I want all the gory details, the struggles, the out-takes
In the beginning
Tristan never intended to build a career in technology. A series of fortunate coincidences led him down this path.
Born in France in the 1970s, a lot of international travel marked his early childhood because of his father’s job. With a demonstration Maglev site near his house, and a family armed with on the first Minitel (the first national online system in the world), Tristan was growing in a future that hadn’t been widely distributed yet.
While the house had a black-and-white TV, the wonders of the online world made him and early connected youth. Arriving in the US in the mid-1980s, the lack of online connectivity surprised him.
In 1985, the family moved to the United States with a plan to stay for “a couple of years.” Through a series of happy accident, Tristan ended up connecting with computer geeks who were running Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) and went to college with an intent to study journalism.
At UNC, he spent a lot of time around the computer lab, participating in early projects in Virtual Reality. The lab had fast and direct access to the Internet, where he spent inordinate hours in Usenet. In the fall of 1991, Paul Jones invited Tristan to a small gathering where Tim Berners-Lee demonstrated a new system he had built: The Web.
Tristan wanted to merge his journalism background and internet technology. Experimenting (and getting frustrated) with Gopher as a potential tool to publish his writing, he found HTML and the web easier to grasp. The web browser allowed you to read the code of HTML pages, making it easier to copy and learn by mimicking what Berners-Lee had done. With other students, created one of the first 25 websites on the internet.
Tristan also met a senator who had helped secure funding for the Internet: Al Gore. Tristan proposed that the government should distribute information online, similar to what the Minitel had done in France for over a decade. Gore agreed and Tristan became part of a small team that set up an email list to share policy papers with journalists. After the campaign won, the team advised the White House on Internet technology.
Jumping In: The Go-Go 90s
Because of his strong accent and opinionated view of technology, Tristan had a hard time fitting in. One of his teachers helped him secure a job as a production assistant for CNN. But he had gotten the computer bug and wanted to use the Internet as a tool for gathering and distributing news. He built the first (unofficial) version of CNN.com in his spare time, which got him fired for failing to ask for permission to launch the site.
Tristan’s firing made him a minor celebrity in the nascent internet community. Alan Meckler, a magazine publisher and trade show organizer approached him. Tristan wrote a 20-page business plan for a real-time news website over a weekend fueled by coffee and cigarettes.
Meckler agreed to partner with Tristan and the site, launched as iWorld (because Internet.com, the name Tristan wanted, was not available) was launched.
The site, along with a magazine and trade show, became the primary source of information for those in the emerging internet industry.
In 1995, the Communication Decency Act passed, making it illegal to post “obscenities” on the Internet. Tristan used his position to help sue the government and establish full 1st amendment protection for the Internet.. This was a victory for free speech but Tristan’s activism conflicted with the image of the business. The conflict forced him to leave Internet.com. Tristan re-emerged in New York with the launch of Developer.com, a site with a broader mandate around the software development community.
Increasingly interested in the technology to build websites, he built a software tool and a consulting business around online publishing. However, he was worried about the way business was running (at that point, the frenetic pace had gotten him to be involved in 2 initial public offerings and Tristan, not yet 30, was on the cusp of his third successful exit). A call from Europe, asking for help on an ambitious project came and Tristan relocated to London.
Boo.com was intent on taking some of Tristan’s ideas around editorial and commerce to a whole new level. The co-founders wanted to bring these concepts to world of sports fashion and had raised tens of millions of dollars, with an intent to launch in tens of countries from day one.
It was bold; it was the kind of crazy project that was intellectually challenging; It was what Tristan wanted.
And it was bound to fail, which it did. Tristan’s winning streak had come to an end.
New Century, New Persona: Tristan in Finance
His reputation damaged in Europe, Tristan came back the United States. He launched a company to sell content from weblog publishers to traditional media companies but was unable to raise funding, as a round he had arranged for fell apart. Having fired three quarters of the company to keep it afloat, he pivoted to consulting, which helped the company survive. One of the company’s customers, HSBC, wanted more but Tristan was worried about the risk of having a single client represent too much of the company’s billings. After several months of back and forth, HSBC acquired Tristan’s company and brought him and his team in with one goal: “make us relevant in the 21st century.”
Tristan didn’t know what made a bank relevant in the 21st century. He bet on building out infrastructures for payments as a service (at the time, there were few ways to easily integrate into the financial world from the Internet). The services were successful and helped Tristan gain recognition in the banking world, with his work being reflected in the payment infrastructures behind Paypal, Google Pay, and Amazon (as well as the short-lived Yahoo Pay service). Tristan was also instrumental in launching one of the first online-only banks, with HSBC Direct reaching 32 countries in its first few years of operations, landing the company awards and added deposits.
In 2006, Tristan’s primary sponsor at HSBC retired, with the new administration being less interested in the innovation coming out of his group. in a fit of terrible timing, Tristan moved from his position as Global Chief Innovation Officer for HSBC to a similar position at Deutsche Bank just as the 2008 financial crisis was ramping up. With regulators circling, the idea of innovation and banking felt out of favor and Tristan’s title was changed to Head of Internet and Mobile technology. While there, Tristan was instrumental in launching the payment back-end for the Apple app store, and setting up the idea of an “Apple wallet” which would be used for peer-to-peer payment (this was in 2010, long before Apple Pay).
The stress of a decade in high level positions on Wall Street, along with increasing dissatisfaction with his own power of agency led Tristan to develop a crippling condition that drove him into an emergency room. The near-death experience, in 2011, forced Tristan to reassess what he was doing and got him to realize he was more interested in the startup lifestyle than the big corporate one, because he considered the stress level there to be lower.
2010s: Return to the Roots
Having used gamification to get back in shape, Tristan became fascinated with the impact games could have on behavior. But his experience with Boo.com told him to steer clear of business to consumer business models and focus on a business to business offering. Bringing together talent from the gaming and advertising industry, Tristan helped establish a company at the intersection of those two worlds, gamifying some elements of advertising. While he was doing so, he could not figure out how to build a business model that would scale. So he found an organization that could work on figuring that out and sold the company to them. This was not a great outcome but it was not a total failure either.
Feeling listless from his inability to repeat the success of his early years, Tristan decided to focus on helping out a few companies in his portfolio and on supporting a presidential campaign. When, in a surprise to everyone, the campaign did not win the presidency, Tristan fell into a deep depression: The tools and processes he had advocated for over a two-decade period at the intersection of politics and technology had led to results that were counter to what he thought would better the world. Furthermore, the early political wins for free speech on the Internet had been weaponized to strenghten extremist voices and undermine democratic norms. Tristan swore that his next efforts would make the world a better place with few chances for a negative impact.
2018-Present: Building a Better World
Supporters connected Tristan to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, one of the leading foundation in child welfare in the United States. They needed a leader to help them dispose of technology assets.
Tristan found the human services domain similar to banking when he joined HSBC; paper-based, yet with much room for technology to improve. He saw a world of interrelated issues centering around poverty.. What he saw was an immense opportunity to create technology that would ease front-line workers’ jobs and help create a data set to identify what leads to the best outcomes.
This was the idea behind Casebook PBC, an organization using technology to help solve the world’s biggest challenge – poverty. The growing team is tirelessly buiding technology to hasten the end of poverty.
But what about podcasting? I’ve heard…
Yes, yes… It’s complicated. Here’s my take.