The bitcoin industry still has some way to evolve and some “adult supervision” in the form of regulation is necessary to bring digital currencies to the mainstream – they were the main points of agreement between a panel featuring CoinDesk’s own founder Shakil Khan, at TechCrunch’s Disrupt Europe 2013 Conference in Berlin from October 26-29.
Although the panel’s title was Is Bitcoin the new Euro? even chair Kim-Mai Cutler described the proposal as “ridiculous” and no real comparisons were made to the EU’s beleaguered currency.
Joining Khan on the panel were investor Michael Jackson of Mangrove Capital and Nejc Kodrič, co-founder and CEO of popular bitcoin exchange Bitstamp.
There were few disagreements between panelists. Both Khan and Jackson admitted that, while both are excited about bitcoin’s future potential, neither have invested heavily just yet.
As well as starting CoinDesk in May 2013, Khan said that he has invested in BitPay and is holding a number of coins himself.
“I have looked at probably most bitcoin companies and I’ve passed on investing,” he said.
“If you look at the waves of bitcoin companies that’ve been coming up, so far there have been some great ideas and some great idealists who want to run these companies. I’ve yet to find somebody who understood the deep technology. The opportunity, the bullishness about bitcoin, but who also knows what a P&L, a balance sheet is, and how to run a business.”
“Hope is not a strategy and most bitcoin companies out there right now are relying on hope, not on a business plan.”
Bitcoin companies were all part of a three-wave or generation process. The first wave of bitcoin-related businesses has already been shut down, and some operators may even go to jail. The second generation is the current one, with Mt. Gox and upstarts arriving to challenge its dominance.
The third generation would arrive soon, said Khan, predicting Q1 next year or or even in the next couple of months. This wave would see the entry of serious and seasoned startup professionals, who have already experienced big companies and big exits.
“I’m looking more forward to the next wave of companies. There are teams of entrepreneurs with tier A VCs, with lawyers, with regulators, sitting in rooms around the world, thinking how do we launch the next generation of digital currency companies. I think that’s where the opportunity is. We’re still very, very early in this journey.”
Kodrič agreed with the ‘three-wave’ view and his company’s position in it, saying he started Bitstamp to overcome the hassles involved with wiring money to Japan and dealing with Mt. Gox as the only exchange option.
The importance of regulation
None of the panelists saw the unregulated, anarchic version of bitcoin as a realistic option heading into the future. Jackson said a clear knowledge of applicable laws and regulations would need to happen before large scale businesses got involved.
Right now, many large players on both the business and investment side were sitting back just waiting to see how it would all play out.
“A lot of the bitcoin world so far has been ‘we don’t want any regulation, we don’t want any of that stuff’. Just like a lot of the internet is, and unfortunately in the world of currency… in 2013, society expects traceability.”
It also needed to be much easier for everyday users to acquire bitcoins. Face-to-face transactions were sometimes easier than jumping through the ID and verification hoops of current exchanges (the panel was less clear on how customers would avoid these processes in a more regulated environment, though).
Jackson was also optimistic about regulators stepping in soon, saying although there was no current ‘bitcoin hub’ in Europe, most governments were quite curious about bitcoin and that the various jurisdictions of Europe provided an opportunity.
“The good thing about Europe is we have 28 different countries with 28 different regulators. If you’re in the European Union you only need one of them to open their eyes or begin to set these rules.”
He has recently been working with a regulator in Luxembourg who was interested but also just observing for now. Smaller countries, such as those in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, “generally tend to be a bit more pragmatic and easier to speak to with less vested interests.”
“The good thing about Europe is we have 28 different countries with 28 different regulators.”
Bitcoin, he said, was similar to the world of phone companies a decade or two ago, with traditional ways and the ‘internet way’ often clashing.
“We are currently following the legacy regulation, which is not suitable for the technology that we are in. So we’re eager to see what’s going to happen on the regulatory front,” added Kodrič.
Khan referred to some bitcoin businesses, such as BitInstant, suddenly replacing their services with “a holding page saying ‘We’re working on some new features, we’ll be back soon.’ You wouldn’t expect that from your bank.”
The panel touched briefly on China’s first steps into bitcoin and internet giant Baidu’s announcement it would start accepting bitcoin for some services.
“Chinese television has been showing a number of short programs about bitcoin… and Chinese television is state run so we’re seeing an education process taking place there,” said Khan.
While Khan spoke casually of the bitcoin value going “either to zero or lots of zeroes,” Jackson said price stability was important to get merchants to accept the currency. Sellers don’t want to be checking the exchanges every hour to re-set their prices, he added.
Although he doesn’t invest in them personally, Khan said he saw a future where the adult and gambling industries once again led the way to mainstream acceptance.
“I know for a fact they are looking into it.”
He also said large hedge funds were watching carefully: ”Some of the large hedge funds have got huge positions. They’re not going to talk about it publicly.”
“If you’re a large fund and you’ve got 500 million or five billion in that fund, putting a million dollars into bitcoin is not the stupidest thing you can do. The upside potential is so huge and you’ve probably made your money by taking some form of risk and those risks were probably far higher than investing in bitcoin.”
The panel also predicted a future where bitcoin could be used almost invisibly for micropayments, facilitating transactions that delivered small amounts of money instantly without companies like Western Union taking a double-digit share in fees. In such a future, the value or name of bitcoin might not even be relevant, Khan said.
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