Fifteen years ago today, a mysterious coder named Satoshi Nakamoto published a white paper titled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. That paper, which is considered seminal not just for bitcoin, but for the wider cryptocurrency movement, effectively kickstarted the world’s most successful cryptocurrency.
Was there a reason why Nakamoto chose to publish the paper on Halloween? That is not clear. But there is no doubt that plenty of observers around the world regard bitcoin as a horror – not least some regulators, commentators and finance leaders in the developed markets who consider it little more than a giant Ponzi scheme that facilitates money laundering and fraud.
On the other hand, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are gaining traction in highly inflationary markets, such as Argentina, Pakistan and Turkey, where people see them as a way to protect and conserve wealth. Meanwhile, for refugees, cryptocurrencies can be a financial lifesaver, enabling them to efficiently move money across borders.
For my book, 21st Century Business Icons, I researched Nakamoto’s story as I was intrigued by the idea that a leader could launch something as successful as bitcoin without anyone knowing who they really were. The bitcoin founder stepped away from the project in 2011, soon after the cryptocurrency reached parity with the US dollar. But the developers who worked with him on the project were so inspired by his vision that they carried on without him and drove bitcoin to become the success it is today.
Clearly, Satoshi was a great visionary, but what other leadership lessons can we learn from this mastermind? Here are five of my key takeaways:
1. Trust is the foundation of long-term success. While bitcoin is regarded with suspicion in many quarters, others have far more trust in bitcoin than they do the traditional financial system, which is controlled by authorities such as central banks.
2. Focus on the big picture. Nakamoto was always adamant that the bitcoin project, as a whole, was more important than any single individual.
3. Know when it’s time to move on. To achieve your desired results, you many need to hand over management of the project to others. This is what Nakamoto did in 2011.
4. Get your timing right. Nakamoto came up with the right idea, at the right time – bitcoin was launched amid the fallout of the financial crisis of 2008-9, when people were losing faith in the traditional financial system.
5. Keep your ego in check. By keeping his identity secret, Nakamoto has never traded on the personal glory of being the bitcoin founder. In an age defined by rampant self-promotion, it’s important to remember that you don’t need everyone to know who you are to make a difference in the world.
Love it hate it, it’s impossible to deny that the rise of bitcoin has been one of the most significant phenomena of the 21st century. Today, the market capitalization of bitcoin is over $600 billion – a remarkable achievement for a concept that only existed on paper merely 15 years ago.
Yet while bitcoin is now held by millions of people around the world, the identity of the cryptocurrency’s founder remains shrouded in mystery. Over the years, numerous people have either claimed to be him, or have been accused of being him, but to this day there is no real consensus around who he is – or was. Many suspect that he is dead, which would explain why his own original bitcoin holding – mined in 2009 and now worth billions of dollars – has never been touched.
Despite his pseudonym, few think Satoshi was actually Japanese since he never used a word of the language. Instead, a lot of the evidence, including the timings of his posts on the Bitcointalk forum and the expressions he used, point towards him being British. Nevertheless, he was careful not to give away personal information in his emails and posts.
One theory is that Nakamoto was a group of people, rather than a single individual. Dorian Banks, CEO of Looking Glass Labs, a Web3 platform based in Vancouver, Canada, told me: “I’ve always thought it’s a group, or at least it became a group. I think maybe it started with one person who was from a position of hating the banking system, and the government controls over currency. Maybe they started the project on their own, but then I’ve always felt there was a transition to a group of people, with one or more of those people coming from a Commonwealth country.”
Pete Rizzo, editor of Bitcoin Magazine, took a different stance, saying: “My general sense is that the person who was using the Bitcointalk account was likely one person. There are some conceptual quirks – the speed with which he replies to messages, the speed with which he takes action, both in message and in what metastasizes in the technology itself.”
Assuming that he (or they, or even she) is still alive, it seems increasingly unlikely that the real Satoshi Nakamoto will ever step forward. As his writings clearly show, he had no desire to be the official public face of bitcoin.
In his final email exchange with fellow bitcoin developer Gavin Andresen, Nakamoto said: “I wish you wouldn’t keep talking about me as a mysterious shadowy figure, the press just turns that into a pirate currency angle. Maybe instead make it about the open source project and give more credit to your dev contributors; it helps motivate them.”
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