Stephan explains how he’s onboarding people onto Bitcoin and how he’s using it himself as a savings technology and for day-to-day payments. Further we look ahead when a true Bitcoin Circular Economy might be a reality.
Poly: Hi Stephan, welcome to Polylunar – great to have you! The focus of this interview series is to find out how it is to live in the Bitcoin Circular Economy today and what we can do to make it an even more feasible way of living in the future. I’m very much looking forward to hearing your experiences and insights on the topic.
So Stephan, although most readers will be familiar with you, tell us a bit about yourself and what got you into Bitcoin.
Stephan: I’m most known for my Bitcoin podcast, which is one of the leading shows for Bitcoiners. I’ve been a long time Austrian Economics enthusiast, and so I first came to Bitcoin because I’m opposed to fiat money and central banking. Once I had Bitcoin explained to me the right way, I was hooked because of the incredible potential of a hard capped, totally free market money and the world it would enable.
Poly: Nice, thanks for that. Now, I know you’re not all-in on Bitcoin as some of my other interviewees but are holding a significant portion of your net worth in it. While I understand diversification of investments, what are the main reasons to still hold AUD over BTC?
Stephan: Mainly because I keep a fiat cash buffer to avoid spending down bitcoin during bear markets, should they occur, and also because my income and expenses are mostly in fiat.
Poly: Very reasonable, I think most Bitcoiners follow that approach as of today. I’m trying to understand how the Bitcoin Circular Economy can be brought upon. Do you think it can be established if Bitcoiners continue to hold fiat or should we gradually rotate out of it?
“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves as we’re still extremely early.”
Stephan: I see this as a gradual process and if anything, I’d say we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves as we’re still extremely early. So for many people, it simply won’t make sense for them to spend their bitcoin until enough other people also hold bitcoin. For many of these people, they will preferentially spend their fiat, or their fiat income rather than directly spending bitcoin.
Of course, for people who are all in bitcoin, or who only earn bitcoin, or those who need it for privacy or censorship resistance will have sufficient reason to spend bitcoin today. But we have to be realistic and understand that this is only a small proportion of bitcoin holders today. During the bull part of the cycle, all numbers go up and you will see more people willing to spend some sats then. Gradually though, it will shift until we hit a point where there are far more bitcoin-native people. The ‘circular economy’ will be relatively small until then. This will require patience.
Poly: I always wonder what the inflection point will be, the moment where “all of a sudden” everyone will want to earn in Bitcoin instead of fiat, but we’ll come to that later. How are you personally using Bitcoin? Mainly as a store of value or are you aiming to use it as a medium of exchange as well?
Stephan: I mostly use it as a store of value and ‘savings technology’ as my friend Pierre Rochard would say. I do occasionally spend small amounts for demonstration purposes, or while I’m at bitcoin focused events and conferences.
Poly: Can you share any experiences where using Bitcoin was advantageous to using fiat?
Stephan: For me, I’ve treated it as a ‘savings technology’ or speculation, to be more objective. Though if you want to make a more private purchase that isn’t tied to your identity, then it also makes sense in these situations too, e.g. paying for VPN service.
Poly: Indeed, I think VPN and ProtonMail purchases are the main reasons over the years for people to spend their first Sats. So then, how do you encourage clients, friends or family to use Bitcoin to support merchants and producers accepting it?
Stephan: I first see what the newcoiner is interested in and determine based on that. If they’re more interested in the investment/speculation side of it, then I’ll usually teach them about hardware wallets. If they’re interested in convenient day to day spends and commerce, then lightning. If they’re interested in privacy, then I’ll show them coinjoin and Samourai Wallet etc.
Poly: I know from your Podcast and company Ministry of Nodes that you’re familiar with all kinds of Bitcoin storage options. What setup (hot/cold storage, full node etc.) would you advise for someone who wants to be Living on Bitcoin? Meaning he/she invests in Bitcoin but also wants to use it regularly as a payment method and to receive income in.
Stephan: I’d typically be showing them how to use a hardware wallet with their own node. E.g. Coldcard with Electrum, connected to their own electrum rust server on a packaged node such as myNode or similar. Specter-Desktop is a promising option also.
If the person has enough to justify it, then holding their bitcoins using multi-signature with a provider is a good idea. It’s also good to consider if the level of security would be enough if we were to hit another bull run.
If they want to be fully living on Bitcoin and taking payment with it, then usually BTCPay Server is a good option here to be able to take payments or donations from customers. For day to day spends, I’d usually show them a lightning wallet. Perhaps Zeus for Android paired with their BTCPay Server lightning node, or perhaps Zap paired with their home node. If they’re just doing small amounts back and forth on their phone and they’re less savvy, then it’ll be Phoenix or Breez.
Poly: Those are some great options depending on the amounts involved and technical capabilities of the user. Related, privacy is important to me and hopefully becomes default for more people in the future, what advice would you give regarding KYC, CoinJoins etc.?
“If you’re interested in Bitcoin for privacy reasons then try and acquire some coins without KYC.”
Stephan: I’d say if you’re interested in bitcoin for privacy reasons then try and acquire some coins without KYC. I think Samourai Wallet has the best overall suite of privacy tools, so I would suggest running your own Dojo (e.g. nodl, Ronin Dojo, myNode or vanilla Dojo) and pairing your phone app so it uses your own backing server.
If you want to be private in how you spend bitcoin, then use Samourai Whirlpool coinjoin, get a few remixes, and then once you want to spend, use the post-mix tools (e.g. STONEWALL or x2). It does take some work to learn though, so I would recommend listening to some of the Samourai Wallet and privacy podcasts I’ve done to give you ideas on what to learn or think about.
Poly: I’ll link some of your pods at the end so readers can check them out. Would the Lightning Network then also be part of your setup or do you consider it still too experimental? Could it be the future payment rail of Bitcoin?
Stephan: Yes, I really like using Lightning Network for convenient day to day spend/receive if my counter party also has it. I think wallets like Phoenix or Breez are great for a beginner to get started with lightning, and they’re very slick in terms of ease of use and overall user experience. I think it’s pretty much ready and easy enough for the ‘tech savvy’ type of user, but not quite ready for the masses yet (as I write this in September 2020).
In terms of being the future payment rail, I’m bullish overall on Lightning, however I think the main driver to spur lightning use will be high on-chain fees. So it may have to wait until the next bull run and high chain fees to properly spur companies and people to adopt Lightning.
Poly: The real breakthroughs always come from needs not wants, indeed. Let’s assume the future of day-to-day payments will be settled on Layer 2, how about the other end of the spectrum? Assuming you have your liquid assets in Bitcoin and want to buy a car or a house, how would you go about financing that outside the legacy finance system?
Stephan: The ideal scenario would be if the counterparty is willing to take Bitcoin directly! I’ve heard of people buying houses and cars with Bitcoin so it is definitely possible. Also there is the possibility of using Bitcoin collateralised loans to ‘unlock’ the value of the HODLer’s bitcoin in a more tax efficient way – with some risk involved though, and the requirement of having income to repay the loan with. Otherwise, the HODLer can sell some bitcoin on an exchange for fiat to pay for the purchase.
Longer term, it will get easier as bitcoin becomes more normalised into society.
Poly: I wonder, with all your experience in Bitcoin, do you consider it your unit of account or are you thinking in AUD?
“I consider my net worth in both Bitcoin and AUD terms. Obviously the longer term one is Bitcoin.”
Stephan: I consider my net worth in both Bitcoin and AUD terms. Obviously the longer term one I care more about is Bitcoin.
Poly: And if you’re open to it, would you tell us whether you demand to be paid in Bitcoin by your clients?
Stephan: I ask for Bitcoin payment as first choice, but will take fiat payment if it’s not feasible. I don’t believe in ‘checkout activism’ and trying to force it on them. Let the switchover naturally occur.
Poly: Interesting, in my interview with Brian Harrington he took the other side of that argument, saying that we need more entrepreneurs demanding Bitcoin only as apps like Strike would still allow clients to spend their fiat. I think for many aiming to build the Bitcoin Circular Economy getting paid in Bitcoin is the goal, do you have any tips on how to convince a client or employer to pay you in Bitcoin?
Stephan: Well the typical thing you can do is offer a discount if they pay you in bitcoin. But at the end of the day, it’s not feasible for everyone.
Poly: I’ve seen that happen, yes. With your many years in the industry, what do we need to build to make life in the future Bitcoin economy easier than it is now? What have you discovered that’s not working well, that needs optimising? What services do you feel are missing?
Stephan: Maybe just making some of the current tools easier to use e.g. BTCPay Server, or running your own node and multi-sig. These all can be done now but they’re a bit harder in terms of technical ability required. Over time they’ll get easier and more accessible.
Poly: Funny you mentioned BTCPay here as I talked to Nicolas Dorier and he was excited about working on Pull payments for Bitcoin and LN – interesting stuff. Looking ahead, what’s your guess when we’ll be able to say we’ve established a successful Bitcoin Circular Economy and what metrics would constitute that for you?
“My guess is in the late 2020’s for it [Bitcoin Circular Economy] to be relatively common. Maybe in the next 4-5 years it becomes a ‘well known niche’ thing”
Stephan: My guess is in the late 2020’s for it to be relatively common. Maybe in the next 4-5 years it becomes a ‘well known niche’ thing. We’re still extremely early.
I can’t think of any good metrics, but maybe if we see much higher levels of bitcoin acceptance for services, we could proxy off that.
Poly: Late 2020’s would be great, maybe I should have my interviewees agree on some metrics and bet on a date that, would raise the stakes. Ok, jokes aside, under what circumstances would you recommend others to fully embrace Bitcoin and start “Living the Future” now?
Stephan: It takes work and continual learning, but it’s also very rewarding. Dip your toe in the water and see if it works for you. Doing your first coinjoin spend or lightning payment feels magical. Let’s recapture some of that fun.
Poly: Oh yeah, the magic is real indeed. Stephan, this was great, tell us how readers can find you.
Poly: Nice, thanks again for your insights, Stephan! Appreciate it and who knows, maybe some readers will heed some of your advice and soon join us in the Bitcoin Circular Economy.
For further reading/listening, check out these two of Stephan’s podcast episodes with the Samourai team:
SLP150 – SAMOURAI WALLET – MAKE EVERY BITCOIN SPEND A COINJOIN
SLP209 – SAMOURAI WALLET – BITCOIN CULTURE & NEW PRIVACY FEATURES
SLP215 – MICHAEL FLAXMAN – 10X YOUR BITCOIN SECURITY WITH MULTISIG
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LIVING THE FUTURE – An Interview with Max Hillebrand
Max Hillebrand has been “all-in on Bitcoin” since September 2019 and is a prime example of Living the Future. He is a free software entrepreneur who’s building Bitcoin weapons at WasabiWallet.
Max and I talked about his motivations to leave the Fiat world behind, the practicalities of solely living on Bitcoin and how he’s spreading the word on using Bitcoin one merchant and producer at a time.
Poly: Hi Max, welcome and thanks for taking part in this series on Polylunar – great to have you.
I’m fascinated by people who’ve gone all in on Bitcoin and are now part of the Bitcoin Circular Economy. I hope the series will open up this lifestyle to more people and lead to fruitful discussions on what is already working well and which parts could be optimized to make the Bitcoin economy a reality for more people.
Max: Thanks for the invitation Poly – I’m looking forward to our conversation!
Poly: So Max, I still remember your tweet from Sep 2019 when you announced that you’re getting rid of your bank card and going all in on Bitcoin. Tell us a bit about what’s your background and what led to that decision.
Max: I have been an entrepreneur providing goods and services to my customers since early childhood. However, despite earning money and paying suppliers on a regular schedule, I did not have a bank account at all, my cashflow was managed mainly in fiat cash and precious metals.
My passion for accumulating knowledge and understanding how to increase my business productivity led me to educate myself in the realms of economics. At first the mainstream Keynesian approach, which was so confusing that I thought either I’m too stupid to understand it, or that it is pure nonsense in a model with broken assumptions. On a quest for finding the actual truth of economic reasoning, I discovered the great masters of Austrian Economics, Mises, Rothbard, Hoppe and co. In the exhaustive archive of knowledge at mises.org I found the important pieces needed to build a fundamental and holistic praxeological understanding.
With my exhaustive background in economics and especially monetary theory I swiftly understood the incredible scam that fiat shitcoins are – and the vitally important strategy to opt-out into a free alternative system. My prime goal is to defend my property rights and to allocate them efficiently – this is simply impossible under the fiat empire – but this is precisely what Bitcoin was created for.
“I ventured in the belly of the beast, with a know-thy-enemy mindset, and discovered awe inspiring levels of monetary warfare.”
In order to gain first-hand experience of the fiat regime, I decided to do my bachelor’s studies of economics in collaboration with Deutsche Bank, meaning that I would be part time in university, and part time in an internship at Europe’s largest bank. I ventured in the belly of the beast, with a know-thy-enemy mindset, and discovered awe inspiring levels of monetary warfare. During my three years study was the only point in time that I had a fiat bank account, used to receive my salary, and immediately withdraw in cash to buy bitcoin P2P. But right after graduation, in September 2019, I received my last ever fiat income, and I immediately closed my account. Ever since then, I have fully opted-out of fiat, and now live as a free man with my property out of the reach of the looters and thugs.
Poly: Thanks for the background, I didn’t know about your Deutsche Bank experience, destroying the enemy from within is a nice approach. Would you say that there was a seminal event that led you to finally taking the plunge to go all in on Bitcoin?
Max: I don’t think I can pin-point a single event at which I committed to focus my full attention on building Bitcoin weapons to dismantle the fiat tyranny. However, there are three milestones worth mentioning: The moment when I saw the first glimpse of the power of Bitcoin, was watching Andreas Antonopolous ‘The bubble boy and the sewer rat’. The moment I understood the extent of the level of defense an individual can gain by running his full node, that was the double-punch of UASF and NO2X. And finally, the moment when for the last time I earned fiat, with a strong resolve to exclusively demand to be paid in bitcoin, right after my graduation and closing of the bank account.
Poly: Absolutely, I think the first two resonate well with any Bitcoiner, the third one is a step most still have ahead of them. Once the decision was made, what were the next days like? Did you take immediate action or still let it simmer a little to decide on the exact steps to move forward?
“The entire process of discovering the first glimpse of Bitcoin until fully opting-out of fiat took about one halving.”
Max: The entire process of discovering the first glimpse of Bitcoin until fully opting-out of fiat took about one halving. The rabbit hole is deep, and I first wanted to truly understand a vast part of the ecosystem, before I was comfortable enough to rely on Bitcoin as my primary means of defense.
Your question is great, as you highlight the importance of taking action. Before I discovered Bitcoin, in a time where I already understood Praxeology and economics, I was absolutely devastated, as the fiat empire was so all encompassing, and there was seemingly no way for me to act on my individual preferences to dismantle the empire. I understood the root of the problem, as well as a fundamental solution to it, however, I did not have the means at my disposal to act and defend myself.
Bitcoin fixes this. Bitcoin is a powerful weapon that can be utilized freely by any individual who is courageous enough to stand up and defend his life, his property, and his loved ones. Bitcoin is fundamentally built on-top of sound Austrian monetary theory, yet is so much more than just another text-book on how money ought to function properly. Bitcoin is free software that *actually* manifests sound money into existence, and there is nobody and nothing that can stop a dedicated individual to use it right now. This is what makes Bitcoin so enticing for me, an enabler of action.
Poly: I love that, the “Bitcoin fixes this” meme is so true but it only works when individuals make it work. Bitcoin in itself doesn’t do anything, it just is but individuals using it, makes it impactful. I wonder, how did and does it feel to live on Bitcoin? Excited? Anxious? I imagine a decision like this to have a real impact emotionally.
Max: I feel free. And this is the most exhilarating, courageous and wild state of being. When earning and holding bitcoin, I know precisely the quantity of resources that I own and am able to use for my purposes. There is only me, nobody else, who has the power to allocate my resources. Knowing the means at my disposal is vitally important to evaluate which end goals I ought to pursue. I enjoy a neutral unit of account to organize my individual preferences according to my highest satisfaction, and with this I can clearly make an entrepreneurial judgement which potential project is most profitable to focus my attention.
I do not know my future preferences, the desires I want to satisfy at some later point. Thus, I keep my capital in a censorship resistant and sound money – Bitcoin. Knowing that I have a reserve of wealth that I can use to exchange for whatever good and service is an incredible removal of uneasiness in my life. Holding sound money is a great hedge against a dark and uncertain future.
“I do not kneel down in front of the fiat empire. I removed the shackles of fiat banking and monetary tyranny.”
I do not kneel down in front of the fiat empire. I removed the shackles of fiat banking and monetary tyranny. I no longer justify myself for earning money. I no longer am susceptible to theft of my savings. I no longer ask for permission to make a payment. The fiat regime might continue for a long time. But I am no longer a part of it. This is how my freedom feels like.
Poly: Sounds very empowering, I can sympathize, it starts a little when taking ownership of your Bitcoin, then strengthens when you run your own node and validate your transactions. Continuing on the personal note, how did your friends and family react? I’m already being looked at strangely when just talking about Bitcoin. There must be some funny stories from going all in.
Max: My friends know me for my rational argumentation based on first principles. This is the core of a sound praxeological analysis, and thus is shaping my mindset and world view. Going all-in Bitcoin and rejecting fiat is true to my first principles. Knowing that my loved ones respect this consistency and strong moral compass as a part of myself is a powerful foundation to build upon.
Poly: I can see that, coming from sound economic and moral thinking helps. Mind sharing a little how you established that basis? You mentioned earlier that you were exposed to the Austrian School early on, was that actually taught in school or something you picked up on personally?
Max: Oh no, of course the Prussian outcome-based education system does not teach a rational logical approach of truth discovery that Austrian Economics is based on. I was very often discouraged from my professors to stop reading and articulating such materials. Such valuable knowledge is not found in state education institutions. I first read a book by Friedmann, where he referenced both Mises and Hayek in the footnotes. I found the mentioned books at mises.org, together with such an astonishing amount of fascinating books. The Austrian Economics rabbit hole is [almost] as intense as the Bitcoin one!
Poly: I still have to find anyone telling me that they learned Austrian Economics in school, to be honest. So we now know you got rid of your Fiat and your bank account. Any interesting interactions with your bank? Did they try to convince you otherwise?
Max: My former colleagues at Deutsche Bank very quickly figured out that I am a Bitcoiner, and that my general outlook on economics and ethics was not mainstream at all. There were a plethora of interesting conversations, where they provided arguments in favor of fiat banking, while I gave my reasoning for the benefits of freedom and Bitcoin. Though in general, the individuals working in the incumbent fiat industries have good intentions and a polite respectful attitude. It really was a very interesting time, I learned a lot, and am happy to have gathered the experience.
Poly: Must’ve been a few heated discussions there but now you’ve moved on, maybe tell us a little about how a normal day of Max living on Bitcoin looks like. How do you buy groceries? How do you pay for dinner and split the bill with friends?
Max: First and foremost, I am fully immersed in a sound monetary economy, and thus my time-preference manifests rather low. There are not many goods and services that are more valuable than holding bitcoin. Thus, instead of spending and decreasing my capital stock, I maintain a high savings rate, and strive to consume high quality, low quantity necessities.
“In my experience, family operated businesses and small entrepreneurs quickly understand the value proposition of Bitcoin.”
One of the goods that I regularly purchase is obviously food, and here I engage local farmers directly, offering to pay for their goods with bitcoin or gold. In my experience, family operated businesses and small entrepreneurs quickly understand the value proposition of Bitcoin.
I also pay contractors who provide services for me, both in cyberspace and meatspace. Here again I first look for individuals who are demanding to be paid in bitcoin, and I usually offer them a generous price, higher than fiat competitors. I want to reward these courageous business men who venture out into new opportunities. This is a virtuous character trade, and I’m happy to support pioneers in their future progress.
Poly: How do you find these merchants, is there a community where such information is exchanged? I do not recall coming across a forum or anything for that.
Max: One big benefit that I have is that I am often at Bitcoin tribe gatherings, and that I know plenty of Bitcoiners. Thus I know entrepreneurs who specialize in different areas, who are also interested in getting paid in bitcoin, though a DuckDuckGo search for finding local businesses is always worth a try.
Poly: Understand, so you’re aiming to pay in Bitcoin where possible but what if that option is not available? Maybe you’re in some small town travelling and they just don’t know how to accept Bitcoin.
Max: Often I would meet with the business owner directly and educate him about the benefits of Bitcoin. However, this is of course a large investment of my time, and in many cases, especially with larger corporations, it is a futile and not profitable effort.
In order to reduce my cost and allocate my time more efficiently, I still use fiat shitcoins in their cash paper form. This is the most censorship resistant and private option, and it is actual base money supply, not the leveraged and diluted shit they keep in bank accounts. I usually exchange some small amount of bitcoin for the local fiat shitcoin, and I consider this as spending my bitcoin on a gift card, or casino chips. I will exchange these fun coupons for goods and services that I cannot buy with bitcoin. But I would never consider these shitcoins to be money or part of my savings. My goal is to reduce the number of seconds that I hold fiat. Every additional second is an additional theft on my productivity, and I do not tolerate this.
Poly: Let’s hope one day there’ll be no need anymore to exchange into Fiat and Bitcoin is ubiquitous enough everywhere. On these travels, what’s the nicest experience you had paying with Bitcoin?
Max: I am absolutely in awe with the pseudonymity that Bitcoin enables. On a regular basis, I pay contractors whom I don’t care to know their government issued identity, their residency, or their academic degree. If they have provided me with a meaningful and useful service, then I want to reward them with precious bitcoin. No other information than their Bitcoin address is required.
Poly: Indeed, pseudonymity is a great advantage of Bitcoin that drew me in as well. Us Bitcoiners often talk about Bitcoin being primarily a store of value, I wonder whether Bitcoin has become a unit of account for you yet or do you still sometimes think in USD/EUR?
“Bitcoin is my unit of account […] I always keep in mind the percentage of the total money supply that I control.”
Max: Bitcoin is my unit of account. I strive to increase the quantity of bitcoin that I hold. I exclusively demand to be paid in bitcoin, and my prices are denominated in bitcoin. Whenever I desire to purchase something, I realize how much bitcoin this costs me, and I make a judgement whether it is a profitable trade. Whenever I travel into a new shitcoin territory, I buy some of the local cash for bitcoin, and then when seeing local prices, I convert back to the quantity of sats that it costs.
Further, I always keep in mind the percentage of the total money supply that I control. This helps me to see the relation of the goods that I’m purchasing now, compared to the total purchasing power of my bitcoin in relation to the total supply. This is how entrepreneurial calculation ought to function in a sound monetary economy, and I am in awe with the productivity and efficiency gain.
Poly: That is impressive, especially that you regularly consider the total supply, I’ll make a more active attempt of doing that too, thanks. Understanding you think in Bitcoin, do heavy retraces in price affect you at all?
Max: What price? The fiat shitcoin exchange rate? I rarely buy fiat, and hold only a tiny amount. I care more about the exchange rate of bitcoin for meat and diesel. Again, I want to own more bitcoin, I don’t care how much each one of them buys, more bitcoin buys more stuff.
Poly: But matter-of-factly the world is denominated in Fiat and a Bitcoin bear market will let you buy less for a Bitcoin than in the bull market. What do you say to people seeing it as financially irresponsible to go all in on an asset like Bitcoin?
Max: It’s a question of time preference. I am happy to hold a rather large quantity of bitcoin now, and not invest or consume today. This shows that I have a rather low time preference, I’m willing to accumulate capital, rather than depreciate it. If entrepreneurs charge more bitcoin for their services, then in general, I will purchase less of their goods, rather save my bitcoin. Further, as my clients are willing to pay me more bitcoin for my services, I increase my prices and thus stack more sats. I love it when the exchange rate of bitcoin drops, because I will get more bitcoin! I don’t buy the dip. I earn the dip.
Poly: One last question on your lifestyle, has it changed in any way since you switched? I see some Bitcoiners become more nomadic, travelling a lot, while others try to stay put and huddle down to build their citadels. Where do you fit on that scale?
Max: Why not both? My travels have increased a lot, to the point where I am fully nomadic, waking up in new places, and rarely staying for longer than a couple days. However, I also build citadels, and in this I include any secure and defendable dwelling place. My goal is to travel from citadel to citadel, living a free life along the peers who do meaningful work.
Poly: That is a nice view, any places that you found to make good citadels already or are on their way to be soon?
Max: There are multiple Bitcoiners building secure dwelling places in every region. Though most are, for obvious reasons, choosing a private approach and not share much information about the nuances of their progress.
Poly: Maybe we switch gears a little. I know you’re working on Wasabi Wallet and assume they’re paying you in Bitcoin. Is that a full time gig for you or do you have other streams of income?
“I do the same thing as I did years ago as a voluntary contributor to free software, but now, I regularly earn Bitcoin.”
Max: I don’t really know what “full time” mean, for sure it’s not a 9-to-5 job in the office! I would say that I am “full time” Bitcoin, but this is more of a constant contemplation and expanding of my understanding. One of the projects that has earned my deepest respect and a vast majority of my focus and attention is Wasabi Wallet. I was one of the first users, back when it was still called Hidden Wallet, and have contributed where I can ever since.
Wasabi is free and open source software, and this tool obviously doesn’t pay me bitcoin directly. However, there is a company called zkSNACKs, which is dedicated to building privacy tools with zero-knowledge of its clients. zkSCNACKs was founded by the inventor of zero-link and Wasabi, Adam Ficsor, and by now it sponsors multiple developers, researchers, designers and reviewers who contribute to Wasabi. I am an independent contractor for the company, and enjoy an incredibly free collaboration model! Basically, I do the same thing as I did years ago as a voluntary contributor to free software, but now, I regularly earn bitcoin in exchange – beautiful!
Poly: That’s great and I think shows nicely how contributing to open source can lead to other opportunities further down the road, low time preference again. Do you have any tips on how to convince a client or employer to pay you in Bitcoin? The price fluctuations are tricky and I know some negotiate a USD price/salary and pay at exchange rate on pay day. How do you handle it?
Max: For me it was a multi-step process. Initially, my prices were denominated in fiat, and I accepted both fiat and bitcoin at the equivalent rate. Soon I realized that there are numerous costs and risks involved in using the fiat infrastructure, and I demand a higher payment in exchange for doing the shitcoin disposal services. Thus, if my clients insisted on paying me in fiat, then they paid 50% more than if they would have paid me in bitcoin. Then I increased this extra fee to double, then triple of the bitcoin denominated price. When I closed my bank account, I also changed this approach, and now if a client insists to pay me in fiat, and he is not willing to pay me in bitcoin, then I am not at all going to work with him. This means that now all my clients pay me in bitcoin, and I have no fiat income at all. Again, I don’t care about the shitcoin exchange rate, so that volatility isn’t noteworthy for me.
Poly: Wow, that’s a clear incentive for clients to use Bitcoin, indeed. How about securing those hard-earned Bitcoin, I assume you have several levels of Bitcoin security, how do you handle the technicalities of that? What kind of setup can you recommend?
Max: This is a very broad question… In general, security parameters always depend on the threat model. The question is, who is trying to steal your bitcoin? When the attacker is known, then the security strategy and defenses can be aligned. In many cases, the biggest potential attacker is the user himself making uneducated mistakes. So be careful when generating private keys and making secure backups. This requires both a well defended meatspace and cyberspace.
Poly: True, it’s an individual decision depending on many factors, still any tools you’d recommend?
“Multi signatures are a beautiful private property contract that Bitcoin enables.”
Max: I love Wasabi Wallet, especially it’s workflow together with ColdCard, it’s a very powerful combination. Multi signatures are a beautiful private property contract that Bitcoin enables, and Electrum Wallet, Specter or Caravan are interesting tools for this. Though as always, do your own due diligence for each of these projects.
In general, it’s good to have backups of your secrets. These can be securely encrypted on a usb stick, written down on paper, or even stamped onto metal. Keep these backups in a secure meatspace location, preferably locked up in a hidden safe.
Poly: How about the Lightning Network, are you using it? Do you consider Layer 2 the future payment rail of Bitcoin?
Max: Lightning Network is a concept ACK, but implementation NACK for me. The idea of trading ownership of bitcoin without constantly using the time-stamping consensus of the first layer is genius. It really shows the power of Bitcoin as a tool to define, verify and enforce property rights contracts. I’ve been using LN since the early #reckless days, and the contributors to the projects have done a monumental work so far already. However, there is still so so so so much more work to do, specifically in the area of privacy, in order to have a secure, efficient and private option to send bitcoin.
Poly: Since privacy is important to you but any Bitcoiner really, do you have any best practices you’d like to share?
Max: In general, get educated about how Bitcoin actually works, specifically the transaction structure and graph relation among coins. With an intuitive understanding of inputs and outputs, many privacy best practices come natural. Privacy in Bitcoin is about keeping the many pseudonymous identities [the Bitcoin addresses] of one user separate. This makes it difficult to cluster all user transactions and find out how much money he has. Very important here is to never re-use the same address for multiple transactions, as this is an obvious clustering of all coins of the same user.
It’s a good habit to keep a record of who knows that an address is actually yours. Further, avoid consolidating many coins in one transaction, as this suggests common input ownership. CoinJoin is a powerful technique which breaks the link between your pseudonymous identities, when your identity is linked to a specific address, after doing a coinjoin, you receive bitcoin on an address that is no longer tied to this identity. Of course, don’t leak your extended public key to a third party server, as this clusters all your past, present and future transactions. Connect to Bitcoin related services only through the Tor network.
Although all of this might sound overwhelming, Wasabi Wallet is a beautiful tool that implements all of these privacy best practices intuitively.
Poly: Address reuse is definitely still an issue but I think the tools are getting better to avoid it and similarly to break the KYC/AML links from buying on exchanges etc. I wonder, do you even have any contact with the traditional finance system any more? Did you manage to get out of any KYC/AML services?
Max: I no longer have any meaningful/relevant contact to the fiat empire. I do not owe any debt, everything that I use I have purchased with my own capital. This is another conscious choice to decrease my risk in the future, and reduce the number of entities who have a potential claim on my property, as creditors do.
Poly: Understand, I know we’ve covered quite some ground already but we want to move the space forward and it would be interesting to know which parts of the ecosystem need more work in your point of view to make your lifestyle easier for others to follow.
“For me, the core use-case of Bitcoin is for entrepreneurs to get paid by their clients.”
Max: For me, the core use-case of Bitcoin is for entrepreneurs to get paid by their clients. Thus any tool that improves this aspect is super useful, like for example BTCPay server. Of course earning bitcoin leads to holding bitcoin, and thus secure storage and management with good wallets is essential, I like the combination of the ColdCard hardware wallet and Wasabi wallet. Privacy is a great strategy to reduce the threat models of attackers, and thus privacy focused Bitcoin projects like JoinMarket and Wasabi are worthy of support! And of course, Bitcoin the protocol deserves a lot of care and attention, thus any contribution to the Core infrastructure is nice.
Poly: All these are great projects, I agree. Additionally, I find onramps important to get into the Bitcoin Circular Economy with minimal KYC/AML, hence I like to see more of the likes of Bisq, HodlHodl and P2P exchanges. Now, last but not least, would you do it all again and would you recommend it to others?
Max: Those who are ready for living a free life are not waiting for my recommendation. I cannot say if I would do it again – the past is the past – but I am acting free in this very moment right now.
Poly: You really do, it’s inspiring! Max, this was great, how can readers find you if they want to know more about you and your lifestyle?
Max: My website is towardsliberty.com, and you shall find me under the name Max Hillebrand on social media like GitHub and Twitter. My PGP key is E900 5F66 A86B B816 BD7D 967E BEDC D95C 42AC 3C57
Poly: Awesome, thanks so much Max, it has been fun and insightful! I’m keen to see how many readers this inspires to follow you to go all-in on Bitcoin and leave the fiat world behind.
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Living the Future – An Interview with Nicolas Dorier
Nicolas is the founder of everyone’s favourite Bitcoin payment processor – BTCPay Server. He’s an open-source developer working for DG Lab in Japan and is adamant on making rent-seeking finance companies obsolete via Bitcoin.
Nicolas discusses with me the difficulties of using Bitcoin in Japan, the tight tax regulations in place restricting Bitcoin adoption and innovation, and how pull payments could solve the Mental Transaction Costs problem in Bitcoin.
Poly: Hi Nicolas, awesome to have you share your story of living on Bitcoin in Japan. The story of how BTCPay Server was born is still one of the most savage things I’ve witnessed in this space and I’m keen to learn what tools and systems you think we need to build to make it more feasible to fully use Bitcoin as one’s primary savings and payment account.
So to get us started, tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you got into Bitcoin.
Nicolas: I’m a French living in Japan, working at DG Lab (Japan) and Metaco (Switzerland). Most of my time is spent working on BTCPay Server.
DG Lab is a research lab focused on finding use of Bitcoin that businesses sponsoring us can later develop into business. BTCPay Server was created when I was working there and they let me focus on that since then. Metaco develops custodial solutions for banks. I am the co-founder of the company and I work mainly on Bitcoin or Bitcoin-based altcoins integration to our products.
I didn’t pay any attention to Bitcoin until Mt Gox crashed. I thought Bitcoin was dead because the issuer (which I thought was Mt Gox) was shut down. I started learning more about Bitcoin to answer the question “If it is dead, why are people still using it?”. I understood why it is not dead by understanding the technical foundation, then the next question was “why satoshi created it?”. Which brought me to read the libertarian and Austrian Economics books. Down the rabbit hole since then.
Poly: Funny how that works, the Mt Gox bankruptcy in 2014 brought you into Bitcoin. You told me you were living fully on Bitcoin in Japan, what led to the decision to do that? Was there a seminal event that led to you taking the plunge?
Nicolas: Living in Japan but being from France, I was scared my bank would freeze my credit card if I used it. Banks routinely freeze credit cards when you use it “in a suspicious manner” which usually happens the moment you need it the most. Hence I was committed to not using my card in Japan but I would still use it to buy online, where it is generally safe from being frozen. Also, by using credit cards I would be losing money due to the spread of the bank, which I could not properly quantify. With Bitcoin I could even sometimes earn a spread of up to 2% by being a market maker with no risk of getting my card blocked.
So while in Japan I lived on Bitcoin but I wasn’t all in, I was dollar cost averaging in. I was also not buying things with Bitcoin in that sense, I was exchanging Bitcoin for cash, as I needed it to pay my bills.
Poly: That’s a great example for using Bitcoin, bank/credit card fees can be exorbitantly high, especially when abroad, plus the risk of them being frozen is real. How about the emotional impact of the decision, others have told me they never felt freer, some continued to worry at the beginning, what were your feelings?
“I was finally convinced that Bitcoin was a superior form of money.”
Nicolas: I was finally convinced that Bitcoin was a superior form of money. You can take it anywhere and live from it. This is not as convenient as cash, which I don’t expect Bitcoin to displace. But if you own Bitcoin, you can always find a way to convert it to cash if you need it. This is one thing to hand wave those facts, another to having actually lived them. Living through it convinced me it was indeed true.
Poly: Fully agree on that. Continuing on the personal note, how did your friends and family react? Any funny stories from going all-in? Parents thinking you’ve lost your mind or such?
Nicolas: My family has been supportive and was not upset with me talking about Bitcoin every day. Some of them bought or traded at one point or another. I never fell victim to a scam and I am not an addicted gambler.
Poly: That’s always good, how about the practicalities of making the switch, what’s the actual process been like? You mentioned you were DCA’ing into Bitcoin.
Nicolas: Yes, a staggered approach, I averaged into Bitcoin with my Euros from France. And since you only need cash when you actually need to spend it, holding any more than needed is wasteful. In Japan I was acting as a market maker on LocalBitcoins. From time to time people contacted me and I could make a small spread on the sale (2%). The flow was enough to keep enough cash for living. I was also very frugal, and never made a trade of more than the equivalent of 2000 USD at once. Since then regulations in Japan have become stricter so I don’t know if it is still possible.
Poly: In the end, did you actually close your bank account?
Nicolas: I didn’t close my bank account. Sometimes you still need it to send money to relatives. Though I slowly drain all my money from it into Bitcoin.
“[Japan] regulation now is horrible and has affected the Bitcoin businesses and exchanges harshly.”
Poly: Understand. Japan is known as a high-tax country, how did taxation affect your life on Bitcoin? Do you have to pay taxes for every conversion from Bitcoin to Fiat or how does it affect you?
Nicolas: When I was living on Bitcoin the regulation was not properly set. Their regulation now is horrible and has affected the Bitcoin businesses and exchanges harshly. Every time you sell (or convert to another altcoin), you need to pay on the profit of your weighted average holding. Calculating the weighted average is impossible if you did not keep records of when you got your Bitcoin. And even if you do, calculating it for every sale is too difficult. Also all exchanges in Japan have address reuse.
For those two reasons I never sell, I never trade, I only buy from Japanese exchanges. If one day their regulation becomes more reasonable and I want to make a big Fiat purchase, I may sell, but until then I hodl. Bad regulation is a big reason for hodling, so we need to thank them to pump up the price.
The regulation hurt exchanges a lot. If we compare it to the 2017 bubble, the volume has decreased a lot. Japan is not a good place for trading anymore.
Poly: It really doesn’t sound like a welcoming place for Bitcoin businesses and traders. I expected Japan to be rather open to Bitcoin as it’s generally a technologically very advanced country. You said you go cash-only for expenses but are there places/merchants that accept Bitcoin?
“Bitcoin is almost never accepted in retail…[but] gift cards can get you all you need.”
Nicolas: Not really. The only places I saw Bitcoin accepted were the Two Dogs bar in Roppongi and Bic Camera, a big retailer in Japan which charges outrageous spread (through bitFlyer). Bitcoin is almost never accepted in retail. I think nowadays gift cards can get you all you need though and those are easy to get with Bitcoin.
Poly: Understand, the Two Dogs bar goes on my to-visit list. What about Lightning could that help Bitcoin getting more acceptance? Do you consider Layer 2 the future payment rail of Bitcoin or are skeptic?
Nicolas: I don’t use Lightning that much, as it is in general more expensive than on chain. I am not a skeptic, I think it may come a day where it becomes the standard, but it’s not for now. I feel it is also focusing on push payments like bitcoin, where Lightning would be more suited for pull payments on micro transactions.
Poly: Pull payments are an interesting topic, let’s come back to that a bit later. Would you say your lifestyle has changed in any way since you switched? I see some Bitcoiners become more nomadic, travelling a lot, while others try to stay put and huddle down to build their citadels. Where do you fit on that scale?
Nicolas: I was nomadic at the time, now I am settled in Japan with my wife and kid, so the lifestyle changed and I don’t use Bitcoin for my daily life as much as I was doing before. If I build a citadel one day, it is when I will discover a country as safe as Japan, but without the terrible tax regulations.
Poly: You’re always welcome here in Singapore, it fits your requirements perfectly. Us Bitcoiners often talk about Bitcoin being primarily a store of value, has Bitcoin actually become a unit of account for you or do you still go back to EUR/JPY?
“If the USD itself goes into hyperinflation, maybe it will become BTC.”
Nicolas: I use JPY. I think you can’t beat fiat as a unit of account, as it is designed to keep price stable. This can reverse in case of hyperinflation of course. But if it happens, people will likely price in USD. If the USD itself goes into hyperinflation, maybe it will become BTC. Unsure if it will happen in my lifetime.
Poly: Yes, I think that’s the big question, will we see hyperinflation and see the USD lose its status as the world reserve currency? Indeed only time will tell. So do (heavy) retraces in price still affect you?
Nicolas: Well given I can’t sell, the price only affects me when it drops because I want to buy before it goes up again. But that happens only if there is a 20 or 30% drop.
Poly: Nice, always have to buy the dip. Maybe we switch gears a little. You founded BTCPay Server as an open-source tool for merchants to easily accept Bitcoin without having to pay fees to other companies. Being fully open-source, are you being paid directly in Bitcoin? How about the other team members and participants? I think earning Bitcoin is an important step in developing a Circular Bitcoin Economy so this is very interesting.
Nicolas: I am not paid in Bitcoin. Japan regulation makes it hard. For the BTCPayServer Foundation, I did not want to hold BTC because it is hard to keep track of the weighted average profit. I ended up reversing the decision. The reason is that Japan is very bad for making international transfer. Only two contributors get wire transfer, and making two wire transfers takes a total of between 1 and 3 hours of time. For this reason, we accepted Kraken’s grant via BTC and hodl it. There are approximately 10 contributors receiving money every month, 2 international wire transfers, 1 domestic wire transfer and 7 via BTC.
This may be more painful for the accountant, but if I needed to make 9 international wire transfers it would take more than a whole day at the bank branch to send the money, which is not a good use of my time.
Poly: Wow, wire transfers being such a burden is insane, that’s why we Bitcoin. Many would like to be paid in Bitcoin, so great to see 7 employees/contributors to BTCPay Server being able to. Do you have any tips on how to convince a client or employer to pay you in Bitcoin? The price fluctuations are tricky and I know some negotiate a Fiat salary that pays in Bitcoin at exchange rate on pay day.
Nicolas: I think it really depends on regulation. My advice is: Put yourself in the shoes of your employer, and do the research about how he can stay clear of problems should he choose to pay you in Bitcoin. How should he account it? Is it even legal? How does he need to report the profit? What does he need for KYC? You need to do his research, and provide him with the relevant links he can check. The main problem is, that while paying somebody in Bitcoin between two individuals is easy, doing so between a business and an individual is hard. The processes are hard and the legal and tax implications are hard.
Poly: So basically, help your employer help yourself – always a good approach. Living on Bitcoin and thereby being your own bank comes with additional risks, can you share some best practices on how you handle security? I’m always keen to learn best practices to optimise my setup and am sure readers feel the same.
“The best is to keep it simple. For long term storage, use a hardware wallet. For short term storage, use a hot wallet.”
Nicolas: The best is to keep it simple. For long term storage, use a hardware wallet. For short term storage, use a hot wallet. The challenge of hardware wallet is: How do you keep it safe even if your house is burning, or if something happens to you, how do you let your heirs retrieve them? I think part of the solution requires a good old notary or bank safe. I can’t advise on specifics on this, I think somebody wrote a book in the community about this.
Poly: Yes, Pamela Morgan wrote the book “Cryptoasset Inheritance Planning” on this topic. What’s your stance on privacy in Bitcoin? When people are acquiring and transacting in Bitcoin, do you recommend CoinJoin, Non-KYC etc. or what do you propose to do to avoid privacy issues?
Nicolas: The best way to avoid privacy issues is to not give your Bitcoin to centralised payment processors. For example, I don’t use bitcoin if the merchant uses Bitpay to accept Bitcoin. Those centralised payment processors won’t go to jail to protect your money or their customer.
I recommend coinjoin, I recommend staying away from exchanges as much as you realistically can. If you absolutely need an exchange, but that you conjoined your coins, do it small and spread over time, never a big lump sum at once. Adapt depending on the response of the exchange. The goal is, if they decide to freeze your coin, you should be able to sleep at night.
Poly: Good point on exchanges blacklisting coinjoined addresses, it’s definitely something we still need to overcome. I wonder, do you even have any contact with the traditional finance system any more? Did you manage to get out of any KYC/AML services?
Nicolas: Japan is a cash oriented society, so in theory you can pay for everything with cash. If you need Amazon, you can buy gift cards at the convenience store and use that. I would say you don’t need a bank account, but because the world is using bank accounts, it is a major pain in the ass to not have one. In theory DG Lab could pay me in BTC or cash. In practice their processes are not adapted to it and it’s unlikely they would adapt it for a single person.
Poly: OK. So, we covered how well one can live (or not) on Bitcoin for everyday items but what would you do if you want to buy bigger items, say a car or a house? How would you go about financing that outside of legacy finance, any experience?
Nicolas: Renting instead of owning solves this problem. If you absolutely want to own, then be prepared to pay a tax lawyer and a tax accountant when you buy fiat. Even if you think you did everything by the rules, you probably didn’t and you will need to report in a very specific way.
Poly: Strict Japanese rules strike again. I know we’ve covered quite some ground already but we want to move the space forward and it would be interesting to know which parts of the ecosystem need more work to make living on Bitcoin easier for others to follow.
Nicolas: I think the lack of pull payment is a big UX problem that credit cards solve, but Bitcoin not. I feel that most of the problems nowadays are more related to UX and education than purely technical.
Poly: Can you elaborate on the lack of pull payments and how this could be solved?
“[Pull payments] solve the problem of mental transaction cost highlighted by Nick Szabo.”
Nicolas: It is meant to solve the problem of mental transaction cost highlighted by Nick Szabo. The basic problem it solves is that making a payment involves a mental cost to the user sending it. This user needs to unlock his phone, run the app, scan the QR and send the money. If he is paying a subscription, he also needs to remember doing those steps, shall he forget, the subscription would be cancelled.
The mental cost is even more expensive when you are a company, as all payments in a company need proper accounting on top of it and invoice needs to be issued. This mental transaction cost makes micro payments impractical. As the mental transaction cost may well be way more expensive than the payment’s value, people instead prefer to aggregate all their payment at once at the end of the month instead of paying as you go. Or use prepaid account, where the payer sends money up front.
For example, if you consume a streaming service and wish to pay by the minute, it is impractical for a user to pull his wallet from his pocket, send a lightning payment and continue watching every few minutes. The downside of a prepaid account is of course that the merchant can’t give you the money back, and any unspent fund in the account is lost. You also don’t have a proper way, as a payer, to remember all the prepaid accounts you sent funds to. Another way is to give your credit card to a party and let him draw money; if you ever used Amazon, you did it.
Truth is, if you are not a big company, customers will not trust you with their credit card. This is why Bitcoiners use Patreon to get recurrent funding instead of using bitcoin. The patrons trust Patreon.
Pull payments are a solution to this problem. The idea is that you allow a party to pull the money from you, upon certain limits. As the payer, you don’t have to think about sending money, but you still are in control to stop money flows, unlike credit cards.
Poly: Very interesting and highly contentious topic for Bitcoin, it’ll be interesting where your development leads to. Now, last but not least, under what circumstances would you recommend others to fully live on Bitcoin, taking into consideration the different life situations people might be in? Would you do it again?
“The more unsafe the place [you live in] is, the more attractive Bitcoin is”
Nicolas: If you are a nomad, you should live on Bitcoin, this will make your life easier. If you are not a nomad and have savings, you can use Bitcoin to protect your funds against inflation. I would still say that you should have one or two years of saving in cash before considering saving in Bitcoin. You still might want to dip a toe though to get a feeling on how Bitcoin works. I think Bitcoin or gold are both great for this. Just keep in mind that when you buy Gold, you also invest indirectly on how safe the place you store it will be, because you can’t easily move the gold somewhere else. The more unsafe the place is, the more attractive Bitcoin is.
Poly: The definite advantage of Bitcoin over Gold. Awesome, Nicolas this was great! Tell us, how can readers find you and please go ahead if you want to share anything else with my readers.
Poly: Nice, this was very insightful and fun! Thanks for sharing your experience of living and using Bitcoin in Japan. Keep up the great work at BTCPay Server and maybe give Singapore a look as your future home base.
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