Sam Bankman-Fried is an intuitive person. If you consult the headlines, “Forbes billionaire” laurel comes as a Ph.D. letter to his name, but I am unsure if that’s the best way to announce him. He’s also the second-largest political donor to president Joe Biden, with over 5 million dollars in personal donations, just next to Mike Bloomberg. While definitely newsy, I am not sure if that’s the best way to headline him either.
Laid back, casually dressed in a black sports shirt with FTX initials, Sam immediately comes across as a nonconformist. Without saying anything, he makes it very clear that he is not trying to fit in. His in-person demeanor is intellectual Rock-and-Roll, but the surface cool belies the world beneath: here’s a data science expert, whose effective altruist commitments are backed by a deep understanding of utilitarian philosophy. When he speaks, Sam is thinking in fast forward, and before the words actually come out, he’s already mapped out the thought trajectory. He would probably make a good chess player: Sam is definitely always looking ahead.
While he stepped into the cryptocurrency exchange game in 2019, he is already leading the way in decentralized finance, attracting high-rollers and NFL luminaries. But hold on, that’s not all. Sam is chill. Sam is engaging. Sam is one of the people.
For an MIT graduate born in Stanford, CA, to a family of law professors, success came innately; he wanted to build something on his own. “I think part of me always felt that way. I was getting that feeling from the time when I was young. I always imagined myself sort of building something out and running it,” he told me.
For Sam Bankman-Fried, doing his own thing meant bravely venturing into the unknown. His journey, however, was not straightforward. “I think I personally didn’t know how exactly, and you never know how,” Sam was forthcoming about his beginnings. “I think it was more that I came to terms with the fact that the only way to find out is to try. It wasn’t like someday it was gonna magically be bestowed upon me. I sort of came to terms with the fact that was probably going to be the highest upside thing that I could do.”
At the time, Sam was the international EFT trader at Jane Street Capital. “I really liked Jane Street, I really liked being there. It didn’t feel constraining,” he recollected. “We didn’t have the problem that I think most companies would have had for me where I would have felt like I was not able to do what I wanted to do there,” he said. “I think that also sort of made me feel less desperate, too.”
The foundational values Sam built on early on in his life are still his guiding principle nowadays. He knows that he will never cross some ethical red lines in business while leading a new era of decentralized finance.
“In the end, when all is said and done, I’m an effective altruist. My goal is to figure out the way I can have the most positive impact on the world,” he said. “It’s not clear what that form will always be. I don’t feel like there is the particular path I have to follow to get there, or the particular way that I have to have a positive impact. But it also isn’t, ‘As long as I have some positive impact, that’s great’. What it is, is thinking about the options I can see, what is the best way to have the most positive impact and doing everything I can, to get there. That’s what guides me. I think that on a high level, what that means, at least for me right now, is being able to make what I can, and give away what I can, and to find the most effective places to give it to,” he said, introspectively.
“I think on a micro scale, when you sort of zoom in, there’s always going to be a lot of attention on you when you’re trying to run a business. There are always competing interests,” he paused for a moment. “And it’s tough, and it’s not always obvious what the right thing to do is because there’s a lot of stakeholders,” he said. “The stakeholders in our business, obviously, there’s myself, there’s shareholders, there’s employees. But also, there’s regulators.There’s also customers and they all have seats at the table. Sometimes, we have to make hard decisions. We try to do what we can to be fair; to think about what we would feel was right, if we were in the other positions. To act in a way where if I was a user of the platform I would feel respected, where if I were a regulator looking at the platform I would feel respected and if I were working for me, I would feel respected. There’s a way to do all those. But it can be tricky. In the end, you do the best you can. There’s no sort of magic guidebook for what to do there. There’s no sort of magic way out of those tensions.”
—”You just go through them?” I asked.
“You just go through them,” he affirmed,“You deal with them, and you do the best you can to be fair to the people who are stakeholders in what we’re doing.”
Sam’s FTX company is a fast-evolving platform for decentralized finance, a success story in crypto exchange, having recently expanded to Gibraltar and the Bahamas. What is Sam’s vision for his company?
“There are two pieces to it. One piece of FTX is giving people an easy, efficient, safe way to buy and sell cryptocurrencies. To create a platform that can create that environment for first-time users, while also being able to create a massive, efficient market. For sophisticated users we’re looking to be able to transact to hedged propositions in a way which has sort of the scale, comfort, straightforwardness and trust of traditional financial markets that you often don’t see in crypto,” he explained.
“Another piece of the FTX business,” Sam continued,“is trying to create an economic portal for users that delivers an experience that you don’t see with most of the options available to people. Right now, people have to juggle five different applications and products between where they can deposit a paycheck, where they can spend their funds, where they can invest in cryptocurrencies, where they can invest in stocks. These are all different platforms, it’s a massive pain to get your funds between them. There’s issues of trust every step of the way. They’re constantly falling down. It’s not a good user experience. There’s no coherent experience. And we’re trying to build that.”
At FTX, Sam Bankman Fried is trying to build a place where people can do what they want with their funds in a way that feels smooth, coherent and integrated. “And in a way which gives you full access,” he added.
The young leader of the new global finance system makes the world of crypto sound exciting and more accessible to the general public. While he never became a math professor, his physics degree paid off. Sam Bankman-Fried can communicate complex things in simple ways, the way all great minds do.
“I think one big difference that you see between a cryptocurrency platform like FTX and a lot of traditional exchanges is, let’s say, you want to trade on an equities exchange, and you want to know what the order book looks like? What does the offer look like? That data is not public. You have to pay money to get access to basic market data. If you want to know what the price of Apple is, you have to pay money, or they won’t tell you what the last trade price of Apple was, unless you pay $10,000 or $100,000. That’s a weird system. Given all the things we say about everything from equitable access to efficient markets, they all point in the same way here, which is that everyone should have free access to this data. Or no one should. But you definitely shouldn’t be the highest bidder. Right? That’s how these platforms work. One core property of FTX is all of our data other than private user information, which is obviously confidential, is publicly accessible, and anyone can access it. It’s on our websites on our mobile apps on our API. Whether you’re a first time user or a sophisticated trading firm, at FTX you have access to the same feeds of information for free.”
One of the significant drivers of Sam’s decision-making is how he can bring FTX products in front of tens of millions of people. I wanted to know how he plans on not alienating retail consumers without sophisticated knowledge in investing.
“FTX is open to everyone,” he made it clear. “It’s open to institutions, it’s open to individuals, it’s open to retail.” He added that, “Historically speaking, it was not all institutional, but it’s been heavier. We do have people all across the spectrum. But if you look at the numbers; I can look up some numbers from today. On the one hand, FTX has had more volume trade on it than Coinbase, Kraken, Bitstamp, Bittrex. More than every one of those exchanges combined. We are one of the largest places in the world; we have the world’s second largest platform globally by open interest. On the other hand, when you look at user count, Coinbase has like 30 times the number of users that we do. So we do have users from across the spectrum. But historically, we’ve had larger penetration in the highly engaged, highly active, more professionally skewed user demographic. A lot of that is that we’re late to the game. We started in 2019.”
— “So recent.”
“Yeah, you know, most of these platforms had 10 million users. And so we haven’t had the time to build out that sort of global name recognition. We’re not the first name that most people think of when they think of if they want to buy bitcoin. But we built a pretty cool FTX platform and one which has been scaling a lot, growing a lot, and growing market share. The first adopters are always going to be the most engaged. We do have a lot of support for new users in terms of a new easy interface on the mobile app. And, easy ways to fund your account with credit cards, with bank transfers,” he explained.
Sam is being very aggressive with the FTX marketing campaign and the company has continued to win celebrity endorsements. The latest FTX ad features Tom Brady and Giselle asking a simple question: “Are You In?” The star couple is bringing FTX to people, but this is just the beginning of Sam’s forward-thinking marketing strategy.
“You know, part of it is that we do want to catch up in terms of the brand. We could buy a ton of Google ads, a ton of Facebook ads. I don’t know, maybe it’s good, but it’s not going to represent who we are. Maybe someone’s already thinking about using our platform, it could have an impact. But a lot of what we’re thinking about is what we can do that could reach tens of millions of people, hundreds of millions of people, in a way that is engaging, compelling. In a way that says something about who we are.”
— “The storytelling?”
“Exactly. And it’s just much more powerful. Especially for us, where we come from a place of having a really core dedicated group of users. We have fewer of them than our largest competitors. We need to build that out.”
— “How did you come up with Tom Brady?”
“We’ve had conversations with a number of people. Number of athletes, celebrities. The biggest thing that we’re looking for are, obviously, people with big reach, people who can tell a story that will resonate with a lot of people. But on top of that, someone who first of all is excited about us, and what we do,” said Sam. “We have a lot of conversations with people before we partner with them, a lot of vetting in both directions. We want people who are excited about this partnership. People who are going to be actively engaged. And we’re gonna have fun with it. And we’re gonna believe in it. I think that’s really important to us. It’s going to be straightforward; they are not authentic otherwise,” he said, adding that “Authenticity is really important. People often discount that. But it’s a huge factor, people are really good judges in general of how authentic somebody is. You can tell when someone doesn’t give a sh*t about what they’re talking about. It’s not compelling.“
Sam believes that people who have less trust in banks are more prone to alternative ways of storing their assets. His insight is interesting for countries without a stable political system where the banks cannot be relied on.
“It’s so easy to forget where we are, right?” His question was not rhetorical.”Say what you will about the PR of the banking sector in the United States but relatively speaking, the trust in banking in the United States in Western Europe, is so much higher than in a lot of the rest of the world.”
—”Because of political stability,” I interjected.
“Yeah. Decades of democratic stability. And you also forget at the same time on the payment layer. Payments are really hard to do well. In America, it’s a really messy system. It takes two months for bank transfer, for credit card payment to fully set up. That doesn’t mean you can’t buy bananas, you can just go buy them. And the reason is that there’s literally trillions of dollars worth of companies that have built up an industry around making this easy for consumers. They take 5% on every transaction. It’s all over the place. But we’re fortunate to be in a place where it’s not great, but we can afford it,” he said, moving on to the bigger geopolitical picture.
“Now you go look at a lot of other places where they don’t have that structure built out. People can’t really use bank accounts, right? There’s a lot of countries in the world where even if people trust the banks, they can’t use them. It’s hard to get a bank account for a large fraction of the world’s population. If you have one, now you want to go buy a loaf of bread. You can’t do that with your bank account. You need something in the middle anyway. Right? You see a large number of people who are effectively unbanked globally. You see some in the United States, which is sad, but even more globally, where even maybe they don’t trust their banks, or maybe they do but can’t use them. There has to be alternative payment methods that don’t rely on that,” he emphasized. “It’s easy to forget that when things mostly work where we are, but globally, it’s a big, big problem. I think that in a lot of countries you actually have seen Alternative Payment Systems start to be common primary payment systems and primary banking systems or pseudo-banking systems. Because that was the way that they’re able to actually effectively build a network that works. And obviously, these are going to become regulated because they become financially important.”
When I interviewed Kevin O’Leary, a recent crypto convert and an investor in FTX, he made a bold call on the regulators to work with the community, not against it. Does Sam share the same thinking in inviting them in?
“We’re inviting regulators in. We’re happy to talk, and we know it’s coming. This has been coming for a while. The only real way forward is a cooperative approach with regulators. I do want to emphasize that I don’t think that means shutting down most of the industry in order to get regulated. That’s not the solution that we’re looking for. That’s not a solution that regulators are hoping for either,” Sam clarified.
“It doesn’t have to be a huge sacrifice in terms of what the upside of the industry is. There’s a lot of common sense regulations that are going to be coming, and have to work within those frameworks. And you have to be collaborative with regulators. Otherwise, what you get is this sort of pissing match. More clarity would be great. That’s an open conversation that has to be had. We’re excited to have it. And that’s the way forward to ensuring the important things have oversight without just introducing a ton of arbitrary roadblocks and barriers to innovation.”
The most prominent Crypto players, Sam Bankman-Fried included, are concerned about the barriers to entry to a new industry where the absence of business-regulatory cooperation could lead to capital flight.
“We really want to avoid what has happened in some industries, where some regulation ends up getting co-opted by monopolistic parties from entrenched industries, looking to add enough barriers to entry, not in order to ensure consumer protection, but just in order to ensure profits for the existing companies,” he said. “That is something that’s really important to avoid in a place where licenses or meet-up with requirements could only reasonably be gotten by five institutions with entrenched banks anyway. And all of a sudden, the ability to create a new payment system can’t happen. That is a balancing act, but that has to happen. It can happen if people work with each other. But I think there’s a real worry if they don’t. That just becomes toxic.”
Sam has taken up residence in Hong Kong but is now moving all his operations to Bahamas. Over years, he has built a multicultural and diverse team, driven by his deep understanding that crypto is a truly global business. Different cultural perspectives continue to inform his decision-making and the conversations he has with consumers around these extremely innovative and disruptive ideas.
“It’s been really cool to see the different product desires, the different lives of people all across the world. We’re not a regionally concentrated exchange, we have no jurisdictions. That’s really helped us, forced us to really, to keep a wide lens. One sort of interesting lens is different product feedback. Completely different product feedback in different countries, different user experience.”
— “Are you willing to listen?”
“We have to. If we don’t listen, we’re not going to build the right product. I can build the best product for me, but it’s not like everyone’s a clone of me, right? What matters is what the users actually want.”
—”Do they write to you?”
“Constantly,” he responded. ”We get massive numbers of tweets, emails, customer support tickets, and we really read through them. We can’t do as good of a job at addressing every piece of feedback that we get as we’d like, but we read them, we collect them, especially when we start to see a theme. That matters. That’s really important to us. If it weren’t, we just never would be able to build a product people want. That’s important to our business, and it’s important for users.”
Sam is Bankman-Fried is an avid reader of utilitarianism. Looking at crypto as a new frontier of personal freedoms and the happiness of the greatest number, in the way we think about finance, what are the utilitarian underpinnings of his business? Are there any?
“Sometimes. Not always, but sometimes,” he responded. “ I do think that there’s sometimes a free, efficient market. I think that often people see freedom, like, there’s sort of a conflict between efficient markets and, and, you know, Apple glasses and things, but I think sometimes these are aligned. I think that being able to recognize when the system isn’t serving a helpful purpose, when it’s just getting in the way.”
—”When did you notice that the system is not working?”
“When I started getting into crypto, really. Before then I’d never needed to really interact with the financial system that much. It all was sort of silent to me. But what quickly became clear was that one of the hardest parts of our job was sending wire transfers. That was not easy. And that wasn’t what we thought would be the hard part, that was supposed to be the already built out part. Yeah. It’s weird, we had to go into crypto to see what non-crypto was like.”
Catapulted into the stratosphere of the world’s most successful, did Sam Bankman-Fried ever get vertigo from everything he achieved? I wondered. At SALT NY, Sam was one of the rare self-made members of the billion-dollar club who were not hanging out in the VIP room. Rather, he could be seen hanging out at the FTX Clubhouse, interacting with people. Sam seems to be dedicated to remaining connected to what’s happening on the ground.
“I think it’s super important. It always felt weird to me not to be. I get a little bit of stress and anxiety when I feel like I’m losing touch with what’s happening on the ground. If I see questions asked by employees and don’t even know what the answer is that doesn’t make me feel great. That makes me feel like I’ve lost some context, and that I should go and do a deep dive into what’s going on the ground, so that I can be able to make the right decisions in the first place. There’s no point in having someone making decisions if they can’t make the right ones.”
—”What keeps you grounded?”
“I think the biggest thing is working on day-to-day tasks,” he said. At FTX, Sam has a policy that no one should be more than 50% manager but should spend at least half their time working on object-level problems.
“We don’t want someone to spend all their time just talking with other people at the company about what they’re doing and telling them what to do. If you do that, you lose touch with what’s actually happening,” Sam told me. At FTX, everyone has to answer support tickets, and everyone goes through the process of attending some of them.
“If you don’t, you’re not going to know what’s really going on the ground. You’re not going to feel the pain of the users,” he told me. “And it’s, it’s easy to sort of get your head in the clouds and just become a poor operator. We see it happen in other companies again, and again, and again.”
Entrepreneurs are no strangers to burn-out, a real issue likely to affect those going against the grain, those on missions to disrupt the status quo.”It’s not something I felt super strongly,” Sam said contemplatively.
—”Really?” I questioned.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “You know, I do— if I don’t feel motivated. But if I feel motivated for what I’m working on, that helps a lot.” In the meantime, Sam Bankman-Fried is heading with FTX towards the bright future, making sure that everyone out there has a fair shot at the American dream. Are you in?
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