It was the summer of 2011 when I returned to a then quiet and quaint San Francisco. I remember walking across Montgomery Street and feeling a sense of relief when nobody pushed me to get ahead after the light turned. It was halfway around the world and 180 degrees from life in Hong Kong, where I was lucky enough to have spent the previous year expanding my mind, working as an analyst for the Greater Asian Hedge Fund. This wasn’t just any global macro hedge fund. The fund manager bucked obvious trends and was a deeply skeptical, extremely wealthy ex-American who renounced his citizenship in the early 90’s, allowing his capital to appreciate tax-free for over 20 years. At 23 years old, he flew me around the US on a private jet, occasionally pointing out clean streets he thought would turn into tent cities. In 2011, I thought his views were extreme to say the least, but I also had the self-awareness to realize he had made over one hundred million dollars betting against the consensus, and I had not. There was a lot to learn from this man, so I chose to listen.
Working under his tutelage, I became familiar with the concept of fake news before the term had been coined, and thanks to his insight, was also paying close attention central bank shenanigans around the world. Most people in Silicon Valley don’t realize this, but it was clear in 2011 that the financial sector was still underwater following the 2008 crisis, and that the Federal Reserve, despite their public statements, had no intention of raising interest rates or slowing quantitative easing anytime soon. Continually subsidized interest rates meant cheap capital would flood into Silicon Valley, and questionable companies would attain undeserved valuations, making wealth accumulation easier for their employees. Based on our fund’s perspective, a career in tech seemed like the best path forward.
I’m not an engineer and I’m not a quantitative analyst, but I do like building things and I like being around people. So, the only logical thing was to pursue sales at a massive company. It was ambitious but I took a swing for the fences and set my sights on Google.
Several weeks into my attempt to penetrate the mysterious company, I continued to hit walls. Despite having experience starting my own company in college, playing professional baseball in the Rockies organization, and working at an international hedge fund, I simply was not able to convince Google HR that I was worth interviewing for an entry-level inside sales role.
By mid-August 2011, I had received two job offers but declined both of them. To my parents and headhunters, I was an overconfident millennial who hadn’t learn to accept his place in the world. But in my mind, I was going to get invited to a meal on Google’s campus, come wearing a suit, and actually walk up to a hiring manager and talk my way into a job. However, this vision did not quite align with reality. I was alienating people I relied on by holding out for a company that had already turned me down once and was basically unresponsive to my meeting requests. But I wasn’t ready to give up.
After several requests to meet the one Googler who responded to my cold LinkedIn messages, I was finally able to secure an on-campus breakfast. I showed up wearing my affordable suit along with a leather bound notebook I noticed people seemed to carry to interviews at the time. After we finished breakfast, we walked to see if a couple hiring managers were free to speak. I had heard there would be no open headcount for several months, but nevertheless leaped at the opportunity for an elevator pitch.
And would you believe it, my vision actually came to fruition. I made more progress pitching two hiring managers in a 90 second meeting than I had the prior two months. What I had come to realize is that HR at large companies operates with very similar principles that search engines themselves utilize. They will look for resume signals to sort and filter candidates, and because large companies hire thousands or tens of thousands of people every year, the sorting mechanisms they use are blunt. Any truly bespoke evaluation method would be impossible to scale.
While I was very lucky to have gotten through the initial gate with my unconventional background, HR’s use of blunt and scalable sorting mechanisms remained constant during my 6 years at the company. While I had a tremendous experience with amazing colleagues across multiple departments, I couldn’t help but wonder the extent to which HR knew what most employees actually did, despite being responsible for their compensation. It seemed to me that most of the value generated at the company was coming from a small fraction of the workforce, but it wasn’t clear to me that HR could actually figure out who these people were with great precision. Despite the ritualistic use of the word “meritocracy” or the phrase “pay-for-performance” a hedged approach was taken in the case of high-performing employees on the business side. If a typical junior employee got promoted every 2 years, a star junior employee might expect to get promoted by one level every 18 months, possibly to a role he or she was still overqualified for.
My initial reaction was to cynically assume this was done entirely for cost management purposes. However, as I gained more exposure to company leaders, I came to believe this system was actually the best system HR could be expected to construct given the sheer size of the company. I also came to believe a big reason upward mobility was throttled on the business side was to disincentivize fraud and keep hyper-ambitious and potentially selfish people away from leadership positions.
But you still might wonder why I stayed as long as I did, given my observations about employee mobility. The reality was that most of the jobs my colleagues were leaving for seemed worse than the jobs they left behind. You see, a common practice for many cash-strapped startups is to prey on the financial illiteracy of prospective employees. I first saw this when I turned down a job offer prior to joining Google. The recruiter called to offer a base salary, bonus target, and the number of options I’d receive along with the strike price. “So if we get acquired for a billion dollars, your equity would be worth a few hundred thousand,” he told me, the 25 year old sales candidate. I ran the numbers in my head. “It seems like the equity would only be worth $60K in that scenario, is my math wrong?” I asked. “Umm, yeah it’s not exactly a management stake,” the recruiter sheepishly replied. This discussion in 2011 would actually be considered very honest and transparent compared to what I started to see around 2013. Many of my colleagues were leaving for startup roles that required they work longer hours for a lower salary, and the startups themselves frequently would not disclose the amount of outstanding shares their company had. Having worked in Asia, I was trained to spot scams, and this practice reeked of one. So I stayed, determined to maximize my learning, until I found something more enticing.
In my initial sales role, I learned how to visually and audibly read people better, allowing me to communicate more effectively, and utilize my time more efficiently. In my corporate strategy role, I learned that management consulting is basically counting things (phone units, MAUs, DAUs) and generating logically plausible scenarios to help management understand the playing field better. In my product partnerships role, I learned how to work with and think like a product manager, and also learned how the Search product was actually constructed at a basic level. But some interesting things started happening in 2017. I came to believe that I had ascended to a point in my Google career where I could no longer expect to get promoted if my main priority was learning and personal development. I observed that unlike my most commercially successful friends, the most rewarded Google business employees seemed to have personality traits that tilted strongly towards absorbing the fears of their superiors. Having experienced significant anxiety as a professional athlete who worried how he would be evaluated by management, I believed this to be a maladaptive trait for me to enhance — one that would limit my chances of achieving something truly spectacular in life.
And as it turned out, 2017 was the year of the most spectacular run in the history of any asset class, specifically in this case — cryptocurrencies. After increased research, I realized that many in the crypto community had actually been reading the same financial blogs that I had been reading back in 2011, and many held views similar to my own about banks and governments. So I took a chance and left my six figure job with nothing firmly set up. I wanted to try the opposite approach of the previous several years, but given everything I’d seen in Asia and Silicon Valley over the past 7 years, I also wanted to be sure that I was working with people I trusted. So I followed my friend Jack, who had made several seemingly ludicrous, but eerily accurate predictions over the prior few years, including this one:
As you can see, I was the only person to like or comment on his suggestion. Too bad I was 4 years too late.
As it turned out, Jack really despised the idea of collecting a steady paycheck. He thought the best work was done in eat-what-you-kill mode, and I had saved up enough money to follow his advice, at least temporarily, while still maintaining a personal safety net.
I ended up connecting with Jack’s former company, OKCoin, that was coincidentally in a position to hire someone with my background in preparation for their expansion to the US.
I got along well with the people who are now my colleagues, but of course felt it was appropriate to do my due diligence given the negative press around cryptocurrency exchanges. The team was friendly and was more than happy to transparently address my follow up questions. As I continued to evaluate the opportunity, I came to believe that working for OKCoin would place me in the center of extremely valuable industry discussions with fund managers, regulators, and entrepreneurs. I also believed if I wanted to bet on crypto, even experimentally, I absolutely needed exposure to the Asian market and I would be doing myself a disservice by not working for a company with strong Asian ties.
I can already see this game plan unfolding while I acclimate to the pace of a global world with an Asian epicenter. In my first two weeks at the company, we launched our platform for our initial set of US customers, and I’ve been fortunate to hire two crypto enthusiasts with bulge bracket banking experience, one of whom is fluent in Mandarin.
Unlike most people in Silicon Valley, I am on WeChat for Business every day. I am using Google translate to parse through Mandarin messages coming from our China entity, and in a couple weeks, I’ll be making my first trip to Beijing for a bi-annual group gathering. For someone bullish on the long term prospects of crypto and Asia, I can’t think of a much better place to be. And possibly the best news for readers is that we’re still hiring! If you’re passionate about the space, whether you’re a business person, a product person, or a developer, feel free to find me on LinkedIn and shoot me a line!