Call Austin and Beccy Bingham Craig's 90-day bitcoin challenge a publicity stunt, or call it an earnest effort to bring the cryptocurrency to a mainstream audience. It's hard to pull off either one without a phone.
So we tried communicating via the Internet connection at their co-working space (which they pay to use with bitcoins). After a Facetime connection failed, we talked on Skype until it dropped our call. Finally we resorted to a minor cheat, and completed the interview on the phone Beccy keeps for her job as a data center marketing manager.
Beccy pays this phone's bill in bitcoins, but she pays those bitcoins to her brother, with whom she shares a family plan.
Such are the challenges of defining what it really means to pay for something in bitcoins. Ideally, the couple wants to get all the goods and services they need by paying bitcoins directly to local businesses. Realistically, they frequently have had to turn to a third party, whether that's a travel agent, a helpful brother, or a stranger met online.
Austin eventually managed to get a new phone activated using the stranger method: he met a bitcoiner at the AT&T store, who paid dollars to AT&T and got reimbursed by Austin in bitcoins. Getting phone service was a major win, since using a smartphone with a bitcoin wallet is the easiest way to pay with bitcoins in the bricks-and-mortar world. And in order to convince local businesses to accept their bitcoins for everything from gas to granola, the Craigs really need to be able to demonstrate how bitcoin works. Like on a smartphone.
The challenge of approaching businesses one by one, and lining up intermediaries when necessary, is so time consuming that Austin has gone "very part-time" in his job as the goggles-wearing pitchman in goofy-but-effective YouTube videos for tongue cleaner Orabrush. That's OK, though, since Orabrush co-founder Jeffrey Harmon is also a partner on the project. A camera crew from production company The Good Line follows Austin as he pitches to unsuspecting merchants not on the benefits of tongue scrubbing, but on those of accepting a cryptocurrency.
Neither the Craigs nor Harmon and other partners, who include two of Harmon's brothers, are bitcoin investors with a lot to gain by promoting the cryptocurrency. In fact, before changing dollars into bitcoins to begin this project, Austin had made just one bitcoin transaction, and Beccy none.
Austin says his main goal is to help people understand bitcoin – and get to know it better himself.
Theron Harmon, brother of the Orabrush co-founder, originally came up with the documentary idea. He says he got interested in bitcoin when the exchange rate was under $1 but never bought in. He dreamed up the project as a way to participate in what could be a currency revolution, using his skills for marketing and promotion. Theron Harmon is the founder of promotional products vendor American Promotions.
He shared the idea with his brother Jeffrey, who besides Orabrush also co-founded the Ron Paul-backing Endorse Liberty group. Jeffrey recruited Austin Craig and his soon-to-be bride.
The documentary, scheduled to be finished next spring, could make some money for the partners, but they're not expecting to hit major bank.
Although the team is generally enthusiastic about the potential of bitcoin, they have asked the filmmakers to give bitcoin a critical, fair look.
"We do not want it to be a polemic. We want it to look at both sides," Theron Harmon said.
Austin Craig had also cultivated an interest in bitcoin over the years, so he was amenable to the project. But Theron Harmon was amazed and grateful that Beccy Craig agreed to participate. She's even convinced her employer to pay her in bitcoins, although she's still working with the finance department to make that a reality.
The couple is quick to point out that they are not using funds raised on Kickstarter to pay their living expenses. The $72,995 from Kickstarter goes to pay the documentary crew, which not only follows Austin and Beccy around Provo, but will travel to other locations to interview other people involved in the bitcoin story. The project has raised some funds from sponsors outside Kickstarter that may be used to pay some of the Craigs' expenses, for instance while they are traveling for the film. In all, the project has raised just over $100,000, some of it in bitcoins.
In interviews, the couple sound chipper, ticking off their successes one by one: They're eating well, they've managed to gas up their cars, and they're working on convincing their landlord to accept their rent in bitcoins. But the couple's blog posts reveal that the little victories sometimes feel hard won.
“Life on Bitcoin is, for the time being, hard work and a lot of hassle,” Austin wrote on Day 16, explaining that when he contacts businesses, it takes a lot of work just to get to the person empowered to make the decision about bitcoin.
Convincing landlords, insurance companies, restaurants, gas stations and movie theaters to accept a currency they probably have never heard of would be challenging anywhere. But the Craigs have taken on this task in Provo, Utah, far from world bitcoin centers like San Francisco or Berlin. However, their relatively isolated location is not as big a factor as you might think, Beccy said:
“In Berlin there are something like 24 stores [that accept bitcoins], so we have a 24-store disadvantage.”
What Provo lacks in bitcoin awareness, it makes up for with community, Austin said: “We've been here a long time and have a lot of friends in the area. That's an advantage you might not have in a more densely populated area.”
Having a friend who owns a restaurant or a taco truck is an opportunity for an easy sell. Having a friend who trusts you enough to pay a bill in exchange for bitcoins can get you out of a jam. But sometimes, friends and family can be too helpful.
“A friend borrowed my truck for one quick thing she needed to move, and she brought it back mostly full. You can't do that!” Austin said. Beccy's parents were also thanked for filling their refrigerator with food while they were on their honeymoon, but politely asked not to repeat the gesture. “The point of the project is not life on the generosity of friends and family.”
Sometimes, life on bitcoin means relying on the kindness of strangers. Take the newlyweds' journey home from the airport after their wedding and honeymoon in Costa Rica. They met the film crew and turned over their credit cards and cash (save for one card kept in case of medical emergency), then had to find a way to get themselves home.
“We asked a couple of cab drivers if they would take bitcoin, and unsurprisingly they were mostly puzzled,” Austin said. They tried the train to downtown Provo, where they live, and found the platform empty except for one guy.
“I walked up and said, 'Hi, have you ever heard of bitcoin?'” Austin said.
The stranger hadn't, but he agreed to accept a 0.5 BTC Casascius Coin, worth at the time three to four times the cost of two tickets downtown.
In October, the couple will have to rely even more on strangers – met by chance or lined up through bitcoin meetup groups and forums online – when they travel to Atlanta to speak at the Crypto-Currency Conference.
Buying gas will probably be the biggest challenge on the road, since it has been tough at home. At first, the only place they could buy gas was 50 miles away, where an employee on the graveyard shift at a gas station had agreed to accept their bitcoins and pay for their gas in dollars for them. The journey used up a lot of gas, and they could only go on days their new friend was working.
"If [it] gets down to a quarter tank left, I stop driving," Austin said.
Unless they make a breakthrough with a gas station chain before they leave, filling up on the road is going to require some serious planning.
“We're going to have to plot a route between Salt Lake City and Atlanta, and know every stop,” Austin said.
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