Banking On Bitcoin: Why Americans Are Pinning Their Hopes On Alternative Currency

By Pete Rizzo, Editor (@Pete_Rizzo_)

There are few topics in the world of finance that are as polarizing as bitcoin.

Regardless of your opinion on the popular virtual currency, it’s created an entirely new market as new players vie for the attention of a growing and increasingly devoted user base.

Bitcoin business is booming, but it has shown a propensity for producing busts.

To get an idea just how tough the bitcoin business can be, one only needs to examine major player Mt. Gox and the slew of setbacks it’s faced. In just the last few months, the Japan-based exchange has battled U.S. regulators over the legality of its operations and halted U.S. cash withdrawals. Reports also surfaced that its CEO is facing jail time

But, Mt. Gox isn’t alone. Research from the Southern Methodist University, Dallas and Carnegie Mellon has suggested that 45 percent of bitcoin exchanges have failed, some for security reasons, some vanishing almost overnight for reasons unknown.

While regulatory uncertainty would seem to dampen optimism about bitcoin’s future, its dense network of users is still confident the currency will persevere. Some are so sure, they’re staking their livelihood and their futures on it, building new companies and making long-term investments that are meant to capitalize on what they believe is currency’s unrealized potential. 

For bitcoin’s most avid supports, bitcoin is more than a currency. It’s a chance at the opportunities the traditional economy has been denying them, and they’re taking that chance, despite the risks. 

For this PYMNTS.com Report, we spoke with some of the currency’s most avid supporters and investors to find out what attracts them to the currency and why they’re adamant that the future is bright for bitcoin.

Bitcoin Is Appealing To Merchants

New bitcoin startups are appearing almost everyday, and these new businesses provide everything from simple services, like fostering in-person transactions in safer settings, to niche offerings, such as selling managed claims to bitcoin mining operations.

Cameron Ruggles is one merchant who has decided to use bitcoin to fund a more traditional operation. The founder of Vesp.co, Inc., an online marketplace that aims to benefit buyers and sellers, Ruggles said that bitcoin has allowed him to operate more successfully than traditional choices like PayPal and Google Wallet.

“Bitcoin does not put limits on what you can and cannot sell, it doesn’t randomly revoke your ability to send or receive money and there are no arbitrary waiting limits or minimum amounts that you need to have in order to have an account,” Ruggles said.

These used to be challenges for Ruggles with the major providers. When he sold tobacco seeds online, he indicates his accounts were frozen almost monthly because of claims that he violated their terms of service agreements and engaged in suspicious payment activity with unorthodox advertising partners. One advertiser that caused Ruggles particular trouble was The Shroomery, an online community centered around “magic” mushrooms.

Ruggles also runs a Facebook page and a Google+ page dedicated to bitcoin.

Today, Ruggles says bitcoin allows him to process transaction with lower fees, increasing his bottom line. He believes Bitcoin will make his marketplace cheaper, safer, and easier for users.

Bitcoin Offers A Second Chance

While Ruggles seems to engage in bitcoin more as a hobby, others like disabled Colorado firefighter Scott McMullen have turned to bitcoin out of economic necessity.

After breaking his back, McMullen was forced into an early retirement. But, with three children to put through school, he needed to search for new ways to provide for his loved ones. After discovering and researching bitcoin, he says he “began seeing it as a complete alternative to the current economic system.”

From there, McMullen took action, going to work funding his business, starting with a few bitcoins and trading to grow his savings. After enough time, he put his resources together with a few other interested bitcoin fans and a business was born. BitcoinMinersUnion.com has yet to launch, but the service, which will sell bitcoin mining claims, could prove lucrative. The first mined bitcoin generated 50 BTCs for its creators. At today’s value of roughly $100 per BTC, that haul would equal $5,000.

Still, McMullen has his reservations. When asked about the future, he says “Bitcoin’s insurance plan sucks, but at least it’s upfront about it.” While his statement is meant to be lighthearted, the risk he faces is real.

Bitcoin Offers Retirement Security

To bitcoin’s most avid supporters, the currency goes beyond replacing traditional credit cards or cash transactions. The common denominator, it seems, is that every bitcoin supporter is hoping their involvement in the currency will provide them with a comfortable future.

McMullen is carefully collecting coins as he grows his business, and hopes that it will grow large enough that he could pass it on to his son. Ruggles is also gathering bitcoins for later. Of course, both are spurred on by the fact that others have already capitalized on investments in the popular virtual currency.

Dan Nainan is one of these individuals. Nainan is a successful comedian – he’s appeared in an Apple ad, been featured in The New York Times, and as his email signature boasts, he’s been lauded by President Barack Obama. Yet, as a self-proclaimed “high-tech geek,” he said he looked to bitcoin to provide extra retirement security.

“I waited about a couple of years to invest… of course I wish I had invested a lot earlier,” he told PYMNTS.com. “I bought at $12 and I sold out at $140, so that was a great investment towards my retirement!”

Nainan is very involved in the bitcoin community, even introducing the Winklevoss twins at a recent event. He said he’s talked to a lot of investors at various stages, and overall the hopes for bitcoin are high. He said that some investors are expecting the value of 1 BTC to go up to $10,000.

Bitcoin Is Risky

Others are more realistic about bitcoin’s potential. After all, even Gavin Andresen, a lead developer on the bitcoin project has cautioned that bitcoin is only an “experiment.”

For insight into how investors are viewing bitcoin, we spoke to Jeremy Liew, a venture capitalist who has put funds in burgeoning bitcoin players like OpenCoin and Ripple. Liew is particularly excited about bitcoin – noting that it has the potential to disrupt a multi-billion dollar industry and that he isn’t worried about government interference.

Liew said that we are only in the first generation of companies, and that new outlets could be expected to help consumers exchange, store and spend the currency more efficiently. Yet he remains cautious, perhaps more so than those with more at stake.

“Bitcoin is still a dynamic and volatile environment,” Liew told PYMNTS.com. “As even some people from the Bitcoin Foundation have said, you shouldn’t invest anything into bitcoin that you can’t afford to lose.”

Of course, just how much will be lost or gained in the process, remains to be seen. 

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