Episode #37: Antonio Juliano — Founder and CEO at dYdX

Episode #37: Antonio Juliano — Founder and CEO at dYdX

Last updated:
April 28, 2023
Total length::
32 min
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Cryptocurrency, Crypto
DeFi, CeFi, TradFi
DigitalAssets

On this episode, we’re joined by Antonio Juliano, Founder & CEO at dYdX. As an industry-leading decentralized exchange, dYdX aims to increase the adoption of a variety of crypto financial services and products.

We discuss:

- The important role of transparency for DeFi platforms.

- Antonio’s view of the current state of the DeFi industry.

- What dYdX does and what problems it’s trying to solve.

- Why financial services should be run by code instead of intermediaries.

- What full decentralization means in DeFi.

- Current challenges in scaling DeFi.

- Details around governance within DeFi platforms.

- How decision-making and management work at dYdX.

Anthony Sar: Hello and welcome to the Waves in Finoverse. I'm Anthony Sar, the CEO and Co-founder of Finoverse and I will be your host today. For those of you who don't know us, we have been in this space of FinTech and Web3 since 2015 and we are known for organising such global events like Hong Kong, FinTech Week and this D3 Bahamas. And I'm very excited today to introduce you to today's guest, Antonio Juliano, the Founder and CEO of dYdX. dYdX is the largest decentralised derivative exchange in the world. It was founded around five years ago. It focused primarily on the product called perpetual contract, which is the most widely traded type of derivative in crypto. Before founding dYdX, Antonio worked for Coinbase, the largest crypto exchange out of the US, which he joined in the early days eight years ago and learned a lot about crypto while there. Before that, a quick announcement from the Finoverse. On Sunday May 7th, we are going to Dubai and where we are going to host our first event in Dubai's Museum of the Future. And this going to be a very special, very unique event that is invite only with the theme of bridging the web three ecosystems of Middle East and Asia. If you think you want to be there and you should be there, send us the request and we'll affiliate. May 7th, Museum of the Future. Find out more on our website finoverse.com. Hello Antonio and welcome to the Waves in the Finoverse. I'd like to touch a little bit on your views on TradFi experiments with DeFi.

Antonio Juliano: I find it somewhat interesting. They're obviously huge players in the financial systems as much as with want Crypto to grow then I think it's important to make products that they want to use as well. We've seen a pretty good influx of traditional finance type, mostly hedge funds at this point, at least for us. But a lot of them are trading crypto and some in a pretty big way. So it's already starting to happen. I think it starts with the trading and then probably other types of financial services after that. So I think we'll get there eventually. But it kind of starts with more of the retail individual type traders usually.

Anthony Sar: But I understand that it's also beyond the trading. Is there other applications of the DeFi in overall banking? Do you see this will coexist with the existing DeFi ecosystem or if there is any way of these two can collaborate in the future?

Antonio Juliano: There definitely is. Like one obvious example is decentralised money markets, so something like a Compound or an Aave, as much as it's interesting to hold some of these crypto assets on a balance sheet, sort of lend them out to get some interest and I think that's actually become a pretty well regarded way to do it, at least in crypto. Because when all of the crypto lending platforms blew up, all of the decentralised lending platforms, at least the good ones were totally fine. So they're offering a pretty good rate of a turn and it's something where like if you're already holding said crypto, either that or engaging in staking or something like that could be a pretty good way to generate relatively safe yield.

Anthony Sar: You mentioned the fallout of, some of the largest CeFi's in the past and obviously FTX Saga gave a massive push to dYdX in the recent months. Looking back and looking at the situation at the moment, where do you see we are as an industry right now?

Antonio Juliano: Well obviously the FTX collapse was a pretty surprising moment for a lot of people in crypto including me, but it really just underscored the need for what we're building I think. So with what we're building, everything is completely transparent. So something like FTX never could have happens because you can just in two seconds pull up the entire balance sheet basically of the dYdX protocol, see the health of all the positions, see which collateral there is. So I think it's really made it clear the need for what we're building, whether it's an exchange or lending platform or other types of financial software that can be built in DeFi. I think that's kind of the biggest thing. And then I think the other excitement about DeFi comes with just the goal of a lot of us, which I would kind of articulate as building an open financial system for the world. And that's one thing that's really unique about crypto is that it's permissionless and it's global, right? So crypto's kind of created this global trading market that hadn't really existed, at least to that level in any type of other asset class. And I think we're starting to see that not just with the assets but with the platforms themselves too. Like when financial services are just code, that's something that is pretty uniquely enabled by DeFi and by blockchains and there is a lot of really awesome real world applications with that.

Anthony Sar: And following this, obviously transparency is a crucial element in this system and I think it comes eventually to one point of basically trust. And when it comes to money, trust is critical. However we've seen, yes, the trust was pretty much abused over the last few years within the crypto ecosystem and regulators recently taken a much more, especially in North America, much more scrutinized, I would say, more hostile views towards the crypto, DeFi. Where do you think these things are going and how dYdX would adjust this strategy towards the increase in demands from regulators and how we can ensure the adoption is going to increase despite all this efforts from the regulators?

Antonio Juliano: Yeah, I mean I think if you're relatively uninformed, kind of the bad layer zero take is just that all of these things in crypto keep blowing up. Why is that? Oh, something must be wrong with crypto, let's just ban it or regulate it heavily or something like that. But if you kind of double click on that and actually look at the types of different things that exist within crypto, there's kind of three major types of things. The first is centralised platforms and these are predominantly the things that have blown up, especially in the past year. So these are things like FTX, like BlockFi, like a bunch of others that have since gone busted. And generally the problem here is that there's a lack of transparency as to what they're doing with customer funds. People don't know the risks that they're taking on the level of contagion where for like FTX for example, that cost a lot of other firms to go bankrupt because they had funds on FTX or they were engaged in some deals with them or something like that. So that's just something that we've learned in finance time after time, there needs to be transparency and the normal way you would do that is with regulation. But crypto's actually kind of given us this additional tool in our tool belt of kind of getting 10x better transparency through code. It's like maybe taking a step back like what is financial regulation trying to do? It tries to make sure that people's money is safe when you're trading on an exchange, or put in a bank or something. Totally reasonable, right? Like we all want everybody's money to be safe whenever they're trading or whenever they're just holding it or lending it out. And the normal way you would do that is there's regulations that require these firms to get audits. Totally fair. Like these firms should be getting audits, right? People should know where their money is. But if you look at DeFi, it's like why would you need to get an audit for a DeFi platform when it's just a 100x more transparent and auditable than centralised finance? Like right now in 30 seconds you could go on EtherScan, which is a place that lets you explore the Ethereum blockchain, look at the dYdX smart contract, learn all of the collateral that's held there, see the open source code. And it's just so much better than I think a lot of the, at this point, like antiquated ways that financial regulation tries to deal with centralised actors. So it's actually something that I think can be really symbiotic with the objectives of policymakers and regulators. It's just that a lot of these laws were made, you know, a hundred years ago when nobody even thought of the concept of oh could we just have this piece of financial infrastructure that's just governed by code. So I think that's kind of what we're trying to do on the regulatory side and policy side is more educational outreach about okay, what is DeFi? How can it actually be really positive for your benefit for the things that you care about and how can we potentially work together?

Anthony Sar: It's interesting to know that, I mean crypto at the moment is pretty much a tiny portion of the entire financial services industry and reason for that is the adoption rate is pretty slow. When it comes to your lifetime savings and whether you are taking it to, you know, an app in Web3 or you're, or you're bringing it just you know, brick and mortar, the bank where you know it's there, it's safe and the regulators put in a stamp on that it's safe. Although Silicon Valley Bank story tells us a different perspective.

Antonio Juliano: Yeah. So to kind of give people a sense of where we're at right now, roughly a hundred billion dollars or so is traded across crypto markets every day and DeFi is about 5 to 10% of that. Small in the grand scheme of things. And then DeFi is like a small chunk of that. So still pretty small. It's still early days though. All these decentralised exchanges were more or less invented five or six years ago. So, it's still early. I think the biggest hurdle so far has just been on the technological and product side. These technologies are really nascent, right? Ethereum itself was only invented like seven or eight years ago and I think the biggest thing that people get wrong about crypto is that they don't look long term enough. And I think it's always easy to overestimate the progress people will make in the short term and underestimate the progress that people will make in the long term. So I think this is kind of the root cause of a lot of the boom and bust cycles that we see in crypto where it's like okay, new technology is invented and then it's a couple years later and the technology's still just kind of moving along at a steady pace, but people are like, guys what the heck? I thought you said this was going change the world but it's still only trading 10% of the crypto markets here. Like I was expecting more. So that's true but it just takes longer than that, right? And I always tell everybody our goal at dYdX is to become one of the biggest exchanges in crypto on a 5 to 10 year time horizon. So not next year, but eventually. And it just kind of makes a lot of sense to me. Like it just seems like the way that financial services should be built is with code rather than intermediaries. And yes, there's a lot of question marks and hurdles that we can have to get overcome to get there, whether it's on the technical side or on the security side. Like DeFi has had some problems as well. I'm not going to sit here and say that every DeFi platform is objectively better than every centralised platform. Like we've seen things like Terra and Luna just blow up, but those things are financially unsound. But the cool thing about DeFi is all this stuff exists in the open. They've had billions of dollars sitting on them for a couple years now and nothing has happened and there's a massive incentive to try and hack that or steal the funds or find some financial exploits in the protocol and you know, knock on wood, like hopefully that never happens but you just at least have this track record that you can see of exactly what this code is and exactly how much money has been sitting there for how long. And that can kind of give you a pretty good sense of what can be safe and what you might not want to put your entire life save into.

Anthony Sar: Interesting that you mentioned basically a message you need to be patient with the technology development, it's not yet perfect so it takes some time to build something more sustainable. On the other side, going back to regulation, I think is another aspect that is definitely one of this key for further development. And recently there was this news that you had to leave Canada unfortunately because of this new regulations. What do you think regulators got wrong about the industry?

Antonio Juliano: It's just to understand things at a level deeper, sort of like I was saying before and to understand that there are different ways that crypto products are built that could be centralised or decentralised or somewhere in the middle. But if you are a truly decentralised platform, then there's just different types of regulations that would make sense for you. And one other thing that's kind of frustrating with the way the laws work right now is it's just literally impossible to get some of these smart contract platforms regulated, right? If you try to go in and get like a smart contract for example registered as a clearing house, people are just like laugh you out of the building. You feel like it's this fundamentally impossible, right? So it's almost like these things are sort of not legal probably in any way and that's a shame I think because like I was saying, these things can actually have 10x improvements in exactly the areas that regulators care about. Even if you look at the things like Gary Gensler and he's not the only one, but just to use him as an example, as kind of saying about what the SEC's mission is, it's to provide stable, transparent, and accessible financial markets. That's exactly what DeFi does, right? And yes, DeFi is not perfect yet but it's a technology that's exciting and we could get to a much better place. So you know dYdX may not be available everywhere and we're not in Canada, we're not in the US right now and that's intentional just to follow some of those regulations. But one of the things we are doing is trying to be more vocal on the policy side. So one of the things we did recently is hire ahead of policy to kind of go out and be an educator about these things and sort of say what I'm saying to you, all the listeners, to people in government themselves, and there are people in government that are receptive and do listen and kind of see the potential benefits of this long term. But I think it's just something that has to be balanced with a good amounts of consumer protection as well and making sure that we're innovating in kind of a safe and responsible way. And not everybody is doing that but there certainly are some people that are doing that in DeFi and I like to think that dYdX is one of them.

Anthony Sar: Yeah, I remember last November, I think it was Sam Bankman Fried was speaking at our event dialling from Bahamas and I think it was his last appearance in public in kind of his previous state of being in the head of FTX literally was three days before the whole thing happened. And on stage he was telling the audience that he's the most regulated exchange in the world, his hundreds of regulators meetings over the last few months and he moreover advocated for this regulation transparency and compliance more than anyone. And what eventually we've seen is quite opposite.

Antonio Juliano: Yeah. Well let's see how that turned out, right? Like wouldn't you rather have had those funds on a transparent blockchain platform than one that was right apparently inadequately regulated?

Anthony Sar: If DeFi financial services like you said will be run by code what banks will do then?

Antonio Juliano: Well I think there will always be a need or at least for the foreseeable future for a long time further to be traditional finance. I think just the way that like fiat currencies operate, right? With the whole banking system and just the way the dollar works and the Fed, that's not going anywhere anytime soon. So I think we'll always have to have this kind of symbiotic relationship between crypto and hopefully mostly DeFi eventually and the traditional financial world. And there are important players that are kind of like the bridge between those two worlds, like a Coinbase or something that makes it easy to get dollars in and out or a stablecoin like Circle has with USDC that can, you can kind of go in and out of this digital money world back to the traditional financial world. So I think that's all totally fine for now. I mean will there be a day where literally everything runs on DeFi? I hope so, but that's probably not for like a hundred years or so at least. But we have some pretty important stuff to do before that and I think step one if we can get more of the crypto industry running on DeFi and that's been our main goal at dYdX, at least for the medium term, I think that should be a really big win and should probably help clean up a lot of these systemic issues that we've seen kind of plague crypto throughout its history.

Anthony Sar: I think you mentioned Coinbase and I think the founder also believed that DeFi would eventually take over the CeFi similar thing I think CZ was referring to. Is that what you're betting on?

Antonio Juliano: Basically. And I find it somewhat funny that the heads of all these centralised exchanges are also like DeFi is the future. But I think that's something good that can be said about crypto is it's really kind of a community. I think all of us in crypto still feel like outsiders, right? And we are in terms of just what we're building is much smaller than the traditional financial ecosystem. But the thing that keeps me excited about crypto is that the rate of innovation is super high. Like if you knew everything there was to know about crypto today, chances are a few years from now you would be out of date, you wouldn't really know what's going on. So that makes it interesting for me just to kind of always be learning new things and always be thinking new things and this wasn't really a popular position, that DeFi was going to be the main way that people are trading crypto or maybe even trading in general long term, but I think a lot of people have come around to that idea and like I was saying, it just kind of makes sense, right? There are certainly problems that we have to overcome and challenges that we have to solve, but if you could have a financial service that's run by code or by a human, which would you pick? Probably code, right? Assuming that code was battle tested and secure and transparent and had all the functionality that you wanted, like why would I trust you with my money if I can just like not have to do that and just use these services that are global and transparent and secure. So that's I think where everybody sees us going and I think once you wrap your head around it, it's like almost impossible not to be excited about it or at least intrigued by it. So we're figuring all that out as we go along but I think we're fortunate to be in a space that we and a lot of other people are excited about.

Anthony Sar: Let's talk a bit little bit about technology. I think that the emergence of generative AI became an overhyped topic recently. I'm curious from your perspective, obviously I guess everyone is experimenting looking into this space, what do you see that might be an impact of AI sort of renaissance on potentially on crypto and is there any way this can affect development of the industry further?

Antonio Juliano: Disclaimer, I'm no expert on AI for sure. So I can only talk at a high level, but I think there potentially could be, I have been pretty impressed personally with just ChatGPT I think as a lot of people have and its power is to just boost the productivity of software engineers. It's actually pretty good sometimes at coming up with product ideas and product specs and I think that will just help the velocity of technology in general. And crypto is certainly something that I think it will help out a lot. There's a lot of open-ended questions about what can AI be used for in crypto, could it be used for auditing, could it be used to generate new trading strategies or things like that? So I think that will all happen eventually and I think crypto's a pretty natural fit for a lot of the financial applications that come out of AI. Because if you're a computer, like where would you rather trade? It's like with other computers and just technology that's only technology or if you want to like try to go open an accounts with like Goldman Sachs or the New York Stock Exchange or whatever, like it's probably not going to happen.

Anthony Sar: Exactly. I mean like you're saying, finance will be run by code. So AI and code, match made in heaven in that sense. So yeah, I mean it's early days but just curious to pick up your minds on that because I think there's a lot of speculation on how potentially these two can combine and serve what could be a well combination going further to really increase the speed of development. You mentioned about your next strategic move or the most important attention that you pay to actually turning dYdX into fully decentralised exchange. So could you elaborate a little bit on what do you mean by full decentralisation at the moment and where are you now at this stage of what's, what's the progress so far?

Antonio Juliano: Yeah, absolutely. So dYdX right now is decentralised in the sense that it does operate on smart contracts and smart contracts I would define as just a fancy word that means programs that run directly on the blockchain. So for example, we have programs that run on the blockchain that know how to trade a derivatives contract and know how to do margining and collateralisation and that type of stuff. The thing that we run in a central way right now, which is the main thing that we're changing is the order books and matching engine that kind of power the exchange. An order book for those who are unfamiliar, is just a place you can place and cancel orders that are offers to buy or sell at a given price and then the order book will match you with other traders. So like if you wanted to sell Bitcoin at $30,000 and I wanted to buy Bitcoin at $30,000, it matches us together and we trade with each other. So the main way that that is they're, the main reason that that's centralised right now is for performance. This is kind of the technical hurdles that I was touching on before. One of the things that I'm sure most people have heard before is that blockchains are not very scalable and this is true. So it's really hard to write high performance software on top of a blockchain and order books and matching engines are some of the most high performance software there is and they need to be high performance because effectively what they do is let bots trade with each other. So it's just like bots placing cancelling orders all the time and you have to process all the orders. So that's where we are today in terms of where we're going. This year, actually later this year, we are building on a new type of blockchain system that will allow us to build a fully decentralised platform and fully decentralise the order book and the matching engine. And this has kind of never been done before so we're pretty excited about it, but in a high performance way that is decentralised and does kind of get us to a place where all we're doing is developing open source code that can be used by the community if they want to use it. So we're pretty excited about it and it kind of just gets to this promise land that we want to go to where everything is just code, everything is transparent, there is no special incentives or special access that any particular entity can get to the protocol. It's like provably fair and it's more accessible. So that's kind of what we're building and we're going to be shipping that later this year.

Anthony Sar: And the fairness, transparency, the technical side, it's fine. But then there's another side of the story which is governance, right? So where you are in terms of governance in enabling the full decentralisation, meaning that the token holders can actually participate in decision making within the exchange. Outside of just the technical side of things, what's the progress so far? How do you see this will play out in the next few years?

Antonio Juliano: So yeah, decentralised governance already exists in a pretty robust way on dYdX. About a year and a half ago the dYdX foundation launched the dYdX token, which is a governance token like a lot of other DeFi protocols that allows the token holders to control the protocol. So like what do I mean by control the protocol? It's that the token holders literally have access to kind of modify the smart contracts or the programs in whatever way they see fit. So it's literally an exchange that can be governed by its users and that's a really fundamentally new concept and that doesn't exist in finance right?

Anthony Sar: Could you give us an example of what kind of decisions token holders are able to make at the moment?

Antonio Juliano: Yeah, absolutely. So they could add new markets to the platform. Like if there's new cryptocurrency that comes out that people want to trade, they could add that as a new market, they could add new features to the exchange, they could change the way incentive programs work. And if we kind of move into the next version, which we're calling V4, which is the fully decentralised thing I was talking about, everything that's not kind of written down in immutable software in the smart contracts, they can change. So it's just a exciting new kind of paradigm where the users are the ones that are in control rather than some kind of third party company.

Anthony Sar: How are decisions made within dYdX at the moment? I mean obviously you in a management position, you're making any decisions on the strategy on the tactics and overall management decisions and how much token holders can influence your decisions? And is there hypothetically a situation where they can actually impose their own CEO or make decisions on bringing in new people to run the whole exchange?

Antonio Juliano: Yeah, so I think us for dYdX, like a lot of other DeFi protocols, there's multiple different entities that are kind of all working on the same project, which is the protocol overall. So our company dYdX Trading Inc, which I'm the CEO of sort of like an independent software developer and then we kind of work with the protocol to develop this open source code. And like I talked about, one example of that is what we're building with V4 for the next version of the protocol. Then there's the dYdX foundation and they release the dYdX token. They're responsible for kind of for facilitating this governance and also for helping to grow the protocol overall. And this is just kind of important, right? Because we don't want there to be just one entity that's responsible for running the entire thing that's not super decentralised. And even if the protocol is completely decentralised, if there's only one person developing it, then it's not super censorship resistant. And I guess to your question, like could the token holders dictate everything that we do? Not everything but some things. And we certainly work with them and sort of listen to them a lot. Like they can't just tell me to like fire some random employee of ours, but you know, maybe we'll enter into like an agreement with them to develop some open source software that they may find useful. So that's kind of the relationship. I think all of this is pretty new. All of this stuff with DAOs and governance really only was popularised three or four years ago. A lot of on tokens even less than that. So it's kind of a brave new world, but it's actually been working pretty well. Kind of this thing I was talking about in previous answer where literally the platform is being governed by its users. One of the key groups of users that is really important to dYdX is institutional traders. So these are things like crypto hedge funds, even a couple traditional Wall Street hedge funds. These are not the only people that trade on dYdX, but they're an important class and they've become really active in governance. Like a lot of them hold significant amounts of tokens and they'll propose different changes to the protocol and then they'll talk with each other and you know, it'll be 10 different trading firms and they're all sort of competing with each other on the exchange, but they're coming together to govern it and then them and the kind of individual users of dYdX are are playing an important part in the governance of the platform. It's pretty cool to see like you can just literally go on the dYdX governance forums and see these different trading firms and different members of the community talking to each other and like that's never existed before, right? Like sort of ridiculous that on like a Binance or the New York Stock Exchange or something, people could come together to make changes to the platform itself. And that's something that's fundamentally enabled by crypto.

Anthony Sar: Is there any mechanism to prevent from one party to accumulates or power in terms of influence on the governance?

Antonio Juliano: Yeah, there's nothing literally built into the protocol that would stop people from accumulating just a ton of dYdX tokens. But it's transparent too. You can see what's going on, you can see what the percent distribution is in terms of folders and it's not something where there's been a ton of accumulation between just a few users. And it's sort of what I was saying, right? Like even a lot of the trading firms or big users don't even want that to happen. They want to have enough tokens to have their voice heard and have a say in governance. So again, I think it's early days and we'll see how this stuff evolves, but if anything, I think there's good reason to believe that it'll become more decentralised over time rather than less.

Anthony Sar: What's your personal driver behind the whole thing? I mean, I understand you're passionate about the technology going into this building a new unknown better system for how it deals with money. And let's say assuming that in 5, 10 years dYdX becomes what you want it to become the largest decentralised or the largest exchange, what's next then?

Antonio Juliano: I mean in terms of why I'm really excited about it. I am excited about the technology and the opportunity and hopefully that kind of came through and the stuff I was talking about earlier. But for me I think it's just really exciting to build something from zero to one and just build something that literally would not have existed if you had not done it. And just be able to point to that and be like, wow, like I did that and it had some amount of impact on the world and we've been fortunate to have a decent amount of success with dYdX so far. Like there's around a billion dollars that's traded on dYdX every day. And for me and everybody else who's worked on dYdX, we can look at that and feel proud of it. And then I think the scope and the potential for impact really excites me as well. Before crypto is just literally impossible to make a lot of innovation in the financial system. Like there are these like FinTech companies, right? And no shade to them. Like they're building really important things, but they're building on top of existing financial infrastructure, right? If I, without crypto sort of just came and was like, I wanna start a new derivatives exchange, it's like ridiculous. Like there's no way I could do that both from like a regulatory perspective, whereas in crypto it's actually not that hard to do that. Like we have built this parallel financial system, like we've built the equivalent of like a margining system and an exchange and all of this exists just in code and we've done that in just a couple years. So I think if we can make that much progress in just a couple years, imagine what we could do in 5 or 10 or 50. And that's exciting to me and it keeps growing pretty fast as well. So just the potential for impact. I mentioned that I always tell my team and people externally that our goal is to become one of the biggest exchanges. If you have the opportunity to build something that could be a major driver of the next generation of finance, I find that pretty exciting.

Anthony Sar: Antonio. We ask our guests to tell us what's the best sort of soundtrack they would take with them to the Finoverse. If you would have to choose one song that would accompany you in this place, what would be the song?

Antonio Juliano: I'm a big Taylor Swift fan myself, so I'm trying to think if there's anything that's somewhat relevant there, but probably something of hers.

Anthony Sar: Which song?

Antonio Juliano: My favorite one is Love Story kind of takes me back.

Anthony Sar: Nice.

Antonio Juliano: Maybe my love story with DeFi.

Anthony Sar: Sounds great. Amazing. Thank you very much, Antonio.

Antonio Juliano: Thanks for having me and for the great questions. Thank you so much.

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