CoinSummit, which hosted Bitcoin luminaries from around the world in San Francisco last week, could not have come at a better time. Over two days we huddled, learned, strategized, collaborated and charted the course for the future of our young industry.
Bitcoin has proven more resilient than most imagined, but to date, despite widespread and sensationalized press coverage persists. Bitcoin is still viewed as a niche currency hoarded by libertarian techies and savvy investors. The question on most people’s minds this spring is how do we change that image? How do we take Bitcoin mainstream?
Andreas Antonopoulos wrote a great article last May on why Bitcoin is much more than mere digital cash. However, since average consumers relate to Bitcoin first as a currency, mass adoption may only result when we address the non-tech consumer’s perspective first and foremost. Here are a few areas we need to invest in to drive adoption.
1. Awareness: It took the Internet about 20+ years to reach 90%+ consumer awareness. Gift cards reached that level in 15 years. And Bitcoin will likely reach that level of consumer awareness in under ten years. This awareness must include not only the benefits but also the risks of using bitcoin. The media can be counted on to help with the latter “headline” risks, but we need the Bitcoin Foundation, entrepreneurs and investors to lead education on the benefits of Bitcoin.
2. Accessibility: Any digital currency needs to have easy on-and off-ramps to fiat currencies (alt-coins sidestep this issue by relying on Bitcoin). Massive investment in technology and infrastructure is needed to make the process easier for consumers. Unfortunately, many early Bitcoiners who stand to benefit the most from the rise in valuation that massive adoption would bring have chosen to hoard bitcoins instead of investing in supporting its infrastructure.
3. Privacy: There is a great debate among Bitcoiners about privacy vs. anonymity and to what extent regulations are appropriate for a decentralized technology. Talk to average consumers, though, and they tell you its a question of trust. They simply won’t share their personal info online unless they know the merchant or third party and trust them. Similarly, Bitcoin will not reach mass adoption if consumers don’t trust its leading companies. From easy, intuitive online tools to systems that tolerate user error or negligence to consumer protection mechanisms, we have our work cut out to establish an intimate level of trust with our customers. Pushing for anonymity under the guise of consumer protection may actually have the opposite effect and lead consumers to distrust Bitcoin.
4. Stability: Volatility has been cited as a major deterrent for mass adoption. Economist and Bitcoin evangelist, Tuur Demeester recently noted that “The best way to handle Bitcoin volatility is to market Bitcoin in places where volatility has become the norm”. For people living in Argentina, Venezuela, Cypress and Egypt, Bitcoin is a lot less volatile than their own fiat currency. Thus, Bitcoin needs a go to market strategy that prioritizes the best use cases such as remittance and micro transactions, were the pain points are large enough to overcome any concerns about volatility.
5. Utility: The number one question consumers ask when learning about Bitcoin is where can I use it? Companies like BitPay and Coinbase have done a great job of furthering the cause of mass adoption by going after recognizable names in online retail for Bitcoin acceptance. However, it is not until we get the Starbucks, WalMarts and Home Depots of the world to accept Bitcoins (online and offline) that we can say we have truly arrived as a technology community.
There are many specific tasks that need to be completed to accomplish the above objectives including those related to technology (e.g. creating user friendly solutions), security (preventing fraud/theft/crime), smart regulation (establishing consumer protection laws), investments (in infrastructure), marketing (user friendly terminology, branding strategy) and promotion (consumer incentives).
The good news, however, is that some of the brightest minds on the planet are flocking to Bitcoin to work on these issues.
As we move past our winter of discontent and enter the next phase of Bitcoin’s existence, at least we know Bitcoin is in good hands with an army of enthusiastic supporters who will work day and night to improve the platform, infrastructure and ecosystem.
It’s time for the Bitcoin Spring.
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Alan Safahi is CEO of ZipZap, Inc, an entrepreneur and a digital currency evangelist who lives and works in San Francisco Bay area.
Alan can be found on Twitter @alansafahi