Maxine Ryan is not your typical blockchain buff.
A 26-year-old college dropout, she has virtually zero formal tech training and is skeptical of the string of volatile cryptocurrencies it has spawned. In fact, five years ago Ryan was a self-confessed “newb” – tech speak for total newcomer – to the digital ledger system and, even today, she says she’s no expert.
But that hasn’t stopped her from turning the complex technology into a multinational payments business designed to save money for those who most need it.
Ryan is co-founder and chief operations officer of Bitspark, a blockchain-based remittance platform that allows users to send money overseas without the need for a bank account or its associated fees. Ryan and her fellow co-founder, CEO George Harrap, launched the start-up in 2014 after they met via a flatshare in Canberra, Australia and decided to find a way to put the decentralized network to good use.
“I was looking to do something where I was really helping people.”
Discovering a new direction
At that time, blockchain’s emerging technology was gaining momentum off the back of associated currencies like bitcoin. Meanwhile, Ryan felt she was stagnating in an international relations degree that just didn’t resonate with her.
“I was looking to do something where I was really helping people,” Ryan told CNBC Make It, noting her degree lacked real-life application for her.
So, when Harrap, an electrical engineer, explained to Ryan the technology behind the coins he was mining in his room, she was immediately sold. Within hours, she quit her degree (six months short of graduation) and the pair set about creating a business to help what they saw as underserved, low-income workers living in Ryan’s native Hong Kong and surrounding emerging nations.
“I could just see that there was so much potential there (in blockchain),” she continued. “I never went back to uni after that conversation.”
Ryan and Harrap immediately started researching blockchain and the ways the technology could be used to benefit their target market.
Asia has a large and fast-expanding workforce, but it also suffers from an underdeveloped financial services system. The World Bank estimatesthat as many as a billion adults are without bank accounts in Asia alone. That can make it difficult for those who work internationally to send money back to family in their home nations, especially if they don’t want to incur high fees.
Ryan remembered that frustration from her time living in Hong Kong. But she realized that blockchain could provide a solution by allowing workers to deposit cash from one location and have their families collect it from another, while receiving verification from rest of the blockchain community.
“It’s a cash-in, cash-out solution,” said Ryan. However, she noted that the underlying technology is far from simple.
“I can’t lie, it’s really difficult. There’s a lot of trial and error.”
Taking a gamble on ‘magic money’
What started out as a physical remittance kiosk in a mall in Hong Kong has quickly evolved into an online platform with a team of 17 tech specialists spread out across Asia and Europe. Four years since launch, Bitspark is now partnered with numerous remittance shops across seven countries — Hong Kong, Malaysia, Ghana, Nigeria, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan — and integrated their customer bases.
“I can’t lie, it’s really difficult. There’s a lot of trial and error,” Ryan said, noting that the technology is still in it’s early days. “We’re laying the pavement in this space.”
She added that coming up with the blockchain technology is the “easy part.” It’s then about educating the target market — many of whom lack good financial literacy — that Bitspark offers a safe way to transfer funds. That’s especially difficult, she said, given the popular noise around cryptocurrencies and their price volatility.
“In their minds, it sounds like magic money,” said Ryan. “It requires a lot of trust.”
Fee reductions of five to 15 percent have helped with that, she said, as have case studies from customers who have benefited.For example, one user was able to save enough money on fees to pay for an extra seat at her wedding in the Philippines.
However, as a young woman in tech, Ryan said she has faced additional barriers in getting her message across to both investors and users.
“There are few young women in this space, and fewer still who can hold themselves, so it’s about proving I know what I’m doing,” she said.
Playing the long game
Over the years, Ryan has managed that well, earning a place on Accenture’s Innovation Lab program, being on Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 list which honors young innovators and entrepreneurs, and receiving regular speaking opportunities within the blockchain community.
Bitspark has also amassed several investments. The cash injections have enabled Ryan and Harrap to start drawing salaries since 18 months ago. Yet, Ryan said the business was not designed to be a get-rich-quick scheme, but a way to push herself and try new challenges.
“In my 20s, I would prefer to struggle and work for myself…”
“Growing up, money was a struggle anyway,” said Ryan. “In my 20s, I would prefer to struggle and work for myself rather than be really comfortable and work for someone else.”
Ryan noted that she frequently crashed on her friends’ couches and used other hacks to support herself while launching a business in Hong Kong, one of the world’s most expensive cities. That did not put her off, however. If anything, it helped spur her on, she said.
“I didn’t think about it,” said Ryan. “For me, it’s just a huge personal achievement to do something for myself that helps others. Maybe in my 30s that will change, but for now I’m fine with that.”