- Anatoly Yakovenko : The freedom to do whatever it is that I want is more important than any measure of success.
- Anatoly Yakovenko : Sam Bankman-Fried moves fast and that’s why I think we work well together.
- Anatoly Yakovenko: The lack of crypto regulation and the uncertainty makes it really hard for startups in the US. That’s a huge problem.
The brainchild of Anatoly Yakovenko, Solana is changing the world of crypto and decentralized finance. The fastest blockchain in the world, Solana is part of a fast-evolving crypto ecosystem poised to transform the global financial system.
This past summer was known as “Solana Summer” and for a good reason. Once considered an underdog, Solana is here to stay. Just last week, SOL crypto currency, launched in March 2020, was changing hands for $192. This week SOL is on the rise at $245, but that’s not the whole story. Much of the coolest crypto stuff is built on the Solana blockchain. FTX launched the Solana NFT Marketplace to allow users to trade, mint, auction and authenticate Solana-based NFTs and is booming in popularity.
Solana is all about speed, and so is its founder, a former engineer at multinational Qualcomm. I sat down with him to hear his deeply American story.
The son of first-generation immigrants from the Soviet Union, Anatoly’s story is a powerful one, a gritty, immigrant-to-inventor American journey. While it’s hard for him to explain to his parents the details of his field, he knows that they are proud of his achievements. “It’s hard for me to explain to them what I’m doing, because they don’t really know. They barely understand how computers work, and what a decentralized computer is,” he said warmly.
An engineer by training, with a degree in computer science from the University of Illinois, Anatoly Yakovenko was always interested in complex problem-solving through “simple math.” What may seem simple to him, though, is not to the majority of people. So many are still trying to understand what it is that decentralized finance does and what it really means.
Solana’s future is bright, but Anatoly defines his personal success as “the freedom to do whatever it is that I want. That’s kind of more important than any measure of success. Getting to a point where I have the option to spend the rest of my life surfing, or not, or continue building a company. I think that’s really the cool thing about the United States,” he said. “You can really come from anywhere and get to that point. You work hard, you get there, then you can just build a life that is enjoyable and productive and full of passion, interest and excitement,” he explained.
Growing up in the former Soviet Union, where Ukraine is today, Anatoly dreamt of the United States. “I had this idea of a businessman that goes around and makes stuff happen. I thought that was exciting. As an adult, I am an engineer, I like to get into the nuts and bolts of problems and solve them,” he told me.
Reflecting on his beginnings and the origins of his passion for entrepreneurship, he told me about creating a start-up with his friends in college. “This was right around the dot com crash, we were building what kinda looks like Google Voice now,” he said. Once the dot com bubble burst, many companies which had flourished during the internet boom disappeared into thin air. The experience of the structural collapse was not new to Anatoly, however. He saw it already as a child in the Soviet Union. “I do remember that time in 91, where it was clear that everything was kind of done,” he said. Growing up in the 80s in what today is Ukraine was “kind of different” from an American experience. Still, he believes that the period of the 80s in the Soviet Union was “probably the best time” to be in the country “because there were enough political freedoms that people weren’t as terrified” and there was some degree of social and economic stability. “But I still remember my brother having to go to the army during the Afghanistan war and I was just terrified for him,” he revealed.
Anatoly’s move into the world of crypto and decentralized finance was driven by a simple realization that traditional finance requires so much paperwork. The whole process, he realized, could be much more efficient with the right software and the right protocol. He saw blockchain as a transformative opportunity that would give people access to cryptography.
The world of decentralized finance is a hot topic, but Anatoly is aware that people are often confused and don’t understand decentralization. What are these protocols?
“Protocol is just a mathematical definition of something. It’s just how the system works. And the reason they exist is because the rules of logic that govern the protocol, and the cryptography can provide some guarantees that are impossible to have otherwise. So, this is where this idea of software eating finance comes from. Why? Because we trust somebody at the bank that’s regulated that has oversight to handle our funds. There’s a bunch of government oversight about how money is handled that involves people, and you trust those people. And if they break the rules that they’re supposed to follow, they go to jail. It’s extremely inefficient and slow,” he said, insisting that with software, things can be “one thousand times better.” With the simple math of cryptography and basically what is a piece of software, the consumers can get the same guarantees. That’s where Solana comes in.
Anatoly’s eureka moment outside the blockchain was tied to the idea that mathematics has no way to track the presentation of time. “So, it kind of blew me away that there is a way to construct a mathematical representation of the passage of time,” he said.
Solana is censorship-resistant, but Anatoly understands the gulf between what censorship means in his world and what people think it is. “What people say ‘what’s censorship?’ they usually think about Twitter blocking tweets. That’s not what censorship is in this context. The protocol is what defines these rules for cryptographic messages to be delivered everywhere in the world, to everybody that wants to see them. That’s all it does, it guarantees that the messages arrive to all the subscribers. It’s a really simple thing,” explained Anatoly. The Solana network will remain open for applications to run freely, and transactions will never be stopped.
Then, there was a market crash.
Anatoly Yakovenko launched Solana four days after the March 12, 2020 stock market crash, a moment when Bitcoin and the S&P 500 both crashed by 70%. On March 16, Solana was ready to give it a go. “It was one interesting time because it was at the bottom of everyone’s expectations,” he said.
The worst happened already, and from Anatoly’s perspective, “it seemed like the perfect time to launch the business. Because there’s no way this crash is going to happen again.” So you kind of have the opportunity to start at the bottom. “On the opportunity side, DeFi was just starting to warm up. It just really felt like the opportunity was so good.”
Solana took off like wildfire. Before he knew it, Anatoly was collaborating with crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried of the FTX. How did the collaboration come about?
“We have common investors with FTX,” said Anatoly. “I just had a chance to start talking to Sam and show him ‘Hey, look, this platform is the next generation, it’s extremely cheap, extremely fast, decentralized. It scales in every direction. For early adoption, we can actually get a billion people using cryptography,” he added.
While Sam Bankman-Fried is not an engineer, the duo shares a similar mindset. “He’s able to move timelines from months to days,” Anatoly revealed. “Sam moves fast and that’s why I think we work well together.”
—No sleeping, basically, I said.
“Just get it done,” Anatoly responded with laughter.
“Sam just moves fast,” he continued. “And that’s great. He makes a fast decision. It just happens. That’s kind of like how I like to build things.”
At a time when many people in corporate America come home from work tapped out and depleted, at a time when poor mental and physical health is becoming a side effect of the year-long pandemic, I wondered what Anatoly’s approach to stress and burnout looks like.
“You get energy when you actually can accomplish something. You obviously get tired, physically, if you have too many nights when you’re up to four in the morning. But that’s not the same thing as burnout. You work really hard for a couple of weeks, and then take three days off and then you come back. But because you accomplished something that’s the fuel that keeps me going,” he said.
Anatoly currently resides in San Francisco with no plans of leaving that hub of business. “All the MBAs are leaving,” he said fondly. “What changed in the last ten years was that companies almost became products themselves. Risk-averse investors only invested in growth companies that had already built a successful business. At the time, very few investors were putting money in crypto” ’he said.
But the stance towards crypto is changing, not only through cultural shift but also through politics. Newly elected Mayor of New York City Eric Adams has vowed to take his next three salaries in crypto, signaling that the city is open to embrace innovation.
What’s interesting about the crypto industry is that it is dominated by several major players who keep collaborating with each other. “It’s not about a zero-sum game,” Anatoly was clear. “The market is growing so fast that it’s better for your competitors to succeed,” as he explained ”every single success is growing the market.”
Anatoly plays a lot of hockey and is not afraid of putting a lot of effort to only see small improvements. “Hockey takes a lot of effort to get good. And it’s just fun. I tend to like things that take a lot of hard work to see an improvement. Surfing is another thing. You surf for five, ten years and just get a little bit better at it.”
A common theme among crypto players I’m talking to is that they all want regulators to come in.
“Lack of crypto regulations make people go offshore and stay there. The lack of regulation and the uncertainty makes it really hard for startups in the US. That’s a huge problem,” said Anatoly. “So a lot of these folks just go offshore, if they didn’t stop already, simply because the regulatory environment in the US is so uncertain. Compliance is crippling for a seed stage company.”
At SALT NY, Anatoly said that he would not like this technology to be handed over to another country and that the United States should be this place of innovation and leadership in crypto. “This is the best place in the world. So why are we being so stupid about it?” His question was not rhetorical.
MasterCard recently brought Bitcoin on their network. Does Anatoly see that as a step of something bigger or as just trying to jump on the bandwagon and not lose customers? “That’s definitely a good thing. Because internally there’s a lot of compliance, the software operations to handle custody of cryptographic keys. That takes a lot of good engineering buying, people buying and compliance buying. And hopefully, those folks are closer to regulators and can explain it to them in a way in which they understand that this is just a bunch of technology and nothing to be afraid of. It’s literally just a bunch of words of mouth,” he said.
Kevin O’Leary told me recently that crypto is going to become the 12th sector of the S&P 500. “100%, yeah,” agreed Anatoly. “All of finance is 20% of the world’s GDP. If the software replaces 1% [of the work involved keeping the financial system running], that’s a huge amount of work that doesn’t need to be done. That’s literally: you can work four days a week now and have the same standard of living.”
The beauty of Solana technology is that it gives NFT artists tools to scale globally without going through galleries and armies of expensive legal teams. With so many up-and-coming artists curious to join without having an easy step-by-step guide as to how to start, Anatoly has the answer.
“Solana is energy efficient. It’s green. It doesn’t cost anything. All the tools are free. So you can even Google ‘How to start the Solana NFT project?’ It is open-source software that you can use for free for NFTs and build the community.”
From DeFi and Web3 applications to games and NFTs, there are over 350 projects built on Solana. At the same time, everyone wants to know how he’s doing it, and what Anatoly’s management style is. “Fire-driven development management style,” he quipped.
Talking about the footprint for humanity he hopes to leave as his legacy, Anatoly wants to “try to live a life that avoids as much suffering as possible for the rest of the world.” As a husband and father, Anatoly hopes to teach his children to “find that thing that drives them. Because that’s such fulfilling work, an amazing thing.”
Anatoly Yakovenko has definitely found his purpose in life and has a valuable lesson others can learn from.
“The lesson is, if you find that thing, just nurture it,” he shared. “The fact that I really enjoy generic problems in software and operating systems happened to be the thing that drove success. If I was passionate about painting or surfing and that was my thing maybe it wouldn’t be as materially successful but I would have just as fulfilling a life. That’s a lesson.” He paused for a brief moment. “Don’t try to chase the market, but really find that thing you are good at. Look for the thing that keeps you up at night. That’s the main thing.”
As the Solana ecosystem expands and Anatoly keeps writing the next chapter of decentralized finance, his American dream lives on. I’m sure his parents are proud of his vision.