From Goldman Sachs to Gaming: The Improbable Journey of Somnia’s CEO

21 Jul 2024

Somnia is led by our CEO and founder Paul Thomas, who has an extensive history in crypto, gaming and the metaverse. In this interview he shares some details about his background with the community, and talks a bit about how things work behind the scenes, and what he does in his free time. 

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

I’m Paul. I’m an engineer by trade. I did computer science at uni, then went to work for Goldman Sachs as a software engineer. There I worked in the risk department where we basically figured out if traders were taking on too much risk and flagged them, but I always wanted to work in gaming.

I worked there for about 3 years then left to join a tech startup focused on gaming. It was called Improbable and was weird in the beginning (we started the company in the CEOs house 🙂). At Improbable I did a lot of different things as I was there for 11 and half years. I started off working on the core tech. We were building an MMO so it had this crazy tech stack to scale to massive online worlds, backed by simulations and with tens of thousands of players in a map.

I spent about 6 months rewriting all the networking stack then moved on to actually working on the game itself (something I always wanted to do). We grew a team of about 15 of us all working on this crazy MMO.

After about a year, we realised that as a company we were pretty good at building tech but building games was much harder and not really our skillset. We decided to pivot to selling the technology we had built to the game industry. I went back to core engineering building out the cloud platform to host and scale the games.

We got our first few customers and I moved into supporting them. I realized then my passion was about connecting customers and technology together to solve problems. This was a very stressful job as the tech was early but it was very fun, and I learnt a lot about the industry. I grew that team out and then moved on to doing technical sales, flying round the world selling the product to game studios, again I learnt a lot from this and eventually just became a sales person.

After doing that for a while, I realized we had a disconnect between our engineering org and the customers. Engineers were just building stuff that they thought was cool rather than what was useful. So I created the product function which bridged the gap between customers and engineering. I grew that team out and also managed a community function to support an open version of the product.

After doing that for a while, I realized the issue we now had was our marketing and sales function was not in touch with the product we were building. So I built out a product marketing function and eventually headed up the commercial division. The company grew to over 1000 people globally with offices all over the world and raised a bunch of money.

In 2020, we created a new technology that allowed for tens of thousands of people to be in the same space at the same time. All could see each other in real time, and could communicate with voice, in addition to being able to customize themselves. This started Improbable’s metaverse business, which focused on music and sport as well as gaming. During this time, I started incubating a new web3 project for the company to be the economic backend for the metaverse.

That incubated project we spun out is called Somnia, and I am now the CEO. So in summary, I still like to think of myself as an engineer and still code in my spare time. But I do a lot of other things these days 🙂.

What got you interested in blockchain technology?

I have been pitching at Improbable to use blockchain tech since about 2017. I worked in finance and I saw a lot of problems with central control and counterparty risk. I saw blockchain as an amazing tech to solve that problem.

As I went deeper I realized that decentralized applications and data basically is a foundation for a more equitable world. I’ve personally always wanted to level the playing field globally so that skill and hard work is what matters. Not where you live, or your economic background. Blockchain tech in its final form I believe will make a fairer society which I am personally very passionate about.

Defi summer really kicked things into high gear for me. I really started to see the tech maturing and useful end user applications beyond digital money being made. This got me really excited and made me join the industry.

What are your favorite things about the crypto space?

There are a lot of things. Apart from the openness of the systems I think that it fosters  collaboration between groups. I love that, I really like the amount of idea sharing and cross pollination in the space. I think that ultimately speeds up the pace of innovation and allows us all to work together to bring the technology to the world.

What are some of your least favorite things about the space?

Bad actors and false promises. I think due to the open nature of the space and the fact that it’s heavily financialised you get a lot of bad actors trying to rip people off. This happens with all new technologies but it makes me sad when I see people misleading and ripping off people. The technology and ethos of the space has the potential to do so much good in the world and I wish people wouldn’t use it for scamming others.

I also really dislike all the regulatory uncertainty around the space. As a founder you are trying to build a great product and community that helps people. When you have to spend a lot of time with legal and regulatory folks to make sure you are doing things correctly it just makes it harder for no really good reason. I wish there was clearer regulation so we could understand how to build projects and not have to work in grey areas continually.

Do you have a favorite video game? If not, music or movies will work.

Legend of Zelda Ocarina of time. I was a big fan of Zelda on the NES and the SNES and seeing that game come to 3d was an incredible memory. Also I loved the story and was so surprised with the time skip. 

What excites you most about what you’re building at Somnia? 

For me, the Metaverse is an opportunity to give anyone with an internet connection an ability to create value online and deliver that to others. Creating an economic foundation to enable that really gets me out of bed in the morning. I also believe the metaverse is a way for being to be entertained and fulfilled which we need in today’s society.

Outside of the big picture stuff I also think tech is really important in moving forward the industry as a whole. A lot of what keeps us back is lack of infrastructure to build high quality end user applications. I see the performance of the Somnia blockchain as solving a key challenge that will enable more engaging end user applications that we haven’t even thought of today.

What advice would you give to people getting started in the industry?

I think to start is important to go deep in understanding the industry. I think on the surface people see crypto as a big casino, a way to make money. I really like Chirs Dixons view here of the casino vs the computer (see read, write own). I think it’s important to understand the computer side of what crypto is and what that can mean for the world.

I would then say spend time in Discords, TG on CT and in real life events. Find your tribe in crypto and work out what you find interesting and where you want to focus. Web3 affects so many different things and it’s important to align yourself with what you have a passion for outside of the foundation of web3. Love finance -> DEFI, Art -> NFTs etc.

I would then say stay experimenting and building stuff. If you’re an engineer, write some dApps. If you are a marketeer start a blog or get involved on CT. There are a whole host of things you can do to start getting involved in the space.

What has the biggest challenge been so far? 

I think it’s getting the Somnia brand out there. We are a new project in the space and there is a lot of noise from a lot of projects. So really getting our message out there getting people to know about us has been the biggest challenge that we are still working on today.

What do you do for fun outside of work? 

Work is fun! I code a lot in my spare time working on side projects. Currently building an app that uses AI and my journal to make a second brain. I also play games, currently playing Dave the Diver which is a cool indie game about making a Sushi shop, watch anime my fav is Attack on Titan and I read a lot, currently working through The Book of Life which is all about Indian philosophy. I also go outside and touch grass occasionally with my dog 🙂.
Follow Paul on Twitter/X to keep up with all of his thoughts and developments, and stay tuned for future profiles on other members of the Somnia team.