When Loi Nguyen kicked off his career with a university internship at Goldman Sachs in 2017, he didn’t envision he would be working at a crypto startup in his 20s.
Despite his personal interest in crypto, and amid Bitcoin’s first meteoric surge, he didn’t see the industry evolving to the point where a job in the sector could be considered a savvy career move.
“As much as I was interested in the space back in 2017-18, I never really saw myself pursuing a career in crypto given the greenness of the space relative to my career in traditional financial services,” Nguyen said.
Now working in a customer engagement role at Australian-based crypto exchange Coinstash, having recently jumped ship from a job at fintech Tyro Payments, one of the largest payments processors for businesses beyond the big four banks, he hopes to see more of his peers do the same.
Nguyen is among a wave of early- and mid-career Australians jumping ship from legacy businesses, global consultancy firms and even the fast-growing fintech space in order to get in on the ground floor of the crypto boom, as the technology pushes further toward mainstream acceptance and the Australian government promises to foster conditions to “revolutionise the Australian crypto sector”.
For those who have recently jumped into the space like himself, Ngyuyen said compensation ranked lower on the list of priorities than other factors, including a desire to grab hold of what they see as a life-changing opportunity to build the foundations of a potentially transformative industry.
“Most people working in crypto at the moment would say the industry is still in its infancy,” Ngyuyen said. “People who are joining this space early on are strong believers in it and want to see the mass adoption of crypto.”
That said, globally crypto startups have become the new fast track to tech wealth; both the New York Times and The Information recently noted that a flood of capital, along with the ability to more readily access stock options, are delivering rapidly growing pay packets to talent entering the space.
On top of the fast growth and fluid structure startups are known for, a fresh crop of Australian crypto companies also promise new employees the chance to influence how the sector is shaped by government regulation — following the release of a Senate report recommending steps the nation can take to catch up and harness the potentially “enormous” economic opportunities of the ballooning crypto market.
“I would have never had this opportunity if I had stayed in traditional financial services,” Nguyen said, adding that at Coinstash he’s been able to throw his weight into multiple areas of the business.
“Considering no one in the industry has more than 5-10 years of experience, I’m quite lucky to get a head start.”
A flow of tech, finance and entrepreneurial talent
Last year saw an avalanche of capital flow into Web3, the ascendant term for assets and activity embedded in cryptocurrency and the blockchain, including NFTs and the metaverse.
Venture capital funds poured around $US30 billion into crypto in 2021 — more than in all previous years combined, according to global transaction data compiled by PitchBook.
Along with the estimated 28.8% of Australians who have some sort of exposure to crypto assets, 2021 also saw a flow of regulatory, tech, finance and entrepreneurial talent into the space.
In November, it was reported that former regulators and bankers are flocking to work in the crypto industry, a move crypto exchange managers said could strengthen institutional investment and support.
And as Australia’s tech skills shortage intensified, Lachlan Feeney, founder and CEO of blockchain firm Labrys said that those with in-demand skills say they see less appeal in established tech companies — and even in startups.
While sceptics point to the chasm between the idealist vision of the transformation of society’s broken systems by crypto’s true believers, and the pump and dump schemes and scams that followed the past years’ mania, 2021 saw a further uptake of cryptocurrencies, along with products like NFTs breaking into the mainstream.
This has only accelerated moves from finance and tech into the crypto sector.
Why join a crypto startup?
Guylian Louis, an operations and finance analyst at Coinstash, was working at one of the major professional consulting firms until early last year when she re-evaluated a career trajectory she had always imagined as a straight line towards making partner.
“I thought, I really don’t want my career and my legacy to be some report that sits on some guy’s desk for six months before it gets implemented,” Louis said.
“I really wanted to go into a sector that was going to be huge, or something that was going to be part of the future that we all want,” she said.
“Sustainable. Fair. Economically fair and fair for consumers.”
She said after considering the renewable energy sector, she landed on crypto as a space where she could transfer her experience as a regulatory consultant to the ongoing development of a regulatory framework for cryptocurrency in Australia.
“There are more laws at the moment for horse racing syndicates than there are for crypto,” Louis said, and noted that at the time she remembered thinking, “I’m really on the bleeding edge here. “
“There’s an opportunity to be involved in that discussion. An opportunity to help build a really cool business and… teach consumers about something amazing,” she said.
“So it’s like, you know, I’ll just do it!”
Steve Vallas, chief executive of Blockchain Australia, said this has been a common refrain by newcomers in the sector.
“In recent months, I’ve heard of a great number of people who are reconsidering their careers and the trajectory they’re going to follow,” Vallas said.
“One of the things that’s of particular interest, I think, in blockchain, crypto… is it’s purposeful,” he said. “People feel they can create legacies.”
Louis said that there’s also a sense that the path towards regulation for the crypto sector has involved far less animosity and more government support than other emerging industries.
“I’ve never seen an industry so keen for regulation,” said Liberal senator Andrew Bragg, who led the Senate Select Committee on financial technology, last year.
Louis said absence of regulation was slowing Coinstash’s growth, but the fact that she’s been able to namecheck a vast array of stakeholders from the community signalled “the government’s been really open to hearing all kinds of voices”.
‘The world can’t afford for women to be left out of this’
Jenny Wei and Ana Alaveras, chief operating officer and country manager respectively at Ebonex, an Australian cryptocurrency trading platform attached to a large global corporation, met a little under five years ago while working at the trading desk of Western Union in Sydney.
Following stints abroad and the births of Wei’s children, they are again working in the same office, with a very specific purpose.
“I want to see more women in the market,” Wei said.
She remembers formative experiences in recent years engaging with firms working with women in developing countries. They used cryptocurrency payments to ensure money arrived without the lengthy delays involved in a traditional money transfer.
“Women in specific countries can’t even get a bank account — that tells us we have a long way to go in driving not only financial security for women but financial accessibility,” Wei said.
In much the same way that the early years of the ’90s internet boom and the birth of social media were defined by a narrow subset of mostly white men, whose blind spots created biases that continue in the technology and the industry, Wei worries the same could happen with Web3.
“Estimates state that approximately 80% of people trading in crypto are men,” Wei said, though there is evidence that non-white people are investing in crypto at rates well in excess of participation in traditional financial markets.
“Crypto is going to be huge and, despite what some may think, crypto will become a dominant player in the financial industry,” Wei said.
“Like all financial instruments, women are the last ones to get involved,” she said.
Alaveras said this was top of a list of many reasons she decided to join her former colleague at a crypto startup as Ebonex expanded into Australia and Asia more broadly.
“I actually feel that we could make a difference with this, wherever it takes us,” Alaveras said.
“We are here to ensure that women and other minority groups are engaged and involved with this narrative,” she said.
‘The right time to do it’
When Dylan Murray’s previous employer, a multinational infrastructure firm, shared the news that following the end of the most recent lockdowns, the company would require all workers to return to the office five days a week, he stepped up his job search.
He’s now a project manager at Block Earner, which in late 2021 raised $6.4 million in seed funding to this year launch a platform to offer everyday people the ability to invest in DeFi products.
Beyond his transferable skills in finance and the benefits of the “really flexible working conditions” that had become a non-negotiable for him, he felt it was finally the right moment to make the switch.
“I think it’s the right time to do it,” he said.
“If you think about it, Bitcoin was released into the wild in 2009. That’s only 12 years ago. It pretty much makes every company that operates in crypto a startup.
“So for a while I think there’ll be lots of opportunities. Not all of them will work out. Obviously, that’s… startup life.”
But he said it was also a chance to develop domain expertise that would only grow more valuable each year. “It’s like the ’90s Internet,” Murray said.
The path forward
Ngyuen said a common topic of discussion for himself and Louis was their decision to defect from more established sectors to get involved with crypto.
“We talk about this quite regularly where, you know, we do understand it could be a bit of a hindrance to our professional career path,” he said, adding, “If I were to go back into financial services, some might even look down upon it.”
Louis said she thinks the coming years’ pathway toward a regulatory framework will counter this perspective.
“It’s inevitable that new regulation will come out in the next few years,” she said.
“And with that regulation, there’ll be more confidence from banks and other financial institutions and just mainstream investors to be like, ‘Okay, this is a legitimate asset. This is legitimate technology.’ And then we’ll definitely see more adoption.”
Both Vallas and Nguyen agreed the tide was turning on the perspective on joining the industry.
“The calculated risk is right,” Vallas said, but added, “It’s becoming less risky day by day.”
“I think you have a lot of young finance, business graduates wanting to go into financial services, not knowing the potential opportunities a career in crypto could present,” Nguyen said.