TOBY GILBERT is not your average entrepreneur. Having built a successful business starting as a nightclub promoter in his teens, he seems to have a knack for getting people to follow him. Which is how he got some of the biggest names in the global tech world to do just that and get involved in his latest venture – a multi-layered blockchain platform, Coinweb. We chatted to him about his journey, his plans for the company and why mass-adoption is the key to blockchain changing the world.
When I was 15 years old I got a gig at Ministry of Sound and started by getting all my school friends involved, which was an interesting experience. I was earning, relatively speaking, quite a lot of money for someone 15 (pre-crypto trading!).
I was organising and running a number of “end of A Level” events for over 2000 students but running a business whilst at school took its toll. So when I applied to UCL I had to ask for special dispensation to offer me a place studying business and Norwegian explaining that the reason for my lower than expected grades was I was operating a business whilst studying for my exams. They let me in. Then by the end of the second week at UCL, out of the twenty-eight people on my course, I think, twenty-five worked for me. UCL ended up cancelling the course! Everyone on the course was failing their exams, because all they were doing was working for me and promoting nightclubs. I ended up buying my first restaurant at 23 and from there I bought a number of other members clubs, restaurants and bars.
And how did you end up in tech?
In my mid to late twenties I built and operated three telecoms companies working in between Hong Kong, Europe and Africa, an area I’ve now worked in for the past ten years. More recently an opportunity arose early this year when one of the guys I’d been working with for many years in telecoms had been involved in a blockchain project since July 2017. The project was based on the Counterparty platform, which was in turn based on Bitcoin. Counterparty has been around since 2014. Everyone was coming up with all these different coins, different blockchains, but there was a lack of projects that were identifying and solving key problems in the space, like ease of use and interoperability.
He said, “we’ve come up with a hyperlayer that sits above other blockchains and connects them, providing interoperability and multi-chain capability, are you interested in investing? Can you come and see me in Riga? That’s where we’re all based.” So I flew to Riga and I went to meet the team. They were super-high-energy guys, three out of the four had developer backgrounds, the lead guy was one of the original community development directors of Counterparty. He had become quite frustrated with the lack of progress as there was no way to reward the core developers or incentivise them financially. And so he had endeavoured to port the Counterparty software over to the Litecoin, Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains, and build the functionality out significantly, and that’s how the idea was born.
Just to be clear, we’re talking about Coinweb now?
Yes. When I joined, the guy said, ”where we’re really short is we don’t really have branding experience, maybe a bit more extra-funding, a board of advisers and maybe a cornerstone investor, someone that’s been in blockchain before, really to position us and help us, get on the map.” They made an offer for me to come on board as a partner to deliver these components, and within a month I onboarded a team of advisors including Chris Blackhurst – the ex-editor of The Independent and business editor of the Evening Standard; I got an ex-CFO for Microsoft Special Projects, who was responsible for X-box, Office 365, Microsoft Cloud and I got the chap that was originally the head of the Middle East and the Far East for Xerox who eventually became the CEO of the AA. That happened within the first two to three weeks.
Then I brought in a branding agency that worked on Sky Sports and a number of other big tech brands to come in and rebrand the whole project. I got the ex-head of legal for IP for FIFA to come on board with us as our Ops Director. I put a huge amount of effort and energy into it, and within four weeks I was able to say, right, guys, here we are, delivered. And so these guys said to me, “look, you’re putting a lot more energy and time than what your deal is, you know, we think that you’re really going to take this somewhere that’s probably outside of where we originally saw the project going, this looks like it could be really substantial and perhaps you’re the best person to take the project forward.” It takes a lot of guts to be able to go, ‘okay, we’ve started this and you should finish it’. I have a lot of experience in starting companies and taking them to a profitable state, and I know how to roll my sleeves up, not sleep, and make it happen.
So I did a deal with them where I bought them out. They still retain co-founder token allocations, but they’re not involved in any way in the day-to-day running. Other than the original guy, Knut Vinger, who’s a Norwegian genius. He introduced me to the project in the first instance, and stayed with me. He wrote some of the original AI papers that were published by NASA and the US Department of Defence, he is one of the most considered individuals I’ve ever met in my life; a real deep thinker. So, we closed that deal in late May of this year, and that’s where the real story starts.
What is Coinweb? Well we’re a team on a mission to create mainstream adoption of blockchain; we’re creating blockchain infrastructures to make it easier to use for everybody, every day. What we are not, we’re not a blockchain, and we’re not interested in a short-term project. I want to be really, really clear about that. We’ve identified the key challenges and we’re trying to solve them.
Right now, the blockchain is too hard to use and it’s too disconnected, with each blockchain project operating in its own silo. The only way in which we believe that you’re ever going to achieve stability in this market, is scale. The only way in which you’re going to get scale is via mass-adoption. And the only way in which you’re going to get mass-adoption, like we did for computers and the internet, is by making the whole thing more personal and more connected. In other words, as easy to use as email. With our name service, you get easy to use names on the blockchain, just like email. And our Hyperlayer connects different blockchains so you can easily exchange coins or create new ones. And you can keep it all in our multicurrency wallet, which makes the process simple and safe.
But there are plenty of people doing something similar?
No, not at all. There are a few looking to do parts of it, but no one is doing the whole thing and without the names and the hyperlayer and the wallet, you are adding complexity, not removing it. And our team has done it before. If you need to achieve mass-adoption, which brings, as we said, stability, you need to get my sister to start using this, it’s as simple as that. She’s tech-savvy, but my sister is only going to get into crypto if, when she logs on, it works like her email account and online banking app.
A number of weighty individuals from the traditional tech world have looked at our project and said, “we think this is going to be the entry point for us into the blockchain space.” And so, by way of example, who we’ve onboarded since I took the project over are people like Paul Mockapetris who invented the DNS for the internet, which is how we use email and the web today, and is leading our charge to develop the Coin Name System (CNS) within the blockchain space on our platform.
He must be what, eighty now?
Ha, no! He invented the DNS in the 80’s, just after he graduated from MIT. He’s really a lovely man, super smart. Our CTO Mike Conte ran the Excel, Windows, Shopping and Entertainment teams at Microsoft and Paul Davis who led the Microsoft Word team and was Microsoft’s’ first Windows evangelist, is our technical strategist. Our technical architect, Alexander, was a high-level developer who worked at FAST and Google and patched the original Bitcoin core. We’ve set up an accelerator to help companies use the blockchain, and the guy that’s overseeing it, Tom, was the global managing director of the Cisco Systems incubator. You kind of get the picture. There are 49 of us full-time, and this has been pulled together in the first three months of us taking the project over. We’re moving fast because we have such a strong team.
So what’s your next big step?
There’s a third part to all of this, and this is where it gets even more exciting. I’m not a fan of leaving too much to chance, so what we’ve done is we’ve set up an accelerator that sits alongside the platform, and a part of what we’re raising is going to be used to seed-fund blockchain projects to launch on our platform. It’s going to have a focus on traditional businesses that have a real requirement for the blockchain, to make them more efficient and profitable. We can integrate the blockchain into their systems.
Then every time one of these projects launches on our platform – when they transact or they set up smart contracts, or they buy name-domains from us – they will have to pay the underlying fees in our native token, and all of their users on their platform will download our wallets utilising the CNS, which means we all get mass adoption faster. We’re at heads of terms with four companies and projects, and they have a combined balance-sheet of in excess of $2bn. We’re aiming to announce an ICO, with underlying projects that have track-records and a strong team from the tradition world of business every fourteen days from the day that we launch. We have a pipeline of deal flow that’s unbelievably exciting.
Are you also raising money now?
We’re done with our seed capital. We’re doing a $19m raise at the moment for our hard cap, but we’re being super selective over who our investors are, so we’re very quietly talking to VCs, funds and ultra-high net worths. I had to turn down $5m out of China the other day because they weren’t prepared to run proper KYC and AML checks… We are saying to all of our investors now, whoever comes on board with us today will get early-stage access to all of these projects launching on our platforms, the vast majority of which are going to be securitised tokens, underpinned by assets and providing yields. So people are getting quite excited about it, but what we don’t want is pumpers and dumpers.
How would you know people aren’t going to do just that?
Having the right team around us, who are embedded into the community – that’s why I just went to New York to reach out to people. There’s some of the most well-known names in crypto, and I’ve been open with them and said I don’t want your money, which they find quite difficult to fathom. I say I want your guidance, I want you to be able to tell me about x, y and z funds – were they the ones that bought tokens and flipped them when it went onto the market, or are they reliable? And when they tell you they’re going to hold and support you, they actually do hold and support you, they’re there for the long-term.
What are your general thoughts about blockchain, do you think it will change the world?
Blockchain is an amazing tech with a bright future, and that’s why so many companies are already investing in it. But people say to me a lot of the time, the blockchain’s here to stay but crypto’s a gimmick, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of this space. For a decentralised project to work you need to be able to reward people to build it out and keep it secure, and the way in which you achieve that is with tokens. The two are inextricably linked with one another, and that is just at the most basic technical level. And the way in which we’ll bring stability to the whole thing is scale, and that’s by making it more personal and connected.
But crypto is going down at the moment.
Well, year to year, crypto is up, but sure, in any market you see adjustments. Crypto is at less than a percent of market share of people using it. As that grows, we’ll see more stability. It’s already more stable than many sovereign currencies.
What about your vision for this particular project? How is it going to change the world?
We believe we’re going to be one of the key projects that enables blockchain to be mass adopted, with ease. Anything that helps this industry do that is going to make an impact. I’m not going to make any bold statements about changing the world. Some of the smartest people I know say that by having the right business plan, the right team, and the right strategy, you can build a £100m company and make a big impact. And that’s our goal.