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Why LA Is Like Seltzer for Crypto

The founder of Finance Blocks on the city’s fertile blockchain soil

by
Armin Rosen
February 10, 2022
ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images
ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images
ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images
ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images
To read more Tablet LA coverage, click here.
To read more Tablet LA coverage, click here.

“This is the farthest point you can run to in order to get away from everywhere else,” Jake Seltzer says of the boulevards and mountain ranges stretching into the afternoon haze. If you gaze hard enough from the rooftop of the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills, you can maybe tell that there are two O’s in the near-distant Hollywood sign; you might even be able to tell the O’s apart from the adjoining D. But most famous things in eyeshot are among the most boring. The guitar player from Weezer was apparently at a table behind us, but he’s not that interesting to stare at either, at least not compared to the palmy vastness of the LA imperium. Snowy mountain domes humble the downtown skyline; in the opposite direction the Pacific Ocean radiates like a second sun. The freeways are nowhere to be seen.

Seltzer is a hoodied and slightly burly 26-year-old crypto currency entrepreneur. He had suggested we meet at the Waldorf, which is a frequent haunt of his. At one point he took off a wiry pair of glasses in order for me to note the bags under his eyes—Seltzer says he manages on six hours of sleep a day, parceled out in two-to-three-hour shifts, one of which usually happens midafternoon. Yet at every point in a conversation that lasted more than two hours, he seemed more alert and mentally nimble than I am, usually by far.

The quick explanation of Seltzer’s company, which is called Finance Blocks, goes something like this: When he was still living in south Florida, Seltzer, a temple-going Reform Jew who grew up in the same house as his kosher-keeping grandmother, was on a roller-hockey team with an Indian American guy whose girlfriend’s best friend was dating a Japanese-born Indian techie who lived in Mumbai. Seltzer was a gamer who had first taught himself to code by watching YouTube instructional videos as a young teen, coding being, as he put it, “a skill we all learned in high school,” though not in any classroom. Like many of LA’s leading citizens, Seltzer decided college would only slow him down. Instead, he came west in search of freelance tech work.

During a monthlong trip to India in 2019, Seltzer and his techie friend and eventual co-founder noticed that the country’s rural banks had no real digital infrastructure for their customers, even though many poor Indians owned smartphones capable of running a basic banking app. The lack of digitized banking meant that loans had to be collected in cash—a system rife for exploitation and petty corruption. Account balances could only be checked by walking often for hours to a bank branch and standing in line.

Finance Blocks responded to these issues by creating a mobile banking platform, which it’s currently giving to Indian financial institutions for free: The company plans to make money by issuing a cryptocurrency later this month on a South Korean exchange called ProBit, which is run by about 20 people based in Estonia. Creators of new tokens also have the option of paying some not-insignificant listing fee to enable the coin to be traded on a larger platform like FTX, which has hosted over $2.5 billion in trading volume during the past 24 hours, from which it takes a 2% transaction fee—and which explains why FTX can afford the naming rights on the arena where the Miami Heat play. A similar business model explains why Crypto.com now owns the naming rights to LA’s former Staples Center.

Right now, the company’s market makers are in Switzerland; some of its analytics staff is in Brazil. Finance Blocks itself might eventually go public in Singapore, where the company is based for legal purposes, Singapore being the only stable developed economy where a coin-issuing company can be publicly traded. “Singapore is the most advanced monetary system in the world,” Seltzer said, noting that it wouldn’t be too difficult for him to get citizenship there.

During the pandemic summer of 2020, the Indian and American Finance Blocks teams got to know each other through marathon trans-Pacific Call of Duty sessions, gaming in the LA morning and then coding at night. Crucial early investors are based in LA, including a couple of younger guys—who are also Jewish, like a lot of people in the LA crypto orbit, Seltzer noted. He knew those investors because they’d put money in a delivery app for legal weed companies, which Seltzer had helped build.

LA is friendly territory for crypto, in part because of the success of the weed business—another recent and idealistic industry that attracted anti-establishment entrepreneurial types and exists in a legal gray area. As a new arrival in LA in the mid-2010s, Seltzer made a living building out online platforms and backends for pot dispensaries, businesses in an industry that was still considered too criminal-adjacent to access many existing web services. But in quick order, weed stores became their own kind of unstoppable reality, with an inevitability that overrode all legal and moral frameworks—a shift that happened in LA before it happened nearly anywhere else in America.

The city’s openness to the crazy new thing that might eventually become an accepted part of the architecture of daily life is why self-taught, tech-founder gamer types who think they can shake up global finance without anybody’s help or permission aren’t out of place in LA. It’s why a young man in a drawstring sweater belongs on a luxury hotel rooftop a couple tables over from a bona fide rock star.

Seltzer offered the only argument for crypto as a world-changing force of history—the argument that it’s an internet-level upheaval, rather than just a novel form of money laundering—that’s made any real sense to me. Seltzer grew up seeing how his hometown in south Florida was ravaged by foreclosures during the 2008 financial crisis. Banks can exploit and mislead a community and leave its members living out of their cars.

In contrast, Seltzer said, “crypto’s built out of the basis that everyone’s equal.” Crypto represents freedom from institutions, whether you’re a Nigerian surviving off of an extra few bucks a week from a Bitcoin investment or a startup with employees sprawled across four continents.

A potentially world-changing blockchain project didn’t need to justify itself to stodgy and ravening investors before it could launch. It didn’t need to extinguish itself through a unicorn-level exit to make its founders rich. It didn’t need to play by the rules of banks and lenders and other cogs in a giant and stupid machine that didn’t have anyone’s best interests at heart. “We don’t owe anybody anything,” Seltzer said of Finance Blocks.

Much could be done with this vast freedom. Seltzer talked about working with members of the Congressional Black Caucus to bring his products to farmers in the Mississippi Delta—he’d been up at 7 a.m. local time that morning to watch a House Finance Committee hearing. Oklahoma was almost last in the country for rural financial access. Maybe he could help out there, too. There’d been contact with officials in the Israeli government about assisting in development projects in Africa. Crypto would triumph over everything that threatened to stop its momentum—brainless government regulation, greedy legacy institutions, scammers that made the industry seem seedy—because, as Seltzer put it, “There are too many people like me across the world that want to see change, that you can’t just stop it.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.