ny rational assessment of the 1996 Kurt Russell thriller Escape From L.A. will conclude that the movie is truly awful. How ridiculous is a plot in which an authoritarian dubs himself President For Life and builds a giant wall to keep undesirables out of the United States, before injecting the hero with a potent strain of a ‘flu-like virus?
While the movie may not be quite as prophetic as Contagion, it’s an amusingly mindless diversion from the stultifying lockdown lives many of us are living in the age of the novel coronavirus. Especially if we’ve already binge-watched the other King with terrible hair on Netflix.
Kosala Hemachandra escaped from Los Angeles in December, albeit unwittingly.
These days the 28-year-old co-founder of MyEtherWallet climbs thirty flights of stairs each day. Or to be precise, he climbs the same flight of stairs, thirty times. It’s about the only physical exercise he can get at his mother’s house in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, which has been under a diligently-enforced 24 hour a day curfew.
“I do some push-ups and sit ups and then I go up and down the stairs as a workout,” he says, explaining he does three sets of ten ascents and descents each. “It’s really hard. The first time I did it I almost fainted,” he laughs. “My plan is, hopefully, I’m going up thirty floors.”
Hemachandra has resigned himself to being confined to the house’s four rooms for the foreseeable future. The postage stamp-sized yard is the only place it’s likely he’ll see the sun for months.
“I don’t think humans are made to be self-isolating for this long,” he says. “I didn’t meet a new person face-to face for over a month. The only human being I’m interacting with is my mom.”
Fortunately he’s been able to distract himself overseeing MEW’s operations — which amount to millions of dollars in transactions every day — from a laptop tethered to his phone’s intermittent internet connection. Our video call is so bad that we’re forced to abandon it after twenty minutes, reduced to voice-only calling. Like animals.
The “three-week” trip home
This was not, of course, the plan when he flew to Sri Lanka for a three-week visit in late December. But when news of the deaths and lockdowns the novel coronavirus was causing in Wuhuan began to emerge in January, he decided to delay his trip home. It didn’t seem like a good time to travel. When the situation didn’t improve he pushed it back even further.
“The more and more I waited the worse and worse it got, until eventually now I’m in a situation where it’s like … I don’t know when I can go back.”
The curfew was imposed in mid-March, and the sudden suspension of international flights stranded 17,000 tourists. If you thought lockdown in the U.S., Australia or the UK was bad, it’s a literal walk in the park compared with Sri Lanka’s “complete shutdown”.
“No one can leave the house,” he says. “You get arrested if you leave. The airports are closed. There’s no postal service. I have some hardware wallets (to test) but I cannot get them here because there’s no postal service.”
Sri Lanka’s measures are strict for good reason: there are only 500 intensive care beds in the country of 22 million people. Italy, with a death toll of over 25,000 people, has six times more ICU beds per capita. The Sri Lankan hospital system would be overwhelmed with just 3,000 patients in a month.
So far it seems to be working: there have only been around 600 confirmed cases and seven deaths. As an island they have a real shot at eliminating the virus completely.
“I think they’re handling it pretty well,” says Hemachandra. “Based on all the information I’m getting I would say Sri Lanka so far seems to be safer than the U.S.”
Bad medicine, hard to get
But the imposition of a curfew with just a few days’ notice was stressful: “Nobody knew how long this was going to be, and after the whole country was in lockdown we didn’t know how to get anything — not even groceries or medicine for my mom.”
Kalyani, 60, is a diabetic and he says “there was no way to get her prescription”.
Fortunately, the government relented early on for one very brief six hour window, and Hemachandra was able to stock up on food and medicine. Now there are delivery services for essentials.
Because he’s been so busy with MEW, Hemachandra says he’s been less affected by life in lockdown than his mother, who he describes as an extroverted school principal. “It was extremely difficult for her. I’m working at nighttime, I talk to people, it’s busy for me. I can code. I can do everything in front of a computer.” But, he adds, at least she can take comfort in knowing he’s safe with her at home.
“Multiple times she kept saying she’s super glad that I’m here because if I was in the U.S. she would probably have a heart attack because of everything happening,” he says.
Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles …
On the other side of the world, Los Angeles was also moving towards social distancing. MEW is headquartered in downtown L.A., one of the relatively few projects in crypto to have a physical office where the 14 member team members work each day. Hemachandra explains that with so much money at stake, he wants to know and trust his staff in the real world.
“Sometimes people do actually send their private keys because they don’t know what it is,” he says. “If you just hire a random person from a random country you’d never met (online) and they work freelance, it’s going to be tough. What happens if that person just runs away with someone’s funds?”
One benefit of working side-by-side is they’ve built up a real sense of camaraderie. Stuck in his bedroom a world away, he realizes how much he misses them. “I want to go to the office. I want to see my team, I want to see my friends. That’s my second family,” he says.
Hemachandra said he was “worried” about shifting the entire operation online. But everyone was already set up for remote work via Telegram and the transition went fairly smoothly.
“I was already doing these weekly calls, so we already kind of had a structure in place,” he says. “My fear that I cannot manage this remotely went away, and right now I’m fully confident.”
Due to the time zone difference, Hemanchandra now works through until around 4 a.m local time and gets up around noon.
“It’s my duty to keep the morale going and make sure they’re ready to get their task,” he says. “We try to get on the phone and it doesn’t have to do with work at all. We just talk about everything that’s happening and then joke around … just to get some social interaction happening. “
His mom pops her head in sometimes just to be funny. “Whenever I have a call I’ll tell her ‘Hey Mom I have a call at this time’,” he explains. “When I’m working on stuff she’ll come into my room and just talk to me just to annoy me, but she’s totally doing it as a joke.”
Ether wallet generator (for now)
Until his unplanned pseudo-residency in Sri Lanka, Hemachandra had been living in Los Angeles for more than a decade, moving over to the U.S. to study computer engineering at California State University Northridge as a 17-year old. It was the first time he’d ever flown.
While studying, he became interested in the plans for Ethereum. When the testnet and then mainnet launched in 2015, Ethereum was a rather user-unfriendly beast, requiring users to create transactions via a command line.
“On Reddit I saw so many people having issues with basic things, like sending a transaction, or creating a wallet, or accessing their presale wallet. That’s pretty much when I decided okay, so there’s a problem and I am capable of creating a solution.”
He built the first open source version of MEW and published a link to it under his ‘kvhnuke’ handle on Reddit. Titled “Ether wallet generator (for now)” Hemachandra wrote on August 11, 2015: “Here is a tool to generate Ether wallets online … hopefully it’ll help most of us to accomplish day to day tasks without having a fully running client.”
The post got 17 upvotes.
“At the time it was just a hobby project. I did not expect it to, you know, become this, back then,” he says. Hemachandra, who didn’t even graduate until the following year, happily agrees he’s an ‘accidental CEO’: “Oh yeah, for sure,” he says.
kvhnuke and tayvano
He brought in his best friend, web developer Taylor Monahan (‘tayvano’) as co-founder to help grow the user base, and she became the public face of the project on social media. But the pair only worked occasionally on the project through 2015 and 2016, focusing instead on their day jobs. But then crypto exploded in 2017, and MEW’s user numbers went ballistic.
“I still didn’t realize how big it could be until 2017, the ICO boom,” he says. “And when I saw an exponential growth in the user base that’s when I realized ‘Okay, this is way bigger than I initially expected and this can get even bigger and I have to put my complete focus on it and make it an actual company’.”
Much has been written on Reddit (and possibly even more censored) about the reasons for the split between Hemachandra and Monahan. In early 2018 she left to form a similar business, MyCryptoWallet, and by Hemachandra’s account, took the entire staff, the MEW Twitter account with its 78,000 followers, and all of the company’s documents and financial records with her.
“I was left by myself at the end of the split,” he says.
Monahan’s blog post announcing MyCryptoWallet suggests she had been deeply stressed about the demands of scaling MEW in 2017 and felt Hemachandra wasn’t pulling his weight. The post includes a number of screenshots purporting to demonstrate that she’d made a substantially greater number of contributions to the code over the years (although in coding, as in life quantity does not necessarily equal quality.) The move seemed to have been months in the making, with ‘MyCrypto LLC’ incorporated in August 2017. The dispute ended up in court.
Hemachandra is not overly forthcoming with the reasons for the split, saying they just had two different visions for the company. But he admits it was an emotionally difficult period.
“It was more than the company side of things,” he says. “It was difficult because she was my best friend for seven years. I felt like I had lost a good friend of mine. The emotional side of it was worse than everything else.”
Just like starting over
Hemachandra explains that he basically had to rebuild the project from scratch, with an entirely new team.
“But I was like ‘Hey, I did it once, I can create a team again’, so I took it as a challenge,” he says. “And after that whole thing I had a new group of people. We had training sessions with developers, I had like one on ones for six or seven months almost every day.”
It took around eight months for Hemachandra to be confident enough in his team to trust them with high stakes decisions. “My team is handling super sensitive code because millions of dollars are transacting and even one single line of code can do huge damage. Even today I audit the code before every single release.”
“No matter how confident they are, how confident you are with your team, there should always be someone to go and give a final word to the code before it goes live.”
MEW today has shaken off its rough and ready roots and now attracts a million users a month, from newbies opening their first wallet to old hands managing the ERC-20 tokens on their Ledgers.
The usability has increased dramatically and they’ve even scaled back those ten pages of shrill warnings that used to terrify users in the vain hope they’d start guarding their private keys properly. In 2018 MEW introduced a 2FA authentication mobile phone app called MEW Connect that’s since been downloaded 300,000 times, and from his bedroom at his mom’s house in Colombo, Hemachandra oversaw the launch last month of its successor, MEW Wallet, which has been downloaded 100,000 times.
“The new wallet is like the supersize (version), like, I would say: Mew Connect on drugs,” he says. It includes all of Connect’s features but also allows users to buy Ether in about 15 seconds via Apple Pay. A planned update will incorporate a Decentralized Exchange (DEX) to allow users to swap tokens.
Hemachandra is pretty pleased with the way things have turned out following the split.
“I can’t speak on behalf of her, but now you can see what was my vision back then, because it’s been implemented,” he says. “This is what I envisioned and this is what I am able to execute.”
Crypto can rise to this challenge
It seems unlikely Hemachandra will return to L.A. anytime soon. Sri Lanka’s attempt to ease the lockdown last week ended abruptly after a surge in cases. The government has now proposed a roster system to allow different people out on different days, based on the last digit of their IDs. “I can go on Wednesdays and my mom can go on Fridays,” he says.
But even after they reopen the airports, Hemachandra isn’t sure that taking a flight home is a good idea. “If I have to put my life at risk in order to get to the U.S., that’s not something I’m planning to do anytime soon.”
He’s also keenly aware that he’d still need to self isolate back in L.A. too. “So in a way I’m glad I’m in Sri Lanka, I’m with my Mom and I ask myself: isn’t that better than just being by myself at home in L.A.?”
It’s just one example of how Hemachandra tries to reframe difficult situations in a positive light, a strategy he says “helps emotionally to overcome these hurdles”.
He thinks about the pandemic’s impact on the crypto industry in a similar vein. While it may well have been responsible for Black Thursday and caused some private equity investors to pull funds from crypto startups, it’s also brought the decentralized future one step closer, by giving everyone able to work remotely the chance to do so.
When you think about it, crypto and blockchain are uniquely suited to survive and thrive in the face of the pandemic, Hemachandra says.
“Crypto is distributed by default and most of the companies are distributed, and their people are already used to working remotely — and the customer base is digital. Everyone who deals with crypto is dealing with it in some sort of digital medium,” he points out.
“It is made for these kinds of situations. Like, it’s supposed to survive if governments just disappear and I feel like that’s what’s happening — governments are totally focused on solving this other problem. So this is just the perfect currency, or perfect system, for this situation.”