PushstartAU founder John Haining was at Australia’s first Bitcoin Barcamp held in Sydney over the weekend. Here’s what he thought.
“Bitcoin is not money under Australian tax law,” said tax lawyer Matthew Cridland of DLA Piper.
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A crowd of 130 developers, entrepreneurs, financial tech innovators and information security experts bristled at Cridland’s words at the recent Bitcoin Barcamp at the ATP Innovations* National Innovation Centre in Sydney.
Cridland was a presenter at the first Australian ‘unconference’ on the cryptocurrency that addressed topics from bitcoin 101, how to keep your bitcoin safe (with concerns about exchanges like MtGox as well as operating system and USB security dominating the discussion), through to the future of digital currencies and the bitcoin improvement proposal, as well as what regulatory and consumer changes would be needed for broad adoption of digital cryptocurrencies.
There was optimism about bitcoins as a future for exchange evident throughout the discussions. Attendees pointed out the failings of traditional currency, the limited guarantees for Australian bank deposits, and expressed surprise at how the uninitiated reacted to the novelty of cryptocurrencies. Advantages such as near real-time transactions, the security of the bitchain and the intellectual elegance of the approach were listed as success factors.
Hanging in the Bitcoin Lounge
In the Bitcoin Lounge, attendees were able to get more hands on. The lounge played host to leading Australian innovators and startups who are helping to make bitcoin a reality. The lounge featured over five bitcoin-based businesses. Coinjar, a Blackbird Ventures-backed digital wallet and exchange startup from Melbourne with over 20,000 users, let attendees create a new wallet with $20. (I received 0.0272 bitcoins from CoinJar, which have gone down in value at the time of writing!)
Attendees also had the chance to wave goodbye to Australian currency and buy bitcoins in as little as 15 seconds using one of the first Lamassu bitcoin converters in Australia.
BitPOS, which allows vendors to easily accept bitcoins, provided payment services for the day, including the end-of-day networking session, Bitcoin Beers.
Where were the banks?
With all of the financial innovation in the space, there was limited participation from existing financial players. Only a handful of attendees came from Australian banks, with one Macquarie Bank employee admitting to being there in a personal capacity, and not knowing if Macquarie Bank was doing anything in relation to cryptocurrencies.
The day culminated in a pitchfest from the various startup companies, assessed by finance tech experts Opher Yom-Tov (formerly of Westpac) and Kim Heras, general partner in fund 25Fifteen.
That more than 100 people turned out on a sunny Sydney Saturday to talk and learn about a niche topic is probably the most remarkable outcome of the day. Other innovations, such as education technology, wearables, and the internet of things also have strong interest, but nowhere near this level of committed participation.
As the day drew to a close, the words of the tax lawyer hung over the room. Bitcoin may not yet be legal tender in Australian – at best they are a tradable bundle of rights** – but if the enthusiastic entrepreneurs at the Bitcoin Barcamp have their way, that day may not be too far away.
* I am a director of ATP Innovations.
** Australian tax law is a funny thing: You (or your business) may be liable to GST, income tax or capital gains tax on bitcoin transactions. They may not be money, but they may cost you money. Get professional advice!
John Haining is a co-founder of PushStart, a startup community company, a director of ATP Innovations, Australia’s leading business incubator.