Catching Up with Brian Tubergen ('09) - Forbes 30 Under 30 Honoree

By Michael Roth
January 04, 2021

Forbes magazine recently released its annual 30 under 30 lists, which honor people under 30 years of age for impressive accomplishments in their various fields. Two TJ graduates were among the honorees, including Brian Tubergen (’09), who was honored in the finance category. Tubergen has become heavily involved in the emerging cryptocurrency world. He founded his company CoinList, which is an investment platform that allows people to track and invest in different types of cryptocurrencies. He was kind of enough to give his thoughts on his time at TJ and how it helped prepare him for his current life. His answers are below.*

*answers are lightly edited for clarity and brevity

1. Congratulations on earning this honor from Forbes! How do you feel TJ helped shaped your journey to where you are today?

TJ was huge for me. Being surrounded by some of the smartest and most ambitious minds my age inspired me to become a better version of myself – to work harder, to be more ambitious, etc.

I also learned to recognize when I understood something at a fundamental / first-principles level, instead of just memorizing a set of facts or learning to be a calculator. Fundamental understanding is important, since often you need it to do novel / innovative / advanced work. Also, the benefits of really understanding something compound, since a lot of things are cross-disciplinary. Understanding one domain makes it easier to learn other domains.

(This switch between “really understanding” vs “memorizing” happened for me when I took physics at TJ. I initially found the courses challenging, but they became doable as I improved my ability to understand. After TJ physics, it became much easier to learn almost any other subject. For that reason, I still think the TJ physics classes were the most important classes I’ve ever taken, even though I haven’t done any physics in 10+ years. I know a couple other people who had a similar experience with TJ physics.)

I also learned to relentlessly ask questions until I understood something. TJ had an excellent group of patient and passionate teachers who were willing to answer questions until I understood. They also designed challenging coursework that forced me to confront things that I didn’t understand.

TJ also helped me build the discipline to work hard and grind things out. In my experience, a lot of things don’t require amazing creativity or insight – You just have to grind them out.

Finally, I made good friends at TJ, and I’m still close with several of them.

2. What are some of the activities you participated in during your time at TJ and how do you they helped you in your current job?

I played baseball and I started a Model Judiciary club. There were probably other things I’m forgetting. Generally these aren’t super related to what I do now (tech + entrepreneurship), although I did enjoy working with Mr. Torrence on Model Judiciary. It made me a more polished speaker and thinker.

I also felt like 8th period was an awesome and low-friction way to explore different things that I wouldn’t have been exposed to in the context of normal coursework. It was nice that I didn’t have to stay after school to explore something new. I also got to meet people who I wouldn’t have otherwise met.

3. What sparked your interest in cryptocurrency and how did that lead you to start your company CoinList?

In 2012, I took an information security class at Princeton and we spent a week learning about bitcoin. I’ve been following cryptocurrencies since then.

We started CoinList in 2017 because we saw that crypto companies were trying to raise money online, but they were having a hard time with marketing, legal, and operations. They were raising from thousands of investors, which is hard—most startups raise from <20 investors. Many of their fundraisers weren’t legally compliant. And some companies were deceiving / scamming investors.

At the time, I was running product and engineering for the venture business at AngelList, where we had built the leading online startup investment platform. We knew how to solve the problems that crypto companies and investors were facing, so we repurposed our product to serve them. The first project we worked with was Filecoin, which ultimately raised over $200M using CoinList. After that, all the top crypto companies approached us asking if we could do the same thing for them that we did for Filecoin. We said yes and the rest is history.

4. What has your family and friends’ reactions been towards being named to Forbes 30 under 30 list?

Everyone thinks it’s awesome and is excited / proud.

5. What advice would you have for current TJHSST students?

a. “A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of Y intercept” (from Professor John Ousterhout at Stanford)

Gradual improvement (slope) matters a lot. Where you start (Y intercept) doesn’t matter much. Being a fast learner (higher slope) helps, but a slower learner who’s more consistent will usually outpace someone who’s inconsistent. Conversely, cramming doesn’t seem to work well for long-term improvement, so avoid putting yourself in situations where you have to cram.

You have some control over how fast you learn (amount of time you put in + how efficient you are with your time), so optimize that.

One consequence of this is: you shouldn’t be afraid to try new things. As long as you learn fast, you’ll catch up.

More on this here:

b. TJ is a challenging and formative experience, which creates a shared bond amongst students. Take advantage of that by building deep connections with your classmates. When you’re at TJ, meet lots of people and be nice to everyone. Stay in touch after high school. Reach out to people even if you weren’t that close at TJ. Even at age 29, I still run into TJ kids who I didn’t know well at TJ. I’m still making new TJ friends and working with them professionally. TJ kids are generally down to reconnect and work together.

This is even more true in college, where meeting people is arguably more valuable than anything you learn. You should still try to learn as much as possible, and you should still get good grades (because grades impact where you’ll get your first job, which impacts all your future opportunities). But forming deep connections with your classmates is critical.

Why are people important? Because intelligent friends will bring you serendipitous opportunities throughout your life. Also, you get a lot of opportunities through references.

6. How about advice you would have for younger students (and their parents) considering applying to TJ in the future?

Good question. I guess this isn’t really advice, but I just hope people are going to TJ because they’re legitimately intellectually curious and not just optimizing a status / prestige / college-admissions game.