The Craigslist of Crypto Is Making Millions Where Bitcoin Is Needed Most

Apr 19, 2018 at 12:00 UTC
Updated Apr 20, 2018 at 07:14 UTC
FEATURE

$27 million.

That’s how much revenue LocalBitcoins is now generating annually off a business that started back in 2011, all with an investment of just a few thousand dollars. One of the longest-running and most controversial bitcoin companies, the decidedly low-fi website now has roughly 20 employees worldwide and 4 million registered accounts.

And reflecting the global tide, 40 percent of those users have signed up in the last six months.

All that is according to Nikolaus Kangas, the CEO of the company, who started the venture with his brother Jeremias at a time when there weren’t many options outside meeting up face-to-face to trade bitcoin. But the online portal continues to thrive even as the landscape of polished VC-backed exchanges (and even bleeding-edge decentralized alternatives) matures.

Sure, the peer-to-peer marketplace accounts for only a sliver of worldwide bitcoin trading – last week, it handled $62 million in trades, according to Coin.Dance estimates. This may be less than a top-20 exchange does in a day, but the service is gaining traction in markets that are generally overlooked by mainstream providers.

“We are the most global platform out there,” Kangas said. “Our goal is to improve the global trade possibilities, to serve people who have limited access to financial services.”

And, it turns out, even though LocalBitcoins tends to be more expensive (since sellers set their own prices), the company is much needed.

Indeed, Coin.Dance shows that Venezuelan transactions spiked to a new all-time high this month, as did usage in Tanzania and Peru – all countries that are struggling to recover from banking industry slumps. During the peak week of April 14, LocalBitcoins’ trading volume in these three nations combined was worth roughly $55 million – more than six times the value of U.S. trading on LocalBitcoins in the same week.

And when the Bank of Montreal restricted customers from making cryptocurrency purchases, LocalBitcoins activity in Canada spiked.

It’s these instances that make LocalBitcoins so valuable, even in an environment where growing awareness of institutional traders and their high-value swaps (average transactions on LocalBitcoins are just $450) are stealing the limelight.

And that’s paid off. The peer-to-peer exchange, which charges a 1 percent transaction fee, took in more than €22 million (roughly $27.2 million) of revenues in 2017, more than triple the amount from 2016, according to Kangas.

Despite the market dip since December, when bitcoin’s price peaked at $19,783, he said trading volume has continued to grow.

Nikolaus told CoinDesk:

“If you compare us to those big altcoin exchanges that were making $100 million per day or something like that last fall, we are kind of a small player. But I think we are solving a basic problem of how to buy or sell bitcoin for fiat currency.”

Not always easy

And that basic problem was even more apparent in 2011 when the brothers first started in on the idea.

Nikolaus, a Finnish programmer, was fascinated by bitcoin – a new stateless currency meant to take power away from the banks, and maybe even governments. But every website he went to that provided services for Finnish buyers was awful in that it was hard to use. The Kangas brothers wanted to change that.

So having saved up a year’s worth of living expenses and with a few thousand dollars to spend on server fees, the brothers launched LocalBitcoins.

Yet, the journey for LocalBitcoins hasn’t always been easy.

The company has tested several products over the years, including a merchant billing service in 2014, but none of those gained traction like its bread and butter – P2P exchange.

On top of that, LocalBitcoins was the platform in the middle of more than half a dozen criminal cases associated with LocalBitcoins traders. For instance, last year, the U.S. Department of Justice sentenced a father-son duo of LocalBitcoins users, Michael and Randall Lord, to several years in prison for operating an unlicensed money transmission business.

And Reddit is full of testimonies about scammers and hackers exploiting inexperienced LocalBitcoins’ users.

Nikolaus said the team is very concerned about criminal activity on the site and cooperates with authorities to investigate any crimes that use the platform.

Yet, just like Craigslist horror stories haven’t stopped people from using the internet marketplace, instances like these connected to LocalBitcoins haven’t slowed the platform’s usage. In fact, the $27.2 million in revenue LocalBitcoins took in last year was more than triple its profits from 2016.

Even with bitcoin’s recent price dip (after December highs close to $20,000 a coin), Nikolaus said trading volume continues to grow.

Compliance for a non-bank

That said, Nikolaus remains steadfast in his interest in staying on the right side of the law.

“We want to follow all the current regulations and laws, but right now it is quite unclear,” he said.

What is clear, though, is that at least in the U.S. the company has to report certain transactions as suspicious. This includes transactions over $10,000 and any transactions set up obviously to circumvent that limit.

Everything else – complying with local regulations – is up to the buyer and seller.

In this way, LocalBitcoins has set itself up to be only a technology provider and not a complicit party to any unlawful actions users of its technology might participate in. This outsourcing of compliance responsibility is one of the reasons the company has been able to stay afloat, even in the face of competition from well-funded startups.

Because LocalBitcoins generally facilitates trades of smaller amounts, they rarely attract scrutiny.

For instance, when the Investor Protection Bureau of the New York Attorney General’s Office sent an inquiry letter this month to more than a dozen cryptocurrency exchanges, including Coinbase, Kraken, and Gemini – exchanges that function more like banks – P2P platforms like LocalBitcoins were notably absent from the dragnet.

It seems it helps to be local.

For example, Iranian blockchain researcher Ziya Sadr in Tehran routinely uses LocalBitcoins to sell cryptocurrency. Since sanctions keep Iranian banking customers from accessing foreign markets, he told CoinDesk, Iranian traders use LocalBitcoins to find local sellers who accept wire transfers from Iranian banks.

As mentioned before, it’s these kinds of markets, which are cut off from the rest of the world, that need P2P crypto exchanges like LocalBitcoins.

Roman Snitko, CTO of a new P2P exchange called Hodl Hodl, noticed a similar trend on his platform. Russians, who lack centralized exchange options, were some of the first users to flock to Hodl Hodl.

Speaking to this need, then, Snitko told CoinDesk:

“In countries without centralized exchanges, I think P2P trading will play a significant role.”

LocalBitcoins image via Shutterstock