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Sometimes at the end we find the nugget, the truth we’ve been looking for, or the idea that brings a story to life. So it was in this interview with global ambassador for the largest blockchain technology company in the world, Bitfury, Marc Taverner. It’s not the rest of the interview was uninspiring – far from it. There were funny bits, interesting bits and lots of hard work in in between. I never knock hard work – it’s the bedrock of success. There is no one as lucky as a hard working person, trust me.
So, at the end of our conversation, Marc casually drops in that his 16-year-old son, Rafael, not only wants to make the world a better place but that he also has plans to colonise Mars. I stop him there and then.
A sixteen-year-old said that? In my experience most teenage boys more properly resemble the wonderfully moronic teenage parody – or is that reality? – ‘Kevin’ created by English comedian Harry Enfield.
The post-industrial education systems deployed in most of the Western World knocks the joy out of kids, rendering them ready for production line service. The ideas of saving the world or creating new worlds, rarely survives beyond primary school. Now, I am intrigued.
Of course, the title ‘global ambassador’ for blockchain is a bit of a giveaway. Even allowing for teenage children not taking their parents seriously – think Mark Twain and how his parents learnt so much as he advanced from age 18 to 21 – something must have got through by osmosis. Marc expands on how his son thinks.
“We were walking home after a family meal out and Rafael and I spoke about blockchain. It was just a casual conversation and I thought nothing more of it until the following morning when my wife called me into his bedroom. There covering the walls were dozens of yellow post-its with ideas and thoughts about blockchain. My son had brainstormed after he got home and I have to say some of his ideas would have put experienced blockchain DevOps to shame.”
At this point, I tell him that I want to work for his son. Marc says he already plans to.
A French Connection
So, our conversation did not begin with the colonisation of Mars. It began with a young lad, half French, half English growing up in the UK. At the age of seven (if the Jesuits are right then more French than English) he only spoke French. Attending primary school he could understand none one and he went home complaining. From that point on his family only spoke English to him.
When asked if he is still fluent in French, Marc replies: “I speak the French of a seven-year-old.”
Nevertheless, it stood him in good stead when he studied first at Brunel University in the UK, then at a business school in Paris. He managed to nab a cushy job in Paris afterwards where he was commissioned to drop off and pick-up high-powered hire cars for rich Arabs in the 16th Arrondissment. A perfect job for a car mad student.
French was obviously in his blood, as his first job was to set up a fax modem business for French owners. He was given a briefcase, company letterhead and a seal. “I was very impressed. I felt like a real entrepreneur.”
His satisfaction was short lived as the owners proved hard taskmasters. They also provided him with an office in Canterbury with only a month’s rent paid in advance. He had to earn the next months. In order to save on costs – and because he did not have enough money – Marc bought a blow-up bed and slept in the office, rising early before his sales and technical staff arrived.
People reading this article may not know what a fax modem was: nor know that they could be internal or external. Internal ones fitted into the motherboards of computers while external ones had flashy lights and made great whirling noises as they either connected to the newly arrived internet or acted as fax machines. Note: a fax machine is a device that copies documents and delivers replicas immediately over a telephone line.
Marc targeted small companies or individuals who were building PCs. His sales methods were simple; calls were made, orders booked and a courier came every afternoon to collect and drop off the modems. The following day the courier brought back a bunch of cheques and collected the new orders.
“That was how I discovered that people could and would write bouncing cheques.”
The solution was to use newly established bulletin boards. Marc’s technical manager came up with the idea to set up an online platform where would-be purchasers had to first post proof of funds before orders were taken.
“It was kind of like an early eCommerce solution. We were very proud of it and it stopped those shagging bouncing cheques.”
However, Marc’s success also contributed to the business collapse as the growing market penetration in the UK – up to 5% of the entire fax modem market – attracted the attention of a much bigger competitor with the result of Nuvo being pushed out of business.
Onward and Upward
Undeterred, Marc moved into consultancy and stayed three years working in research and sales for two difference companies. However, this was not where he wanted to be.
“I could see telcos were making such a difference to the technical and business landscape. I wanted to work for a global (for global in the 90s; read American) Application Service Provider. It was the start of the dotcom boom and I applied for and was hired by US giant MCI to head up with its new conference call business.”
As luck would have it, the French intervened again. Within six months, a French start-up, Genesys Conferencing, had bought out the conferencing business and with it, Marc. Initially he was very discombobulated. He wanted to work for the US giant, not a start up without any customers. However, Marc is very good at making silk purses and spent the next 13 years with Genesys and being a large part in positioning it as the world’s largest conference call businesses.
Marc moved into Ed Tech, working with a white board provider. He joined the leading firm, Promethean, and worked there through to its Initial Public Offering (IPO). It was a successful IPO, but afterwards Marc decided to semi-retire from corporate life.
I asked him was it because he had made so much money. “I wish! Actually, I wanted to enjoy family life again. I wanted to be home in time to have dinner with my wife and young children. Heck, I wanted to be able to walk home for lunch.”
Breaking into Blockchain
Marc tinkered as an angel investor, working in different diverse fields including hospitality, social media and co-working spaces. He had heard of bitcoin at this stage. He’d bought a few coins. He was interested in the space. At this point of the story, Marc asks if I had read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zubolf. A weighty tome, in excess of 700 pages, the book plots the dreams of the dotcom era which had so much hype, but very little substance.
“When we look at the tech giants that spun up out of the dotcom period, you can see the disillusionment of the people. There is a similar disconnect between people and government, people and banks, people and institutions. And it’s not hard to understand. Then look at blockchain and how it can be used to repair these trust breaches. I got very excited in 2013 about blockchain.”
Then he got a cold call from a recruitment agency. Marc was asked if he knew anything about Bitcoin. “The recruiter had me at Bitcoin. I knew I wanted in.”
The company was Bitfury and Marc joined as its head of sales global ambassador and helped the company to sell massive ‘datacentres in a box’, the Blockbox. It was and still is focused on large scale, enterprise level projects.
As global ambassador, Marc travels the world extensively. I ask him how he views his role.
“I am a big believer in just getting down and doing it. Look at your business: is there a problem to solve or an opportunity to create? And will blockchain do it? Try in a small way first, test it out, gather data and analyse if it works, and if yes, go all the way out and execute aggressively.”
Marc now has a little black book, or rolodex as he quaintly calls it (you can Google that yourself) of the who’s who of everyone anywhere who ever spoke the word bitcoin or blockchain. He consults globally and is available to be an adviser to your business. If you think your business needs blockchain, then you know who to call. And if you can wait a few years you can apply to join his son’s start-up – who knows, you might even get to Mars.