Few regions have birthed as many fintechs as Manchester in the last several years, yet the origin story of recently-formed twentyone is one of intrigue, setting it apart from the crowd for a variety of reasons.
Part of AAO Global Group, the firm was born out of sheer necessity, as FastBitcoins – which is part of the group – found itself hindered by trepidation from traditional banks.
In an attempt to solve these problems, twentyone was formed and expanded not just to cater to Bitcoin firms, but to also support the growth of SMEs, largely through a technology-first approach that brings the key components of the onboarding process in-house.
Also significant in the rise of twentyone and AAO Global is that it has provided an avenue for the return of Danny Brewster, Group Co-Founder, who remains steadfastly enthused by tech and the capabilities of Bitcoin.
That passion comes despite his start in the space which was beset by anguish and worry after the downfall of his original firm Neo & Bee.
Setting the scene over what happened from his perspective, Brewster stated it was ‘way too early for Neo & Bee, we were talking about bitcoin 10 years ago’. Whilst he believes the group’s momentum was premature, he argued that some of those early ideas have grown into industry standard practice in the modern age.
“In retrospect, some of the ideas were flawed, but there were some positives that came from it – Bitcoin did make progress because of it,” he continued.
“But, what happened was, I left Cyprus to speak with potential investors in the UK, and whilst I was gone I received threats towards my daughter and became aware of an abundance of news stories circulating the Cypriot press about me. These stories stemmed from a member of the Neo & Bee team who I had recently demoted, and he claimed that I left Cyprus for good as soon as Neo & Bee started to struggle. Unfortunately, the media took their word for it, and ran the stories without my knowledge.
“I had a ticket back, I only had a limited supply of clothing, my dogs were at the boarding kennels, and most importantly, my daughter was still in Cyprus. To anyone who knew me, it was clear I had only planned to leave for a short period of time, yet it was insinuated that I had fled the country for good.
“Some of the accusations stemmed from individuals who I was holding Bitcoin for. It’s important to note here that I only held Bitcoin for individuals who did not have the capacity to hold it themselves, and while Neo was unable to hold the coins either. As soon as the individuals were ready to take ownership of the Bitcoin, the keys were ready for them to do so.”
The act of holding Bitcoin for people is not something that Brewster regrets, detailing that he guided them through the process to make owning Bitcoin more accessible for those who were previously unaware of it.
“When I was arrested in the UK under the European arrest warrant, the complaints regarding the holding of Bitcoin were included, but the Cypriot police were unaware of the receipts I had for these transactions until two days before they sent police to the UK to interview me. This was despite my relentless attempts to share my evidence – they just weren’t interested in my side of the story.
“I endured 11 months of fighting extradition, and then they suddenly dropped the case out of nowhere. They sent two officers to London to interview me, but I wasn’t allowed a lawyer present so I had to record the interview on my phone. The accusations presented before me were beyond ridiculous.
“In Cyprus, if the system is working for you it can be great, but it can quickly turn against you and I witnessed that first hand. I couldn’t go back to Cyprus because it’s just not the straightest of places. They wanted to hold me on remand, but it’s corrupt as hell.
“Nonetheless, I remember the day I got the call to say the case had been dropped and the investigation was closed like it was yesterday. Clearly, something had significantly changed and they wanted the case to go away as quickly as possible. I was walking around a lake with my family, wondering what next steps to take, when I got a phone call from my barrister, who told me the Cypriot police had dropped the case and my bail conditions had ended. That was an incredible weight lifted off my shoulders.”
Reflecting on what happened, Brewster revealed: “It gave me a real lesson in the power of misinformation, how things can be misconstrued and narratives can be controlled.
“The biggest lesson though was in regards to foreign media and how it can be controlled by a small group of people that are well connected. This can spread to global news and can have a huge impact.”
Brewster then quoted the Gell-Man amnesia effect as evidence of the influence of news stories, as well as how significant the impact of misinformation can be – describing some of the stories written about him by Cypriot media as “simply illogical”.
“Ultimately, I trusted the people that were around the business, and these were the people that tried to screw me over in the long run. I still take responsibility for the people I chose to have around me at the time, and I’ve learned huge lessons from that.
“Whilst I was fighting my corner, I chose to delve back into an area I have loved since being a teenager: coding. I retaught myself how to code, and that’s why the group is called AAO: Against All Odds, because I had to go through the European arrest warrant, fight extradition, and clear my name, which I did over time. Ultimately, the whole ordeal cost me a year’s worth of time with my daughter, everything I had in Cyprus, and my reputation in the industry.
“I had to rebuild, both personally and professionally, which has taken a long time. Still, to this day, I have to draw upon a letter from the Chief of Police in Cyprus that explains the case was closed and there were no charges to answer to.”
Brewster admits that a hangover from the downfall of Neo & Bee and the headlines that followed still lingers with him today, as he looks to build a future for twentyone and the AAO Global. However, he adds that the lessons learnt at such a young age were invaluable.
He also stated that the vast majority of people are ‘appreciative of the journey he is on, and his resilience to continue to pursue ‘Bitcoin as a force for good’. He describes the cryptocurrency as ‘humanity’s only chance and the only real private property that remains’.
Experience has led to Brewster taking a meticulous approach when it comes to the hiring process for twentyone and for future ventures.
“Ultimately, it all comes back to me hiring the wrong person – a decision I took led to all the distress and the whole string of events.”
The current team around Brewster is tight-knit and includes his two Co-Founders, who were also key investors in Neo & Bee.
“With twentyone, if I was to be hit by a bus tomorrow, the business would be fine because of the talented team behind it. It isn’t about me, it’s about the vast capabilities of the whole team delivering our product to the world. We have hired specialists in every area of the business, and I need these people behind me to have any modicum of success.
“The most effective way for me to rebuild was to create something of value and that was what we did with FastBitcoins and are continuing to do with twentyone.”
Much of Brewster’s frustration stems from regulatory bodies and banks struggling to distinguish between Bitcoin and other digital currencies which, he stated, have far less value and are far more volatile.
It’s a concern when it comes to future regulatory framework – and Brewster warns against lumping bitcoin in with digital coins which, he believes, hold far less intrinsic value.
These issues largely led to the creation of twentyone which, even before its official formation, has expanded as an idea and continued to grow.
Brewster concluded: “With twentyone, we always put ourselves in the shoes of the customer. This is a key lesson that I took from Neo and Bee as well. We are addressing industry needs that are commonly misunderstood by the traditional banking sector.
“The launch of twentyone is to provide things that we, at FastBitcoins, would have greatly appreciated when we started out. We offer an understanding platform where our customers aren’t in theory having their account pulled out from under because of a lack of appetite or a lack of understanding about their business. We are solving our own problems and in turn solving issues for other people as well.”