Reid Hoffman has an expert eye for promising tech startups. The LinkedIn chairman and co-founder's early stakes in Facebook, Airbnb and Dropbox prove he's able to see the next big thing before most of us even know what it is -- and it’s paid off for him time and again.
These days, the so-called “startup whisperer” is placing his bets on Bitcoin. As a full-time partner at venture capital firm Greylock Partners, he claims his primary focus is to invest in “world-class entrepreneurs with new categories of ideas with the possibility of massive scale.” One of those entrepreneurs is Wences Casares, co-founder of Xapo, an ambitious, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bitcoin wallet and storage startup. With Hoffman leading the charge, Greylock invested $20 million in Xapo last year.
“Bitcoin has the potential to be a massively disruptive technology,” Hoffman wrote in a post announcing the investment last July. “It is the leading digital currency and it’s growing fast.”
Then, in November -- a month before Bloomberg declared Bitcoin the worst-performing currency of 2014 -- he announced a hefty personal stake in Bitcoin that he brokered, a $21 million investment into Blockstream. The Montreal-based startup aims to improve upon Bitcoin’s blockchain backbone, the shared public ledger upon which the virtual currency’s entire network relies.
We caught up with the father of online professional networking recently to find out why he’s betting big on Bitcoin and why he thinks the controversial cryptocurrency is here to stay. What follows are portions of that interview, edited for clarity and brevity.
When did Bitcoin first pique your curiosity and when did you become a believer?
I first got into it after speaking with Wences Casares, who I refer to as Patient Zero for Bitcoin in Silicon Valley. Patient Zero is the first infection of a viral contagion.
I’d been paying attention to Bitcoin because a couple of other people that Wences had talked with, like Katana Capital founder Charlie Songhurst, had also talked to me about it and said that it was very important. No one had made the argument in a way that stuck yet, but it made me curious. I started to really think about it, so I sought out Wences in the summer of 2013. We had a fairly thorough conversation. He articulated very strong positive theories about Bitcoin and I began to feel empowered.
What is most interesting about Bitcoin to you? What attracts you to it?
Once I started really digging into it, I came to realize that there are three aspects to Bitcoin that are interwoven and Bitcoin is most interesting because of them. They are: One, it’s an asset, like digital gold 2.0. Two, it’s a currency in as much as currency is like the digital app that allows you to begin to transact and trade. And, three, it’s also a platform where you can build financial and other products on top of it. These attributes all bound together are what convinced me that there’s a certainty that there will be at least one global cryptocurrency and that there’s a good argument that it’s Bitcoin, or that Bitcoin is one of them, if not THE one. And, if Bitcoin isn’t that global cryptocurrency, then something else will be.
I think that a global cryptocurrency that is an asset, a currency and a platform, is pretty essential for good progress in what we can do when it comes to building products and services, banking the unbanked in the third world and creating effective commerce across borders, among other things.
You’ve said that you’re not concerned with the day-to-day price of Bitcoin, that you’re more focused on the long-game outlook of your Bitcoin investments. Why?
My investment philosophy is very much long-term. I don’t do any small trades, like, “Oh, I’ll own this for a year and then I’ll sell it.” I invest only in long-term trends. That’s part of the reason I’m a venture investor. When I invested in Airbnb, when it was totally a new and random thing, most people said, “No way, no one’s gonna’ have strangers over at their house to rent a room, etc.” I saw it differently.
When I invest, I think, “What is the way the world should be and is this investment part of that end? Is this plan the best plan for that to happen?” So that’s minimum five years. When it comes to Bitcoin, that’s the framework that I think about it in.
Why do you think the price of Bitcoin has diminished so much since late 2013, when it soared above $1,000?
I think that the price drop has gotten lost in asset speculation. A lot of people were like, “Oh, my God, I gotta’ get in now!” They thought it was a get rich quick scheme. Obviously the run up was driven by speculation. Speculation tends to be very volatile to, “Oh, my God, it’s headed down now. Oh, get out quick.” Speculators are not long-term buyers. Speculators are cash in on the upswing and know when to get off the boat.
Honestly, I don’t even check the price. I don’t even know what it is right now. I would guess it’s around $200-ish. Once it went down to $200, it’s actually not been that volatile since. The volatility decreased after that big drop and it’s now coming to a point where it’s at the current clearing price.
What are the biggest challenges holding Bitcoin back from mass adoption?
There aren’t enough use cases that make it easy enough to transact in Bitcoin yet. It has to be easy to use and reliably fulfill people’s needs. Most of the places a digital asset is needed very badly are not places like the U.S., where I can sit with my dollars in the bank. It’s more like Argentina or Ukraine or Russia. Those areas still have to get to the point where it’s useful.
Once you get the asset store working in those locations, you have to figure out where people want to transact in Bitcoin. Is it cross-border transactions? Is it other types of transactions that are unique and difficult to do?
While it’s cool that Overstock will accept Bitcoin, a lot of people in the U.S. have credit cards and can buy from Overstock with them, so they don’t need to get Bitcoin in order to buy from Overstock. Most mass adoption of technology doesn’t just go do something just because it’s cool. When you get mass adoption, it’s because it’s serving a need.
What is your advice to those considering investing in the Bitcoin space?
Roughly speaking, it’s very much like a venture investment. What I tell people who are angel investors investing in it, even though I think that the likelihood that Bitcoin will go to zero is very low, I say don’t invest in something you’re not willing to lose, or lose a good portion of. Now, for portfolio management, like if you have $10,000 and you invest $500, that’s usually kind of an unsafe side bet.
If you’re interested in Bitcoin, if you believe it’s part of how you think the world should be, the way the world will eventually end up going towards and you want to participate in that, then it might be for you. Or, if you’re in some place where you have no real, good asset value store and you’re uncertain about the banks, you’re uncertain about the government currency, then Bitcoin can provide a useful asset store for you.