synthesized and put into a capsule? Is it some other route of administration? What might that look like?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, so the actual delivery mechanism is a little bit further down the research path. It’s not the main thing we’re focused on at the moment, because we’re basically doing this with human cells in dishes, basically in vitro.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Brian Armstrong: But you can imagine mRNA is now something that we have huge proof point with with the COVID vaccines, and I think that’s a very interesting delivery mechanism people have looked at. There’s different viral delivery mechanisms that people have used more historically. You could even imagine there may be some cases where kind of dialysis or something, like people actually get cells taken out of their body. They could be then rejuvenated, put back in. There’s various things like that which could be attempted. But obviously for again the moonshot, the long-term goal, it would ideally be something even it could be a pill or a shot that you get that’s something that’s more mass market.
Tim Ferriss: So, I encourage people to check it out. Beautiful website. Very nicely designed. Newlimit.com, so easy to remember. So I encourage people to check that out. Would you like to describe for people ResearchHub? Because I think this is related or at least overlapping in some respects.
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, well, okay, thanks for asking. I mean, this is another project. By the way, you can see the theme in all these, which is I’m really passionate about basically improving the world with science and technology as kind of the overarching theme here. And I feel like cryptocurrency was a great breakthrough for that to create more economic freedom. And some of the dollars I mentioned now are that are flowing from that industry into these other areas are helping I think accelerate scientific research. And it even ties into what we talked about in the beginning with Ray Dalio’s book. He talks about the changing world order. The root of a lot of progress is basically education, which leads to science and technology innovation, which leads to unique products, which leads to economic growth. And then that’s how societies prosper. They have higher GDP, they have surplus that they can invest in the arts and culture and defense or whatever they want to invest in. So, more universities or education.
Anyway, I really think that a lot of people today … This is sort of a tangent, but a lot of people today are thinking, “How do I improve the world?” They’re an aspiring young person and there’s a temptation to say, hey, we should advocate for different government policies. We should go become an activist or a protestor. And I don’t know, my message to people… This is part of why I created the documentary as well, COIN, is I wanted to show people if you want to try to impact the world, I think one of the best ways to do it is to build a company that’s based around science and technology. So anyway, this all ties back to ResearchHub, which is another company that I funded and tried to help get off the ground. So the team there is doing really awesome stuff around trying to make scientific research more like open source software, like GitHub or something.
And you can see all the different challenges that are out there in the scientific research space today. There’s a replication crisis where a lot of times, people are publishing papers. It turns out later, nobody can reproduce it. A lot of scientific research is done in academia where it’s done in a silo in isolation because they’re not actually getting the material benefits from these technologies that are one … Like, if you invented CRISPR, you should have been able to help commercialize it and become a billionaire. It’s such a big breakthrough. But they’re not doing that. They’re basically only able to get citations and publications and tenure. And so they’re living in this kind of artificial, I don’t know, academic environment. And so you get people more siloed. It takes a long time to publish a paper. They’re basically writing it. These small, small innovations are written up in some big flowery language that’s inaccessible to the average person.
So with ResearchHub, yeah, we’re trying to make it easy for people to sort through all of the millions of papers that are published every year to what are the most impactful. We’re trying to help get things like peer review, Q&A, comments, feedback around research to be more collaborative with people. And we’re trying to get data sets and the code to be published alongside the papers so it’s not just reading some static pdf. And we’re trying to help with things like fundraising for science in the future. So there’s actually a coin associated with this ResearchCoin, which is a reward coin that was created that helped, and a governance token that helps the community get rewarded as they contribute more and more to that site and that community. So it has a really passionate, small, nascent community that’s helping grow a lot of the content on the site today. And I think the roadmap for it is really exciting to hopefully just get rid of a lot of the barriers to scientific innovation.
We saw a small example of this during COVID where everything went warp speed during COVID to find a vaccine. People were publishing their papers on Twitter instead of going through a two-year journal process that had all these paywalls and stuff like that. And everything just went faster. That’s how it should be all the time, and that’s how we can advance civilization, I think. So we’re trying to help do that with ResearchHub as well.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I’m looking at the website right now. This is quite cool. I’m looking at the front page. I have some questions about the front page, but just to look at a few things that are seemingly popular. You’ve got long-term health effects of antidepressant use, you’ve got alcohol impact on sports performance and recovery in male athletes. You have greater effects by performing a small number of eccentric contractions daily than a large number of them once a week. I will probably read that in the next two hours because that’s very of great interest to me, especially for connective tissue repair with tendinosis in the elbow. Now, there are, I’m noticing, open bounties. Could you just explain what these open bounties mean to the people who are posting them and for anyone who might be a bounty hunter?
Brian Armstrong: So this is one of the things that we’re testing out with basically adding a crypto asset onto this platform to try to see if it improves the collaboration of people there. And so what we did was we allowed anybody who had basically a scientific question, or anybody who wanted a peer review, or maybe they want a video summary of their paper or they want help … A task that people often have even in private industry or in scientific research is they’ll say, “I want a summary of the literature. I want someone to go out there, read the 20 or 50 most relevant papers on a certain scientific question and give me kind of a meta study. Aggregate that information.” And we’re sort of building the tools for people to do that as well. So people can do that with ResearchCoin. It’s a way to … The people who are contributing the most are earning it. That’s improving their reputation on the site. But it’s also a way for people to kind of get recognized. And I always tell people, imagine if the early hosts on Airbnb or the early drivers in Uber had gotten a chance to participate in the network that they helped create. And that’s kind of what’s coming together here on ResearchHub.
Tim Ferriss: Is the method of redemption, or I guess let me phrase it a different way. The value of ResearchCoin at the moment is one, social credibility, and two, with the ResearchCoin that you earn, you can then post your own bounties and make requests of the community. Are those the sort of two main values to an individual contributor who is accruing ResearchCoin?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, that’s correct.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, got it. What has you most excited? Let’s pretend that you’re at one of these dinners you’re hosting and I said, “Look, I know you’re not a biologist. I understand that. However, you’ve crossed the …” Speaking like a five year old point, you seem to have a good grasp of the basics. You also have an engineer’s mind, which I would argue is more similar to top end scientific minds than one might think. I think the disciplines are different, but the mental frameworks, the ability to ask questions, attempting to replicate, et cetera, transfer quite well. What are you most excited about in the world of science?
Brian Armstrong: Just broadly?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Brian Armstrong: Well, I think that some of the biggest … If I just think about all the biggest challenges that we have in the world today, I think science and technology are pretty good hammers to swing at those nails. You know? It’s like, okay, we’ve got climate change. Right? Everyone’s talking about climate change. So I mean, I think fusion energy is super exciting. I think people working on carbon sequestration is pretty interesting. Again, Elon is kind of working on that with Tesla and solar panels and electric vehicles, as are Rivian and all these other companies. To me, those are … The most promising solutions we have that are using technology, right? If you look at education, it’s like Khan Academy. Stuff like that gets me really excited. It’s like, all right, let’s make a free world-class education available to everyone. That’s really cool, right?
If you look at why don’t we have better economic financial infrastructure in all the countries of the world and why do we have big inflation problems, and why does it cost 2% every time you swipe your credit card? It takes forever to move money around the world. And crypto is a really important solution to that, which is basically a science and technology breakthrough, right? So I kind of feel like … I don’t know if this is exactly what you were asking, but I just feel like science and technology and commercializing it is the thing that is really the most exciting thing. Another thought I’ve had is there’s kind of two very different worlds. So there’s one world of scientists and academics and there’s another world of entrepreneurs, and actually very rarely do they cross-pollinate.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Brian Armstrong: Most people who are entrepreneurs, they’re making something that’s mostly based around marketing. It’s like a new tequila with a celebrity or whatever. And then most scientists are building things which never get commercialized because they’re living in a pure academic world. But if you think about a lot of the most valuable companies in the whole world, Genentech, SpaceX, even Coinbase, which was based on a research paper, the Bitcoin research paper, right? It’s basically… Even Google came out of basically a research project at Stanford with Larry and Sergey, right? So the most valuable companies in the world are when we cross-pollinate a true scientific innovation with someone who can go commercialize it.
And the problem is these two groups of people are like sometimes oil and water. The scientists don’t like people who make money and they think it’s kind of low integrity, and the business people don’t have any understanding of science whatsoever, and they basically get caught up in pseudoscience and all these things. So anyway, I think the more you can cross pollinate and get those two areas to talk to each other, the few people in the world who can speak both languages like a translator, they know enough business to be dangerous and enough science to be dangerous, those are going to be really valuable things that get created for all humanity.
Tim Ferriss: Sounds like you might be one of those people, so I’m looking forward to …
Brian Armstrong: No, I’m trying to be. That’s why I’m doing the biology tutoring. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I might have to pick up on this biology tutoring idea. I could also use some basic groundwork, lest I get myself into trouble. Last question or second to last question, and this may be a dead end. I’ll take the blame if it is, but I like to ask this one. The metaphorical billboard question. So if you could put a message or quote image, anything non-commercial on a billboard to get the message out to let’s just say billions of people, assuming they speak whatever language is on the billboard, what might you put on that billboard?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah, well, I guess there was one we said earlier, which was action produces information. I like that one a lot. But if I had to pick a second one since we already said that, one of my favorite sayings is the greatest risk is not taking one. And I feel like a lot of people, they have ideas. They just debate it endlessly. They never take that first step. And there’s really a scarcity of risk tolerance. And I don’t mean doing anything that’s actually that risky. In fact, I think you put out a great framework a while back about imagining what is really the worst thing that’s going to happen, and could you actually live with that, right?
It’s like starting a company. I mean, okay, so you went and raised some money and what’s the worst thing that happens? Basically the company fails, you shut it down, maybe you go get another job. If you raised a little bit of seeded capital, you can probably pay yourself during that time period, so is it really that big of a deal? I mean, if that’s truly the worst case scenario, then what’s stopping you, right? And everybody has their own unique personal situations. Maybe it’s harder for them than others, because I don’t mean to belittle any of that. But oftentimes the fears that people have, it’s greater in their own mind that it is in reality. So yeah, greatest risk is not taking one. Maybe I’d put that out there.
Tim Ferriss: I dig it. Well, Mr. Armstrong, maybe someday Dr. Armstrong, biologist, PhD, astrophysicist. Is there anything else you would like to add before we wind this to a close? Any closing comments, requests of my audience, things to point attention to, public complaints you’d like to lodge? Anything at all?
Brian Armstrong: No. I mean, I guess mostly just want to say thank you. I think you’re one of the group of people out there that you’re really celebrating builders, which is people who are trying to do ambitious stuff in the world. They don’t always succeed, but at least they’re trying. And I think frankly, there’s too much… too many people out there want to be a critic and poke holes and everything. And it’s easy to be a critic. It’s actually easy way to sound smart, but it’s hard to do difficult things. And I think you’re encouraging people to do that. You’ve done that yourself, and I’m just glad that there is new media out there, which I consider you to be part of that. Podcasts and blogs and YouTube and kind of like this documentary, COIN, as well that we’re trying to participate in this new media movement to sort of, let’s go celebrate builders. You know? Let’s tell the behind the scenes stories of the ups and the downs, the good, bad and the ugly.
And so I appreciate you being a part of that. And yeah, I hope people go check out the documentary. It’s called COIN and partly, I created it because I wanted to show people what it’s like to try to create something new in the world, going from your laptop to being a public company, and sort of demystify it and hopefully more people will watch it and say, “Hey, you know what? I could do that.” I want people to go create more companies in the world, so hopefully that’ll happen.
Tim Ferriss: Well, thanks for the kind words, man. I really appreciate it. And COIN can be found on Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, and other platforms. One final question related to the documentary, what’s the story with … Are they dinosaur pajamas? What is … I saw it come up multiple times, like the onesie pajamas. What is the background there?
Brian Armstrong: Yeah. Oh, man. Sometimes when you … When I made this documentary, I was like, so I’m either going to look like an idiot or this is going to be great, but either way I’m going to try it. So, that’s one of those moments where I probably look like an idiot. But yeah, in the early days building Coinbase, I mean, it was literally just like 12 hours a day, kind of try to write some code, talk to customers. And for whatever reason, I thought this onesie was just hilarious. I had it around the house. It kind of became … Like, I never thought it would turn up in a documentary, I’ll guarantee you that. But I think I wore it to a couple hackathons we had at the Coinbase office too.
Tim Ferriss: I dug it. It’s like-
Brian Armstrong: So yeah, you got to keep it fun. Have fun while you’re trying to do the crazy stuff.
Tim Ferriss: … the Coinbase team mascot uniform. I dug it. Just, I had to ask. Wasn’t sure if that was a formal attire for board meetings or something else. Well, Brian, thank you so much for making the time and for being so game for the conversation. People can find you on Twitter @Brian_Armstrong, and we will link to everything including the new documentary. And all the books, resources, names, companies, et cetera that we’ve discussed, people can find in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, everybody, be a little kinder than is necessary. And remember, the greatest risk is not taking one. Be safe out there.
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