Don’t be afraid to pivot. If you’re not seeing early success then be willing to make changes. However, make sure you have tried enough times at your current product to ensure you statistically significant data points to make the change. Example: talk to 100 customers instead of just 10.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ian Kane, Co-Founder & COO of Ternio, a global fin-tech platform built on blockchain and VISA’s only crypto-focused Enablement partner for their Fast Track Program.
Ternio’s platform connects traditional enterprise fin-tech banking systems with blockchain infrastructure giving real world utility to digital assets. Digital currency debit cards, Bitcoin friendly Bank Accounts, and other Ternio products enable instant remittance and the transfer of value on blockchain rails in a compliant and regulated environment.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I spent over a decade in digital media with a heavy focus on business development, sales, and strategy. I started my career as the first employee at an advertising startup which grew into a 50 million dollars year business. I worked in both early stage and mature organizations driving the go-to-market strategy for various data and media products. I was also on the board of advisors for other Adtech companies, as well as a few acquisitions on the buy and sell side.
During my time in adtech, Bitcoin was becoming very popular and I became interested in what drove the underlying value. It’s what led me to start researching blockchain (the underlying protocol for Bitcoin and other digital currencies). There are many types of blockchain’s with different currencies. While the price of the cryptocurrency on the blockchain can be volatile, the underlying value of blockchain tech is very apparent. The more I learned about this technology, the more I believed it was going to fundamentally change the world — similar to the internet in the early 90s.
We started Ternio in December 2017 and focused on how Blockchain could be applied to streamline a number of inefficiencies in the Enterprise market such as supply chain transparency and payment remittance. We focused on what we thought were two things holding blockchain and cryptocurrency back from massadoption — scalability and usability.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
In Ternio’s early days we focused on two things — scalability of blockchain as a protocol and payment utility of digital currency in everyday life. Both are important for mass adoption, but we faced a lot of selling challenges on the scalability side. I liken it to selling Ferrari’s in a town where all they had were dirt roads… No one needed to go fast. As the saying goes — What’s the difference between being early and being wrong? Nothing.
On the other hand, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies were mainly used for trading and price speculation. They lacked real world utility, so when someone had Bitcoin at 50 dollars and it went to 1,000 dollars — they didn’t have an easy way to spend it. We thought it would be great if they could spend it on a traditional debit card.
This is what led us to double down on BlockCard, our crypto debit card platform. It enables consumers to take digital currency and spend it anywhere VISA is accepted. Cryptocurrency holders now had an instant way to buy whatever they needed with the appreciated value of their digital currency.
We also noticed that many other companies and foundations in the space wanted to offer a similar product, but didn’t have the time, resources, or interest in navigating all of the tech and regulatory hurdles. We felt that white-labeling our BlockCard platform for other companies would be a great benefit not just to Ternio, but also the crypto ecosystem as a whole.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Building a company is tough in any industry, but it’s always harder when you’re dealing with nascent technology like blockchain and cryptocurrencies. There were many tough times that come to mind.
As I mentioned earlier, one of them was focusing on scalability of blockchain. Enterprise organizations were still figuring out their blockchain use case, so none were running into latency issues where they needed more speed. We spent a solid 9 months getting denied over and over again. Companies loved our tech and use case, but they simply weren’t ready to deploy capital and put it into motion. That’s a tough blow for a startup that needs to generate revenue.
Another scenario we found ourselves in was speaking with many Venture Capital and Private Equity firms which kept passing on investment. Most didn’t understand blockchain or crypto, so didn’t understand the value of what we created. Some gave us terms, but they were very predatory in nature.
Last, the cryptocurrency market entered a bear market from early 2018 to late 2019. For close to 2 years Bitcoin dropped from 20,000 dollars down to 3,000 dollars. Overall, confidence in the tech and the market seemed to be very low, so investor + consumer interest was tepid.
However, persistence is the one thing that determines success. While we hit setbacks, we were seeing success with our BlockCard platform in the marketplace. Success was oftentimes 2 steps forward, 1 step back, but it was always moving in the right direction. It’s what gave me the confidence that we were on the right path. We doubled down on building on and off ramps that allowed customers to get and out digital currency easily and it’s what allowed us to build Ternio during those tough times.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things at Ternio are great. Our product has continued to take off with both consumers and other companies looking to launch their own debit cards or bank accounts. We have a number of top tier partners such as the Litecoin Foundation and Paxful.
In addition, we became VISA’s only crypto-focused Enablement partner for their Fast Track program. VISA is very bullish on digital currencies (especially central bank digital currencies) and blockchain tech. It’s great to work with such a forward thinking team and having them as a partner lends a lot of credibility to the technology Ternio has built.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe we have a great product fit, in a growing industry, with an exceptional team of people. All three of those things are important, but the team of people we have at Ternio are unmatched. They are technically savvy, passionate about the space, and truly believe in our mission and the platform we’re building.
Most important, we’re executing on our vision. That is often overlooked, but many startups have ideas on a product, but fail to put it into practice. Simply put, there is no shortcut to hard work and that happens on a daily basis from the entire Ternio team.
Ternio is going to become a billion dollar company one day and it’s going to happen faster then many expect.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Our BlockCard comes in virtual, plastic, and (upcoming) metal versions. When we started Ternio we began promoting the metal version of our BlockCard from day one. However, we significantly underestimated the amount of approvals required to bring a metal debit card to market. It turns out that due to the secure nature of debit cards and EMV chips, you can’t work with just any supplier. Furthermore, it requires unique signoff from multiple partners like the bank, VISA, etc. to bring it to market. In addition, the thickness, weight, etc. of the metal has to be produced in a controlled environment so the card doesn’t break the point of sale machines or ATMs when its used.
We didn’t know this and started promoting the metal card very early on. Our combination of excitement and naivete at the time led us to marketing the card too early and our customers were disappointed when it wasn’t immediately available. Ultimately, we ended up finding the right partner to produce it in a compliant way, but going to market too early was a misstep on our part.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
We spent too much time talking to VCs. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do — pitch VCs, get them to invest, and use their network to help build the business. However, many of those VCs and advisors were telling us that our product would never work. We kept reevaluating if we were on the right path, but the one thing we couldn’t deny was our customer base kept growing.
That data point alone let us know we were on the right path. Ultimately, the “smart” money wasn’t as smart in this instance.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I think persistence is the one thing that defines a successful entrepreneur. When you’re in the earliest stages of your company, you are doing everything yourself — customer outreach, raising money, marketing, etc.. At that time, the work seems insurmountable and the odds are stacked against you.
I think of those early days like starting a fire. You have a small flame that you need to keep fanning. That flame turns into a small fire, and then a big one. As long as you see the fire growing then you know you’re on the right path. This usually comes in the form of new customers or paying partners.
In addition to persistence, I think an Entrepreneur needs to be good at raising money and hiring talented people. As long as you can raise funds (either through product sales or investors) you will have the capital required to build your team. You can then hire great people to help execute on your vision and build your product.
If you are a persistent entrepreneur who can raise money and hire talented people, then you have the 3 core traits needed for success.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I’m still guilty of burning out from time to time, especially now in a COVID era where many people are stuck at home. If you’re not going anywhere then it’s easy to spend your entire day sitting behind a computer.
I think what’s important to keep in mind is that work never ends. Whether you’re a startup founder or the CEO of Apple, there is always going to be more work to be done. So it’s best to know what is urgent and needs to be handled today, versus what can be postponed until the next day.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The biggest mistake is trying to do too much — too many product lines, tackling too many industries, etc.. Instead of focusing on doing one thing really well, founders will try to do a lot of things and end up doing all of them poorly. Focus on doing one thing really well and start generating revenue from that one thing. You can always diversify in the future.
I would also recommend focusing on getting revenue up and profitabile as soon as possible. Many founders raise a little bit of capital and then think they have X amount of runway. However, at that end of that time period the entrepreneur either needs to start generating profits to sustain their business or raise more capital. Being profitable gives the founder much more latitude to do what they need.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I think people often underestimate the amount of personal time and resources required to start a company. I personally work 7 days a week and spent the first 2 years at Ternio without any salary. It can put a tremendous amount of stress on you personally and professionally.
I strongly recommend anyone starting a company has a year’s worth of savings before going at it full time. If you can launch your company as a side hustle while still working full time, that may not be a bad way to start and see if your company has a market fit. However, keep in mind that if you decide to raise money from investors, it’s going to be difficult to get someone to invest unless you’re at it full time.
Launching a company is an emotional roller coaster and requires significant sacrifice. However, it’s also exceptionally rewarding once you get into the right rhythm and see some wins.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Starting a company can be an emotional roller coaster. The highs are really high and the lows can be very low. Success is often two steps forward, one step back. As long as you are seeing success then keep moving forward and don’t get discouraged by any minor setbacks.
- Don’t be afraid to pivot. If you’re not seeing early success then be willing to make changes. However, make sure you have tried enough times at your current product to ensure you statistically significant data points to make the change. Example: talk to 100 customers instead of just 10.
- No one will care about your company as much as you do. Hire a great team, but don’t expect to sit back and let everyone do the work for you. An entrepreneur needs to set an example and lead their team.
- Listen to customer feedback. You’re paying customers are the lifeblood of an organization. Make sure you get their feedback and improve on the product based on what they tell you.
- Investment capital is designed to shorten your time to market for new products, but it’s much easier to find capital at the right terms when you’re not in desperate need for it. Paying customers gives you options when it comes to raising funds. Focus on getting as many as possible, as soon as possible.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!