This Barclays exec disliked the way banks treat the poor so he quit to join a startup that ‘champions the underdog’
Anthony Watson has held board level positions at Barclays, Citi, and Wells Fargo, and served as chief information officer for Nike.
Anthony Watson, Bitreserve/Uphold CEO
In short, he is used to dealing with multi-billion dollar balance sheets and huge technology budgets.
But the 39-year-old’s latest position is on a very different scale — Watson is CEO and President of 10-month-old Bitreserve, a startup aiming to harness the technology behind bitcoin to create the “internet of money.”
Bitreserve is on Wednesday re-branding as Uphold and opening up its platform to the mainstream.
Until today its digital wallets could only be stocked with bitcoin (although this could be converted to 24 currencies). But now Uphold lets you upload cash from traditional bank accounts and credit cards across 33 European countries, including the UK. US and Chinese accounts will be available in November.
Aside from storing money online, Uphold’s big selling point is it lets you transfer internationally and switch between currencies for free.
Business Insider sat down with Watson earlier this month to hear about the new service, why Watson decided to join the company, how his homosexuality has shaped his approach to the world, and how he hopes Uphold can tackle the “injustices in the financial system.”
“Those who can least afford it always pay the most”
Watson, a gregarious and confident British-American, credits the 2008 crash with helping inspire his decision to join Uphold by highlighting the flaws within the world of banking.
“When the financial crash happened, I was on the board of [US bank] Wachovia in Hong Kong,” said Watson, who speaks with a quasi-Irish accent after studying there. “I was summoned to a meeting with the Hong Kong regulatory authority and basically governments were calling in their loans.
“It’s one thing when a business wants to call in their loan. When a government calls in their loans we’re talking multiple billions of dollars. And when multiple governments call in their loans it’s a very different conversation. I got on a plane on Hong Kong not knowing if I’d have a job when I landed in Charlotte, North Carolina.”
Wells Fargo ended up buying Wachovia. Watson stayed for a bit, then did a five-year stint at Barclays running their technology across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. But he decided he’d had enough of banking. He was disillusioned with the fact that the world of finance hadn’t changed since the crash and was still carrying the same risks as before.
“At that point I said, you know what? I’m done with financial services,” Watson explains. “I don’t like the business model, I don’t like how they operate, I don’t like the fact that those who can least afford it always pay the most, I don’t like the risks that banks pose to global economies. Nothing has fundamentally changed [since the financial crisis].”
‘A bitcoin company? No thanks’
After Barclays, Watson went to Nike as chief information officer for just under a year, before leaving for personal reasons. It was then that Halsey Minor, the founder of Bitreserve, approached him.
Minor is a well-known US entrepreneur who founded consumer electronic website CNET in the 1990s (sold to CBS for $1.8 billion in 2008). He was an early investor in Salesforce.com, and founded Grand Central Communications, which became Google Voice when it was acquired by the search giant.
“He’s a Steve Jobs type character,” Watson enthuses. “The guy is brilliant, he’s a future technologist.”
But he was skeptical at first. Watson says: “When Halsey reached out to me, I was thinking, ‘A bitcoin company? No thanks, I’ve no interest in bitcoin.’ But he said no wait let me explain.”
Halsey launched Bitreserve in 2014 as a way to harness the blockchain technology that underpins bitcoin to makes money transfers cheap and simple. In fact, Bitreserve’s technology that works with the blockchain means transfers are completely free.
To Minor, this is also about making financial services fairer for everybody, something that chimed with Watson.
Watson says: “We met at the Ivy Club [a restaurant in London’s Covent Garden] and after 10 minutes I knew immediately it was what I wanted to do. His vision to transform the broken financial system and integrate legacy fractured systems of today with the future of money, and how that benefits everybody in society, just spoke to me.”
“I wanted to get involved with something that made a demonstrable difference. I’m at that age now, I’m 39. I wanted to give back.”
“Let me be clear, we’re not just doing this to make money”
Uphold, as it’s now known, is trying to rethink the way a bank should operate, with the everyday customer in mind rather than investors or wealthy individuals.
Once customers put money into their accounts, they’re free to send it to any other member on the platform, and free to convert it into 21 other currencies and 4 commodities. Transfers are at the best market rate and Uphold charges no commission or fees.
The only charges people incur are when money is taken off the platform, but even then people can withdraw up to £8,000 ($12,278) a year for free and above that only a 0.5% fee is charged.