In the early years, people left Wall Street for crypto because they believed in the future of this industry. It was fundamentally different from traditional finance. Then somewhere during the last bull run, the calculus changed. We started filtering candidates not on their crypto chops, but based on who went to Harvard or MIT or had high-pedigree parents.
One of the first questions when you meet someone new used to be, “How did you get into crypto?” and the response would usually start with the year, followed by why they left corporate America to work at a startup for half the pay of Wall Street.
Jenna Pilgrim is the managing partner of Mayflower Capital, a firm building teams in cryptocurrency and Web3. She has been building teams in the cryptocurrency industry since 2015, with tenures at the Blockchain Research Institute, Bloq and Streambed Media. This op-ed is part of CoinDesk's Crypto 2023 series.
Somewhere in the bull markets, we forgot this first-principle-based approach. We started filtering candidates based on their successes in Web 2 or traditional finance (TradFi), thinking they could easily learn the lingo of crypto enough to get by. We brought traders from Wall Street and entrusted them with huge books of tokens, assuming it would be the same. Derivatives are derivatives, right?
I keep asking myself how the hell we allowed Sam Bankman-Fried and his band of new-coiners to get as big as they did without sharing our same set of shared values. I’ve resolved that it comes down to a failure of contextual understanding of where we have been, and where we as an industry would like to go.
If you build a company with a CEO who only cares about making as much money as possible at any cost, you’ll attract talent who think the same. If you build a company that doesn’t care about privacy or decentralization, guess what? Your teams won’t care about that either. One largely overlooked feature of the FTX debacle is their diversion – and in some cases complete rejection – of the collectively created first-principles. Organizations like the Chamber of Digital Commerce and the Blockchain Association have been working for more than 10 years in Washington, D.C., to educate and advocate for sensible regulation. Then in 2020, Sam comes out of nowhere and starts speaking for all of us?
I got into crypto in 2015 because I believed we could build a better, fairer system that worked for everyone. We started this to get away from centralization and blind trust of people and institutions. The first successful companies were built with people who believed in a few founding principles, all to varying degrees: decentralization, privacy, self-custody, and removal of middlemen. Don’t trust, verify. Can’t be evil. The list goes on.
Read more: Who's Who in the FTX Inner Circle
We, the community of investors, users and crypto natives, allowed SBF to build FTX in a vacuum that didn’t follow these shared principles. FTX was notorious for not playing well with others, for bribing talent with equity and tokens, and for using influencer feedback loops to bewitch retail investors (not to mention regulators, lawmakers and journalists) who didn’t know better.
FTX built a team all made up of new-coiners, teaching them to mainline his Effective Altruism "kool-aid" until their blood ran blue. That talent base obviously couldn’t be trusted to build sensible decentralized systems because, well, they had never built them before. They were missing the industry exposure and understanding that only comes from salty wounds of the past. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the employees of FTX leave the crypto ecosystem altogether without a second thought. Honestly, the rest of us wouldn’t miss them.
One year in crypto equals four years anywhere else
Crypto hiring is a fundamentally flawed process. We as an industry are (commercially) about 10 years old. We have a few things figured out by now: custody, wallets, block explorers, price indexes. The list goes on. We haven’t quite got lending and yields right, but there’s still time. Ten years of battle scars means that there are people who have direct experience in these areas, but somehow they aren’t getting to the jobs they know how to do.
Someone who spent five years in crypto after five in investment banking is a far superior candidate to someone who spent 20 years at JPMorgan without having ever touched crypto at all. My least favorite statement to hear as a recruiter is, “I’ve been following the space for a while ...” I’m sorry, no. A candidate like that wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to approach risk or compliance or custody or cross-border payments for their international customers.
There is no substitute for the lessons learned in an early stage crypto company trying to secure basic bank accounts.
There is no substitute for knowing how to receive investor dollars in USDC and manage a crypto treasury.
There is no substitute for knowing the cause/effect of a decentralized community being divided on an issue, and what a hard fork would mean for their business.
There is no substitute for understanding the knock-on effects of a hard fork after a hack.
You get the gist. At some point we shouldn’t have to watch this movie again.
The thing the two aforementioned candidates differ on is context. Context can never be undervalued when it comes to building a principle-driven team. Stop it with the non-contextualized tradfi converts, please.
Context applies to everyone, especially HR
I have heard time and again, “They’re in HR, they don’t need to understand crypto.” Well yes, they do. Human Resource managers need the same industry context that hiring managers have, if not more, because they need to span across disciplines and job functions to filter the right candidates. Their process needs to be ideology focused, not competency based.
Many job postings aren’t reaching the right audiences because no one fits the mold of a traditional profile. Most crypto people didn’t go to an Ivy League school or graduate top of their class. They mined ether (ETH) in their dorm rooms in college or maybe even bought drugs on Silk Road (or its successors) with bitcoin (BTC). They blogged in 2014 about the failures of the modern banking system. They traded their way to moderate success on Kraken and KuCoin and learned about short squeezes from GameStop and Robinhood. They learned what custody was by losing their crypto on a defunct exchange. Sorry, there are no effective filtering metrics.
The first question in a job interview at a crypto company should be along the lines of:
“What is money?”
“What is decentralization?”
“Why does bitcoin matter?”
“Do you own any form of cryptocurrency?”
“Do you know what a wallet is, and do you have one?”
Just take the meeting
We need to recognize our own bias and get off the job description high horse. We need to spend our days meeting as many people as we can, through the people we already know. We need to trust those around us to verify and vouch for good talent, then just give it a shot – regardless of whether they meet our bogus idea of what we think we need.
We have to get crypto people back to work.
Teams that grow using this human-first strategy are more resilient, initiative-driven and make better decisions. Companies foster a collectivist culture where people understand their role in the company, and the companies’ responsibility to foster the growth of the whole ecosystem. Employees are happier too, because they don’t feel they are working in the world alone.
The community of crypto leaders have been very vocal over the last few weeks about what should have been done better and what we can do next time. Putting the too-little-too-late narrative aside, the biggest thing we can do now is back founders and hire teams who share similar fundamental ideologies to crypto itself. We must educate everyone in the company about these ideologies so decisions are centered around the success of the whole ecosystem, not just the success of one entity.