Some call him the Bill Gates of the crypto industry, but I personally think he is not just pushing forward our industry but transforming deeply rooted economic and social culture. He fills concert halls talking about the importance of decentralization and the freedom of money. He finds time to organize dinners for journalists, introducing them to the empire he built before briskly leaving for another meeting with his team. He is idolized by his colleagues, respected by his competitors, and radiates positive energy when you meet him.
In the 2019 bear market, he managed to keep Binance’s position as one of the leading crypto exchanges by launching its first initial exchange offering in January, developing its native blockchain Binance Chain, running a decentralized trading platform, launching a United States trading desk, and keeping it competitive with Binance’s futures trading platform — to cite just a few developments.
So, when the time came to make a choice for the winner of Cointelegraph’s first-ever Top 100 list, Changpeng Zhao’s selection was a unanimous decision among our editors.
I had the wonderful opportunity to spend an hour with CZ on the eve of Valentine’s Day — a holiday he would spend with his true love: his work — to talk a bit about himself and his plans (with the next major move being the launch of Binance Cloud, exclusive details on which will be revealed very soon).
Keep everything simple and work hard
Upon learning that he was selected for the top spot on the list and being asked about his favorite accomplishments in 2019, he was characteristically humble: “Other than just putting together a really good team and then leading them forward, I personally didn’t really do that much. But the team did a lot of really hard work.”
2019 was certainly a year full of initiatives and product launches, all of which received CZ’s thorough participation. Within the next couple of years, though, he plans to build up a “more unneeded situation” for himself, so that nothing depends too much on him. After that, he shared, he can probably relax and spend more time traveling the world, breaking the limits of the mode “airport–hotel–back to airport–kind of gone.”
It is hard to believe he will one day do less than he does now, as he is such a maximalist when it comes to work. He is known, however, as being rather minimalistic in his personal life. No big houses, no yachts, not even a business suit. Neither did he celebrate the last new year, explaining that he stayed home because “it is just another day.”
“I’m not materialistic because it’s kind of hard to carry anything that’s physical. I like to keep mobile. I like to be able to live in a different city every month if I want to. And with a shared economy, it’s so much easier now. So we don’t need a car — you have Uber everywhere. You have Airbnb, so I don’t need to buy a house. I don’t feel the need to own a lot of stuff, to have a really complicated life. Just keep everything simple.”
When was the last time you did something for the first time?
“There’s got to be a few recently, actually [with enthusiasm] I can’t remember what they are, but there’s got to be a couple of first times [starts thinking deeply] recently. [long pause] I actually can’t remember that much, to be honest.”
I asked CZ whether he likes being famous and what the biggest challenge to being a person in the public eye is. If he had a choice, he promptly responded, he would prefer not to be famous. But Binance had to have a public face in order to raise money and continue to grow. It is also very important, according to CZ, to have a public face to establish trust with customers who entrust their funds to Binance’s custody. “I know we’re in an industry that technically we don’t need trust, but there’s still a lot of trust that’s needed in a lot of different places.”
CZ also revealed with a smile that he was forced to be a public face, as other members of the team did not want to go public.
“I was actually hoping there would be a better face, to be honest. I don’t think I'm a very good public speaker. There are also much better-looking people. But unfortunately, for Binance, it’s me. So Binance is kind of stuck with me for now.”
Keep calm and go all-in on Bitcoin
It was in 2013 that CZ began to learn about Bitcoin. He read the white paper and started going to thematic events. Later, at a small conference in Las Vegas, he met some of today’s giants of the industry: Charlie Lee, Matthew Roszak, Vitalik Buterin. There was also a representative of Ripple who taught CZ how to use it. In the process, he transferred some XRP to CZ. When they were done, CZ wanted to transfer the coins back, but heard in response, “You can keep it and you can use it to teach the next guy.” This sparked a wild crypto adventure.
CZ quickly became enthusiastic about the technology: “I thought that community was really nice. I had a really high confidence in Bitcoin succeeding, in cryptocurrency succeeding.”
In 2014, CZ sold his house to go all-in on Bitcoin. Within three months, BTC dropped from $600 to $200, losing him two-thirds of the value of his house for roughly two years before the price went up again. When asked whether he would advise someone to take such a risk, CZ responded more as a wiseman than a poker player: “For different people, that risk appetite and risk situation is different. I would not recommend people who are struggling to pay off mortgages on their house and who need a guaranteed income from their investments to pay off some loan, to sell their house and go all-in on crypto, because crypto is highly volatile.”
You seem such a calm person. Do you meditate, or were you born like this?
“I don’t meditate that much. I tried it. I find it a little bit boring, to be honest. I don’t need it. I’m already very calm. I have a low heart rate. My resting heart rate is like 50-something. In Binance, I’ve never shouted. I’ve never yelled at anybody. I’ve never sort of become really sort of agitated. I’m always a very calm person.”
Not only did he sell the house, he also quit his job. Within two weeks, he managed to find a new one at blockchain.info, where he stayed for five months before joining OKCoin as chief technical officer. There, he spent no more than a year. It was 2017, the year of Binance’s foundation.
Along the way, CZ contributed to a considerable number of startups, many of which failed. He has a tip that helps him stay optimistic, a parable he once heard from someone: “If you walk to the bottom of a valley, what do you do? And the answer is pretty simple: You just keep walking as long as you keep walking. Then you eventually get out of the valley.”
Keep coding and get an MBA
CZ majored in computer science at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. But the last time he was coding something, he said, was a couple of years ago. He has never coded for Binance — all its code is written by others — but he was writing scripts for himself. Now, he admits to not having any time to sit down and stare at a computer screen uninterrupted. It is simply not his current life situation. He called his time very segmented, as he gets interrupted very often.
“I tell other people that now I have a memory of a goldfish, like I can’t remember anything longer than seven seconds.”
When asked for advice to the next generation of founders on whether it is better to get a degree in computer science or a master’s degree in business administration, CZ rejects the premise of the question and says to go for both. His view is that, in this sector and at this capacity, you are forced to deal with everything: technology, business models, business development, deal negotiations, marketing, customer service, compliance, legal, accounting, finance, HR. And guess what? CZ doesn’t consider himself an expert in any of these areas. With my objection to CZ’s claims of being a poor public speaker quickly dismissed earlier, I decided that contesting him at this point would be futile.
Keep being number one and go forward
The first interview with CZ I took part in dates back to 2018. Back then, he told us that Binance tries very hard not to be number one, “because being number one creates other problems sometimes, especially with regulators.” In 2020, I asked whether CZ still agrees with that, or if he’d finally given up on trying not to stand out too much.
CZ admitted that two years ago, the market was riddled with regulatory uncertainty, while today’s situation is much better. “I think today it’s OK to push forward, get the market share, and you will not be the lonely one at the top who all the regulators come for.” He also added that there is more fierce competition on the market today, so it’s become harder for small players to build themselves up.
“But we are still at the early stages. We want to see more exchanges, because right now, all over the world, if you can see more exchanges, we can see more people coming into crypto.”
CZ seems very satisfied with his professional career: “I feel I’m really lucky to have the chance to be doing what we’re doing, which is to increase access to crypto, increase the freedom of money for people around the world. That is something I’m really energetic about doing. And I just feel lucky to be in a position to be able to do that.”
If you could clone yourself, what would you like that clone to do?
“I would love the clone to do other work [laughing]. I’d make a lot of clones to do a lot of work. We can do like ten different interviews at the same time.”
Keep cool, we are living in a simulation
Binance’s current focus on developing the freedom of money is intended to give people funding power to do more research on biotech, space exploration (this field, CZ leaves to Elon Musk) and AI — all of which, according to CZ, will help our species advance significantly. For example, CZ thinks, the Coronavirus issue could be solved once funding on research is sped up.
CZ definitely wants the existing world to get better, but at the same time, he is a big believer of simulation theory. It means that we are living in an artificial, digital simulation that is conceived or orchestrated by a more sophisticated intelligence. It also means, according to CZ, that in 100 or 500 years, the advancement of technology will make the simulation we are living in controllable.
“I believe it’s 99,99999 % we’re living in a simulation. So mathematically it is basically 100 percent.”
“If you look at that Nintendo Super Mario, we can simulate the guy moving forward, moving backwards. The tricky part is I don’t know what kind of simulation we are yet. We see it being simulated by a higher being, a different dimension — or are we just sitting, sleeping there, dreaming similarly about ourselves or our own kind.”
Even though we do not know in which simulation we are living, CZ explained, it does not mean we do not have to take it seriously. On the contrary, even if it’s a full simulation, everything in the simulation still matters. “There’s a Coronavirus that matters, there’s a flooding in places, climate change, all of those things are challenges that are thrown on our way. And we should try our best to help where we can.”
Another positive aspect of believing in simulation is that it helps dealing with difficult situations and stress, it kind of gives you a lighter view on things. “Sometimes you say, ‘Well, you know, it’s just a simulation, it’s just a game.’ My role here is just to do the best I can. So I just keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep marching forward. So it makes life a lot easier, actually.”
Rapid fire questions for CZ
Sea or mountains?
I’d probably choose mountains, but I do like ocean sports as well.
Beer or wine?
McDonald’s or Burger King?
Burger King, because at least some of them accept Bitcoin and Binance coin.
Black or yellow?
Snowboarding or work?
I really enjoy snowboarding, but you can’t snowboard all the time. You can do a couple of days a year, it’s good enough.
Simulation or reality?
Definitely, simulation. There is no reality.
Changpeng Zhao is ranked #1 in the first-ever Cointelegraph Top 100 in crypto and blockchain.