Six months ago, Anthony Watson, the young hotshot CIO of Nike, abruptly left the sports apparel giant for personal reasons. In April, Fortune reported where he had landed: Bitreserve, a cloud money service that uses bitcoin. And now, not quite three months into his time there, he has a new title: CEO.
That was fast.
It’s a swift rise that is in keeping with Watson’s whirlwind career in the past year. The former global operations CIO at Barclays landed on our 40 Under 40 list last year for his impressive background, quick achievements as CIO of Nike, and his advocacy and influence in the gay community (Watson is out, and was the first non-U.S. citizen to score a seat on the board of GLAAD). When he left Nike at the end of last year, some scratched their heads; they continued scratching them when he moved to a digital currency startup.
Why go from sneakers to bitcoin? Why go from Nike, a Fortune 500 company with $28 billion in annual revenue, to Bitreserve, a fledgling startup less than one year old with less than $15 million in funding?
For starters, Watson was always a technology guy. He’s worked at three banks—Citi (as a contractor), Wells Fargo, and Barclays—but before that, he spent four years at Microsoft. At Barclays, he treated the bank’s tech department like a small startup within the larger organization, and led the launch of a slew of mobile banking apps. At Nike, he quickly helped the company ink a new partnership with Juniper Networks.
Bitreserve was the perfect combination of Watson’s passions and previous jobs: banking and tech. After leaving Nike, he had offers from big banks, but preferred to do something more entrepreneurial. “I was itching to make an impact,” Watson says. At Nike, he wasn’t doing enough to address that itch. He says he was convinced to join Bitreserve after just 10 minutes with the founder, Halsey Minor.
In addition, Bitreserve’s theme of financial inclusion—a bitcoin benefit that the cryptocurrency’s biggest flag-wavers love to talk up—fits perfectly with Watson’s ambitions of helping the unbanked and under-banked. “I’ve already worked for major companies,” he tells Fortune. “When I met with the Bitreserve team, it spoke to me on a social and equitable level. And it’s very rare you find opportunities like that.”
What Bitreserve does may be confusing to those unfamiliar with bitcoin. The company says it helps members to “transfer and convert the major currencies of the world instantly, safely, and for free.” (Low fees and no transfer delays are the selling points of many new fintech companies, not just those working in bitcoin.) Think of it as a bitcoin bank, though the company rejects that word. It allows you to convert bitcoin into different currencies (the site currently supports nine currencies and four precious metals) for use in the cloud, or simply to be stored, like a bank. Bitreserve is also big on transparency, so its web site (along with a separate visualization site) makes very clear what the company is holding: just $2.1 million USD, at the moment, 55% of it in bitcoin, 18% of it in U.S. dollars, and 10% of it in British pounds.
The company says it has more than 16,300 active members and has powered $16.5 million in cloud money transactions.
BitReserve’s founder, Minor, has an illustrious tech resume that includes investing early in Salesforce and founding CNET. “Everything I’ve done has been at dramatically low cost and has allowed a lot more people to participate,” he told Fortune in April. “We all know, from Facebook and others, how incredibly efficient cloud-based services can be in linking lots and lots of participants together. So we’re doing that right now for nine currencies and four metals.”
With Watson becoming president and CEO of BitReserve, Minor remains chairman of the board and takes on a role as the company’s “chief visionary.” BitReserve also has two new boardmembers: Adrian Steckel, who has been CEO at a number of telecom companies in Mexico (most recently IUSACELL, which sold to AT&T for $2.5 billion), and Jim Milby, who worked with Watson at Barclays and Citi.
The company also will make an announcement in July that “changes their service and offerings,” according to a spokesperson.
Watson had interest in digital currencies before, and had a small investment in bitcoin that he says “did well,” but now he’s suddenly a digital currency CEO. “The negative perception is there,” he says. “It would be foolish to say it’s not there. But I think it’s a young currency and the platform is just being developed. The value of bitcoin isn’t the currency, but the technology. I can’t see many major governments around the world saying, ‘We’re going to move to bitcoin as currency,’ but I suspect that the world will embrace the uses of the blockchain.”
Now he has to see to it that the bitcoin world embraces BitReserve, too.