A restless nomad in the crypto universe

He speaks fast, thinks fast and acts fast: At only 29 years of age, José Sáez is about to reinvent the way we do business in the virtual space. For his crypto revolution, he doesn’t need any physical offices or millions in seed money – just a global network of remotely working software engineers.

A lot has been written about millennials – those who were born after 1980 and reached adulthood at the turn of the millennium. In her book ‘Generation Me’, the American psychologist Jean Twenge describes the generation that is set to rule the world in the coming years as ambitious and confident, but also as disrespectful of authority and narcissistic. A quick look at the legion of self-declared influencers who are constantly posing on Instagram and other social networks seems to prove her point.

Modesty defeats self-promotion
But then, there are also those who keep in a safe distance from the limelight, despite having achieved considerable success in their young careers. José Sáez definitely falls into the second category, even though the story of this 29-year-old digital nomad from A Coruña, in northwestern Spain, has many of the typical ingredients of a millennial’s career: his success is rooted in the Internet – the natural “habitat” of digital natives; his company sticks to flat hierarchies and a high degree of flexibility; and his entrepreneurial drive stems from curiosity rather than from pure materialism.

Software innovations inspired by modern art
José welcomes Julius Baer’s editorial team in the art space he is part of, at the Puerta de Alcalá, one of Madrid’s most sough-after addresses. “If I am in Madrid, this is my office,” he opens. The art space, full of colourful contemporary pop-art can only be visited upon request, and is as discreet as anything surrounding this tall, slim Spaniard with curly hair and oversized glasses. The artwork, which he and his two partners have been chasing and collecting for more than five years, is the perfect contrast to the very virtual nature of ElevenYellow, his current company (elevenyellow.com).

“ElevenYellow is a venture builder for software. We test ideas and once they work, we grow them a bit before splitting them off from the company.” Since its start five years ago, his team of multi-disciplinary software engineers has tested more than 100 ideas – be it for measuring pollution in China or for gaining followers on Instagram. Two years ago, the company has started to focus exclusively on blockchain.

“Programmable money will change the world”
“Of course there is a lot of hype in blockchain”, José admits. “But I think that there are a couple of reasons that make the technology very interesting. One of them is that we are able to own digital assets for the first time in history. Another is that blockchain enables programmable money.” José compares the current situation with the nineties. “People knew that the internet was going to change the world – they just didn’t know how exactly. The same happens with programmable money.”

When describing the doors which blockchain is about to open, José’s rapid-fire Spanish-accented English  accelerates even more. Luckily for his non-digital native interlocutors, he illustrates his ideas with concrete examples every now and then: “Take a website,” he continues. “So far, most websites are financed by advertisements. With programmable money, they could charge their visitors directly with micro amounts of – let’s say – one thousandth of a Euro.”

Staying away from boredom
When it comes to developing new ideas, ElevenYellow tries to go off the beaten track. “We avoid things that are boring for us. Instead, we focus on areas that traditional investors would avoid.” The company’s latest flagship project is the cryptocurrency exchange platform (switchchain.com). “Initially, we were approached by some friends who are venture capitalists. They thought that such an exchange could be highly revenue-generating – but that they just couldn’t afford the risks.” That was the moment ElevenYellow stepped in. “It wasn’t only the risk aspect. We saw the possibility to create something that would generate value for a long time horizon. This is exactly the mission of ElevenYellow: we would like to be around for the next fifty years at least.”

Develop fast, test fast and implement fast
Once a decision is taken, execution is key.  “We try to be as fast as we can and as agile as we can, in order to keep the time-to-market to a minimum.” That also means to start small. “As we only rely on our own funds to develop a new idea, we can’t invest millions of dollars until we reach profitability. For our crypto exchange for example, we did a small test of just one pair of cryptocurrencies and looked at the market reaction. If it had failed, we would have pulled out.”

Think different, think global
It took Sáez several years of trial and error until finding the sweet spot for his business. Before founding ElevenYellow, the self-declared nerd, who spent most of his youth behind a computer screen (“I also played some basketball”), tried his luck in e-commerce – first with an online board game store and later with an online supermarket. “The board game store was very successful and is actually still the biggest of its kind in Spain. As for the supermarket, we had a good team and a good product. But we were limited to the Spanish market.” The venture hasn’t survived, but it has taught Sáez two important lessons: first, that you shouldn’t do the obvious when building a start-up. And second, that you have to go global.

No one will tell you that this is an intelligent move

So he did. He went global, by picking a very non-obvious place for his new venture: Bali. “When we sold our online business in Spain to found ElevenYellow, we had a relatively small amount to start with. If we had stayed in Spain, we would have burned the money in 12 months. In San Francisco, we wouldn’t even have lasted half as long. But by going to Bali, we calculated that we could survive with 800 dollars per month each for about three years and still be happy.” The serial entrepreneur didn’t approach any external consulting companies before deciding on this move, knowing that they would have probably advised against it: “No one will tell you that this is a safe thing, or an intelligent thing. But if you have the gut feeling that this might work, you should do it.”

26 employees, 9 locations, but only one tiny office
Today, Bali is still one of nine locations where ElevenYellow has a presence. Except for Singapore, where the company is headquartered – consisting of an office with one full-time employee –, there are no physical offices: all 25 employees work remotely. “We started hiring people from different backgrounds – from the Philippines, the United States, Israel, Indonesia, the Netherlands, etc.” Not having physical offices turned out to be an advantage when hiring new talent. “We realized that we could attract a different kind of employee – people who would never work at a traditional company. There is, for example, our customer support director, a mother who is home-schooling her kids. Or we have some developers who are roaming the world for new surf spots. These people would never accept a traditional nine-to-five job.”

Video: Remote working @ ElevenYellow

A chat room serves as corporate campfire
If there are no physical meeting rooms or coffee zones to gather, a virtual communication platform has to fill the gap. In the case of ElevenYellow, it’s called Slack. “This is kind of a chat room, where we all share our information. This type of collaboration works quite well, despite having people in different time zones.” But even with the most efficient online tool, it is difficult to foster a corporate culture. Therefore, all employees – including their families – meet once or twice per year for a week somewhere on the globe. The last gathering was in Gran Canaria.

Even nomads need a homebase
As for the CEO himself, he has a busy travel schedule. But unlike George Clooney in the movie “Up in the Air”, José Sáez doesn’t only live in airport lobbies or hotel rooms. Even a digital nomad needs a home base. In the case of Sáez, this is Lisbon. “It is a wonderful city, with a big tech community. And it is just an hour by plane from A Coruña – my hometown – and from Madrid, where I have many friends.”
 
What’s the next stop on this millennial entrepreneur’s career path? “All I know is that I will stick to software. This is what I like and it’s the only thing I can do,” – besides building a global tech company at the young age of 29 or helping set up a stunning art space in the heart of Madrid, that is.

Perhaps modesty is one millennial quality that psychologists may have overlooked.

Video production: Scott McNamara, Julius Baer

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