Humility Before a Fall: Your Crypto Startup Hasn’t Done Anything Yet
Op-Ed Originally Published in CoinDesk, June 29, 2020
This is a message to every cryptocurrency entrepreneur, employee, executive or leader: Dig a hole, throw your ego into it and pour concrete on top. Find humility instead.
Hello, my name is Dave Balter, and I’m a CEO who used to be totally ego-driven. (There. I said it.) This ego gave me the confidence to be a great leader, but also nearly destroyed BzzAgent, the word-of-mouth pioneer I created in 2001. Had I not dramatically adjusted my leadership style, in all likelihood my partners and I wouldn’t have found our way to a successful exit to Tesco in 2011.
In the decade since I’ve built and exited a number of businesses. My most recent one, Flipside Crypto, delivers insights and analytics to blockchain organizations. This provides us a front row seat to the behaviors and attitudes of leaders and employees across hundreds of blockchain platforms, dapps, exchanges and other ecosystem participants.
Here is something I’ve learned: Many leaders think just being in the blockchain space makes them untouchable. They count an easy ICO raise as validation of success. They’re proud of developing something so technically complex their team barely understands it.
In one meeting a senior executive admonished a teammate in front of us, exclaiming her work as, “useless, irrelevant and without impact.” In another, the leadership of an Asian exchange asked us to distribute a series of splashy press releases, even though we were still working out our working relationship. One crypto executive had the nerve to gloat in front of us, “We literally just print money.”
Last autumn I was in a restaurant (remember those?) in Boston and found myself seated near a group of employees from a crypto organization recently fined by the Securities and Exchange Commission for its illegal ICO offering. They were celebrating. Waiters were bringing them chop after chop of cut meat. Many drinks were drunk. They cheered and toasted each other in hoodies emblazoned with their company’s logo.
I was outraged. Their CEO deceived investors and broke the law. Should the team rebrand? Nope. Should they quietly melt into the woodwork? Nope. Instead, they should party. They should let everyone know where they work. That they won. They considered it a victory.
These are all danger signs. Indications that leadership is acting with unchecked confidence. With attitudes of self-worth, grandiose thinking and a terrible case of “we-have-it-all-figured-out.”
What’s the one simple thing that will bring this industry down? It won’t be scams and frauds, it will be something much more damaging: hubris.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some terrific leaders in the crypto industry. Brian Armstrong of Coinbase is one. So is Jeremy Allaire of Circle.
Two very different leadership styles. Brian began as an engineer. Jeremy is a longtime entrepreneur and a seasoned executive. Their similarity lies in a distinct truth: Each approaches his businesses with maturity, clarity and delivery, all traits of leaders with the humility to build strong organizations.
Case in point: With the onset of COVID-19, Armstrong immediately takes action. He listens to his employees, to his customers, to the market. He makes adept shifts to the organizational infrastructure and institutes a remote first policy , and on May 20 published it publicly so it could serve as a roadmap for others.
Case in point: Allaire’s Circle has gone through a series of dramatic evolutions. Early Bitcoin ATMs made way for a truly massive over-the-counter trading group — and as the market evolved again, he executed a nimble pirouette and developed USDC, a stablecoin business.
Strong leaders recognize the art of humility. Neither Armstrong nor Allaire lack confidence. They have it in spades. But that confidence doesn’t root them so deeply in place that they can’t adapt. They listen to their teams and focus on execution vs. promotion. That’s humility at work.
The humility imperative is simple: If you’re an ego-fueled leader, find humility today before it’s too late. Disregard the fawning fanboys and king-like power you feel right now. Recognize your place in the universe is no more important than anyone else’s. Know you can learn from every single interaction, no matter the person’s credentials. Understand that your competitors are smart , perhaps (gasp!) even smarter than you. Believe that media glory is fleeting. Remember that fundraising is a tactic, not a strategy; your reputation isn’t forever golden because a high profile VC firm backed you.
Here’s what matters more: You treat your employees with kindness. You are willing to be wrong; and — yes, this is hard — you share the spotlight.
Having trouble admitting your ego is out of control? Ask your family, friends or most trusted adviser what they think. Find someone willing to tell you straight. Your cryptocurrency will be much better for it and you’ll truly have the opportunity to create something sustainable. Humility will prepare you for the endurance test to come. It will give you the flexibility to create an organization that can thrive in good times and survive the bad.
Unless it addresses this, the crypto industry will become “what might have been.” It will become a case study in what not to do. It will end not with a flourish or a bang, but with a whimper.
Have humility, or your hubris will have all of us.