Diginex: Integrating Blockchain Solutions With Technology with Tristan Thoma
Watch the Episode Here:
Listen to the podcast here:
Diginex: Integrating Blockchain Solutions With Technology with Tristan Thoma
I’m here with Tristan Thoma. He’s the Director of Strategy for Diginex Americas. Welcome, Tristan.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s good to be here.
We actually are colleagues and friends outside of this, so it’s been super easy to connect with you. How is that affecting your position as a Director of Strategy? Have things gotten a little slower for you or are you still keeping things at a fast clip?
We work quickly when we have immediate projects, but because a lot of our projects are enterprise, the pipeline is longer. To get a signature as opposed to the startup world like, “We’ve met twice already. Why haven’t you signed?”
The startup world is so refreshing that way where it’s like, “We’re friends. Let’s do this,” and then we move on like, “By Friday we’re already done.” You did get into this quickly. You were more of a startup before at your previous company, Impera Strategy.
That was very startup. I was doing IT and operations management for another company and I got sick of it. I thought I was going to go into management consulting. The day that I quit my previous job, I founded my own company just because I wanted to. I had always wanted to found a company. I made up the name, made up a website and I knew more than other people about blockchain at that time. I had been involved for a while. I started giving seminars. I go to places on my wallet and hope that people would buy tickets. That was the startup, making relationships, friendships that led to second and third meetings. I took contracts, hence the startup was born.
That’s so organic. Many service businesses don’t just evolve that easily, but then when you hit a new industry and you happen to be an early expert, it helps. How did that flow into Diginex? It seems there are similar things.
Diginex I would say is an institutional blockchain startup. Technically it’s a startup. They take similar projects to what I was working on and I was doing this small scope of it. In Impera Strategy, I did implementation strategy. High-level meeting with executives on how we can go about this. I was writing whitepapers and category theory, mapping, and little diagrams, understanding what the technical and financial flows. Where would the money and the data go? I would map that out with their team. Understanding their ecosystem given the new influence of the distributed technology, whether or not that even utilizes tokens. That was the whole conversation. I know blockchain well. You know your company well.
In university, I studied Organizational Psychology. That’s about structuring and systems and I love that stuff. It’s a marriage with tech and business just was this beautiful combination of the human element of incentives, organization, structure, and then you have this technical element of blockchain and this new technology, tokenization, smart contracts, how those work and integrating it with legacy technologies. That happened to be a niche that I was able to perform very well because of my background. That was in Impera Strategy. Along the term of running Impera, one of my clients that I wrote a whitepaper and design a protocol distributed Oracle for validating smart contracts into a user smart contract.
Those are amazing projects. They raised a bunch of money and ended up getting semi acquired by Diginex. The CEO of that client is in Diginex as a CEO of Americas for Diginex. They turned around and said, “Just so you wrote the thing, you should be involved in commercializing it more.” With Diginex, I have immense mind power or resources from these incredibly smart men that come from investment banking world and they’re used to doing multimillion–dollar deals. Right when I started, I found a client that I had approached with the same thinking of Impera that will understand the business, do analysis and consulting, write some literature for them, give them a structure for business and tech. It’s a $70,000 project. I would take a few months and we get the paperwork drawn up.
I called up our head of capital markets, who happened to be the head of capital markets for HSBC, Spain. This guy is no joke. I called him up and told him about it. His first response was like, “Why would we do that? What are we going to do with $70,000?” He goes on for three, four minutes and at the end, he’s like, “That’s how we made $4 million off of it.” Along with making money is the scale of impact that they can do. They are an institutional group and they work on that level. For me, it’s a little frustrating. I like to work fast and nimble. They seem slow but at the same time, they’re so methodical and they know their thing.
Being able to get in there and be the agile person who knows how to get something new implemented and then have to give them the information and wait to cool your jets.
From the organizational psychology side, that’s a great combination of one person who wants to move, push and not play by the rules and start-up. We have a joke because our general council sits right behind me. Every conversation I start off yelling at him like, “Let’s go. Come on. Why are you stopping me?” At the end of ten minutes, he’s right.
“He’s right. We have to do this methodically and slow.” I can’t tell you how many contracts have stalled and are legal and I’m like, “We’re all friends here.”
We know it a little bit. I’m sure you’ve been burned on that type of approach. We just have to be smarter about it.
It sounds like you’ve also worked at some big enterprise clients that have moved forward and done some cool stuff. You were telling me about Salesforce. Do you want to recap that one? In terms of blockchain being so usable and such a great tool for user data, Salesforce is a no brainer application. Go into that one.
It’s been the apex of my career was working with Salesforce. Our team had contacted with them randomly. In Diginex, we had a department that brought them to us and said, “Salesforce is looking at blockchain. You guys are good at it.” They have their own blockchain division that has their whole guys and their team. We wanted to come in and provide something special and unique given our background. In the course of a month and a half, we built in partnership with Virtusa, which is a $1 billion software company. Their engineers are top grade and we have a close relationship with their CEO and a partnership with their company. We at Diginex works together with Virtusa in designing this product for integrating any Salesforce data to blockchain and building that API for any commercial purpose that can be used for and it goes just like anybody else. Blockchain can be used for anything.
Tell me with this API, give me one example of how Salesforce is going to funnel that straight into a new application for people.
The apex was with Salesforce. That moment came when we presented in Trailhead. Salesforce has two big conferences. There’s Dreamforce, which is their general and Trailhead, which is their developers. Diginex had a booth in Trailhead and we went there. One of the existing Salesforce customers is called Be The Match. Be The Match is a company that matches bone marrow donors to recipients. We got into a conversation and the guy almost started crying in front of me because he was still so inspired about what they do after working seven years. He’s their head architect for Salesforce integration. The conversation has grown from there. I got off the phone with him and we’re making decks because we’re institutional about how we can assist them with their FDA compliance and attestation to compliance by integrating the Salesforce cloud data onto blockchain.
For many years they’ve been using Oracle systems. Oracle has a level that FDA is comfortable with auditing, showing, checking that yes this is compliant, but they’re either matches migrating out to Salesforce to increase their efficiency. They’re not sure if the Salesforce cloud–hosted data will be sufficient for FDA compliance. Our approach is not so much like, “Blockchain has got a token that’s cool.” It’s more so, “We’re going to save you a ton of money on your compliance because we can show with 100% validity and you can include auditors when and if necessary on checking that this information is correct.”
Auditors could just run a node.
In Diginex, we’re good at partnerships. We love the whole ecosystem and Will McDonough, the COO of Diginex Americas has this great line that says, “I don’t see anybody as competition. They’re all collaborators.”You have the capability to go into a conversation when you have a full understanding that you can deliver. Click To Tweet
That’s how I’ve operated as well. It’s such an open space that there’s no red ocean here.
We’re spoiled for choice in the opportunity to make amazing things. We had partnered with Microsoft on different projects that Diginex had created in Thailand for social impact that’s been running. We use the Azure platform for hosting a node. If you can get around one of the nodes, awesome.
I’ve heard from so many people in the blockchain space that they are either deepen the tech and they’re enamored with it. They’re like, “I have this hammer, where’s the nail?” They just want to apply it. That seems to be the approach of many people in the space because the technology is exciting. It’s worth being enamored with. The approach that you’ve been taking, even before Diginex all along has been what does the business going to gain out of this? How does this save the money or make the money faster, and starting there and seeing if blockchain is the right application for that? It’s how normal business works.
Normal business, really?
We’re trying to make sure we get the right tool to make this more efficient rather than, “We love this tool. Where can we possibly put it?” Whether that’s the best tool or not.
Even in Trailhead, we were across from DocuSign. They’re noncompetition. There were a lot of people that are like, “Why don’t you use DocuSign?” They have a great DMS, Document Management System. There are times that’s appropriate and times that it’s not the right solution. One of the guys that I spoke with wants to partner us up with DocuSign so we can provide the blockchain services on DocuSign backend, and that’s another example. Thankfully in Diginex, we were around 130 people globally. It’s headquartered in Hong Kong and we have offices in London, Geneva, Berlin, here, people in Miami, all over. This partnership with Virtusa gives us the ability to be able to deliver projects. Let’s say we are going to DocuSign or J.P. Morgan. We have that capability to go into a conversation with full understanding that we can deliver, which is invigorating to me.
It’s a privilege in a way to know that you have so much firepower behind. It’s a privilege to say, “We can do this.” You’re clearly not just enamored with the technology but enamored with the entire ecosystem that you’re able to help build and help to foster.
We are still teaming up. I love speaking in conferences and meeting the people, getting into some fantastic debates on what tech is. It’s very fun and easy to get enamored from the tech and finding that middle balance between what’s technically possible and feasible and pushing the ecosystem forward and at the same time what’s going to make you money in the next eighteen months.
I was speaking with an investor and he said, “Why are you using blockchain? I’ve heard about this. I have a company that’s doing something that’s fractional and different investments over in Indonesia. Why do we need this?” I was like, “Secondary markets are going to open up. If you can’t trade your digital assets that way, you’re the one that’s choke holding your own opportunity for growth and liquidity. Sorry.” He hadn’t even thought about if you can’t digitize your investment, you’re going to have a hard time participating in these huge new asset classes that are coming up. People haven’t thought about it. It’s almost like we’re two futurists sitting here going like, “The future has arrived.”
There’s a great quote that says, “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” That was a large part of how Diginex started. These guys were in Hong Kong and they stopped people running around with suitcases of cash. I said, “They’re investment bankers.” Even as simply as building a company that could be acquired. If you look at most other blockchain–based companies haven’t done the KYC, AML or legal steps to even be an acquisition target in the future. Diginex has got about it systematically from the very beginning. Obviously, we make money, we have clients, we’re functioning as a business, but these guys, they made in such a way that we could if we wanted to that one could be acquired. That says something about the change in the approach. Love the tech. It’s going to be here and work on bigger projects and go at it like big boys.
There are no more pull–ups. There are actually big boy pants on everyone.
OTC and cash.
It’s got to be here and they’ve got to show up this much money in a briefcase.
It still exists. I think that’s fine for a while as long as there are people that approach it a little differently. That clash, the startup corporate, the dukes of hazards of Silicon Valley. That one convention comes from the circles overlapping.
Let’s get this concentric circles getting closer to each other, not further away. I think the Venn diagram is getting tighter. After all of this organizational psychology and everything else, I have to ask you a random question. Can you remember a single class in college that was your favorite class?
I think to determine the college credit was philosophy or something, but the teacher went into category theory. He was doing his doctorate on category theory. It’s meant to be the simplest articulation of the relationship between entities. You have an element in a group and another element in a group and their mapping, which is the correlation between the two. It can be abstracted to anything, to how a living organism functions to how it speaks with you and that I’m an entity in a group of people in Diginex. You’re an entity in a group of people of New Trust Economy. Our mapping is this conversation, but that mapping was dynamic as well as the entities and the groupings. The way that you redefined and work with the elements, groups, and mappings helps to put a name to something and then you can create a function and perpetuate that function. Different persons from Diginex let’s say wanted to recreate Diginex, New Trust Economy conversation. Once you have that mapping, it becomes an articulated way to systematize effectively anything and it’s so fucking cool.
That was one of the strongest pushes in how I approached a lot of my work. I want to make something work functionally the first time and be able to articulate its perpetuation. Another one of my taglines is, “Everything is nothing until it’s something.” When somebody says like, “Blockchain can do anything.” Until blockchain does something, it’s doing nothing. From a technical case, you can take it also to different parts of life, relationship. This person could be anyone. Anything is nothing until it’s something. Category theory helps articulate mapping relationships and once you pull that into business, you articulate the financial flow between entities where you can abstract that to value flow and have that be data, or have it be a social value. Just molding that remolding it like clay is fun.
Maybe that’s the more pleasant lens to use when you think about the bureau. Otherwise, seemingly bureaucratic approach of larger enterprise companies. They’re very slowly, methodically categorizing all of the elements before they map anything. Trying to think in more forgiving terms for my impatience, they’re doing it well.
I have to admit, it’s annoying but it‘s such a value because they don’t work. If I were to go into an actual corporation, but they have that safety measure. With Salesforce, we’re speaking with their head of blockchain all the time they saying about us after seeing our systems and that’s exciting.
When you come in as the agile, flexible, ready to do it, can do it in six weeks, you’re this spark in this fire and they’ve been in a slow burn for a while. It’s easy for them to sing about you guys. You do all the things that they almost can’t do or that they don’t accomplish this fast. It can be very impressive, but then at the same time, as long as you can handle the fact that they’re going to go slower, you’re going to always be the shining light that’s like, “It’s done.”Everything is nothing until it's something. Until blockchain does something, it’s doing nothing. Click To Tweet
When we come up with Virtusa and this is our software developer, we can bang out almost anything. That company is a billion–dollar revenue company, 35,000 engineers and we built the rails for 30 something of those 50 world’s largest banks. When we’re talking to them and we propose a structure, these guys come back with most absurdly intelligent responses and questions. I work with them on a project that got drawn into Diginex. The first time working with them I was blown away. Every time I speak with anyone from their team, they’re top-notch. We come to them with this firepower. They said at one point, “It seems like you are further ahead than IBM.” I was like, “No, we aren’t.”
That might be very true.
Yes, because we’re technology agnostic. We don’t care if it’s Hyperledger, Corda, Ethereum, Stellar, Ripple.
Just get it done.
The schema that we approached Salesforce with is you have a very robust Heroku world like the Salesforce managed package software. We started from there, so we can abstract the data into lines that can be added and subtracted that not directly to a smart contract. That smart contract on the blockchain side can be any blockchain because of the way that we have created it on the Salesforce side. Salesforce has their own blockchain product. They have a little section in Trailhead and they said, “Here’s Salesforce and blockchain.” They had guys up and after speaking with us, they said, “We want you guys on stage at Dreamforce.” That’s what I’m doing day-to-day. I’m trying to define that product, the MVP and use case would be the match to be inspiring and incredible.
Personally, I’ve always been keeping an eye out for what is the most agnostic way to build on blockchain so that if something goes down, if the company goes away, it’s all such early days. You build on the wrong network and you could end up with a network that doesn’t have anyone supporting it anymore. That migration and that ability to move is huge. It’s almost like in the world of crypto and tokens, I’ve thought about this and I’ve asked it many times. If you guys are investing in companies that have a token, but that company gets acquired, what is your acquisition strategy for that? They’re like, “You mean a reverse fork?” I’m like, “Whatever you want to call it. You have this thing that you called value to your ecosystem. Upon acquisition, it might not be transferrable. What are you going to do?” The more agnostic and the more nuts and bolts of wealth-built foundation we have in blockchain, the more we’re going to be able to grow in a robust way. I appreciate it very much. In fact, I want to find out more.
Will McDonough who’s been my guide and he was the CEO of iCash, came into Diginex. That was his approach from the entire time because he didn’t come from the blockchain world. He came from banking and finances. His last company was Atlas Mara went public on the London Stock Exchange for $800-something million. His approach was the system even then was teaching agnostic and take agnostic to the function and the value of what we’re going to provide. We come in here, we’re building something for Salesforce, but we’re providing this incredible value for something that can be used almost ubiquitous. That’s why we want to approach every project and any opportunity cool, “You have this tech, awesome if it’s valid. We can start with that. How are you going to make money?”
When is your next conference? What are you going to next? Do you have anything on the calendar or is it also slow days?
The main one that I’m trying to prepare for would be Dreamforce. If we can have the products, the system, the tech and the story ready by Dreamforce which is I think on November. I love to speak at conferences and I want to speak to a lot more of them, but that’s the one that I would spend my time focusing on.
I have one last question to ask you. It’s also a random question, but I ask almost all of my guests this to get an idea of how people work, not just what they’re working on. I get to talk to so many smart people. It sounds just like you. You know you’re in the right room when you’re not the smartest person in the room and you’re clawing to keep up and go, “What was that? I’m taking notes.” I’ve got to circle back to that idea, but also the demeanor of the people and how they work and what inspires them to work is always interesting to me. I do not wake up fresh as a bird in the morning. I am not the morning lark at all. I am a total night owl, but I always wonder oftentimes there’s a preconceived notion that people who wake up early are more ambitious. I want to gather data in case there may be a counter-narrative here. I’m wondering. Are you an early morning person or do you work late? How does that work and how does it fit into your work life with the company and everything else?
I don’t have a set answer for that. I’m sorry I can’t give you much content but it ebbs and flows. There are times that I’m up at midnight taking calls especially we have the Hong Kong team and there have been times when I’m up at 4:00 AM taking calls because we have the Hong Kong team. Ideally not on the same 24-hour kind of thing. I wouldn’t say I’m one of those military army people that wake up at 6:00 AM and go for a run and workout. I don’t remember when was the last time I went to a gym, but I exercise.
The gyms are not the place. I totally get that. Gyms make me sad. Just to totally derail this to a gym talk. I go to the gym and I think all the women are trying to get smaller and all the men are trying to get bigger. They’re all doing the same things and no one’s happy with who they are. It’s like, “I can’t do this. I’m going to go for a run out with the trees. I can’t do this.”
When it’s time to exercise, I cycle. I don’t have a necessary morning regimen except for going through my contacts and get to work.
How about your work life? Are you allowed to come in because they know you’re going to be up until midnight? You come in and it’s a flexible schedule or is there an expectation that you’d be working later hours because you’re overlapping with Hong Kong a lot?
It’s dynamic. I got very lucky being in this company because we work. At the same time, if I have to go to a dentist appointment in the middle of the day and took two hours, just don’t schedule any meetings.
I want to thank you so much for your time and I love knowing about Diginex. It sounds like they’re an awesome company that’s a big player in the space and coming bigger and bigger. It’s wonderful to see good go–to companies that are helping solve real-world business problems with blockchain.
Thank you for having me. It’s been fun.
This is Monika Proffitt and Tristan Thoma. We’ll catch you on the next episode. Thanks.
About Tristan Thoma