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Altruism and crypto have long been friends. Everything from Libra’s promise to help the world’s unbanked, to Binance’s Venus platform–which has similar ambitions–projects have queued up to solve the world’s financial problems.
But as the altruism market evolves, more projects are springing up with fresher technology, crypto-economics, and approaches. Celo, backed by Andreessen Horowitz’s crypto fund, is one.
Rene Reinsberg, a serial entrepreneur and MIT alumni, founded Celo, an open-source project, to enable financial inclusion, one smartphone at a time. Targeting emerging markets, Celo is building a stablecoin platform, along with an identity protocol that links wallet addresses with users’ phone numbers. Such a linkage allows assets to be transferred by any smartphone user.
Celo is not Reinsberg’s first startup. In 2011, he founded Locu, a machine-learning venture that spun out of MIT and was later acquired by GoDaddy. Below, he explores his journey into crypto and building a truly diverse company focusing on emerging markets
How did you get to know crypto and decide that this is the next focus of your career?
I got to know blockchain while I was at MIT starting my first company, Locu. We used linked data and the semantic web stack, which taught me to appreciate decentralized systems, sovereign identity, and cryptography.
When we thought about what’s next, we saw a parallel between the semantic web and the blockchain space. In 2017, we got up to speed with Ethereum and were excited by the tech and incredible community built around it.
While we were drawn to what this tech can do, we were really intrigued by what it hadn’t been able to achieve: usability and accessibility. We decided to focus on these two pain points.
Targeting emerging markets is a big challenge. How are you approaching the challenge and can you shed some light on your research-driven methodology?
First of all, 90 percent of Celo people have been in the market doing user research and understanding customer pain points. This was fundamental to our product design since the beginning.
Can you give us some examples of your research findings and how they shed light on your product development?
One fascinating example we found is a century-old practice called Saving Circle in Tanzania.
A saving circle is composed of a group of trusted friends and family, each of whom contributes a certain amount of money to a group safe. When one group member is in need, this person is allowed to withdraw from the collective savings.
What fascinated us is that the safe is locked with multiple physical keys distributed to various group members. When someone needs to withdraw from the safe, all key holders have to be present, which prevents fraud and builds trust in the community.
What this example also taught us is that, beyond P2P cash transfer, there are many primitive financial activities such as Saving Circles that can be digitized and optimized through blockchain technology and cryptoeconomics: Lending, credit score, capital etc.
We’ve seen many stablecoin platforms come and go. How confident are you with Celo’s design?
Our design is unique. We share some similarities with other stablecoins such as Maker and Basis. But to start with, our goal is to come up with a system that is resilient and combines the best of them such as over-collateralized reserve, and programmatic monetary policy where we expand and contract monetary supply based on demand.
In addition, we’ve undertaken a few extreme shock scenarios and ran real-world experiments. Last year, we did a one month program at MIT where students were rewarded to challenge and break our system. We’ve learned a lot from that exercise and hence grew our confidence.
Tell us about building a team? how do you attract talents and retain them?
Our core team is distributed between Berlin, SF, and Buenos Aires. In addition, we have collaborators and fellows all over the world. From a very early stage, we’ve made sure that people from all over the world who wish to participate have the opportunity to do so.
Also, Celo isn’t just like any other SaaS business where talent is most likely to be either engineering or business development. Here, we need people with diverse backgrounds: Ranging from economics, finance, cryptography, user research, community, and more. So we strive to create an environment that everyone feels welcomed and equally driven by our shared purpose.
This whole ecosystem relies on variance.
What piece of advice would you give to a first-time entrepreneur?
I think the key to start a business is to pick the right business partner and co-founders. Key criteria are high intelligence, energy, and integrity. Among the three, I believe integrity is the most important and probably the hardest to test.
I was very fortunate to have founded and worked with Marek for over a decade since our last startup. Our early team members are people who have worked with us previously. These have all been crucial factors that contributed to our progress made thus far.
What's next for Celo?
We continue to gear up toward our mainnet launch in addition to organizing meetups, getting feedback and supporting our community. We’ve just launched a venture fund that funds companies that want to build on the Celo platform in emerging markets.
In early November, they are hosting a very small retreat and invited entrepreneurs from all over the world with similar vision and passion to grow the community.