Chain, one of the hottest blockchain startups, has sold to Lightyear, the commercial arm of the Stellar Development Foundation, which is the nonprofit behind the Stellar network and cryptocurrency stellar lumens.
That may sound like a mouthful. It may also look like a surprising move for a fast-growing company that counts Citigroup, Nasdaq, and Visa among its clients. As Chain CEO Adam Ludwin acknowledges about Lightyear, “We are being acquired by an entity that no one has ever really heard of.”
But in a candid interview with Yahoo Finance, Ludwin explained the strategy behind selling the company. (Read on for the interview, after some background on Chain and Stellar.)
Chain builds private blockchains for enterprise clients — internal ledgers that allow them to digitize assets faster and with less friction. Chain launched in 2014 and has raised $44 million in venture funding.
Stellar is a blockchain protocol for facilitating cross-border payments and digital asset exchanges, and lumens (XLM) is the network’s native cryptocurrency. (The price of XLM is down 65% so far this year amidst the larger crypto market rout.) Stellar was incubated at the payments startup Stripe, then spun out; IBM, Deloitte, and messaging app Kik are some of the bigger names using Stellar.
In the race to get banks on blockchain, Stellar competes with Ripple, among many others. And the same man created both Stellar and Ripple: Jed McCaleb, who also cofounded the infamous bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox.
Lightyear and Chain will combine and be called Interstellar; the Chain branding will go away. Interstellar will focus on helping companies build on top of the Stellar network. Ludwin will be CEO of Interstellar, McCaleb will be CTO, and all of Chain’s 30 employees are staying, totaling 60 Interstellar employees. The parties are not disclosing the terms of the deal, but Chain’s investors are all getting cashed out.
Chain CEO Adam Ludwin spoke to Yahoo Finance by phone before the announcement of the acquisition. What follows is an edited transcript.
Yahoo Finance: Are people going to be surprised that Chain, which is a hot company in the crypto and blockchain world, is selling to a company that isn’t really a household name?
Adam Ludwin: Lightyear is relevant because it was set up last year to be the commercial arm for the Stellar network. As more institutions have been interested in transacting in stellar, the foundation was not positioned to do that kind of work. So we are going all in on Stellar, and we will do that enterprise work, the hand-holding, the service providing.
How long has this been in the works? There have been reports and rumors of this acquisition for a few months.
We started talking as far back as January. We did our absolute best to prevent any information leaking, and it’s hard because it’s such a small community, and we have so many investors. There were some leaks, and some things published on the internet with wrong information, like people wrote that we were merging with the foundation.
How did it come about?
Jed McCaleb came to me and told me the idea, and his idea was to basically do what Chain has done but focus on Stellar. So basically Chain retools through Stellar.
He probably thought I would say no very quickly, but what he didn’t know at the time was that we had learned that what our customers ultimately need is for us to bring them to a network. We found that they wanted to just be told what network to join.
Any fellow tech types or mentors you went to for advice?
There were four or five folks that I consulted with that I often turn to for coaching, mentorship, strategic advice. Kevin Ryan [cofounder of Business Insider, Gilt Groupe, and MongoDB].Glenn Hutchins of [VC firm] Silver Lake. Jim Robinson of RRE Ventures, former CEO of American Express. And Keith Rabois [early investor in PayPal, Yelp, and Square].The four of them were extremely helpful.
Are you concerned that any of your existing clients, or potential new clients, will be turned off that you’re now tied to this lesser-known cryptocurrency, stellar lumens?
I did something kind of unusual in the M&A process, which is I went to existing customers and told them what we were considering. I basically said, ‘We think the answer for your needs is Stellar, and by the way, we’ve figured out a way to create an entity where Chain can do that.’ If people threw up all over Stellar, I wasn’t going to do it.
The only version of pushback I got were folks saying, ‘Does this mean we have to use Stellar?’ And the answer to that was no, because where Stellar ends, Chain software begins. Everything Chain built is a local ledger, and think of Stellar as a global ledger. So part of the merger was combining our software assets with theirs. The network can be acquiring future users without forcing them to participate in the stellar network on day one.
What would you say is the general perception of Stellar?
I think the perception is not far off from the reality, which is that this is one of the most technically advanced networks. The academic community knows Stellar and has a respect for Stellar because the protocol was developed at Stanford, and people know the foundation came out of Stripe.
And I think if you look forward to what we think Stellar is best suited to accomplish, what has been the killer app on Ethereum? It’s a general, trustless cloud platform. But what people have chosen to do on it is issue tokens. That’s what Stellar is designed to do, that is its purpose. Tokenization is the biggest unrealized opportunity around crypto.
We are setting out to tokenize all the things, and to move from the scammy ICOs that we wouldn’t want to be associated with to finding partners to create tokens uniquely enabled by Stellar and which can be an important part of their business model. So it won’t be just about legacy products with financial institutions, it’ll also be about companies creating and enabling totally new assets where you can kind of squint and it might look similar to some other things, like a reward ticket or loyalty point or an API token or an in-game currency or a digital good, but they’re all fundamentally being reinvented in this era of crypto.
What would your retort be to any skeptics who still criticize this deal when the news comes out?
I don’t care. We never in the history of the company made any strategic moves based off our perception of what people will think. We’ve always made moves based on what we’ve learned. And if you go to the original business plan for Chain, the original motivation was: Bitcoin has set off this Cambrian explosion, and eventually every single financial instrument that exists will be in some sort of cryptographic medium. Whether that’s attached to bitcoin, whether that’s some other network, the motivating force was that we want to create a future where value can move over the internet as easily as data.
Warren Buffett has that expression he likes from Ben Graham, “Mr. Market.” [Note: Ben Graham introduced the Mr. Market anecdote in his book “The Intelligent Investor”; the idea is that the market behaves like an emotional business partner who offers every day to sell you his shares of the business or buy yours, at prices depending on his mood.] Crypto markets are like an extreme version of Mr. Market. In the short term, it’s meme-driven. So if you tried to make decisions on the basis of headlines, market perception, mood, crypto prices, you would just go nuts. And it doesn’t tell you what to build.
Our company has millions of dollars in revenue, we’ve raised tens of millions of dollars, and before doing this deal we had years of runway and still do. We in no way needed to sell, and we have received overtures from large tech brands over the years. And I think that would have been sad, if we just sold out to a big enterprise tech company and became a division, and didn’t have the ability to shape the future.
So even though this is technically an acquisition of Chain, in reality Jed and I are combining. Conceptually, it really is a merger, and it doesn’t feel like an exit, and it’s not designed to be an exit where I go and hang out for a year and then I go do something else. And I hope this announcement will encourage folks to take a longer look at Stellar.