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Crypto/Blockchain Interviews

Haseeb Awan (Yale Financial Markets Certificate 16), Co-founder of BitAccess Bitcoin ATM

Mr. Awan is the founder of Efani Inc., where he’s worked for almost four years enabling small and medium-sized enterprises to ensure their currency risks through blockchain technology, as well as one of four co-founders of the BitAccess Bitcoin ATM. During his tenure at Efani, he’s raised over $100 million from more than 50 institutional investors and 40 thousand individual contributors. He’s grown the contribution base to 30 countries, acquired 200 thousand paid users, and established partnerships with a dozen Fortune 1000 companies. He’s been included among the top 100 most influential people globally in FinTech, won multiple international awards, written for multiple international publications, and frequently spoken at international conferences and government committees. Mr. Awan is an alumnus of Y-Combinator and Next Founder, and he received an online Financial Markets Certificate from Yale University.

The Politic: How’d you get involved in the space?

Haseeb Awan: I was very early in deciding to buy Bitcoin. The price dropped by almost half the day after my first purchase. It was painful, but luckily I survived it. At one point, I started manufacturing the Bitcoin ATM. We sold two of them– one of which we sold on January 14, 2013. That was a feat because there were no Bitcoin ATMs around at the time, so we made a lot of news.

Around November of 2013, I bought some more Bitcoin. By then, our ATMs were in 10 to 20 locations, basically in no time. That was exciting, but the best part was that our first customer was actually Anthony Di Iorio, essentially one of the co-founders of Ethereum. That’s actually how I got into Ethereum so early, too. Then, we also got into YCombinator. I think we have about six thousand locations now. You can check out the details on my website. We also got into a lot of the early companies like FiCoin and blocktech.

What was the impetus for manufacturing the Bitcoin ATMs?

At that time, if you remember, there were companies that were really, really shitty. You just couldn’t trust them. The price of Bitcoin was really sensitive, and it was really difficult to buy back then, especially if you had a small amount of money. For instance, you couldn’t buy Bitcoin with only $200 or $400. You had to send a huge transfer to the exchange. Despite huge market demand for smaller, more trustworthy transactions, there wasn’t really anything but these unaffordable exchanges.

Aside from Ethereum, what other investments were you early on?

It’s a long list. I got into ICOs before they were cool. Ethereum was a big success, as were Stellar, Ripple, Cardano, IOTA, and Salt.

You’re the expert. What do you consider your expertise? What’s the number one thing you can contribute to our readers?

I really understand how to market the technology, and how to translate technical details into something understandable to the layman. When a lot of people talk about Bitcoin, they speak about it in an alien language. Nobody understands what they’re trying to say. On the other hand, I can actually frame the discussions so that people get what the technology is about. I’ll turn very complex discussions into very simple ones.

If you don’t know about smart contracts, I can actually tell you about how they work. A lot of people don’t understand blockchain, and they’re being told a bunch of different things about it. A lot of people think that when you talk about blockchain, it’s impossible to explain to the layman. I can help them understand the tech by using very simple analogies. Similarly, speaking of Bitcoin ATM, people had a very hard time understanding its purpose and functionality. I was able to show people why this ATM should exist.

I’ll test you! Explain blockchain and smart contracts in a maximum of 2 sentences each.

These definitions become difficult. I can do it in five sentences, but two is difficult! I’ll start with blockchain: Blockchain is a record that cannot be modified by a single party, that is available on the internet, and that is acceptable across multiple stakeholders. Now for smart contracts: contracts which you can put together and which execute automatically, without the consent of either party. You can use it digitally and enforce any kind of contract, but it’s all based on a set of code and software. Once that’s set in place, no single party can change it.

How about an analogy?

Eric, imagine that you and I bet on which of two teams will win a sporting contest tomorrow. You say one team loses. I say that team wins. Right now, you need an Ether account to hold the money for that bet. In this case, there’s no third party. I put the money into a smart contract, and you do the same. After the game is finished, we just give a command for the blockchain to execute the smart contract. Based on what that contract entails, it will automatically send the money to the right person. The person who wins will get the money from both parties.

What’s the best example of a complicated topic where you’ve personally broken through the noise and confusion, in a tangible way, by explaining it more clearly?

The best example is how Bitcoin is generated. People always ask how it’s generated. They don’t understand. I’ll give you an analogy. I compare it to generating high-scale power on an international grid. Rather than you doing that, you basically put a solar panel on top of your roof, and whatever amount of power you put into the international grid, you will be paid according to the amount of power that people consume.

Imagine there’s no hydropower, no electricity in your house, and you live in San Francisco. You and everyone else in San Francisco wants power, so everyone starts installing solar panels on their roofs to generate that power. If the total power consumed by San Francisco is 1 MG, then you receive $100. You receive a share of the profits that matches the share of your contribution to the power grid. If you contribute 10% of the power, you will receive 10% of the revenue; if you contribute 20%, then you will receive 20%. This is how Bitcoin mining works, too.

Another example is, instead of using Amazon Web Services (AWS), imagine that you’re putting your hard drive to work. What that means is you’re basically providing the space for Amazon and AWS. That way, whoever is a customer of AWS will pay you afterwards. So, the Bitcoin system is about building a network, and the more power you give, the more power you are rewarded. That being said, the supply is fixed, so you can’t get an unlimited supply of money.

Would BitTorrent and the seeders who enhance downloading speed on its network work as an analogy?

The only problem with that seeding analogy is that Bitcoin is a fixed monetary supply. If there were only one seeder, or one distribution system, then it would be comparable. There are, however, tokens which may allow you to download faster or receive download priority, but that’s different. That’s tokenomics.

Tell me about your Yale Financial Markets Certificate!

It was very useful for multiple reasons. First of all, I knew a bit of finance, but I wasn’t confident that I couple apply it in the real world. My experience was mostly practical, rather than theoretical. I knew how markets performed, but I didn’t understand the concepts which could explain their performance. I think I still need one or two more concepts to understand the market more clearly, but that course was really difficult. 

I was actually considering doing an MBA at Yale. I wanted to know the best way to learn about the market, and I decided that in order to achieve that goal, I would have to study how it works in theory. But even a two-year MBA is a long commitment. So, I just wanted to see if I could keep up with the course load and go back to school, especially at a place like Yale. I found out about it online through Coursera by searching “Financial Markets” + “Yale.” I didn’t have to apply, but it’s really hard to pass. They give you exams where you have to solve really difficult problems, and you need to fulfill the requirements of the course.

I learned how the banks operate and what the costs are behind leveraging. The course had nothing to do with crypto. In fact, Professor Shiller is very bearish on crypto. He thinks it’s a ponzi scheme. In that case, I don’t 100-percent agree with him. But, the way he conceptualizes financial markets is really informative. It’s a lot of dry material which is hard to observe at times, but he does a good job. It was a great experience for me.

Interesting. So here’s the real question: are you going to apply to Yale’s MBA program??

In my case, I think the pure reason for taking the course is that we got into cryptocurrency by accident. We weren’t intentionally building a company, and we understand the brokenness of the system. So, we had to learn what was broken and how to fix it. Imagine you’re an engineer, and you see the problems but don’t understand the underlying concepts. I also studied a lot of the terminology. I have an Engineering degree, but I didn’t know how short selling works. I ended up taking a few other courses, basically all on finance, and getting the Financial Markets Certificate helped me understand whether I wanted to do an MBA at Yale or not.