The video begins with a loud, hyper, motorized ticking noise. The camera zooms in, between the backs of some mens’ heads, to show a conference panel. The screen gets darker, the camera jolts back and forth, then it shows the backs of chairs, then everything goes blurry …. It seems like the last video anyone would want to watch. (Quite literally. More than four years after it was published, it still only has 94 views.)
But four and a half minutes in, one of the panelists begins to describe an idea he’s had:
“If you wanted to, today, start a new protocol layer on top of Bitcoin, a lot of people don’t realize, you could do it without going to a bunch of venture capitalists and instead of saying, hey, I’ve got this idea, you can — you’re familiar with Kickstarter I assume? Most of you? You can actually say, okay, here’s my pitch, here’s my group of developers — there’s a lot of developers in this room. If you get a bunch of trustworthy guys together that people have heard of and say, okay, we’re going to do this. We’re going to make a new protocol layer. It’s going to have new features X, Y and Z on top of bitcoin, and here’s who we are and here’s our plan, and here’s our bitcoin address, and anybody who sends coins to this address owns a piece of our new protocol. Anybody could do that. And I’ve been telling people this for at least a year now because I want to invest in it. I don’t have a ton of coins, but that’s where I want to invest my coins. And I’ve yet to find somebody who wants my coins. Does anybody in this room want my bitcoins because I want to—”
“I’ll take them,” someone shouts, and the video ends.
It was the 2013 San Jose Bitcoin conference. By that point, the panelist, J.R. Willett, had been hawking his crazy idea for more than a year. In January 2012, on the Bitcoin Talk forum, the Seattle-based software engineer published a white paper titled, “The Second Bitcoin White Paper.” (To quote the summary: “We claim that the existing bitcoin network can be used as a protocol layer, on top of which new currency layers with new rules can be built …. We further claim that the new protocol layers … will provide initial funds to hire developers to build software which implements the new protocol layers, and … will richly reward early adopters of the new protocol.”) Seventeen months later, still no one had tried it. Little did he know it would be five years before the idea in his white paper would become a runaway trend (built on Ethereum instead of Bitcoin, but the same concept nonetheless), raising $2 billion in just the first nine months of 2017 and leaving venture capitalists fretting about the future: the initial coin offering.
Though Willett, who’s been obsessed with Bitcoin ever since he discovered it in 2010, did finally launch the first ICO, Mastercoin (now called Omni), back in 2013, he’s not been involved in cryptocurrency in recent years — until now.
He’s found what he calls “the perfect token sale” and is backing it with more than $1 million of his own money — and not even at a pre-sale price. (“I feel pre-sales stink of insider favoritism, so we’re not doing a pre-sale,” he wrote via email.) The so-called UpToken, whose sale begins October 16, is also different from the tokens that have garnered the most attention this year — those powering new decentralized blockchains and apps built on top.
So what exactly is Willett backing? What he calls the “shovels” in this digital gold rush: crypto ATMs (by Washington-based company Coinme) with tokens that offer discounts and cash back to token holders. While ATMs — physical infrastructure that have been around since the 1970s — don’t feel like they belong in a blockchain-based future, Willett says, “This really pushes crypto assets/crypto economy to new audiences and opens that gateway to people who will learn about Bitcoin perhaps just by walking in the mall and seeing the Bitcoin ATM.”
Whether or not Willett's new venture aiming to "put a crypto ATM on every corner" will turn out to be an instance yet again in which he was two steps ahead or an idea whose time has passed remains to be seen.
From Penny Stocks To Magic Internet Money
In 2010, the quirky, affable Willett was a software engineer who had an intellectual interest in “these ridiculous penny stocks would float way up and crash.” He traded them on paper, but not with actual money. He was also researching payment systems for some personal projects, when he read that credit card chargebacks could be avoided with Bitcoin. At that point he fell down the rabbit hole. “I spent days just reading everything I could about this,” he says. “I didn’t know if Bitcoin would be huge itself, but I thought, something that looks a lot this is going to take over the world and I really would like to own a piece of it.”
But with two children and another on the way, there wasn’t a lot of extra money to throw into a speculative investment — especially one in which the exchange options were, one, the “sketchy-looking” Mt. Gox website, which was named for Magic the Gathering cards and subsequently lost almost half a million dollars worth of Bitcoin, and two, mailing an envelope full of cash to a guy in Canada who would send you bitcoins back.
For months, he and his wife argued, with him insisting Bitcoin could be huge. “Watching the penny stocks — the dumbest things would suddenly take off because someone was pumping them up and others were legitimately hyping these ideas that were getting people excited, and some were blatant scams. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the ICO market today,” he says. But he believed Bitcoin could get into a speculative bubble. “People on the Bitcoin forum were already moaning about the speculative bubble from 1 cent to 25 cents. How could something go up 25 fold? Everyone was saying, this is unsustainable, this is a crash, it’s going to end in tears. And I was thinking, this could go so much higher.”
Finally, after four months of bickering, his wife gave him $200 for both his birthday and Christmas and said, “Flush it down the toilet if you want to.”
With that money, he launched a Bitcoin mining scheme — in which he paid random people from Craigslist monthly to run his mining software.
From Sleepless Nights To The First ICO
But mining bitcoins wasn’t enough. Willett kept lying in bed night after night, trying to imagine what would happen with cryptocurrency. He dreamed up something like contracts on top of Bitcoin, the way email is layered on top of TCP/IP, but wondered how he could pay for its development. Realizing he could float a coin on top of Bitcoin that buyers would automatically own if they sent bitcoin to fund its development, he wrote the white paper but didn’t want to play entrepreneur himself. Finally, after a year and a half of promoting his idea, he became so frustrated no one was trying out his idea, he decided to do what he called an “initial distribution” himself. “Basically the reason I did the first ICO is that I just wanted to prove that it would actually work,” he says.
The invention of the ICO “did not seem like such a big deal at the time,” though Willett says it was this “bizarre feeling of, whoa, I published a white paper and an address, and strangers were sending me money.” And though Mastercoin proposed all sorts of ideas like decentralized commerce and a decentralized exchange, Willett soon realized, “What everyone got really excited about was, hey, I can publish a paper and people will send me money. Literally within a few months, other projects were doing the same thing — the most famous of which was Ethereum.”
But Willett was correct that launching a new venture was stressful. First, soon after launching the sale, “there were literally people saying I’ve reported you to the SEC, you’re going to go to jail,” says Willett. “I got really worried about the SEC swat van — if there is such a thing — kicking down my door and dragging me off in the middle of the night.” (He hadn’t consulted a lawyer.) Then, there was the fact that, after raising $500,000 worth of bitcoins, the price jumped tenfold. Suddenly he had $5 million to keep safe. Though at first he had contractors working to develop Omni while he kept his full-time job, once the token reached 100 multiples of its ICO price, he sold just 2-3% of his tokens — “just enough to make my wife happy to be able to quit my job,” he says. But then it went down almost a hundred-fold. Within a year, he was back at his old employer, Cozi, working on a calendar applications for families.
This year, watching ICOs take off, Willett had mixed feelings. On one hand, “I worry about unsophisticated people losing their shirts,” he says. On the other, he says, “token sales allow people to participate in a number of exciting projects at a very early stage,” and he finds it exciting that projects that are doing good work can now “get the funding they might otherwise not have gotten to push the ball forward in the crypto economy.”
‘The Perfect Token Sale’
When Bitcoin ATM purveyor Coinme called Willett, he became convinced ATMs were the next big expansion of the crypto economy — as long as their network was powered by a token. He persuaded the team to adopt what they’re calling UpToken, which is designed like loyalty points, and quit his job again in July. He now serves as a contractor on the project.
While it seems counterintuitive that many people would buy digital currencies through a physical ATM, Coinme cofounder and CEO Neil Bergquist says, “Bitcoin appeals to a technical audience. The majority of the world is non-technical, and what they need is a physical portal to participate not only in the crypto economy but also in financial transactions in general.” On top of that, he says, the experience can be preferable to a process even as easy as a service like Coinbase’s where it can take about a week from time of purchase before the coins show up in your account. “We get calls and Facebook posts every day from people saying, this was amazing, I just bought my first bitcoin, it was so easy and instant,” says Bergquist. On top of that, the transaction allows more privacy, whereas signing up for an online exchange may require you to link your bank account. Plus, crypto exchanges have a long history of being hacked.
But just how popular crypto ATMs can prove to be and how much volume they can handle remains to be seen. Coinme's average ATM volume per month is only $100,000 and the company currently has 39 in the Western United States, while fewer than 1,600 exist total worldwide, compared to an estimated three million fiat ATMs.
However, Bergquist isn’t banking everything on the ATMs. “We see ATMs as the beachhead,” he says, adding that Coinme gives customers their own Coinme wallets, crypto IRA and 401(k) offerings and other financial services. The company even has a private client division for customers who want to buy and sell up to $1 million of cryptocurrency a day.
But if ATMs are the beachhead, the troops need to be increased. About 85% of all Bitcoin ATMs are located in North America and Europe, which are the same geographies where the unbanked are a lower proportion of the population than the rest of the world. Perhaps a token could rev up demand for more ATMs — which is the purpose of UpToken. Every ATM user receives a cash back equivalent to 1% of the total transaction amount in UpToken. Any customer who pays for their fees, typically 5-10% of the transaction, in UpToken will receive a 30% discount on those fees. And UpToken holders will be able to vote on the new cryptocurrencies to be added to the network. Willett says this is the “perfect” token sale because it grows in accordance with the amount raised. Also, for UpToken, it doesn’t matter whether Bitcoin or Ethereum or another coin we may not yet know becomes the dominant coin.
As for whether this offering could get the “SEC swat van” to come running, Marco Santori, a partner at Cooley who is familiar with how securities law may apply to crypto assets, says the risk that a coin like UpToken is labeled a security is low. On top of that, he thinks crypto loyalty points is the wave of the future.
“I think [crypto loyalty points have] the potential to unlock a tremendous amount of value in industries that have really been untouched by the technological revolution over the last 10 years. Affinity points — airline miles and loyalty haven’t changed very much over time, for example,” he says.
However, Spencer Bogart, head of research at Blockchain Capital, says the setup is like “a big Rube Goldberg machine.” Noting that he believes that tokens seem best for businesses that want to build a network effect — where early adopters benefit the more people end up joining the network — he says, “The ATM experience is not better to me because other people also use the ATM. I don’t care if 100 of my friends use the ATM or don’t use it or anybody in San Francisco uses it or doesn’t use it.” On top of that, he says competitors could just charge better rates instead of offering discounts. Or, pump-and-dumpers could buy a lot of UpTokens to have their coin added to the network and then sell if their coin wins and the price jumps.
Coinme ATM users who received UpToken with the 1% reward may not like the fact that they can't touch their Uptokens until they've amassed $10,000 in ATM transactions, but Bergquist explains this is like not being able to redeem airline miles until you've earned at least 10,000 miles.
As for Bogart's network effect criticism, Bergquist says that the vast majority of Coinme users have never purchased a Bitcoin before, so "the network effect of UpToken will be felt across the entire crypto community," he wrote via email. He also says the more ATMs that are deployed, the lower the fees, as small Bitcoin ATM operators can charge as much as 17%. As for people trying to sway elections to pump and dump, Willett, using Litecoin as an example, wrote in an email, "Of the hundreds or even thousands of people who used their UpToken to win that auction for Litecoin, undoubtedly some of them would sell Litecoin as the price went up. I don't see a problem with that. It's still great news for Litecoin to be on a massive worldwide ATM network."
UpToken is a crypto token meant to be used like loyalty points. Compared to some other blockchain projects that are attempting to bootstrap decentralized networks, it should be easy to see whether they've achieve their goal to "put a crypto ATM on every corner." As with Willett's initial idea, only time will tell -- but now many more will be watching.
Update September 21, 2017 at 1pm EST: This article originally misstated how much Coinme ATM users will receive cash back in UpToken. It is 1% of the total transaction amount, not of the transaction fees. And Coinme has ATMs throughout the western United States, not just in Washington state.