Olaf Carlson-Wee is not a bitcoin dilettante – not by a longshot. Before he was out of college, he’d already done a thesis project on cryptography, decentralized networks, and bitcoin and he was baffling his loved ones with his enthusiasm for the revolutionary technology.
Olaf also has the distinction of being the first person hired to work at Coinbase, where he’s been paid in BTC since 2013 and is currently Head of Special Projects. So yeah, he takes it pretty seriously and his purview is pretty much all things awesome in the cryptocurrency universe. He recently took time out of his busy travel schedule (and yes, he books with us!) to chat with CheapAir and share a bit of what makes him tick.
Hi Olaf! Can you share a bit of your personal backstory and how you came to/discovered Bitcoin?
The summer of 2011 before my undergraduate Senior year I found out about bitcoin from a Gawker article my friend’s father read and was immediately obsessed. I wired most of my meager life savings internationally to get some bitcoin. That fall I decided to write my undergraduate thesis on bitcoin and other cryptographic technologies, which was a bit perplexing for my professors. When I completed the thesis and graduated the bitcoin industry was extremely nascent. I kept a close eye on the space and was user number 30 on Coinbase. I liked Coinbase’s product and vision so I applied and was hired as the first employee.
We’d love to hear about the challenges of living primarily on bitcoin as well as any products you know of that can make it easier.
I don’t live entirely on bitcoin, though I am paid 100% in bitcoin and have been for three years. There are a number of hacks that make using bitcoin easier. The Shift debit card allows you to spend bitcoin anywhere that takes Visa – it’s a product I’d been looking for since 2012. I also can get a friend to pay for something and pay them the equivalent value in bitcoin. Finally, there are a number of merchants online that accept bitcoin if you know where to look – for example by using Overstock instead of Amazon.
As someone who is living on the daily with bitcoin as part of your life, it’s obviously not jut a novelty or hobby for you. Can you tell us what other devotees are fired up about these days in the Bitcoin space? Are things quiet right now or are people still as enthusiastic as they were 2-3 years ago?
The primary difference from now and 2-3 years ago is that the community is much more diverse – people use bitcoin for many different multifaceted reasons. Back then everyone was still just wrapping their mind around its potential – now it seems everyone has heard of bitcoin.
What challenges do you see ahead for Bitcoin specifically or cryptocurrency in general? Do you believe it will become a revolutionary force across the world, or are your ambitions more modest?
To me bitcoin has two key characteristics. First, it’s like E-gold – scarce, divisible, transferrable, and not affiliated with any nation, which makes it intrinsically useful as a store of wealth for people who want to hedge against their local currency or traditional equity markets. Gold has been serving this purpose for a long time, but bitcoin is far superior because it can be transacted over the internet. Second, bitcoin enables transactions that are fast, cheap, and global. New businesses are emerging around cross-boarder micro-payments that could never have existed before the development of bitcoin. We are quickly approaching a world with $5 smartphones and 5 billion people that own them. By comparison only 500 million people have bank accounts. That means 90% of smartphone users will be getting their financial services through the mobile internet. Most of these people will want to store wealth, or transact, but won’t have access to banks. Much in the way most of the world leapfrogged the corded phone and went straight to mobile, I believe they will leapfrog traditional financial services and go straight to peer-to-peer value transfer networks. So yes, I believe cryptocurrency has an opportunity to be a massive revolutionary force globally.
Aside from Bitcoin and cryptocurrency, what are some of your personal passions? What do you do to unplug, relax, etc.
Other interests of mine include cryptography, game theory, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, neuropharmacology, nootropics, sleep physiology, epigenetics, CRISPR, transhumanism, quantitative finance, filmmaking, and electronics. I spend a lot of time rock climbing, dancing, reading, and biking around the bay area.
Thanks for talking with us, Olaf! For more interesting bitcoin stories, check out #PeopleofBitcoin on Twitter.