Ledger Chief Experience Officer Ian Rogers
Protocol | Fintech

From Apple to bitcoin: Ian Rogers’ strange journey to crypto

The skateboarder and teenage dad from Indiana became a tech maverick. Now, Ian Rogers explains his quest to make crypto truly mainstream and his unusual path through the industry.

Ian Rogers leads the consumer business of one of the world's pioneering makers of crypto wallets.

Photo: Ledger

Ian Rogers, chief experience officer of the crypto wallet maker Ledger, has recently made surprising — some might say strange — career moves.

In 2015, he suddenly quit as a top executive at the newly launched Apple Music, an abrupt exit that stunned the tech world. Known as a trailblazer in music streaming, Rogers was a senior Beats executive when it was bought by Apple the year before, a key step to the launch of Apple Music.

But he decided it was time to go.

"When Apple Music happened, I was really like, 'Job done. Now what am I gonna do?'" Rogers told Protocol. "I'm a geek and an innovator. Operating one of four oligarchs in digital music is not interesting to me in the slightest. I have zero interest in running Apple Music. That's not exciting to me at all."

His next move was an even bigger head scratcher for some in the tech industry. Rogers moved to Paris where he became chief digital officer of LVMH, the French company that owns such famous luxury brands as Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Dom Perignon.

"I really wanted to get out of the music box," he said. And living in France had its appeal, he added: "I'm from Indiana, so the idea of moving to Paris is super exotic to me."

"... the internet is an accelerant for luxury, not a deterrent."

In January, Rogers made another surprising change by joining the French startup Ledger, taking a leadership role in a world that he initially thought would never last. When bitcoin was created a decade ago, he said, "My conclusion at the time was states won't let this exist."

Rogers doesn't think that way anymore. Now, he leads the consumer business of one of the world's pioneering makers of crypto wallets, the small USB drive-like devices popular among retail crypto holders who want to make sure their assets don't get hacked.

The crypto wallet market is still niche, valued at just $202 million in 2020, but it's growing fast at a time when cryptocurrencies, led by bitcoin, are drawing more attention from retail and institutional investors.

Ledger, which has sold more than 3 million crypto wallets in more than 200 countries, has emerged as one of the key players in the space. The company recently raised $380 million in a Series C round at a $1.5 billion valuation.

Rogers, who lives in Paris, reached out to Protocol recently after reading a story about Thomas Templeton, the Square executive who is leading Jack Dorsey's plan for a bitcoin wallet for the masses.

"We are watching this closely," he said in an email.

Rogers elaborated on what Ledger is trying to accomplish in a recent interview with Protocol. He also recalled his journey from skateboarder and teenage dad, to trailblazer in the digital music industry, to crypto exec aiming to take crypto wallets mainstream.

(This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

There is a prominent warning about crypto phishing attacks on the Ledger homepage. Why do you have that?

Everyone in crypto is dealing with phishing. Unfortunately, we see [such attacks] every day because we're a lightning rod for people reaching out and saying, "Oh my God, I got hacked or I got phished." Generally, it is phishing. There are some more sophisticated attacks. It's really, really, really a challenge for the whole industry.

How is it different for a crypto wallet maker like you?

The reality is we benefit in the end because having a hardware wallet is one of the main things that protects you from these attacks. That doesn't make them less annoying, but it does make you less likely to actually lose your funds. As long as you don't give away your secret phrase, and as long as you don't sign transactions which you shouldn't, then you're not susceptible to these attacks.

The reality is that nothing is secure. Everything is hackable with enough time and enough money, some things more easily than others. The only way to actually make things secure is to ... design them assuming that they will be hacked.

Maybe a better answer to your question is: We now have what we call critical digital assets. I don't think people really appreciate how big an innovation this is. You now have a digital something that you can lose. You could lose your bitcoin and it's gone. It's not like, "Oh, someone stole $400 on my credit card. I need to call my bank and ask them to reverse the charge." It's not like that. It is a digital asset with an address and if it's gone it's gone. Just like if you lose a $50 bill. You can get another $50 bill, but you're not gonna get that $50 bill back.

I'm interested in your journey.

I'll give you my life story in maybe two minutes.

I grew up in Goshen, Indiana. I had a kid when I was 17 years old. I raised her mostly by myself and she's a beautiful person. She's 31 now and has her own startup, lives in Portland, went to Stanford for grad school. That's actually my favorite part of my story.

That's why I went to college, because I was like, "Oh shit, I don't want to live in a trailer park." Nobody in my family had gone to college. I was this huge music fan and skateboarder and I went to Indiana University.

I studied computer science between 1990 and 1994. I applied for a work-study job and got a job working for the music library. There was this guy -- who I'm still friendly with -- Dr. David Fenske, and he's a crazy person. He had this vision. He's like, "Listen, we have the world's biggest school of music and we have this problem: We can't get all of the reserved listening materials out to students. So I have this vision that we're going to move it from records and tapes and CDs to workstations throughout the library."

This was 1992. I was like, "Listen, man, you pay me $6.50 an hour. I'm going to build you whatever it is you want me to build." What I built was the first search-and-stream system for music for the Indiana University music library.

The project was called Variations. There's a direct line between that project and Apple Music and Dr. Fenske knows that, honestly. We did a thing a couple years ago where I was on FaceTime and they were sunsetting the Variations project and I have tears in my eyes. It's like, holy shit, this guy gave me a life, literally.

"Operating one of four oligarchs in digital music is not interesting to me in the slightest."

Then this web thing happened. I started just building websites. I'm an obsessive geek so I built websites for other people and my favorite band at the time, the Beastie Boys.

Then there was the dot-com thing. We started a company that we sold to Yahoo. There was an amazing character named David Goldberg, who was Sheryl Sandberg's husband who passed away a few years ago, unfortunately. When Dave left Yahoo, I took over Yahoo Music from him.

I ran Yahoo Music for a number of years, built a subscription service there. It was really Yahoo in its heyday; that diaspora [included] Emilie [Choi] who runs Coinbase or Jeff Weiner who ran LinkedIn or Jimmy Pitaro who runs ESPN or Stewart Butterfield who is at Slack.

Ian Rogers, Dr. Dre, Jimmy Iovine and Luke Wood at the Beats CES after-party in 2013. Ian Rogers, Dr. Dre, Jimmy Iovine and Luke Wood at the Beats CES after-party in 2013. When Apple Music launched the year after the tech company acquired Beats, Rogers says he thought, "Job done. Now what am I gonna do?"Photo: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for Beats by Dre

You were all together.

Yeah, we're all together at Yahoo in those years. It's amazing. Then there's another company which I won't bore you with, Beats, with Jimmy [Iovine] and Luke [Wood] and Dr. Dre and Trent Reznor, and we built Apple Music.

It was like Groundhog Day, you know. It was like, "Let's build another music service." I was like, "Oh my god, really." When Apple Music happened, I was really like, "Job done. I took it from 1992 to 2015. We did it. Now what am I gonna do?" For a lot of people Apple Music was the starting line. For me, it was the finish line.

I can say I did it and this was my life's work, but I'm a geek and an innovator. Operating one of four oligarchs in digital music is not interesting to me in the slightest. I loved it when there were a hundred baby music apps fighting in that world. When it's Apple Spotify, Amazon, YouTube -- I have zero interest in running Apple Music. Zero. That's not exciting to me at all. I'm proud -- don't get me wrong. But I just can't get out of bed in the morning for that.

Why Louis Vuitton?

Super random. I had a headhunter call me and say, "Are you familiar with LVMH?" I said, "No." "Do you know the Arnault family?" I was like, "No." And they said, "Well, go look it up on Wikipedia and call me back." And I was like, "Okay." So I did and of course I've heard of the brands. One French company owns Louis Vuitton and Sephora and Dior and Hennessy and Don Perignon? Wow, that's crazy. I had no idea. You know, I'm from Indiana, so the idea of moving to Paris is super exotic to me.

I really wanted to get out of the music box. Kanye West said to me once, "When I was in Chicago, I felt like I was in a box. I had to get out of the box. Now, I feel like music is the box. I had to get out of the box." And he's done that.

I knew exactly what he meant. I wouldn't have done it if I didn't think there was something really interesting here. I think the internet is fundamentally changing culture. It's moving us away from mass media and towards niche or even toward the individual. It's moving us away from mass marketing to a world where quality is hyper efficient because the consumer voice is so strong.

When I looked at LVMH I went: "You guys have massive, very valuable niches, and you're focused on creativity, quality and craftsmanship. That works on the internet." Here I was coming from an industry which was 98% digitized, and I was looking at an industry which is 2% digitized and [has] massive headroom.

I don't want to pull my own chain but if you look at the LVMH stock price from October 2015 when I joined and today, it's a pretty impressive run. I don't think that's because I did such an amazing job at LVMH. I think I was right that the internet is an accelerant for luxury, not a deterrent. You just raise the sails, and this ship goes. All I had to do was to put them in the game. It really was a great experience.

Ian Rogers and Bernard Arnault at an LVMH innovation event in Paris in 2018. Ian Rogers and Bernard Arnault at an LVMH innovation event in Paris in 2018. Rogers says the internet "is an accelerant for luxury, not a deterrent."Photo: Marc Piasecki via Getty Images

How did you connect with the Ledger team?

It's a very personal story. I got here [and met] Toby Coppel, who used to run corporate development at Yahoo, and he said, "You're living in Paris? You gotta meet Pascal Gauthier." It was like the first week I arrived. Pascal was just an entrepreneur in residence at Mosaic Ventures at the time.

I just liked him. Out of all the people I met in Paris, he's super unique. This guy's an iconoclast. Within the first 10 minutes of meeting him I was like, "I want to see you again. Let's go get a drink." And we became friends. Our families became friends. We go skiing together. We see each other all the time.

Pascal and I got to know each other personally and I got to see the Ledger business from the outside for five years. I got to ask all the dumb-person questions: Why do you want that? Isn't my phone gonna do that? Who's gonna use this? Is that the right form factor? Why can't you buy on the platform? I'm just his friend having a drink with him, like, "Oh, what's up with your dumb company?"

Let's pause there. Can you talk about the first time you heard about bitcoin after it was created in 2009?

I was with Topspin. I had an employee named Parker Brooks, who now is the head of NFTs for Ledger. This is now the fourth time we've worked together. Parker is a crazy person: long hair, long beard and a true genius. He's the person who told me first about bitcoin and I'm such a geek ... , I did the deep dive back in 2009. My conclusion at the time was states won't let this exist, because this threatens [their] sovereignty.

I followed it, and I think I first bought into crypto around 2012, but barely. Then I bought significantly in 2016. To me, the pandemic represented a huge turning point for crypto. Pandemic, stimulus -- this is it. I called my financial advisor last summer and was like, "I think now is the moment to become more invested in the space."

Are you able to share how much bitcoin you own now? And is it just bitcoin?

Bitcoin and Ethereum for me. To be honest I prefer not to be on the record about investment. It's a security concern, you know what I mean. But the best way to put it is definitely, the pandemic gave me a lot more conviction around the future of cryptocurrency.

I told LVMH, "Look, I think you know, I'd do this job for five years and then I'll do a different job maybe with you, maybe with someone else." After five years, you've got your fingerprints on it, and you should give somebody else a chance. What I always say is, "After five years, you've heard all my jokes."

When did Pascal ask you to take on this role at Ledger?

We've been talking about it since 2018. In the beginning, it was very open, like maybe an advisory role. Maybe I can help with brand building and the culture side of the business.

We started talking more seriously last summer. The Ledger business was growing very well. But you know, crypto is fundamentally a retail-driven phenomenon. The consumer business was going very well. But they also have this enterprise business, which is smaller, but strategically important over the very long term. But because of the momentum of the consumer business, it wasn't getting the love that it needed.

"If this is 1997, Ledger is Netscape and Coinbase is America Online, you know. We're kind of that emerging open web."

Pascal and the board had made the decision to separate the consumer business and the enterprise business. And he needed a leader, a general manager for the consumer business. We have been talking about it for quite a long time and I've met a lot of principals in the company and other board members. So it was quite natural they said, "Wait, what about Ian? Ian, are you interested?" Yes, I'm interested.

Jack Dorsey recently announced that Square is going to plunge into the crypto wallet business. What's your reaction?

I was in Miami for Bitcoin Miami when I saw Jack's tweets. Frankly, we're excited about it. We think quite highly of Jack. I had the opportunity to spend a little bit of time with him while I was at LVMH. He's a very positive force in this world because he really gets it.

I think his move on Tidal was very interesting. Again, putting my music background together with what he did there, I was like, "Wow." Tidal competing with Spotify, not super interesting. Tidal doing something completely different from Spotify, around the new creative economy, very interesting. That was when I went, "That's very smart."

The bigger problem is that people don't understand the need and the true necessity of hardware wallets. Having Jack as part of the conversation in getting people to understand the true necessity of self custody and hardware wallets is a real boon.

We have a very considerable lead on the hardware side, on the manufacturing side, on the supply chain side, on the firmware, on the operating system services. We have a lot of momentum and an incredible hardware roadmap of our own.

I haven't spoken to Jack about it all but we've spoken to some other people at Square about it and we think it's really exciting. It's a big sky. Cryptocurrency is going to take over the world. There's a lot of room for all of us.

But it also means more competition from a major player in tech.

They do a great job. These guys know how to do hardware. They know how to distribute. They know how to market. Look what they've done with the Square devices in terms of distribution and look at what they've done with Cash App in terms of marketing. Absolutely, these guys are great. We have to really operate at their level and beyond, but that's exactly what I came here to do.

Has Square's plan impacted your strategy or your approach to the market?

I don't think it has. We don't really look at just other hardware wallets as the competition. We look at all of the ways that you can do things with crypto. It's not all competition. If this is 1997, Ledger is Netscape and Coinbase is America Online, you know. We're kind of that emerging open web. Our job is to secure Web [Version] 3 broadly.

That means that many of these people, including Coinbase, can be partners. So competition is very difficult to define. It's not really a competition, frankly. There are a lot of other players in the space who are more partners than competition for us.

We just need to do what we do really well. I think that the hardest thing is just getting people educated and getting people to understand because it's quite complex. It's quite complicated.

Right now, there is not really a B2C business here, it's B2G — business to geek. Our job is to make it B2C.

One of the things that Jack and the other Square execs have said is they'll embrace an open process in developing their crypto wallet and have conversations with other players in the industry. You said you've started having conversations with Square. Can you share some of the ideas you've discussed?

No, because I haven't really spoken to the team that has a roadmap there. So I can't really speak to any of it. I think that having a roadmap in public is a great idea. That's the same ethos that we have. One company's not going to build the solution. You have to harness all of this incredible innovation that's going on out there. There's no way anyone is going to build that by themselves.

Are acquisitions or a sale something you've considered?

I'll answer it honestly because I just had this conversation with Pascal yesterday. Our goal is to stay private for the foreseeable future. The reason is that we have a lot of innovation to do. We think the opportunity is really big. And we see at least two years of innovation just, like, sitting in front of us. We have lots of exciting plans. So we would like to have the opportunity to execute on that roadmap as a private company.

You said earlier that when you first heard of bitcoin, you were sure governments would not let it progress. It's been more than a decade, but there's a lot of talk about regulation now. What are your views about potential regulation, not just in the U.S. but maybe even in the U.K. and Europe?

It's really interesting. I'm not an expert on either finance or regulation. I'm a skateboarder from Indiana, but I obviously spend a lot of time thinking about it at this point.

My point of view is, if you look at this infrastructure bill which was just pushed through, frankly, if you're putting crypto into a bill like this, they're not planning to outlaw it. They're definitely looking at this as something that's here to stay.

You always have to look at the macro picture which includes China. Look at how aggressive China's being with the e-yuan. You just have to ask yourself: Is the dollar the world's reserve currency 25 years from now in the same way that it is today? If you pull on that thread, I think you'll see that the U.S. and probably Europe as well must embrace cryptocurrency.

One last question. When you look back on your career in music, what is the mistake from those years that's top of mind for you as you plunge into this new arena, the thing that you tell yourself, "Okay, we are going to avoid doing that because that was a blunder?"

It's a great question. I'm not sure if it's exactly a blunder. But the thing that comes to mind is back in 2001, my business partner, Rob Lord, and I started a company called Mediacode. Our vision was that there will be a loosely coupled value chain for music. That's how the market economies work, right? I can choose a distributor, and because I can choose a distributor, distributors have some checks and balances. If this one behaves badly, I choose a different one.

We really envisioned a world where that's what would happen digitally. Unfortunately, that's not what we got. What the internet does is it allows people who have scale to punish those who don't have scale. If you don't have enough scale, guess what, I'm going to take all the oxygen out of the room.

Look at what we ended up with in music. We have an oligopoly. You've got Spotify, Apple, Amazon and YouTube, effectively, right? And we went from five major record labels to three. If you're an independent record label, you have zero leverage.

I don't feel like it's a blunder, but I do feel it's a bit sad. It's not what I would have hoped would happen. I would hope for more of a market economy.

I think that cryptocurrency is driving us into a world where these things are possible. If you look at what Justin Blau, the artist, announced this week, he's really trying to build a different kind of economy with a different kind of leverage for artists. And I think that's incredibly exciting.

A lot of those ideas are more possible in the digital asset world. We're starting to build more micro economies, micro communities, in the move from mass to niche.

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