Cryptocurrency and blockchain have been a hot topic in 2019.
Perhaps to the uninitiated, they may think that these products have no impact on their lives or that they are unnecessary.
Despite the negative press, institutions like Facebook and the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) are seeing the value in blockchain technology and cryptocurrency, with Facebook launching Libra and MAS trialling Project Ubin.
One of the people affected by the volatility of cryptocurrency is Gabriel Yang, the former COO of a now-defunct blockchain events firm, Beyond Blocks.
Yet, like MAS and Facebook, he doesn’t seem too deterred by the setback.
He shared with us his journey with Beyond Blocks and we got a glimpse into the question: Is Singapore ready for cryptocurrency?
Behind Beyond Blocks
Gabriel has at least 10 years of events management experience.
He’s held management roles at e27 and TechInAsia (TIA), and has played major roles in the execution of events like Innovfest Unbound and Echelon, among others.
For two years, between 2014 to 2016, Gabriel decided that he didn’t want to do events anymore.
“I got bored of it. [So] I started a marketing agency in Bangkok with my friends,” he told Vulcan Post.
That marketing agency then pivoted into a blockchain events company called, Beyond Blocks, where he was COO.
It kicked off its inaugural Blockchain World Conference in Bangkok in December 2017 and according to Gabriel’s LinkedIn, the event attracted 1,000 global attendees.
In 2018, Beyond Blocks held events in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Tokyo, and reportedly saw over 6,000 attendees at its conferences last year.
Beyond Blocks created what looked like a thriving hub of blockchain enthusiasts and thought leaders.
But early this year, it cancelled its Hong Kong conference that was set to happen on 15 April and “put on hold” its Seoul conference of the same series.
The company cited the “downturn in the market” as the reason for cancelling the Hong Kong event, as they realised they needed to “take stock internally on how best to move ahead, including the future of Beyond Blocks”.
The Building Blocks Of Experience
The marketing agency Gabriel started in Bangkok with his friends was the starting block for Beyond Blocks.
“Beyond Blocks was never this whole visionary [enterprise], like, ‘Oh, there’s an opportunity. Let’s go into it’,” Gabriel said.
“Everything about Beyond Blocks has always been very reactive.”
He also recounted a time when all five of the developers at his marketing agency — all of different nationalities (one was Azerbaijan, and the rest were from Ukraine and Hungary) — decided to go on a strike.
We weren’t able to pay them due to the Russia-US sanctions so we started paying them Bitcoin. At that point of time, Bitcoin was [valued at] $500 [but] by the time they quit, Bitcoin was [valued at] $5,000.
The developers, and anyone else for that matter, didn’t foresee the sudden spike in Bitcoin value and rising interest in cryptocurrency.
Gabriel and his friends were in a crypto group chat that hosted thousands of members.
Since Gabriel was well-known in the events and marketing industry, people started approaching him to help them come up with marketing campaigns to raise money for what is known today as ICO (Initial Coin Offering).
In return for his advisory, some of these people offered to pay him in tokens.
For instance, they asked Gabriel for his opinion on different global blockchain events.
Based on his observations of the Asia market then, he thought “all those events were shit” but considered Consensus, a major annual blockchain conference held in New York City, as “the only good one”.
From this little stint of dishing out expert opinions, Gabriel’s partners — who were more involved in crypto — proposed an idea to pivot the business to build Beyond Blocks.
Affiliate marketing was lucrative at that time, and Gabriel described it as an industry that was “characteristically” about fast gratification.
It was all about making money now. Not five years from now, it’s now. Now and no later than tomorrow.
And they saw that opportunity in crypto.
“So, a lot of the affiliate marketing people who were sitting [on a lot of] money all started moving into crypto as well.”
One of the largest affiliate marketing firms in the world, iStack, approached them to enter into a joint venture.
Gabriel continually declined the offer for a month, but later came around when he saw the growing opportunity to earn money.
He decided to give it a shot and incorporated Beyond Blocks in Singapore, but chose to operate in Bangkok because their marketing and management teams were already based there.
“What we did then, is that we moved our resources from the marketing agency we were running into Beyond Blocks over the space of about four months,” he explained.
“[That was] not exactly the best decision we made, to be honest.”
Regardless, the iStack partnership didn’t work out, so Gabriel and his team struck it out on their own.
They held their first conference in Bangkok successfully without any sponsorships but they made a profit.
“People were excited about the industry. There was a lot of hype going on, people loved our content because we put in a lot of effort in trying to be different,” Gabriel said.
“But I wouldn’t say we were being different for the sake of being different. We tried to always talk about things one step ahead of time.”
For example, at that time, a lot of people were interested in knowing how to raise an ICO.
But Beyond Blocks delved into topics beyond that, equipping crypto and blockchain business owners with knowledge on the next steps to take.
Decisions That Blocked Their Success
When asked about how he learnt about blockchain and crypto considering he had no prior experience or knowledge about it, he simply answered, “YouTube.”
“YouTube is an easy excuse, [but] it’s just really talking to people,” he said.
“On the education side, obviously, talking to people was how I got to know the industry.”
Putting on a conference and executing it was not the hard part, but coming up with the content and searching for qualified speakers took a lot of research and time.
The hardest thing for Beyond Blocks was validating speakers because this whole industry is made up of — I won’t call them scams — but wannabes.
They spend about 40% of the time verifying speakers who would be suitable for their events.
“We were a little bit lucky. At the peak of the market, we spent more time validating than actually hunting for speakers,” he said.
“The community is very small — still is very small. It’s not difficult to get a good introduction to somebody.”
With the reputation of the industry, it’s easy to assume that Beyond Blocks had to shut down because they either lost money to dodgy companies, or they were dodgy themselves.
However, Gabriel said the reason why the company failed was because the company didn’t monetise “properly”.
“We were a little bit ahead of the curve, from a maturity standpoint,” he explained.
“What I mean by that is that, we refused to take shady money.”
If a business or an individual seemed ‘scammy’, Beyond Blocks wouldn’t work with them.
They would only work with authentic and genuine companies or investors or brands as much as possible — though he admitted that they have made mistakes in the process.
This is because the two largest markets they worked with were Japan and Korea, and these markets are very sensitive.
If investors or companies detect just the slightest bit of illegitimacy, they would disengage quickly.
So curation was a way of protecting Beyond Blocks’ brand and business relationships.
Conferences that made a lot of money were selling everything from speakers’ slots to interviews with prominent guests, Gabriel noted.
“There were a lot of this kind of money – a good amount of money – but we pushed them away on the mentality that we want to build a legitimate platform that’s good for the industry.”
We, at one point of time, really believed that it was an industry that needed to un-scam itself.
Beyond Blocks had fans, but unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
Those who weren’t fans of Beyond Blocks were the ones who offered cash in exchange for exposure, but were rejected by them.
After their most successful conference in Seoul, they held another conference in Bangkok last year, and that was when the crypto market crashed.
Sales was affected but Beyond Blocks managed to make some profits.
When asked in a video interview, Gabriel said that vibes were good at the Bangkok conference, but later revealed to Vulcan Post that turnout was not.
“It was just a commercial thing. The audience size didn’t really hit numbers, we wanted 1,200 people, we got 900 people,” he said.
They had good support and responses, but as the crypto bubble burst, financial support to keep the conferences going were not as strong as before.
Add to that, competition became stiffer.
With more conferences springing up, Gabriel said that as a conference-goer, it became harder to discern which one was better.
People who became rich from the early days of crypto started backing new conferences, whether in tokens or fiat money, meaning they were able to sustain longer compared to Beyond Blocks.
“They could continue to put on shitty conferences, and slowly improve and just outlast us,” he said.
“It’s got nothing to do with blockchain; it’s just pure business mistakes. We reacted too slowly to raise money and put together a good sales team.
“We didn’t try hard enough to reach out to the institutions, corporates, tech communities, or ‘the Carousells’. We didn’t do it,” he added.
On top of that, the company had issues with resources.
There were also other factors that Gabriel declined to elaborate further.
Don’t Get Chained Down
When the crypto market crashed, Gabriel thought that the industry had learned from it, “for good [or] for bad”.
“The crypto people- well, some did, some didn’t, some will never learn, let’s be honest, and it’s like a bad, toxic relationship,” he said.
You just gotta know when to let go.
Despite the failed venture, Gabriel believes that Beyond Blocks had played a role in creating some of the best networking opportunities in Asia.
Beyond Blocks became the benchmark for what a good blockchain conference should be in Asia, he said, highlighting again the Seoul event that they did in collaboration with Korea Blockchain Week.
According to Gabriel, the company is, so far, the only one that has managed to invite Michael Arrington, co-founder of TechCrunch, and former-Fortress Investment Group, Mike Novogratz, as speakers.
They’ve also managed to have traditional investors like Hong Kong-based Roland Yau from CoCoon Ignite Ventures and American investor, David Lee, on their panels.
“We had that ability to attract a quality of speakers who were very different from from the rest of Asia,” Gabriel said.
In January, Beyond Blocks conducted a restructuring exercise and when Vulcan Post met him in late-May, they were already in the process of winding down.
On how they came to the decision to wind down the company, he simply replied, “No money lor.”
To be fair, and to fully answer the question: I think that even if we managed to raise the money, or sell the company and work under [a new management], I would be unsure that I would continue to run it.
The company would still operate like before – reactively, not proactively.
Beyond Blocks held conferences in Bangkok, Seoul, and Tokyo because people requested them to and promised to back them, Gabriel shared.
They went with the flow, so they were very much subjected to the mercy of the flows of the highly volatile crypto/blockchain industry.
“The (blockchain) industry also lacks a lot of maturity from a mindset, mentality perspective,” he commented.
“There are still a lot of people in this industry who are in it for the money, not for the tech.”
Blockchain For Singapore
As a technology, blockchain is affordable, however, it’s not up to the man on the street to decide if it’s going to be the “de facto operating system” we will all use, Gabriel noted.
“It’s up to people greater than us (to decide that). That is the reality of it.”
He thinks that when it comes to blockchain, Singapore isn’t considered immature but that every market is still learning and building the technology.
“If you ask me, whoever gets the most support from the encompassing fringes of the industry will be the one to mature the fastest.”
That means getting adopted by the likes of governments, institutions, and schools, and he pointed out that banks are looking at it, citing Standard Chartered as an example.
He explained that there are people who are putting together systems run on blockchain for the unbanked, because that’s one of the dreams for why cryptocurrency came about.
Using blockchain to power these systems is essentially providing people faster and secure access to money as well as transparency.
Another real-life blockchain solution includes using it to preserve the identities of displaced immigrants.
Gabriel believes that to get mass adoption for blockchain technology in Singapore, it requires buy-in from the top.
Those who do buy-in should expect resistance even though the technology or product is viable.
“So what can be done? I think there is no one solution to it,” he said.
“I think a lot of things have to fall into place, like getting started on the education so people can understand.”
Using the evolution of the home entertainment system as an analogy, the blockchain market is currently inching towards the CD stage.
The timeline begins with the TV, then VCR, then Laser Disc (LD), followed by the CD, and then the Blu-ray DVD, he explained.
He reckons the peak of the industry would be at the Netflix stage, but he doesn’t think it’s the pinnacle of evolution yet, because there will always be a new innovation.
All in all, while the possibilities are infinite for blockchain, the same can’t be said for cryptocurrency yet.
Its most straightforward application lies in the fintech space but until more people are educated on the uses of crypto and blockchain, the rates for mass adoption will continue to be low and scepticism will remain high.
Featured Image Credit: Beyond Blocks Facebook