Living on Bitcoin Day 1: “That’s Not Going to Work”
“The point is to get people to think about bitcoin, not spend it. I don’t think it’s good for that. It’s not meant to be used like cash,” Jeremy Gardner, founder of Ausum Ventures, advised me.
“Satoshi created a decentralized store of value,” probably encapsulates his thesis that bitcoin is best unspent — better to hoard it like gold. To Gardner, using it as a currency is not only impractical. It is counterintuitive.
Well, I’m trying it anyway.
After all, journalist Kashmir Hill experimented with living on bitcoin as early as 2013, so it should be easier now, right? Well, it is and it isn’t. Nearly six years later, I’m discovering that, while bitcoin’s payment infrastructure has advanced, its use as a method of payment, at least in San Francisco, has seemingly regressed.
Before reporting to the conference I’m attending here in San Francisco, I had something important to do: I had to pay my respects to the pioneer.
Before leaving my home in Nashville to start my experiment, I reached out to Kashmir Hill, a former Forbes-gone-Gizmodo journalist who did this in 2013 (and again in 2014). She graciously took me up on my request to meet up so I could pick her brain and seek advice.
Getting to her was my first unbanked transaction. Transportation was a problem in her own experience until she got a bike, and even then, San Francisco’s hilly landscape is unforgiving, so it still wasn’t easy. It’s a way to get around, though, and I like the idea of being bike reliant for transport.
All of my attempts to buy or rent one on Craigslist haven’t come to anything yet, so that’ll have to wait.
I do have Paxful to buy Uber gift cards. Opting for this, I signed up for the exchange (where I had to give a phone number for authentication but no name) and transferred $25 worth of bitcoin from my BRD wallet. After executing a quick trade with one “Marxsmith,” I found myself with 25 bucks worth of Uber credit on my account.
Hill arrived at La Boulangerie shortly after my Uber dropped me off, immediately recognizable, thanks to the turquoise highlights that accentuated the tips of her hair.
When I thanked Hill for agreeing to meet with me, she replied she was naturally sympathetic to anyone who made the decision to live solely on bitcoin for a week. So sympathetic, she offered to pay my meal forward (the bakery doesn't accept bitcoin). I insisted on repaying her for the cheese danish and latte, but she said that she'd need to see if she remembered her Coinbase login to give me her public address.
"I wrote the articles and pretty much forgot about bitcoin," she joked.
It was during the first major media cycle that came along with the 2013 bubble that Hill experimented with living on bitcoin. Not many people knew what bitcoin was yet. A few mainstream journalists were starting to pump out articles about what was, to many, a novel experience in itself: buying bitcoin.
Hill's editor wanted to take the novelty farther: “Don't just buy bitcoin. Live on it for a week.” So she did.
"It was really on the fly — I got pretty lucky," she laughed, calling the planning and execution "lackadaisical."
If her approach was lax, the execution was anything but. She attended one of San Francisco's famous “Bitcoin at $100” meetups, she shacked up in the crack-house-turned-hacker-hostel/cypher community, 20Mission, and she even toured Coinbase when it was “three guys in an apartment," she put it.
As she mentioned this, a waiter brought our lattes. They were absurdly served in literal bowls about as big as my face.
At the end of it, she remarked that she had very much been assimilated into this community. Using the bitcoin that the community had tipped her throughout the week, she took about 50 or so of them out to a sushi dinner, an 8-something BTC meal that, in a few years, would have been worth an Ivy League education.
When I lived on Bitcoin in 2013, I treated a bunch of strangers to a sushi dinner that cost 10 bitcoin. At current valuation, that was a $99,000 sushi dinner!— Kashmir Hill (@kashhill) November 28, 2017
The crypto community in 2013 was devout but scant, and so were the places Hill could spend bitcoin. Her entire experience was punctuated by a sense of getting by. This is best encapsulated by the final line of her 2013 series: “I survived.”
I compared notes with her about what I foresaw as being my biggest obstacles for the week, making mental notes to see if I could do more than “survive” and if 2013 might have actually been an easier year for the experiment.
As our conversation came to a close, Hill left me with a nugget of advice that I’d adopted as a mantra for my own iteration of the experiment.
“Don’t make the focus about yourself. Make it about other people, who the experiment allows you to access.”
Leaving La Boulangerie, I took an Uber back to the conference venue, where I made arrangements with Jeremy Gardner to visit a new project he’s working on and, of course, tour the infamous Crypto Castle.
We had a tight time frame; he was leaving for Park City, Utah, that night to go snowboarding.
“You can come by the castle tonight. Or later in the week, someone will let you in, show you around — I don’t care.”
We eventually settle on a 4:00 p.m. meeting outside of Monarch, a popular club wedged between San Francisco’s Mid Market and Tenderloin districts that accepts bitcoin by-the-bottle. It’s within walking distance of the conference which is good because my Uber credit was running low and the conference didn’t have any Wi-Fi for me to get on Paxful/Bitrefill to top it off.
The rest of the early afternoon was spent prepping for and moderating a panel, after which I scrambled around, looking for a USB-C charger to juice my phone and keep my financial lifeline alive (I had lost my charger that morning, of course). The conference tech staff was nice enough to lend me a charger, one of many acts of good will that seems to continually grace my experience.
When the time rolls around, Jeremy meets me with one of his business partners, Micah, who owns Monarch and another bitcoin accepting club in San Francisco, Great Northern. We hop one building over to their new project: a pawn shop that serves as the front for a speakeasy, both of which will accept bitcoin.
The shop had been a pawn for a while, Gardner said, buying, trading, selling and even offering loans and collateral for years before it shut down.
“All the snakey stuff,” he intimated.
Jeremy latched onto the speakeasy idea without much hesitation. He was disappointed that San Francisco only has two to its name and thought that the city ought to share with the rest of America in an emerging cultural trend (even Nashville has four or five).
“It’s more intimate and comfortable. It’s not the constant in-and-out traffic like at bars, so people stay longer.”
The pawn shop, with its display cases of cheap jewelry, tarnished silver and surprisingly intact china, is just a front, of course, but it adds an authentic element of secrecy to the bar. Jeremy wants to give the front its own distinguishing appeal. He wants it to only accept bitcoin.
“I’m imploring people to do that,” he said, breaking into a smile.
Micah scurried around, jotting notes and measurements before coming over to me and Jeremy and pouring us a glass of white wine (I’m not refined enough to know which type).
“Sorry, it’s just white,” he said.
“It’s alcohol, and that’s all that matters,” Jeremy replied.
Micah ran off to keep working, leaving Jeremy and me to a conversation on my experiment.
“Yeah, it’s an interesting one. People have done it before,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s good for that. It’s not meant to be used like cash but as a store of value. People don’t like volatility. They want certainty in their currency.”
He didn’t understand why I would spend my bitcoin and not hold on to it, and I told him I don’t see it as spending bitcoin but spending money I would otherwise have to on basic necessities. Jeremy said he’d be interested in a wallet that rebought spent bitcoin, but otherwise, he clings to the maxim that it’s better to hold than spend.
“The point,” he believes, “is to make people think about bitcoin — not spend it.”
We carried the conversation into an Uber on the way to the castle.
I asked Jeremy whether he considered himself a Bitcoin minimalist (he had made the somewhat common comparison between Bitcoin and Friendster earlier in our talk).
“Nah, I’d say I’m more of a shitcoin minimalist.”
Finally, we arrived at the castle. It lived up to its reputation. The outside was as unassuming as any of the nicer, multi-story boarding houses in the city’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, but the inside belied the true spirit of the castle: an eclectic, anything-goes hub of itinerant millennials who live under the benevolent auspice of a prodigal 27-year-old member of the crypto riche.
“We had a self driving AI car startup here.” Jeremy gestured to the basement as we entered. “They got a couple mill in funding and moved out,” he added casually.
Up the staircase, the second floor hallways curled away from the stairwell with innumerable ownerless rooms.
“Vitalik has slept in this room a bunch of times,” Jeremy told me as he’s no doubt told countless before me.
“But this is where the magic happens,” he said as he came to the third floor. Up top, there's a lounging area with felt couches, a gas fireplace and a kitchen with a sticker-covered refrigerator that intrigued Business Insider and the New York Times when they profiled the place during the 2017 bullrun. The walls are hung with various print pieces, including a few of Banksy’s. I nearly asked, as a joke, if they were originals but held my tongue.
Jeremy had left to pack his things when Liz, a young realtor boarding at the house, joined me and Rachel, another border. Neither of them were particularly involved in crypto.
“Some of us don’t do anything with it, but others do,” she tells me. “It’s a healthy mix.”
We get on the topic of the experiment, and I bring up Jeremy's latest venture. Rachel, who is seemingly Jeremy’s romantic interest, apparently had no idea and congratulated him when he returned to say goodbye.
“Oh yeah, it’s pretty cool,” he enthuses. He leans in to give Rachel a peck on the cheek.
“When will you be back?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” he admits. “Probably one to two months.”
Later, I asked Rachel if Jeremy meant what he said as he rushed off to catch an Uber to the airport.
“Absolutely. He means everything he says.”
Liz, aka the Queen of the Castle, has given me permission to stay a few days, and I think I’ll take her up on it later in the week. For the remainder of my initial visit, though, I charged my phone (still struggling here) and used Bitrefill to get more Uber credit. This was much quicker and easier than Paxful. The most KYC they ask is an email, and you can send the bitcoin from any wallet to retrieve the gift card code (Paxful requires you to deposit bitcoin into your account's wallet to trade).
I spent the remainder of the night with my buddy and coworker Christian, who bought me dinner at the Irish Bank, a pub which I erroneously thought accepted bitcoin (I did pay him back in bitcoin). The goodwill of friends and fellow crypto geeks has been essential and I anticipate it will continue to be so throughout the week.
The rest of the night was a blur of exhaustion as we finished dinner and headed back to Christian’s apartment. I had been up since 6:00 a.m. From coffee with Hill to the conference to Jeremy’s speakeasy and Crypto Castle to pub to apartment, I had covered a lot of ground and met a great many people — some interactions and people I haven’t had time to cover in this sprawling account, including a few Crypto Castle residents who were building a rig to mine grin.
I got around, but I spent little bitcoin — unfortunately, none of it directly with any merchants. Hill covered my breakfast, though if she gives me a wallet address, I intend to reimburse her. The conference covered lunch. Bitcoin did buy me dinner, even if indirectly through Christian, and it did buy me Uber credit for transport — another indirect use, but as Christian pointed out to me, I was still supporting a use case and infrastructure.
I crashed on the couch around 12:30 a.m. and was content to know that I would have access to coffee in the morning.
This is the first instalment of Colin Harper's Living on Bitcoin series. Continue reading his further adventures here.