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World-renowned investment group validates the potential of the most successful start-up in Auburn entrepreneurship history.
The founders of Yellow Card, the leading cryptocurrency exchange on the African continent, were some of the first participants in what is now known as the New Venture Accelerator (NVA) at Auburn’s Harbert College of Business. The three-year-old company’s mission of facilitating the free flow of money to, from and within African nations was barely a rough concept way back then—the two former Auburn University students, Chris Maurice and Justin Poiroux were simply exploring how to make a little money in the early days of the cryptocurrency industry.
Fast forward to Yellow Card’s recent round of $15 million Series A financing led by Valar Ventures, Third Prime and Castle Island Ventures, where Square, Inc., Blockchain.com Ventures, Coinbase Ventures, Polychain Capital, BlockFi, Fabric Ventures, Raba Partnership, MoonPay, GreenHouse Capital and others also participated. The new funding is accelerating the company’s expansion of cryptocurrency exchanges in 12 African countries—with additional nations about to come on board. With more than 100 employees—more than 95% of them in Africa—Yellow Card is experiencing the kind of explosive, profitable growth that exemplifies what can be accomplished when an innovative vision meets the expertise, resources and support services offered by the Auburn NVA’s dedicated team of entrepreneurial business experts.
On the eve of Yellow Card’s funding announcement, the Harbert College of Business sat down with Harbert Finance graduate and Yellow Card’s CEO Chris Maurice to discuss how the entrepreneurship support services and extended network of Harbert’s NVA played an indispensable role in building what has become an international business success. Chris’ candid recollection of the early days at Yellow Card reveals what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur and speaks to a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem at Auburn that is like no other.
HCOB: Let’s start at the beginning—how did you get involved in cryptocurrencies? What prompted you to consider what was then an unproven industry sector as a viable arena in which to start a business?
Chris: Crypto intrigued me, and one day I saw Bitcoin being sold on eBay for a 150% mark-up. I called my friend Justin Poiroux, who ended up co-founding Yellow Card and is now Chief Technical Officer, and said, “I know how to use eBay and you know Bitcoin, so let’s make some money here.” So, we listed Bitcoin on eBay and did $10,000 in sales the first day—at a 100% mark-up. That first week we generated over $40,000 in sales and I'm getting ready to call my mom to tell her that I'm dropping out of school to sell magic internet money for the rest of my life.
HCOB: It was that easy?
Chris: Yeah, sure. Or so we thought. Turns out, what was happening that first week was that a bunch of guys in Russia and India were stealing credit cards, running them until one hits and then using those numbers to buy Bitcoin from us. That’s when I learned what a credit card charge back is. That's also when I learned just how irreversible a cryptocurrency transaction is. We lost every dime we had.
But it was a good lesson to learn early on—security is key. We decided that if this was going to succeed, we would have to accept the only irreversible payment method known to man—cold, hard cash. We posted ads on Craigslist and local Bitcoin websites saying “Hey, we have Bitcoin, come meet up with us, give us cash and we'll give you Bitcoin.”
HCOB: You turned an online-intensive transaction into a face-to-face, physical exchange? How did that work?
Chris: It wasn’t all that complicated. We let it be known that every Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. you could meet with us at a fast-food restaurant in Auburn, and we’d be sitting in a back booth taking cash and assigning Bitcoin to buyers’ QR codes on their phones. It only took two, maybe three weeks before we realized this was actually working. So, we called up our friends at LSU, Yale, Georgia, Alabama and other universities to rope them in. Three weeks later there were seven related operations in the back of other fast-food restaurants across the south and northeast where you could walk in and buy Bitcoin. And we got a cut of their transactions for setting it all up.
HCOB: So, that’s a cottage industry at this point, right? How did you take that initial proof of concept and turn it into the company you are today?
Chris: The short answer is Dr. LaKami Baker, Lou Bifano, Cary Chandler, Scott McGlon and all the resources provide to us by the NVA at Auburn, with a particular emphasis on Dr. Baker. We had a legitimate operation going when we entered the program, but it was not scalable by any means. I remember Dr. Baker kind of making fun of us at the time—we thought we knew everything, but we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. I think it must have been hard for Dr. Baker and others to work with us at first.
HCOB: Can you give us a sense of how the help they provided manifested itself, both conceptually and practically?
Chris: The big thing is that they never gave up on us. They saw potential in us that I don't think we really saw in ourselves at the time. That gave us confidence that we were really on to something.
From a practical standpoint, the most indispensable skills I acquired from my time at the NVA were how to craft an investor pitch and how to deliver it. I had no clue about either—and it was a long, hard haul to learn.
HCOB: You say “long and hard” —can you give us some context here?
Chris: Sure. So, one of the first things they identified for us was all these new venture pitch contests across the country—opportunities for us to stand up in front of start-up judges and try to sell our new business idea. We applied for entry to a few, and we were accepted. Now we had to prepare—pull together a presentation deck and practice delivering it.
For the three weeks leading up to the first competition, I don't think we ever left the office they had given us to work in. I can vividly remember several times I would fall asleep at the office at 5:00 a.m. and wake up to find Justin still working. Then he would go to sleep, and I would continue getting the deck iterated so that every single day, by the time Dr. Baker, Scott, Lou, Cary and the others came in, we’d be ready to review the deck and rehearse the pitch—probably four to five times a day.
We’d take feedback from them on the latest iteration and get it all fixed up overnight in order to have it ready to go for the next day. We did this over and over, every day, leading up to the competition.
HCOB: So how did that first competition work out for you?
Chris: We came in third, winning $25,000, which was a lot of money then. But to this day it still bothers me that we didn’t win—we deserved to win. Maybe that’s a reflection on how much confidence was instilled in me by the NVA team that what we were offering was an extraordinarily promising business venture. I’ve checked, and it turns out we are further along in realizing the value of our company than the two prospects who beat us out.
HCOB: What would you say to those Auburn students and faculty currently working at Harbert’s New Venture Accelerator about the value and opportunities they have at their fingertips?
Chris: First, take full advantage of it. It may be hard. You likely will be challenged to go above and beyond what you ever thought you could do. Embrace those challenges. You’ll be glad you did. Second, no one will work harder for you than the NVA team. Auburn isn’t the biggest entrepreneurship college—but it can be if we mix hard-working student entrepreneurs with people that genuinely care about seeing the ecosystem grow.
The New Venture Accelerator is a partnership between Auburn’s Harbert College of Business and the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation. Learn more about the New Venture Accelerator and Auburn’s entrepreneurial offerings.