Two entrepreneurs, time zones apart, are working on building cutting-edge blockchain tech and communities in a big office they call the world.
Typical of the times we are in and the digital industry they promote, these two entrepreneurs work closely together, but in separate time zones.
Their work? Creating an open-source blockchain that will change the way we purchase and use digital assets.
We meet Riccardo Spagni in Johannesburg at 6.30 on a cold Johannesburg evening. Spagni, dressed in a pink t-shirt with an imprint of a pony on it, in his Woodlands office, is the lead maintainer of the Monero project. Dialing in for this meeting is his colleague and co-founder, Naveen Jain, who is based in Oakland, California.
This is an everyday mode of communication, in building their open-source blockchain protocol to help businesses and people manage, transfer and use digital assets. And they’ve called it Tari. For the uninitiated, the open-source model is a decentralized software-development model that encourages open collaboration.
“I like to see myself as the Elon Musk of South Africa, because I’m from South Africa as well,” says Spagni.
He has had a knack for cryptocurrencies ever since 2011 when he found himself mining around in the ecosystem. In 2013, he founded Monero, which provides increased privacy through encryption of transactional information by using robust and recent encryption tools available to safeguard investments. It basically protects any transaction by offering parties absolute anonymity.
Jain got involved in Monero as a miner and also fell in love with cryptocurrencies.
“So when Naveen said to me ‘wouldn’t it be cool to like put natively digital assets on a blockchain’, I was like ‘hmm why’,” recalls Spagni.
Through research and understanding the advantages, Spagni changed his mind.
“I came to realize there was nothing in the market that fit the needs for a highly-scalable and highly- robust native digital assets protocol. So that’s basically what we set out to build,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
The Tari project will exist to allow companies transfer assets such as loyalty points, gaming points and tickets from one platform or user to another without losing value.
“The people issuing loyalty points remain the people issuing loyalty points. And the people writing games remain the people writing games. We are not disrupting any of that. What we are disrupting is them having to provide all that infrastructure on the backend for the issuing of their natively digital assets,” says Spagni.
The team already has investors backing them but they are working two years ahead of the actual launch.
“The real secret of sophisticated software systems is it takes long to build over time…We are doing something that hasn’t been done before, so we are not expecting this to be a walk in the park and our real mission right now is to build the best team in the world that wants to overcome the challenges along the way,” says Jain, on the call from California.
They aim to build a global team able to contribute and work on the project with them, which is one of the stages they are currently at.
“From our point of view, blockchain systems are global systems, they are not geographically focused in any way, shape or form, the network is a global network and so it’s very important that we take a global perspective from the beginning of the project,” says Jain.
Their key focus recruiting contributors has been in Johannesburg.
“There’s an incredible wealth of untapped talent in South Africa,” offers Spagni.
There’s a huge opportunity to bridge the gap and create a Tari lab in Johannesburg where developers can come and work on cutting-edge blockchain tech.
But the developers in Johannesburg will only be a segment of the team. The rest would be scattered around the world creating not only an ecosystem of blockchain but an ecosystem of a working community through online interactions.
“It’s weird because there are people all over the world and there are tons of people in this space that I respect and they are scattered all over the globe so we are constantly talking. It’s like being in a big office with some of the brightest minds on the planet,” says Spagni.
“Sharp people like to work with other sharp people and when you are exposed to that global community of people who are all throwing in and developing this open-source software that’s pretty amazing,” he adds.
One of the biggest industries the team aims to tap into is the gaming industry worth $10.3 billion in the United States alone.
Usually users would buy a game, play it and accumulate points. Once they get bored of the game, they play another and the points they accumulated in the first game goes to waste. But with Tari, the user would be able to transfer their end-game wealth into another game.
“Then nothing is ever wasted and they don’t have to build up infrastructure in one game to abandon it. So that excites me a lot,” says Spagni.
Similar to Bitcoin, Tari’s software will be open-source as well, meaning anyone would be able to have access to it. Jain believes this will allow them to gain the trust of users and businesses.
“The most powerful mode you can build is community so if you have a large group of people that are philosophically and ideologically aligned with your mission, and then you don’t really need to keep the software itself under lock and key,” he elaborates.
“You can open-source it with a highly permissible licence. Because anyone can use it and what it does is it creates trust. I think we’re in a new world.”
Although to some businesses, this may be a problem as they choose to keep their intellectual property, open-source is seen as a disruptor many have an appetite for.
A survey done by Black Duck Software and North Bridge in 2015 found that 78% of companies run on open source. What may have sounded as crazy a few years ago for businesses to put out their data has now became the norm. They found that open-source systems are critical to reducing potential security, legal, and operational risks while allowing companies to reap full benefits.
“To actually create this kind of a system, to earn people’s trust, that’s just a huge challenge and tremendous amounts of fun. I wake up every day, really excited about this incredible opportunity that we have within the Tari community to pull this off and make it happen,” says Jain, before ending yet another call to his colleague in Johannesburg and beginning yet another day of building an open-source world.
Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent
The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.
The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.
Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.
“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.
The continent has a special place in his heart.
The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.
“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.
Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.
He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.
The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.
Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.
Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.
This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.
Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.
Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.
“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri.
Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.
Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.
“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.
“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.
Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.
It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.
Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron
Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.
cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.
Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.
He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.
Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”
He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.
In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.
Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.
But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.
The Story Of The $3,000 Sneakers
South African artist Conor McCreedy on creating what could be the world’s most expensive sneakers.
A literally stumbled upon a business opportunity.
The renowned South African artist, who only paints in blue,was one day at work in his studio, in a 600-year-old, four-storeyed building in Zurich, when he accidentally spilled some of the monochromatic pigment on to his white sneakers.
Who knew it would lead to a designer line of expensive sneakers.
The artist, resident in Switzerland since 2014, now sells the limited edition sneakers for $3,000 a pair.
What helped that day was that the painting accident was shortly before a meeting with an art collector.
“This art dealer wanted some work for a private collection.I couldn’t get time to put my shoes on, so I went in my sneakers, and this guy just loved them… He opened up to me and said he likes the idea. ‘Try and take it further’, he said to me,” says McCreedy to FORBES AFRICA, on the phone from Switzerland.
After spending four months finalizing the collaboration with an established shoe company, Ludwig Reiter, the concept sprung to life.
A regular pair of their white sneakers sells for $685, but with a splash of McCreedy, it costs almost five times more.
“A lot of people can put paint on sneakers. We are not reinventing the world but putting the McCreedy blue on to a sneaker. It has a value chain,” he says.
Even before its launch mid-November, nine of the 200 limited edition sneakers had been sold to collectors from around the world.
“I love when people say that the splash looks like a kid’s.I actually like that, it has taken me 30 years to create that splash, that is a great story,” says McCreedy.
He adds the handcrafted sneaker will not only appeal to art lovers who are looking to collect, but even corporate titans and banking CEOs,and the uber-chic would want to wear it at cultural festivals.
In Switzerland, ultra-networth and high-networth-individuals are his customers.
“The beautiful part is that the sneakers are backed by my art, and compared to the art, they are relatively cheap,” says McCreedy.
The tranquillity and stability the artist associates with the color blue led to the creation of his own pigment known as ‘McCreedy blue’.
McCreedy has used it to create most of his paintings since 2011.
But building a career through art requires more than just mixing color on canvas.
“Art is always considered a luxury; don’t let anyone fool you when they say it is not luxurious. People don’t just buy art, it is a luxury creation… If Picasso was alive today, he would probably have his own app,” he says.
His art inspired him to create products, from candles to a coffee blend on sale on the ground floor of his studio.
The space is curated so it’s an alluring odyssey for customers.
White walls are adorned with original McCreedy blue paintings, showcasing the artist’s work for prospective buyers, collectors and dealers.
The ‘Essence of McCreedy blue’ forms part of the luxurious elements the artist wants to reinstate in the art world.
It took the artist three years in Zurich, one of the global centers for banking and finance, to convert an old bank building into an atelier and studio. “It’s showing how people view the world through the eyes of an artist. It is about being part of the journey and the experience. It is about feeling what luxury is like,” he says.
Staying true to his African roots, McCreedy draws inspiration from Botswana, Nigeria and South Africa, which he expresses through abstract images.
“I love African and South African art. It is really stimulating for me and as a growing artist, I like to collect whatever I can afford. One day, I will create my own museum and show what I have from different parts of the world,” says McCreedy. Open to exploring more markets, McCreedy wishes to collaborate with African artists. He would not have it any other way.
The world may present the artist with greater opportunities,but it cannot compete with the culture and the spirit of ubuntu [humanity]found in his country of birth, he explains.
“I miss good South African beer, I miss sitting on a Land Rover with no shirt on, drinking a beer. I miss the weather and the locals.”
But wherever McCreedy goes, he ensures his prized pair of sneakers is never too far away.
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