When I meet Tammy Camp at World Crypto Con in Vegas the day after the 10th anniversary of the bitcoin white paper, I ask her how she celebrated the milestone. Surprisingly, she is only vaguely aware of the anniversary. “I think I read about it, but I’m not really paying attention to that kind of news,” says Camp, the CEO and cofounder of the blockchain-powered financial platform Stronghold. “I’m more a looking-at-fintech-news-on-a-macro-level type person.” As Camp will later explain, she considers bitcoin the Friendster of crypto—notable for being the first of its kind, but basically a relic. She’s focused, instead, on what she thinks of as crypto’s Facebook: the Stellar platform. (In case you were wondering, Ethereum is the Myspace in this analogy.)
A former competitive kiteboarder, Camp was the first head of growth at Stellar. In 2017, after serving as a partner for the accelerator 500 Startups, she cofounded Stronghold with now CTO Sean Bennett. In July, Stronghold, which uses the Stellar platform, teamed up with IBM to launch a dollar-backed stablecoin, Stronghold USD. “The token allows folks to do payments, foreign exchange between companies in a very seamless and frictionless and more secure way,” Camp explained at the time. “It enables people to be able to trade that token with other assets and other tokens as well.”
BREAKER spoke to the San Francisco–based Camp about kiteboarding, The Matrix, and what it’s like being the Dave Grohl of crypto.
One interesting thing about you is that you hold a world record in kiteboarding.
[Whispers.] Oh yeah, that’s right.
Yeah, I keep forgetting it. That was like 10 years ago.
How do you forget that? If I had a world record in kiteboarding, I would let everybody know all the time.
I might have let everybody know about it for three years after that, but I keep forgetting now because I feel like I’ve done even greater things.
What is the record for?
It’s for most consecutive amount of back loops in one minute. I believe the record [I set] was five.
Are there any lessons that you took from kiteboarding into the tech world?
Oh, of course. With kiteboarding you’re doing three things at one time. You have to be able to ride a board, be able to stand up on a board, be able to fall down and get up, all these things. It takes about two weeks to learn those three components and put them all together. During that time, you’re really just getting beat up.
How does that translate to tech?
It’s kind of like with crypto. At first, you’re getting into it. You’re finding your way and learning how to do multiple things. It’s very interdisciplinary. With blockchain in particular, you have to understand software, you have to understand cryptography, you have to understand what can be solved for in the real world.
Which is easier, kiteboarding or cryptocurrency?
Kiteboarding. For sure. [Laughs.]
You got into crypto in 2011 while you were a graduate student at Singularity University. How exactly did that happen?
They had a gentleman named Ralph Merkle, who is a famous cryptographer, and he was our teacher. Which was pretty cool. We were trying to fork ledgers and distribute our own currency, and trying to buy it, and things like that. I really became fascinated with crypto.
I started building miners in 2013, very much as a hobbyist. I built bitcoin miners, Litecoin miners, and Dogecoin miners, and then I would program them to mining pools. So that was pretty cool. And that was about when my bitcoin days ended, because as I moved to Stellar, I realized that there was just a better way to use this type of technology.
If you think of social networking, I always look at bitcoin like Friendster. It was the first one to get everybody’s attention. At one time, it had the most users, but you couldn’t get on the site because it kept crashing. Bitcoin doesn’t crash—it is very stable—but you can only do three transactions per second and then it takes up to an hour sometimes for it to confirm. And with the energy use, it’s just not very scalable.
So in your analogy, what are the Myspace and Facebook of this world?
Ethereum is Myspace. I’ve been saying this for a few years now. Ethereum became very popular and had the most developers on it. And it was faster than bitcoin, at seven transactions per second, and you can confirm transactions every 15 minutes. It’s also like Myspace because it’s so expressive. Remember in Myspace you could have control of your CSS [cascading style sheets] and you could have music when your page loads? With Ethereum, that expression has caused it to be slow and, most importantly, not as secure as other blockchains.
I obviously think that Stellar is Facebook. It’s actually more scalable, more secure than any product. It’s best in class. You can do 3,000 transactions per second, and 300,000 transactions for less than one penny. And the confirmation times are three to five seconds, so you can actually use it at point of sale.
"Bitcoin has served its place in the market. And it’s not that it’s a bad solution; it’s just not scalable for payments."
People are very loyal to their cryptocurrencies. They probably wouldn’t appreciate bitcoin being compared to Friendster. Do you get pushback on that?
I don’t know because I stay off Twitter. The pushback would be from the bitcoin maximalists, right? I don’t really engage with them much. My engagement is more with financial institutions and people that really move money around. They’re all for it. They’re like, “Finally, there’s a solution out there.” Bitcoin has served its place in the market. And it’s not that it’s a bad solution; it’s just not scalable for payments.
What’s was the biggest challenge in starting Stronghold?
First and foremost is, from a regulatory perspective, everybody has their own opinion. It was a challenge because when you have a blank slate, you don’t know where to go. And there were a lot of bad actors in the market, which made it difficult for organizations such as mine to go out and play with traditional financial institutions and for them to be able to trust us.
Stronghold has partnered with IBM to create a new stablecoin, Stronghold USD, built on Stellar. How do you hook up with a monolithic company like IBM?
IBM had done extensive research on all the blockchains and then decided that Stellar was the one that they wanted to implement into financial institutions. It was all about timing. We are one of the premier on-ramps and off-ramps into the Stellar ecosystem. They chose us because we had the regulatory infrastructure and the knowhow to move forward with it.
What distinguishes Stronghold USD from other dollar-backed stablecoins?
Stronghold USD is faster and cheaper to move around than anything else. There are some other large players, like Gemini and Circle, who have come out with stablecoins recently, and they’re on Ethereum. In terms of scalability and interoperability, we blow them out of the water. Because we’re on Stellar, we can allow people to trade our USD token with Australian dollars, Filipino pesos, euros, Nigerian naira, Hong Kong dollars—there are 10 fiat currencies already on this network.
And regulatory compliance is already built in to this protocol. Everyone that has Stronghold USD has to be KYC’d [have their identity verified]. If it falls into the hands of someone that’s not KYC, we can either revoke it or it won’t pre-authorize a transaction on the other end. That is not the case with these other ones. And that’s why IBM is putting it into financial institutions—because it’s just safer than anything else on the market.
People seem to be losing faith in the leading stablecoin, Tether. What lessons are you taking from Tether’s problems?
To come to Tether’s defense: Everyone’s blaming Tether for things that are kind of out of their control. When you buy into a stablecoin, there are five parties involved. You have the issuer, which in this case would be tether. You have the platform in which it’s listed, the arena. So, for example, that would be Binance. You have the buyer of Tether, you have the seller of Tether, and you have the market maker, which can sometimes be either the buyer or seller.
Most people don’t understand that there are five players involved and what roles each one of them serve, and that each party actually has a responsibility. Usually it’s either the buyer or seller who is blaming the issuer about the stability of a coin, but it could be something like the infrastructure of the arena on which it’s played being down, or the market maker not having enough inventory. So it’s up to the buyer or seller to really know that if they’re going to buy, say, $100 worth of Tether that there had better be $100 worth of Tether on the books before they buy or sell it. Each party needs to be a little more responsible for that. And I don’t think that’s very well-explained.
In 2011, you blogged about dealing with sexual discrimination in the tech world, saying that you were banned from a conference because you “wouldn’t have sex with one of the organizers.” Given the #MeToo movement, have things gotten better in tech?
I would say that. There’s an awareness now. I think that—not in just in tech, just us as a society—there are improvements that need to be made, and it all comes down to a subconscious level. Like, what are we reading to our children? Who are their role models? Are we still feeding our daughters Disney princesses? Are we having them look at strong role models and then having more women explaining what their experience are like in the workplace?
There is an awareness. But yes, there need to be more improvements made over time. Things are getting better, but we have a long way to go.
"In the next 10 years, I think that there will be more real-world use cases for blockchain and cryptocurrency. They’ll be more obvious than innovative."
Looking ahead, what are your hopes for the next 10 years of crypto?
I hope that more people adopt cryptocurrencies that are more energy-efficient. I was just reading an article the other day that, with the amount of bitcoin mining that’s happening, you could counterbalance all that work that we’re doing with climate change. Also, I think that there will be more real-world use cases for blockchain and cryptocurrency. They’ll be more obvious than innovative.
What do you mean by “more obvious than innovative”?
Our product, Stronghold USD, is more obvious than innovative. We’re just putting U.S. dollars on and off the blockchain. Eight-five percent of all foreign transactions have U.S. dollars in them; 64 percent of all central banks that are foreign hold USD as their reserves. A lot of people have this idealistic passion about cryptocurrency—that it’s going to be anti-government, anti-regulatory, and give power back to the people.
I think it’s going to be more of a morph. To get this thing going, we’re going to be on things that people are used to—that my grandmother’s used to, that people in foreign countries are used to—and I think it’s going to be USD.
I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of crypto idealists at this convention. Do you consider yourself more of a pragmatist?
In 2011, when I started, I was totally an idealist. I think that’s the reason why I fell in love with it. I was like, “Wow. We can actually give the power back to the people and serve underserved communities and provide financial services to the underbanked.” I was all about that. And then, fast forward seven years, and I run a business where I talk to bankers and I talk to underserved communities and I talk to regulators all the time, so we can all work together and get mass adoption. It’s a little more pragmatic.
Have you ever seen the movie The Matrix? In The Matrix, you have Neo, you have Trinity, you have the Oracle, you have the Architect, and then you have Mr. Smith and the locksmith. And in that dystopian world, everything is automated by computers and you could say that idealist point of view got them there. However, you do have the Oracle and all those characters I just mentioned; you have to depend on them to architect the systems, to do system updates, to handle security, to manage the keys. So there’s always a human that is involved in the systems.
Even in The Matrix, it’s not decentralized, because there are those characters. That’s what I quickly realized. Would you rather somebody that has experience in regulatory matters and handling keys and things like that—someone with 30 years of experience—or would you want somebody from out on the conference floor that has just picked this up six months ago?
So what character from The Matrix are you?
[Laughs.] I’m Neo. I’m trying to spread the message that the adoption of crypto is going to be all about the obvious and not the innovative.
“More obvious than innovative”—is that your motto?
I don’t know. [Laughs.] I just made that up today. The first time I’ve ever used it was in this interview. We’ll see.
I was wondering, listening to you talk about your idealistic self from 2011: Do you ever look back and pine for those days?
Ignorance is bliss. [Laughs.] Like who are your heroes coming out of the grunge phase? [Editor’s note: The interviewer is the author of a book about grunge.] Chris Cornell? Eddie Vedder? Who is your guy?
I was more a Kurt guy than an Eddie guy.
Okay. And Dave Grohl made everything a little more pop.
He seems like the “more obvious than innovative” figure of grunge.
Yes, exactly. So I would be like the Dave Grohl. [Laughs.]
The Dave Grohl of crypto?
Yeah. I love Dave Grohl. Foo Fighters is way more popular than Nirvana ever was. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana are always near and dear to our heart, because they were the first. It’s kind of like bitcoin, right? You have that special place in your heart for them. And then you move on.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy Tammy Camp.