Journeys in Blockchain: Carylyne Chan of CoinMarketCap

Despite her accelerated path to global influence in the blockchain industry, Chan appreciates "being able to stop and detect the flavors you’re experiencing".

by Darren Kleine 10 min April 9, 2020
Journeys in Blockchain with Carylyne Chan of CoinMarketCap
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“Акула, которая не плавает, тонет.”

It’s a Russian proverb. “The shark that does not swim, drowns.”

Carylyne Chan, interim CEO of CoinMarketCap following its recent acquisition by Binance, lives this adage. Refusing to languish in stagnant waters, determined to move forward. It’s as if her life depends on it.

Chan lived in Singapore during her early childhood. “Life was pretty simple and fun,” she says. She spent her time in school clubs like the Math Olympiad, enjoying robotics and web design.

“Things like that shaped my interests a lot in tech.”

But life took a dramatic turn for the worse in her early teen years when her parents went through a disastrous divorce. “That was a painful and difficult process.”

Chan explains that her father threatened the family, both physically and financially. He would frequently threaten to deprive them of financial stability if her mother did not comply with his wishes. This provoked a desperate curiosity for Chan, who sought to understand finances in order to ensure her own independence and security. “That’s how I started to understand the value of money.”

Thinking of her mother, she says “I’m sure she was suffering more than I was. She understood the impact on me more than I did. When he started to go crazy on us, I told my mom, we can’t stay here. We will die if we do that. So we moved out of the house.”

“Basically, my father was a psycho, I would say. He tried to kill us.”

Her father followed through on his financial threats, removing access to family accounts and trusts from her mother. Without financial security, Chan’s mother struggled with chaos. “I think she was just really lost at that point. She didn’t know what to do. She had been in a relationship with him for close to twenty years at that point, so that was probably super-difficult for her.”

Learning from that traumatic experience, Chan says she developed a sense of self-assurance, “that we could figure things out” and not depend on her father. “I think I still carry that these days. There are a ton of things we have no idea about in this world, but knowing we can take things step-by-step to solve them, we will be able to figure it out. That’s something I hold close to my heart.”

Learning as an indulgence

Throughout this tumultuous time Chan’s mother was very supportive of her scholarly pursuits, encouraging her to choose her own path and to achieve independence. Her father’s spiraling breakdown also had a huge impact on her forward-moving outlook, “There are people out there who will disappoint you, but you have to deal with it.”

Despite the family chaos, Chan’s school life was active and productive. She engaged in a variety of clubs and extracurricular activities, writing speeches for guests of honor at the school and acting as president of the school’s environmental club.

Chan suspects that some may think of this as a coping mechanism; an escape from life’s difficulties. But she considered it more of an indulgence, finding the activities meaningful and enjoyable. “I enjoy the process of learning a lot, having something to dig into. Right now I’m learning to play the flute. I have no idea how to play the flute, but I’m figuring it out now on the weekends.”

“Starting from scratch, that feeling of being a complete beginner at something is really fun.”

Chan feels strongly about developing mental flexibility and continuously pursuing growth. “You are usually stuck in your own ways of thinking. Your brain is wired in a certain way and you forget that there are other things out there, different perspectives.”

She has always been a voracious reader. “That has been the most helpful to me throughout my life, even when I was four or five. I preferred reading to going out to play.” Facing a difficult problem, she would first start to deal with it by reading a book about it, in order to figure things out. Learning, she says, is a very big part of how she approaches life. “What can I learn from this experience?”

So many internships

At the age of fourteen, Chan started accepting internships to broaden her experiences. “Whatever was intellectually interesting, I would pursue.” She participated in internships dealing with topics from environmental agencies to tech start-ups to internet publishers. She and her friends organized philanthropic events, as well. The group would plan and execute outreach programs to orphanages in the region and projects like “shoe-drops” to donate footwear to less-advantaged kids who walked to school. Through these activities, Chan explains she developed empathy and learned to not feel too sorry for herself.

Chan recalls one individual who questioned her charitable activities, asking dismissively, “Why would you do all this stuff? You should take care of yourself first before you try to take care of others.”

She was taken aback by the line of questioning. “I remember having a strong visceral reaction to it… It doesn’t make sense to me. I told myself, I don’t want to become a person like that.”

Chan went on to university on a scholarship, studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management with a focus in marketing. She continued to participate in a variety of internships. One was with an advertising agency, where she grew her understanding of how to spread ideas to others. She also worked with financial services, consumer electronics and tech start-ups — “anything I found interesting”.

A lot of those experiences shaped her future career, she says. Chan graduated from university achieving the highest level of honors, summa cum laude. She always found it interesting when people would say they went to school and didn’t learn anything. It’s a matter of mindset, she explains, “What do you want to take from it?” People in class would complain it was boring and that it didn’t apply to their lives. Her response was “maybe you’re just not thinking hard enough about it”.

Chan says she gained a great deal from her internship mentors, but most importantly she learned to seize the day. “Don’t take an opportunity for-granted. Always appreciate it and make the most out of it.”

A team of polar opposites

Apparently not feeling busy enough, Chan started a company with two friends during her last year of university. The start-up team examined what businesses wanted in terms of productivity tools. Once the final university year wrapped up, they went to Hawaii to join a start-up accelerator, staying there for four months. “We would work until two o’clock in the morning and then take a cab home. The driver would be like, ‘Where was the party?’ and we would say, ‘Oh no, we were in the office working.’ The driver said, ‘You must be the only people working on this island right now.’”

They moved together to San Francisco to continue working on productivity tools, helping clients to deal with repetitive tasks. Artificial intelligence could be used to automate these tasks to improve efficiency, Chan explains. The team soon bought a company that performed chat automation, called KeyReply. They ran the company for the next three years, moving between San Francisco and New York.

Chan and her friends began working with AngelPad, a top accelerator in San Francisco. “We ended up staying in a one-bedroom apartment with like, six people in it. It was the complete start-up life, but it was fun, working hard together.”

The co-founders Chan worked with, she says, were polar opposites in their approaches to problem-solving. One was passive, while the other was extremely aggressive. Chan was often caught in the middle of the tug-of-war, negotiating between the conflicting forces. In 2018, the group decided to sell KeyReply and move on.

Chan realized she had to find something else to do.

The crypto boom

She began investigating cryptocurrencies toward the end of her time with KeyReply. Intrigued by the crypto explosion of 2017, her friends encouraged her to examine the technology, saying “If you can understand AI papers, you can completely understand blockchain papers.” Chan was always interested in learning about emerging technologies, so she dove in.

Chan got married during this early phase of exploration. As a wedding gift, the new couple received some Ethereum, along with a good sum of money. “In Chinese weddings, people give you money in red packets, so we just took the money and invested it. That’s how we started investing in crypto projects. I think it turned out reasonably well,” she laughs. The technology was already interesting to Chan and now, paired with the investment angle, she was hooked.

“That was how we started.”

Soon after selling KeyReply, Chan met Brandon Chez, the founder and CEO of CoinMarketCap (CMC), who shared his plans to expand internationally. Initially Chan helped the company with consulting work aimed at global expansion of the brand. Shortly after that, she joined the company full-time as Head of Marketing.

In late 2018, Chan turned to addressing issues with inflated volumes on exchanges. Her task was to tackle the problem and find people to solve it in order to ensure accurate reporting.

Chan worked on developing the CMC brand in a process that she describes as “professionalizing the company.” She attracted more people to the team, having joined a ten person staff, which now consists of about thirty employees.

More recently she took on the role of Chief Strategy Officer at CoinMarketCap, and since founder Brandon Chez stepped away from the company when it was bought she is now interim CEO.

“He’s really a great person. Extremely understanding, extremely generous. I’ve learned a lot from him. He set an example for how to not take everything on yourself. You need to learn how to delegate and work with the people around you to amplify their strengths.”

The tea master

One of Chan’s strengths, she explains, is her ability to break down big jobs into smaller tasks. Meditation, she says, is a key tool in helping her to maintain this personal quality. Every morning, Chan starts the day with meditation for twenty minutes. This helps her to “slow down and acknowledge things as they come.” When things get really stressful, her meditation practices help her to take things one small task at a time, she explains.

Her expertise in tea also centers her, she says. Chan is a “tea master”, meaning she has pursued certified training and practices the preparation, handling, and enjoyment of tea. Holding up her teapot and smiling, she says, “I always have a pot of tea with me at any point in the day.” It’s about mindfulness, she says, “being able to stop and detect the flavors you’re experiencing.”

The shark swims

Chan is optimistic about her future. “There’s a ton of potential for CMC,” she declares. The company aims to enable choice, giving people the opportunity to make informed decisions. She explains that CMC serves as an intermediary, providing meaning and education in the industry. She wants to amplify these features, creating more breadth in data and making crypto more accessible for anyone who wants to be involved.

After the recent acquisition by Binance, she says, “People ask us, how can you be independent?” Chan explains that the company is working out a governance structure to enable it to be as independent as possible. She envisions CMC continuing to act as an independent entity, retaining the values of neutrality and transparency.

“You don’t have to take our word for it. Watch us and decide for yourself if we’re doing the right thing. Always feel free to call us out if you feel we’re being manipulated in any way or if we’re being directed in any way that you feel is not good for the future of the company or for the user.”

Personally, Chan says her future goals are very simple: to keep moving forward.

“Акула, которая не плавает, тонет.”

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Darren Kleine at Cointelegraph Magazine

Darren Kleine

Based in Canada, Darren Kleine is fascinated with distributed ledger technology and its implications for societal change. He had written the Cointelegraph Journeys in Blockchain feature since day one.