I had trouble making cross-border payments, so I switched to crypto

Into the Cryptoverse is a weekly Breach series that documents the stories of everyday people as they navigate the cryptoverse.

In 2017, Justin Norman’s struggles with cross-border payments onboarded him into the crypto ecosystem. Now, he’s figuring out new ways to play in the crypto and web3 spaces. His end goals? Fostering a community and rewarding its participants.

When would you say you started thinking about crypto?

I remember learning about Bitcoin in 2010 or 2011. However, my first real contact with crypto was with Ethereum in 2017. A couple of people I knew convinced me to bet on the cryptocurrency, so I bought a bunch of Ether (ETH).

But I only started to understand the promises and use cases of crypto when I moved to South Africa later that year.

What do you mean?

Prior to moving, I had never had difficulties making payments. However, in South Africa, I started to see how painful it was to move money across borders. I struggled with the middlemen fees and the time it took for payments to clear. So, I was initially interested in crypto from a borderless payment perspective.

There’s another background that’s important to this story.

Let’s hear it, please.

I moved to South Africa to work in the start-up ecosystem, and very quickly I realised that I didn’t know a lot about the tech scene in Africa. As I was trying to find useful content around this, I discovered there was great deference to Silicon Valley insights and not much material on the local, contextually-relevant stuff I was looking for.

So, I started a podcast company — The Flip — to plug this hole. At first, it was a mechanism for me to learn in public, then it grew into a media business over the years. And through the media business, I started to pay a lot more attention to crypto and Web3, and ultimately started participating more actively in the space.

Could you tell me more about this?

In 2021, I realised how popular NFTs were becoming, and I thought that if I was going to learn about crypto and Web3 tools, the NFT wave was a good place to start.

At first, I had conversations with people and simultaneously read a ton about what this meant in terms of the new paradigms for emerging markets. Soon enough, it became clear I wasn’t ever going to fully understand these things if I wasn’t actively participating in it. In the context of NFTs, I wasn’t going to understand why they were valuable and people were so excited about them if I didn’t own any myself.

You had to dip your toes in the water.

Exactly. Luckily, I had the means to participate, thanks to the ETH I bought in 2017.

That said, I still had to understand how drops work and figure out what NFTs to buy, including the signals to look for in each.

What are some of the signals you looked out for?

I looked at who the founders were and what the community was like. It wasn’t fun because I had to join a lot of Discord — an instant messaging platform — servers, but there was no other way if I wanted to start playing around.

How did it work out?

There are some NFTs I bought that ended up being worthless, and there were some that turned out to be great communities I was glad to be a part of. I mean, I bought a couple of WorldofWomen and Cool Cats NFTs early on, and they were good investments. However, I sold some of them for not nearly as much as I should have — I didn’t fully understand the long-term opportunities of collecting these things, and I was happy to quickly flip for a profit. On many levels though, it was a really good and fruitful experience.

Why do you think so?

Engaging with the communities exposed me to different applications of crypto I hadn’t thought about before. For example, I saw how people were using NFTs as a tool to build communities and further an objective they have. I also got a better understanding of what is high signal and what is noise in the crypto space.

Another thing that shot up my confidence level was the fact that I saw how crypto rewards participation.

That sounds interesting. Tell me more.

Two come to mind right now. The first one was a Uniswap airdrop that happened sometime in 2020. I saw how people got big rewards because they had used the protocol in some way. That really incentivized me to use some of the crypto I had to experiment in the space even more.

Fair enough. And the second one?

This wasn’t necessarily Decentralised Finance {DeFi), but early in 2021, I bought three Ethereum Name Service (ENS) domains — one for me, one for my girlfriend, and one for my company The Flip. A few months later, I got an airdrop — this is a term for crypto projects sending out free tokens to their communities — of several thousand dollars. I had no expectations that I would get a reward of that kind when I bought the domains. But it was awesome.

By extension, both events showed me how people were using tokens as a reward mechanism to encourage participation, and I didn’t want to miss out on that. The next stop for me was DeFi, and one of the first things I did was to lend money to a protocol and then started to bridge assets over to other networks like Polygon and other layer-two solutions.

Before the end of 2021, I had started using DeFi tools for my savings. Since then, I have taken incremental steps towards how I want to participate in the crypto ecosystem.

Did you figure that out?

Yes. The more I started to understand the ecosystem, the more my thinking shifted from participating only as a user. Gradually, I started to imagine ways to apply crypto and Web3 toolboxes to my business as well. For example, we have a community that listens to The Flip podcast. Could I use Web3 tools to reward the community? What else can the company do using tokens and NFTs to further our objectives as a media business? A lot of these questions are still being asked and answered.

But I’d say that I’m not necessarily participating in crypto just as a consumer anymore; I’m also focused on how crypto and Web3 can be a tool for business. For context, I have a crypto savings account, but it’s happening in the background — I don’t check it as often as I used to. I also have some NFTs that I own, but I don’t check their prices every day. Now, it’s more of how can I build stuff for the community of listeners that my company has.

It’s interesting to see how your relationship with crypto has evolved between 2017 and now.

It is. When I first bought ETH in 2017, I knew nothing about it from a tech or business perspective. It was all about speculation at the time — the price was rising and I jumped in. The relationship has since gotten a lot more intimate. I know a lot more about the opportunities and potentials, and why people should be paying attention.

I’ve got to ask, where do you see the crypto ecosystem a couple of years down the line?

I think we’re going to stop looking at it as a separate industry or sector. It’s just going to be a part of the business. Businesses that are not inherently crypto companies are going to use tokens to reward customers. The lines between crypto and other aspects of our lives will become blurred — almost the same thing happened with the internet — which I think is good. We used to talk about internet businesses as a separate sector, now every business uses the internet. I see the same thing happening with crypto.

That will be exciting to see. Is there anything you find annoying about crypto though?

I feel like there are a lot of false stewards of the crypto ecosystem. There are people always talking about crypto from a speculative point of view — and I think that’s a distraction from the broader opportunity and a disservice to the ecosystem. Yes, the price of this coin may be going up now, but what happens when the price goes down. How do we create more use cases and make crypto more approachable, and capture the interest of crypto sceptics regardless of whether the price goes up or down?

Speaking of the resistance to crypto, how do you see this playing out?

From my perspective, the sceptics are not going to be convinced just by the rise of cryptocurrencies. I think there’s a lot more nuanced narrative to push and tact to employ to onboard more people into the crypto ecosystem. How do we hear what the sceptics are saying, address these concerns, and convince them to pay attention? Otherwise, widespread adoption is not going to happen.

Lastly, what would you say is your favourite thing about crypto and Web3.

Its permissionless nature. I see the frustrating experience Africans have with participating in western traditional financial institutions. The permissionless nature of Web3 can create more opportunities for marginalized individuals to participate. And now, I see every frustrating payment experience as an opportunity to pay someone in a stablecoin or get them to open a crypto wallet. If I can take an hour to sit with somebody to show and teach them how some of these things work, that’s an hour well-spent.

Also, I love that crypto creates the opportunity for more incentive-aligned experiences. As crypto and Web3 become more mainstream and protocols continue to reward users’ behaviour through airdrops and tokens, it will become increasingly difficult for businesses with “Web2 thinking” to compete. But we still have a long way to go and a lot of work to get there.

Check back every Monday at 10 a.m. for a new episode.

If you’re interested in talking about your crypto journey, click this link.

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