5 Types Of Bitcoin Early Adopters, Part 2: Merchants

By Ryan Selkis AAA

For many companies, accepting bitcoin has become a no-brainer. Ventures such as BitPay and Coinbase have raised over $25 million in venture capital over the past six months to build tools that make it easier for companies to accept bitcoin for virtually no cost. With bitcoin, merchants have the opportunity to avoid the 2-3% fees they would otherwise incur from credit-card sales, and they frequently enjoy spikes in customer interest thanks to the initial marketing buzz that typically ensues following their announced acceptance of the digital currency.

(See Part One of this series, Five Types of Bitcoin Early Adopters, Part 1: Consumers.)

However, once the novelty wears off, which types of merchants are most likely to realize the biggest long-term benefits from accepting bitcoin?  Who are the early adopters that will pave the way for widespread usage of the bitcoin payment rails in the future? Let's talk about five types of organizations that are most likely to benefit from accepting bitcoin today.

Digital Content Companies

One of the best and most widely accepted use cases for bitcoin has to do with payments for digital content. Bitcoin has the potential to revolutionize revenue models in industries such as online news and mobile gaming, because the technology makes micro-payments economically viable for the first time ever. Whereas credit-card "swipe" fees have traditionally made purchases of less than $1 prohibitively expensive to process, bitcoin could allow a news site with a pay wall, or a mobile-game developer that allows "in-app" purchases, to charge as little as 25 cents per transaction.

This is already starting to happen. Earlier this spring, the Chicago Sun-Times conducted a successful experiment with content monetization platform BitWall, where it allowed bitcoin users to bypass their paywall in exchange for micro-payments. Likewise, an open-sourced technology called BitMonet began facilitating micro-transactions for app developers on the Android operating platform in January 2014. Soon it may be possible for companies using these services to debit authorized bitcoin wallets each time one of their users wishes to read a specific article or consume a certain digital good.

The Gift Market

Bitcoin has several characteristics that make it the perfect technology for gift giving. Its superior privacy features, compared to credit cards or checks, allow consumers to make purchases that leave virtually no paper trail, and allow buyers to make stealthy purchases for themselves or friends and family. Notably, mobile-gift-card companies such as Gyft and eGifter allow consumers to use bitcoin at many large retailers that do not currently accept the currency directly, such as Amazon (AMZN), Whole Foods (WFM) and Target (TGT). (Forbes contributor Kashmir Hill even called Gyft, which is selling over $1 million of mobile gift cards to bitcoin users each month, her "savior" during a week-long experiment using only bitcoin as currency.)

Bitcoin also makes it much easier to "crowdfund" gifts by aggregating small donations from thousands of users. For example, members of the Dogecoin community (a "cryptocurrency" similar to bitcoin) were able to raise $30,000 for the Jamaican bobsled team that helped pay for its participation in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Bitcoin makes it easy for users on Reddit, Twitter and Facebook to give small gifts that reward peers for insightful or entertaining comments on social media.

Non-Profit Organizations

Bitcoin will likely be used for much larger gifts as well. Now that the IRS has issued guidance for bitcoin’s tax treatment, hundreds and potentially thousands of the bitcoin nouveau riche will have the opportunity to patronize their alma maters, churches and other local and international charities with bitcoin donations. Bitcoin may prove especially interesting for transparent organizations that have made significant investments in reporting tools, which help donors visualize exactly where their donations ultimately flow. In addition, bitcoin's escrow functionality and the emergence of multi-signature wallets could allow for larger donors to extend contingent grants to the organizations they intend to patronize.

Since mobile giving, online giving and social fundraising are all industries that are expected to continue to grow in the double digits in the coming years, bitcoin is a perfect payment system capable of disrupting non-profit finance.

The "Sin" Industry

On the other end of the spectrum, certain "sin" industries such as marijuana, gambling and pornography will also be prime candidates for early bitcoin adoption. Because these industries often operate in legal gray areas, it can be difficult for merchants to ensure that their payments are processed safely and reliably. The enhanced privacy of bitcoin transactions gives many customers in these markets peace of mind, and the settlement speed and irreversibility of bitcoin payments solves the massive financial problem related to "chargebacks" that most merchants grapple with every day. These features have led payment processors like Verotel, which caters to "high-risk" merchants, to integrate bitcoin into their product suites.

Bitcoin obviates the need for merchants in these industries to lose sleep worrying about banking and credit/debit card relationships. For example, marijuana dispensaries in Colorado began selling marijuana legally to recreational users earlier this year, and yet because it is still against federal law to possess and/or distribute marijuana, dispensaries have found it difficult under many circumstances to open bank accounts or accept any payments other than cash. In a closely scrutinized industry, these dispensaries can at least create a better digital paper trail to assist with their sales and income-tax reporting.

E-Commerce Platforms

Of course, many e-commerce platforms will also queue up to accept bitcoin in the coming months. Many companies have already witnessed material bumps in revenue due to bitcoin sales, and they have been attracted to the valuable customer demographic (young, high-income males) that bitcoin has helped them penetrate. Large e-commerce companies such as Overstock.com (OSTK) and electronics vendor TigerDirect have already generated millions of dollars from these new revenue sources over the past several months. In addition to revenue boosts, large e-commerce sites that typically operate on razor-thin margins are able to improve their gross margins through savings on credit-card fees, incremental cash flow that typically drops directly to their bottom line.

Inevitably, it seems, more and larger merchants will begin accepting bitcoin, but the more exciting integrations are likely to happen not with large retailers themselves, but with the payment processors that already service those retailers such as PayPal, Stripe and Square - companies that collectively cater to hundreds of thousands of businesses. PayPal's president recently said that his company "believes in bitcoin," and Square and Stripe have already announced plans to incorporate bitcoin payment processing into their product suites. Bitcoin's widespread adoption will be much swifter as these large processors incorporate bitcoin on behalf of their diverse customer bases.

The Bottom Line

Bitcoin bulls believe that in 10-20 years, merchants of all industries and sizes will wonder how they ever processed payments without the bitcoin payment rails. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that bitcoin could be accepted at any brick-and-mortar merchant, or within traditionally opaque industries such as health-care services or government contracting, or as part of futuristic applications such as payments between machines as part of the "Internet of Things." For now, however, it appears likely that bitcoin will be most attractive to merchants operating in industries that rely most heavily on privacy, altruism or micro-payments.

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