TRASTRA is an ideal tool for digital nomads, and the company's founder and CEO, Roman Potemkin, is the ultimate digital nomad. Based in Prague, he manages his coming-of-age startup on the fly with a gusto that can only be found in a true citizen of the world who feels very strongly about digital transformation, the Internet of Things, and, most importantly, his legacy in the Cryptoverse. I plucked Roman from his busy schedule for a two-hour long heart-to-heart about mobile banking, TRASTRA, crypto as a whole, and what the financial system of the future should be. Here's Part One of our conversation
What’s your background?
I’ve been a serial entrepreneur in fintech since 2006 specializing in digital banking development. Founder of iDA mobile (digital banking solutions for iOS, Android, Windows Phone) , InstaBank (mobile-first digital bank), and UPUP – money for kids (kid’s finance education). Executive MBA, bachelor in management.
Walk me through your career steps chronologically, focusing on significant moments and key milestones before TRASTRA.
My partners and I started developing multiplayer Java games for mobile devices, but we soon realized that pics and tunes are not the type of content we wanted to be involved with. By 2006, we had created the Telinform (OSK Ltd) company with one of my current partners, which basically streamlined SMS delivery to bank clients.
Thoughts about mobile banking never left us, and in 2010 we founded iDA Mobile and began developing applications for mobile banking and banking products for UniCredit, HomeCredit, Tinkoff bank, Societe Generale, and other banks, releasing over 20 mobile banks that are still thriving in the App Store and Google Play.
It was a glorious time when we thought of ourselves as robin hoods of consumer finance, but mobile apps we’ve developed mainly were services that covered minor aspects of the more considerable consumer need – transfers, exchanges, payments, etc. At the time, going bigger and introducing a comprehensive banking solution without having to butt heads with well-established Russian banks seemed impossible. So we moved to Prague and started our work on the intersection of mobile and banking. We then realized that working on service apps (think Square or PayPal), we would have to API into an existing banking solution, and that’s where the problem was: we were small, we were a startup backed only by our friends and a few angels who believed in us, but no serious institutional support. To integrate into a large enough umbrella bank that would appreciate our software would take years of schmoozing with executives, so we’ve decided, simply put, to build our own digital bank. And so we did that with InstaBank, which was a precursor to TRASTRA – a much smoother all-around banking solution for a modern professional and crypto enthusiast on the go.
How did your interest in crypto first develop?
I realized crypto would be a big deal sometime in 2013 when we worked on putting InstaBank together. At the time, I was hanging out with many different techno-geek types, a whole bunch of people from that same space – coders, developers, entrepreneurs, some financiers. One time the topic of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies came up. By the time the conversation was over, I had realized that InstaBank simply had to have some crypto functionality because crypto to me was an obvious king in the making when it came to global finance. At the time, Bitcoin was a little over $100, I was bugging everybody with the issue of connecting that functionality with what we already had at InstaBank, and on July 3rd, on my birthday, they gave me a flash drive with one Bitcoin. I guess that sort of shut me up for the time being because we never managed to include crypto with the array of services InstaBank was providing; we had different priorities at the time.
When did TRASTRA officially start? Is there like a calendar date circled in red that you celebrate each year – a TRASTRA Day?
Well, tough to say. We raised our first seed money at the end of 2017 at the height of the ICO hype. The first round was $1 million, which wasn’t much, but we were small and ambitious, so it was enough to start realizing our immediate goals. The road was not a smooth one. We’ve done several integrations before we picked out Contis as a partner, and we finally found a way to custody euros so that our customers can transfer funds and exchange funds within the app. By March 2019, the first cards were issued, and we finally sailed into the big blue. In November 2020, we reached the break-even point and started real growth.
What’s your methodology of looking for value?
In the mid to late nineties in the Eastern-European countries, one of the most exciting and popular banking products was payroll cards that several banks distributed. It spread like wildfire through the sector because it was so helpful and therefore popular. At the time, Eastern Europe was largely cash economy, payday was when a huge queue would form up at the cashier’s window. It would take hours for people to get paid in cash, but once payroll cards were introduced, people would spend seconds at an ATM. That’s how the search for value works: you look for the reason and the means. Today we’re positioning TRASTRA as the first payroll card for the new economy, an essential tool for crypto enthusiasts who are either paying their associates with crypto or somehow getting paid by their contractors in crypto. This is a mechanism that we’re trying to recreate for today’s token economy. We’re looking for value in optimizing the case for a crypto payout from companies who want to pay employees in crypto.
At what point did you realize that you can contribute to society?
The first iteration was all about easy crypto cash-out, which was a great value proposition for the still-young crypto economy. With time, we’ve switched to mobile banking. It was about building a product for mass-market adoption of cryptocurrency for consumer needs. I believe that the majority of all asset classes will be tokenized soon. We already have tokenized money, tokenized art, tokenized real estate. We are learning to tokenize debt and other financial instruments. So it’s safe to say that every element of our consumer lives will have a digital equivalent very soon. And I want TRASTRA to become the most comprehensively functional digital platform where you can preserve and operate your digital portfolio, juggle wallets, swiftly transact both crypto and fiat, monitor price movement. In a word, live off crypto, do it seamlessly, quickly, and without any hassle.
Is that TRASTRA’s value proposition?
If I were to give you our value proposition in one sentence, it would be: with a TRASTRA card issued by Visa, you can get paid in crypto and cash it out in EUR in seconds without the need for a bank account. It’s simple. People face problems in spending cryptocurrency in their day-to-day life because, let’s face it, the infrastructure right now is honed in on professionals in the space – traders and investors. There’s virtually no consumer sector; nobody prices their goods in crypto, there’s no way for you to open a regular checking account in crypto at your neighborhood bank. TRASTRA has created as much a consumer-oriented solution as it can exist in today’s regulatory environment. We’re providing a real-life digital banking standard for the seamless and lightning-fast movement of crypto between BTC, ETH, XRP, LTC, BTC wallets, and a reliable payout in EUR because there are no incoming transactions from a crypto exchange.
The point that needs to be made here is that TRASTRA is different because, unlike Revolut, Monzo, and N26, we offer fully featured multi-sig crypto wallets and instant crypto exchange right in our app for users who want to spend cryptocurrency.
Today if you have dollars in one pocket and euro in another, and some other popular fiat currency somewhere else, it’s relatively easy for you to jump from one currency to another – any bank card is good for that. But if you have crypto incorporated in your financial portfolio, it becomes cumbersome. You’d have to register on multiple platforms, get verified, pay fees, tolerate delays and constant congestion only to endure even greater pains when you want to reinvest fiat in the form of crypto. You’d have to arrange for a SEPA transfer, it’s drag… So we’ve gathered all the experiences over the last ten years and created a comprehensive solution called TRASTRA.
So one of the major value propositions we have is that your entire crypto portfolio is pretty much inside your mobile device. You can move your crypto in and out wallets integrated within the app and use them for their purchasing power. This is to say that our target audience is those who trade or generate income in crypto or want to pay salaries and receive remittances in crypto, freelancers, investors.
How do you implement your vision in practice?
Our nearest plans are to increase the number of cryptos we work with because we initially conceived our interface and the app’s entire functionality for a nearly unlimited number of cryptocurrencies. It’ll be a huge interactive roster where you just swipe left and right all the crypto you want to work with and sort out the ones you’re actively involved with. And, of course, crypto lending, but we’d have to sort out all kinds of licensing and regulation. But we’ll definitely have overdraft protection. For example, if somebody is regularly transacting and they get a salary, like, on the first of the month but then they run out of money on the 27th, so we are perfectly capable of providing a micro-credit for the remainder of the time before the principal amount of salary arrives.
What are your biggest challenges so far? The highlights?
Well, here’s an example: according to BetaKit, Revolut – one of the world’s largest challenger banks – is suspending operations in Canada because the “oligarchic kahal” of six institutional banks just doesn’t like competition. Obtaining a digital banking license for an outsider is nearly impossible in Canada without the local banking barons’ approval. They are not known for being a vehicle for innovation. This is our biggest challenge: we are throwing down with a system that’s been shaping for hundreds of years and stands to lose a lot. It’s based on agent pay, fees, countless intermediary and custody services. On the other hand, we offer a simple, elegant, and fast solution, and what scares them the most, it does not require their existence.