Matthew Roszak on Bitcoin’s Killer App: “Don’t Sell Drills, Sell Holes.”
I had the pleasure of talking with Matthew Roszak, Founding Partner of Tally Capital, for an interview series on my newsletter, Crypto Brief. If you’re ever starting to doubt how much energy you’re putting into the industry, just listen or read some of the things he’s said about it and you’ll feel your excitement rejuvenated.
A little background on Roszak: He was named one of the “Who’s Who of the crypto-currency world” by The Wall Street Journal and has been in private equity and venture capital for more than 18 years, investing more than $1 billion of capital in a broad range of industries from startup to IPO. He serves on the boards of BitGive, Blockchain Capital, Chambers of Digital Commerce, Dunvegan Space Systems, Factom, Noble Markets and Romit, among other companies.
Recently, he founded the Chicago Bitcoin Center, which is an incubator based out of 1871. He acted as a producer of the Bitcoin documentary, The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin.
How did you get your start in Bitcoin?
Bitcoin originally surfaced on my radar in 2011 when one of my portfolio companies, a social gaming company in Singapore, looked into Bitcoin as a potential payment source. So I read Satoshi [Nakamoto]’s white paper and became intrigued by the potential for Bitcoin’s promise. Having a currency and protocol that was open, secure and decentralized resonated with me whereby finance, industry, government and other centers of gravity can be completely re-engineered. I was also an investor in Zero Knowledge Systems, a privacy software company, which was founded by Austin Hill. Austin is now the CEO of Blockstream, a San Francisco-based blockchain startup. All of these intersections kept pulling me into the rabbit hole – and I have been digging deeper ever since.
Bitcoin and blockchain-based technologies have the potential to change the world – from enhancing the plumbing on Wall Street to providing for greater financial inclusion for the unbanked. I was drawn to Bitcoin much like my initial experiences with personal computers, mobile phones and the Internet – I had this emotional reaction when I realized the ways in which these technologies can be very powerful change agents for innovation. Furthermore, there was this clear opportunity to be on the front end of something really transformative – on the scale of railroads, automobiles, telephony or the Internet – that has the potential to make a meaningful impact on society.
I decided to dedicate my time and energy investing in and building out this ecosystem, and founded Tally Capital as an investment and operating platform. To date, Tally has invested in over two-dozen companies, including BitFury, Blockstream, Bloq, ChangeTip, Factom, MaidSafe, Noble Markets and Romit, amongst others. Beyond investing, I’ve also been active on the boards of two leading non-profits in our industry, the Chamber of Digital Commerce (the first D.C.-based trade association) and BitGive (the first philanthropic organization). There’s a ton of work to do in order to propel this industry forward – from investment and development to education and advocacy – we’re just getting started.
Where did the name Tally come from?
To truly appreciate the potential of Bitcoin, one needs to understand the history of money. The name “tally” is derived from tally sticks, a form of currency initiated by King Henry I around 1100, in medieval England. The system of tally marks consisted of notches cut along the edge of a polished wooden stick (issued by stockbrokers) to signify denominations, and then split in half so each counterparty maintains a receipt of the transaction — this is analogous to the way in which public and private key technology behaves in Bitcoin.
Over the course of 726 years, the British Empire was built and financed under the tally stick system, making it one of the most successful forms of currency in history. The Bank of England at its formation attacked the tally stick system as it realized that tallies were outside the power of the money-changers. By 1834, tallies were ordered to be burned by the Bank of England, and in the process the fire went out of control and nearly destroyed Parliament.
Do you believe the “killer app” for Bitcoin has already been invented? If so, what is it? If not, what do you think it will be?
My sense is that the killer app is upon us. It’ll take some time to surface as we’re still in the initial phase of building out the industry’s underlying infrastructure. Some of the key innovations we have seen thus far include multisig and sidechains. Multisig is in many ways more of a feature like double-knotting your shoelaces, while sidechains are just getting off the ground, albeit have the potential to be incredibly powerful in scaling the blockchain.
Furthermore, the use case of the killer app will likely not be promoted primarily as Bitcoin-based, as the technology will be leveraged and working in the background. There’s an old adage in business that says, “Don’t sell drills, sell holes.” Consumers and businesses are looking for solutions that leverage this new technology and some of its keystone attributes of security, privacy and decentralization.
A lot of the key elements needed in developing Bitcoin’s killer app, or our Netscape moment, are already in motion – including a $1 billion investment run rate, the best and brightest from Wall Street to Silicon Valley jumping into the ecosystem, and household names in financial services like Goldman Sachs, Citibank and UBS, and big tech names like IBM, Samsung and Intel, are now fully engaged. These are all of the right ingredients for innovation and experimentation to flourish.
As a venture capitalist, what do you look for when investing? What is the one sector you’re most interested in within Bitcoin?
Beyond looking at the product, market, team, etc., it used to be innovative in itself to be in Bitcoin; however, now you have to be innovative within Bitcoin. As for key investment themes, some of the areas that are of great interest include: identity, big data/analytics, messaging and bitcoin’s role in the IoT [Internet of Things.]
Identity is the standout from my perspective. Think about the issues involved with signatures, voting registration, birth certificates, passports and the like. Being able to create a permissioned identity stack for consumers and businesses with unprecedented levels of security, privacy and control can be very powerful.
Today, our identity is stored, updated and managed by governments, employers, banks and social networks – and not a day goes by where this sensitive information doesn’t get compromised. When one goes to a Target, we give them our credit card and sometimes a driver’s license is required to confirm that credit card is indeed ours. These consumer transactions require a lot more personal information than what’s truly necessary.
Identity needs to be completely re-imagined. There should be discrete slices of our identity stack that dynamically populates the right information in the appropriate circumstance – not to mention for a predetermined amount of time. For example, if you’re purchasing alcohol, all that needs to be verified is your age. If you’re headed to a job interview, employers only get a specific set of information. Mortgage application? That’s a different part of the stack. Hospital? Way different.
This new blockchain identity model can also turn the entire advertising industry upside down. Consumers will no longer be forced to look at ads, unless we provide express authorization. In return, consumers get compensated directly from advertisers and cut out the middleman (like Facebook and Google). Fast forward this movie further, and you can see how this model can turn high impact advertising into a smart contract residing on the blockchain.
Strengthening identity and personal privacy protections with blockchain-based technologies is a game-changer, and one of the greatest opportunities in Bitcoin.
Do you believe that BitLicense will have a significantly negative impact on Bitcoin businesses or will the increased regulation provide some validation for the businesses?
BitLicense has created clarity as to what it takes to operate in the State of New York, which is a good thing. On the other hand, the processes and requirements to adhere to BitLicense are extremely detrimental to early-stage companies. Many other states and even countries will look to BitLicense as a model regulatory framework, which will only make it harder and more expensive to operate in this industry.
From my perspective, BitLicense is akin to a big boot compressing the air hose of innovation – and will make entrepreneurs and investors think twice about doing business in New York. This may also lead to jurisdictional arbitrage, and perhaps create new power centers for Bitcoin companies in places like London, Toronto or Singapore, which have shown to be much more accommodating during these early days.
Fred Wilson owns a small amount of bitcoin but, for the most part, is more interested in investing in Bitcoin companies. Are you more focused on the companies, the currency, or a mixture of both?
My investment thesis is comprised of both bitcoin and companies in the ecosystem. The majority of Tally’s capital resides in bitcoin, the currency. I do not check the price of bitcoin every day – this is a long-haul investment, and my sense is that it will take 5-10 years for things to materialize. To date, Bitcoin has been a speculative flywheel on the currency. Miners sell their bitcoin winnings to help fund electricity bills and next-gen chips, while investors buy and hoard hoping the price goes up. That dynamic has been relatively ho-hum over the recent past as evidenced by the relatively stable, or more like boring, price range of bitcoin. The key in all of this is to have the blockchain’s flywheel get moving with innovative applications that help drive utility, throughput and transactions. Once that happens, the price of bitcoin will react accordingly.
Where do you see the price of bitcoin going over the next few years?
I think bitcoin is one of the greatest mispriced assets I’ve seen in my career. I am extremely bullish on bitcoin. Given the investment capital and human capital dynamics pouring into this ecosystem, I believe bitcoin is one of the greatest generational opportunities for investors and entrepreneurs. The easiest way for people to invest in this ecosystem is by simply buying bitcoin – which I like to characterize as a tracking stock representing this exciting, new frontier in technology, and well beyond.