Why I’m moving to Chairman

On the 26th of March 2021 I announced to the company that I will no longer be the CEO of Bitwala and will move to a chairman role.

I will become chairman of the board and our wonderful CPO, Kristina, will step up to the CEO position. As co-founder of Bitwala, I’ve been here since the beginning. In fact, I’ve been here since before the beginning! I’ve seen the company grow from three people with a dog and lots of big ideas to the 150 person scale-up that we are today.

So, when I announced that I was moving from CEO to a chairman role, it was a big deal. Both for the company and for me.

The management team when I moved to Chairman. Left to right Philipp (CGO), Jan (CCO & co-founder), me (Chairman & co-founder), Kristina (CEO/CPO), Christoph (CFO), Torsten (Chief Banking Advisor)

What’s behind this decision?

We’d just closed our last funding round and I’d reflected on what we needed to do to succeed during the next phase of the company. I came to the conclusion that we have a very solid plan: build superior FinTech products using blockchain infrastructure.

Now it all comes down to execution. Our success depended on our ability to deliver and scale through hypergrowth. We needed to scale the organization like crazy, especially product and tech, and ship these crazy new products that I’d been talking about for so long.

Hypergrowth! We’ve onboarded more people in 2021 than the whole of last year and it’s only April!

To be candid, this is not my strength. In fact, Bitwala is pretty much my first job after university, so I more or less went from being a graduate to CEO of a bank! Bitwala is the largest company I’ve worked in and I’ve only experienced hypergrowth through reading blogs.

I came to the conclusion that there’s two options open to me: either I can surround myself with people who’ve done this before, take their advice and use it to inform my decisions, or I could put someone in charge who has done this before. The latter seemed more logical and that’s the point where we began to explore a new leadership composition.

I entertained the idea of an external CEO for a minute or two, before realising that there was no reason to take on the massive cultural risk. We have the perfect person in-house. Since joining 6 months ago, Kristina has blown us away with her passion and ability to get shit done. Having experienced hypergrowth at two Berlin unicorns, Zalando and N26, she knows instinctively what we need to succeed.

I approached Kristina last year and it was a pretty emotional conversation. Leaving a big company to become CPO of a small one is quite a lot already, but imagine being approached soon after you join with the possibility of becoming CEO of it!

We spent the next months figuring out how this would work. We explored the concept of splitting the CEO role, but ultimately decided to move ahead with a Chairman / CEO model. In the end, we found what we feel is a very good split. She’s the consumer-facing, hypergrowth product expert and I’m the nerdy blockchain co-founder who was into crypto before it was cool. Knowing that these changes can make or break the company, we invested a lot of time in this, stress testing ourselves with various situations and aligning and realigning with c-level and our management coach. When it was time to announce it, we were very confident in our plan.

My story at Bitwala

Funny story: I almost didn’t become a co-founder of Bitwala. Before we got our seed round and formally incorporated the company, we were all doing something on the side. I was a digital nomad, coding and travelling all over the world. It was pretty great!

The last place I was living before Berlin was Ghana, where I was volunteering to teach tech in a startup school. The school would buy us a ticket anywhere and I chose pretty much as far away as possible. I proceeded to start what was one of the most epic journeys of my life.

🇬🇭✈️🇨🇦 Ghana → Vancouver

🇨🇦🚗🇺🇸 Vancouver → LA overland

🇺🇸✈️🇪🇹 LA → Ethiopia for a 2 day layover

🇪🇹✈️🇹🇿 Ethiopia → Tanzania

🇹🇿🚌🤓🇰🇪🇺🇬🇷🇼 Tanzania → Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda on a hackathon on a bus

My life was awesome. I could go anywhere I wanted and earn good money as a freelance programmer. It wasn’t just me. In fact, the co-founders and I had run the company from Thai beaches for a while! But that was all about to change…

In 2013 we ran the bitcoin projects from beaches of Thailand

Now we were getting professional. We were going to incorporate a GmbH, become employees of it, give away the side projects, settle down in one physical location and go to the office every day.

I know it’s crazy to admit given what Bitwala has become, but at the time it wasn’t so easy to give up that lifestyle. Yes, founding a startup was exciting, but was this just another way of ending up working long hours in an office for the rest of my 20s? It felt like I was breaking a promise to my teenage self that I never wanted to become an ‘office person.’

I loved my co-founders and I loved what we were doing, but it was still very difficult to give up the incredible opportunity for travel that I had. In the end I rationalised it like this: it was a different kind of travel. It didn’t mean waking up in a new place each week, but rather a journey through the experience of putting down roots and growing a team and culture in the same place.

I took the flight. A week later I was in a notary office listening to a lawyer read through long German contracts that I barely understood. On that rainy, cold, Berlin winter day, I might have had a flicker of regret, but afterwards I never looked back.

Growing Bitwala from 3 people and a dog to the 150 people we are today has without a doubt been the most rewarding thing I’ve done with my life so far.

2018 Company Trip to Ibiza — travelling was very important for us. We keep this as part of the company culture with an annual adventure.

Growth. Change. Growth.

I look back on the many years I’ve been an entrepreneur and the biggest thing I’ve got out of it personally has been the growth.

In a startup, everything is constantly changing. If you take a snapshot of a startup 6 months apart I’ll guarantee it seems like a different company. Perhaps there’s a new strategic focus or key partnership. Maybe last time it was cash-poor and fundraising and now it’s cash rich and in hire-like-crazy mode. When you’re a small startup, small things like getting a new intro to a lead investor can make things seem radically better or radically worse from day to day.

Those of you who’ve read my blog before are probably sick of this, but my here’s my favourite startup quote one more time:

“You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both” — Marc Andreesen

This change drives personal growth. This is especially true for the founders. As your organisation evolves, so must you. The lessons I take with me from Bitwala are not limited to entrepreneurship. They’re lessons that I’ll use for the rest of my life.

What this means for Bitwala

Despite the long-winded blog post, this is by no means goodbye.

I am still going to be very active with Bitwala. In my new role I’ll be heavily involved in fundraising and championing blockchain & DeFi topics. I will still be involved with the company at a cultural level. I will take part in the events and company trips, be present in the office and be involved with the hiring of key positions.

One of the most difficult things for me with this whole thing is the messaging. It’s kind of a goodbye, but it’s also not.

Yes, there will be a change, but a startup is always changing and evolving. This is just another chapter in our story. It’s even one of our values: “Adapt.”

What’s next for me

Founders tend to have obsessive personalities and are also used to having ‘very busy’ as their default state. Given this combination, it’s all too easy to fall into ‘the next thing’ trap.

A helpful bingo card for those trying to figure out the next step.

I spoke to a couple of people who are familiar with this kind of situation and the advice they gave were the following:

  • One month — ‘Down time’ to completely detach yourself.
  • 4–6 months — Time to deliberately not know what you want to do next

The idea is that you try out different things, but without throwing yourself wholeheartedly into anything. It may sound weird, but actually it makes total sense. I’ve been hustling for 7 years now and for the last 5 Bitwala has been an incredibly large part of my life. It’s all so tempting to rush into the next ‘thing’ and I keep having to suppress myself when I think of something.

First step: Get used to not knowing what I’m going to do next

Second step: ???

Quite honestly, the first step is hard! For the first time in a decade my life is getting less busy rather than more busy. While it wasn’t part of my motivation to move to a new role, I have to be honest in saying I’m a little glad I have some more space in my life.

There are a few things I know I want to do as part of the next phase. I would like to take the next period of my life to #PutMyselfFirst (sorry, couldn’t resist the hashtag). This is something that I have failed to do in the last years. The second is to share what I’ve learned. I used to teach in Ghana and have recently begun mentoring some early stage startups. It’s something I enjoy so much, I know it’ll become a part of my life in the future.

Calendar as CEO
Calendar during ‘down time’

Thank you

Our journey is far from over, but this is definitely a moment to reflect. Once the dust has settled, I think the most overwhelming emotion has been gratitude. Thank you to my family for backing me while I tried something crazy. Thank you to my friends for always supporting (and distracting!) me. Thank you to the investors for believing in us. Thank you to Joerg and Jan for being crazy enough to start this company. Thank you to Christoph, Philipp, Kristina and all of the employees, past, present and future, for being crazy enough to join it. I can’t wait to see what we do next.

The beginning

Startup advisor | Co-Founder & CEO/CTO @Nuri