The challenge facing Bitcoin start-ups

There is not doubt that Bitcoin / the blockchain is a revolutionary technology. Once implemented, the blockchain might be able to disrupt many verticals that are built around managing the transfer of ownership by replacing a centralized approach with a decentralized (and hence usually more efficient) approach.

While the blockchain can be applied to a range of verticals, from passports to wills, vacation rental keys and movie tickets, most of the start-up activity to date has focused on using Bitcoin for payments. After some initial excitement, anecdotal evidence shows that Bitcoin transaction levels are declining. This is partly due to the fact that it is not quite clear what problem Bitcoin solves for the North American consumer wanting to buy something online or in a store (credit cards actually work very well in this case), partly due to the strong existing network effects of current payment systems. Ben Thompson had a great post (The Problem with Payments) a few days ago outlining why it is so hard to build a payment solution outside of the existing system in the US.

In order to succeed in a market with existing strong network effects (such as the payment structure in North America), you need to focus on an underserved niche where your product provides something that hasn’t been possible before. Then if you get enough traction in the niche, you might be able to expand into the mainstream market over time.

PayPal is a perfect example. The company managed to succeed because it helped eBay buyers and sellers complete their transactions in a more efficient and trustworthy way during a time when P2P commerce was exploding. PayPal later went on to actually replace many credit card payments as users became accustomed to the service and had money in their PayPal wallets that they were ready to spend.

So instead of trying to replace credit cards and other established payment methods, Bitcoin start-ups should think more about where Bitcoin has a competitive advantage. Traditionally, this has been in cash-based businesses (gambling, “getting money out of China”) where Bitcoin has seen some impressive initial traction. However, more interesting areas are those where current payment fees are very high (e.g. remittances), consumers are underserved (the “unbanked”), or existing payment infrastructure is weak (e.g. in some developing countries). And the real opportunity might even lie in completely new use cases.

The block chain is a powerful technology but getting traction beyond initial excitement from early adopters might be challenging given the strong network effects of the existing structures that the Blockchain tries to replace. We all see the end goal but getting there is a tricky question. I am rooting for the entrepreneurs that will figure out how to put the blockchain into real action.

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