London, 11 June 2016
Backstage at London’s Wembley Arena, Dr Ruja Ignatova was nervously pacing up and down, dressed, as usual, in a full-length ball gown. I will double your coins, I will double your coins. She could hear the whoops and cheers of thousands of adoring fans in the background.
Ruja wasn’t usually nervous before events, but today she was announcing something that went against every rule of financial investment – even the idea of money itself. If she couldn’t convince the crowd, who’d already invested a fortune in her promise of a global “financial revolution”, the whole thing would be over. Up to a billion dollars were at stake.
Her second-in-command, Sebastian Greenwood, was on stage warming them up. “I’m proud to be here today!” he shouted. “All of you are extraordinary!” The pair had founded the company just two years earlier. And, of the two, Sebastian had always been the better salesperson.
But 3,000 people hadn’t travelled from 70 countries to see him. They’d come for her: the genius behind the most exciting new cryptocurrency in the world.
Sebastian introduced Ruja in his typically over-the-top manner: “The reason we are all here...please give a warm welcome to our creator, our founder...” This Girl is on Fire by Alicia Keys blasted over Wembley Arena’s sound system and pyrotechnics lit up the stage. Every small detail, right down to the wording on the invitations, had been carefully planned.
Ruja knew that appearance was everything, that people will believe anything if you look the part. She strode out confidently, her long black hair, the deep-red lipstick, the embellished red gown glittering under the spotlights, the diamond earrings – everything exhibited success and glamour. Behind her a giant logo was engulfed in flames: “OneCoin”.
The investors in the audience – the well-dressed Ugandan businessman, the devout Muslim from east London, the Scandinavian door-to-door vitamin seller – could recite Ruja’s backstory already. It was the reason most of them entrusted her with their money.
Star student at Oxford University. A glittering spell in international finance with a top-end consulting firm. Only 36 years old but already two-time Bulgarian Businesswoman of the Year and Forbes cover star. Fluent in Bulgarian, German, English, French and Russian. Some of the crowd whispered that she had an IQ of 200+. Others wore badges with her face on.
It was only two and a half years since that she’d had the idea that had changed everyone’s life. When Ruja first heard about something called “Bitcoin” in 2011, she was sceptical. She was from the world of finance and traditional banking, where things were done a certain way; money was backed by governments and run by central banks, as sure as night follows day.
But the more she looked into this strange new virtual money, which operated online and outside banks or governments, the more fascinated she became. The inventor was a brilliant but mysterious computer coder who worked under the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto”. Satoshi created Bitcoin in 2009 and subsequently vanished, but he left behind a blueprint for a whole new type of money that seemed tailor-made for the internet age.
Money without banks or borders. A “cryptocurrency” that no single person controls, which can be sent around the world as easily as sending an email. Where most people saw a weird experiment, Ruja saw world-changing technology. She decided that instead of trying to make money buying and selling these peculiar new coins, she would go one better and make her own cryptocurrency.
In the tech world, she sometimes told the sceptics, it’s never the person who has the idea first who gets rich – it’s the person who makes that idea work for the man and woman on the street. Jeff Bezos didn’t invent e-commerce; he simply made it accessible to everyone. MySpace came before Facebook, but it was Mark Zuckerberg who changed the world. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, even Thomas Edison took ideas that were already out there and turned them into something ordinary people could use.
That was OneCoin – cryptocurrency for the masses. It might have been smaller than its better-known rival Bitcoin, but not for long. Ruja promised that it was faster, smoother and easier to use. She predicted that, one day, workers would get their wages in OneCoin. Buy their shopping in OneCoin. Anyone who invested now, before the price skyrocketed, would make a killing.
But OneCoin was about much more than getting rich. Bankers and governments had been ripping people off for decades, all because they control money: they print it; set the interest rates to lend it; speculate with it; charge extortionate fees to borrow it. The 2008-9 financial crisis had proved that. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and OneCoin were the solution, thanks to a revolutionary idea hidden within the tech: fixed supply.
Satoshi Nakamoto created Bitcoin because he was angry about the way governments bailed out the failing banks in 2008 by printing more money, which in the end made poor people poorer. So he’d placed a cap on the total number of bitcoin that could ever be produced at 21 million, which would be released at a pre-programmed, tamper-resistant rate. A fixed-supply currency that governments couldn’t mess with.
Ruja had designed OneCoin to be bigger than Bitcoin, although it followed the same principle. Rather than 21 million coins, there would only ever be 2.1 billion OneCoin in circulation. That number – 2.1 billion – was everything. It was built into the technology itself, set in stone. No one could ever print more OneCoin, not even Ruja herself. No wonder the powers-that-be were so scared of cryptocurrencies cryptocurrencies like OneCoin. They couldn’t control it.
“Now I think it’s time,” Ruja told the crowd in her unusual Bulgarian-German accent, adding carefully controlled pauses for applause; “do or do not. We want to be the number one cryptocurrency out there.” There was barely a soul inside Wembley Arena who doubted her.
Everything else Ruja had told them had come true. In the space of 18 months, two billion euros had been invested into OneCoin, pushing the value of a single coin from zero to €5.95 – exactly as she’d predicted. Hundreds of people in the Arena had already become millionaires thanks to her.
Excerpted with permission from The Missing Cryptoqueen, Jamie Bartlett, Allen Lane, BBC Books.