This week, as I travel around El Salvador, I met with two people who are actively working to help increase the speed of Bitcoin adoption and to help foreign investors start Bitcoin-related businesses.
The current market price of Bitcoin, approximately $29,500, puts the prospect of owning a full bitcoin outside of the reach of most people. However, each bitcoin is subdivisible into one hundred million sub-units called “satoshis,” allowing anyone to exchange fiat-to-bitcoin in smaller amounts. Bitcoin investors refer to investing in smaller increments as “stacking sats.” This, paired with Layer Two (L2) integrations like the Lightning Network, are seen by many as the pathway to increasing Bitcoin use cases and elevating its role as a medium of exchange in commerce.
Jonathan Martin is a graduate of Stanford University, Georgetown University, and a student at The Wharton School, currently on leave immersing himself in the world of Bitcoin in El Salvador. His first diary entry is here.
I met with a Salvadoran entrepreneur named Edgar Borja for lunch, the founder of a company called K1, to learn about what he is building. Borja invented a Lightning-enabled ATM that massively reduces the frictional costs associated with the fiat-to-bitcoin conversions compared to other Bitcoin on-ramps that utilize the Layer One (L1) blockchain.
Shortly after sitting down for lunch, Borja pulled out a small metal box from his backpack with an LCD touch screen and placed it on the table. He plugged it into the wall and booted it up while explaining the technology it utilizes. The version of the device that he brought only accepted coins and looked like a mini slot machine. He said that K1 sells another version of the device that accepts fiat dollar bills.
Borja deposited 5 cents into the coin slot, tapped once or twice on the LCD screen, and directed me to hold up the QR code for my Lightning-enabled wallet (called Wallet of Satoshi) on my iPhone to the embedded camera. Within seconds, the equivalent of 5 cents in Satoshis arrived in my wallet. There was no fee associated with the transaction.
Read more: What Is Bitcoin’s Lightning Network?
The Lightning Network allows for near-instantaneous transactions, serving as a “bar tab” where people can exchange funds without using the slower underlying L1 Bitcoin Network until final settlement. This dramatic increase in speed and reduction in transaction fees makes bitcoin less cumbersome and more fluid, potentially making it more palatable as a medium of exchange for the average user.
K1 sells its Lightning ATMs for $1,200 and does not charge any recurring fees thereafter. Business owners are free to include a usage fee of their choosing once they own the device. K1 ATMs lower the barrier to entry for the fiat-to-bitcoin conversion and could potentially address a much larger market than the Athena ATMs that utilize the L1 blockchain and have much higher fees.
K1 has sold machines to businesses in 11 countries, including El Salvador, and Borja has one of the clearest roadmaps to spurring the mass adoption I’ve come across.
Bitcoin for big business
Prior to arriving in El Salvador, I contacted an attorney named Carlos Miguel Rivas Carrillo, Board Secretary of the El Salvador Bitcoin Association (ASOBITCOIN), to get a sense of the process to start a business here. The government is actively trying to attract American entrepreneurs and investors, and has created a very business-friendly climate. ASOBITCOIN works closely with the government-sanctioned Bitcoin office, and helps investors get their projects approved by the relevant authorities.
Rivas was extremely knowledgeable about the local Salvadoran laws and regulations and even offered to help me incorporate a business. The process takes three to four days with the help of attorneys that cost $1,500-$2,000. There is also a government fee of $300, and the minimum investment capital requirement is $2,000.
He told me that Salvadoran banks are not yet Bitcoin-friendly because they still integrate with legacy systems like SWIFT. To use bitcoin for commercial transactions, non-bank services will take the digital commodity and issue a cashier’s check that can be deposited in a normal bank account. I left the meeting with a much firmer understanding of how to start a business in El Salvador as a foreign national.
My work experience is mostly as an entrepreneur, and I started two successful real estate companies in Austin, T.X. before attending The Wharton School. I came to El Salvador with the intention to identify gaps in the nascent Bitcoin economy, including the potential for Bitcoin applications in real estate and/or coffee farming. Things that we take for granted in the U.S., like the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) with all the currently listed properties and recent tractions, do not exist here yet. Similarly, the chain of title on a property is opaque; the centralized records are sometimes wrong; and suing someone who has a lien or a claim on a property can delay the investment process by as much as a year.
Several people, including Rivas, have said how the blockchain could be used to address the existing problems and eliminate some of the existing inefficiencies in the economy. These inefficiencies potentially create large opportunities for intrepid entrepreneurs.
Bitcoin for commerce
Everywhere I go, I try to purchase items using bitcoin first – either with my Coinbase wallet or my Wallet of Satoshi. I went grocery shopping at the supermarket in my neighborhood and tried to pay with bitcoin at check-out. The cashier initially stated the store accepts bitcoin, and she busily started pressing buttons on her computer that appeared to be five-plus years old. However, the bitcoin point of sale component of the system was not working. So, I had to pay with cash.
When I explored Presidente Plaza, one of the newest malls in the country that is not yet fully built, I tried to use my Wallet of Satoshi several times. The coffee shop did not have a functioning bitcoin PoS system, nor did the comic shop that I entered. I ended up paying using a credit card both times, and the vendors utilized hand-held BAC Credomatic scanners. These are very common in San Salvador and have the option for credit or debit. It was not immediately clear to me whether the vendors even owned bitcoin PoS devices.
For bitcoin to be used more readily as a medium of exchange, these devices would likely need to add a third integration — Lightning — to make using bitcoin more intuitive and straightforward for vendors. The barriers to mass adoption exist on both sides of commercial transactions.
After more than a week in El Salvador, I can see evidence of the infrastructure outlined in President Bukele’s Bitcoin vision. The price volatility inherent to bitcoin scares some people away, but this ignores the volatility that inflation introduces to the use of fiat. My best estimate is that it will be several years before everyday people trust the Bitcoin network the same as they trust dollars.
One thing is for certain: people like Borja and Rivas will be critical in achieving Bukele’s goal.