I first met Erik Voorhees in Amsterdam, back in the summer of 2018, while covering a fintech conference called Money20/20. The conference was a circus. (Literally a circus, complete with trapezes artists, mimes and a unicyclist.) The panels focused on stuff like artificial intelligence, biometrics at the cash register and how to use big data.
But where was bitcoin (BTC)? Where was blockchain? Sure, there were some panels on cryptocurrencies – maybe 15 percent of the total – but if we’re predicting the “future of money,” why didn’t blockchain have a starring role?
This is where Voorhees comes in. After his panel in Amsterdam, I asked the ShapeShift CEO why crypto didn’t have a stronger presence in the conference, and whether that bugged him. He basically told me, in a friendly way: you’re looking at it wrong. “I went to the second Money20/20 in Vegas a few years ago, and we were the only crypto-company there,” he said. “No one knew what bitcoin was. It was just a joke to some people. And now there are a couple dozen panels here. Money20/20 is about the banks, but even here, crypto is making a big impact.”
Voorhees looked at the conference, and the world, with a wider lens. He zoomed out. This strikes me as a useful metaphor for today’s blockchain space. It’s easy to look around and grumble, Why aren’t more people using crypto? Where’s the merchant adoption? Where are the use cases? It’s easy to get jaded.
Yet, Voorhees has been around since near the dawn of crypto (or 2011, technically), and he’s been enriched and bruised by the ups and downs. He survived the collapse of BitInstant, one of the first bitcoin exchanges. He created SatoshiDice – which, for better or worse, remains one of blockchain’s most successful implementations. The Wall Street Journal accused him of laundering $9 million at ShapeShift. (He disputes this.) In 2018, against every one of his libertarian principles – but for legal survival – he swallowed the medicine of implementing KYC on ShapeShift and says it “gutted” the company, forcing him to lay off 37 employees, a third of his staff.
Yet, here he is, still looking at the bigger picture, still bullish, still the happy-warrior-libertarian who rails against taxes (“I am morally opposed to taxation”), government (“I don’t think the federal government should exist at all”) and certain cryptocurrency regulations (“totally crazy,” “nuts”). Now, in the wake of the revamped ShapeShift exchange (which he frequently touts as zero-fee and non-custodial) and new FOX token, Voorhees feels primed for a comeback.
So I headed to the top secret ShapeShift offices in Denver, something of a blockchain hub, for a leisurely conversation with Voorhees. (Why Denver? I had assumed it was because of Colorado’s crypto-friendly regulations, but Voorhees tells me, with disarming honesty…not really – Denver is just a pleasant place to live. He’s not wrong.) In a wide-ranging interview, he opens up about the mistakes he made at ShapeShift, why the maximalists are short-sighted, why Libra could be good for crypto, his thoughts on Bernie Bros (not a fan!), why the price of bitcoin will hit $1 million (not a typo), and how we will soon – in the next several years – see the crumbling of the financial systems and the “twilight of fiat.”
COINDESK: You’re both the CEO of ShapeShift, but you’re also a “thought leader” who promotes bitcoin and crypto. How do you balance this?
Erik Voorhees: It's hard. I can't be as outspoken as much as I would like on controversial issues. As CEO, I have to be extremely careful about what I say, in terms of regulations and government. And I love talking about that stuff. So that's been really hard. But building a business is the greatest challenge that I've ever come across, and is really rewarding.
Well, since you mentioned regulation… Your current thoughts on BitLicense in New York?
Voorhees: I mean, it's the worst thing that New York has ever done in terms of financial regulation of cryptocurrency. There have only been around 15 licenses issued. Imagine the entire state of New York, one of the most populous in the country – and with the largest financial industry – and you only have 15 startups that have permission to do crypto projects. Totally crazy. The BitLicense application itself – I would recommend you try reading it, if you never have. It's 35 pages.
Just the application? 35 pages?
Voorhees: Just the application and questions. And it does things like making every shareholder get a background check. Let's say your grandmother invested in your little crypto startup because she thinks you're great, and she gave you $10,000 to start your business. If this was in New York you would have to have your grandmother go do a background check with the FBI.
I mean, my grandma's pretty shady.
Voorhees: For most of the companies that have applied for BitLicense, the application ends up being like 100 to 300 pages of documents. Just to apply for the permission to build a new business! And then there’s the whole story of Ben Lawsky, and what he did there is pretty atrocious. He created the regulation, and then he leaves and starts his own practice where he's helping companies navigate the regulation. So he enters private practice, charging companies to help navigate the rules and restrictions that he created. Horribly corrupt. And I don't know how that's not some kind or fraud or corruption crime, but apparently, that's totally legal.
Then after he did that for a couple years, he goes and joins the board of Ripple. So Ripple's paying him a gazillion dollars to basically help advise them on how to avoid these kind of regulations. The whole thing is just so corrupt, and the idea that the BitLicense was helping consumers is nuts. Like, ShapeShift actually built something that helped consumers, by not holding their money and not taking their personal information, which almost always gets hacked. We actually built something that protects consumers, and then the BitLicense basically made our business illegal.
So those are my thoughts on BitLicense.
Other than that, you love it. On that note, what do you think about the Federal Reserve, or central bank, potentially adopting digital currencies?
Voorhees: Yeah, so this is a hot topic in the last month or so. Their currency is already digital. The dollar's already digital. It’s backed by nothing. So when people bring up things like “central bank digital currencies,” what are they actually talking about? Are they talking about the dollar being on a blockchain? And if so, obviously the blockchain would not be permission-less, or open. It's going to be a permissioned blockchain that the Fed controls.
Voorhees: And obviously, the Fed is not going to limit its own ability to create money. So basically, the two reasons that bitcoin is so cool - 1) the openness and the permissionless-ness, and 2) the fact that you know exactly how many units exists, and no one can inflate it - are all gone. So what the hell is the point of a digital dollar? It'll be no different than today's digital dollar, which just exists in bank accounts.
So you're not a fan?
Voorhees: It's not that I'm not a fan. [Laughs.] It's just not anything different than what dollars are now. It's kind of like this marketing gimmick for the central banks to feel like they're doing something. But dollars are already digital. Euros are already digital.
So you’re saying it might not be any worse than the current system, but it won’t add much value?
Voorhees: It will be worse than the current system, in that it will be easier to surveil and control. So it'll give the government more power over controlling it.
You’ve been critical of the maximalists, calling them shortsighted. What do you mean by that?
Voorhees: Yeah, it's shortsighted because if some of bitcoin’s virtue is its decentralization, then you have to realize that other blockchains increase the decentralization. They're different communities, different people, they have different mining algorithms, they have different incentive structures. They optimize for different features. So if you're for decentralization, but you're in favor of just one single monolithic chain, there's something in your brain that's not connecting.
Okay, on the subject of “different communities,” what do you think about Libra?
Voorhees: Yeah, I think Libra's awesome.
Wow, “Awesome?” I wasn’t expecting that!
Voorhees: Because first of all, it's freaking out all the governments of the world. Anything that does that is good.
But it’s not open-permission…
Voorhees: It’s not all open permission like bitcoin. But it’s also not just a digital dollar. It's actually a new currency with a basket of assets that back it. Some fiat and bonds and securities. And that new asset is sort of a super-national currency, created not by a government but by a private company. And I think that's an amazing step for society.
You're not concerned about potential bad actors at Facebook or too much centralization?
Voorhees: I mean, none of it's more centralized than the dollar. So I see it in contrast to how the dollar works, and in fiat. Everyone around the world is using fiat and then here comes, finally, a private money created by a private company. It's still centralized, but a private company's money I would take any day of the week over a government money. So in that way, I think it's superior to fiat.
And it helps people think, Okay, well maybe it's not just governments that can make money. If they broke out of that spell, then they would realize that, Okay, there are different monies out there, and they have different attributes. And maybe I should be thinking more about what makes money good or bad.
Do you have any sense, in your gut, of whether the Libra will succeed?
Voorhees: So one big question is, will it launch at all? And that’s maybe 50/50. The other big question is, will it launch in its current form, or will it get watered down to basically just be a digital dollar? And there's a strong chance that that will happen, which would suck. The reason the government, especially the U.S. government, is so concerned about it is because, if it becomes widely adopted, the dollar loses some of its value. Facebook has more users than the U.S. has citizens.
That's a staggering fact.
Voorhees: By a significant amount. Facebook's coin is a credible threat to the dollar over the short term, over five-ish years. I think bitcoin's a credible threat over 10 or 20 years.
So, on to bitcoin: Are you concerned at all that there’s not more merchant adoption?
Voorhees: I think we got it backwards. So in the early days of bitcoin, it was all about merchant adoption. It was like, okay, this is a better form of money. When enough merchants accept, it'll just start to become ubiquitous, and that's how it takes over. That hasn't happened for a number of reasons, and yet bitcoin and crypto, as an industry, has grown at least as much as we hoped it would. I think merchant adoption will end up being at the tail end of the adoption.
When will that happen?
Voorhees: That will occur when lots of people have crypto. Because merchants will say, “Well, I should definitely accept this, because there’s 50 million with it.” And that'll sort of be the tail end, not the leading. And I think we all were wrong about that.
Interesting. Are you more or less bullish of cryptocurrency now than you were, let's say, in 2018?
Voorhees: Each year that goes by that it hasn't failed, it’s more likely to succeed. Each year that goes by, it becomes more normal. Nowadays, if you ask a random person on the street if they've heard of bitcoin, nine out of 10 of them will say yes. In 2011, 10 out of 10 would have said no. And it has shed some of its shady perceptions.
What excites you most about the space right now, besides things you’re personally working on?
The DeFi [Decentralized Finance] stuff that's happening is so cool. The DeFi stuff built on top of stablecoins.
What about it, specifically?
Voorhees: It's a real use case, and it works really well. A normal person can turn $10,000 of dollars into USD stablecoin. No volatility, backed by Coinbase, which is at least as reputable as a bank. And then they can be earning 3 or 5 percent interest on that. Sometimes in a trustless way. And anyone in the world can do this. Someone in Australia or Africa or Asia can all access these open money markets just from a phone. That's really powerful.
Okay, getting to ShapeShift – you often mention that the exchange has zero trading fees. I get the sense from you that it’s not just a marketing gimmick, but something deeper there about no fees…almost a philosophical principle. Am I right on that?
Voorhees: No, you're not.
Voorhees: Zero fees, we implemented for two reasons. One, because we needed a better messaging hook to get people to understand what the new ShapeShift was.
And the second?
Voorhees: Trading is very much a commoditized business. And those fees are going to decline over time. So why not just get out ahead of that?
Voorhees: What matters more ideologically to us, at ShapeShift, is the self-custody aspect. Nearly all of the major crypto companies are custodial – the Coinbases, the Binances. And if the whole cryptocurrency movement just results in a bunch of new custodians, nothing really changes, right? But people go to what's easy. So I see ShapeShift as building the easy interface for crypto, that's self-custody.
What can we expect to see in the future from ShapeShift?
Voorhees: We'll go mobile. That’s the next obvious area that we're totally missing right now.
What’s the timeline on that?
Voorhees: Two or three months. Before Consensus, shall we say.
You’ve said that your long-term vision for ShapeShift is “social change.” What does that mean, exactly?
Voorhees: The way I think about it is that I am part of the startup that is crypto. And my long-term vision is that crypto actually changes the entire financial system of the world. My job in that startup is building a piece of it, which is ShapeShift. And ShapeShift's job is to build the best self-custody platform for people. So that crypto doesn't evolve into something where you just have a bunch of new PayPals holding everyone's funds.
Where would you say you are right now as a company?
Voorhees: We've had to rebuild everything from scratch. So in some ways, we're almost a six-year-old company, but in other ways, we're a nine-month-old startup, because we just launched a new product in July.
Right. Can you talk about the KYC implementation, and the fallout?
Voorhees: The KYC stuff happened in fall of 2018. So no longer could we let someone trade one asset for another without an account. Obviously we didn't want to do that. Our customers did not want us to do that. Our partners did not want us to do that, but we felt that it was too legally risky not to do it. So we made that change. It gutted our business, because all of our partners didn't want to use us anymore. They just went with alternatives. So we knew that we would have a huge hit. And it did. It destroyed our entire business.
Not to make you relive one of the worst chapters of your life, but can you elaborate? How much did you lose?
Voorhees: Most of our volume came from these partner wallets that plug into our API.
What are some examples?
Voorhees: You know, like Edge or Coinomi or Exodus or Jaxx. There are a number of these. And their users in their wallet would be able to trade coins seamlessly through our API. Once we required accounts [implemented KYC], that user experience totally broke, because then the wallet would have to send them to some other company, to us, to get an account signed up. And it's just not a good user experience. So I can't say I blame them. But those wallets just dropped us and went with competitors that don't KYC. So what do you do?
What percentage of your customer base did you lose? Was it over, say, 50 percent?
Voorhees: Yeah, I mean, over 95 percent.
Whoa. And yet, hear you are, rebuilding…
Voorhees: Well yeah, so we were already working on the new platform by the time we knew that we would have to do KYC. It was sort of something happening in parallel. It was basically the 2.0 ShapeShift that we conceived in early 2018, and we were already starting to build. And then there was a weird period from the fall of 2018 through July of 2019 when the old product was totally gutted. The new one wasn't out yet, and we had a nine-month period where we were just kind of working on it.
Not to mention, you were in the depths of the bear market.
Voorhees: Right, in a horrible bear market, and that was during the time when we had our layoffs. So that was a shitty time for sure. But it was also fun, because we were rebuilding the new thing, and building new products is always the best.
All of that said, most CEOs talk about the importance of failure, and how their success comes from the seeds of these setbacks. What lessons have you learned?
Voorhees: Oh, yeah, we made so many mistakes in 2017 when we were growing. When you're growing that much, you don't notice the mistakes.
Voorhees: Most of us were first-time executives trying to build a business. So we're learning this stuff as we go. Everything from hiring toxic people that shouldn't have been here, to ignoring some of the operational things that a business should do. Like on-boarding and off-boarding new employees. This is something unrelated to crypto. But it’s very important. Most people think that if you need someone, you go hire them. But there's actually a whole art and science to finding good people, bringing them in while onboarding them, acclimatizing them into your culture and teaching them.
We've learned all that stuff now. We've got the business stuff down. In 2017, all our numbers were flying, but we didn't know how to run a business. Now our numbers suck, but we know how to run a business.
On the personal front, how do you stay on top of the latest crypto developments? What’s your news consumption like?
Voorhees: So my pattern is generally Twitter, CoinDesk and then osmosis in the office. Twitter is very shallow but broad information about everything. CoinDesk is for deeper articles about specific things. And then people in the office, that's the entropy. That brings random things to me that I wouldn't know about. But I don't stay on top of it all. I constantly feel like I'm behind. I know a smaller portion of the industry today than I did six years ago.
Really? How is that possible?!
Voorhees: I spend all day, every day in this stuff, and yet I know less today, relatively to the industry than I used to.
Oh, so you mean your absolute knowledge has grown, but because the entire industry has grown so much, the percentage of what you’re current on - the percent of the pie - is smaller?
Voorhees: Right. There's like…entire new chains that are really cool and I know nothing about them.
What are your work hours like?
Voorhees: My hours aren't too crazy. I tend to work 9 [a.m.] to 6 [p.m.] most days.
How do you relax? Are you Netflix binging?
Voorhees: Yeah, Netflix, reading and just hanging out with my little daughter – those kind of things. I like to go out into the mountains, skiing and snowmobiling. Mountain biking.
What are you reading these days?
Voorhees: I've been reading Dune. And usually I’m reading both a fiction and a non-fiction book. So for non-fiction, I'm reading that Andy Grove book, "High Output Management."
Let’s talk politics. Do any of the Democratic candidates excite you at all?
Voorhees: They're all horrible. All of them want to grow the government. All of them. Every single one of them will just grow the government. Every president grows the government. So the Democrats wanna grow it a little bit to the left. The Republicans wanna grow it a little bit to the right. They're actually pretty similar in almost every way. So yeah, I despise all of them. I don't think the federal government should exist at all. And I won't be voting for any of them.
You’ve been critical of the Bernie Bros …
Voorhees: I mean, all they want to do is steal money from other people. Right? They want to get their guy into power so he can take money from group A and give it to group B.
Okay, prediction time! I want three predictions from you: one for the short-term, one for the medium-term and one for the long-term, like 20+ years from now.
Let’s start with something we’ll see in the crypto space this year, in 2020.
Voorhees: I think ETH gets back to all-time highs and DeFi goes a little bit parabolic in growth—I mean in user growth. I also think there will be a bitcoin rally this year, but I don't know if it will get to all-time highs. But I think Ethereum will be.
I think DeFi will be the theme this year. There will be a new set of… sort of ethereum-killer-type chains that are viable now. So there's Cosmos, Cardano, EOS, and maybe two or three others that are credible chains. (And maximalists will hate me for saying that.) They work as they’re supposed to, and they’re not just forks, and they’re innovating in different directions.
How about everyone’s favorite topic, coin dominance?
Voorhees: So I think this year, we're gonna see sort of bitcoin in the lead, of course. Ethereum (ETH) the clear number two. And a set of other smart contract chains that are all proof-of-stake that are vying for that number three spot.
Got it. Predictions for the next, say, three to five years?
Voorhees: In three to five years, the next financial crisis has definitely happened. Now I may have said the three or five years ago also. But I'm gonna restate it now.
How bad do you think it will get?
Voorhees: This debt bubble can't continue. I think within three years, but certainly within five, you have a major financial meltdown. And crypto will probably be ready enough to be a credible alternative for a lot of the world. Not that any one chain can suddenly support every transaction of every person. But there's enough chains doing it, in enough different ways, that have evolved by then, with enough good UX and basic understanding, and trust from the public, that it will become a credible alternative.
This is fascinating. Can you break down a little more what, specifically, that kind of financial crisis would look like, and how crypto benefits? Because I think for a lot of people, they hear that idea and it sort of makes sense, but it also feels really abstract?
Voorhees: So I think there are three levels of financial crisis. There's a normal recession. Which happens normally, and isn't that big of a deal. That's where equities will go down for a while, and there's a year or two of recession.
Then there's sort of a really severe recession like the 2008 and 2009 kind of thing, where people start losing trust in financial institutions. There are large bankruptcies and bailouts of companies.
Then there's a third level, which is what I think will happen. And that is where you're actually getting the collapse of sovereign bond markets. When people realize that there's zero way that those debts get repaid. The only reason people are willing to hold U.S. government bonds is because they assume they can sell it to somebody.
They assume it’s rock solid, yeah.
Voorhees: Yeah, because they can always sell it to some other guy. Which is the definition of the greater fool theory, right? That falls apart at some point. The math doesn't work. So when bond markets fall apart, interest rates will spike, because people will demand vastly higher interest rates to loan money to people, especially to governments.
And this will destroy the whole financial system. Ultimately, what it will mean is the governments will end up printing money to try to solve the problem, just like they did in the last financial crisis.
If this does indeed happen, you need to make sure you’re not caught on camera like Mr. Burns in "The Simpsons," rubbing your hands greedily, saying, "Excellent. Things are proceeding as I had planned."
Voorhees: Yes, I know.
[Both laugh.] Be careful.
Voorhees: So they'll print money like they always do, but the quantity that they'll have to print will—in combination with the loss of trust in the bond market—cause actual currency collapses of major fiat currencies.
And that’s the inflection point…
Voorhees: It's that last step that’s really the lynchpin for people to just get out of that stuff, that nonsense, and use real money. Open, transparent blockchains that can't be manipulated by any party, and that you know exactly how many there are. That'll happen within five years. It's gonna be a disaster.
So what happens to the price of bitcoin in that environment?
Voorhees: I mean in that environment, bitcoin is at $1 million.
But it would be crazy and violent and volatile. And it would be very surreal, because at the same time that basically these elites of the financial world are all falling apart, these banks and all that value is getting destroyed, you'll have all these other people—from the whales in bitcoin, to someone who just had a few thousand dollars of bitcoin hanging around, to little startups all over the world in the crypto industry. They suddenly become 100 times more powerful.
Lots of wealthy dudes in hoodies! Wait, this is all going to happen in three to five years?
Voorhees: Yeah, three to five years is when this crazy transition starts. The transition itself is probably five or 10 years long. There will be a really weird wealth and power transformation in a very short amount of time. And that won't happen in some kind of peaceful way. That will be really kind of scary and probably violent, where the people losing power do everything they can to prevent this process, but it's inevitable and can't be stopped. That transition will be the financial story of the century. That will be written about for hundreds of years. This is the twilight of fiat.
“Twilight of fiat.” Nice turn of phrase.
And after that happens, when people look back on how fiat and banks worked, and children are taught about this stuff in school, it'll all seem so preposterous that people used money that was created out of thin air, and they thought that had value. And the government could just make as much of it as they want. And people were okay with that. And you had this high council of high bankers that every couple weeks would release statements in which algorithms all over the world would look at each little word to see what changed, and billions of dollars in the markets would move based on the slight edits to the words coming out of the Federal Reserve. That will look absolutely preposterous.
This is how I feel about self-driving cars. Decades from now, people will look back at manual-driving cars and say, “What? You people actually DROVE those things yourselves?!” Because manual cars cause so many accidents!
Voorhees: I know. It bothers me, too. I look forward to when all the cars are automatic. There's some scary surveillance stuff with that, but it's inevitable.
All right, on that note, give me a long-term prediction. How about 20 to 40 years from now?
Voorhees: So at that point, 20 years on, finance will work with purely digitized open systems. And I don't know if it'll be blockchains or something that's surpassed them by then. But open, decentralized transparent systems where they are algorithmically trustworthy.
I appreciate your open-mindedness, that the ultimate solution might be blockchain, but it might not.
Voorhees: It doesn't really matter. The point is that the good features in bitcoin and blockchains will be there. And maybe it'll still be bitcoin, and maybe bitcoin is still the standard 20 years from now. But the point is, it'll be open, anyone will be able to use it, it will be borderless, and it'll kind of be like… mathematics, or language. Maybe language isn’t a good example…
Voorhees: Or music, right. Where there’s a set of rules that everyone in the world uses, and math and music are not set by nation states. They're cultural and they're open. Money and finance will work like that. 20 years from now, people will not have fiat bank accounts.
Governments will still be around though, right?
Voorhees: Of course. I'm not that lucky. [Laughs.]
You’re well-known as a libertarian. I’m guessing you must be frustrated that people have certain stereotypes of libertarians, or have some misconceptions?
Voorhees: The biggest misconception is that libertarians, and/or anarchists, are against order and against governance. I'm very much pro-order and pro-governance. The key theme for a libertarian is that that stuff should emerge through peaceful means, versus coercive means.
What do you mean, exactly?
Voorhees: If you look around you, there's order all over the place, right, in markets and in nature. A tree grows, and it has order to it, and structure. But no one commanded the tree. It was an organic process that was decentralized.
That feels almost Buddhist.
Voorhees: There's a lot of overlap and themes in nature, and how the markets work. So I think the best kind of libertarian is someone who's just seeking order through peaceful means, versus coercive means. So the haters are always like, "Well you hate poor people and want them to die without health insurance." It's like, “No, I would love everyone to have health insurance. I just don't think you should steal from some other person to give this other guy health insurance." I don't think that's charity, I think that's theft.
So yeah, that's the major misconception. It’s a misunderstanding of the fact that order can emerge, rather than being imposed by force.
What’s blockchain’s role in all of this?
Voorhees: I think it is a demonstration of this emerging order. Exactly that. There are all sorts of forms of money in the crypto world. Bitcoin is the major one, but there are lots of different competitors with different attributes, and it's messy and chaotic. But there's an order to it, and a rationality to it. And these various projects from all over the world, there's no central person coordinating all this stuff. There's no person setting the monetary policy of crypto. It's an emerging order and it's peaceful.
This is what’s so powerful about that: It takes the major way that governments control people, which is through control of the financial system, and it provides an alternative that even the most powerful government in the world can't stop. And there's something incredibly magical about that.
[The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.]
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