Source: Interview from London Letter.
On 23rd March 2018, we’ve interviewed Colin Cantrell (Nexus Founder) and Alex El-Nemer (Nexus Global Business Development). The interview took place in London and is divided into two parts: personal and technical. The very first part that you’re about to dive into is the personal aspect of their journey. In the second part that we’re releasing soon, you can explore the technical aspects of the Nexus Earth project. What you can find below is a more insightful look into the head of one of the smartest people in the cryptocurrency space.
LL: You come from a family with a strong engineering background, your dad co-founded SpaceX with Elon Musk and runs Vector Space Systems. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey and your tech skills that brought you here?
Colin: I guess a few points, I started at about 4 or 5 years old and I wanted to go-kart, so I ended up working all summer to get this go-kart frame and ended up pulling it apart and putting it back together, my dad was always into mechanical things, because he started as a mechanical engineer.
I started tinkering with those things. My dad worked at what was called Space Dynamics Laboratory at the time, this was mid-nineties, so I got involved. I always had an affinity for those matters. I got my first computer and started pulling it apart and learning about it.
LL: What year was that when you got your first computer?
Colin: Around 2000/2001 when I was about 9 or 10 at the time. It was a Compaq Presario 1200 and I was really interested in computers. Even in the earlier days I’d played flight simulator and similar games.
One day my father and I were at Staples and he introduced me to Visual Basic as a programming language so I can learn and build anything I wanted on a computer. I was really excited. So I got Visual Studio at the time and ended up reading the whole guide that night.
LL: In one night?
Colin: For the most part. We built this game called “Lucky 7” which was a little gambling game – granted it wasn’t incredibly complicated.
With .NET framework you have a certain module you can work with a drag-and-drop function. Then you program each button to do certain things, start learning how to interact with programming language.
In the morning, I showed the game to my friends and they really liked it. Then I started geeking further and more into programming. From there I figured out about 3D game development and wrote a war simulator program, called WW3.
I got deeper into that with college and started engineering further. I always had an affinity to mechanical engineering and electrical engineering so I like to play around with building circuits and computers.
If I hadn’t gotten started at such a young age I wouldn’t have built a proficiency to think that way, build certain level applications, solve problems in new ways, or learn from other people’s code. This experience helped me to be self-organized and learn for myself. That’s really what was required to learn cryptocurrencies in 2013, which more or less paved the way for setting ourselves apart from the rest of the crowd.
LL: Did you scratch the cryptography field before you found out about Bitcoin?
Colin: No, I got into it first in 2013 and was fascinated with it. You just know when something is the future, you just have that feeling, and I knew that immediately. I studied it and I learned from it until I figured out all about cryptography, how it all worked and the proper ways to make it more secure. That’s how I got here.
LL: Your father was an influencing figure throughout your journey, but did you have any other mentors besides your father?
Colin: I’ve always had mentors along the way. My mother did help me as well. She actually took computer science in college, so, she was a bit of a mentor too. I remember her saying “Hey you should read this tic-tac-toe game, with artificial intelligence in it”.
I also had another couple of friends that had worked on a Mars Rover built out of LEGO’s which was in 5th and 6th grade. It was a NASA competition and we actually got 3rd place at year end.
I learned a lot of programming there on the calculators. One of the mentors was Dan – brilliant programmer at the time, he really inspired me to make new things. I’ve had him and personal mentors along the way as well. Generally speaking I had an affinity to older people as I like to learn from people that know a lot more.
LL: When you started Nexus, it actually wasn’t called Nexus at first, it was called CoinShield, and you used a nickname “Videlicet” like Satoshi. Did you plan to reveal yourself at some point from the very beginning or was this necessary in order to bring the project to the next level?
Colin: I don’t think I thought that far ahead at the beginning. In CoinShield days, I made “Videlicet” because I wanted a pseudonym that had a philosophical value behind it.
Videlicet is derived from vidēre-licet which is Latin for seeing evidently clearly or that the truth it is permissible to see. And in a society where there’s obfuscation of information, it was making a statement that, “This is the truth, and this isn’t.”
I wanted to do that, it’s kind of like the dropping Easter eggs. I drop Easter eggs in different places for certain people to catch on to, because I do things in different areas for different types of value. There’s the philosophical value and then there’s the technological and societal value.
Initially I was anonymous, because I figured that was the best way especially with CoinShield being controversial. Then as we started progressing the project forward, I started to realise these pump and dump scams were just continuing more and more. There was 50 to 100 a day, and then recycling system could have brought upon regulatory problems, so we thought “Okay, we should change the direction of this”. That’s when Nexus was born.
And then I thought to myself: “Well, I should probably reveal my identity at a certain point” crypto is going more transparent and I’m about to be one of the first to do that. I decided I built up a reputation on Facebook first as Colin Cantrell. I did answer a bunch of questions and started making myself known as a crypto expert. Meanwhile I’m doing Videlicet over here with Nexus at the time. The day I announced the connection, I united the two together and it made a cool little splash you could say.
LL: How did your audience react when you revealed yourself?
Colin: They were pretty excited because they must have thought “I knew something was with this guy, he was into something!”
I showed a pretty good knowledge of things and that was also when I revealed the connection with SpaceX etc. It was really cool as a lot of people were extremely excited about it. You could call it a great “Coming-out-of-the-crypto-closet”.
It brought a lot of value to the project and it also showed that I was incredibly serious about it – “Here I am, here’s my face, now you can do whatever you want to do with it.”
LL: The idea of CoinShield was to help people protect themselves from pump-and-dump schemes, how big was this controversy that you mentioned at the time?
Colin: I won’t mention too many names, but it’s controversial in the sense that there’s a lot of money to be made from pump-and-dump scams, so what people were doing was rather against the grain.
You could say in the crypto space, people were thriving off pump-and-dumps. A lot of people saw it as a complete crisis in some respects. I saw it as really miring the end of cryptocurrency and I wanted to use CoinShield to promote a more beneficial value to it.
I wanted to help people feel safer, because I saw it as a major educational issue as a lot of people were susceptible to these manipulations. If you read the Bitcointalk.org threads, saying, “clone coins are plankton to whales” that’s what they said. You had a lot of controversial forces associated with it.
The way we were going to do it with the recycling system was, to give people an exit from those markets, and also prevent those from building up too much momentum to create the huge pump, and therefore dump, so that they would become less profitable for whales, and therefore disincentivize them.
But that took implications of money transmission and since in those days there was really no guidelines or laws on it, it was a safer route to not launch the recycling system and so then the idea of Nexus was born. People then really started thinking in a larger scale. Seeing all the applications of blockchain and what it could really do.
That was when Nexus seemed like the perfect name. Nexus is a sense of connection, bringing people together and focusing on something that can help all of us, rather than isolate and benefit just a few of us.
LL: You’ve already described some of the potential obstacles that you faced to an extent, but was there any major obstacle that if you didn’t manage to overcome would put the whole project into question?
Colin: Not necessarily technically. The decentralization part is one thing, and overcoming the obstacle of being against the grain and developing value other than things you find in the marketspace is another.
That and also continuing forward on the project as well. A lot of it was riding on my shoulders in those days because people were wondering, “Oh, well, he works hard so why are we going to do very much on it?”
Also, maintaining my core integrity to constantly ask myself, “Why am I doing this?”. To find reasons that were deep enough in your core to keep it going, you can’t do it for: “I’m going to be great, or I’m going to be famous, or I’m going to do this…”
The personal gain only takes you so far. You have to look deeper into yourself and understand deeper levels of yourself which mean more than just you in order to do something like I did.
LL: It’s not just Nexus that is decentralized but also its team. How did you manage to get people on board in the early stages? Did you know them personally prior to CoinShield or met them through the Internet? We’d also like to hear part of your story Alex, how did you reach out to Nexus?
Alex: A huge part of Nexus is the Community, there’s the team aspect which mostly does the day-to-day stuff, but im sure all would agree the Community is the biggest part of the project.
That’s why we get so many people from around the world. From Australia to the UK where we’ve got a big presence in which we’re lucky to have.
My background coming into it was in finance, but I always felt there was opportunity for a new economic model. Then I got this “aha” moment after discovering Nexus. My thoughts were “Wow, this really is going to be the future,” and I naturally got more interested reading everything I could put my hands on not only about Nexus but blockchain technology as a whole.
I was so excited about everything Nexus was capable of that I wanted to help and contribute my bit to it as well, I never expected it to turn into what it has now. And then it evolved from there and became part of my life and I thought “Wow, I can’t do anything except for Nexus now, this is crazy.”
LL: You seem really convinced of the idea and the technology, because you’re going to be the speaker of the Global Blockchain conference, and then you’re going to be talking with the Institute of Banking and Finance in London. How do you prepare for attending such events with this institute, do you somehow do some background checks on them, or how do you proceed?
Alex: The main preparation is understanding what people want from this technology, why they feel it’s necessary and really how we can help them and how we’re different, rather than going to them saying “We’re giving this… we’re offering that…”
Find out what the real need is and look to provide a solution of some sort. Also, another big thing is educating people. We’re not the kind of people that go and shove it down your face and say “Do this, do that”, we want people to get a grasp of the potential and make their own decisions on what that means for them.
We want people to understand where this can go, how it can help people, not just here but all around the world. And then from there, it just flows.
LL: If for whatever reason you were not able to work on Nexus anymore, do you believe your team would be capable to continue working on your vision and accomplish the goals on the roadmap?
Colin: I believe so, especially over the last 6-7 months, the team has incredibly expanded. We’re 30 people in the non-profit right now internally plus we have some new people coming on board that have a lot of varied expertise. Always bring people on that know more than you. Our dev team started off I think at 7, got hiring, growing like crazy from there.
LL: We read that you employed 3 new developers this month, right?
Colin: That too, and we have head hunters out there always looking for new coders, the best ones out there, finding the blockchain guys, and getting them through reference. I’ve been also documenting. That’s the biggest thing is – downloading everything from my brain into documentation so we use classing tools.
LL: In the end you are the guy with the greatest view on the project.
Correct, I’m the 50-100,000 foot guy. What I’ve even found in my value is to better not feet on the ground but going to things like the IETF and figuring out: “okay well, how do we decentralise”, because IETF was decentralized the way, they have a really unique consensus mechanism on how they approve standards in the internet or not, and it’s like, okay, how do we take some of these models and also develop social organization models, how do we help rally the community in a decentralized way, and make it as horizontal as possible, but still understand when a society functions and the needs people have, how can I find that balance, I mean I’m confident especially over the next few weeks as the team gets more and more trained, that if I died it wouldn’t die.
LL: No, no, that’s not what we were implying…
Colin: Well, I mean you got to look at the worst case, you never know. That’s part of the point of decentralization. I feel like a lot of effort has been putting forth getting the team self-sufficient.
Being in London this week has been great, because I really haven’t had to do too much with it. We just go hit some meetings, have a little bit of time off as well…
As every founder you got to watch your baby grow up. That’s what I believe it’s doing right now, it is less and less in my hands every day, which I think is a good thing.
LL: You just said: “every founder” so ages ago did you have that in mind that one day you’re going to become a founder of a big project or did it happen more organically?
Colin: It all just happens. Honestly I didn’t even really start with saying “I’m the leader of Nexus…”. It’s the people who asked: “Hey, can you lead us?”
And it evolved naturally and I think that’s where the best things come, when you don’t put so much emphasis on “I want this result”. You have a vision, an idea or what you’d like to see the future be, and then you let all the baby steps between that grand vision and where you are present themselves.
LL: Back in December 2017, Nexus has reached the market cap of around $800 million, how did you feel back then when you looked at these numbers?
Colin: When I saw those numbers, I thought to myself that we really need to represent our community and this economy with the level they’re representing us. When the value reached those points, is when we need to start acting more like a billion dollar organization, and less like a, “Hey, here’s me and my partners on Hangouts Live”.
LL: Do you suspect any reason behind that spike?
Colin: It looked like there was some large accumulation going on from some certain people. I don’t know anything about who or what it was, also was probably coinciding with the way the markets were. But generally I like to keep my distance from speculating on why things happen and just focus on doing what we do, and it’s up to the market to decide what that’s worth.
LL: We’ve seen an interview with your father where he mentioned that he started to accept payments in Nexus for the rocket launches, is that correct?
LL: He also mentioned that it was the first crypto purchase someone made back in December?
Colin: It could be, but as a representative of this too I have to remain as agnostic and neutral as possible. Especially concerning the markets and the fact that a certain level of integrity has to be maintained
I know that Vector Space Systems is focusing on accepting Nexus as a lead tender for them, which really does help to build the economy and industry. It also helps people get in on the game too, you can speculate now and possibly it’s worth a lot or possibly it’s not – who knows.
LL: We definitely know you’re passionate about technology. You’re also passionate about music. Do you think it has any impact on your work ethics, that it’s shaped you in any form or the way you work?
Colin: Yeah, of course! I’ve been playing piano since I was about four or five and a lot of other instruments. I think there are technological revolutions that have happened – just look at the renaissance.
The renaissance was fueled by the scientific method where people started removing themselves from the authority of information and think critically, along the lines of: “hey, this is valid if I can verify it. It’s valid by replicating your experiment and verifying your results and seeing if I get the same results.”
And that was accompanied by a complete explosion of art and music and the like. I think that the two go hand in hand. So, in the same sense these peer-to-peer networks validating each other, checking and balancing one another, you get a similar type of effect.
It’s a new cultural thing in that way and I think music and arts are brilliant expressions. I mean would we want to look at a plain building that’s all black and white or do we want beautiful and colorful architecture?
The same type of artistic idealism goes into the way I code. If you look at the way I code, it’s commented beautifully as I look at every spacing and I want to make it easy to understand – it’s an art form.
That’s something I share with a lot of other developers. Certain ones that are in the core, which is a beautiful thing. Fusing the art with the logic is something that I guess really came from that. With the piano or any other instrument, learning the logical scales and sequences and the mathematical patterns that form music can be applied to code and technology.
LL: It’s been said that Mozart was actually a really good mathematician, and that also goes hand in hand, maths and music, that’s one of the things. That brings us to the next question: Is there anyone in the crypto space that inspires you?
Colin: I’d say Satoshi’s the generic cliché response or Andreas Antonopoulos. I like the purists. I consider myself a blockchain purist which means the pure idealism of what blockchain means for the world, and I believe Satoshi was one of those. Creating truly decentralized network, and seeing the value that it can provide society rather than it being something that makes money. I think Andreas is aligned in that as well.
LL: Is there anyone else who’s more publicly known?
Colin: There are certain people I gather inspiration from, but for the large part there’s few and far between people that I really aspire to be like in the crypto space.
I like Jeff Garzik, definitely he’s one of the original core developers from 2010 and he’s also a guy that likes the satellite thing too. I think he’s a true believer, so I guess that’s a good answer for somebody that you guys would know, that he believes in the true principles of the blockchain and on-chain scaling.
LL: You have mentioned Satoshi. His legacy is obviously Bitcoin. Would you say that Nexus will be your legacy or do you think in the future there could be something even bigger?
Colin: Obviously I don’t know what the future will bring, but I believe Nexus is one part of a lot of the work I have done. I generally have a wide variety of interests, so do I consider it to be it my only? No, I consider it to be something that’s very necessary for the greater whole.
At least I hope there’s bigger and better things to continue to build, but to build it as a part of Nexus so it’s kind of a reciprocal answer, because Nexus is a part of it, and without Nexus there wouldn’t be all these other things that would come to fruition, and vice versa.
LL: You mentioned at the beginning of the interview that when you started CoinShield, there were loads of pump-and-dump schemes. From your perspective has the situation improved or is it still a big problem nowadays in the crypto space?
Colin: Let’s take clone coins as an example. Back in the day, you could fork the protocol, you could fork someone else’s repository and develop on it and improve upon it. I’ve seen a lot of really brilliant things. On the other hand, you could just create a pump-and-dump with it in the same sense.
Back in those days anonymous users were very easy to launch and now it’s a generally accepted principle that you have to be a reputable person and put your face on it, so yes I think it’s improved substantially. I still think that there is issues with it, whether regulations coming will help, said to be determined.
LL: Is there some sort of cancer for the crypto space that you can name that we need to get rid of in order to take it to the next level?
Colin: I wouldn’t speak specifically of any project, I’ll speak of an idea: misinformation – that’s a big cancer. People being misinformed about what’s real and what’s not, and not knowing a way to find that out.
LL: Let’s say someone wanted to start a blockchain project. As a founder and as a person who’s really experienced already, what would be the advice that you would give someone who would want to start a project in the cryptocurrency space?
Colin: Don’t ever give up, for one, and don’t ever think that you can’t. There’s a lot of things that aren’t going to be known and forging into that unknown.
It can be very difficult and when you give up, you stop progressing. When you think you can’t you stop progressing. It’s about finding your value points that you’re going to provide to people in the space and surrounding yourself with people that can be more knowledgeable in certain areas to make sure that you have a well-rounded knowledge base.