- Changpeng Zhao is the founder of Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange by trading volume.
- In an interview, Zhao recounts how he built Binance in 180 days and continues to grow its divisions.
- He also breaks down why he’s keeping most of his personal assets in Bitcoin and Binance Coin.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
To Changpeng Zhao, home has always been less about a physical address and more of an inner world that transcends geographical boundaries.
Growing up in China, Zhao had a somewhat nomadic upbringing as he followed his educator parents who moved in between cities every few years. When he was 12, the family immigrated to Canada where he stayed for another decade before moving to Tokyo, New York, and then Shanghai for work.
Today, as the chief executive of the world’s largest crypto exchange Binance, Zhao finds his early exposure to the world from constant traveling and moving immensely helpful.
While the coronavirus-induced lockdown has kept Zhao in Asia for the past year, his normal schedule has been to switch locations every few months to spend time with employees and users that have sprouted up all over the world.
“I have a habit of moving around a lot, but it gives me more exposure to the world,” Zhao, who goes by “CZ,” said in an interview. “I like to stay mobile, I like to visit more places just so that I know what’s going on in different locations.”
This type of borderless living has given Zhao a front-row seat to the frictions and inefficiencies of converting fiat money, which refers to all currencies backed by government decrees.
“If you use fiat to do cross-border transactions, it’s actually very difficult and you get really creamed on the conversion rates,” he said. “If you exchange currency at an airport, you lose about 10% each time so the cost is very high.”
These days, Zhao tries to pay in crypto whenever and wherever he can. He does that by using the Binance Visa card, which allows users to convert and spend their cryptocurrencies at more than 60 million merchants worldwide but is limited to customers living in Europe, according to its website.
“I use this card very heavily, but sometimes I do need fiat cash,” he said. “I typically will just ask a friend and say ‘hey, do you have $500 I can get from you, I’ll give you some BNB (Binance Coin),’ most of them will be polite enough to say yes, so I get by that way.”
It takes 17 years and 180 days
The limitations of fiat money in cross-border transactions were not the only thing that led Zhao to crypto.
In 2013, he came across the Bitcoin whitepaper, which immediately clicked for him as a developer who has always worked at the intersection of finance and technology.
“I understood the benefits for Bitcoin very quickly,” he said. “The thing I wanted to verify was if there was a community behind it.”
In December that year, Zhao flew to Las Vegas for a Bitcoin conference that was attended by the likes of Vitalik Buterin (the founder of Ethereum), Charlie Lee (the creator of Litecoin), and Matthew Roszak (an early crypto investor). From the conference, he saw that the community behind Bitcoin consisted mostly of developers instead of the “drug lords” that he had read about.
“I just thought this is the future. I understood that it’s going to be much bigger than the internet,” he said. “I couldn’t catch on to that trend, I was just working as a junior guy, but I thought I definitely will not miss this one, so I just went all-in”
Zhao really did go all in. Right after the conference, he left Fusion Systems, a company that builds high-frequency trading systems for brokers that he had co-started in 2005 in Shanghai.
In 2014, he sold his apartment to buy Bitcoin, which he acquired at around $600 only to see it drop to $200 for two years. But Zhao said he has held onto nearly all of them to this day and only sold “very tiny bits” for small expenses.
Three years later, Zhao set up Binance through a $15 million initial coin offering in July 2017. The crypto exchange grew at a blistering pace and became profitable after just three months, he said. Within six months or around 180 days, the Binance Coin (BNB) achieved a billion-dollar market cap.
The BNB token was trading at $614.15 as of 1:11 pm EST on Friday, giving it a market cap of $94 billion, according to CoinMarketCap.
While critics and admirers alike have marveled at Binance’s 180-day success, Zhao said they didn’t know years of hard work and failures he had before Binance, which was his sixth startup.
“People say that but they don’t account for the 17 years before that where I tried various different things and built up the experience, a team, and network, etc,” he said. “And a lot of failures before that. So for me, it’s 17 years plus 180 days.”
No physical assets, just Bitcoin and BNB
In this new crypto bull market, Binance has emerged as an even bigger behemoth than before, with multiple divisions that tackle charity, investments and acquisitions, as well as a non-fungible token marketplace to be launched in June.
Zhao, a returnee to Forbes’ crypto billionaire list, is estimated to be worth $1.9 billion in fiat US dollars.
Instead of making common billionaire purchases such as a yacht, fancy cars, private jets, and multi-million-dollar houses, Zhao doesn’t invest in any physical assets including real estate.
“I don’t know all this fancy stuff,” he said. “If I look around the world, there’s no physical property that will hold value and that will appreciate in value. Nothing holds value nearly as well as cryptocurrencies, and nothing will grow nearly as fast as cryptocurrencies.”
Zhao does splurge every now and then on electronic gadgets such as phones, cameras, and computers, but he still laments their rapid depreciation in value.
“I typically use them for a month or so, when I have to move, I just throw them away,” he said. “So I don’t do any physical asset investments.”
Zhao intends to stay crypto-rich. He never holds any fiat money for an extended period of time and has kept almost all of his personal capital in Bitcoin and Binance Coin.
While there are hundreds of tokens listed on Binance, Zhao said he simply does not have the time to research and understand other tokens in-depth due to the multiple days and weeks it will take to due diligence the projects and track their progress over time.
“Without understanding those, I do not invest myself,” he said. “Personally, I just want Bitcoin and BNB.”
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