Mastercard has severed its ties with Alex Grebnev’s Maps payments app due to Russian users, leaving the Russian public struggling to pay for international goods and services. Visa and Mastercard were among the first firms to stop dealings with Russia. However, some enterprising Russians discovered a way around the restrictions by using Maps, a payments, mapping, and cryptocurrency app. Grebnev is a Russian-born, British-educated tech entrepreneur who runs his ventures, including Maps, in London’s Knightsbridge district.
Russian users of Maps have raised concerns from business partners that it may have breached EU sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which resulted in an important partnership with Mastercard being terminated. The reason is the discovery of at least 111 Russian users who were signed up for the app-based payment card that allows them to spend their cash, despite western efforts to isolate the country.
Grebnev’s story is one of wealth, ambition, and the ethical questions thrown up for western companies with interests in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. He rose to prominence in the tech world through a series of ventures spawned by blockchain technology that underpins cryptocurrency. His two main businesses would go on to command more than $100m of investment combined and see the value of their tokens soar as the crypto hype exploded. These include Maps.me, which started out as a competitor to Google Maps but became a multifunctional app with services such as a pre-paid card.
Grebnev, who lives near his office in Kensington with his wife and children, is described as an “obsessive, archetypal tech geek” by associates, who note his “wild hours,” 5am judo sessions and love of chess. He arrived in Britain as a teenager and attended Winchester College boarding school alongside the future Prime Minister. After studying maths at Cambridge, he worked for nine years at Goldman Sachs, developing trading strategies. He clocked up nearly six more years in the City at Merrill Lynch, aiding sovereign wealth funds and corporates in developing markets. He left to found his firm, Moonshot Capital.
Grebnev partnered with a crypto exchange, Changelly, in 2018, to launch Oxygen, a platform that allowed investors to earn money by lending out their cryptocurrencies, for a fee. Oxygen also later launched an eponymous crypto token. Grebnev had bought Maps.me from Mail.ru Group, a London-listed Russian internet firm, for about $20m in 2020. By the time Grebnev bought it, the app had been used by 60 million people in 195 countries. He wanted to monetise those users by adding digital payments to the app, allowing them to transfer money while travelling abroad, in return for a fee.
By March 2021, the company had launched Maps.me 2.0 as the “financial services of the future,” with 140,000 users signed up to the platform. However, Grebnev’s ventures, which received millions of dollars of investment from Sam Bankman-Fried, were among a group of “Samcoins” that benefited from an endorsement by the Icarus of the crypto world. Grebnev’s story is one of wealth, ambition, and the allure of the crypto world.