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Season 02 | Episode 01

Crypto.com’s Steve Kalifowitz on Building a Brave New Brand

In our premiere episode of Season 2, Steve Kalifowitz, CMO at Crypto.com, the world’s fastest growing cryptocurrency application, speaks about the future of cryptocurrency, how to educate users on new technologies, and gives advice for brands taking their first steps into Web3 and digital currency.

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Image of Steve Kalifowitz

About Steve Kalifowitz

Steve began his career at ABC Television and HBO. His work as a producer earned him four Emmy Award nominations and two Emmy Awards. He later drove growth for Twitter throughout APAC and MENA and is now CMO of Crypto.com, where he's led the industry's push into sports marketing with breakthrough partnerships including UFC, Formula1 and the renaming of LA's most iconic sports and entertainment venue to Crypto.com Arena.

Rob Goodman:

Hi everyone, and welcome Now What?, the podcast from Wix about how technology is changing…everything. I'm your host, Rob Goodman, and in this series we're talking all about evolution in business, design, development and beyond. Over the past couple of years, business and creative leaders have had to evolve to meet the challenges that come with this overwhelming amount of change. Here at Wix we're interested in ways the creative people are evolving to build new businesses, grow beyond their limits and shape the future of the web. So, we thought: what if we got a bunch of our friends together, leaders in design, development, eCommerce and the agency world to talk about how they're dealing with all this change and how it's affecting their careers, teams and industries. This is a place for you to prepare for tomorrow's ever-changing world and apply those lessons today.


Rob Goodman:

In this new season of the show we're diving into customer experience. As the world has rapidly transformed, customer's expectations, behavior and needs have adapted with it. Paired with the emergence of new forms of social media, digital currency, the metaverse and so much more, navigating what this means for you and your organization can be a lot. So, we're bringing you fresh interviews and new insights from leaders that are reshaping business today to better prepare you for what's ahead. In our premier episode of Season Two, we're sitting down with Steve Kalifowitz, Chief Marketing Officer at Crypto.com. Crypto.com is a cryptocurrency exchange based in Singapore and the fastest growing crypto app in the world. In the spring of 2022, the company announced 50 million users on the platform, a 5X growth in just about one year's time. Today, we're speaking with the leader behind the monumental growth of that brand and learning more about Steve's path to CMO. Steve's journey is just as unconventional as the crypto industry itself.


Rob Goodman:

He began his career at ABC Television before joining HBO, where he earned two Emmy awards and four nominations for his work as a producer. He went on to lead business, strategy and operations for R/GA’s presence in APAC and later drove growth and business for Twitter across 20 countries in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Now, as CMO at Crypto.com, he's leading the charge for the industry's first consumer brand and driving breakthrough partnerships with UFC, Formula 1 and even renaming LA's most iconic sports and entertainment venue to Crypto.com Arena. On today's show, I talk with Steve about the future of cryptocurrency, building a brand while also educating users, the right strategies and timing for working with agencies, what it's like working with brand ambassadors like Matt Damon and LeBron James and advice for brands taking their first steps into Web3 and cryptocurrency. You're in for a great conversation with Steve Kalifowitz at Crypto.com. Let's get started. Steve, welcome to the Now What? podcast, it's so great to have you here.


Steve Kalifowitz:

Thanks. It's great to be here.


Rob Goodman:

So let's start things off and I'd love to hear more about your role at Crypto.com.


Steve Kalifowitz:

Sure. I'm the Global Chief Marketing Officer and I'm responsible for just getting the word out, making sure everybody knows who we are wherever they may be.


Rob Goodman:

Amazing. And while I have you here, I have to ask about the future of cryptocurrency, where do you think things are going? What's next? I know we live in volatile times but from the long view, how is cryptocurrency going to change the future of how we live, work and play?


Steve Kalifowitz:

I think like everything that the internet has touched, it changes it pretty fundamentally and crypto's no different. I put it a different way, crypto is programmable money and programmable money just makes sense in the way that eCommerce just made sense. Several years ago people thought eCommerce was just a fad, people thought the internet was a fad. The powers that be at companies like HBO and others didn't think that streaming movies was going to be a thing. So the internet is just a bunch of transactions between people and being able to associate value to that and have the value accrue to the people who are investing in and supporting these networks makes sense, doing it in a decentralized manner. The power of cryptocurrency is to remove a lot of total collectors, bringing costs down and putting control back in the hands of the users.


Rob Goodman:

And you've had such a unique and diverse career: Emmy awards, HBO, leading at Twitter, R/GA on the agency side. When you think back at your career, what do you think have been those touchpoints that have led you to this role now as Chief Marketing Officer at Crypto.com, which is on the bleeding edge of technology?


Steve Kalifowitz:

Yeah. I think somewhat unintentionally, I had this career that kept me continuing to go for the thing that's new and I think there are people who call themselves futurists. I'm just curious about what's new and I get bored with things really fast so all I ever wanted to do when I was a kid is make movies and then I got to HBO and I did that and it was wonderful but I was like, "Wait, is this the rest of my life, I'm just going to do this stuff?" And I was looking at the digital world and seeing this tsunami coming for video content in the same way that it had already hit music. And I was so curious about how HBO, where I happened to be working, could play a role in the internet as a curator. I was talking with leadership internally about how we're known for great shows but really what we should be known for is curating great shows.


Steve Kalifowitz:

And how about we curate the internet because fundamentally there's only 24 hours in a day. There's only so much time and money people can devote to entertainment, super valuable but there's a limit. So as people start spending more time on the internet, they were going to spend less time watching TV even if what they're doing on the internet is watching TV. And one of my cases was like, I got a bunch of people in a room, senior execs, and I was like, "How many of you have ever seen a YouTube video?" And everybody raised their hand and then I said, "How many of you are spending time looking for YouTube videos?" No one raised their hand then I said, "Sure, because people are emailing them to you," back in like 2005 that's how you found videos on YouTube.


Steve Kalifowitz:

Google hadn't really acquired them yet and there wasn't a search capability. So I had an attitude of, "Could we curate the web that's a really interesting space to be in?" Everyone at HBO was against the idea, we had just made the shift to HD and this concept of watching videos on your crappy computer monitor or worse yet on your phone just didn't make sense to anybody. And so I was just curious about it. I was bored with just making more TV than what felt the old way but I still loved making. And so then I got to R/GA where digital agencies were still figuring themselves out, there wasn't a real digital economy yet, social media had just been born. This is in, like, 2006, 2007 and then yeah, I was at R/GA for a while.


Steve Kalifowitz:

And then I got bored with the agency model and I wanted to get more involved on the product side and that's when I got over to Twitter in a role that allowed me to both be in a sales role, a strategy role, consulting for product and handled brand strategy all over Asia and Middle East, which was awesome. And then I wanted to get more into startups and so then I went to a startup, I moved back to the U.S. and joined a startup called Localize that we launched in the U.S.


Steve Kalifowitz:

And then all of that prepared me for Crypto.com where it's an amazing company of builders who got me back to my core of what I did at R/GA or at HBO, which was to make things. It allowed me to apply my understanding of what I learned at Twitter, which was how agencies and media platforms and digital products and growth worked. And also what I learned at Localize was about how to start a company and so I brought all those together and they just coalesced here. And again, crypto is something I've been watching for a long time and then two years ago, I met Kris, the founder, and we just clicked right away and we've been working 24 hours a day ever since.


Rob Goodman:

It's amazing to hear your story and your journey here. And what you're building at Crypto.com, both from a company standpoint and a brand standpoint is really interesting. And I want to hear from you about what you feel it takes to build a brand in today's world, given how noisy it is, how decentralized it is, what have you learned about building up Crypto.com over these past couple of years?


Steve Kalifowitz:

I sometimes have a view that at least agency people I've met don't always agree with, which is that when it comes to startups especially, digital startups that are not DTC brands you probably shouldn't invest too much in brand until you have product-market fit. And the reason for that is that until you have product-market fit, you don't yet know what it is that you're making. You don't yet know who your market is. You don't yet know who's going to love your product and how you're going to obsess over them. You can start a company with a point of view that: here is a problem I want to solve. And again, in the digital world you tend to be building products that solve problems. DTC brands don't really solve problems, they are brands in and of themselves and the products are commodities. And so in those models you should really focus on brand as the main thing you sell.


Steve Kalifowitz:

But when it comes to product in the product world and certainly digital products, you want to make sure that you're solving a problem and you want to know who you're solving that problem for and in the most extreme sense of Slack, the guys who started Slack, that is Stewart Butterfield I believe his name is and his team, they're the people from Flickr which is an incredible service. I only recently stopped paying for it because I just had it for so long and then I was like, "Wait, let me just download all this stuff to CDs." And I was using Flickr from the day it launched, it was amazing. So they left Flickr and they went to build another photo sharing service and then they ended up making Slack. So that's an extreme example but still they had to figure out what they're building and who they're building for.


Steve Kalifowitz:

And then sometimes you might think you have a great idea and a great solution and then the users just don't love it for whatever reason. And so you've got to find that product-market fit and then really focus on brand because brand is to a certain degree shackles, it's a lane you've got to go down. And as you're building products, you want the ability to constantly test and learn stuff. Brand is about consistency, consistent behavior, really focusing down on who your audience is and making sure that you're meeting them in the most honest way possible. So when I joined Crypto.com, one of the things that I was really looking for when I was looking for a new role was a company that had found product-market fit and was on its way to really starting to invest heavily in brand.


Steve Kalifowitz:

That was just a super interesting concept that I wanted to think about and so that was Crypto.com for me. When I got here, the first thing was, "Okay, what's our brand strategy?" Now, that doesn't just come out of thin air, it starts from within. It's not a veneer you put on top but it really needs to be what is the core, what is the soul of the company? And then understanding who are the customers who you have, who know you well, why do they love you? And then thinking about who is the next audience you want to go for and who you think should be using your products and if they just knew you better or understood who you were, you'd be a brand of first choice. That's been a lot of the focus of mine at Crypto.com.


Rob Goodman:

And how about your marketing strategy specifically at Crypto.com? I mean, you are doing a ton of sponsorships…Formula 1, I know you just returned from, there are stadiums that you all are presenting now. How are you thinking about the marketing strategy? And then you're also bringing on folks like Matt Damon and LeBron James and I want to hear about how that came to be and what that's been like as well but talk me through the actual strategy and what you're building up with these campaigns.


Steve Kalifowitz:

Sure. One of the things that drew me to the crypto industry and to Crypto.com specifically, was that the industry wasn't really controlling our narrative. The narrative was being written by others because so many in the industry were so focused on building. So it was a genuine unsolved problem to help build a company that will both help create the narrative for the industry and also create a real crypto brand, which I don't think has really existed until we showed up in a true brand way. There were known companies but they weren't brands. No one could tell you what those companies stood for or what they made you feel or where they focused as an organization. It was really cool the other day, I met somebody who had joined the company two weeks earlier and they said to me they'd been working in the crypto world for about six years.


Steve Kalifowitz:

And when they told their parents, they joined Crypto.com, this was the first time that their parents not only knew the company that they were joining but their parents were excited for them to be joining this company. And those are all of the ancillary benefits that investing in and developing a brand give you, there's a lot of soft, qualitative things that go into decisions that people make and brand is like a puzzle when all the pieces of the puzzle come together well and they fit together subconsciously in a person's mind then that's their understanding of the brand. Yes, there's that thing of…you could invest tons of money in many years to build up your reputation and with one thing, kill your reputation. Sure, that could be one very big puzzle piece that doesn't fit the rest of the puzzle pieces that you put together.


Steve Kalifowitz:

But there's a lot of little things that you've got to build. So as we've been building the brand, we've been focusing on building up a lot of the little things and the strategy overall is to present to the world a real company that has real people that knows how to behave like a grown up brand. When I think about the crypto industry, there's a lot of companies in their early stages that are a bit rebellious and that was a draw for the early adopters and for the innovators, if you know that book Crossing the Chasm, they refer to those people as innovators and early adopters. And that may have been a draw for the early people but if you think about it, we're talking about money and people's hard earned money. And to a certain degree, the next group of people who come into the industry I think are unlikely to be drawn to a rebellious company because that might suggest that company might do things that will put their money at risk and that's not what people want to do.


Steve Kalifowitz:

And fundamentally Crypto.com is a large, strong company that is very trustworthy. We have the biggest insurance policy in the industry, we have some of the highest AML (Anti-Money Laundering) and KYC (Know Your Customer) policies around. We really focus hard on working well with regulators in every market that we work in. And we go the distance to make sure that we take really good care of our customers and that's something that I think you should not only know about us but you should know about the industry, that there are companies like us in the industry. And so when we go into a sponsorship, first of all, it introduces us to the market but it also introduces the industry given the name. So when you watch an F1 race and you see the word crypto…forget about our mark, the line and the.com on the other side of the word crypto, lots of people have opinions on what crypto is.


Steve Kalifowitz:

So putting it in specific places and in specific integrated ways I thought originally and now I can see in the data and from just qualitative and quantitative metrics people understood how we intend to present ourselves and that there's authenticity backing it. And we're attracting all the right people. We grew from around 10 million people and 10 million users in Q1 of 2021 to about 50 million, five zero. I think we announced that number about two weeks ago, so in April. So in roughly a year we grew 5X and we've continued to attract great partners who want to work with us.


Rob Goodman:

And also awareness for the brand has grown. I remember you telling me a bit about how you're seeing where you invest in the brand campaign and your strategies, you're seeing that growth. You're seeing the analytics.


Steve Kalifowitz:

Yeah. We run regular studies on brand awareness between us and others in the market. Our brand awareness has skyrocketed.


Rob Goodman:

Hi everyone, I hope you’re enjoying this episode. I just wanted to take a moment to tell you about Wix Enterprise. If your business is scaling, Wix Enterprise is for you. With an all-in-one web solution for any business need, you get customizable design with low or advanced code environment, depending on what you need. And integrations that connect to the tools you use today and might use tomorrow, like apps and third-party APIs. You’ll also get enterprise-grade security, the ability to assign team roles, add SSO login, customize permissions and manage everything from a centralized dashboard. With 99.99% uptime, you’ll get performance plus reliability in all the sites, landing pages, eCommerce destinations, internal experiences and campaigns that you run. That means uninterrupted, faster business for your customers and employees. Wix Enterprise comes with 24/7 support, plus a dedicated account management team and tailored solutions for your business. Ready to learn more? Visit wix.com/enterprise. That’s wix.com/enterprise.


Rob Goodman:

Now, let's get back to the show. And what was it like putting together the campaigns with Matt Damon and LeBron James? I mean, there's the exciting part of working with celebrities like that but then there's more of the storytelling aspect of it which I think you weave in so beautifully in the work that's on the website and commercials and all of that. Talk to me about the genesis of that work.


Steve Kalifowitz:

Like you said celebrities, it's cool and it's fun but at the end of the day, telling good stories is what matters. Because as human beings, we're wired to understand stories and good storytellers, good communicators communicate effectively and tell stories people want to hear. Whether or not you buy Nike clothing or gear, their stories are beautiful and everybody loves watching them. They're so well told, they know who they are really well. They have a singular message, just do it. And all the layers of what “just do it” means and their ability to maintain that message while intersecting it with culturally relevant things that are happening, no one beats them at that game. My team and I really strive for that level of excellence, of really knowing who we are and presenting it in a consistent way with striking at the right moments.


Steve Kalifowitz:

And so the concept of “Fortune Favors the Brave” really came from how we see our industry. Because I have two audiences I'm talking to all the time. I'm talking to the crypto industry and I'm talking to people who are new to the industry or people who are watching the crypto industry and thinking about coming in. There's plenty of people who, they're years away and I'm not too focused on them because they'll come when they're ready. The internet took a while for lots of people to join so did social media and on and on. So I'm really focused on speaking to those two audiences and those are two quite different audiences. And so “Fortune Favors the Brave” is very much recognizing those who came to the industry early and saying, "Look, you were the brave ones. You were the ones who when people told you, what are you, crazy? What, are you going to create a new monetary system?"


Steve Kalifowitz:

They said, "Yeah, this makes sense. I believe in this and this is who I am. This is the thing I want to be part of, then I care to be early because I want to have an influence over how this industry develops." And it's also an invitation to the people who are watching it because the industry still is early. That's the honest truth and so there are people who hear the line “fortune favors the brave'' and they say, "That's my anthem. That's how I live my life." And then there are people who hear it and say, "No, bad things happen to brave people and all of that." And that's okay and I'm not trying to convince those people. But it's very core to who we are and everybody who joined this company and everybody who works here and the people that we support in our company.


Steve Kalifowitz:

So as an exchange we allow people to access tons of cryptocurrencies and so we're not just giving people who want to trade cryptocurrency access, we're giving people building these projects the ability to reach new markets and new people. And so we really believe in investing in those people who are inventing the future and “Fortune Favors the Brave'' is really one of those things where it's an internal thing. In the spot with Matt Damon, we have a few vignettes and there's the vignette of the sailor and that's Magellan.


Steve Kalifowitz:

And on YouTube, we have a bunch of vignettes that we built that live on their own as offshoots from that film. And the vignette for Magellan is Magellan set sail without a map because he was the map maker. The one with the mountain climber, the vignette there is too many people, this is a barrier and to others it's an invitation. And so it's just a mindset, even the kiss because it's not all about just people doing crazy, monumental things. Even the kiss scene is about the vignette: there are those who wait for the perfect moment and then there are those who make the moment perfect. Our goal with “Fortune Favors the Brave” is to inspire people to follow their path.


Rob Goodman:

And so much of the work that you put into this brand and these campaign strategies, I know were born within the company and I want to hear a little bit of what it's like to build out all this work without an agency of record and your thoughts on how to use agencies in this mode that you're in and when not to use them.


Steve Kalifowitz:

So first of all, we definitely use agencies and we've used agencies to build these out, but it's true, we don't have an agency of record. So our brand strategy was built internally and that's something I believe in a lot, your brand needs to express who you are and outside consultants provided a really important value which is to often shine a light or hold up a mirror and say, "Here's what we see from the outside or what we could see from the outside," and have you think about it but building out who you are, codifying who you are, I think it's something you should do internally. That campaign idea came from an agency, they came to us with the line “Fortune Favors the Brave”. But even that came from a really tight brief that we gave them that said, "This is how we see the world. This is what we think. This is what we want to express."


Steve Kalifowitz:

And we talked about how crypto is just the next evolution in money and they came to us and said, "We thought about it and rather than make up a line or whatever, why don't we just use a line that's lasted the test of time and bring that time element?" And that birthed the idea of showing examples throughout history. And then together, we came together and we had to figure out, "Well, who will be the person?" And then we were like, "Well, we want to go after Matt and we'll put this twist in at the end with Mars because that's the element that we know crypto well and it matters to us." So I think, how to work with agencies today? I think it's a work in progress.


Steve Kalifowitz:

I see a lot of agencies thinking of different models. We've been building up our own internal team because I see marketing as a core capability of ours rather than something we can outsource. I think other companies that have been around for a long time and their book, who they are, what they do is pretty standardized and they just got to keep refreshing. It's easier to outsource but right now we're building our brand so I can't really outsource that and hope someone else figures it out. I want to have a team that's thinking about this 24/7 and has good support from outside points of view as of when necessary.


Rob Goodman:

So talk to me about the consumer trends you're seeing out there around cryptocurrency, how should businesses and eCommerce organizations start thinking about cryptocurrency as they're plotting their business growth and trajectory over the next 1, 3, 5 years, where do their heads need to be at?


Steve Kalifowitz:

I would say, probably, approaching it similarly to how people were recommended to approach social. Which is: don't treat it as a one-off campaign. Crypto is about investing in a relationship over time so I would say avoid doing random one-offs but at the same time, if it's not core to your business don't go all in on crypto overnight. You need to learn about it, you need to figure it out. Just like with eCommerce, brands that went all in on eCommerce left a lot on the table because people aren't going to stop going to stores. But at the same time companies that completely ignored eCommerce or did one-off things missed opportunities to learn. I think I read the other day that Gucci's going to start accepting crypto and they're going to start launching crypto projects and it's interesting to watch brands like that, as they see the potential and we all need to figure it out in parallel working together.


Rob Goodman:

Yeah. And you and Crypto.com are in such a unique space where you need to build awareness but you also need to educate people at the same time. What advice do you have for businesses that are in that space of having to build awareness and drive education for emerging technology? How have you learned to walk that line?


Steve Kalifowitz:

I wouldn't claim that I've figured it out completely. 2021 was really about introducing ourselves because without context there's nothing to teach and no one to teach. And now, we're moving into that space now, that we have mass awareness, we're investing more resources in the education side of things figuring out the right combination of resources and what do we work with partners on developing? So we sponsor a bit of content on CNBC, on Bloomberg, for example, because there are audiences there who are already interested in investing and understand core concepts of investing and investing in commodities, things like that. And so it seems like those audiences would be super relevant audiences to start teaching them about crypto but be the brand that delivers it rather than makes it. And again, that's an experiment we're seeing how it'll work but I'm pretty bullish on it. It's already having good results.


Rob Goodman:

And for our last question, I want to ask you, what's the last cool or innovative thing you've seen in the cryptocurrency world or NFT space?


Steve Kalifowitz:

I'll make a shameless plug for something my team built, which is we created NFTs for the Crypto.com Miami F1, where we created 57 unique NFTs. Each one represents one lap around the track and we built it through a combination of sound and speed and other sensors connected to the cars. And so each NFT is just this beautiful dataverse of what happened on that track in that lap genuinely one of a kind and also the first time that a race has ever been done there so genuinely, will be valuable assets to have in the future.


Rob Goodman:

That's amazing. I love the combination of NFT with real world experience but capturing a digital aspect of it and then reconfiguring it into artwork. That's just a beautiful multi-layer experience that I think illustrates so much of what's yet to be unlocked in cryptocurrency.


Steve Kalifowitz:

A hundred percent.


Rob Goodman:

Steve, thank you so much for joining the show. It's been such a pleasure to talk to you and thank you so much.


Steve Kalifowitz:

Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for having me.


Rob Goodman:

What a fantastic chat with Steve Kalifowitz, CMO at Crypto.com. I love this conversation and appreciated Steve's candid take on the industry and where things are going. It was great to hear Steve frame cryptocurrency not as a passing fad but rather a happening that is similar to the earliest days of eCommerce, social media and even the web itself. His belief, and the industry's belief, that this is a seismic shift and that it's still very early days. I also really enjoyed when Steve shared advice for brands considering getting into crypto and the Web3 space. He encouraged experimentation but noted that if FinTech and cryptocurrency isn't core to your business, there's no need to go all in. Start small, learn and grow your understanding of how your business might benefit from crypto. It's not too dissimilar to how brands were experimenting with social media back in the day.


Rob Goodman:

And lastly, given Steve's background and content, the agency world and his experience in tech and startup land, it was really eye opening to hear his perspective on when the right time is to start building a brand and when to start partnering with an agency too. He was firm in his belief that defining who your company is as a brand is internal work, especially if marketing is going to be a core competency for your team. And further: that until you have product-market fit, brand work should stay on pause. After all, you won't know who you are and you won't understand your audience's needs until that's solidified. Steve talked about his work partnering with agencies and doing it strategically. Like, for example, when he talked about the agency that came up with the idea for using that line “Fortune Favors the Brave”, but also Steve noted that was after him and his team gave super clear direction and a really buttoned up brief that leaned into who Crypto.com is as a brand. If you're interested in learning more about Steve and Crypto.com, be sure to check out Crypto.com. There's a ton of information there and stories to explore and you can get lots more in our show notes for this episode at wix.com/nowwhat.


Rob Goodman:

This is Now What? by Wix, the podcast about how technology is changing…everything. Be sure to subscribe and follow the show wherever you're listening to get new episodes first, and please rate, review and share this show with your friends and colleagues too. Now What? podcast is produced and hosted by me, Rob Goodman, Executive Producer for Content at Wix. Audio engineering and editing is by Brian Pake at Pacific Audio. Music is composed and performed by Kimo Muraki. Executive Producers from Wix are Susan Kaplow and me, Rob Goodman. You can learn more at wix.com/nowwhat. We'll see you soon.

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