I’ll never forget how intimidated I was the first time I bought Bitcoin. I can still put myself back in that little currency exchange shop all those years ago, sweat beading on the back of my neck as the minutes ticked by and I waited for the transaction to go through. I couldn’t help wondering — did I just dump my money down the drain?
Bitcoin has moved into the mainstream in the six years since my introduction (as the Coinbase IPO attests), but its complexity can still be intimidating for the average person, leaving many new investors on the sidelines. That's a shame: From the beginning, cryptocurrency was intended to democratize access to financial tools without requiring intermediaries like banks or governments.
Bitcoin came along at a fitting time, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash — when banks were bailed out by governments while the rest of us were left to face the consequences on our own. More than a decade later, we’re suffering through another crisis wherein manipulation of the global economic system has produced pronounced disparities between asset-holding classes and everyone else.
All of which raises the question: If cryptocurrency can indeed help level the financial playing field, how do we make it easier for more people to understand and access?
Don’t care about crypto? You should.
A 2018 survey found that about 40 percent of Americans had no interest in cryptocurrency and only one in ten had invested in it. While Bitcoin’s subsequent rise has likely pushed the needle, we still have work to do to convince people they should care. This is what I tell them: Bitcoin is here to stay.
It’s being offered by mainstream institutions like Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Fidelity as a powerful investment tool. Visa just launched the Bitcoin Rewards Credit Card, which allows cardholders to get 1.5 percent cash back on purchases that are converted to Bitcoin. Tesla is diving in with a $1.5 billion investment and has joined a growing list of companies accepting Bitcoin as a payment method — along with Microsoft, AT&T, BMW and even KFC.
Cryptocurrency is quickly developing into an asset class for the future. The total value of Bitcoin on the market has grown thousandfold in eight years and now sits around $1 trillion. The ebbs and flows of Bitcoin have made potential investors wary, rightfully so at times. But now even financial giants like JP Morgan are acknowledging the volatility is leveling off, and it’s drawing legitimate comparisons to gold as a hedge in uncertain times.
Does it come without risk? Of course not. Elon Musk can afford to lose a large investment. The average person would be devastated if his or her position took a comparable dive. But investing in anything — equities, mutual funds, gold, etc. — comes with inherent risks. What’s critical is understanding those risks and making informed decisions.
The key is to educate, not fear monger
At various points in its history, Bitcoin has been branded a bubble, a scam or a tool of the dark web. Tellingly, however, some of the early detractors of Bitcoin, such as BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, have since changed their minds and acknowledge cryptocurrency has a place in the average investor’s portfolio and in the world's financial future.
My advice? Start with education and make up your own mind before plunging in. Think of your introduction to banking. Your parents held your hand and gave you the little booklet that comes with your first bank account. Your introduction was safe, gradual and guided. You should feel the same level of safety when starting with cryptocurrency.
There are two simple ways that the cryptocurrency community can make it easier for everyone. First, provide them with balanced information from trusted experts. In an online world overflowing with information from less than reputable sources, it’s vital we provide people with the facts they need from sources they can trust. The key is to bring this education out of the shadows of Reddit forums and Discord servers and create balanced educational materials and courseware vetted by investors, researchers and regulators who know the space inside and out.
Second, we can give people a risk-free environment to explore Bitcoin before committing real money. There are many great examples of this already. The app store on your phone has pages of Bitcoin simulators you can download for free from reputable sources like TMX, the company operating the Toronto Stock Exchange. It gives users a chance to get a feel for cryptocurrency without sweating it out on their first trade like I did.
The end goal is to make cryptocurrency more inclusive while lowering the risks for new investors. Right now, the growth of integrated platforms where people can learn, practice and trade in a safe environment offers encouraging progress on that front. Some of these platforms even give users an opportunity to “earn” their first cryptocurrency by completing online courses or other benchmarks, offering a risk-free means of getting their feet wet.
Ultimately, it’s only through this kind of education and inclusion that we bring in the vast demographics left out — people who haven’t benefited from the pandemic equity boom, folks who have seen their earning power undercut by inflation and the billions of people who are underbanked or unbanked entirely. In the end, this accessibility is what brings us closer in line with the original aim of cryptocurrency: to provide a safe system that everyone can place his or her trust in.