As Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse himself has put it, there is “a lot of FUD”—fear, uncertainty, and doubt—surrounding the company and the cryptocurrency XRP. Cory Johnson, Ripple’s relatively new chief market strategist, phrases things less delicately when he describes his eight months on the job: “I’ve encountered shit tons of FUD.” First off, the public tends to conflate Ripple, a payments company, and the XRP token, which was started by the same people. And then, since Ripple owns 60 percent of the supply of XRP, critics charge that the currency is not truly decentralized. It’s Johnson’s job, in part, to clear up what he says are misconceptions about the company. It’s a gig he describes as “a combination of evangelism and investor relations.”
Johnson comes from a storytelling background. He was the founding editor in chief of Slam, a basketball magazine, and was CNBC’s first Silicon Valley correspondent. And immediately prior to joining Ripple, he spent eight years at Bloomberg covering technology and business on television and radio. The San Francisco–based Johnson recently spoke to BREAKER about why he left journalism, what he wishes people understood about Ripple and XRP, and how much President Clinton knows about crypto.
You came to Ripple from Bloomberg. Why’d you leave journalism?
It’s the second time that I’ve left journalism. I left CNBC once upon a time to work as an analyst for one hedge fund, and then a portfolio manager with another. When I look at my career, it’s more about doing a lot of startups. I’ve participated in some high-growth journalism startups, whether it was [TV tech show] Bloomberg West, which I helped create, or Slam magazine or Industry Standard magazine. At Bloomberg, I launched a TV show, I launched a radio show, I helped create some new conferences. So, I’ve definitely got startup blood in me.
Ripple looked like some combination of a deep-value stock and an awesome startup, and it was commonly misunderstood. The criticisms of the company were rampant, but typically the same, and to my mind, easily disproved. The opportunity looked huge to me.
How serious are the criticisms of Ripple, and how have you been addressing them?
There’s been enormous confusion about some things that are demonstrably provable. Like, there is a difference between Ripple and XRP. We haven’t had great journalism in this sector. There have been exceptions, but there’s a lot of reliance on Twitter and individual blogs from sources with deeply conflicting agendas. It’s hard for someone to write an article that gives XRP the benefit of the doubt or says, “Hey, this could be good,” when they have personal investments in bitcoin. They don’t allow themselves the possibility of saying “XRP is better than Bitcoin” because of the financial loss they might engender. Even if they have the best of intentions. Bias is called bias for a reason.
"It’s been truly surprising to me that people out there pretending to report facts aren’t interested in correcting them. They’re not journalists, but they’re posing as journalists."
When you talk about critics on Twitter, do you mean individuals or people in the media?
I don’t want to name them. I will tell you though, I have reached out to people in a manner that’s not necessarily natural to me—calm and kind and forgiving—saying, “Hey, just wanted to let you know this number you’re using is wrong”—privately never in public—and the responses I get are like, “Well, you fucking fix it” or “So submit a GitHub [pull request] to do a correction, and then I’ll put it up for a vote.” It’s been truly surprising to me that people out there pretending to report facts aren’t interested in correcting them. They’re not journalists, but they’re posing as journalists.
You mentioned the common perception that Ripple and XRP are essentially the same. How do you counter that?
I mean, they’re not. It’s the same as oil and Chevron. Chevron has a vested interest in oil. They have a lot of oil—they have more oil than almost anyone else in the history of mankind. They are big believers in oil above all else. You can buy shares in Chevron like crazy, and it doesn’t give you any right to the world’s oil. You can buy every barrel of oil you can find, but that doesn’t give you any rights to Chevron. All that applies to Ripple and XRP: You can buy all the XRP in the world, but that doesn’t give you the right to a dime of Ripple’s profits. Ripple doesn’t control XRP. XRP is decentralized in a way that Ripple can’t control it, even if we wanted to.
How do you respond to the naysayers as far as the centralization question goes?
To be honest, that we’re trying to do is have a conversation: What do you mean by centralized? Because I don’t know. I would argue there was no common definition of the word “centralized,” but it’s pretty easy. People say Ripple’s centralized because we control XRP validators. Well, we don’t. We operate 10 validators; there are 150 known to be out there. Or they say it’s centralized because we own a lot of it. We own about 60 percent of it. Forty percent of it is out there in the world and being used by other companies to develop other technologies. We’re just further ahead than everybody else. And we’ve created a cryptographic lock so we can’t go out and sell it and dump it into the market anyway.
Every quarter, we come out and announce exactly how much we’ve sold, what it meant as a percentage of value, and to try to describe what’s going on in the market. That quarterly letter was one of the big reasons I joined the company, because it struck me as remarkably transparent. I didn’t know that once I joined, it would be a pain in the ass to have to write the thing every three months.
xRapid, which uses XRP to carry out international transactions, just launched. A number of payment companies are already on board. How long until the big banks come around?
We’ve definitely got big banks on the platform already—Standard Chartered; Santander, the largest bank in Spain; Itaú [Unibanco], the largest bank in Brazil. [Editor’s note: Those banks are on the Ripple network, but not using xRapid.] But if you travel in Asia or the Middle East, you see money-changing companies on every corner, and that’s because banks aren’t the way money moves in these places—it’s moved through companies that handle remittances. What we’re seeing is lots and lots of smaller companies—frankly ones that I never heard of before I started this job—signing up and using our software. It’s not going to be the big, incumbent players that say, “I want to fix the way my business works.” It’s going to the scrappy upstarts that say, “I want to steal market share by the truckload, not by the spoonful.”
Can xRapid function using currencies other than XRP?
Theoretically, yes, but it’s just cheaper and faster using XRP. It’s like, can you drive your Ferrari with a flat tire? Yeah, but if there’s a full tire you might prefer that.
President Clinton recently spoke at Ripple’s Swell conference, warning against overregulation lest we kill “the goose that laid the golden egg.” How did Ripple land Clinton as a speaker?
We asked Gene Sperling, who is on our board and has a relationship with him. He was the [national economic council director and national economic advisor] under President Clinton, and as you recall, the economy did pretty well then. There was a budget surplus then, and Gene Sperling was big part of that. So he’s our boy, and he’s got a special relationship with the president. So [Sperling] talked to him on stage, and he was good. I forget how good [Clinton] is on stage.
How much does President Clinton actually know about crypto?
Probably less than you and I, but he seemed to know more than I would have expected. The reason we wanted to hear from him was that when the Clinton White House looked at the internet, they set up a regulatory framework that allowed it to flourish but kept it from doing bad things—child porn, gun-running—which have also been a concern of early blockchain. And so the internet flourished in this country, not somewhere else. That could still happen for blockchain and crypto in the U.S., or it can go somewhere else. It’s too early to tell if the internet of value is going to be a U.S. phenomenon or if it’s going to be a Swiss or a Maltese or a Singaporean phenomenon.
"When I started to meet with people in government and regulators, I had very low expectations. I have been truly amazed at the open-mindedness, number one. And number two, the smart questions, sometimes even tough questions."
Do you have a sense of what the Trump administration thinks about a product like Ripple?
When I started to meet with people in government and regulators, I had very low expectations. I have been truly amazed at the open-mindedness, number one. And number two, the smart questions, sometimes even tough questions. There’s clearly a lot of homework going on. The White House in particular seems to be thinking about what it means to have 80 percent of bitcoin mining taking place in China and a majority of Ether mining taking place in China. When you look at XRP, there is no mining, so from a foreign-control aspect or from an environmental aspect, XRP is a very different beast. And in conversations we’ve had with the administration, they seem to get that and think that might matter.
How high up in the administration have you gone, as far as talks go?
I’m Episcopalian, and the joke is we don’t talk about God or money, but we have lots of both. So we haven’t said who we’ve talked to. But we’re in regular talks throughout Washington, and we meet with regulators as well as politicians. We’ve got a whole team that’s devoted to doing that, not just in the U.S., but worldwide. Our regulatory team, they jump on planes like their pants are on fire.
Last month, Ripple announced that it was putting $25 million toward the creation of a new philanthropic effort, Ripple for Good. Do you think the rest of the blockchain space needs to step up in terms of philanthropy?
No, I think the rest of the fucking world needs to do that. We’ve committed about $100 million as a company to endorse charitable causes thus far. We spend a lot of time at work, and there’s greater and greater value concentrated around companies, not individuals. So corporate philanthropy is more important in society than it used to be. Businesses need to consider responsibilities to society that go beyond paying taxes.
You’re a former journalist. Tell me, what questions should I have asked you that I did not ask?
I always asked that question when I finished doing an interview, and I never got a good answer out of it. I think the question I get all the time is “When is the SEC going to say something about XRP?” And I think it’s possible the answer is never. I don’t know that the SEC wants to be in a position to have to comment on every single cryptocurrency or digital asset created and issue a ruling about it. I don’t know if they like what they did with bitcoin and Ether. I would guess that an administrative agency doesn’t want to take on regulating an entirely new part of the world when no one’s asked them to do it, and no one’s going to raise their budget for doing it.
What’s been the biggest change in terms of the new career?
It’s interesting to work for a place that measures you solely on your work and not what you look like doing it. There are a lot of places where they want to know “What time did you come in this morning?” and people are sending emails saying, “I just want to make sure you know I did this”—you know, the cover your ass emails.
I liked working at Bloomberg a lot, but I took a week off once and tried to not check my email for a week. And Friday I got near wifi for the first time—it was about 7 o’clock East Coast time. I see that I’ve got 998 emails over the course of five days. I show it to somebody I’m sitting with, and she’s like, “No, it says 1,000.” I’m like, “What? I got two emails on a Friday night at 7?” Which two people had to cover their ass so much that they had to send out an email at 7 o’clock Friday night in the summer? Ripple is a place where everyone knows what their objectives are and however you get them done is all the matters. And that’s liberating.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy Ripple