Nuggets: merging security and convenience through blockchain
Having bank details lost or stolen is something many of us have experienced, but as technology continues to disrupt the finance industry the lengthy process of resolving the problem seems increasingly archaic. This was certainly the case for Alastair Johnson, founder and CEO of blockchain startup Nuggets, upon losing his own card details. When he eventually received his replacement card, he had to re-enter new information on dozens of websites and was struck by the lack of both convenience and security at a time when data breaches were making the headlines. “You wouldn’t write down your mother’s maiden name, email address and national insurance (NI) number on a post-it note and leave it in every cash till on the high street – but in a digital sense we do that all over the place,” he comments.
The experience prompted Johnson to found Nuggets, which promises to help customers “take back control” of their data in 2016. The ecommerce payment and ID platform allows users to store their payment details on blockchain technology to achieve a single sign-on method which means personal data doesn’t need to be shared with multiple organisations. “You can transact securely and verify your identity without somebody having access to that data and being able to take over your information. If a business doesn’t log the personal data in their centralised silos in the first place, it can’t be breached,” Johnson explains.
With breaches at large tech companies cited as a ‘tipping point’, a recent study by Gartner has found for the first time that privacy is becoming more of a priority over convenience for consumers – in 2009, it was reported that consumers remained unwilling to sacrifice convenience to keep their data secure. As organisations battle to develop their cybersecurity offerings, Johnson cites two reasons for the failings we see in the headlines. “There are people who don’t understand tech and are being victimised for that and there’s the other side where people do understand it and they’re trying to do best practices but those options where you have to log in with a username and password still exist.”
A key challenge for any tech company then, no matter which platform is being provided, is to ensure convenience while also assuring customers that keeping their data secure is top priority – but for Johnson’s single sign-on vision this presents more of an opportunity. “It actually gets more convenient with all the security, because you’re not passing around usernames and passwords: you’re verifying ID across a network. So, it’s a lot more secure and convenient – you get the best of both worlds.”
Staying secure in a cashless society
In an increasingly cashless landscape, Johnson explains how a single sign-on system using blockchain will enable various societies to complete the transition away from cash and even card. “Now we have the technology to leapfrog plastic with a funded digital identity which can then be associated with a digital watch or fitness band. It’s crazy that we’re still relying on this bit of plastic with a chip to come through in the post a week after it’s been cloned,” Johnson argues, adding that cashless has yet to go far enough. “Even though you have Apple Pay and Android Pay, we’re still adding a plastic card of information to make that work as a secure payment source. At Nuggets, were saying ‘why don’t I add my digital ID to that payment app, so it allows access to my payment but I don’t need a plastic card that the numbers can be copied off?’”
Tying in with the development of open banking which will involve closer collaboration and data sharing, Johnson feels that the future of ID technology should be agnostic. “In the past, you’ve seen a lot of wallet apps from different schemes, but wouldn’t it make sense that they all tied back to the same APIs and services? When mobile phones first came out, you could only ring other people on the same network – this only lasted about six months. In the early days, everyone comes out with their version but at the end of the day, the agnostic approach is going to be a winner.”
In China, fast becoming the home of cashless payments, Nuggets has entered into a partnership with mobile payment technology, service and solution provider QFPay, which is used by epayment giants Alipay and WeChat Pay, serving over one million merchants across Asia. This partnership will mean Alipay and WeChat Pay users can use a digital ID to make payments as opposed to attaching these to a bank card. “You can’t compete against WeChat Pay and AliPay but you can add value to them,” says Johnson. “Currently you’re going back to plastic to enable them – you’re basically rerouting to the old system. The potential is that you have your login and maybe your profile data within your own realm but it can be used for those products and services.” In Asia and further afield, Johnson is keen to highlight the potential of ID technology for business, particularly for SMEs. “It enables small businesses, people at food festivals or taxi drivers to transact without that chunky terminal. The potential for the smaller is immediately accessible… and this can also benefit larger businesses as well.”
A blockchain-based future
For Johnson, blockchain technology was a clear choice in implementing a more secure and convenient platform. “We spent time looking at other solutions to get to the same point – the key one being zero knowledge storage. Existing systems that do zero knowledge storage are quite clunky, and often they’ve got root level access to providers and such like. With blockchain, only the user has the key to their information,” he explains. “We have zero knowledge, we have the decentralised network, and we have encryption to an extremely high level – so blockchain ticked many boxes.” In addition, blockchain allows a kind of credit history to be set up due to the log it takes of every activity. “If you go and do 100 different payments to different places it demonstrates proof that you are a good actor on the network to the next person – you don’t have to be risk assessed.”
For any blockchain founder – and Johnson isn’t just ‘any’ founder, having been shortlisted for ‘Blockchain Founder of the Year’ at the 2018 BMW i UK Tech Founder Awards – it is often necessary to play the part of evangelist for this fairly new technology which is often mistrusted or misunderstood, but even in the past six months Johnson says the potential is finally being recognised. “It’s not just an intriguing tech conversation now – we’re starting to see real use cases coming out for blockchain and being applied. 2018 has brought the understanding of how consumers can react closely with the blockchain. In years to come, people won’t know or care if they’re on the blockchain; it’ll be fixed into life,” he anticipates.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.