We talked to Nathan Williams of Minespider about sustainable and responsible supply chain tracking and here is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Nathan Williams: We are doing better than many people. We are fortunate that we can do my work remotely and that our family is healthy. Of course, being in the middle of a global pandemic makes things difficult and frustrating at times; however, compared to many who can’t easily isolate and who have lost loved ones to the disease, we have a lot to be grateful for.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Minespider.
Nathan Williams: I have computer science and an MBA background, and have been an entrepreneur some capacity for most of my career. After my wife visited Berlin in 2012 and fell in love with the city, we moved in 2013 to be part of the startup scene. I started a number of projects before Minespider, with various degrees of success, and most were in the field of regulatory technology. I like the field because it is complex, big companies have big challenges there, and there isn’t a lot of competition because it’s not a field many people have experience in.
I started Minespider as a project in 2017, about a year before we officially founded the company. Blockchain was becoming a mainstream topic, and around the same time, there was increasing concern about the problem of conflict minerals. Gold, Tin, Tantalum, and Tungsten were metals that often funded armed militias and human rights abuse, but we need these materials for our electronics, batteries, and other products. I spent that first year speaking to everyone who would talk to me, asking about the problem. What had been tried, what didn’t work, what were the unintended consequences? By the end of 2017, I felt I had a solid enough understanding to write a white paper outlining how we could use blockchain to address the situation. In the following few months, I met my cofounders, we raised our first money and started the company.
How does Minespider innovate?
Nathan Williams: For us, the key to innovation is understanding what problems we are trying to solve. Trying to track responsible materials in the supply chain is very difficult because many different companies, countries, and cultures are involved. There is not a single problem that we face but a matrix of a variety of issues that affect different players. Innovation comes from taking the time to dig into the problems these different stakeholders face and the mechanisms behind the problems they would like to have solved.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Nathan Williams: As a company, coronavirus has changed how we interact with our team and our clients. Everyone works remotely, and many of the meetings, events, and conferences we used to attend in person have been moved virtually. The change in personal interaction slows down communication on the one hand but allows for faster progress on personal work.
As far as the business goes, we have never been busier. Coronavirus has highlighted the vulnerabilities many companies have in their supply chains, and so we receive constant inquiries about using our blockchain software to help them understand and manage the data on the origins of their raw materials and products.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Nathan Williams: Even though interest in our company has grown, at the beginning of the pandemic, we had a number of our customers, potential investors, and partners pause upcoming projects because of their own financial situations. We thankfully were not in the position where we needed to let anyone go; however, this did result in our growing more slowly than anticipated and projects being delayed.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Nathan Williams: We had become accustomed to working remotely before the pandemic because our customers are generally global companies and so require a lot of travel. So remote work was not that big of a change; however, we didn’t expect video conferencing tools like zoom to become the norm for everyday work. We switched our work discussions primarily to slack and instituted a skype lunch in our calendar to keep a sense of camaraderie.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Nathan Williams: There are a few competitors in the blockchain for the supply chain traceability industry, but competition is not very fierce because the demand for these services is on the rise, and every one of us is doing good work. The biggest competition is against the status quo – buying and selling anonymous metals and raw materials that fund human rights abuses and environmental damage in at-risk areas of the world. Our plan is to stay on the course – right now. We are at the beginning of a movement that will change the way these materials are purchased. Instead of anonymous commodities, we are moving toward trusted products, where these metals come with data included about where they come from, what their carbon footprint is, and under what conditions they’ve been produced. It’s a complex field and one that requires specialized knowledge, so as long as we keep moving toward getting our product out into the market, we will remain an important player in this game.
Your final thoughts?
Nathan Williams: Nobody had an easy time in 2020 with a global pandemic raging, and it could very well be that there will be worse global disasters to come. As innovators, our role is to find solutions to these big problems. It is easy for us to be weighed down by the mental toll these situations can take, which is why it’s so important for us to be grateful for what we have and to take care of our own mental health as we navigate the high-pressure world of building a business.