Brian Forde: Why Congress Needs a Crypto 'Truth Teller'

·10 min read

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If you’re not familiar with Brian Forde, now CEO at political fundraising platform Numero, he’s the guy who first explained bitcoin to President Barack Obama back in 2014.

“I was working at the White House [as senior advisor for mobile and data innovation] and was asked to write the White House memo on Bitcoin,” Forde explained. “We needed to explain it in a science, technology and business way to understand what the real impact is here. When people hear about cryptocurrency, they immediately go to ‘stranger danger.’”

This was particularly true back in crypto’s earlier days, when the main associations with the nascent financial technology were illegal drug sales on the Silk Road and massive hacks like the one of the early bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox. The science-minded Forde had to acknowledge these realities while helping President Obama come to grips with the “opportunities” associated with trustless, digital currencies.

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After Forde’s briefing, Obama saw Bitcoin “in a different light,” Forde says. “He's a science and technology president, so he can more quickly grasp that than other world leaders.”

Forde went on to advise many other world leaders on cryptocurrency as the director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Digital Currency Initiative, getting in at the ground level there in 2015. From MIT, he ran for Congress in California’s 45th District in 2018 on a tech-focused platform, raising about $300,000 of his campaign funds in cryptocurrency.

Learning the ins and outs of that process led to the founding of his current company, Numero, where he seeks to simplify the complicated campaign fundraising process for U.S. political candidates running at anywhere from the local to federal level. He says at least 250 campaigns are using Numero’s software right now.

Bringing both simplicity and cryptocurrency to the campaign financing world is no small feat, according to Forde. “It’s bigger than professional sports. Campaigns raise about $15 billion in a campaign season. ... The NFL does like $12 billion a season. The NBA does like $8 billion a season. Major League Baseball does $3.6 billion,” he rattles off. “So campaign donations are four times bigger than Major League Baseball.”

Forde spoke with CoinDesk about his future plans for Numero (yes, they include an NFT platform), his experience briefing world leaders on Bitcoin and why Congress needs a crypto “truth teller.”

Of all the world leaders that you've spoken with about bitcoin and blockchain, who has been the most receptive?

I'm not going to name names, because our conversations were private. But looking at all the conversations that I've had with leaders, once they're educated, they're much more receptive than you’d think. In some countries, it's actually changed policy, from one of absolutely banning bitcoin to reversing that policy and not ultimately implementing it.

What I saw in talking to other world leaders is they didn't have that staff that [Obama] had with technical backgrounds that could explain [digital currency] to them. Once it was explained to them, they saw the opportunity. They saw this is the second coming of the internet, and they were able to then make their own decisions.

What made you decide to leave the White House for the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT?

When I learned more about bitcoin, I was just blown away. To me, it was like when I was 12 or 13 and learning about the technical underpinnings of the internet. It captured my imagination, for the first time since I was a young kid.

When I got an offer to start the research lab at MIT, what I consider to be a relatively neutral place, that was a huge opportunity for me to have an impact – because if I went to go work for a company, when I talked to a world leader, they'd assume I'm biased, as they should. But if I go there from an academic institution, I can maintain the neutrality that was needed at that time, when you had governments looking to create regulation that would not allow for businesses and people to benefit from cryptocurrency.

Also at the time, the Bitcoin Foundation, which funded the original core developers of Bitcoin, went under. I had the opportunity to raise a million dollars and fund the salaries of Bitcoin core developers. It was an important place to be. The director of the MIT Media Lab at that time thought there needed to be more academic research on Bitcoin. There weren’t really any other academic institutions creating an actual research center – there were a couple of professors here and there, at Princeton, for example, and Cornell, who did a class [on Bitcoin], but there was no proper research center.

What made you decide to go from your work at MIT to running for Congress in California's 45th district?

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to run for Congress. You had folks like Mark Zuckerberg going in front of Congress, and members of Congress and Senate asking him how Facebook pays for itself. You had that level of lack of understanding of technology and its business models. It’s so important to have technologists at the policy table. I realized quickly that we didn't have many scientists or technologists in Congress.

You needed someone like me to be able to explain to other members, what this [technology] is and its real impact, versus fear, uncertainty and doubt. You need a truth teller in there. And you also need to hold tech executives to greater account. I would argue that Congress is getting better at it, but they're not where they should be. If you look at the number of people who have a science and technology background in Congress, it's near zero.

When you were running, what was your strategy for framing how cryptocurrency played into your platform? How did you do that in a way that didn't necessarily scare off skeptics?

It’s about education. Mind you, this district is home to some of the top technical companies. It’s one of the most highly educated districts in the country, with top universities. This district understands technology.

They understood that it wasn't about being pro-cryptocurrency. It was about being pro-common sense in understanding the impact of technology and sharing my stories of the impact one can have in the White House, for example. If you don't have that person like me in the White House, Barack Obama does not get a briefing on Bitcoin that explains the opportunity. He’s getting a briefing that explains the fear.

When you were running, how much did you raise in cryptocurrency for your campaign?

In total, I raised like one and a quarter, one and a half million [about $300,000 of which was in crypto]. We were revolutionizing this process. No one had raised crypto at scale. Once we did it, I had a ton of members of Congress calling me saying, ‘How on earth did you do that?’ Like, technically, how did you do that? How did you make it SEC compliant?

What were some of the biggest hurdles to raising cryptocurrency for your campaign at the time?

Honestly, the biggest hurdle was the Stripe API that we originally used. Not many people remember this, but Stripe used to allow you to take bitcoin. Their technology was not very good because it would put up a QR code, then someone tried to make a contribution, and then because the price changed, Stripe wasn't able to adjust, and then the contribution wouldn't go through.

Then we used Coinbase’s API. That went a lot better. Then when we went to help out a few other folks who wanted to accept cryptocurrency, Coinbase deprecated that API. Now Stripe is rolling out a full cryptocurrency team, but people forget that they had a cryptocurrency team, and they turned it off, because they weren't very good at it.

Those are some of the challenges, but you really need to be able to raise a decent amount of money to make it worth your time. It's going to take extra time to have your compliance team look at [crypto donations] because it's not something that they've done before. It's going to be extra legal time, extra technology time. I usually tell candidates, if they can't raise at least $20,000 to $50,000 in crypto, it's not worth doing.

I hear this argument that if you accept crypto, you're going to expand your donor base. Baloney. If you do not understand crypto policy, why is someone who would donate in cryptocurrency going to donate to you?

How did your run for Congress influence the founding of Numero?

I had this idea in my head that campaign technology was a solved problem. We all saw Barack Obama leverage Facebook at a much more innocent time. He had all these young tech folks helping his campaign.

Then I remember one of my first days opening up our campaign, and [I was] handed this software, which was my donor CRM. I was like, ‘What is this?’ And [my staff] said, ‘Honestly, the software just upgraded, and we can't even use it.’ I called the company and said, ‘Look, my staff who's trained in your software doesn't even know how to use your software. Quite frankly, I’m a pretty technical person, and I can't figure out how to use your software.’ And they said, ‘Well, you can pay us $1,000, and we'll teach you.’ I said, ‘Forget that company. We're going to build our own CRM.’

You said you’ve seen about five to 10 politicians using NFTs to try to fundraise for their campaigns. How are they doing it? Are they hiring people to write their smart contracts? Are they going to OpenSea?

It's very artisanal. Kind of like how I did it when I accepted crypto, where we built our own thing. [At Numero,] we're building an NFT grassroots fundraising platform for donors who want to know more about their contributions. This is not just about campaigns accepting funds in an innovative way – it's about unlocking the ability for grassroots donors to be able to donate to a campaign in an interesting way.

Right now, if you donate to a campaign, it’s this incredibly solitary experience. You sit on your phone or computer by yourself, you enter your credit card information, and then the reward you get is probably another 100 hyperbolic emails begging you to donate. That is not an experience donors want. They want to be thanked, and they want to be more engaged in the campaign.

We’re building tools that allow you to say there’s this NFT, we're going to raise $10,000 in total. That's going to allow us get a new ad on air. If you donate to this you get this NFT, and get some of your friends to help donate, as well. It’s more like a team sport, rather than a solitary sport. Then you're able to help raise that $10,000, and you get gated access to see that ad before anyone else. And you get to see it with the candidate.

There was one quote from a grassroots donor who I talked to that really stuck out. He said, ‘Politics is my sport. I research candidates like my friends research their fantasy football teams.’ The difference between his hobby and fantasy football, he said, is that the outcome of my sport changes the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans. Right now, the experience [of donating] is like playing fantasy football by yourself versus with your group of friends. We're moving to make contributions more like playing fantasy football with your friends. And the end result is democracy.