If you have an internet connection, you’ve likely heard about bitcoin. If you have an internet connection in Vancouver, chances are you haven’t stopped hearing about it. You might even own a fraction of a bitcoin (measured in its cents-equivalent, micro bitcoin) or perhaps you’ve invested in DogeCoin, bitcoin’s lovable, meme-fueled alternative. Invested or not, some days it feels like the city’s patented mix of real estate market speculators, gaming industry nerds, recreational druggies, and lefty counterculturists have created a perfect storm of bitcoin enthusiasm.
“I think Vancouver is definitely one of the top cities in the world for bitcoin adoption,” says Adam Soltys, founder of Vancouver’s Bitcoin Co-op, which among other things helps local businesses set up bitcoin point-of-sale apps.
Until recently, the only evidence that Vancouver might be leading the alt-money charge in North America was the world’s first bitcoin ATM, which drew over a million Canadian dollars in transactions during its first month of existence.
Judging by CoinMap.org, a site that tracks 2,000 cryptocurrency-accepting businesses around the world, Vancouver has a handful more bitcoin vendors than tech-savvy San Francisco. You can get a massage, fix your phone, buy groceries, and drink beer all with deliciously postmodern internet money. Despite the sizable population difference, Toronto’s cryptocurrency scene is half the size. According to Google Trends data, in the past 90 days Vancouver is second only to Amsterdam for most bitcoin-related web searches worldwide.
Turns out Vancouverites really are talking about and using bitcoin more than anywhere else in Canada. “Vancouver’s got a lot of counterculture-type folks, and there’s a big libertarian community,” Soltys explains (eventually our conversation moves to discussing hearsay about local pot dealers accepting coin for BC bud, before going back on topic). “I think the whole radical, left-leaning, socially-conscious element in Vancouver has made it a hotbed for bitcoin.
Some of the buzz is no doubt related to big moves by Bitcoiniacs, the Vancouver-based company that purchased the aforementioned first-ever bitcoin ATM. Three young dudes hailing from British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast went in on five Robocoin ATMs this year—four are still being built—which are all slated to open for business in Calgary, Montreal, and Toronto in early 2014.
Sitting down with Bitcoiniacs co-founders Cheyne Mackie and Mitchell Demeter, it’s clear the Vancouver ATM launch was more hyped than expected—thanks in small part to the Left Coast’s healthy contempt for big banks. Mackie and Demeter invited me back to the conference room where they broker trades over $3,000 by appointment. They walked me through the clunky process of setting up a bitcoin wallet on my phone, and let me trade a high-rolling twenty bones into bitcoin.
“There seemed to be a lot of people taking a wait-and-see approach,” Demeter says of competitors from Chicago to Stockholm. In the meantime, bitcoin’s value has only become more volatile. “Since we already had our own physical brokerage down near Granville Island, we knew there was a market… we had some metrics already, so we were just the first ones to jump in.”
“There’s only so many talkers, and not that many walkers,” Mackie adds.
With crisp dress shirts and haircuts, Mackie and Demeter are doing their best to peel back the layers of esoteric nerdism seemingly required to avoid getting fleeced by sketchy bitcoin exchange operations (most notably this happened in Hong Kong in May; $4.1 million disappeared but NBD). Because the currency is open-source and decentralized with no government backing, even some of the most reputable exchange sites are mystery organizations in Slovenia, or former Magic: The Gathering forums.
Mackie and Demeter are launching their own “next generation” exchange site—dubbed CoinTrader.net—which just started private beta-testing yesterday. “You have all these fly-by-night exchanges, and we’re providing more reliability and transparency,” says Demeter.
Sitting within earshot of the ATM for twenty minutes, two customers in a row feed stacks of hundred-dollar bills into the machine. One guy says he took the ferry from Vancouver Island when he saw the exchange rate dip under $600 per bitcoin. There’s a utopic tone in his voice that makes me want to remind him he could easily lose half his money tomorrow.
“When bitcoin hit $1,200 it was packed all day long,” recalls Alex Robertson, an attendant paid to stand by the ATM for inevitable questions. “The last week things have settled a bit.”
“We had a young guy come in, he was 18 and he’d been mining bitcoins on his Xbox since 2010,” Demeters says. “With all the hype of the last few weeks he came in, he actually found 3,600 bitcoins on his gaming computer.” Demeters says they helped the kid sell off 800 bitcoins for nearly $800,000.
Vancouver is buzzing with stories like these. And it’s hard not to be excited for whatever inexplicable possibility (or failure) bitcoin’s development might bring. In the last 24 hours, the $20 on my phone jumped to $25.61. I spent the difference on currywurst at a trendy Berlin-inspired spot called Bestie, (because, let’s face it; Vancouver is officially the new Kreuzberg). After a bit of QR code fumbling, restaurant co-owner Dane Brown says they’ve been getting at least one bitcoin customer a day all month.
“It’s fun to have the first ATM and help develop the industry and the infrastructure for it,” Mackie says of Bitcoiniacs’ place in the local and international scene. With big plans coming in January, it will be interesting to see if other Canadian cities will absorb Vancouver’s enthusiasm, or remain justifiably skeptical.