Paul Klanschek likes to play poker, for fun and profit. In college, the founder and CEO of Bitpanda started playing professional poker to finance his studies. Seven years later, he is at the reins of Austria’s first unicorn, a privately held company valued at more than $1 billion.
To Klanschek, playing poker and running a company go hand in hand.
“Poker is a pure math game. It’s looking at the data and figuring out the best move,” he said. “It is really important that you don’t go with too much of your own intuition or biases, but, instead, really look at cold, hard data.”
Bitpanda, a cryptocurrency investment platform based in Vienna, recently raised more than $170 million, giving it a valuation of $4.1 billion. This came just six months after a $52 million Series A funding round. The average time between rounds is usually 18 months.
“It’s nice to watch how we went from this weird niche product to everybody now talking about it and being the de facto service to go to if you buy crypto in Austria,” Klanschek said.
Klanschek heard about crypto for the first time in 2010 when he was researching how to transfer funds online. Back then, the use of bitcoin was still very small and only a few people knew about it. “The only thing you could buy with it were some alpaca socks,” he said.
To finance his studies and earn a master’s degree, Klanschek started playing professional poker online and became part of a community that was constantly looking for new technologies. That’s also how he met Bitpanda co-founder Eric Demuth, with whom he now has daily midnight business meetings.
“I was always a bit annoyed that nobody really provided an easy way to buy digital currencies,” Klanschek said, remembering how he kept telling friends and family to buy crypto but couldn’t tell them how or where to get it.
“I kind of got hooked on the idea that this could be something bigger than it was back then,” he said. So he got together with co-founders Demuth and Christian Trummer thinking that, if nobody else wants to offer that service, they should do it.
In fact, crypto and online poker have parallel histories, as the writer Morgen Peck has documented. The original Bitcoin code, published in 2008, has remnants of what appear to be a virtual poker game, raising the possibility that Satoshi Nakamoto was thinking about poker while creating the peer-to-peer network.
In case you think poker’s sometimes sleazy history means Bitpanda lives in the regulatory shadows, Klanschek makes strenuous efforts to avoid such perceptions and allay any fears.
“From the beginning on, we decided to really focus on regulatory compliance and all our competitors in Europe did not, so they grew much faster but, interestingly enough, none of them exists anymore,” Klanschek said.
Seven years after launching, Bitpanda plans to become the trading platform in Europe, competing with major fintech companies including Wise, Revolut and Trade Republic.
Austria is over 60% covered by the Alps, which is great for skiing. The nation is not particularly known for technical innovation. For a long time, the European country ignored cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, which allowed Bitpanda to build freely. With more regulatory attention the company faced more uncertainty about what it could and could not do.
“We went to regulators and showed them what we built, and oftentimes they were hesitant because they were unsure about the regulation on that,” Klanschek said.
The company has more than doubled in size every year. Revenues are expected to rise sevenfold this year, Demuth said in an interview with CNBC.
A lot of Bitpanda’s success is thanks to being at the right place at the right time. “Everything played together, and I think this is not something we did special,” Klanschek said. “With all this money flowing into Europe, especially from U.S. venture capital (VC) funds, it’s getting a lot easier to grow.” The company’s latest funding round was led by Valar Ventures, the U.S. VC fund backed by Peter Thiel.
Bitpanda has been profitable for five years, according to Demuth.
“I hate unprofitable companies,” Klanschek said. Business models must be self-sustaining. “It’s a really bad situation to be in” to depend on outside funding sources “because you’ll always need to fundraise. You’re working for somebody else because if they stop giving you money, you need to run to other people and it’s really stressful.”
Bitpanda is now on track for an initial public offering (IPO) and has grown from the three co-founders (including Christian Trummer) to more than 600 employees.
Klanschek has always been a big fan of the financial independence movement and has long advocated that cryptocurrency can work for people, unlike fiat currency, which loses value because of inflation. It’s not surprising that he founded a finance company, Klanschek said. “For me, the goal was always to get to a point where I can do stuff I want to.”
Klanschek said U.S. and other European fintech companies are far ahead of Bitpanda. But Klanschek and his co-founders are doing their own thing. While he likes to get advice from people who have already done what his company has yet to accomplish, he doesn’t have a role model to emulate.
“The more you look up to a person, the more flaws you see,” he said, “and I don’t think anybody has the answer to everything. There are so many variables in the world.”
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