October 27, 2021
A year ago, I was ready for a change at work. A re-organization at my old job meant that I was spending about six hours a day in meetings, which drained me. I drew up a list of criteria for the next role that I wanted to take on:
- Have a large impact — Solve important, complicated problems.
- Grow my technical skillset — Spend more time on heads-down execution than on meetings and process updates.
- Learn from incredibly smart coworkers. Specifically, how to scale a company from seed stage (~$0 ARR) to $10M+ ARR and beyond, with the end goal of launching my own company 2-5 years down the line.
My job search was broad — I reached out to folks in my personal network, looked at startups on AngelList, and submitted an application to Work at a Startup, Y Combinator's job board. Through Work at a Startup, I ran across TRM Labs. On a whim, I shot off a note saying I'd be interested in a data science role.
Enter TRM Labs
Let's take a step back. What is TRM Labs?
We are a blockchain intelligence company. We analyze blockchain data to help financial institutions and government entities detect financial crime and fight fraud in cryptocurrency transactions.
Our mission is to build a safer financial system for billions of people. We believe that: 1) Crypto is poised for explosive growth and 2) Risk management infrastructure is essential for that growth to occur.
I had played around with crypto on and off since 2013, but never thought that I could make it my career. So I was happy to hear that TRM attracts people of all backgrounds, including:
- Brilliant data scientists and engineers — with or without a crypto background. We work with huge, complex datasets, and our data is the lifeblood of our product.
- Former law enforcement agents who specialize in solving financial crimes.
- Folks in the financial compliance space.
- Cryptopunk enthusiasts who have been in working on decentralized projects for years.
- Anyone who is humble, smart, and driven, who wants to solve big problems and build the future of finance.
But when I reached out, I didn't know any of this. At the time, all that I knew was that TRM was a small startup with some good investors (YC, PayPal, Initialized Capital, etc.) operating in the crypto space.
My process started with a standard 30 minute phone screen with our co-founder and CEO, Esteban Castaño. He gave me an overview of TRM, dug into my background and asked what types of problems I'd like to solve in my next role.
From there, he sent me an "AoR" (Areas of Responsibility) document. This was a list of all of the potential workflows that were open areas of need at TRM. I indicated my level of ability and interest for each workflow, then got on a follow-up call with Esteban to discuss. I respected how thoughtful Esteban and everyone at TRM were about building not only a great product, but a great company, as well as the emphasis on finding a good fit for me given my skills and interests.
We mutually agreed that this was a good potential fit, so I was given an involved take-home challenge involving SQL, writing, and project planning / management. This was extremely open-ended. I then had a 3 hour virtual onsite to discuss the results of my take-home challenge, as well as some additional technical and cultural interviews.
It was tough to get a read on my performance during the virtual onsite. I think that this is a function of not being in the same room as others and being able to read non-verbal cues. Frankly, I thought that I had bombed the Python portion of the interview. I don't have a degree in CS — I'm self-taught technically and don't code well under pressure.
Being on the other side of interviews now, I realize that at TRM we intentionally hire for strengths as opposed to lack of weaknesses. So the other facets of the interview may have made up for my relative weak performance on the Python portion (e.g., I was able to send across some writing samples from my personal blog — shameless plug here.)
My final-round interview was on a Friday. Esteban called me and gave a verbal offer first thing on Monday morning. I was impressed by the quick turnaround; as a candidate, this made me a lot more excited about the company and the role. I also appreciated that they offered an Amazon gift card as a token of appreciation for completing the take-home challenge, since I was asked to present new work as opposed to work I had done previously. These take-home challenges can be a substantial time investment for candidates, so the fact that TRM recognized this showed that the company is proactively considerate and cares about it's people — be that an employee, a customer, an investor, a partner or a job candidate.
After getting an offer from TRM, I had some follow-up questions to ensure that the company and role would be a good fit for me. I knew that joining as one of the first 15 employees of a seed-stage, remote startup meant that culture would be extremely important.
Esteban lined up some follow-up casual one-on-one meetings with various team members for me so that I could get a sense of what working at TRM would look like. He also got on the phone with me for about an hour to discuss all of the questions that I had.
Beyond that, two things in particular pushed me over the edge:
- The cocktail party test. If you were at a cocktail party, how excited would you be to discuss your current job? With a job at TRM, I could tell people that I worked in crypto at a blockchain analytics company. That's something that I'd be excited to talk about!
- Backchannel references. I reached out on LinkedIn to a few former employees of TRM, to chat about their experience at the company and why they left. I thought this would give me a more honest assessment of the company, compared to the point of view of current employees who were actively trying to recruit me. One of the people I reached out to was effusive in his praise of TRM. I'll quote him directly:
"WOW this is an excellent strategy that I'm going to do for all my next jobs (reaching out to former employees). So, in short, TRM is a one in a million startup. The biggest names in crypto and fintech as clients, an incredible CEO, and a world class technical team. The primary reason I left was because I got an opportunity to more or less found a startup with a really good friend of mine that I've known for years. Even on my way out, everyone in the company wished me well and even got me a going away gift."
At that point, my decision was made. I negotiated my offer with Esteban and signed on to start working at TRM two weeks later.
12 Months Later
Almost a year into my time at TRM, I can say that this was a great decision for me.
The explosive growth that we're experiencing at TRM is reminiscent of my time at DoorDash, which I'd joined back in 2016 as employee ~200.
The crypto space is extremely exciting right now, and TRM is capitalizing on the trend of institutional adoption of crypto. We ship new product features extremely quickly and are growing our customer base.
In the past 10 months, we've gone from a dozen to over 50 employees. By this time next year, we'll have over 100. Each new hire raises the bar for us as a company. On a regular basis, I walk away from conversations at TRM thinking "Wow, that person is really smart." I know that I need to bring my A-game every day at work.
We have employees based all over the world and have embraced the remote work model. As a result, we're able to hire top talent — no matter where in the world they are based. Long-term, we'll likely have some offices in hub cities with the opportunity to work from the office or remotely depending on employee preferences. We also conduct off-sites a few times per year to get together in person and collaborate.
Because of this remote culture, we have a big emphasis on written communication. We document our thoughts and processes, and challenge each others' thinking asynchronously, meaning I spend on average just 5 hours per week in meetings.
This remote environment has also given me a great deal of flexibility, given TRM is an early-stage startup. I largely set my own calendar and have been able to do things like go to the gym in the middle of the day. That's not to say that we don't work hard — the other side of the coin is that I've been on calls at 3 a.m. when we need to push out a new feature or report for our customers.
My day-to-day consists of varied tasks, as you'd expect at a startup. Some examples:
- Analyzing illicit activity in the cryptocurrency ecosystem, then delivering the results to regulatory agencies.
- Building internal tools that help scale the work of blockchain intelligence analysts and the machine learning team.
- Defining the methodology for calculating the exposure to a given counterparty on UTXO blockchains.
- Standing up or modifying an Airflow pipeline.
- Meeting with clients; implementing custom reports for them based on datasets and on-chain data.
- Extracting insights from our data to inform our product strategy.
- Jumping into a sales meeting to highlight TRM’s analytic capabilities.
- Designing a Data Science interview process to grow our team.
- Writing this blog post.
I've encountered a ton of autonomy at TRM. There is more than enough work to go around, so it is up to you to prioritize your work to make the maximum impact. We are a flat organization that places a lot of emphasis on being a "humble master of your craft". We ship surprisingly quickly, communicate openly, and take full ownership of outcomes — whether a presentation to a regulatory agency or a last-minute client request.
I started this post by saying that one of my goals was to find a role where I could learn how to scale a company, before starting my own. I think I've found a great place to do that. I'm optimistic that TRM will be the last job that I ever have — but there's a lot of work to do here first.
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