The man leading Facebook's crypto charge

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David Marcus is firmly in the spotlight right now, but still maintains an air of mystique.

Marcus spent more than 15 years climbing the ranks in the mobile sector before becoming PayPal’s president and then moving onto Facebook, where he now leads the blockchain team that launched the controversial Libra cryptocurrency project.

In his role as the head of Calibra, the digital wallet operation Facebook launched to support Libra, Marcus has been pushed into the center of attention. And while he seems fine with it — having recently sat through more than four hours of questioning by U.S. lawmakers who vented their concerns about Libra — Marcus has also been very selective about when he steps into the limelight.

That’s not to say people don’t have an opinion of him — many do.

But Marcus' public identity has been blended with that of Libra, and many people's opinions of him are formed more by their view of his role, and of the broader crypto payments market, than of the man himself.

People who believe in the original mission of bitcoin — a decentralized, censorship-resistant cryptocurrency — think he’s the creator of a nefariously mega-corporate scheme to repurpose the technology. Those who are more open to new uses for crypto and blockchain see Marcus as the first person capable of taking that technology mainstream.

From the crypto court, Decrypt reporter Ben Munster, who interviewed Marcus last month after the Libra white paper was released, said, “He sounds like a babe in the woods, a bit naive. I think he generally thinks Libracoin is going to bank the unbanked but he doesn’t realize what he’s created.”

He went on to say: “It’s going to destroy the world.”

And, if the congressional hearings are a sign, politicians tend to agree.

Although, Marcus demonstrated far more poise and coolness in front of Congress than his boss Mark Zuckerburg did when pressured about data privacy back in April 2018. And as such, he’s also become a well-groomed activist for the crypto cause.

The PayPal years

Despite his recent fame, Marcus was a more public figure in his time at PayPal. He joined PayPal as part of its $240 million purchase of Zong, where Marcus was CEO. Marcus helped develop PayPal Here, a card reader much like Square's main offering, to help PayPal better compete with small merchants.

Marcus quickly stepped in to fill a void left when PayPal's president, Scott Thompson, left the company to pursue a short-lived stint as CEO of Yahoo. Marcus became PayPal's president in 2012, and was hailed for bringing a startup mentality to the company.

"He's going to lead PayPal with that 'founder's perspective' to bring start-up energy to PayPal's unmatched global reach and digital payment capabilities," John Donahoe, CEO of eBay (which owned PayPal at the time), said in a blog post.

In 2013, PayPal made a deal to buy Braintree for $800 million, bringing with it the wildly popular Venmo P2P app. Though the acquisition was meant to improve PayPal's relations with small developers, it's the Venmo app that took the spotlight in the years that followed.

"We've always had a lot of people that knocked on our door, but we weren't interested in selling or cash or things like that," Braintree CEO Bill Ready told American Banker at the time. "But when there was this opportunity with David and the PayPal team … what we wanted is to go build. PayPal is able to let us do this better and faster."

Marcus spent only a few years at PayPal before accepting a job at Facebook in 2014 to lead its Messenger team — an odd fit for a man who built his reputation in the payments industry.

Although Messenger had the potential to become a Venmo-like P2P payments platform, that wasn't its core feature. Perhaps Facebook needed another leader with a "founder's perspective.”

"An entrepreneur at heart, David has made a career decision to focus on what he loves most — leading smaller teams to create great product experiences," Donahoe said in the press release announcing Marcus' departure.

At Facebook: What to do with David?

Marcus' role at Facebook wasn't clear-cut at first. Even Zuckerberg had trouble explaining the decision clearly.

"On Messenger and David … he is just a real talented product generalist and he's done a number of different things, including in his past, he ran and built a messaging company," Zuckerberg said during a July 2014 earnings call. "Messenger will have, over time, there will be some overlap between that and payments … the payments piece will be a part of what will help drive the overall success and help people share with each other and interact with businesses."

But this would be a long-term goal, Zuckerberg emphasized. "I really can't underscore this enough that we have a lot of work to do and we could take the cheap and easy approach and just try to put ads in or do payments and make some money in the short term, but we're not going to do that," he said.

As many expected, Facebook did put payments capability into Messenger in 2015. The service linked to a user's Visa or Mastercard debit card to support P2P payments. It was about the most obvious thing Facebook could have done to compete with Venmo.

Clearly, if Facebook wanted to make the most of Marcus, it had to give him something far more ambitious.

That opportunity came in 2018, when Facebook put Marcus in charge of blockchain as part of a larger executive shakeup. Facebook did not offer much explanation for this move, and spoke little of it until it was ready to unveil Libra.

The Marcus method

Most people who have worked directly with Marcus declined to comment for this story, as did Marcus himself.

Anuj Nayar worked at PayPal for a little over nine years and was there during Marcus’ tenure from August 2011 through July 2014. “I loved working with David at PayPal and wish him all the best at Libra/Calibra, but I don’t have much to add I’m afraid," Nayar said.

One of the few insights into Marcus' management techniques came from a leaked memo in 2014 that VentureBeat described with the headline: 'PayPal chief reams employees: Use our app or quit.'

Though the article characterized Marcus' tone as "frustrated" and "scolding," some saw it as motivational. Nayar would seem to fall in the latter camp.

“This one showed his passion for products," Nayar said.

The Marcus memo reportedly criticized some PayPal employees for forgetting their PayPal passwords and refusing to install the PayPal app during a mobile payment test. By contrast, other employees were so motivated to use the PayPal app that they hacked into Coke machines to force them to accept PayPal payments, Marcus said in the letter.

“In closing, if you are one of the folks who refused to install the PayPal app or if you can’t remember your PayPal password, do yourself a favor, go find something that will connect with your heart and mind elsewhere," the email concluded, according to VentureBeat.

The scolding email could have just been a case of a bad day — Marcus did completely reinvent PayPal and according to him, speaking with Forbes not too long before he left for Facebook, “It was brutal.”

What seems the best account of Marcus’ personality in his Facebook era is the recent U.S. Senate and House of Representatives hearings regarding Libra.

The Senate hearing lasted two hours and 19 minutes. The House hearing lasted a whopping four hours, and a second panel of experts (without Marcus) added to the end lasted another two hours.

Marcus’ attitude during the Senate hearing was incredibly amicable given that the majority of senators used their time to berate Facebook for its stance on privacy. He answered questions cheerfully, although at times with the high-level jargon so familiar to those in Silicon Valley.

During the House hearing, Marcus seemed a bit more worn down, a bit less passionate, although that’s probably to be expected after the first day.

But Marcus seemed excited again in the interviews that followed.

PayPal was really draining for him, he said in his LinkedIn post announcing his departure from the alternative payments company to the social media behemoth: “I realized that my role was becoming a real management one, vs. my passion of building products that hopefully matter to a lot of people. So after much deliberation, I decided now is the right time for me to move on to something that is closer to what I love to do every day.”

And if Marcus truly craved a product role, he seems to have landed his dream job. As Marcus said during the House hearing, “We would like Libra to be a digital, global currency, and to be one unit of digital currency for the whole world.”

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Libra Cryptocurrencies Online payments Digital payments Compliance David Marcus Facebook PayPal