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Product | People | Potential – our chat with Everledger

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Here, our chat with Leanne Kemp, Founder & CEO of Everledger.

Jake @ ADLIB: Hi Leanne, great to meet you, can you start us off with an introduction to you and Everledger?

Leanne: Hi Jake, great to meet you too. I’m Leanne Kemp and I’m the Founder and CEO of Everledger.

To start off on my career, I began working in the software industry in 1996 where I began working in RFID technology at the silicon chip and inlay level, and this technology now underpins smart card technology. If you walk in a store and tap your card and go, that technology is embedded and works seamlessly.

In the mid-90s, I was introduced to technology hidden in whitepapers that weren’t dissimilar to Blockchain technology, when it was later initiated by Satoshi Nakamoto.

Everledger started in the heart of London in 2015 with a combination of experiences that I’ve gained working over many different industries throughout my career: Before Everledger I was working on a number of industries, whether it be cold supply chains like tracking salmon from Tasmania to Tokyo, tagging Kangaroos, or even ear tags on cows, which I ran for a better part of 10 years in Australia.

When I first read Satoshi Nakamoto’s whitepaper in 2008/2009, it was very clear to me that we could use this technology not only as a cryptocurrency but how we can decouple currency from ledgers.

I decided that I would purpose my life to bring transparency to some of the most opaque industries in the world, starting with diamonds. As you may know, diamonds are unique by their very nature and we’re able to capture a digital twin of each stone using technology. I remember watching Blood Diamond, and since then, knowing that diamonds come from is a question that is plaguing the mind of many consumers across the world.

We purpose technology to answer that simple question for people all over the world so that when someone walks into a store and asks, “where does that diamond come from”, we can answer it.

Jake @ ADLIB: How has the journey been so far?

Leanne: We’re five years old and we’re able to proudly say that the vision that I cast to the world in 2015 is now real.

You can walk down Fifth Avenue in New York and into a jewellery store, ask the question “where does that diamond come from?”, and the store can proudly show the origin of that diamond.

We then moved into coloured gemstones like emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, and then into wine and other luxury goods. Now I’ve asked myself a big question, “if we’ve been able to solve the problems related to blood diamonds, for example, then what could be the future’s most conflicted supply chains in the world?”.

If I think what that problem would be in 2030, 2040, or even 2050, it would be lithium-ion batteries. When we think about stored energy, electric vehicles, or solar panels on houses around the world and even our mobile phones and computers, they all have lithium-ion batteries. Most of those contain rare earths and materials that are sourced from places all around the world, for example, in the DR of Congo, but regular people don’t really know where it’s coming from.

We can repurpose our technology to help solve the world’s most conflicted supply chains.

Jake @ ADLIB: Everledger has grown to over 70 people and has offices all around the world, from a People perspective, how have you done so effectively in the last 5 years, and what advice would you be able to give somebody founding a technology start-up today?

Leanne: We’re solving a global problem and from day one, we decided that we needed to open a global operation. Some start-ups begin with how they take the best of technology hidden within the white papers, create a powerful story, and then purpose that onto the world.

For me, that’s like a hammer looking for a nail. We’ve seen that in the Blockchain space, for the better half of the last five years where many technology companies are born just by saying “this is what this technology does” but they don’t solve a particular problem.

At Everledger, we knew the problem that we were solving, and we knew that existed not only in the industries of today but for future supply chains, and we went and set out to solve those challenges.

We have about 70 people in the company today and we operate in 6 geographical regions in the world: US, India, Israel, UK, Australia, and China. The diamond supply chain is the first of many industries that we want to tackle and solve. We’ve embedded that process and our growth and operational mechanisms globally and I’d say our journey has been nothing short of fact-based dreaming. We’ve built a company based on a vision of what we think the world should look like and we set upon that purpose quite rigidly so we can deliver on that challenge.

Jake @ ADLIB: How have you found setting a start-up with so many offices over many geographical locations?

Leanne: I’m a serial entrepreneur and I’ve had many companies before, so the discipline of our operations is something that I’m seasoned to. In fact, it is my fourth company and my last, I made a promise to my family!

How did we go about it? We went about it with very careful planning and execution, we were making sure that with every step we co-evolved our product with industry and our key customers. We set out to find the right participants in an industry where the alignment of value and values came into play.

The value that we were creating is both the value and values of that industry and how they align with Everledger: the values of transparency, trust, and traceability must be at the core of the relationships. And we must deliver financial value to our partners as well.

Of course, we thought about creating a team, and that team had to be of the same mindset but different skillsets. We were lucky enough to attract the very best talent in Blockchain but also in Machine Vision, Data Science, Operations, Finance, and every team, and they are really showing their muscle and spirit, particularly in the backdrop of COVID-19.

Jake @ ADLIB: When attracting said great talent, how have you achieved that over the last 5 years at Everledger?

Leanne: I always laugh when I say that I’m a serial entrepreneur which translates to me being unemployable, in fact, I’ve never had a “real job”. No one will employ me by the virtue of my attitude; I see things in patterns, and I have never been suited for hierarchical structures.

We do seek out the best talent, and I’m not afraid to find certainty in uncertainty, and in any start-up or scale-up, you can’t be certain about what tomorrow brings or even if there is a guarantee that the business will survive and thrive through its journey, so you really need people who share that mindset.

We also look for those that are deeply skilled in their expert craft, that means from being an engineer or blockchain expert all the way through to being someone like me, who is a serial founder and entrepreneur, but I’m also a multi-skilled person, where I have the skillsets of many different disciplines, which translates to leadership over many segments of the company. We hire based on that mentality as well.

Jake @ ADLIB: Building a team over multiple locations is often a rare thing for start-ups, what challenges have you faced from that?

Leanne: Some of our greatest challenges are our greatest strength. One challenge is time zones and our ability to be able to work effectively across the world without exhaustion from the team. We’ve been able to operate across a 24/7 paradigm. There are also challenges in terms of our diversity, both culturally and even across the team with lots of different languages, but again, it’s one of our biggest strengths.

I don’t see these as insurmountable challenges, and we’ve tried to perfect the art of those operations so that challenges become a strength. We see ourselves co-evolving an industry that has been 5 years in the making and we know that we have to be nimble and agile like a little speedboat that can manoeuvre through those tectonic plates that ships have struggled to get through for years. We’re starting to see the fracturing of industries and we’re starting to get to the front of it.

If we had this conversation three months ago, it wouldn’t be against the backdrop of COVID-19, which is a very different set of challenges to lead in, particularly as we are concerned not just for the challenges that we’re already facing with global supply chains, but now we have to do that on the backdrop of digital enablement, concern for our people and our health, both mental and physical.

Jake @ ADLIB: Coming to Product, some start-ups find it difficult to translate great technology into a product-market fit. We’ve discussed a fair bit about the success of finding product-market from day one at Everledger, what tips and tricks would you be able to give founders on that?

Leanne: There are two tips that I’d like to speak about when it comes to product-market fit.

Firstly, when you first start a business you think about it from the perspective of a project to product to a platform. With that evolutionary link, you often start with a project which is often an MVP that you test out with one or two customers, that would then move into a product. A platform is a completely different beast altogether, so how you operationalise a product team around from project to product to platform is so important as they all have very different dynamics.

It’s a very well researched topic across lots of different companies. But, what often happens is that companies start and they want to be a platform company, but they don’t really start at the point of being a project or product company and they try and make that leap into being a platform, which can’t really work.

Secondly, it’s very different to find a customer-market fit than when you try to find product-market fit, they’re two very different things.

Often, founders mistake their customer-market fit for product-market fit. If you are working in an emerging technology stack like we have, where that technology was really hidden in the promise of a white paper, then the first customer to adopt the product requires you to ask yourself why and how they were the first customer to adopt it.

You might find another customer in a different industry that’s willing to take the tolerance of risk and maybe those customers in that particular industry might have the technical skillsets to spin up parts of the technology solution.

Those are the two tips I would suggest founders explore and learn from.

Jake @ ADLIB: I think that’s very useful. When Everledger first started, what was the reception to market like and how did you approach it?

Leanne: When I first started Everledger, I spent the better part of 6 months just researching and not much else. I read all of the research papers that were related to the diamond and gemstone industries from the last years, I researched everything there was around Blockchain, Bitcoin and Ethereum. I’m also a software engineer, so I spent as much time in the whitepapers as I did on the code base and I knew and understood the technology well enough to write the MVP.

We started in 2015 and our first employee didn’t join until February 2016. I spent the very first year both working with the technology and communicating with the entire industry.

I knew the problem that needed to be solved, I’d also worked around the diamond industry since 2007, and I was a software developer so I knew that if I wanted to become a market maker, I would need to educate the industry as a whole using all of that expertise. It was more on me to understand the timing rather than me just creating a product and try and sell it to the industry.

It’s not about what you’re selling, it’s about what people are willing to buy.

Jake @ ADLIB: Talking of Potential, you mentioned from 2030 that Lithium Batteries are the next industry to disrupt and you said that you promised it would be your last start-up, what’s the ultimate ambition for Everledger?

Leanne: We have understood that there’s an important question consumers ask about “where does it come from,” which can be answered with technologies from Everledger, particularly in the jewellery, wine and apparel industries where we are already answering that question.

Several large trends are occurring around the globe and one is the rebalancing of our consumption. Natural mining, as we are extracting Mother Earth’s assets, is finite. For example, in Australia, there are no more diamonds to be mined and we will see the closure of those mines in the future in other countries like Canada. That question about how long we can sustain production and consumerism at this rate is on the tips of a lot of people’s thought processes and, for example, millennials are asking this question time and time again.

There’s a construct that we’ve been working on around Circular Economy that looks at the reuse, recycle, and repurpose of items in supply chains around the world.

The question for us now is “How do we transform from natural mining to urban mining”?

For example, a mobile phone is made from several rare metals & minerals with a lithium-ion battery, so it’s about how we can reuse, recycle and repurpose those rare earths back into the same products or alternative products. That’s the Circular Economy initiative.

We’re not just asking the question “where does it come from” but also “where does it go after me?”. It’s not good enough that we’re leaving these items in the bin or the bottom of the socks drawer, these are precious resources that the earth can no longer give to us for the next two, three or ten decades. We have to do something about our landfills as we have extraordinary costs that just lie in our waste. How do we transform that waste to value, how do we transform from supply chains to value chains, and how do we switch from natural mining to urban mining?

There was no such thing as a platform for provenance in the world when we began. There are big enterprise companies like SAP and Unilever and huge marketplaces like eBay, Amazon, and Alibaba. But none of them has anything to do with provenance and where these come from.

Where does Everledger sit? We sit as the trust layer of supply chains beneath these marketplaces, to know not only where does it come from and you know that it’s real and authenticated, but we can also move towards answering the question where does it go after it leaves me. If that serves as a value, then we all should be participating in the value chain, not just the supply chain.

Jake @ ADLIB: That’s fascinating. Finally, to touch on investment. Start-up founders can often find it challenging not only to find investment & money but to find the right investors. What wisdom would you be able to share around your experiences around picking the right investors for your company?

Leanne: With our investors, we took some time and asked ourselves “why are we raising money, for what reason, and at what time?”. I don’t think founders or CEOs of scale-ups spend enough time really diagnosing that at the right level.

Our investors have been chosen for strategic value and particular marketplace growth. One of our last investment rounds, our Series A, was closed out by Tencent who is one of the most prominent ecosystems and digital platforms in the world and it has a large reach into China.

We knew that the timing of our relationship with Tencent was best served not in the first year of the creation of the company, but when we were ready to complement them with their engine and our prowess into that market, for example, China.

You need to spend as much time on the research of your industry as you do with building your product and you do on creating and selecting your investors.

Great advice, thanks Leanne for your time!