ICOs? He held the first one. Stablecoins? He dreamed of them by accident. Vitalik Buterin tried to get him on board to help launch Ethereum, but he was too busy. He is J. R. Willett, one of the most fascinating men in the industry.
Back in 2012, Willett, now 41, felt he could improve Bitcoin by making it possible for anyone to create interoperable tokens backed by the protocol. He released a white paper that described the new model and invented a way to fund the project with a token sale. He procrastinated for the next 18 months, hoping someone else would take the bait. Eventually, he gave in and announced the Mastercoin initial coin offering, which went on to inspire Ethereum and every subsequent ICO.
“It felt like I was just putting into words what was obviously going to happen — people were already talking about it, and I thought, ‘Why hasn’t someone formalized this at least a little bit?’ I just got tired of waiting for someone else.”
In the early days, he was worried that cryptocurrency would bring about a dystopia where either the late adopters became penniless or a one-world government would form to regulate everyone’s transactions. He’s still worried, but things are going better than he’d feared.
In the sea of exceptional and charismatic people who rise to the top of the cryptocurrency world, Willett stands out. Not in his absolutist conviction to a set of principles, not in his journey from rags to riches, not in his “maniac drive” to stick with a project, not in his outsized charitable pursuits, and not even in his artistic endeavors or grand visions for the future. No. Willett stands out because despite the incredible things he has set in motion, he remains a humble family man who never forgot what was most important.
The first ICO
When the world rang in the year 2012, Bitcoin was pretty much the only game in town. Bitcoin, blockchain and cryptocurrency were one and the same, save for the newly birthed Litecoin fork that was not yet three months old (LTC was created via mining, just like Bitcoin). It’s here that Willett arrived to stir the pot, publishing what he called “The Second Bitcoin Whitepaper.”
“We claim that the existing Bitcoin network can be used as a protocol layer, on top of which new currency layers with new rules can be built without changing the foundation,” he wrote. The idea was to make it possible to create new, functional tokens on top of Bitcoin in such a way that smart contracts could regulate their interactions. “Mastercoin supports creating property tokens to be used for titles, deeds, user- backed currencies and even shares in a company,” the white paper explained.
This sounds much like Ethereum today, complete with interoperable ERC-20 tokens and smart contracts. That is no coincidence, considering that Ethereum was partly inspired by Willett’s ideas.
“Vitalik came to us initially with his ideas, and we told him, ‘We’ve got some other things we want to do first.’ He didn’t want to wait, and it’s good for him that he didn’t. Ethereum was the result of that.”
Willett even brought up the idea of stablecoins, writing that “If you think Bitcoin has a reputation problem for money laundering now, just wait until you can store ‘USDCoins’ in the block chain!” This was a new idea — he invented the concept.
Mastercoin’s launch — and token sale — was announced in July 2013. It was the first-ever ICO, and coins could be purchased at an exchange rate of 100 MSC per 1 BTC. These first coins were received from the “Exodus Address,” which served as Mastercoin’s equivalent to the genesis block — while Bitcoin was the beginning, Mastercoin was imagined as the next era.
When Willett announced Mastercoin on the Bitcointalk forum, he thought of it as a one-time shortcut to get around the “proper way” of raising money. “It didn’t feel like an innovation at the time,” he says.
“I thought I had found a bit of a shortcut — I just didn’t have time to go flying to California, putting together a pitch deck and talking to venture capitalists, most of whom hadn’t heard of Bitcoin.”
Eventually, Mastercoin evolved into the Mastercoin Foundation, itself evolving into the Omni Foundation, which Willett founded and where he still serves as chief architect. Willett says that transparency was very important to him while creating the nonprofit, and explains how he used a public spreadsheet to record all expenses.
“The problem with that was that as we started running out of money, everybody knew we were running out of money, and that took some of the wind from our sails,” he recalls with a laugh. Today, Omni Layer is an “open source, fully decentralized asset platform” that allows for “creating and trading custom digital assets and currencies.”
When asked if he harbors any regrets in not becoming a billionaire CEO, he lets out a hearty guffaw. “I’m sure there would have been things that were fun about it,” he says giddily, but goes on to explain that he is a minimalist who barely owns anything that his kids do not need. “What do you get from being super-wealthy, if you kind of have a minimalist state of mind? You just get a bunch of problems,” he contemplates. Is there perhaps a tinge of regret there?
“Maybe the regret there is that I could have done a lot of good — but hopefully, those people that do become billionaires will do a lot of good.”
Willett led what he calls an idyllic childhood with a father who “always had a knack for money and investments” and began teaching him coding on the family’s Apple II-GS computer when Willett was only 10 years old.
While still in high school in Oregon, Willett spent summers working as a shop assistant doing unglamorous work like sweeping and cleaning toilets. One time, he wrote a mock virus and made his employers believe that they had been hacked. “They had an old IBM computer — I think I wrote it at home and then brought it in on a floppy disk,” he recounts with laughter.
When Willett later learned that he could make a living doing “this thing I’d been doing for fun,” a degree in computer science at Seattle Pacific University was a “no-brainer.” He graduated in 2002.
After two years as a software developer at “dot-com startup” Alerio in Oregon, he joined Dynon Avionics, where he was promoted to a senior role. Over his 11-year career there, he created flight planning software and calibrated instruments that went on to be used in applications as exotic as the SpaceShipOne spaceplane, which completed the first crewed private spaceflight in 2004.
In 2012, he joined his present employer, Cozi, as software developer lead, where he designs mobile calendar apps that help families stay organized. It seems a good fit. He says, “I’ve always considered myself a family man — even before I had kids.”
That’s right — Willett, the inventor of both the ICO and algorithmic stablecoin, still works a day job. “You can’t have all of your money tied up in cryptocurrencies,” he said, referring to the responsibilities of parenthood.
It was around 2010 while working at Dynon Avionics that Willett “kind of fell in that [cryptocurrency] hole and never got out.” He watched the Bitcoin price rise up to $0.25, and remembers setting up a beige computer tower, which successfully mined a block of 50 BTC on its own over a few weeks with only a central processing unit, or CPU.
CPU mining soon became impossible, as GPUs (graphic processing units) and later ASIC miners (specialized software chips for mining) connected to mining pools came to dominate the landscape. “Even then, it was unusual to get a block from a CPU, but it wasn’t unheard of,” Willett recalls.
Unlike some others from his time, Willett did not come to view cryptocurrencies as a universal savior or liberator of humanity. Instead, he foresaw a dystopian future, which worried him deeply. He never wanted to metaphorically burn the banks or upend the system, because that sort of thing is bound to hurt many, many people who rely on the existing structures.
“It looked to me like something that could, if it got big enough, damage the entire world’s financial systems. I thought, this is the sort of thing you better own just defensively, as an insurance policy.”
Willett admits that the idea of Bitcoin damaging the global financial infrastructure “sounded pretty crazy back in 2010-2011, when very few people had heard of Bitcoin, but I have always taken the opinion that the government-issued monies are much more fragile than they appear.” He adds that a bank run could happen if people lose confidence in fiat, and now, there is a valid alternative for it.
For Willett, money is a “shared hallucination” that works well if everyone plays along, but can fall apart quickly if people choose to “opt out.”
This is not necessarily what Willett desires, as such a situation would leave those without cryptocurrency in a desperate situation. Not everyone knows about cryptocurrency, and not everyone has the money to invest or the confidence to risk their capital. It would be a tragedy for them to be left behind. But, “Thinking about that potential possible outcome, it would be foolish not to own at least some cryptocurrency,” he reasons.
“If there comes a tipping point where everyone tries to get out of government money and into cryptocurrencies… it’d be on the scale of global war in the amount of human suffering.”
Willett admits that back in 2012, he “vastly overestimated” the speed at which cryptocurrency adoption would happen. Some of his writings from the time came with a particularly dystopian bent, such as predicting governments “attempting to destroy all decentralized computer networks (including the internet)” in order to bring about a “strong, centralized, [blockchain powered] one-world government which gets its revenues by tightly reigning in freedom of commerce in order to collect taxes.”
“When I wrote that, I expected it could be a year or two away,” he thinks back. He does not come across as much of a doomsayer anymore. “The longer it takes to get there, the less disruptive it’ll be,” he says referring to the view that a larger base of cryptocurrency owners will result in a less turbulent transition toward cryptocurrency.
Willett is confident that there will only be more crypto billionaires, as he expects the bull market to continue for some time. “Usually, there’s a roughly hundredfold run-up, followed by a roughly tenfold drop. It happens over the course of months or even years, and then it happens again.” He considers Ether the best bet today, and recently predicted an ETH top of around $9,500 for this cycle.
“I’m optimistic that our crypto billionaires, whoever they are, will eventually become crypto philanthropists, especially if this world that we’re building ends up causing a lot of pain and suffering for people that are late adopters.”