Dan Held of Kraken – Cointelegraph Magazine
Dan Held is a Texan who doesn’t drive a truck, drink beer, love Trump, or watch sports. He’s a tech enthusiast who isn’t into coding. He looks like a typical preppy dude, wearing a white-button-up shirt and carrying a swoop haircut, but he flies drones, tinkers on full nodes, and writes about libertarian principles.
He doesn’t match the usual stereotypes. “It’s been hard to reconcile that in terms of where I fit in.”
Football, Held says, is a big deal in Texas. Years ago, the growth lead at cryptocurrency exchange Kraken enjoyed success as a football player there, going 16-0 and winning state in his senior year of high school. He played tight end, a position that requires a high degree of versatility as a combination of offensive lineman and receiver. He modestly suggests he wasn’t particularly good at any one skill on the football field and has continued in a similar vein in a jack-of-all-trades position at Kraken.
Even while going undefeated in high school football, the self-described “jock-nerd” was also crushing advanced placement exams.
But Held has grown accustomed to the ongoing dichotomies that have built his character — and, ultimately, his career. He grew up all over the political and societal map in an unusual melange of experiences, spending time in Colorado, Minnesota, and Texas, eventually landing in San Francisco.
He was one of the few people in his circles who was really into Bitcoin in its early days, yet was decidedly non-techie. What really grabbed him was Bitcoin’s value proposition as a solution to the failures of modern monetary policy. During his college days, the 2008 financial crisis caused him to question the system. He soon was captivated by Bitcoin’s monetary policy and how well it fit with the libertarian ideology of free markets.
Studying finance as an undergrad in 2008, Held recalled a breakdown in his faith in the financial system and in the experts that were supposed to explain and defend it. “My professors didn’t know what they were talking about, everyone on TV didn’t know what they were talking about, all the institutions that we had formally trusted, we couldn’t trust anymore.” It shook his foundational trust in the financial system that most of us take for granted.
Surrounded by the textbooks of his economics classes, he was hit with a revelation: “Wait. So, all these books are bullshit?”
If you fall, it’s only a 1,000 foot drop
Years of being yelled at by demanding football coaches have immunized Held from caving under pressure.
It probably also helped that his father was an extreme sports enthusiast who bicycled across America at 60 years old. He would take the teenaged Held boys out on “14er” hikes, climbing 14,000 foot mountain peaks in Colorado. “One slip, and it’s a thousand feet until you hit something. That’s what I grew up with.”
To say it instilled a sense of ruggedness and perseverance would be an understatement.
The lessons have stuck with Held throughout his career, serving him well when he needed to make quick decisions under pressure. It’s also hardened his resolve when it comes to squaring up against competitors.
“There’s nothing more important than money,” Held insists. “It’s the underpinning of all value in society.”
“It’s kind of funny in the crypto space where people whine about competition and they whine about fierceness and I’m like ‘Well, welcome to how the world works.’ There are winners and losers. Not everyone wins.”
In Held’s view, the winner in business is the company that builds a product that serves humankind in a better way.
It all traces back to Texas
Texans, Held says, are a unique type of people. It is one of a handful of states that was an independent republic before voluntarily choosing to join the United States. “So, in schools in Texas, in elementary school, middle school, high school, you pledge allegiance to the American flag and the Texas flag.”
Texan culture is fiercely independent, Held elaborates. The University of Texas took physical delivery of their gold from the Federal Reserve because they did not trust them with their gold. “That’s the extent of being a Texan.”
This core underpinning made the concept of Bitcoin immediately palatable when he first heard about it. At the time, ZeroHedge was breaking news of corruption on Wall Street, from high-frequency trading cheats to metals manipulation, all before mainstream media was willing to touch the stories. Against this backdrop, Bitcoin’s monetary policy stood out as an elegant solution. “I’m a libertarian Austrian economics sort of guy, so I heard about Bitcoin and was like, ‘Oh this is perfect. 21 million hard cap? Genius.’ The disinflationary monetary policy is the breakthrough.”
It was a stroke of luck that landed Held in San Francisco at just the right time. Working for a small investment firm out of Dallas, Held was relocated to San Francisco in January, 2013. There he met crypto pioneers like Jed McCaleb, Fred Ehrsam, Brian Armstrong, Charlie Lee and now-Kraken CEO, Jesse Powell. “I’m one of the only non-billionaires from that group,” Held chuckles.
Held approached the sector from a different angle, working on products that solve problems rather than fixating on shiny new technological tricks. His first crypto-oriented solution was a popular mobile app that tracked real-time crypto market data called ZeroBlock. Held admits he stumbled through the building process, but created a solution to a problem he was experiencing. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just laser-focused on solving this problem.”
Throwing pennies at the FBI
To gain users for the app, Held employed a clever tactic. The FBI had recently seized funds from the Silk Road. The funds, being held in Bitcoin addresses, were trackable on the blockchain.info explorer. Held took advantage of being one of the earliest to see the wallets, alerting major news outlets about the FBI’s movement of the confiscated funds to new addresses.
“I knew a bunch of eyeballs were about to land on that URL,” Held explains, so he sent tiny transactions worth pennies to the FBI’s wallet with a simple marketing message: “Download ZeroBlock, the number one app in the app store for crypto trading.” He figures he spent around two dollars in “advertising” to gain over 2,000 app installs. Along with a few other growth hacks, Held’s ZeroBlock app found success as a simple but useful product. It was soon picked up by Blockchain, where Held acted as director of product.
Oh, that law? Why does it exist? What if we break that law? Laws aren’t inherently moral. They just exist.
Held kept his rebellious streak going during his time at Blockchain, using guerilla advertising tactics to invigorate his customer base. In 2014, a Reddit post based on a Blockchain press release criticized Apple’s rampant Bitcoin wallet banning practices. The post stirred up intense emotions from readers, many of whom filmed themselves shooting their iPhones as an act of protest against the policy. In a subsequent press release, Held copied and pasted Steve Jobs’ classic “Here’s to the rebels” quote as an ironic rebuke against Apple’s stance. “That very much fit the early experience of crypto, which was rebellious.”
Crypto Kitties are not the revolution
Held feels this rebellious spirit has sadly faded. The early Bitcoin ethos, he says, was about “fighting the state and being free, being able to do what you want with your money and your body. That’s why Silk Road was popular.” Now, Held says, the space is diluted by distracting narratives like Crypto Kitties on the blockchain. “It feels a bit more silly because the original focus was so clear and distinct and revolutionary.”
“People talk about ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be really boring if Bitcoin is the only thing that a blockchain is useful for?’ and I’m like, ‘Why? It’s a couple hundred trillion dollar total addressable market!’”
“There’s nothing more important than money,” Held insists. “It’s the underpinning of all value in society.” Bitcoin, built for this singular purpose that solves a crucial problem: building an immutable store of value.
The early innovators were looking at the crypto space as a revolution, Held says. “We thought we might get arrested. We didn’t know. There weren’t a lot of regulations back then. We weren’t sure if the state was going to clamp down really hard immediately and go ‘we want to squash this.’” Now, the industry is filled with opportunists looking for a quick exit, Held says. But one key narrative lives on: Bitcoin as digital gold.
Decentralization and breaking the law
After a brief period working on social media micropayments with a company called ChangeTip that was acquired by Airbnb, Held moved on to another effort in decentralization outside the crypto space: Uber. The growth team at Uber was composed of a legendary team, Held says. The ex-Amazon and ex-Facebook project managers collected to lead the company were masters of execution. Under their leadership, Held developed a data-driven growth mindset that has shaped his work since that time.
Uber broke taxi laws in every city it launched in, Held says. “Uber was fiercely libertarian. It was data-driven meritocracy, focused on, ‘Let’s go, execute and build at all costs.’”
“I loved that we were like, ‘Oh, that law? Why does it exist? What if we break that law?’ Laws aren’t inherently moral. They just exist. That’s what drew me to it.”
Equipped with his newfound skills, Held carried over his growth mindset and libertarian passions to the institutional crypto trading firm, Interchange. Returning to crypto at the peak of the ICO craze in 2017, he was baffled to see an industry that was “devoid of any product-thinking.” People were busily building fancy tech and then looking for a problem to retrofit to their products. Held estimates that more than 99% of the projects had little to no grasp of product management.
“Ultimately, a product has to solve a problem for someone… Most engineers build shiny things looking for a problem. When you attach speculation to that, things can get pretty wild pretty quick.”
As the narrative shifted away from ICOs, Interchange was acquired by Kraken, where an independent spirit remains alive and well today. Held came on board in a business development role, but shifted over to growth lead, removing points of friction for new users and optimizing the onboarding process.
Held exhibits another interesting dichotomy in his work at Kraken. While he is a self-proclaimed Bitcoin maximalist, he embraces the libertarian principle of enabling others to freely choose their investment and trading practices. “I’ve been hired by Kraken to help build a product and increase trading volume. Publicly, with my own personal brand, I’m a hodl guy — buy and hodl.”
“Someone who works at an ice cream store doesn’t have to like every flavor. They might prefer chocolate or vanilla.” Held says he is concentrating on the performance of Kraken regardless of Bitcoin. He strives to layer in Bitcoin whenever he can, making it easier to understand and surfacing content inside the app that can explain the value of Bitcoin to users.
Blockchain tech was built to build Bitcoin
Held is steadfast in his defence of the principle of Bitcoin, not blockchain. The genius of Bitcoin, Held explains, is its ability to be Gold 2.0. It solves this particular problem very well. “When people look at blockchains, sure they might be useful for other things, but they’re inherently bad at doing everything else.”
“I’m still obsessed and I’m still a huge Bitcoin believer… I think it’s cool people want to try new things, but I’m pretty focused on Bitcoin and I’m going to defend Bitcoin.”
This staunch defense of Bitcoin brought Held considerable fame in the public space. A bevy of frustrated tweetstorms and a broad range of articles argued against efforts to undermine confidence in Bitcoin. Held set out to dismantle a series of what he considered to be intellectually dishonest arguments.
“In 2018, I started writing about these things that just nagged me, like the concept that hodlers were free-riders. That triggered me to start writing.” Hodlers, Held wrote, are the revolutionaries.
It’s not just about making a cheap alternative to PayPal, Held says. It’s about changing the world. “I’m going to defend it. I will write articles that will adequately explain a good rational defense of certain attributes of Bitcoin. I do it because I think it’s our best shot at freeing humankind.”
Held believes that economies are nearing a tipping point where the whole world will reject government money in favor of Bitcoin. “As long as people want to preserve value, I think Bitcoin will win.”
If Bitcoin fails, Held says, there isn’t an alternative that will simply take its place. Bitcoin isn’t just code, he says, it’s a belief. “It’s not like all that faith and trust that’s built into the Bitcoin ledger is instantly transferable. That dies forever. That fundamentally impacts every other chain, too.”
Bitcoin = Freedom
Now, Held is dedicated to growth in his work at Kraken and to defending Bitcoin in his public life. He will soon launch his own YouTube channel with evergreen content to introduce viewers to the value proposition of Bitcoin and to basic principles of monetary freedom.
“You can’t have freedom over your body if you don’t have freedom over your money. Your money is an extension of your body. You spent time and energy using your body to generate that money. It’s a compression of all of your life’s energy.”
“The preservation of that wealth — the ability to store that wealth and transfer it to anyone you’d like — is a natural human right.”
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