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Who is Changpeng Zhao (CZ)? From gas station’s worker to crypto billionaire

CZ - founder of Binance, used to be a burger flipper at McDonald's and worked at a gas station to cover the household expenses.
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9 min read
Published Feb 16 2022
Updated May 20 2024
who is changpeng zhao

Who is Changpeng Zhao (CZ)?

Changpeng Zhao (commonly known as CZ) is the founder and CEO of Binance, the world's largest cryptocurrency exchange by trading volume. He was previously a member of the team that developed and also served as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of OKCoin.

cz founder ceo binance
CZ - founder of the largest exchange by trading volume

According to Bloomberg Billionaires Index, his net worth is estimated at $96 billion as of January 23, 2022, making him the richest person in the crypto space and the world’s 14th richest person.

CZ Before Binance

A challenging childhood

CZ was born into an intellectual family, his parents were both teachers in China. His father worked as a university instructor before he was branded a "pro-bourgeois intellect" and exiled to rural areas shortly after CZ's birth. His family eventually moved to Vancouver, Canada in the late 1980s. In his teenage years, CZ helped to support his family by working several service jobs, including at a McDonald's and a gas station.

cz childhood
CZ when he was a child

Later, he went to McGill University and studied Computer Science. He was also passionate about stock markets and trading, which made him choose this career.

A talented techie

After graduating, CZ spent time in both Tokyo and New York, first building a system for matching trade orders on the Tokyo Stock Exchange and then, at Bloomberg’s Tradebook where he developed software for futures trading. At 27 years old, he was promoted three times in less than two years to manage teams in New Jersey, London, and Tokyo, but he became impatient.

So in 2005 he quit and moved to Shanghai to found Fusion Systems - his very first attempt at starting his own company. CZ spent 8 years here while engaging in other business ventures. During his time at Fusion Systems, he played a key role in building some of the fastest high-frequency trading systems for brokers.

Sold house to go all-in on Bitcoin

In 2013, CZ first learned about Bitcoin from Bobby Lee, a venture capitalist, then CEO of BTC China, with whom he played poker. He immediately became enthusiastic about the technology, he read the whitepaper and started going to thematic events. Bobby Lee and investor Ron Cao both encouraged CZ to put 10% of his net worth into Bitcoin.

Later, at a small conference in Las Vegas, he met a representative of Ripple who taught CZ how to use it. In the process, he transferred some XRP to CZ. When they were done, CZ wanted to transfer the coins back, but heard in response, “You can keep it and you can use it to teach the next guy.” This started CZ’s wild crypto adventure.

In 2014, CZ took the plunge and ended up selling his apartment to go all-in on Bitcoin. Within three months, BTC dropped from $600 to $200, losing him two-thirds of the value of his house for roughly two years before the price went up again.

Given this event, CZ said: “For different people, that risk appetite and risk situation is different. I would not recommend people who are struggling to pay off mortgages on their house and who need a guaranteed income from their investments to pay off some loan, to sell their house and go all-in on crypto, because crypto is highly volatile.”

Not only did CZ sell the house, but he also quit his job. Within two weeks, he joined and served as the Head of Development for a period of one year before departing to join OKCoin. At OKCoin, a platform specialized in spot trading between fiat and cryptocurrency assets, CZ worked as its Chief Technology Officer for less than a year.

CZ and Binance

The arm with Binance’s logo tattoo

After his introduction to Bitcoin, CZ quietly nursed the ambition of establishing his own cryptocurrency company - creating an exchange platform that did not carry out any transactions using fiat money. After leaving OKCoin, he decided to bide his time, waiting for the perfect opportunity which came with the ICO boom of 2017.

In July of 2017, CZ launched the Binance ICO which ended up raising $15 million, about 200 million BNB tokens were sold during the ICO. After Binance was founded, CZ even got the company’s logo tattooed on his arm. Binance can be considered as an “overnight success” because within 6 months, this platform grew to become the number one cryptocurrency exchange platform in the world and still holds that position until now.

cz with binance logo tatoo
CZ and Binance logo tattoo

Binance has become the top destination for trading “alternative coins” — cryptocurrencies that are less liquid than more established tokens such as Bitcoin and Ethereum and have become some of the most speculative corners of the market. The firm offers trading in more than 350 coins on its international exchange, more than double of what’s offered by Coinbase, according to Coingecko.

Binance succeeded in creating “user stickiness,” in part by allowing clients to use Binance Coin to reduce trading fees, said Tim Swanson, head of market intelligence at Clearmatics, a London-based blockchain firm. “They don’t even have to be the first to list a coin anymore for liquidity to aggregate there,” Swanson said of Binance.

CZ’s firm is also the largest provider of derivatives trading by volume, letting users speculate on crypto with even more risk and potential reward.

Binance - the biggest "gorilla"

CZ’s net worth is $96 billion, which exceeds Asia’s richest person, Mukesh Ambani, and rivals tech giants including Mark Zuckerberg and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

But CZ’s fortune could be significantly larger, as the wealth estimate doesn’t take into account his personal crypto holdings, which include Bitcoin and his firm’s own token - BNB, surged roughly 1,300% last year.

Also in last year, Binance generated at least $20 billion of revenue, according to a Bloomberg analysis of its trading volume and fees. That’s almost triple what Wall Street analysts expect Coinbase Global Inc., a publicly-traded firm with a market value of $50 billion, will collect for 2021.

“Coinbase might appear to be the 800-pound gorilla from a U.S. perspective, but Binance is significantly bigger,” said DA Davidson & Co. analyst Chris Brendler.

Zhao declined to comment for this story, and Binance disputed the accuracy of Bloomberg’s estimates of the firm’s market value and his net worth. “Crypto is still in its growth stage,” Binance said in a statement. “It is susceptible to higher levels of volatility. Any number you hear one day will be different from a number you hear the next day.”

In one recent 24-hour span, Binance completed $170 billion of transactions. On a really slow day, he said, it’s about $40 billion — and that’s up from as little as $10 billion two years before that.

In the crypto world, these are gargantuan numbers. Binance routinely facilitates as much trading as the next four largest exchanges combined.

“I don't care about money”

When asked about his wealth, CZ said: “I don’t care about wealth, money, rankings.” He added that such matters are a distraction and that he’s prepared to give away almost all of his fortune before he dies.

Although CZ is a maximalist when it comes to working, he is known as being rather minimalistic in his personal life. No big houses, no yachts, not even a business suit. Neither did he celebrate the last new year, explaining that he stayed home because “it is just another day.”

“I’m not materialistic because it’s kind of hard to carry anything that’s physical. I like to keep mobile. I like to be able to live in a different city every month if I want to. And with a shared economy, it’s so much easier now. So we don’t need a car — you have Uber everywhere. You have Airbnb, so I don’t need to buy a house. I don’t feel the need to own a lot of stuff, to have a really complicated life. Just keep everything simple.”

CZ added that if he had a choice, he would prefer not to be famous. But Binance has to have a public face to establish trust with customers who entrust their funds to Binance’s custody. “I know we’re in an industry that technically we don’t need trust, but there’s still a lot of trust that is needed in a lot of different places.”

CZ also revealed that he was forced to be a public face, as other members of the team did not want to go public. “I was actually hoping there would be a better face, to be honest. I don’t think I'm a very good public speaker. There are also much better-looking people. But unfortunately, for Binance, it’s me.”

CZ and the Future of Binance

“I’m not an anarchist”

In an interview dated back to 2018, CZ said that Binance tried very hard not to be number one, “because being number one creates other problems sometimes, especially with regulators.” CZ had his reasons.

Banished from China — where it was founded — the company faces regulatory probes globally. The U.S. Department of Justice and Internal Revenue Service are investigating whether one entity CZ controls, Binance Holdings Ltd., is a conduit for money laundering and tax evasion.

In addition, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is probing possible market manipulation and insider trading within Binance, and whether it illegally allowed U.S. clients to trade derivatives tied to cryptocurrencies.

Binance also has been the subject of consumer warnings in the U.K., Japan, and Germany, among other countries. At the end of last year, a Canadian securities regulator reprimanded the company for telling users of its trading platform that it was allowed to continue operations in the country when it still lacks a registration to do so.

A spokesperson for Binance said the company is “working with regulators around the world and we take our compliance obligations very seriously.”

CZ has said he welcomes — and wants — regulation. “I’m not an anarchist,” he said at the Bloomberg forum. “I don’t believe human civilization is advanced enough to live in a world without rules.”

Binance’s headquarters are on the way

Binance’s future may hinge on whether it can reconcile with the world’s regulators and find a welcoming location to establish its headquarters.

It has never had a formal headquarters. Binance was founded in China, banished to Japan, and self-exiled to Malta, whose financial regulator later denied having oversight of the exchange.

Now Binance is trying to settle on a location, CZ said, adding that an announcement about the headquarters would be coming “in a very short period.”

That’s an about-face from 2020 when CZ said that the company’s headquarters was wherever he happened to be. In legal filings, the firm’s lawyers have said that it’s incorporated in the Cayman Islands, which is well-known for being an offshore tax and regulatory haven.

Binance’s ability to operate just about anywhere has made it difficult for regulators to establish jurisdiction over the company. “Their approach was, ‘We don’t need a regulator, we are decentralized,’” said Brendler, the DA Davidson analyst. “That worked really well for growing and scaling and product innovations.”

CZ’s freewheeling approach may need to change as Binance seeks to raise money from outside investors, who typically want some measure of government oversight as an assurance that a business is legally sound. “To raise capital, we believe that the company needs to show a path to settling on a global headquarters and consolidating operations,” said Robert Le, an analyst for Pitchbook.

If Binance pulls it off, it could make Zhao even richer than Elon Musk, currently the world’s wealthiest person.

“As long as you keep walking”

Despite multiple legal troubles and difficulties in building the company, CZ has still led Binance to achieve great successes. He has a tip that helps him stay optimistic, a parable he once heard from someone: “If you walk to the bottom of a valley, what do you do? And the answer is pretty simple: You just keep walking as long as you keep walking. Then you eventually get out of the valley.”

When asked for advice from the next generation of founders on whether it is better to get a degree in computer science or a master’s degree in business administration, CZ rejects the premise of the question and says to go for both. His view is that, in this sector and this capacity, you are forced to deal with everything: technology, business models, business development, deal negotiations, marketing, customer service, compliance, legal, accounting, finance, HR. And CZ doesn’t consider himself an expert in any of these areas.

CZ seems very satisfied with his professional career: “I feel I’m really lucky to have the chance to be doing what we’re doing, which is to increase access to crypto, increase the freedom of money for people around the world. That is something I’m really energetic about doing. And I just feel lucky to be in a position to be able to do that.”