If you’re the average of your five best friends, then crypto is the average – and full spectrum – of these 10 people to watch in 2020. There will inevitably be a number of “who’s who” lists that circulate around this time, but I’ve tried to capture unique “bell weather” personalities who fit part of a larger trend or narrative to keep tabs on in the decade ahead.
For reference, my watch list in 2019 was pretty good! CZ (Binance), Zooko (Zcash), and Rune (MakerDAO) return to this year’s list given the tremendous pace at which their teams have continued to push the envelope in exchange innovations, stablecoin tech, and privacy. Others from last year’s list have dropped. Vitalik is still an obvious follow as the founder and spiritual center of Ethereum. But I believe Ethereum will thrive even when he inevitably takes a step back in the years ahead. Ditto Elizabeth Stark and the Lightning Labs team. Lightning is taking more time to develop than I’d originally thought, but I remain optimistic about its potential and there are now a number of capable teams building that infrastructure. Cosmos and Polkadot are the two top protocols that will vy for smart contract developers besides Ethereum. The former is now a top 20 crypto asset. The latter is due to launch in months. Others from last year’s list had quieter years, although all remain influential within the broader ecosystem.
But enough about the old. Let’s look at the new.
1.Changpeng Zhao: Binance’s founder & CEO, has become a legend in both western and eastern crypto circles, which may put him in a league of his own. His exchange captured the global lead in retail crypto trading less than two years after launching in mid-2017. The company’s BNB token is now the seventh largest by market value, as well as one of the most useful and liquid. The Binance team has shipped new features at a relentless pace (IEO launchpad, margin trading, staking services, research arm, etc.), and CZ has built an army of missionaries, who are willing to relocate at the drop of a hat to complete the mission. He’s the most interesting man in crypto right now because he’s proven so adept at navigating the razor’s edge of compliance and “damn the torpedoes” growth. Whether that edge remains sustainable, or fades in 2020+ depends on the company’s successful regulatory engagement on a jurisdiction by jurisdiction basis. (More on Binance later.)
2.Jack Dorsey: The founder and CEO of Twitter and Square, sits squarely at the intersection of the crypto community and the mass retail markets. Crypto Twitter has taken the reigns from Reddit and BitcoinTalk before it, as the industry’s dominant communication platform (at least in the West). At the same time, Jack has backed Lightning Labs and launched a crypto division of Square that’s now funding bitcoin core development (among other things). Square’s Cash App is now one of the primary retail onramps in the U.S. accounting for $150 million of bitcoin purchases in Q3, or 8.6% of the total bitcoin mined during that time (and growing). If anyone is earnest about bringing bitcoin to emerging markets beyond an empty quote, it might be the enigmatic Jack: “Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!). Not sure where yet, but I’ll be living here for 3-6 months mid-2020.” Jack was on my top 10 list before this whopper of an announcement days ago that Twitter would incubate “a small team of five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media.” The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of the new “Blue Sky” standard. Wow.
3.Brian Klein: I’ve known Brian for about as long as I’ve been in the industry, though I’m rather happy we have never worked together. He’s is a partner at Baker Marquart, where he was named one of the top 5 financial technology attorneys in the U.S. this year by industry publication Law360. A big part of that had to do with the who’s who of clients he’s represented over the years: Kraken’s Jesse Powell, ShapeShift’s Erik Voorhees, Charlie Shrem in his dispute with the Winklevoss twins; the Breitmans as they warded off multiple class action suits at Tezos; and most recently Block.One for whom Klein delivered what looks to have been a tremendous outcome, a mere $24 million civil penalty for the company’s $4 billion unregistered securities offering of EOS in 2017. He’s now taken up the controversial defense of Virgil Griffith, the Ethereum Foundation researcher the FBI has accused of aiding North Korea in circumventing U.S. sanctions. Everyone scoffs at the ruthless lawyer archetype…until they need one. Crypto will need Brian and others like him in their corner in the decade to come.
4.Meltem DeMirors: I’m partial having worked with Meltem for three years at Digital Currency Group, and because she is a current investor in Messari. Regardless, you’d be hard-pressed to convince me there is anyone as well-connected / respected / productive across multiple communities and products as Meltem. As Chief Strategy Officer at $500 millionn crypto investment manager CoinShares, she’s everywhere. Podcast. (What Grinds My Gears) Weekly newsletter. (Meltem’s Musings) Mary Meeker-esque state of the industry. (CoinShares Crypto Trends) But the 2019 highlight was her Congressional testimony this summer, where she got “shitcoin” added to the Congressional record.
5.Congressman Brad Sherman: Speaking of Congress, Rep Sherman is crypto’s most formidable enemy in Congress. The 20 year congressman ascended to Chair the House Financial Services Subcommittee that oversees the SEC and its self- regulatory bodies like FINRA in December. He’s a clever and outspoken critic of crypto in Congress, in the “let’s actually shut this thing down” kind of way. What makes him dangerous (and I’ve pointed this out for months), is that he understands the root threat of bitcoin and the “Crypto Patriot”: creating a new seizure-resistant digital reserve asset. And he’s shown a willingness to use the most damaging narratives (“crypto is for fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion”) to rally colleagues to his cause. Coin Center has its hands full with him in 2020.
6.Morgan Beller: I met Morgan for the first time in early 2018 as the Facebook team was first (quietly) coming together. She keeps a fairly low public profile (to the extent that is possible in her position), but her clout internally at Facebook/Libra is well known in the industry. She’s listed as one of co-creators of Libra, alongside David Marcus (former PayPal CEO) and Kevin Weil (former head of product at Instagram and Twitter), and is now head of strategy for Calibra, Facebook’s associated Libra wallet. If she were to leave Facebook or the Libra project at any time in the medium-term, it would be a canary in the coal mine: something is seriously wrong. Though I don’t know many within the industry who are betting against Morgan and her team.
7.Rune Christensen: Rune is a less public facing personality compared to the others on the list, but his influence is obvious. As founder of MakerDAO, he wields influence over the entire DeFi landscape and the assemblage of businesses and protocols that depend on Maker’s Dai stablecoin. A recent attack vector on Maker highlighted the existential threat for businesses leveraging Dai. A loss of the $300+ million of collateral locked in the system or an unexpected inflation bug in a key Maker contract would likely lead to contract “bankruptcies” at protocols that leverage Dai, which would be a nuclear setback for the Open Finance movement. (More here: Ensuring Ethereum isn’t on the brink of a second bailout). Rune is no mere figurehead, either. As the head of the Maker Foundation, which controls over 30% of MKR tokens, he has significant medium-term influence over the network, and has navigated several governance challenges already. MakerDAO should transition to a decentralized autonomous organization at scale, and its Rune who’ll lead them there. (More on how Maker works.)
8.Zooko: The Zcash founder has been pushing the privacy envelope for decades, and the entire crypto community (crypto meaning both cryptography and cryptocurrency) has benefited from his team’s efforts. Many of the community’s recent breakthroughs with “zk-snarks” are being incorporated into multiple open-source protocols outside of Zcash (e.g. Ethereum, Tezos), and Zooko’s Electric Coin Company is at the bleeding edge of the regulatory battles that await truly anonymous digital cash. Some folks who know me will say Zooko is on Messari’s list because I am an investor in ZEC (woof), but the reality is I’m invested because I believe in Zooko, not the other way around. He’s an important leader for the future of the industry, and the Zcash community’s continued near- and medium-term success hinges on his ability to navigate the network’s upcoming 2020 halving and fork. This is one of four teams in crypto who I think have built a community of missionaries vs. mercenaries, largely off the back of a revered creator. The others are Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Binance. You can’t build such a strong community with a token that’s dropped to all time lows without strong leadership. Zooko has. (More on Zcash later.)
9.Justin Sun: You truly can fake it til you make it in crypto, and there is no better marketer in the industry than Tron founder Justin Sun. Despite allegations of plagiarism early on – in both the project’s initial white paper and code base – Sun has memed and brute-force marketed his way into a global fanbase, as well as successful acquisitions of Bittorrent, crypto exchange Poloniex, and crypto content platform SteemIt. All in just eighteen months. That’s to say nothing of his Warren Buffett lunch stunt, mysterious last minute cancellation, and other associated (manufactured?) controversies this past year. Sun’s inclusion is perfect evidence that I really have no idea how crypto or Asia work. (Note: You’ll note this report is light on Asia coverage as I am not as familiar as I should be with that half of the market.) Tron remains a top 15 crypto asset, and one of the most liquid by volume on many of the major global exchanges. Sun has been so effective I’m starting to think I’m the crazy one for being skeptical. It’s disorienting.
10.Peter McCormack: Crypto journalism had it’s best year ever in 19. CoinDesk’s Leigh Cuen is the industry’s best individual journo right now, though The Block has challenged (and probably surpassed) CoinDesk as an editorial brand overall. (Decrypt’s not bad either.) But Bitcoin podcaster Peter McCormack is the one who really embodies everything amazing about the defiant crypto citizen journalist / pundit community in 19. And I mean that genuinely, not in a left-handed compliment sort of way. The leveling up of crypto data, research, and information businesses has been one of the best parts of bear market build ou But it’s the explosion of podcasts, led by McCormack (and of course, Pomp), that has really stood out in creating a new must-listen educational medium for new entrants to the crypto space.