Coinbase $75 million round is a game changer

Bitcoin

Today Bitcoin exchange/wallet/service provider Coinbase announced that it closed a $75 million round. Among all the major funding announcement of other tech companies $75M may not seem like a lot of money, but it’s actually quite significant. Not only is this a record funding for a Bitcoin company (one that puts total funding for Coinbase at $106 million), but even more important are the investors that put their money into Coinbase. They are not just venture capital funds, but for the first time also top financial institutions.

Among the investors in this round are the New York Stock Exchange, Spanish banking giant BBVA, US military insurance company USAA and Japanese telecom operator DoCoMo. Also the former CEOs of Citi and Thomson Reuters both invested privately in this round. I think this is a game changer for Bitcoin that shows that the crypto currency is no longer dismissed in the board rooms of the largest financial institutions in the world. Now that the first banks are on board the rest will have to take Bitcoin more serious as well.

Why would the NYSE invest in a Bitcoin exchange? I believe they want to better understand how the blockchain works and how they could potentially integrate it into their own systems. Investing in Coinbase will give them access to doing this with the market leader. NASDAQ was for a long time seen as more innovative by tech start-ups that wanted to list (that changed a bit after the Facebook IPO), but with this investment NYSE shows that they are not as traditional as many people used to think.

Having a mega bank like BBVA invest is also significant, because this is the first time that such a bank invests in a Bitcoin company. Banks actually have a lot to lose if they invest in Bitcoin technology: they make their money mainly through fractional reserve banking (basically creating new money) which is not possible on the blockchain, because you can see exactly where each Bitcoin is. The blockchain is the ledger that banks provide for their customers and many of the bank functions are not needed anymore if Bitcoin would start to take over the financial industry. I am aware that you can of course circumvent this by creating money through off-blockchain transactions, and that might happen eventually, but I don’t think that’s why they would invest.

Probably BBVA’s thinking is that it’s better to be the first to embrace Bitcoin banking than to be a follower. Now they are able to buy a share in the leading Bitcoin company in the world for what may turn out to be a low valuation. Normally a $75M round implies an approximate $400M valuation of the company, but if Coinbase would really become the first Bitcoin bank that’s peanuts (BBVA itself already has a $50+ billion valuation, 125 times that of Coinbase).

Many might not know this, but BBVA is a very innovative bank. Last year they bought Simple, a debit card ‘bank’ that was on its way to disrupt the banking industry. I loved Simple and was a bit disappointed that they sold out, but at least BBVA seems to be a good parent company (Simple is still around, but I have no idea how they are doing).

Having former Wall Street CEOs on board as investors may not seem to be a big thing. However, even though these guys don’t have the power anymore that they used to have, but they are still extremely well connected and will spread the word about Bitcoin in the right circles. The fact that they see Coinbase as an investment opportunity means they understand that the financial world is going to change.

I don’t think this is the last big Bitcoin funding announcement that we’ll see, it may actually open the floodgates for even bigger investments in companies like Circle, Bitpay or Blockchain. Or we may see more M&A activity in this field, with $75 million in the bank you can do some interesting acquisitions. Good times in Bitcoinland!

Bitcoin Quo Vadis?

Bitcoin crash

The falling Bitcoin price gives many people the impression that Bitcoin is dying, but actually the opposite is true. Yes, the price has been on a downward spiral for a long time and right now there is massive panic selling going, but for me that does not mean that the currency or the blockchain have failed. After record VC investments last year I expect a lot of companies to release Bitcoin related products over the next couple of months, and I think that once the price reaches a bottom a lot more people will start using it, either directly or indirectly. I am now sitting on an airplane, so I finally have some quiet time to put my thoughts in a post.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room, what is happening with the price? I am regularly asked by people what is going on, some are just curious, others are annoyed that their investment is not doing well and some are panicking because they put too many savings into Bitcoin. To be honest, nobody really knows for sure what determines Bitcoin prices on a daily basis, but I have some thoughts on this. I am a member of several private Bitcoin message roups on WeChat and on Telegram and the price is a regular topic of debate there (but certainly not the only topic).

Everybody has different opinions, but the consensus seems to be that the huge volatility and price drop we are seeing right now was not expected among the people who spend most of their time in the Bitcoin world, but that it’s also not unusual for such a young and hyped currency, and that Bitcoin has seen this kind of drops before.

Most people were not part of Bitcoin yet in 2011, but in early June that year the price reached $32 only to fall to $10 a few days later. The bottom of the following bear market was at $2 in November 2011! So if history repeats itself the price could fall a lot more than it has done so far, and maybe that would be a good thing.

I still spend a lot of time on Bitcoin and am surprised that Bitcoin would fall so much. The main reason that the price has been on a downward trajectory is actually partly because of its success: more companies accept Bitcoin (among others Microsoft, Paypal and Dell now take the crypto currency) so more people are using Bitcoin that they already own to pay for goods. The problem is that merchants change these bitcoin for fiat currency right away, leading to an increased supply of coins. Only when they would hold on to them (e.g. when they could use BTC to pay their suppliers or pay their staff, or if they would believe that the value would go up) the markets will stabilize, and that is just not happening yet. And in a downward market there is less incentive to buy new Bitcoin for people who spend it, because people expect the price to be lower in the near future.

To make matters worse, the Bitcoin miners that used to hold on to most of their Bitcoin are now spending them to pay for electricity. The lower the Bitcoin price the more coins they need to sell to pay for their costs. At current prices it’s almost impossible to make money with mining and some companies even stopped their mining operations (see for example http://www.coindesk.com/cex-io-halts-cloud-mining-service-due-low-bitcoin-price/)

What we are seeing now is that people who bought coins in the uptrend are panicking. Many of these must have bought coins when prices were far higher than today and they may now worry that the value of Bitcoin may eventually go to zero, and so they cut their losses and sell. Smart? If you need the money it may be a wise decision, but if you bought the coins with money that you were prepared to lose I would hold on to it.

This is typical behavior of small investors and it normally indicates that the bottom is near. Soon bulls will come back into the market and start buying coins on the cheap. The question is of course when this will happen, and that is something nobody knows. I personally have not sold a Bitcoin over the past months and I am not planning to do so now either (many people are like me it seems, 70% of all Bitcoin have not moved in the past 6 months). But I am also not buying yet, mainly because I feel I have enough exposure to Bitcoin in my portfolio. If I would not have Bitcoin yet, however, I would probably put some orders in soon. Don’t take this as investment advice of course, and keep in mind that most people are a lot more risk averse than I am.

Bitcoin transactions per day

Actually, Bitcoin usage was at an all-time high a few days ago, with several days of over 100,000 Bitcoin transactions per day. Still tiny compared to other financial transactions, but there is a clear uptrend despite prices going down. And take into account that so far there are hardly any good use cases for Bitcoin for the average consumer.

I am probably one of the bigger Bitcoin users in the world right now (in terms of number of transactions), because I have a Bitcoin debit card. This card was issued by Blade Financial, a company that CrossPacific Capital invested in and where I am on the advisory board. I use the Bitcoin debit card on an almost daily basis. All over Vancouver I pay in Bitcoin, but none of the merchants know that of course, and they don’t have to know it either (they only see dollars, not BTC). It works great and I believe that once this card launches officially (this is just a test card) a lot more people may be exposed for the first time to Bitcoin.

VC investments in Bitcoin companies are still on the rise and I hear about new Bitcoin companies on an almost daily basis. Bitcoin is far from over and maybe the shake-out that will be caused by the low price is a good thing. Of course the low price will lead a lot of people to be even more skeptical about Bitcoin, but that can change quickly if the price stabilizes and will start increasing again.

Like I said earlier, nobody really knows what determines Bitcoin prices. I am just pointing to some trends that I observe in the market and that play a role in Bitcoin prices. One thing I did not mention yet in this post, but that I talked about in the past, is that institutional money can still not invest in Bitcoin because there are no ETFs on the market. I had expected that the first ETF would have been launched much earlier already, but the SEC is taking its time to approve these funds. The first one will likely be the Winklevoss fund and that could well lead to an unexpected rally when suddenly demand goes up much higher than supply.

I find the Bitcoin world fascinating and I am still very happy to be part of it. The low price leads to completely new dynamics in the market and because of that I keep on learning new things (sometimes the hard way!). Changes go much more slowly than I had expected, but I see that changes are taking place, both with blockchain applications and with Bitcoin as a currency. I look forward to the next year in Bitcoinland and being part of it as a participants, an investor and as an evangelist. The best is yet to come!

Christmas shopping in Vegas

Las Vegas boulevard

Grace and I just got back from a 3-day trip to Las Vegas. It’s an easy destination to get to from Vancouver, both Air Canada and Westjet have direct flights that bring you to Sin City in less than 3 hours.

Leaving rainy Vancouver for Las Vegas

Leaving dark & rainy Vancouver

The past weeks had been extremely busy so about 10 days ago we booked a flight and a hotel for the days before Christmas. Unfortunately work and private issues messed up our schedules a bit, so in the end we almost decided not to go. Because of that we both had to do phone calls and many emails while on vacation. Not the best way to relax, but we couldn’t change it and the only alternative would have been to stay home.

Las Vegas boulevard

Because I’m not a big fan of casino’s (I hate gambling and have trouble understanding how people can sit at slot machines or casino tables for hours) we booked one of the few hotels that does not have its own casino or slot machines, the Mandarin Oriental. I love the chain, it’s one of the hotels that I prefer to stay at in Asia as well. Their Las Vegas hotel was excellent with very friendly staff, a great room and good services. Almost comparable to 5-star hotels in Asia, which is something special in North America.

Las Vegas boulevard

We had decided to go to Las Vegas because we wanted to be away from the dark and rainy Vancouver winter days, and Vegas normally has dry and sunny weather (it’s in the middle of the desert). We were lucky because we had temperatures up to 23 Celcius while there (which is much warmer than usual), so I could walk around in a t-shirt during the day.

View from the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas

View from the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas

Grace’ main activity was to go shopping, while I was sitting in the hotel room behind my laptop, although I joined her a few times as well. A bit of a sacrifice, because I’m not a fan of physical shopping, I prefer to buy my things online.

What I like about Las Vegas is of course the nightlife, although we did not go out a lot. I was so tired from work that I slept 9-10 hours per night during the trip, just to recover. We did have some excellent dinners though. The first night we went to Picasso in the Bellagio, a French restaurant with a classical feel to it. I was glad I wore a jacket, otherwise I would have felt underdressed. We decided to go for the Menu Degustation, a multicourse tasting meal that featured the best creations of the chef. A great choice, but quite a large meal if you also take the wine pairings.

Steak at Jean Georges Las Vegas

Filet Mignon at Jean Georges Steakhouse in Las Vegas

We found out that Jean Georges also has an establishment in Las Vegas, in the Aria Resort. We had dinner there quite late on the second night, after we first had a foot massage in a Chinese spa on the outskirts of the city. Jean Georges did not disappoint, but it was not as high end as the one in Shanghai. Many of the other top restaurants that were on my shortlist (e.g. Hakkassan and Twist by Pierre Gagnaire) turned out to be closed during the week before Christmas, so that’s something to check out in advance before a future trip.

Michael Jackson ONE

On the last night we had dinner with friends from Vancouver that were coincidentally also in Las Vegas (the husband is actually a successful entrepreneur who lives mainly in Beijing, his wife and kids live full-time in Canada). Good for me to practice my Chinese a bit. We went to the Cirque du Soleil show Michael Jackson ONE with them in the Mandalay. There are always so many shows in Vegas that it’s hard to decide which one to go to, but after some research this seemed the best one. It was indeed a good choice, it was a combination of acrobatics, performance and dancing on the music of all famous Michael Jackson hits. Micheal himself also played a role with his 3D hologram dancing on stage, pretty cool!

View over Las Vegas from Mix Lounge (43rd floor of Delano)

View from Mix Lounge at Delano over Las Vegas’ skyline

We’re now back in Vancouver where I’ll work one more day on Wednesday before trying to take a few days off. It was a fun trip to end the year but next time I’ll try to plan it during a time when we are less busy.

The world’s best audio storytelling: Serial

Logo of the world's #1 podcast: Serial

Do you like to read detective books or watch detective movies? Do you enjoy a reality show? Then how about a combination of the 2 in the form of an audio podcast?

About 2 weeks ago I wrote a post about the Startup podcast that I liked a lot, and after that I decided to give the Serial podcast a try. I had heard about it a few weeks before already but did not think it would be interesting to listen to. Well, I was completely wrong. When more and more friends wrote about it on Facebook and Twitter, when even the mainstream press started to write about the podcast, and especially when the podcast hit #1 in iTunes I knew I was missing out on something.

It took me less than one episode of this weekly program to become addicted to the podcast. I ‘binge listened’ the first 7 shows in just 2 days (episodes are 30-50 min each). I lost sleep over it, listening to “just one more” episode at 2 AM and I drove home slowly from work so I could listen to a few minutes extra of the podcast. The experience reminded me of some of the top TV series that I binge watched, such as the early seasons of Lost and more recently Downton Abbey, where I could not wait to finish my work late at night so I could watch an episode.

My favorite podcast: Serial

Serial is the story about the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore high school senior. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was arrested a few weeks after the murder and was later convicted. He is still in prison. The thing is, he says he is innocent. Of course many criminals say they are innocent, but the longer you listen to Serial the more you realize that some strange things have happened in the investigation.

Did Adnan do it? I don’t know yet. One moment I am totally convinced that he is not innocent, but 10 minutes later I feel certain that he was framed and someone else was the murderer. I change my mind continously while listening to the podcast and when thinking about the facts afterward.

One reason why the show is so successful is because it slowly releases new evidence. The storytelling is amazing, with an important role for Adnan who is interviewed by phone in almost every episode. You hear him speak to you about the crime and what happened on the day of the murder (was she really murdered that day?) on your headphones or over he speakers of your car. That is so powerful, especially because his story is mixed with insightful comments by host Sarah Koenig.

Interestingly, nobody knows how the podcast will end. There will likely be another 3 episodes, but even Sarah says she does not know what her final verdict will be. The Internet is full of theories about Adnan and what might have happened on January 13, 1999. There are tens of thousands of comments on Reddit, people write blogs about it and there are even podcasts about this podcast. Many (or likely most) of the major newspapers have written about Serial and keep writing about it. I have never seen this before for a podcast. Serial is taking the medium to a completely different level.

One takeaway from Serial is how sloppy murder cases are investigated in the US. The police wants to find and convict someone and seems to just put aside evidence in favor of the accused. Adnan’s lawyer may not have had the best for her client in mind (unfortunately she died a few years ago, so she could not be interviewed) and it’s clear she made some major mistakes during the trial. Racial profiling is a big issue, my impression is that had Adnan been a white guy he may not have been convicted. And the scariest thing is that a former police detective who was paid by the program to look at the evidence, said that this case was actually investigated better than average…

If you want to give Serial a try you can listen here to the podcast on iTunes and here on Soundcloud (embedded below). Or just go the website of the Serial podcast where you can read about and stream all episodes. And if you like it as much as I do, make sure to send a donation to the production team so they can keep on doing the world’s best storytelling. I can’t wait until Thursday when the next episode comes out at 6 AM EST!

The parody Western Union does not want you to see

Western Union asked Facebook to take this parody down, so now it's going viral!

One of the companies that will be threatened most if Bitcoin becomes a success is Western Union. So when a parody on one of their ads appeared on Reddit and Facebook, they were not amused. The company sent a DMCA notice to Facebook forcing them to take the picture down.

Not a smart move for anybody who understands social media. Not only is a parody generally considered fair use of an image, so there is no legal basis for the notice, but normaly a take down notice leads to a lot of additional reporting, so many people who would not have seen the ad now see it.

The original ad makes me feel sad for people that don’t have normal bank accounts and need to use Western Union to transfer money. Sending up to $50 for ‘only’ $5 is crazy expensive, this is a fee of 10%. And this is only within the US, not even to overseas locations.

I wonder if there are other hidden fees, because in the add it only states ‘transfer fee’. I tried to figure this out on their website, where I noticed the small print messages “Card issuer cash advance fee and associated interest charges may apply” and “Western Union also makes money from currency exchange”.  Of course there will be no currency exchange when sending dollars inside the US, but that could add up for international transfers. Also “fees for agent locations may differ from online fees”… Plus there is a maximum amount of $999 that you can send per 30 days.

Generally I don’t think the US will be an easy market for Bitcoin to take off, because it’s too well developed to solve a real need. But this kind of transfer fees remind me that even in North America there are some serious business opportunities. I hope the ad will lead a lot more people to consider using Bitcoin. The technology is still too difficult to understand for most people (especially that part of the population that uses Western Union in the first place), but easy-to-use services such as Circle.com are now available to anyone and could save people a lot of money.

Scott and Elaine’s first piano recital

Scott & Elaine ready for the piano recital

This weekend Scott and Elaine had their first public piano performance during a recital for the Canada Music Week. Scott, who is 6 years old, started playing piano just over a year ago, in October 2013. Elaine (5 years old) tried piano for a few weeks last year but she was too young and started again this summer, so she now has about 4-5 months of piano experience.

Canada Music Week program with Scott & Elaine!

They have lessons once a week (next to all their other extracurricular classes and their daily homework), but practice at least 30 minutes at home every day, with Grace as their substitute teacher.

Elaine during her first piano recital

The kids liked to dress up for the event and were not nervous at all. The only one who seemed to be nervous was Grace!

Scott during his first piano recital

After their performance they got some flowers from us and they were really proud of that. On Saturday Scott and Elaine will have their next piano recital, so they are studying hard on another piece this week.

After the piano recital

Links to their performance on YouTube: Elaine’s piano recital and Scott’s piano recital

Embedded videos of their performance:

Silvercar – still my favorite car rental company

Leaving Opus One in our Silvercar rental

My Silvercar at the Opus One winery in Napa Valley

About a year ago I wrote about my very positive experience with car rental company Silvercar. Last week I used them again in San Francisco and I still love their cars and their disruptive business model. I am just surprised that not more people know about them and use them, therefore another blog post to spread the word. And no, I am not getting paid for this of course!

Silvercar is a US based rental car company that only has Audi A4 Quattro cars in its fleet (although that will change soon, I heard they will add Audi Q5s as well). All cars are exactly the same and are silver colored, hence the name. Pricing is competitive, at $89 per day during weekdays and $69 per day during weekends (in SFO, other airports may have different prices). But what really sets them apart from the competition is the experience and the extras that are all for free.

At San Francisco airport lines are generally quite long at the traditional car rental companies. For Silvercar there are no lines, after you made a reservation you just open the Silvercar mobile app when you arrive at the airport and click on the button to indicate that you have arrived. A Silvercar representative then picks you up from the rental car terminal and drives you to the Silvercar location (a 5 minute drive). There you can choose a car, you open the door by scanning the car’s QR code with your phone and off you go. No waiting in line, no filling out of forms and no upselling of insurance or other unnecessary add-ons.

Silvercar has great cars

But that’s not all, because the Silvercars are all extremely well equipped. Every car has a great navigation system built in (honestly, it’s much better than the system in my Porsche or Mercedes-Benz), which is free. So no $25 per day for an old-fashioned GPS that some car companies are trying to sell you. Each car has a toll tracking device, meaning that you can take the Fastrack lane at toll gates (very handy around San Francisco), and they will bill you automatically for this. All cars are also equipped with Sirius XM satellite radio, so you are not forced to listen to FM radio stations full of advertising and dumb presenters. Of course you can also play your phone’s music or podcasts through bluetooth. And the cars have built-in wifi, so you don’t have to use expensive data plans if you use a non-US phone or want to check your mails on your laptop. No other car rental company offers this and certainly not for free.

When you get back after your trip you just park the Audi at Silvercar and they automatically detect how full the tank is (with a sensor), so no need to fill it up when you are in a hurry to get to the airport. They will charge you regular gas prices, no huge mark-up like many car rental companies do (Silvercar just adds a $5 fee to fill it up). Unfortunately they do not bring you back to the airport in your own car anymore, you now need to take a shuttle bus (that left straight away after I got on, so no waiting for other passengers). At SFO they charge you an additional $20 for that, but it’s a mandatory airport transportation fee so it seems they can’t get around that.

My experience with Silvercar is excellent and I would advise everybody to use them when they are in San Francisco or at one of the other airports out of which they operate (currently Los Angeles, Dallas, Austin, Miami, Denver and Phoenix, with more locations being added over the next months). Silvercar just closed its $14 million Series B round (in total they raised $31.5 million), so I think you’ll hear a lot more from them in the future!

Opening of the 2014-15 ski season

Ski season opening on Cypress Mountain (Nov. 15, 2014)

Even though there is hardly any snow yet on the North shore mountains, today both Cypress and Grouse Mountain opened their new ski seasons. Because I have a season ticket for Cypress Mountain I decided to drive the 20 minutes from our home to the ski area to check it out.

Ski season opening on Cypress Mountain (Nov. 15, 2014)

The weather has been fantastic over the past days. Since I came back from San Francisco on Tuesday I have only seen blue skies, but it has been quite cold. On Friday morning it was -5 Celsius in Vancouver, with maximum temperatures around +5 Celsius during the day. That means that it was freezing the whole day in the ski areas (Cypress base station is at 3000 ft, about 900 meters), which is perfect for artificial snow making.

Ski season opening on Cypress Mountain (Nov. 15, 2014)

When I arrived at Cypress I saw that only 2 chair lifts were open, and a total of just 3 downhill ski runs. Not a lot, but good enough for an hour of skiing.

Ski season opening on Cypress Mountain (Nov. 15, 2014)

One advantage of skiing at Cypress Mountain is that it’s normally very quiet and there are hardly any lines at the lifts. Even today it was not very busy, the longest I had to wait was less than 5 minutes. Most Vancouver locals wait until there is a lot more snow before they start waxing their skis, and today the majority of the people on the slopes actually seemed to be Chinese (I heard a lot of Mandarin around me while in line for the lift).

Ski season opening on Cypress Mountain (Nov. 15, 2014)

It seems that there will be some rain by the end of this week, which likely means snow on the mountains, and I look forward to that. I am planning to ski at least 1-2 times a week over the next 5 months, so the more snow the better!

StartUp podcast

HearStartUp.com

Every day I spend about 25 minutes driving to and from work, which is a great time to listen to podcasts. There are so many good podcasts available nowadays and it’s so easy to play them on car audio systems through your phone, that it’s surprising that not more people do this. For me podcasts are a way to relax (especially after work) and to learn new things. I don’t like to waste time during the day, so I prefer podcasts that are entertaining but also give me new ideas or teach me stuff.

This week I listened to episode 7 of StartUp, a fantastic new podcast series that follows a the first couple of months of a new start-up. Alex Blumberg (of among others ‘This American Life’ and ‘Planet Money’ fame, podcasts I also listen to regularly) decided to set up a podcasting company and record most of his conversations and thoughts during the start-up phase of the company. The result is one of the best podcast series I have ever listened to, so good that I decided to blog about it.

I have been involved with a large number of start-ups over the years, either as a (co-)founder, CEO, board member, advisor or investor. One thing I learned is that the first few months are always remarkably similar. You have the best business idea in the world (you think – but most start-ups eventually change their business model because it doesn’t work), you are super motivated to get it off the ground, you try to find a good name, you look for co-founders and early employees, you start raising funds and finally you release your first product.

My favorite podcast: StartUp Podcast by Alex Blumberg

This is what Alex captured on digital tape and put together in this 25-30 min/episode podcast. It’s great to hear how he grows from a super naive first-time entrepreneur to someone who starts to understand a little bit how the start-up world works in the later episodes. The podcast covers topics such as raising money and he even records the conversations he has with VCs (even some well-known ones), and how they react to his pitch.

Other topics he covers are how he finds his co-founder including the hilarious decision making process on who gets how many shares. I am glad they eventually solved that, because if I had been in the shoes of his eventual co-founder I would have probably walked off after Alex’ lowball offer. To be fair, Alex really had no clue about what it means to be a co-founder instead of an employee, and he mainly listened to friends who had no clue either.

Another interesting episode is the search for a name. The original name of American Podcasting Corporation is not good enough and the process they go through to find a name that everybody is happy with is very recognizable. It also shows that Alex is not a real business person but more of a creative: in the end he finally likes the name they come up with but after sleeping on it for a night he is not happy with the process they used to get the name. He wanted to change it because of that… That would drive me nuts as a co-founder, you often need creative people in your business but it’s not always easy to work with them.

When I started listening to the podcast I was 100% sure I would never consider investing in Alex’ venture, but after 5 episodes he almost convinced me to call him up and ask to join in the round. I started to like him and the way he talks about his business plans. I believe he could build an interesting business with his podcasts and I would have been willing to bet some private money on that. That is, until I heard his valuation. $10 million for a start-up that is just starting out seems very high to me, but they still managed to raise $1.5 million on it (incl. $200K from listeners in a crowdfunding episode!). Good for them, but I hope they will be able to raise subsequent rounds at such a hefty seed round valuation.

The company is certainly off to a good start, because this podcast is quickly becoming one of the more famous ones on iTunes and Soundcloud. If you are thinking about doing your own start-up this is a “must-listen-to” podcast. The same if you are a start-up investor who has never built a business from scratch him (or her)self.  If you just want to learn how a start-up works and about the problems entrepreneurs face in the early stage of their business venture, you should check this out. It’s well produced, very entertaining (even the ads are so good that you don’t want to skip them) and you’ll certainly learn a thing or two. The series is not finished yet, I hope Alex will keep on producing new StartUp episodes for a while.

Halloween 2014 in pictures

Halloween 2014 at Park Royal in West Van

A zombie attacking my car at Park Royal

This weekend it was Halloween again, and with 2 young kids that means lots of celebrations. The kids started the day with a Halloween Parade at school. In the late afternoon we went to the Park Royal shopping mall where many shops were handing out Trick-or-Treat candy. Scott and Elaine met many of their school friends and teachers there.

After a quick dinner at a Taiwanese restaurant we went on to King’s Avenue for trick-or-treating. We ended the evening in our street where the kids got a lot of candy from our neighbours as well. Scott and Elaine had a great time during Halloween and are now already talking about how they want to dress up next year. Below some pictures of the day.

Halloween 2014 at school

Scott dressed up as an emperor, but he lost his crown sometime during the day

Halloween 2014 at school

Elaine dressed up as her favorite Disney character Rapunzel, of course with a long hair braid

Halloween 2014

At school the kids started the day with a Halloween parade in which they had to tell the audience what costume they were wearing

Halloween decorations at home

Of course also our house was decorated for Halloween, both on the inside and the outside

Halloween decorations at home

Halloween decorations at home

Halloween at Park Royal

Family picture with some friends in Park Royal. I went as King Tut and several people took pictures of me!

Halloween 2014

Trick-or-Treat on King’s Avenue

Halloween 2014

Trick-or-Treat on King’s Avenue, with amazing decorations at some of the houses

Trick or Treat in West VancouverDespite the fact that it was pitch dark on the street, Scott and Elaine met several friends during the Trick-or-Treat

Scott's collection after a few hours of Trick or TreatThe partial result of trick-or-treating: a big bag of candy and other treats. 

Scott’s first Grouse Grind

Gondola at top of Grouse Mountain

View from Grouse Mountain this afternoon

I regularly do the Grouse Grind, a very steep 2.9 km hike with an altitude difference of 853 meters. Scott had told me a few times that he would like to join me, but I always thought it would be too hard and dangerous for him. The Grouse Grind was chosen last year as of one of the 10 most dangerous hikes in the world, and although I think that’s a bit over the top it’s certainly not a simple walk in the park. Each year many people have to be rescued because they underestimate the trail and some people have even died while trying to get to the top (either from heart attacks or because of slipping and falling down the steep slope).

IMG_4938

With Scott before the start of the Grouse Grind

The Grouse Grind season will be over soon: once there is snow on the trail it will be closed right away because it would be too dangerous, and that will likely happen in the next 1-2 weeks. So when the Grouse Grind topic came up again yesterday I told Scott we would go on Sunday if the weather would be nice.

Scott's first Grouse Grind

Well, today was a sunny day, so after lunch we put on our sports clothes and hiking shoes and drove to the start of the trail. Despite the fact that it was late in the season it was quite busy at the entrance of the trail, but it did not matter too much today because we would not go fast. If I do the Grouse Grind on my own I normally go much faster than the average hiker, so I keep on passing people on the narrow trail, which slows me down a lot.

Scott's first Grouse Grind

Scott was very happy and immediately set the pace. For the first 10 minutes we kept up with all the other hikers, but when the trail became steeper I told Scott to slow down a bit and let people pass. After about 20 minutes we made our first stop to drink some water. I didn’t really know whether Scott would be able to make it to the top (I had some doubts actually), but I knew that the best chance of reaching the finish was by stopping frequently and by drinking and eating enough. So I encouraged Scott to stop regularly, luckily he did not mind.

Scott's first Grouse Grind

The trail is well maintained and has a lot of steps that make it easier to climb. However, for Scott these steps were just a bit too high, so he climbed around the ‘stairs’ which made it even harder for him. But he did not mind, he even told me he liked the difficulty of the climb. After about 30 minutes we were at the 1/4 mark and we made another stop. Scott was talking a lot during the hike, so he did not seem to be tired yet.

Scott's first Grouse Grind

We hiked on and Scott kept on setting the pace. We let some people pass, but the pace was such that we even passed some people! The last thing I wanted was for Scott to blow up halfway the course, because walking down is even more difficult than going up (next to the fact that it’s not allowed to hike down), so I forced him to make another stop before the halfway point. He did not see why that was necessary but he did not mind and after a banana we hiked on to the 1/2 mark.

Scott's first Grouse Grind

From there Scott seemed to be getting wings and between 1/2 and 3/4 he did not want to stop at all. He asked me a couple of times if we were almost there, but he said he was not tired. At 3/4 we stopped for some more water and a Twix bar and then we climbed the last part to the top.

Scott's first Grouse Grind

After 1 hour and 53 minutes we reached the gondola station and I high fived Scott to celebrate his first Grouse Grind. He was happy as well and was still full of energy. We had a hot chocolate in the restaurant and then we walked around on the mountain for another 30 minutes before taking the gondola down to the parking lot. I am very proud of my little boy, he is quickly growing into a big boy and I am sure we’ll do this hike more often together. Congratulations on this achievement Scott!

Done! Scott's first Grouse Grind

Bitcoin in 6 minutes

A couple of months ago Rutger van Zuidam told me he was working with some friends on a project to create a short animated video that would explain the concept of Bitcoin to people new to the technology. I liked the idea immediately, because understanding the basics of Bitcoin is hard and most resources on the Internet assume that people know what Bitcoin is and what it can be used for. Today the video was officially launched, you can see it here in English and here in Dutch (both links on YouTube).

The result is great and will send it to friends or business relations who ask me about Bitcoin, something that happens several times per week. The video explains that Bitcoin is much more than just a currency (Bitcoin as money is actually just the tip of the iceberg), how it works and what the technology can be used for.

There are some great examples in the clip, among others about using Bitcoin technology to reduce healthcare costs (by assigning some bitcoins specifically for certain care), and about Bitcoin trust that allows a vending machine to order new goods on its own when they run out and even pay for the products itself.

Even if you know a lot about Bitcoin already it’s an entertaining video. And if you’re new to Bitcoin this educational video is a must watch. Enjoy and spread the word!

More information: http://www.bitcoinproperly.org/

Robot suits

On Facebook I came across this (English language) video about robot suits. Coincidentally I had a discussion about exactly this topic last week, so I have been thinking about the impact of robots and robotic equipment quite a lot over the past days.

My personal belief is that robots will make our life a lot easier, but that they will also lead to mass unemployment. I am generally an optimist and I like technological progress more than most, but I do believe that within one generation most people’s jobs might be replaced by robots. And not just almost all low-end jobs, but also many higher-end positions like those of doctors, cooks and teachers.

Scary? Yes, especially because I don’t see how other jobs can be created to offset the loss of jobs within this short timespan. If 50% of the adult population is unemployed this will cause mass unrest, even if we can find a way to provide these people with a basic income. Most people only look a few years ahead and think this will sort itself out, but I am not too sure about that.

Robots get exponentially faster, smarter and cheaper, and things that now seem impossible will be possible very soon. One good example are autonomous cars. Just a year ago most people that I talked to did not believe my vision that they would see them in their lifetimes. My prediction was that Scott (who is now 6 years old now) would not need to get a drivers license anymore because he would be able to get a self-driving car.

People laughed at that idea, but see how far we have come in just one year: Tesla is now launching a car with an autopilot and that’s the last step to a real self-driving vehicle. My prediction: within 5 years the first cars without drivers will hit the car showrooms in California. The main hurdle won’t be technology but outdated government legislation.

Robots will not necessarily be independently functioning objects like cars or humanoids, but can also be something like the suit in the video. They can make humans into super humans and that will lead to interesting new possibilities. This will also cause the loss of jobs, but to me it feels less scary than the ‘normal’ robots. Take a look at the video and think about the possibilities. Maybe one day I will be able to run the marathon in less than 2 hours because of a robot suit!

Bitcoin Watch

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I like nice watches and I am a big fan of Bitcoin, so when I read in a Chinese WeChat group about the first watch for the Bitcoin aficionado I immediately decided to check it out. Normally I don’t buy watches off the Internet (I want to see and feel them first, especially more expensive ones), but this one is so special that I ordered it right away after seeing it online.

The watch, called the Cryptomatic, is available in 4 different colors (red gold, silver/red gold, silver, and black) and I immediately liked the black one. The timepiece ships from Hong Kong and took about 3 days to arrive in Canada.

What’s I like about the watch is not only the fact that it prominently shows the Bitcoin logo and has the 1-12 numbers in binary format, but also that you can only buy it with Bitcoin. Luis Rosende, the designer and watchmaker, is also a big Bitcoin believer and said in the group chat that he refused several orders because people wanted to pay in fiat currency. If you want a watch like this and you can’t to pay in Bitcoin you don’t ‘deserve’ to own one yet. Hint: If you don’t have bitcoin yet and want this watch, go to Circle.com and set up an account. It’s very easy and takes less than 5 minutes to set up and fund a bitcoin account.

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The packaging of the watch looks great and opening the box for the first time was part of the experience for me, it reminds me a bit of how Apple packages its products. The watch itself is as beautiful as the pictures on the website. It’s quite thick but not too heavy, and it comes standard with a black metal chain and an additional black leather strap. The chain can easily be shortened with the tools that come with the watch.

The Cryptomatic itself is self-winding, just like most other high(er)-end watches, so you’ll need an automatic watch winder in case you don’t wear it everyday. If you don’t have one you can buy one here with Bitcoin. The watch is a limited edition watch, each of the 4 colors is only produced 200 times. Your watch will be numbered, mine was 003 out of 200 (it’s engraved on the side of the watch).

The Cryptomatic watch costs CHF 888 (about 2.5 bitcoin on the day that I ordered it), so it’s not super expensive but it’s certainly not a low end watch either. If you believe in Bitcoin and want to spread the Bitcoin gospel, this is a great product to own. I am sure it will be a conversation starter at many dinners, meetings or parties!

Maritime radio

Rainy day at the West Vancouver Yacht Club

One thing I realized this summer while sailing the Gulf Islands on my boat Liberty, was that I had no idea how to operate my radio. I was able to listen to conversations on channels, but I had no idea what channels to listen to nor how to initiate a conversation myself. So when I was back I did some research and found I actually needed to be licensed in order to operate my yacht’s radio.

The easiest way to get certified was through a one-day course, which is offered a few times a year at the West Vancouver Yacht Club. Today was one of those days, so at 8:45 AM I showed up in their classroom overlooking the marina. It turned out to be a rainy day today, so it was perfect for spending it inside and learning a lot. I had not prepared much, except for revisiting the phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Charlie, Delta etc.) and some common abbreviations.

There were 11 students for today’s course, most of them experienced sailors and several of them with prior radio experience. Alll students received a book that would be the basis for the exam at the end of the day. We could have picked up book at the instructor’s house a couple of days before the course, but I had been too busy at work to study, so I hadn’t done so. During the first 30 minutes of the course I regretted that, because the level was a bit higher than I had expected, especially when listening to the questions that some of the students asked and that I did not even understand.

Maritime Radio Course at the West Vancouver Yacht Club

But after a few hours of listening intently and taking tens of pages of notes everything came together and I felt I understand most of the theory. It’s really not that hard, but if you don’t even know the difference between a traditiona VHF radio and a DSC (digital selective calling) device it is a bit overwhelming at first.

The course was very interesting actually and I enjoyed taking part in it. Everyone who has a boat with radio (most boats these days have one) should probably participate, not only because it’s obligatory and will make you a better sailor, but also because you learn a lot of interesting facts (did you know that almost anything you hear over the radio should be treated confidentially? You can’t just blog about it for example…).

After doing theory until about 1:30 PM we started on the practical (oral) part. We similated several situations in which we needed to communicate with other ships or with the coast guard. Very useful, because if you need to do this for the first time on your own boat it can be quite stressful. Now you could make mistakes without all other boats around you listening in.

Maritime Radio Course @ West Vancouver Yacht Club

A class room with a view!

The day ended with a 1-hour theory exam which was not very hard (it was multiple choice!), I finished it in 20 minutes or so and passed easily.  The oral exam that followed was quite easy as well, I had to use the phonetic alphabet to spell some words and boat IDs, and then I had to do a simulated radio call in a security situation. Also this I could do without many problems and now I’m the holder of a restricted maritime radio operator’s certificate.

Looking back it’s interesting how much you can learn in one day if you fully focus on it. This morning I still did not know much about radio communication and now I know quite a lot about radio channels, protocols and equipment. I look forward to using my maritime radio for the first time to talk to the coast guard and I may actually take one of my boat’s handheld radio sets home to listen in to some of the maritime conversations that take place on the ships that pass by our house.

At the end of a rainy day the sun broke through the clouds!

When I got home the rain stopped, the sun broke through the clouds and the sky was almost blue. I love Vancouver’s weather!

Daily salary payments and other Bitcoin opportunities

Bitcoin

During a strategic session in our office this afternoon we brainstormed about new business models that would only be possible with Bitcoin technology. One thing we discussed was a business idea that I had read about last night in a post from Twobitidiot (a well-known Bitcoin blogger). His idea was to set up a company that would allow employees to be paid on a daily basis instead of monthly.

When I read this yesterday I did not think about it t0o much, but it’s actually a very feasible idea. One reason why most people are paid on monthly instead of daily, is because it’s too much of an administrative effort to do this every day. If you give people a check you don’t want to write new ones every day, if you pay cash it’s too much work to count money on a daily basis, and if you pay by bank transfer transaction costs would be much higher.

I wonder what would happen if companies would offer people the choice to either get paid on a daily basis in bitcoin or monthly in fiat currency. Especially among people who are not paid so well a large group may prefer to get daily payments instead. It would for example mean that people who now go to payday loan companies before the end of each month don’t need to do that anymore and can save the (high) interest that they are being charged there.

Companies may not like it of course, because their cash flow would look a bit different (at the end of the month it will be the same, but during the month they need more cash on hand to pay) and they would lose interest on the salaries that need to be paid earlier.

Employees might be scared because of the high volatility of bitcoin, but with services like Bitpay or GoCoin it’s easy to change the bitcoin to dollars right away, so there is no exchange risk. Once bitcoin will be less volatile (which will eventually happen) they can keep the money in bitcoin until they use it. By that time they can buy a lot more products in BTC anyway.

You could set up smart contracts that pay out right away the moment someone checks out from work or leaves the building, and even overtime could be paid out immediately. It’s actually a much fairer system for workers.

Right now there is no full cycle in the bitcoin economy: you can buy goods with bitcoin, but merchants will immediately sell their bitcoin for fiat currency to pay their salaries and other costs, leading to a downward pressure on the bitcoin price. If salaries would be in bitcoin as well there is less pressure for them to sell all their coins, because they can use them. Next to that, if more people would earn bitcoin it’s likely that more companies will accept bitcoin. These companies in turn may use them to pay their employees, and then there is suddenly a full cycle possible.

Embracing Bitcoin technology can make life a lot easier for people but also for companies. We identified quite some opportunities for start-ups to use the blockchain and smart contracts. The ideas we came up with don’t exist yet because entrepreneurs only go for the low-hanging fruit in a new market segment or because they don’t think out of the box (yet).

The world as we know it will change a lot over the next years because of Bitcoin, that’s for sure. It’s fun to be at the forefront of these changes and to try to predict what to focus on in our investments.

Picture source: Flickr (under creative commons license)

Mixed feelings about the iPhone 6

Elaine and my new iPhone 6

I have been using the iPhone 6 for about 10 days now and I have mixed feelings about it. Normally when a new iPhone comes out I buy it straight away and hardly ever touch my last phone anymore, but this time it’s different.

The phone looks decent, but it reminds me of an ancient Galaxy S3 that I still use as my Chinese phone (it’s an early 2012 model), the size and the design are quite similar. The only design part I do no like about the iPhone 6 is that the camera lens sticks out. I don’t believe that’s something that Steve Jobs would have allowed, it just feels awkward and the phone is always tilting a bit when you put it on the table.

The screen of the iPhone 6 is great and after some initial problems of setting up the phone (for some reason the full back-up I made of my 5S did not make it completely to the new phone) I enjoyed using it. The camera is better that the 5S, especially in low light situations and the extra row of apps on my home screen is an advantage when you constantly have to decide which apps come on the first screen.

However, the bigger screen is also its biggest disadvantage, because it is much harder to use the phone with one hand. Over the years I got used to handling the phone completely with one hand, including typing. But with the iPhone 6 the screen is just too big to that comfortably. I already dropped the phone once (luckily the screen did not break this time) when trying to reach the top right app with my right hand thumb and I am sure that will happen more often in the future.

This weekend I was in Las Vegas for a 3-night bachelor party (no blog post about that trip, what happens in Vegas…) and when I’m in the US I use both my Canadian and my US phones. Because I use my US phone more than my Canadian when in the US I normally switch SIM cards, so that my Canadian phone becomes my US phone. However, this time I did not do that right away and I used my 5S with my US SIM card. And guess what, it felt much better to use the 5S again. I actually kept on using the 5S during the whole trip and only took my iPhone 6 with me for taking pictures.

I would not be surprised if a lot more people will soon realize that they have the problem that they can’t use the phone with one hand anymore. I had assumed that this problem might occur with the iPhone 6 plus, so I did not buy that one, but I had not imagined that the 6 would also be too small. With iOS 8 installed the 5S may actually be a better phone than the 6, except for NFC and the camera.

I will likely use the 6 for a while again now that I’m back in Canada, especially because of the camera (I take tons of pictures every day). It’s possible that I will get used to it after a while but if I keep dropping it I may switch back.

First world problems, I know, but it shows that Apple may have lost some of its magical touch by making products that are not exactly what you wanted to have. I actually believe that if the iPhone 5S had come out after the 6 people may have raved about it that one (“the smaller size is just amazing, it’s so much more convenient etc.”), just like they now rave about the 6. Well, I am glad I did not buy the iPhone 6 plus!

Epic road trip from Vancouver to California

Danny and Marc at the Kendall-Jackson winery in Sonoma

Last week my friend Danny Wilms Floet came to visit me in Vancouver to do a road trip from here to California. I have known Danny for 35 years, we were schoolmates in primary school and he is currently living in Shanghai – coincidentally in the same street as where I used to live until March 2013.

We left on Sunday morning without any real preparations. The idea was to first drive through Washington state to Portland, Oregon, and spend the first night there before driving down the Oregon coast. But while driving out of my driveway I met my neighbour who told us that if we wanted to follow the coast we should not go down as far as Portland and try to spend the first night in Cannon Beach. We looked it up on my car’s GPS and that seemed indeed a better destination for the first day.

The weather was nice so we drove top down for most of the way, even on the interstate. Danny knows a lot more about contemporary music than I do, so he created some playlists in Spotify to play during the ride, which was really cool. We mixed that with some Sirius XM satellite radio stations (classical, jazz, 70s, 80s, and current hits) and even some occasional Dutch pop songs from the 80s that we both had not heard for years.

Sunset at Cannon Beach, OR

We arrived at Cannon Beach exactly during sunset, and we had a great view of the sun going down in the Pacific. I then checked the Hotel Tonight app for hotel rooms, but it turned out that Cannon Beach was fully booked. But the app showed us some other hotels with availability in Seaside, which was just a 10 minute drive away. We checked the best price online and then went to the hotel and asked for their best price. That was lower than the online price so we booked 2 rooms, put our luggage in the rooms and went out for a seafood dinner and drinks. We ended up in the only bar in Seaside that was open after 11 pm and had a memorable first evening. Not too many details here, but it involved almost getting into a fight with a completely drunk and very aggressive lady and a slight hangover because someone gave us whiskey shots while we were drinking IPAs after lots of local wine.

Oregon Coast

The next morning I needed some coffee and a walk on the beach to wake up, and we did not hit the road before 10:30 AM. That didn’t matter because we had no fixed plan. Or actually, we had no plan at all. My idea had been to drive along the Oregon and California coast to Napa Valley or so, but when my GPS showed us that that was something like 1100 km we changed our mind (I first double checked with Google Maps, in my mind it could not be more than 600 km or so – I was wrong!).

So we decided to take it easy and drive until sunset and then find a place to stay. The drive along the Oregon coast was amazing, much better than I could have imagined. The weather started off quite good, but halfway the coast it became more cloudy. That actually added to the experience, but it also got much cooler so we closed the roof of the car. Around 7 pm we were close to the Oregon and California border and we decided to take a hotel room in a little town called Brookings. Every single bar and restaurant in that place seemed to close down by 9 pm, so we had an early night (or better, I worked on emails and RSS feeds until midnight in my room).

Running in Brookings, Oregon

The next morning we started with a run along the coast. Just north of Brookings we found a fantastic wild beach that was perfect for a run. After the run we showered, got some coffee and topped up our energy levels with a donut before we took off for the next leg of our trip through Northern Calfornia. The first part was still along the coast and we visited some nice little towns (my favorite was Trinidad, CA, where I would have stayed for a night if we would have had more time). The second part was through the redwood forests, which was quite spectacular as well.

Trinidad, CA

We ended up in the town of Healdsburg in Sonoma, where we found a hotel and then went for dinner at a nice French restaurant. We had some good wines and great food and then started looking for a nice bar. Healdsburg is a very nice town and great for boutique shopping, but it’s not the best place to party.

Healdsburg, CA

The first wine bar that we found only had French wines, so we did not even go inside (if you’re in the middle of one of the best wine areas in the US I find it a bit arrogant to not have any good local wines on the menu). The next one seemed to be much better and we shared a great bottle. Unfortunately after about 30 minutes we were the only guests that were left and the staff started cleaning the bar… So by 11 pm we were back in the hotel again.

With my car at the Kendall-Jackson winery in Sonoma

Wednesday morning we had a quick breakfast in the hotel (bagels & coffee) and then drove to the Kendall-Jackson winery. Kendall-Jackson is one of my favorite Californian wine brands, and it’s the brand I drink most when I open a bottle during the week or at dinner (mainly Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon). We arrived around 11 AM and started with their Garden Tour, a wine tasting in their gardens and vineyard. We among others tasted some of the Chardonnay grapes that would be harvested that night (!) and of course drank their Chardonnay with that.

Kendall-Jackson winery in Sonoma

After tasting several different wines in the gardens we ended with a dessert wine on the terrace. Because it was lunchtime we decided to have lunch there as well and ended up with a wine pairing lunch. The food was quite amazing, this was very high end cooking, something I had not expected at a winery. The combination with the wines was perfect and we had a great meal at Kendall-Jackson.

Danny crossing the Golden Gate Bridge

After tasting so many wines it’s not advisable to start driving right away, so we made a walk through the vineyards, had a coffee and bought some souvenirs before hitting the road again. We first drove to Tiburon with its nice views over the bay to San Francisco and then drove over the Golden Gate Bridge along Highway 1 to Half Moon Bay. I guess we could have stayed in the Ritz-Carlton there (one of my favorite hotels in the world because of its location and great atmosphere), but we had made a reservation in Mountain View already so we continued on for another hour. At night we had a great sushi and sake dinner followed by a bottle of Napa valley wine in a local bar, where we arrived just in time for the last order at 10 pm… We finished the night with a pale ale in the hotel room.

Danny on the Stanford Dish Loop

Despite all the alcohol we both woke up relatively refreshed the next morning and decided to start with a run around the Stanford Dish Loop. I have written about this loop before on my blog, it’s still one of my favorite places to run in Silicon Valley. After a shower we packed our bags and had breakfast. Then we did a bit of corporate sightseeing, among others at Google HQ where we drove the Google bikes around the campu, and at the Apple HQ where we stocked up on supplies in the Corporate Store.

View from Montebello Road in Cupertino over Silicon Valley

After those visits we decided to go back into nature and so we drove to the hills (among others Montebello Road above Cupertino with great views over the Valley) and explored the backroads through the vineyards. The original plan had been to drive to Los Angeles, but we eventually decided not to spend an additional 2 days in the car and just have a relaxed afternoon. We ended up at the Inn at Saratoga, a nice hotel where I had stayed before.

Dinner in Saratoga with Danny

We had a fun evening in town with a swordfish dinner and some beers in the local bar, where people were singing karaoke, which reminded both of us of Shanghai. We did not stay too late because we decided to drive back to Canada the next day, which we indeed did. We now took the interstate (mainly I-5) which took us in about 17 hours from Saratoga to Vancouver, including several stops for lunch, dinner, and of course filling up the tank at gas stations. Luckily no speeding tickets (as far as I know)! Even this road was quite spectacular, especially the part in northern California and southern Oregon. I was happy to be home though, 17 hours is actually just too long to spend in a vehicle in one day (even with 2 drivers in a fast car with several stops).

It was a long drive from Silicon Valley back to Vancouver

Looking back this was probably the best road trip I ever did. The feeling of total freedom, not knowing where you will end up each day, beautiful sceneries along most of the road, great conversations and discussions with a good friend for days in a row, a nice convertible, lots of good music, and great wines almost every day. It really can’t get much better in my opinion. I will have great memories of this epic trip for a long time to come!

More pictures from the trip in this set on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chijs/sets/72157647978334645/

Hotel discount for not using housekeeping services

I was just booking a room in the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco for an upcoming conference. When I filled in all details and my credit card number (unfortunately no bitcoin payments yet for Starwood hotels…) I was asked whether I was interested in a $5 coupon per day for food & beverage if I would opt out of housekeeping services.

I had never seen this before and was surprised to get such a question. The Westin is not a cheap hotel, so I can’t imagine anybody taking the offer to get $5 back (rooms start at over $300/night even if you book well in advance). I did a quick Google search and it seems to be a standard thing for Starwood hotels when you book through their website (which I normally don’t do), and instead of $5 you can also get SGP points that apparently are more valuable.

The official reason Starwood Hotels offers this is that you can ‘Make A Green Choice’, but on FlyerTalk it was described as a marketing ploy to get more people to sign up for the Starwood program. If it’s really about making a green choice they should give you the option to hang a ‘no housekeeping services required’ sign on the door without offering a financial reward. Whatever the reason, I like a clean room with fresh towels after a long day of meetings (isn’t that the reason people stay at decent hotels?), so I kindly declined their offer.

Circle: Not yet Bitcoin’s killer app, but coming close

Circle $10

Yesterday I finally got access to my Circle.com Bitcoin account, after I signed up for it 3 months ago during the announcement at the Bitcoin Conference in Amsterdam. My first impression: Circle is the most user-friendly and safest Bitcoin wallet (wallet = similar to a bank account) that’s currently on the market, but it’s not perfect yet. Because Circle is so easy to use and no real Bitcoin knowledge is needed it could help lead to more widespread Bitcoin adoption.

Setting up your account 

If you have ever used online banking you’ll be able to use Circle.com as well, the site is very basic without any bells and whistles, and leads you through the process of setting up an account in 2 minutes. You don’t need to understand much about Bitcoin and your coins are supposed to be safe because they are all insured.

After setting up your account (just an email username and a password), you are asked to give Circle your mobile number so they can send you a text message to verify it. From that moment on Circle will keep on sending you text messages with a verification code each time you want to log in or you want to transfer money. This is called 2-factor authentication and many other sites use it (I use it for many other applications to make them more secure, incl. for example Gmail), and it’s a good thing that Circle forces everybody to use it.

Account balance in BTC and USD

Once you are in your account you will see your account balance. I was happy to see that Circle sent me $10 worth of Bitcoin already, which is great for people who are new to cryptocurrencies and don’t own any BTC yet. The interesting thing is that the value of your BTC is prominently displayed in USD. This may confuse some customers at first because your account balance is fixed in BTC, but changes constantly in USD when the rate changes (overnight my USD balance went up to $10.35 because the BTC price went up).

Buying BTC

Buying BTC is a big problem for most people that I have introduced to Bitcoin over the past year, but Circle changes that. You don’t need to set up an account at an exchange anymore, but you just link your credit card or bank account to the website and transfer money to your Circle account. I connected one of my credit cards and that was literally done in 30 seconds. I could immediately transfer money from my card to the account.

Changing BTC from your circle account to USD is just as easy, you can just send it from your account to your credit card or bank account. Of course credit cards may charge fees for that, but bank transfers should be free. One downside is that only US bank accounts can be used for now, so international customers can only use credit cards to easily get money out.

Sending BTC

Sending money is even more easy, either you send money to another Bitcoin address like in every other wallet or you can send money to the receiver’s email if he or she also has a Circle account. That’s a major thing in my opinion, because most people at first are afraid to type in (or copy) a long string of characters when they send money to someone. But typing in an email address is something everybody does all the time, so using it transfer money is a much lower hurdle.

Send money with Circle

Issues with Circle

I am very impressed with the simplicity and functionality of the site. However, there are a couple of downsides that I need to mention here. First of all, for Bitcoin power users like me it’s not acceptable that I do not have my private key. This is similar to Mt. Gox where Mark Karpeles or a hacker was able to run away with most of the funds because the site held the private keys. Of course Circle solved this by insuring the funds, but I would still be reluctant to put larger sums on the site. But I believe that for most people not having to worry about a private key or storing Bitcoins offline is actually a good thing, because this is the same experience as putting money in a bank account, where you have to trust the bank to keep your money safe.

Circle creates a new Bitcoin address for you each time you want to receive money and this is confusing to consumers. People are used to having just one bank account that never changes. I emailed their support last night to ask what happens with used addresses and it turns out that they will always stay yours. So your ‘bank account number’ does not change, but you end up with many ‘bank account numbers’ that consolidate in your account balance. Probably a good solution, but because it’s initially confusing they should make it clear on the site how this works. By the way, their support responded very fast and gave a clear answer, this is very important for such service that depends on trust.

Another problem I have is hat Circle does not have a mobile app yet. They tell you to use their mobile site, but this is not very secure when you also receive your 2-factor authentication codes there. But worse is that if you want to pay with Bitcoin in a coffeeshop you can’t just scan a QR code and then press pay on your screen, but you’ll need to manually type in the full address. That makes using Circle virtually worthless to me when paying with Bitcoin in daily life. I assume this is something they’ll work on, because without it nobody will pay small amounts with Circle (or maybe that’s their aim right now?).

Conclusion: this comes close to BTC’s killer app

Generally I think Circle developed a fantastic product for new users. At Bitcoin conferences I have said a few times that I am waiting for the Bitcoin killer app to appear and I think this app comes very close. Circle is so simple to use that it could lead to mainstream Bitcoin adoption. If you’re interested in Bitcoin you should sign up for a Circle account and experience yourself how easy to use it is. Too bad I am not an investor in this company: they raised $26 million already and are probably values at $100-200 million right now, which is a bit out of my league.

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