Kristina Yee (YC ’89), Marketing Strategist for Blockchain, FinTech, AML, RPA, Fraud, and Cybersecurity
Kristina Yee is a consultant at M4 Associates, providing market research, product strategy, and competitive analysis to clients including BMC, ChangeTip, GigaOM, Economist Intelligence Unit, Lunyr, and Nova.ai. She previously worked as a senior analyst for Aite Group, focusing on cybersecurity, fraud, identity management, RPA, AML, cloud computing services and infrastructure, cryptocurrency, and blockchain. In the realm of cryptocurrency, her clients as Vice President of Marketing at Authy included Coinbase, CEX.io, Ripple, and Cryptsy. Ms. Yee earned a B.A. from Yale in English and Film Studies, previously serving as a Yale Class Secretary and Board Member of the Association of Asian American Yale Alumni.
Tell me about your work!
I am a cloud computing services and financial technology (FinTech) research analyst, marketer, and strategic advisor. I work with all types of enterprise companies and B2B2C providers with a particular affinity for FinTech not just blockchain and bitcoin– and I have over 15 years of experience in the industry. Up until recently, I lived in San Francisco, in Silicon Valley, but recently I moved back at East.
How did you start in the industry 15 years ago?
You know, I fell into it by accident actually. I was working in marketing at a top three interactive marketing agency, CKS Partners. USWeb, which was a top-five web development shop in the 90s focused more on technology, bought CKS Partners. From there, we became both a design and a programming shop. We were handling Levi’s, GM.com, USRobotics and the entire Apple marketing services account from advertising to office design to packaging, store environments and website development. That was in the early days of the multi-colored iMacs, believe it or not. [laughing]
But because we were in Silicon Valley, we worked with a lot of technology companies: 3Com, Motorola, etcetera. I was put on a couple of financial services accounts like Wells Fargo and Visa. Then I took a lead role with a new client, Bank One, which tasked us to basically create, in one year, a top three internet bank. The client threw money at us, and long story short, we built the bank in six months using white label existing banking and brokerage services and creating an inspirational brand on top. Yeah, and WingspanBank.com, with like a $100 million budget, quickly became a top three bank behind Telebank, which was owned by E*Trade, in literally six months. The creation of the bank is actually a Harvard Business case study now.
We had a campaign with television, media, print, etcetera– it was a huge launch. And that threw me into the FinTech industry with the internet explosion. [laughing] People were calling and I was being recruited left and right, because online banking and online brokerage was fairly new back then. I gradually started learning more of the technology behind these cloud services and that led my career into a broader array of enterprise technologies, with the connecting factor being that all of these technologies had financial services as a main market vertical. That’s how I moved into areas like cryptocurrency, blockchain and seriously complex-infrastructure technologies such as cybersecurity and data warehouse as a service.
So, in sum, I started becoming more technical despite my Yale degree in English and Film Studies. Even though I’d gone to Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom, I was not going to do technology, you know– not be a technology person. [laughing] But all of a sudden, you go from marketing cars to bank accounts to credit cards to online banks and online brokerage, and then you get more and more familiar with the infrastructure. And even though I didn’t have an engineering background, I had to become much more technical to understand the products and the systems and to work with the engineers. So, all of a sudden, you’re working on these auxiliary products for startups that make up the large and convoluted engines that run the world’s corporate systems.
Back in the early days of cloud, I worked for 1View Network, which was an early account aggregation services company– the kind of technology that now runs services like Mint. Another company was NatGeo, an early IP ID service that now all banks and other industries use for security today. IP ID helps identify the origin location of an online transaction.
And from there–I mean cybersecurity is highly technical, since you’re talking cryptography and what have you–I started working with several cryptocurrency-related companies. Some of the companies I’ve worked for include ChangeTip, which uses social media and Bitcoin so that people can pay each other on Twitter and Facebook. I could say, “Thanks for that article, Eric, it was a great read.” By using certain words in social media and putting in hashtags signifying #ChangeTip, I could send you 50¢ in bitcoin. It was a little before its time since that was about six or seven years ago. [laughing] Now it’s pretty common to tip in Bitcoin or any kind of electronic currency, but back then, it was a bit too early – this was in the early days of Venmo. And even if you were to bring it up to the general population today, it’s still too early. Right? Most people aren’t paying in Bitcoin or transacting in it, or paying each other via email. That being said, it was bought by Airbnb, because they saw some type of strategy in a community-based sharing system. So ChangeTip was acquired.
I’ve worked with other companies like Lunyr, which is an Ethereum-based system. Basically, it’s a validated alternative to Wikipedia. They are plugging away, but basically, it’s amazing the kind of wealth that’s going into crypto, because you have three guys whose company became worth over $200 million within a few months of their Initial Coin Offering (ICO) when the price of their LUN coin price exceeded the $70 mark.
What’s your actual day-to-day look like at these companies? Are you working on design? Contacting people interested in the products?
Do you know the term, “crossing the chasm?” It’s taking a company from one stage to another, or “crossing the chasm,” so to speak. Either you go from zero to funding or from product development to product launch. For a larger company–I’ve worked with a couple large companies like BMC, SanDisk –it’s transitioning a slow-moving, larger division or company, one that’s stopped its growth, to the next stage of growth – that may require a significant reinvention, or it’s just a strategic pivot for the more agile organizations.
So, I help companies cross the chasm. When I go into these companies, it’s usually as a marketing/strategy person. I help them evaluate the market for their product, I help them evaluate market/product fit, and I actually help them build up the market– particularly in nascent markets. I help educate the customers, the constituents and to build up demand. So, I’m a change agent– an accelerator. These companies come to me for advice and for a kick, basically, to get to that next level. So, I help to map out the business plan for the next-gen organization and to get them started on the execution of it.
How many people work on your team for any given project?
Often, I come in by myself and work as an extension of their team. A lot of the time, I come in as a Director of Marketing, or a VP of Marketing. But again, when you’re working with startups, you do a little bit of everything. For some projects, especially with the smaller clients, I’ll create a virtual agency basically. I’ll pull in engineers, programmers, designers, and writers. I’ll put together a project depending on the budget. For larger clients, the project can be as highly defined as developing the internal change management communications program for an SAP implementation.
One client asked us to begin with just a pretty newsletter for them, basically, to promote cloud computing within the company because it was an older company which hadn’t been founded in the cloud, and they were trying to move into the cloud. But once we got started, and content is king these days, as you may know, they said, “Well, you know what? You’re creating this content for us anyways on this newsletter, so why don’t you expand your project to an internal website, or to the intranet?” Our project kept growing, and we were actually helping them to manage events and write internal speeches and then started working on researching their competitors. So, the client kept growing.
Bit of a more personal question– I saw you studied English and Film.
I know! [laughing]
And then you moved to FinTech and crypto stuff. What’s the deal?
I know, it’s really funny isn’t it. I know. [laughing] A couple of things. One of them is that, after I graduated from Yale, I spent a year in Hollywood, just testing out the scene and trying to determine what it really takes to make it. And I just thought there wasn’t a cultural fit. So, from there, where do you go? Well, I still wanted to be creative and work in a more creative industry, so I decided I would go into the marketing business.
I was in New York working for a top 10 public relations and advertising agency. I was working with clients like Gillette and Hush Puppies. From there, I said, “You know what? Working with all these CEOs is actually pretty interesting to me. I’m getting to know the business side of things.” So, from there, I decided to go to business school at Columbia.
From Columbia, I realized I was really more interested in the business of film more than the actual creative side of it, even though there is a creative side to me. And it comes in increments. I was working on the business side, and I really enjoy things that are complex– problems that are complex. Emerging technologies and emerging industries, these new frontiers, were very exciting to me. And by increments, I fell into that world.
You know, you make choices. Obviously, if you want to be a doctor, you have to go to medical school and have more focus. [laughing] But many of us have the opportunity to pivot our careers in different directions that we like, and there might be a financial component. The better you are at something, the more money you’re going to get paid, and the more you’re going to move ahead in that industry.
But there’s also just enjoyment, you know? I was the person who swore she would never go into technology. But I found I really enjoyed learning about encryption and cybersecurity, and the crazy world of blockchain and Bitcoin and the different coins. [laughing] Then, you know, you start to buy a few Bitcoins. I was actually paid in Bitcoin by some clients when it was like $430. I thought I was smart– I sold it at like $800 to $1000. And now look at it. But you can’t second guess. You’ve got to keep moving. [laughing]
So now I’m in this position where I have a rarefied background. Even today when half of all graduating students out of business school are going into crypto or some other tech startup, I still offer a unique skill set and a depth of experience. And what’s interesting is that there’s a lot of talk these days about inequality of salary between men and women. But for the most part, because of my experience and because it’s so rare to have my skill set in this industry, I haven’t had the same issues as other women in terms of being paid less.
It’s sobering. People have complained about how much they’ve had to pay me. That’s the sexist part, right? I’ve actually had people say to me, “We’re paying you as much as the men!?” [laughing] You know what I mean? [laughing] No joke, I’ve actually had people say that to me. ‘“You’re already getting paid as much as ‘Joe’. You get that’s wrong, right?’ I mean yes, but I have the experience and the background to do what you need to do. And nobody else does, that’s just reality.”
That’s the benefit of doing something that is not a commoditized industry, or seen as a commoditized industry– having a certain skill set and just enjoying what you do. I’m not necessarily living the dream like an actor or actress, or an Academy Award winner, or the USWNT soccer team might be, right? But on a day-to-day basis, I do enjoy learning about how industry works, about the technologies that are changing literally everything.
What do you think you can contribute, from your unique standpoint and experience, as to a vantage point on crypto?
What’s really interesting is that a lot of people who were coming into crypto have been those who were kind of disenfranchised from the financial industry. Well, one or two things. First, you’re getting some brilliant technical minds going into crypto, because it is a technical challenge. And it’s a really interesting one. Second, you’re also getting people who were kind of at the periphery, outside of business, who have found a niche. These are very smart people, but maybe not so socially adept, who are gravitating towards blockchain, Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general.
But what you don’t have–and this is the same problem that’s so prevalent in the technical industry where you have a couple of engineers who start a company–is people with a business skill set, in terms of the actual day-to-day fundamentals of what you need to do to build a company.
And then there’s an entire regulatory, legal side–the common-sense side of the business–that you must adhere to, especially when you’re dealing with an area that’s highly regulated, that people just don’t have the skill set for. No matter how smart you are, there’s a whole slew of functions, legal and otherwise, that depend on someone who has a certain level of training and experience.
That’s where I come in. I’m the voice of reason. And even though I didn’t start my career in Bitcoin or cryptocurrency, I have more than 15 years of experience in FinTech. I understand the level of regulations that you need to go through. I understand the level of scrutiny that you go through from the analysts, your potential investors, your customers and the government. I understand that you can’t just knock on a bank’s door and say, “Hey, I’ve got this new technology.” [laughing] There’s a whole Request for Information– RFIs — this long drawn out process you need to go through.
I bring a wealth of experience in terms of how to navigate the business world and how to market your product. You can’t just say, “Oh, I’ve got this new great thing.” Not everyone is a YouTube. In fact, only 5% of start-ups will survive past year two. I can actually help to position your company and to distinguish your offering from someone else’s. And I can do that in a way that makes sense to the end-customer, whether that’s the consumer or a business. That’s been my value proposition.
And because of that experience, I’ve started to work with companies and clients who are looking to incorporate new technologies but need to get educated. So, I come in to help the customers get educated, whether that’s a big bank, a technology company, or even a non-profit. I go in and explain the technology to them within a framework that they’ll understand for their business. And that’s something that most new businesses over-estimate – their ability to reach and resonate with the customer.
It’s been wild. I’m not even in the thick of it anymore– I was a research analyst, I was covering it from the media side for a while. But I still talk to a bunch of companies out of sheer curiosity, interest, and I might end up joining one again. I just went to my 30th reunion, and I’m like, I don’t know if I want to spend 80 hours a week hanging out in a room full of endless cubicles anymore. [laughing] And at this point in my life, I don’t have to.