Casey Kuhlman is Co-founder and CEO of Monax, an open-source universal blockchain platform for smart contract technology based on the Agreements Network. Prior to co-founding Monax, Casey was the head of legal information systems at the US Open Data Institute. A lawyer and international development practitioner for nearly a decade, Casey has worked extensively in the Horn of Africa, including co-founding the first law firm in Somaliland which he was the Managing Partner of for over four years. Kuhlman has also been a New York Times bestselling author, an infantry officer in the Marines. Below Kuhlman explores his journey into blockchain and the technology has made building a company harder. 

How did you first get into blockchain and the decentralized web?

When I was operating a law firm in Somaliland, I was doing a lot of work for large law firms and multinational corporations who weren’t exactly going to take a wad of cash down to the sketchy part of town, find a remittance provider and pay their bills. So to offer a solution, I incorporated a US subsidiary of the law firm, opened a US bank account, and then allowed clients to pay into that account.

Once the money arrived, I would forward a check to my remittance provider who would then route the money to me in Somaliland. In 2013, the global bank who provides wholesale for the remittance provider I used was contemplating shutting down, so I started to explore alternative payment channels including Ethereum. Because I had been working at the intersection of law and technology and was very interested in the idea of the computers running contracts as smart contracts, I instantly fell down the rabbit hole of crypto and smart contract capable blockchains.

When did you get involved in the project you are currently working on?

We founded Monax in 2014. Blockchain technology can help make the legal industry more reliable and transparent. We are already seeing this come to life through blockchain-based collaborative platforms, where lawyers can share, access, and complete legal obligations and contracts while having oversight over the entire process--not to mention the time saved by using smart contract templates from verifiable sources rather than drafting them from scratch.

This technology is insanely hard to work with compared to traditional technology. If you are going to take that pain--and trust me it is very painful--then there needs to be a solid business reason.

What need does it serve?

Monax helps small-to-midsize businesses marry the requirements of legal processes with the assurances and efficiencies of smart contract technology. We allow businesses to have better insights into how contracts are executed as well as who is responsible for what. 

Monax is also one of the founding companies behind The Agreements Network, a decentralized, open-source, universal blockchain. Monax is built on the Agreements Network - which leverages Business Process Modeling (BPM) to connect and manage information across organizations without the need for third-party providers.

Have you worked on other blockchain projects before? What were they?

Our company has gone through a range of iterations. We were the first to market with a permission-able blockchain, originally called Thelonius, later called eris:db and now, that codebase is housed within the Hyperledger umbrella as Hyperledger Burrow. We were also the first to market with scalable, interconnect-able packages of smart contracts that could be mixed and matched for a range of blockchain use cases.

Can you give us a summary of your career thus far, how did you get here?

Prior to co-founding Monax, I was the head of legal information systems at the US Open Data Institute. As a lawyer and international development practitioner for nearly a decade, I worked extensively in the Horn of Africa, including co-founding the first law firm in Somaliland where I was the managing partner for over four years. Prior to that, I co-authored a book that made the New York Times bestseller list and was an infantry officer in the Marines.

Did you know?

When I lived in Somaliland, I helped set up a small cheese making business that sold camel’s milk cheese. I also built a completely off-grid, self-sustainable aquaponics system that could produce enough vegetables and fish to keep about 10 households well stocked continually.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in this space?

The challenge in digitizing the legal function of businesses is that this function sits at the intersection of “my business” and “your business”. This means that in order to effectively digitize “my” legal function, "your" legal function needs to also be digitized.

Many folks ask us if there has been push back within the legal community where lawyers could feel that the technology will replace them. This isn’t the case at all. Instead, we are finding more and more that technology will free up lawyers to focus on what delivers business value rather than being copy and paste machines between documents. 

Moving to new technology isn’t going to make the hard problems of starting a business go away. You still have to build something that people will pay you for. And blockchains don’t make that easier. They make it harder.

What’s the best piece of advice you were given when it comes to being an entrepreneur in this space?

The best piece of advice I was given was meant as an insult. In the early days, we were once accused of being “the most arrogant startup in the space” which was quite odd to me because I do not really view myself as fitting that profile. When I questioned the person who made this claim as to the reason for the label, they said, “you’re arrogant because you won’t do work for the banks for free”. This was odd to me because at the time I was spending well over 90 percent of my operating expenditure building free and open source blockchain software. That always sticks with me and in the end, we never did work for free other than continuing to build world-class open source software which we were very proud of.

What advice would you give to someone setting up a business in the decentralized web?

Understand the “why”. This technology is insanely hard to work with compared to traditional technology. If you are going to take that pain--and trust me it is very painful--then there needs to be a solid business reason. If your reason is “because we can” or “because it would be neat” that isn’t a good enough reason. It is ridiculously unlikely that you will gain traction “because we can”. Moving to new technology isn’t going to make the hard problems of starting a business go away. You still have to build something that people will pay you for. And blockchains don’t make that easier. They make it harder.

What project or projects are you most excited about (that aren’t the one you are working on!)

Cosmos. That is, by far, the most exciting project in the blockchain ecosystem in my view. Moving out of the “one chain to rule them all” mindset and helping the zeitgeist get over its utter fascination with pitting one blockchain versus another is the only way to truly drive this ecosystem forward. Cosmos is the first project which is poised to actually help us move to a multi-chain, interconnected worldview.

What is (or what will be) blockchain’s ‘killer app’?

For us, the answer is clearly within the legal domain!