Don't Understand Blockchain? It Can Work for You Anyway, This Founder Says.
Editor’s Note: In this series, The Way We Work, Entrepreneur Associate Editor Lydia Belanger examines how people foster productivity, focus, collaboration, creativity and culture in the workplace.
Amy Wan started off her law career in Washington, D.C., where she quickly realized that working for the federal government fulfilled its stereotype of being “slow and bureaucratic.” So she decided to take online courses to learn how to code.
One coding assignment was to create a website to exchange bitcoin. This was in 2012, in the cryptocurrency’s nascent days before what Wan calls “Crypto Winter,” when interest in the blockchain-based technology weaned for a few years. Right before that downturn in bitcoin buzz, Wan left her job, moved to L.A. and joined a “legal hackers meetup.”
Crypto Winter diverted her career path toward crowdfunding and securities law temporarily, until activity in the space picked up again and she saw there were numerous regulatory and security holes to fill.
“If you analogize it back to the ‘90s, there was a time when people were afraid to buy things online, because you didn't know if you would get that widget that you paid 40 bucks for,” Wan said. She saw an opportunity to build a company that would build solutions to address the “transactional confidence problem” that plagues blockchain.
She co-founded her company, Sagewise, to this end. This week, the company is launching a product called Blokusign, a blockchain-powered, Gmail-integrated digital signature software designed to minimize and resolve disputes.
In many lines of work, contract signing is a major time-suck. While there are already plenty of electronic signature apps out there (such as Docusign or HelloSign), Blokusign has an added layer of decentralized authentication. If someone tampers with a contract (say, adds a 0 to a monetary amount), the Blokusign ledger will reveal which one is the original.
Wan spoke with Entrepreneur about blockchain’s potential as an invisible workplace tool.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It seems as though, in this era of blockchain, contracts are one of the most logical use cases. It's crazy that we still do things like sign receipts when we buy something.
Before starting this company, I was working at a fintech startup. We had to have the notary come over all the time to physically notarize documents. An in-person notary is no better than some other sort of authentication method.
Now, with all our technology around Adobe and all of that kind of stuff, it’s so easy to just take a document and doctor it. I’m a former attorney, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across a case where loan documents were doctored, or payoff documents were doctored.
What does Blokusign look like to the user?
What we envision one day is that, if there are two parties that have competing versions of documents, all you’ll have to do is upload the document that you're claiming is the authentic one onto a website with a user friendly interface and it'll give you a red check or green check. The green check says, yes, this is the authentic version, the hashes match or, no, it isn’t. And it does that by reading the metadata of the document. It cuts out the middleman and it allows the parties themselves to go and authenticate the documents.
What does that dispute process involve now?
Today, if you go e-sign something, you don't have blockchain-powered authentication, then you're going to end up having two parties with different documents. First they have to give statements to the court about, we believe this is the authentic one, and then they might have to produce evidence. And if that isn't good, than they'd probably have to go subpoena [the e-signature company.] [With Blokusign], you're not dependent on some third party that either won't cooperate or maybe one day they're out of business or they're very slow to respond.
How specifically do you foresee Blokusign boosting efficiency for companies?
If you can efficiently and easily prove which document is authentic, it’s not so much that you’re cutting down costs. You’re actually deterring bad behavior of people going and doctoring documents. And then secondly, the cases never even get that far. If you are able to promote a better culture of authenticity in real estate, in wills and trusts, in things of that sort, you decrease the caseload in courts over those types of issues, because people are going to be less inclined if it’s easy to prove them wrong.
What are the biggest problems with companies experimenting with blockchain technology that you’ve seen?
I have very strong opinions on this. Often, a lot of these things are just, we took an existing business and slapped it on blockchain, and that’s a terrible idea. Blockchain technology makes things very complex and can bring a lot of security vulnerabilities into a business, as well as high costs. In order to effectively use the technology, you have to understand its advantages but also its limitations. A lot of companies are using blockchain technology when regular database technology would suffice.
I also think there’s a huge user-friendliness issue. No one goes around saying, "I’m using TCP/IP." You use the internet and you don’t think about it. But right now in the blockchain space, it’s like, "Oh, I’m using blockchain." If you’re using blockchain, you should never know that you’re using blockchain. That’s one thing that’s preventing mass adoption of blockchain.
I don’t think you should have to understand blockchain technology. You should just be able to use it. If my mom can’t understand, then I don’t think it can ever take off. We’re not programming here for the crazy developers of the world, because then it’s a niche technology. We have to design for the other 98 percent of the population who doesn’t know how to code and isn’t technologically savvy.
Did you decide to launch Blokusign as a Gmail plugin to help with adoption?
As an attorney, I have used e-signature technology a lot. But it’s still not easy, and I’ll still get annoyed because someone will email me something, and then I have to download it and e-sign it and upload it again or attach it to an email -- it’s a process. Or you have to download, print it out, sign it, scan it, upload it. It clutters up my desktop, and I end up with all of these files in my downloads folder that I’m never going to look at again.
You shouldn’t have to ever download a document. You should be able to do that preview thing and sign something with one click. Although Gmail isn’t accessible everywhere, it brings us one step closer to, how can we make e-signature as intuitive and easy as possible?
Beyond Blokusign, what is Sagewise’s broader, long-term vision?
Blockchain technology and smart contract technology provides a unique opportunity to shift the paradigm of how things work today. With these technologies, we could basically create alternative legal systems -- ones where, if I have a dispute, I don’t have to spend a ton of time, and money, and go hire an attorney, and sit in court for two years. Most of the population doesn’t have access to justice, because you pretty much have to be a large corporation or a wealthy individual to efficiently take advantage of a legal system.
Our world has changed so much over the past couple of decades. We don’t just have blockchain technology that allows for decentralization, we have social media, we have the rise of stateless organizations. You’re starting to see the geophysical nation-state become a little bit less relevant. But our legal infrastructure has not caught up and does not reflect how the global economy works today. If we can have more more efficient and effective dispute resolution for these transactions in the blockchain ecosystem, then it will provide greater access to justice for most people.