Ben Way is considered to be one of the top entrepreneurs in the world today, and he regularly has his fi nger on the pulse of innovation. Voted one of the top 50 UK influencers of 2016, Way has been building businesses since his teenage years and has even consulted to the White House.
The British-born entrepreneur road the wave of the dot com bubble at the age of 19. Like many during the time period, Way experienced the burst of the dot com bubble in 2001. After dusting himself off, Way picked up right where he left off by creating business that could change the world. He learned from the failure he experienced during the early 2000s, and since then, Way has gone from one success to the next.
Now 37, Way has spent the last 20 years building, crafting, and sometimes rebuilding companies. He continues to push the boundaries, and his latest creation, Digits, will enable businesses and individuals to look at cryptocurrencies in a different light.
However, Way is far more than just an entrepreneur focused on one idea at a time. Way is complex, and ready to take the smallest fragment of an idea and transform it into something grand. Despite being told at an early age he would never succeed due to dyslexia, Way has shown nothing can hold him back.
Ben, you have led an extremely interesting life. Let’s start way back when you were a teenager. You started your first business at 15. Tell us about your first venture into the business world and how it worked out for you? How easy was this business to start as a teen?
I was always a little bit of an unusual child, while most of my friends wanted to be fireman or police offices, I wanted to run a toy factory. I suppose you could say my entrepreneurial spark started from a young age. At the age of 7, my father paid me $5 an hour to clean his office, which taught me the value of hard work. I always knew I wanted to start a business.
My first actual business experience was buying and selling chickens eggs when I was 9, it was a good little business with a proper cash flow, but also had an usual risk category: foxes!.
I was very lucky to be dyslexic and get a laptop from the government at a young age to help me with it. That laptop changed my life. For the first time, I could be proud of the work I produced and being naturally inquisitive, I took to understanding how the thing worked. After a few years of self taught computer expertise, I decided that getting $15 an hour for helping people with their computers was better than a paper round, so I started my first company on my 15th birthday.
It was a lot harder to be an entrepreneur back then, especially a young one. You had no information, no support, I wish I had some of the tools that young entrepreneurs have today. I literally had to discover everything from scratch. But it taught me a valuable lesson that very few things are that complicated when you pull back the curtain.
According to a Forbes interview, you had accumulated $33 million in your late teens only to lose it as the dot com bubble burst. How did you go from achieving so much to starting over? What was it like to start from scratch once more?
It is never easy to start from scratch, and I have had a few times like that in my entrepreneurial career. However, despite losing almost everything, I would say you learn more from failure than you do success, and if you never fail you are not risking enough. I always try and push myself to the limits, and the ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start again is a skill almost every entrepreneur will learn.
Started in 2002, Way created the first think tank incubator in Europe. Known as The Rainmakers, his innovative idea helped numerous startups get off the ground. It also allowed him to work in connection with the companies to give his expert advice. Thanks to The Rainmakers, Way and his team have had a hand in helping create over 1 million jobs and more than 200 companies have been incubated.
In 2002 you started Europe’s first incubator The Rainmakers. How did you get started with Rainmakers and mentoring startup businesses?
When I started The Rainmakers there was no such term in Europe as incubator or accelerator. All I knew is that I had a passion for early stage innovative companies. I took one of the biggest risks of my life and rented 5000 sqft of premium office space in the center of London, which is now Apple’s European headquarters, and the only companies I knew who would want the space were startups without any money. So, I came up with a plan that I would give them the desks they needed for cost in exchange for some equity. Once we had filled the office with innovative companies, I started to advise them and help them raise money in exchange for equity. Over 15 years later, we have helped over 200 early stage companies reach product market fit in everything from technology to renewable energy.
You got your start during the wild west days of the dot com bubble. Is there anything that compares to the dot com industry at that time, currently?
I see some comparisons of the crypto market to the original dot com boom, and they are made for good reason. In any heavily expanding market you should always be weary of overheating. However, what most people forget about the dot com boom is that it gave us the foundations of the Internet we know and love today, and has delivered trillions of dollars of value to the world economy. Just like back then there will be great successes and failures, fortunes will be made and lost, but crypto as a technology is here to stay in the long-term and could be just as transformative as the Internet was. Combing value, information and power together is the way our world works today. It just does it incredibly efficiently, so the blockchain opens up many possibilities.
Way’s most recent project, Digits, is set to change the way people and business use cryptocurrency. It is a company Way has put a lot of bloody, sweat and tears into. Gathering some of the best minds from Apple, PayPal, Visa and other financial institutions, Way has built a company that can change the future for everyone, especially underbanked individuals.
Let’s talk about Digits, which is a company you co-founded. Can you explain what Digits is exactly and how you came up with the idea for the company?
A few years ago, I co-founded a payments company with an awesome female entrepreneur named Laura Wagner. We specialize in payments for platforms, but I recognized early on that crypto could be a game changer for the payments market. I set about trying to solve a massive problem in crypto, which is that it is really hard to easily spend your crypto currencies in the real world. I came up with a really simple solution that allows us to turn any credit or debit card in the world into a crypto card. Because consumers can pay using the same way they have been paying for generations, it makes it simple and easy to use for everybody, as well as allowing any merchant to take crypto without having to change all their systems.
Digits has an amazing team with individuals who have worked for Visa, PayPal and other major financial companies. How did you bring this team together for Digits?
I have to give Laura Wagner, my co-founder, credit for this; she is an amazing connecter and has an ability to bring people together in a way I have never seen before. We have a team that is un-parallel in the payments industry let alone in crypto. Our team literally comes from some of the biggest names in payments and companies in the world including Apple.
How will Digits make life easier for those businesses and individuals who use it?
I wanted to come up with a way to make crypto as simple as paying with your credit card, and the solution we came up with was to make it exactly that easy. We use the 16 digit number on the front of your card as a ‘key’ which allows you to pay just like you normally would in stores (swiping your card) or ecommerce (entering your number), most importantly this works with the cards you have in your pocket right now. Just go to digits.io register your card and your crypto account and we enable that card to work across our network. Also, because of the way we have designed it, it is much more secure than credit cards, so there is no need to worry about losing or having somebody steal your information.
For businesses this is a game changer, taking crypto right now means that businesses have to modify their systems and take the huge risk on currency fluctuations. Digits solves both these problems, allowing the merchant not to change their technology or payment flow while making sure they get the exact amount of FIAT currency they expect immediately.
How did you get involved with the crypto market?
Very few people know that I have been involved in crypto since 2011 when I was working with the founder of TradeHill on the BitCoin.com deal. I also was part of the planning to build the largest Bitcoin mining operation in California on Treasure Island near San Francisco. Until this point, I have held off starting a crypto company, because I wanted to deliver something of real value into the community.
How important is cryptocurrency currently and how will it change the world in the future?
Cryptocurrency is very important, but it is just one example of the power of the blockchain. The distributed nature of the blockchain is where it really comes into its own. Over the next few years it will mature into a reliable, easy to develop technology, just the way the cloud did over the last 10 years. The key will be making sure that government regulations or interference is kept at a minimum, so the pace of innovation can keep growing at an exponential rate.
The blockchain has the potential to change many aspects of the world we live in today, everything from politics to entertainment could be significantly impacted; the blockchain is not just some nerdy technology that everybody is hyped up about, indeed that’s what they said about the Internet at the beginning!
Although born and raised in England, Way now makes his residence in San Francisco, California. As someone who has built companies in both countries, Way seems some big differences.
You currently reside in the United States, but hail from England. Can you compare what it is like to start a business in each country? Are there pros and cons?
There are two significant differences between doing business in the UK and the USA. In the USA there is much more of a gung ho lets get this done attitude, which I like. The second major difference is that it’s about the same effort to succeed in the UK or USA, but if you succeed in the UK you have a $2.5 trillion market to work with. If you succeed in the USA it’s $18.5 trillion market to work with….. and that makes a difference.
The other difference that you don’t really appreciate as a British person until you have done business in the USA is that it’s actually not one country, rather it’s 50 united states, and each one has slightly different marketplace conditions.
Ben, you were diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of nine. How did this help you achieve your goals as a businessman after so many people said you would be hindered for life?
I consider dyslexia to be one of my greatest assets. It allows my mind to process information in ways most people can’t. I can assimilate information at extraordinary speeds and my IQ would get me into Mensa. However, it does come with it’s big downsides. My ability to memorize things that most people take for granted like names or certain facts becomes almost impossible. In fact, my worst fear is somebody asking me what their name is because unless they are a very close friend I will completely blank!
You have been described as a serial entrepreneur. What have you got your eyes on for the future?
Well right now it’s crypto! But as a futurologist, I always have my eye on technologies 10 years out. In the next 10 years your going to see massive advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and life extension; and when the time is right you will find me there.
These technologies will bring profound changes to the society we live in both positive and negative. I am especially concerned with AI and automation, that if we don’t take into consideration the socio economic impact that these technologies will have, we could have a lot of social disruption.
Regardless of the potential downsides there are some incredible upsides to the technologies that are being developed. Just look at crypto. This technology can level the playing field between financial institutions and consumers, and help millions of underbanked consumers find services they would not be otherwise able to access.
For any young man or woman out there that sees your story, what advice would you give to them?
Running a business and entrepreneurship is really bloody hard. It is a long, stressful journey with many pitfalls and occasional highs. However, if you understand that and are prepared to take the risk and prepared to fail and to be in for the long haul, entrepreneurship is one of the most fulfilling life experiences you will have. If it is for you, don’t procrastinate. There is never a perfect time to start, but if you take the leap, you have the ability and responsibility to change the world we live in for the better.
With the rise in cryptocurrencies, Digits could completely change the way people use money. Digits may not be Way’s only foray into the world of cryptocurrencies, however. His innovative nature and forward thinking mind is most likely already creating a new way to improve on the rapidly growing digital currency.
At just 37, Way has built up and lost more than most people do in a lifetime. But it is one of the things that drives him. He has a passion to create, and build new business that improve the lives of others. Way can’t stop building companies, and it is just a matter of time until he sets his sights on something new. When he does, it will definitely be a success.