The Future Is Now: Warren Paul Anderson of Discreet Labs On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up The World Of Finance
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Catch success by not giving up. — Nowadays it’s relatively easy to start something whether it’s a blog, podcast, newsletter, social media account, or even a club, community or company. There are so many free tools, platforms, and resources online dedicated to starting x, y, z. But there are far fewer resources available on how to finish something, and find success. I have personally started several companies, published multiple blogs, and each time have learned that by simply not giving up, you put yourself in position to catch success.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Warren Paul Anderson.
Warren is VP of Product at Discreet Labs, which is developing Findora, a public blockchain with programmable privacy. Previously, Warren led product at Ripple, working on the XRP Ledger, Interledger, PayString protocols, the RippleX platform, and RippleNet’s On-Demand Liquidity enterprise product. Prior to Ripple, in 2014 Warren co-founded Hedgy, one of the first DeFi platforms using programmable, escrowed smart contracts on the Bitcoin blockchain. Warren has two bachelor’s degrees from Northwestern University, and did graduate studies at Harvard University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Absolutely. This is one of those stories where someone was lucky enough to parlay their hobby into a job, which became a career. I started off in cryptocurrency, by mining Bitcoin, back in 2011, when you could actually mine on a CPU, so you could mine on a laptop, and I caught the tail end of that. In hindsight, I wish I kept the miners on more often, because it would have been a bigger windfall, but you know, from 2011 to 2013, I just mined as a hobby, just from the sidelines as many others were at the time. Then in 2013 an opportunity to jump in full time working on blockchain technology came about and I decided to stake my career on this technology. I’d been poking around at it, very interested in what the future could hold, and the technology had been around for about four years at that point, and I figured it was probably a good time to go all-in on the technology. Prior to that there weren’t that many people that were willing to actually be so bold as to stake their career on such a nascent industry, but I decided to throw caution to the wind. I co-founded Hedgy in 2014. We raised a seed round from Tim Draper and Marc Benioff. I’ve been working full time in blockchain and cryptocurrency ever since. So I’m one of the fortunate ones that has carved out a career working in crypto. Although I’m probably one of the worst people to ask anything about the cryptocurrency market and prices and what not, but I definitely geek out a lot on the technology. And I’m having a blast building really cool things with some really smart people.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Oh man, I have many stories from over a decade working in tech — some of failure, some of success, some are funny, some are sad — perhaps all of them have a lesson to be learned. One in particular is from 2015 when I was Co-founder & Head of Product at Hedgy, an early DeFi platform built on the Bitcoin blockchain. We were off to the races building an OTC smart contract platform for bitcoin miners to hedge their volatility. I heard a rumor that Changpeng Zhao (aka CZ) had recently left his position as CTO of OKCoin, which at the time, was one of the largest bitcoin exchanges in the world. After discussing with my team, I reached out to CZ to recruit him to join Hedgy. We had a call with him and he agreed to join on one condition: that we build an exchange. Given that we were focused on the OTC market, and that Coinbase and others were already several years ahead, we viewed this as an uphill battle that we may not be able to win. So we decided to stay the course, and thanked CZ for taking the time to talk with us. Two years later CZ launched Binance, which is now the largest crypto exchange in the world with a valuation in the tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars! Lesson there is to stay focused, but always keep your options open to new opportunities, even if they look unlikely at the time. I congratulate CZ for executing on his dream.
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
I would say that anyone working in blockchain and cryptocurrency is standing on the shoulders of giants. I say that because cryptography has been around for decades and the specific type of cryptography that the Discreet Labs team is building out for Findora, zero-knowledge proofs, have also been around for decades. The problem is they haven’t really been usable until recently. And when I say usable, I mean, being able to utilize them in a commercial setting that’s fast and efficient enough, and to scale to meet the needs of a modern-day digital economy. A zero-knowledge proof is a type of cryptographic method that allows people to reveal information about something without needing to reveal anything else about that thing — in other words sharing information without showing it. This makes things very interesting for financial applications — such as being able to prove something like, I am an accredited investor, without disclosing exactly how much money I have. Or proving that I live in a certain jurisdiction, without revealing my actual address. These are bits of personal information that are typically stored in unencrypted databases that can be hacked, and used to destroy lives. So being able to share that information without showing it helps to protect people.
Discreet Labs is building an entire library of zero-knowledge proofs to support various use cases on Findora. The first type of zero-knowledge proofs that we’ve built are called Bulletproofs, which were actually invented by the original Findora research team. Bulletproofs are widely used across different blockchain networks such as Monero, Grin, and Mimblewimble, as they scale to support the needs of specific types of statements, particularly around confidential transactions. For example, Findora uses Bulletproofs to mask transaction amounts and account balances on its public blockchain. There’s a variety of other zero-knowledge proofs that Discreet Labs is working on to support more complex statements. One of the architectural design goals is to achieve scalability across the proof generation and verification times. Historically, these were big numbers. For example, it wasn’t too long ago that generating and verifying just a single proof used to take days. Now we’re able to compute a proof in spans of milliseconds. Reducing the size of the proof, measured by succinctness, is one way to achieve that scalability. That breakthrough becomes significant from a technology perspective, and I think that the amount of real world use cases that are going to be utilized with zero-knowledge proofs is going to grow, and Discreet Labs is on the forefront of providing these solutions.
How do you think this might change the world?
We’ve seen the digital economy grow exponentially — the percentage of GDP that is derived from ecommerce accounts for over 20–30% and growing. That’s a great thing for the world, but it’s also scary, because basic principles like privacy are being exploited at an alarming rate. So, using zero knowledge proofs, can help people to preserve privacy, without having to make the trade-off of being less compliant with regulators, authorities, and governments. You can preserve personal privacy and still maintain compliance. Discreet Labs is a firm believer in remaining compliant with financial transactions, and accountability, but we also want to make sure that people’s privacy is preserved. We believe that zero-knowledge proofs are going to help ensure there’s more private, yet compliant transactional volume on public blockchains.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
On the flip side, I can think of a couple of Black Mirror episodes if this technology is not adopted! Blockchains are radically transparent, meaning they reveal transaction amounts and account balances, so you can definitely create some interesting Black Mirror episodes around that concept. If people know your wallet address, then they can likely figure out what you’re spending your money on, whether it’s how much food you’re buying at the grocery store, or something far more embarrassing than that! That’s probably the extreme of where we want to be in terms of accountability and transparency. But with zero-knowledge proofs I think the upside far outweighs the downside. The downside would be more along the lines if this technology does not get adopted, if it just stays a niche part of cryptography and doesn’t ever see mainstream adoption. I think it can be pretty scary what could happen. Without zero-knowledge proofs, you’re either fully transparent, or you’re fully private, there’s no middle ground in between. Zero-knowledge proofs can help bridge that gap.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
There were a lot of really impressive teams across different universities that were working on various forms of how to solve the scalability issues of zero-knowledge proofs. They all came up with very similar solutions at a high level, but as you get into the details, each approach is quite different. I think all those breakthroughs happened roughly at the same time, which is pretty customary in technology. I think a lot of them have been implemented or are starting to be implemented across different blockchain technologies to solve scalability challenges. But really, I think the tipping point is being derived from the demand for user privacy, particularly around blockchain and crypto. Bitcoin doesn’t really have a lot of privacy, user transactions are very transparent, bank account balances on the other hand, are not transparent. Whether it’s Tesla buying $1.5 billion worth of crypto, or me sending my grandma $15 worth of crypto, it’s all fairly public. So, I think a few different teams want to solve this in a way that uses cryptographic research, specifically around zero-knowledge proofs, to follow the cypherpunk manifesto of achieving more privacy for an open digital society. They want to preserve that mentality while also supporting accountability through selective disclosure. Discreet Labs is following down that same path of the cypherpunk movement, and taking these technologies into production through mainstream adoption.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
I think there are two approaches to widespread adoption. One is a screwdriver approach, which is to write single purpose zero-knowledge proofs for very specific use cases that require simple statements. Then build a lot of tools and full stack applications that kind of abstract away the complexity of using them. There’s another Swiss Army Knife approach, which is where you build more general purpose zero-knowledge proofs that can be applied to a wider range of use cases with more complex statements, and then abstract those away through a platform. I think the approach that we’re taking is a little bit of both. The key to widespread adoption of zero-knowledge proofs is to build out the abstraction layers, which make the technology more accessible, because otherwise this is pretty complicated stuff.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
Honestly, we haven’t been very active in marketing beyond the occasional interview, op-ed, or AMA, but we’re ramping up the marketing machine. As the technology matures and as we introduce new marquee applications that use the underlying technology, you’ll start to notice more promotion with an emphasis on community involvement. A lot of these technologies are built open-source, so the communities tend to be very collaborative. We are expanding the cryptographic library that we’re building and opening the entire platform to make it available to developers to audit, contribute to, and use themselves. We believe that open source is a strong ethos to live by in the crypto blockchain world. That’s been our primary contribution to advancing the space: publishing open libraries, open protocols, and open platforms. The rest is purely network effects.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful toward who helped you get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I will say that my grandmother is a great inspiration for me. She’s been my sounding board for a number of years. She’s 95 years old and sharp as a tack. I talk to her every week. When I’m working on something that’s pretty far in the weeds she’s able to help me condense it for a more general audience. That has served as a bit of a guidepost for me — if grandma gets it I feel like our customers and the mainstream industry will also get it! Her presence has also helped me keep a strong moral compass. And I think that’s helped, particularly in blockchain and crypto, because every year, there’s some new seemingly get-rich-quick scheme that might be enticing at the surface, but is actually more of a distraction towards the long term goal of building useful blockchain technology. I think Grandma has been a good source for me!
Beyond that, you know, we wouldn’t be here without the contribution of Satoshi Nakamoto. So, whoever it, he, she, or they are, definitely deserves a shout out for the contributions they’ve made to the blockchain industry.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
One thing I’ve learned the busier I get, is that giving back, at least authentically, is actually really hard to do. That being said, I’m such a passionate advocate of blockchain technology, that even in my spare time I talk about it to all my friends. I’ve channeled that passion and knowledge to guest lecture at the university level. I’ve spoken with a lot of these high school kids who actually seem to understand this technology better than most people I know that have been working on it for a decade or more! It seems to come very naturally to the high school age, it feels very native to them, and just makes sense. I think, you know, giving back through education and evangelism has been a great joy for me because this technology is creating new opportunities that never existed before for younger generations. In the future, I’d like to spend more time working on direct philanthropic efforts, but I’m not there yet, I think we have a lot more to build!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you think they’re stupid questions.
- I think a lot of people sit on questions, especially in a more group-like setting and they’re afraid to ask because they don’t want to suggest that they don’t understand the topic at hand. I’ve actually taken the opposite approach where, even if I know the answer, I like to ask the question, not to prove that I know it, but to benefit everyone else around me. I also like to hear how the other person responds to the question because it may be different from my perspective.
Everyone has a unique perspective that you can learn from.
- If you give the exact same book to two different people, they will likely have radically different views on the book after reading it. People tend to derive most of their opinions in life based on their own perspectives. So understanding where a person is coming from can really help in understanding their view.
Be a bridge builder, not a bridge burner.
- In any industry, especially in the open source world of crypto, you will find competitors that will try to tear you down to uplift themselves. This type of bridge burning can lead to a lot of toxicity, which can become a drain on everyone’s passion for their work. Instead of fighting fire with fire, try to build a bridge with the competition. Reach out to them to open a dialogue. Explore ways to work together. Even try to build on each other’s platforms. You may find they are more of a friend than a foe.
To achieve the highest impact, find a way to become invaluable.
- Oftentimes when hiring new people for any role, I can immediately tell if they are going to be a high impact player or not by the way they get to work in the first few weeks. If the person asks what they need to work on, or be given constant direction, then that person may not have the right ingredients to make a big impact. On the other hand, if a person independently finds ways to be useful by identifying issues that need to be addressed, or gaps that need to be filled, and then working on them, especially with others on the team, then that might be a signal that the person is going to have a big impact and become an invaluable member of the team.
Catch success by not giving up.
- Nowadays it’s relatively easy to start something whether it’s a blog, podcast, newsletter, social media account, or even a club, community or company. There are so many free tools, platforms, and resources online dedicated to starting x, y, z. But there are far fewer resources available on how to finish something, and find success. I have personally started several companies, published multiple blogs, and each time have learned that by simply not giving up, you put yourself in position to catch success.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
This may sound very self-serving, but I would inspire a movement around the notion of privacy. I think we’re going to look back in history at this time and it’s going to be a pivotal point where the notion of an individual is going to be tested. Because we have our physical self, the kids call it IRL, in real life. And then we have a notion of our digital self on social media and other places, we call this the virtual self. And I think in the future there’s going to be a less clear divide between those two, and without privacy, it could get very dangerous.
I use the example of the book Ready Player One; when the main character’s personal identity gets revealed in the real world, the entire plot just goes into panic mode! He’s at his most vulnerable and starts being chased in both the virtual world and real world. The notion of privacy is going to become very important so we can ensure a divide exists between those two worlds. You need to have your privacy in the real world, and in the virtual world, and be able to delineate and keep them separated for security reasons. So, I think inspiring a movement around privacy is important. It’s like a neo-cypherpunk movement for preserving privacy in a more digital society. We should be able to look back and say, this was an important fight, and it protected lives, and protected people, and it made sure that the future could be more peaceful than the past.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my closest friends said something to me in my early 20s, when I was just starting out my career, and it’s always resonated. The saying goes: “be bold, be brief, be seated.”
I think that that’s a pretty good one, being bold, meaning, have substance to what you say, and make sure that people remember it. Be brief, meaning, be concise, be sensitive to people’s time. Then, be seated — make sure that you’re giving the next person their shot at being bold and brief and pass on the torch whenever possible. I’ve always remembered that and its always been some advice that I’ve tried to heed.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Yeah, I would say that one of the biggest problems threatening today’s digital society is the dangerous tradeoff being made between individual accountability and privacy. Discreet Labs has developed Findora, a public blockchain with programmable privacy, that leverages the latest advancements in zero-knowledge proofs and multi-party computation, to help people make smarter tradeoffs with their privacy. We call this selective disclosure, and believe it has endless applications for the future of both commerce, finance, and the very essence of digital identity. You can’t protect your identity without preserving your privacy, so our goal is to build and provide the tools and the platform to support the growing digital economy on top of these basic necessities for privacy and identity.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us.
The Future Is Now: Warren Paul Anderson of Discreet Labs On How Their Technological Innovation Will was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.