In 2015 bitcoin finally made its mark: More than 100,000 businesses, including industry giants like Microsoft, Overstock.com and Dell, accepted it. But, what exactly is this mysterious "cryptocurrency" everyone has been talking about for years? And, is it time your small business accepted it, too?
Here's what you need to know about what bitcoin is, its advantages and potential drawbacks.
What is bitcoin?
Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency or an entirely digital form of money, invented in 2009. While that might not sound interesting, what sets bitcoin apart is that it's purely person-to-person, with virtually no banks, financial institutions or government bodies standing in the way between you and your money. Bitcoin relies on a technology system called blockchain that keeps your bitcoin wallet safe and secure from fraud.
The currency's digital format also makes for faster, cheaper, easier exchanges of cash, from which many small businesses may benefit. Overall, Bitcoin's assets stem from its decentralization. Blockchain, the technology bitcoin was built on, allows you to not have to rely on a bank to process your financial transactions.
Here are other reasons to consider bitcoin:
1. No fees
If your 2 to 3 percent merchant transaction fees are a drain on your cash flow, then bitcoin has you covered. Bitcoin transactions typically cost between 1 percent and zero.
That's no typo. You can send or accept bitcoins as payments with no fees attached. Since bitcoin doesn't require a bank to verify each transaction, you don't have to sacrifice your own revenue to the financial institutions that own your business loans or credit cards.
However, you'll often have the option to pay an extremely small transaction fee, which can speed up your processing.
2. No wait
Maybe those fees aren't bothering you, but waiting around for your money to arrive in your bank account does. Because there's no centralized institution that checks every bitcoin transaction -- its underlying technology, blockchain, does it for you -- there's no need to wait nearly as long to receive your payment. Bitcoin transactions are processed quickly, usually in a fraction of the time credit card transactions do.
You can charge a customer, go for a walk around the block and receive your money. Bitcoin is that fast.
3. No borders
If you export your goods and services or purchase supplies or materials from abroad, then bitcoin is a great solution for dealing with foreign transaction fees, exchange rates or currencies.
Why? Because bitcoin is a global currency, not tied to a single government or company, it ignores border restrictions. As long as your customers or suppliers accept bitcoin, you're good to go.
4. No payment disputes
Even though bitcoin is digital, it works more like cash than credit. Bitcoin transactions are final and can't be contested by a customer on the basis that he or she, for example, didn't enjoy the service you provided. If you have trouble with customers disputing their credit card payments, then accepting bitcoin could help.
5. An investment opportunity
Like other currencies, bitcoin fluctuates in value. However, it's generally less stable than the payments in cash, gold or other commodities you're used to.
While this fluctuation can be a drawback to accepting bitcoin, as we'll discuss below, it can also have a large upside. You can look at bitcoin as an investment: By accepting bitcoins, then waiting to cash them in, you're taking a chance on their value increasing.
Bitcoin makes investing in a currency seem much less absurd or boring. From 2011 to 2013, the value of a single bitcoin rose from $2 to $1,242. Although it has since fallen back to around $800 today, there's still much potential for growth.
Challenges of accepting bitcoin
It's always important to be aware of the potential dangers, as well. Here are the three largest obstacles to running a business with bitcoin.
1. It's unregulated.
Although its decentralization is a plus, bitcoin's lack of government support may scare some away. The U.S. government recognizes bitcoin as a valid commodity and possibly even a positive influence on financial regulation, but some other countries have restricted or banned the use of bitcoin.
2. It's unstable.
Although bitcoin has become increasingly more stable over time, even recently beating out gold, it's still fundamentally a currency that isn't overseen by a single financial institution. If the economy requires it, the Federal Reserve can raise or lower interest rates, but no such option exists with bitcoin.
Some observers point to this "unstable" quality as a good thing, since the bitcoin market has no interference, but it could also make things difficult for your small business if that market suffers. You'll want to figure out your aversion to risk before investing big in bitcoin.
3. It's tough to plan for.
How can you make projections that account for large fluctuations or changing government regulations? This is not an easy task, although it is do-able. You'll definitely need to speak with your bookkeeper and accountant before accepting bitcoin at your small business.
Overall, there's a lot that bitcoin can help your small business with, but also plenty of question marks involved in accepting the currency. If you're considering accepting bitcoin, sit down and determine why it can help your business and how you will deal with the challenges it may bring.