On 7th January, the temperature in Chicago was -4 degrees Farenheit (that’s -20 degrees Celsius). That evening, a Tuesday, nearly 40 people ventured out in to the Arctic conditions and gathered at the Atlas Brewing Company for beer and food. The reason? Bitcoin.
In a city with a population of 2.7 million, 40 people at a bitcoin meetup is clearly a drop in the ocean. But bitcoin’s Chicago cheerleaders say it’s a sign of a dedicated community, one they say is growing. What’s more, they argue, the city is ripe to host a flourishing bitcoin economy.
Experimenting with bitcoin
At the end of this month, The Chicago Sun-Times, the US’ ninth-largest newspaper and a daily Chicago newspaper, is set to become the first major US newspaper to try out a bitcoin paywall.
Starting on 1st February, for 24 hours only, the newspaper will allow users to get over its paywall by making a bitcoin donation. The experiment, in collaboration with San Francisco-based BitWall, will help to test the functionality of a bitcoin paywall.
“We are becoming a tech-savvy city,” says Jonathan Solomon, 28, founder of Chicago Mint. “But it wasn’t always this way.”
A self-described “bitcoin ambassador”, Solomon has made it his mission to get as many of Chicago’s business as possible to accept bitcoin. His fledging startup helps small businesses integrate bitcoin payments via companies like Coinbase and BitPay.
“Businesses may have heard of bitcoin but aren’t ready to take the leap themselves,” he tells CoinDesk via Skype. “I see myself as giving them the final push.”
Despite not having the tech reputation of places like San Francisco or New York, tech startup investment in Chicago is growing, with the city’s startups raising billion dollars in 2013, a jump of 169 percent from 2012, according to Built in Chicago. In 2012, a new startup was founded every 24 hours in Chicago.
Chicago is just getting started
One the earliest, if not the first, Chicago business to start accepting bitcoin was a t-shirt company, 7bucktees, owned by Booshworks, back in early 2012. A Robocoin bitcoin ATM is reported to be coming to Chicago later this year and at the recent bitcoin meetup, the Atlas Brewing Company became the first bar to accept bitcoin payments. On Coinmap.org there are just a handful of listed bitcoin businesses.
“Chicago is just getting started,” say Gil Valentine, founder of Great Lakes Chicago Bitcoin, a Chicago-based bitcoin news site, a founder of Invincible Wallet, a digital wallet company. “In relation to New York and Miami we’re behind … We are just starting to see businesses here in Chicago accepting bitcoin.”
Like almost every where else in the world, awareness is part of the challenge. Though Steve Soble, owner of the Atlas Brewing Company, accepted bitcoins on 6th January, which Solomon facilitated, he says he’s still unsure about fully integrating the digital currency.
“We have not made up our minds whether or not to take it yet. We like the idea of it but we are not yet comfortable with it,” he said. “It is a little intimidating and there are a lot of differing opinions on whether or not it is a good idea for businesses to take it.
“What makes me uncomfortable is the volatility and we have been warned by our credit card processors not to ever take it. It was verbal communication and they said it was risky. It was not a threat or anything like that.”
Skate to the puck
For Jonathan Solomon, who is currently enrolled in Chicago’s Starter School, a kind of college for training digital entrepreneurs and another example of Chicago’s growing tech fluency, winning over business owners like Soble is central to his mission.
And though Chicago isn’t yet synonymous with bitcoin, he thinks it one day will be, which is exactly why he moved here. He quotes Canadian ice hockey star Wayne Gretzky:
“You skate to where the puck is going to be, not where the puck is”
Chicago skycrapers image via Josh*m/Flickr
Other images by Neil Sy, Chicago’s first photographer to accept bitcoin