Anthony Di Iorio is one of the eight cofounders of Ethereum—and arguably one of the most integral members of that much-lauded group. In 2012, he founded the Toronto Bitcoin Meetup, where he met a young man named Vitalik Buterin. Di Iorio’s crypto hub, Decentral, gave birth to one of the earliest user-friendly bitcoin wallets, and is also where he eventually teamed up with fellow Ethereum cofounder Joe Lubin.
I first met Di Iorio in early 2014, just after the highly-anticipated initial announcement of Ethereum. Buterin, realizing the limitations of bitcoin’s digital cash system, conceived Ethereum as a kind of world-spanning, secure, “Turing-complete” megacomputer. In contrast to bitcoin, it allows more complicated automated transactions known as “smart contracts,” which could someday streamline a huge number of administrative, legal, and financial activities. The concept caught the cryptocurrency community, then still quite small, by storm. By 2017, Ethereum had become the backbone of the boom in initial coin offerings, allowing blockchain projects to seamlessly raise money from around the world—sometimes to the ire of regulators.
Di Iorio’s big bet has made him one of the 20 wealthiest people in crypto, according to Forbes. But in the months after Ethereum’s initial announcement, even as it generated more and more excitement, the founding team that Di Iorio helped bring together was fragmenting from within. Just before the 10th anniversary of the bitcoin white paper, Di Iorio took BREAKER on a trip down memory lane, assessing Ethereum’s winding path, where he thinks it might have gotten off track, and what the future holds.
I was stalking you on Twitter a bit and noticed that you grew up reading a lot of fantasy and sci-fi. Did that impact the way you thought about bitcoin?
I say that reading was my first love. But then when I got my first computer, at eight years old, the computer was my joy, my second love. I went to computer camp, robotics camp. I was building computers at the dawn of the personal computing age.
I loved being at home on my computer, with games, with word processing, programming with Basic before Windows came out, and I was always the guy fixing computers in the family. And if the first decade of my life was my computer, the second decade was connecting with people, to other computers on BBS boards and modems, before the internet.
When did business come into the mix?
My first actual company was building websites in the early ‘90s. I never wanted to be a hardcore programmer, though. My dad was an entrepreneur, and I went to school for business, at Ryerson University here in Toronto. My major was marketing and my minor was international business.
I never really liked school, though. I hated being told what to do. And that’s very important to me, even to this day.
What would you have preferred to be doing?
I prefer to be on my computer, I prefer to be learning. There’s so much more on computers and online than in schools. If you’re being forced to do something, and you’re clumped in a group where everybody’s at different levels, and you feel you’re not being challenged, it just isn’t conducive.
When I went to university I really coasted through. When I graduated I went into marketing, and did it for a couple years, but I didn’t like it. I had my, you know, “I’m not enjoying being in the workforce” [moment]. So I quit that marketing job, and I started producing music. I didn’t work for a while; I just kind of took some time off to find myself.
Wow, what kind of music?
Electronic, house, trance. I used to DJ at clubs in Toronto.
Then I ended up going to my family business, which was sliding patio-door manufacturing. I learned a lot there about the business side of things. When that business was sold in 2008, I wanted to go into something tech-focused and green, so I went into geothermal drilling. I bought this massive drill from Italy, and I started doing Ikea buildings, heating and cooling them by drilling holes into the ground and moving dirt. This was in 2010-2011.
And at the same time, I was studying economics. I really took an interest in sound money, and the Austrian school of economics. It made a lot of sense after the housing crisis and the financial crisis.
When did bitcoin come into things?
I heard about bitcoin in the summer of 2012, and I was like holy crap, this is more important than the internet. I went and bought my first bitcoin the first day I heard of it, and I didn’t look back.
I know [bitcoin advocate] Andreas Antonopoulos says everybody’s got that moment where you hear it, you dismiss it, and then you come back later on. But no—it was a perfect storm, I grasped it. [It connected] my computer background, my knowledge of decentralized systems like Bittorrent and Napster, and the economic theory that I’d been learning, and then also entrepreneurship.
And soon after that I started the Toronto Bitcoin Meetup, looking for a community. There was nothing out there, so I created it here in Toronto.
It’s interesting that you mentioned BitTorrent and Napster. The first or second bitcoin piece I ever wrote for Fortune, in 2014, was titled “Bitcoin is Napster for Finance.”
Yeah, peer to peer! Back in the day when I was on modems before the internet, it was basically peer to peer. I was connecting to other computers. The internet enabled me to do that even better.
I understood the power that would have when I used my first browser, Mosaic, at university in the early ’90s. I was like, this is going to completely change information movement. And then with bitcoin, oh my god, I can be my own bank. I can move my own stuff and I can be in control of my digital life.
What was the first big thing you decided to build after you discovered bitcoin?
I started building wallets in 2013, because I recognized that the wallet would be what the browser is for the internet. The browser allows you to view information, and the wallet is how you manage and move value.
Was that Jaxx at the time, or was it something else and became Jaxx?
No, it was called KryptoKit.
Vitalik thought that more people would be willing to participate in the project if they didn’t think there was a corporation behind it.
How did you first link up with Vitalik, and what was your impression of him?
When I started the Toronto Bitcoin Meetup group, Vitalik was at the first meetup. The meetups grew from eight people, to dozens of people, to hundreds of people.
He was the most shy, under-socialized person I probably ever met in my life. There was something very interesting about him, [though], and he really blossomed over that next year. We were both traveling and speaking at conferences, so I would connect with him. In fact, he wrote a three-part article on me for Bitcoin Magazine, on what I was doing in Toronto.
This was before Ethereum happened. So he really progressed over that year, to the point that he was doing presentations on stage.
So how did the founding team come together?
[In late 2013], Vitalik showed me the Ethereum white paper, I think at Inside Bitcoins in Las Vegas. It was early December, and that’s when Ethereum kind of started out.
I called my friend Charles Hoskinson and said, ‘hey Charles, I need some validation on this paper that Vitalik showed me.’ I showed it to Charles, and he’s like, ‘Oh my god, this is the next big thing.’ So I brought Charles into the mix, and introduced him to Vitalik.
Five of us basically founded and started the project. [It was] myself, Charles, Vitalik, Mihai [Alisie], who was working with Vitalik on Bitcoin Magazine at the time, and Amir Chetrit, who was working on colored coins, and who Vitalik got to know while traveling the world. I funded it based on a business exit I had earlier in that year, and then the five of us through December started building out that community and announced it at [the North American Bitcoin Conference] in 2014.
With fellow bitcoin pioneer Charlie Shrem
Which is where we first met.
Yeah. And, later on, Joseph Lubin was added as a founder. He was at my first event when I opened up Bitcoin Decentral on January 1, 2014. Joseph showed up because his parents were in Toronto, and he was home for the Christmas holidays. So he came to a meetup, and that’s how he got introduced into the team. We brought him in, and Jeffrey Wilcke and Gavin Wood were added afterwards. So that completed the eight founders.
I remember the discussion about colored coins, an effort to represent real-world assets on the bitcoin blockchain by ‘marking’ particular coins. My impression is that the idea was important to Ethereum, the concept of building on bitcoin.
Vitalik was traveling around the world working with projects like Mastercoin [now Omni] and colored coins, and really identified that bitcoin is not made to do the more complex things that they were trying to do. And that’s where the whole idea of a new chain, adding the smart contract layer, having things that were specific for the smart-contract platform, the virtual machine, was really made up.
At that time, bitcoin was everything. I’m not really a maximalist, there just wasn’t really anything else at the time. And Ethereum was the first that would impact not just financial sectors, but law, insurance, and so much more with smart contract platforms.
So it really opened my eyes, and I really started thinking beyond bitcoin. Soon after, I changed my company name from Bitcoin Decentral, to just Decentral, to reflect the environment. I was a fan of bitcoin still, but saying, OK, Ethereum has the potential to be to just as big.
Bitcoin was the first, and the dearest thing to our hearts at the time. And it still has a super special place, it’s the thing that people know around the world. It’s got that first-mover advantage, and it’s super solid.
It’s easy right now to forget that as recently as 2014 there wasn’t even the general concept of, ‘let’s build a business that’s blockchain based.’ That seems to be something that Ethereum really ushered into the world.
What Ethereum did was, it provided a way for people to very easily whip up a chain, whip up a token, on infrastructure that already exists. Bitcoin, you would need to take a fork of it and then get your own miners. With Ethereum, anybody who wants to create a token and start using that token, here, do these few things, and the infrastructure of Ethereum will enable you to do that. It sped things up and removed a lot of the friction involved with creating a blockchain project. It democratized the ability to raise capital.
Did you look at Ethereum differently than some of the pure technologists or developers?
Yeah. I learned a lot from from my brother; he was a politician. He had a hard stance on a lot of things. He was my big brother, and I didn’t like being told what to do; he would take more of a lecture approach with me, and I never responded well to that.
See, I’m that big brother.
I’ve learned to be very diplomatic and see both sides and be open-minded and let people make their own decisions, and not be so black and white. And it also extends back to my parents, who were always very much, “This is how you do things, there’s one way to do it.” I didn’t like that. When someone does do that, that’s even more reason for you to look for other alternatives.
So I’ve always found that my approach of being open to things, and not being so attached to one technology or one thing, has really enabled me to, first, see beyond bitcoin, and then to take a leap of faith and fund Ethereum.
I built my first bitcoin wallet in 2013, then I built the first Ethereum wallet in 2014. And then it’s like, wow, I’ve got to build the interface for all these technologies, there’s going to be thousands of these things. That’s why we started Jaxx in 2015, to be a single interface or browser, if you will, for all these things and across all platforms. I’m not going to put all my eggs in the basket of Ethereum, even. I want to support the entire ecosystem and help everybody flourish, and create wins all over the place.
The business side of things [suffered] with the removal of Charles [Hoskinson] and Amir [Chetrit].
That gets to another interesting difference between bitcoin and Ethereum, which is that you and Joe and Vitalik and pretty much everybody who was on the founding team has, unlike Satoshi, remained visible and active. Was that a decision that you thought about as a team?
Well, Amir [Chetrit] was always the one who was anonymous; he didn’t like to have his face out there. That’s why you won’t see him listed sometimes. People have different levels of how open they are with those things.
We made the decision that we have to be visible. We’re asking people to contribute to the project and it needs that visibility. Satoshi, being many, many years earlier, and also having something as groundbreaking as that, he didn’t know what to expect.
But for me it’s always about trust, and the principles of all these technologies are trust and openness and transparency. Being in the wallet space, I always found it very important that people know who they’re dealing with. It has its downsides and its positives, especially when you get more notoriety.
One aspect of the Ethereum genesis story that I’ve heard is that there was some dispute among the team about what kind of organization it would be, for-profit or nonprofit. How did that discussion play out?
We had a team of eight founders at the peak. You also had a team of dozens of others. And it was always a clash. We’re working with decentralized technology, and we had to deal with leadership roles. There were always battles with decisions that would slow down the project, but we had to make sure that what we were doing was kosher with regulations. But then you had some people who didn’t care about that.
There were kind of two camps. You had some people, like Vitalik, who wanted it to be a foundation. But myself, Charles, who was CEO, and Amir, were saying no, we don’t want to be the Mozilla of this, we want to be the Google of crypto.
So the decision was made to be a for-profit, and then we went to Switzerland to sign the documentation. But then there was a coup, and Charles and Amir were removed by the project, unfortunately. It ended up coming down to a decision by Vitalik, who decided to turn it into a foundation. Vitalik thought that more people would be willing to participate in the project if they didn’t think there was a corporation behind it. And it’s a valid point. Doing things like this is all about building community and bringing the most people in.
But on my end, being an entrepreneur and being someone who knows about efficiencies, I’ve never been a big fan of foundations. I think there’s more value to the approach of maximizing returns. That’s what I signed up for; it’s why I loaned money to the project—to be a director and a shareholder.
Do you feel like the the way Ethereum has been received since then has validated that ultimate decision by Vitalik?
Ethereum is a very developer-focused project, and I think they’ve done an amazing job of building a community. It’s been phenomenal what’s come out of it, no doubt.
I do think, though, that it doesn’t check off what I would call the perfect formula. You want to check off every single box that makes something a perfect project, and if you don’t check off certain things then other projects are going to come along and they’re going to have an opportunity to overtake you.
I do believe that the business side of things [suffered] with the removal of Charles and Amir. And then there was a mission to get rid of myself and Joseph, which eventually happened, and we went to do our own thing. Having that developer focus has led to the technologies and the massive hackathons and community, and it’s been fantastic on that front.
I do think, though, that it is maybe struggling from an overall [lack of] leadership. So, we’ll see. This is what a competition is all about.
I learned I never want to have partners again.
What have you learned from your experience with Ethereum?
I learned I never want to have partners again. I already knew that, but it was such an opportunity for me at the time I didn’t have much choice. I’m a decentralist, but I’m also very rational. The technology is not necessarily there to manage governance decisions, so a bit of a benevolent dictator is a very good way to do things.
And that’s how I run my businesses. I fund my projects, and I make decisions that I think are right. I have teams in one location, we work office hours so that we can be the most efficient in communication, and that’s the way I roll. I think it leads to a lot of efficiencies on my end. And I can do that because it’s my own money.
But with Ethereum, we were spread out in different hubs around the world, in different time zones, and there was no communication, and then you had cliques that formed. The biggest issue was communication. That’s what you get when you’re spread around the world and you work in different time zones; it’s very difficult to be efficient. For me, when I need a question answered, I know my team’s there. We can work together and we can move forward, because we’re in a race here.
I’m actually not really familiar with Ethereum governance specifically, but was making improvements to that part of the mission?
Yeah, the more people you have making decisions about things they’re maybe not as qualified to do, the harder it is. It’s my issue with with democracy. It’s the best thing that’s out there, [but] it’s the best of the worst. I think there are better options and opportunities, and I think technology is going to bring those in, and usher in new ways to improve transparency and to do things that are going to be better and provide new governance structures.
But I still think we’re a ways away from, let’s say, running a company in a democratic fashion. I just don’t see the efficiencies of that in an organizational structure at this time. I think the best thing for business is to have a vision, a person behind that vision, and to make fast decisions. That’s how I operate.
In terms of governance with Ethereum, we had eight founders, and it was very difficult to get decisions made. Because of age differences, because of maturity, because of philosophical beliefs, political beliefs, technology beliefs, all these different things combined made it super difficult for a bunch of people to get together and make decisions, and to not have issues. So there were a ton of inefficiencies due to decisions that couldn’t be made fast enough.
And that was very frustrating, and I think it’s what eventually led to the split, and the devs taking over that project, and the business people getting washed aside. It’s obviously an example of a very dev-focused community, and that’s great.
When Ethereum was announced at Bitcoin Miami in 2014, there was this sense of anticipation and excitement. What was that experience like for the team? Did you expect the kind of reception that you got?
We were just feeling a sense of, OK, this is going to be big. The community’s building up, they’re joining our Skype groups. Vitalik went up on stage and gave the presentation and got swarmed afterwards. I believed in it, and I think a lot of people did. The job we did building community around the world in such a short time was really phenomenal.
We got the sense in Miami that this could be TOO big. That’s one of the main things that I owed Amir, and we all do, is that Amir kind of told us to settle down in Miami. He’s like, guys, we better take a step back and really think about what’s going on here. Because we started to hear crazy numbers of what we could potentially raise, and we’re like, wow, we should make sure that we’ve got our ducks in a row, and we’re doing everything properly.
And that’s when jurisdiction shopping started, that’s when we spent months and months making sure that what we were doing was going to be proper.
The amount of money Ethereum raised in the pre-sale was pretty modest compared to what’s happened over the last couple of years, if I remember correctly.
Yeah, it was about $18 million. Thirty-two thousand bitcoin at the time, 9,000 participants.
Obviously there was the technical level, and you’ve mentioned community building, but was there anything else that made the Ethereum launch different from the release of other blockchain projects at the time?
I think Vitalik is an interesting guy, and there’s just something about him that people are attracted to. With the smart contract platform, people started grasping that this is like bitcoin on steroids. This could be so much more impactful. And there hadn’t been something that big since bitcoin. The timing was right. Projects like BitShares and Mastercoin really didn’t garner that much attention; this was like a whole new ballgame. We did a lot of the right things, and the rest was history.
We already kind of know that for bitcoin, the killer app is bitcoin. You send money. What do you think Ethereum’s killer app will be, or is right now?
I think the killer app is the ability to make killer apps. The ability for apps to be made rapidly and quickly on Ethereum without having to provide infrastructure yourself is a leap.
[But] I’ve always said that I don’t think the value has really come forward yet. The democratization of capital raising was big. Based on regulations, we’ll see how that changes things. But big stuff is yet to come. There’s a lot of experimentation, but things aren’t scaleable yet. The ability to create massive amounts of change in a particular sector, and make things faster, cheaper, better, is still yet to come.
Whether Ethereum is able to get to the levels of scaling that are needed, I think, is yet to be seen. [But] once the scaling problems are solved, once governance issues are solved, I think it’s going to take off and we’re going to see the next evolution of things. It’s very early days.
If you could go back six years ago and talk to yourself, is there any anything in particular that you would want to tell that person?
Probably, but everything that I’ve done has led up to this moment that I’m in right now, and to make any type of change in something like that, who knows what the results would be. And I’m pretty content right now, so I think I’m going to leave it the way that things are. I’m happy.
Yeah, I would imagine. I feel pretty good about this; anything else that you want to get in there?
Happy birthday, bitcoin!