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If you’ve been following new developments in technology or finance over the past couple of years, you might’ve heard the terms “blockchain” and “bitcoin” thrown around. They’re usually described in some pretty confusing, complicated-sounding ways….
But as it turns out, blockchain and bitcoin are technologies that can actually have an impact on you and your small business.
That’s what we’re here to discuss. Welcome to blockchain explained: the small business owner’s guide to blockchain and bitcoin.
First off, what is blockchain? The name is pretty befuddling—is it a block, or a chain, or what?
Here’s a typical explanation from the Wall Street Journal:
Blockchain is “emerging as a way to let companies make and verify transactions on a network instantaneously without a central authority.”
Hmm … alright. That’s not too helpful. Let’s break down their definition by a couple of important words.
“Emerging”: Blockchain is emerging, which means it’s still being tested. Although the financial services industry in particular has embraced blockchain, with 40 or so of their biggest companies trying it out, many different industries stand to benefit from blockchain.
Including small business.
But the point is that, for now, people are still figuring out how exactly they can use blockchain to cut costs and keep quality products and services around.
“Companies”: Although this definition focuses on companies, blockchain technology can actually be used by anyone. That’s what bitcoin is—but we’ll get there a little later on.
“Make and verify transactions on a network”: Okay, this one is tough but important, and it gets to the heart of the matter.
You can imagine a blockchain as, funnily enough, a chain of blocks. Those blocks represent data, held all together in a specific order.
You can also imagine it as a ledger—because that’s essentially how most blockchains function. Each block of data represents some new transaction on the ledger, whether that means a contract or a sale or whatever else you’d use a ledger for. A blockchain is a record of transactions.
Using blockchain, companies (or people!) can both make and verify these transactions. That’s actually 2 very important concepts lumped together, so let’s take a closer look.
A lemonade stand is a bit of a simple example, but it gets the point across: Adding a transaction to a blockchain involves getting it verified. Whatever your “network” is—whether it’s lemonade stands or big banks—everyone will have agreed to rules that determine which transactions are valid and which are not.
In fact, this “democratic” system of security is one of the biggest reasons why so many people are flocking to blockchain right now.
“Instantaneously”: Here’s another thing about blockchain—it’s fast.
Transactions get processed and verified much more quickly than the alternative systems. This might seem counterintuitive, because the lemonade example makes it sound like everyone has to copy everything that happens to the chain….
But in actuality, these transactions get processed by computers in milliseconds.
The reason why blockchain is much faster than the alternative is because it’s decentralized, so let’s talk about that to finish off the definition.
“Without a central authority”: This is the kicker. Blockchain lets people or companies add and verify their transactions—without a single governing body making sure everything is a-okay.
Let’s take a straightforward example:
Paying your rent with a check versus with some sort of blockchain-based currency. (Yup, that’s bitcoin—but we’ll get there!)
Three parties are involved when you pay by check. Here’s how it goes down:
This diagram shows the above process, except with stock transactions instead of rent payments:
Meanwhile, if you’re paying with a blockchain-based currency, the transaction is just between you and your landlord:
And … that’s it. Your transaction gets recorded on your blockchain, your landlord’s blockchain verifies the transaction, and everything is set.
You’ve essentially cut out the middleman.
Here’s what a blockchain looks like with more than just you and your landlord participating:
When one copy of the blockchain ledger gets changed, they all verify that transaction before adding it to their own ledgers. And blockchain is faster than the alternative, because everybody involved doesn’t have to wait on a single, slow-moving source for verification. It all happens simultaneously.
By now, you’ve got a pretty firm understanding of the idea behind blockchain technology. It’s not too complicated, even though it sounds convoluted.
If you’re interested in diving in a bit deeper into what actually makes up a blockchain system, check out the next section.
So far, we’ve got that a blockchain is a digital ledger shared between a network of people. Each participant can manipulate that ledger, recording new blocks of data onto the chain, but with each transaction the entire chain gets analyzed by everyone to make sure it’s still accurate.
In other words, everyone has their own copy of the ledger…. But nobody can make a change without everyone agreeing to it. It’s a democratic system.
To really get blockchain explained, let’s break down a blockchain system into its 3 most important parts:
Depending on the permissions of the blockchain, it can be public, and open to anyone with a computer, or private, accessible only by specific members. Each computer is called a node, and it makes up one part of the network of participants in the blockchain.
A network protocol is, in plain English, a rulebook that determines how those nodes can talk to each other. Typically, each node has its own copy of the general ledger (the blockchain) so there’s protection against mistakes or fraud. That redundancy, called “fault tolerance,” is what makes blockchain unique.
Finally, the consensus mechanism is the process by which a blockchain network verifies transactions and comes to an agreement on what the current, accurate blockchain is.
Remember in our lemonade example, how people in town knew that Rishi wasn’t allowed to sell lemonade and that $500 was way too expensive for a drink made from lemon juice, sugar, and water? Those sorts of rules were agreed upon beforehand by every node in the network—they’re a defining feature of the network. If they didn’t exist, then anyone could sell lemonade for however much they wanted.
Public blockchain networks tend to have pretty high standards for security, while private networks might be a little more trusting. But either way, the rules that form the consensus mechanism are what gives blockchain technology its flexibility and power. Anyone, individually, can check the validity of each transaction and come to a conclusion on whether it’s good or not.
If all this seems a bit over-the-top, don’t worry—it’s not too important to understand unless you’re curious about how it all works.
Just know that generally speaking, a blockchain system requires 3 things: people or companies dealing with each other, a relationship between those people or companies, and a rulebook they all agree on that explains which transactions are okay and which are not.
That’s blockchain explained. Now, the all-important question.…
Blockchain technology has 4 big advantages:
The short story?
Using blockchain can potentially speed up transactions while cutting costs and lowering the risk of fraud. That means more speed, affordability, and security for everyone.
Great question. This wouldn’t be blockchain explained if we didn’t scrutinize the potential drawbacks.
There are a couple challenges to implementing blockchain….
In order to belong to a blockchain network, each company needs to be upfront and forthcoming about their own security protocols. Transactions added to the blockchain need to be transparent to everyone else, so they can verify the blockchain—that’s the point.
Which means that, while a blockchain can be encrypted to protect itself against hackers, the data in each block can’t be.
Companies might be understandably hesitant about removing some of their safety features in order to accommodate blockchain technologies, and for good reason.
Getting everyone on a blockchain network to “agree” to certain kinds and levels could be difficult—and implementing those additional security layers to make sure everyone is up to snuff is another hurdle altogether.
Blockchain is “emerging,” remember?
Or in other words, the government isn’t quite sure how to handle it—and neither are many companies. It’ll take some time before regulations and laws governing the use of blockchain get written, especially in the financial sector, but they’re bound to come up sooner or later.
And that’s an uncertainty that not everyone is comfortable with.
Blockchain as an idea is pretty secure…. Everyone double-checks their records to make sure there’s no fraud going on.
But what about hacking? If a bank gets robbed, it just loses its own cash—but if a blockchain gets hacked into and 40 banks are on that network, then a lot more damage could be done. The potential dangers here haven’t been fleshed out completely, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Here’s a brief list of some industries looking to incorporate blockchain technology:
Blockchain is a development that lends itself to creativity—so we’ll likely see some very interesting uses in the future.
If you’re curious, check out this list for more in-depth explanations.
It’s true: Blockchain, at the moment, is a tough technology to adopt for most small business owners. Unless you’re a startup looking to disrupt an industry, it probably won’t directly impact your business.
But over the course of blockchain explained, we hinted at something that could actually make an impact on your business.
That’s right … a blockchain-based currency called bitcoin.
Bitcoin is a strange concept to wrap your head around—unless you understand blockchain, that is.
So let’s figure out what all the hubbub is about.
Created in 2009, bitcoin is an all-digital “cryptocurrency” that doesn’t pay attention to banks, governments, or international borders. There’s a cap of 21 million bitcoins—so inflation is not possible—and the current bitcoin market is valued at $12 billion, with each bitcoin clocking in at around $800 right now.
By using blockchain technology, the inventor(s) of bitcoin (a mysterious person or group known only as Satoshi Nakamoto) gave their currency the ability to exist without some sort regulatory oversight.
Every person who participates in the bitcoin network—everyone who buys with, sells in, or owns bitcoins—has their own copy of the bitcoin blockchain.
See where is this going?
Whether you’re an individual buying a lemonade or a multinational lemonade company selling your beverages, each transaction you add to the blockchain is checked against everyone else’s blockchain ledgers. This system prevents anyone from using the same bitcoin more than once—which was the biggest problem with all-digital currencies before bitcoin came along.
Since bitcoin is a purely person-to-person digital currency model, anyone using bitcoin can make fast, secure, low-fee transactions whenever they want, to anyone in the world.
It’s a universal currency.
Acquiring bitcoin is as easy as buying some (like exchanging money for foreign currency) or accepting some from others (if they want to buy your lemonade in bitcoin, for example).
Bitcoin Miners and Your Financial Security
With a market that large—spanning the entire Earth!—then how does the bitcoin blockchain get monitored? After all, the whole point is that the blockchain gives bitcoin its stability and security, right?
And here’s the answer:
People called bitcoin miners (yes, really) get paid in bitcoin in exchange for running complex algorithms on their super-powered computers to verify bitcoin transactions for other people.
Bitcoin transactions are subject to very small fees that add up to pay these miners, who essentially keep the market going. Without bitcoin miners, the bitcoin blockchain couldn’t check itself….
And there would be no bitcoin.
The catch? You need an incredibly powerful computer to double-check the bitcoin blockchain.
With the unique “miner” addition, the bitcoin marketplace made it possible for a global blockchain to support this all-digital, no-regulation currency that anyone can buy or sell.
That’s all well and good, but how can you use bitcoin to help your small business?
It’s a contentious topic, but over 100,000 businesses small and large around the world accept bitcoin as payment.
That simply entails….
Otherwise, it’s fairly straightforward—bitcoin works a lot like cash, but it requires more technological know-how.
As it turns out, bitcoin has lots of the same advantages that blockchain also has. Here are a few reasons you might want to consider accepting bitcoin as payment from customers:
Unlike big corporations, small businesses don’t have a lot of bargaining power over things like credit card fees and transaction fees. With bitcoin, these fees are drastically reduced, saving mom-and-pop stores a lot of money.
And since there’s no central authority controlling the amount of bitcoins in the market—there’s up to 21 million bitcoins, and no more, available—it’s not a currency that can undergo artificial inflation.
Compared to credit card transactions, which can take days because they rely on centralized authorities like banks, bitcoin transactions can take seconds or minutes to get verified.
This means your business can receive its payments right away … easing up your cash flow.
Does your small business export to other countries? Using bitcoin means you don’t need to deal with foreign currencies or exchange rates. It’s a borderless world to the bitcoin user.
If you’re concerned about business taxes, know that you generally only need to pay on bitcoin exchanges when you cash in your bitcoins for dollars or spend them on something else. Check your local laws to make sure this is the case for you! (We’ll go more in-depth into taxes in the next section.)
However, the value of bitcoins can be pretty fluid—so if you’re waiting for an increase in their worth, you can hold onto bitcoins without paying any penalties.
That means an unhappy customer can’t dispute your payment like they could with a credit card, and it means that you get your money, irreversibly, right away. Even though it’s a digital currency, bitcoin doesn’t rely on credit.
Some small businesses have found that “accepting bitcoin” can attract younger clientele, even if it’s not used too often as a payment method. It says something about your business and your brand if you’re willing to step into the next biggest thing in financial technology.
That said, there are some potential problems you should take into account when thinking of accepting bitcoins. Many of them overlap with the disadvantages of blockchain explained in our earlier section.
There’s nothing stopping bitcoin from completely shutting down tomorrow.
Okay, that’s a bit alarmist, and probably wouldn’t happen—but as an unregulated form of currency, bitcoin is naturally a riskier investment than good old dollar bills. That’s one reason why some countries have placed bans or restrictions on the use of bitcoin, in fact.
This is a selling point and a danger of using bitcoin—and is probably one of the biggest impacts bitcoin would have on your business.
The value of bitcoins changes every day. Although the U.S. dollar (and every other currency) also fluctuates regularly, those shifts are small and more predictable. On a month-to-month basis, the value of a bitcoin can rise from $350 to $1,250, then drop down to $600.
What does this mean for your business?
It’s entirely possible that the bitcoins you own today are worth much less tomorrow … leaving you out in the cold.
But on the other hand, you could receive some bitcoins whose value then skyrocket a few months later, providing you with a nice cash flow windfall.
The point is: Accepting bitcoin is far less predictable, but much more lucrative, than just accepting dollar bills. Whether your business can or should take the risk is up to you.
(That said, if you’re willing and able to pay for it, there are services that will immediately convert bitcoin transactions into U.S. dollars—making your decision quite a bit easier.)
Although you can hold onto bitcoins as investments instead of cashing out, it can be tough to plan your business finances around your bitcoin income, since the value fluctuates so often. If you’re drawing up a cash flow analysis for a business loan application, for example, you might struggle with figuring out how to account for your bitcoin sales.
Plus, dealing with the IRS if you accept a lot of bitcoin in exchange for your goods and services might be more complicated than you want. Technically, the IRS sees bitcoin as a property, not a currency. This can get messy, since a bitcoin exchange can involve a gain or a loss in U.S. dollars, even if you’re gaining bitcoins. Talk to your accountant before diving into the world of bitcoin, and keep an eye out for future developments regarding bitcoin regulation.
If you have customers from all over the world buying your goods and services with bitcoin, when bitcoin itself holds a different value from day to day … what should you charge? You might need to constantly update your pricing to reflect the shifts in bitcoin valuation.
Some point-of-sale services that deal in bitcoins could help you price your products, but those generally are not free services. You have to make a tradeoff based on how much you expect to make in bitcoin and how well the market is doing.
It might go without saying, but incorporating bitcoin into your business model means you have to feel pretty comfortable dealing with technology. If that doesn’t sound like you, it might be best to stay away.
There it is—that’s blockchain explained.
Hopefully now you’ve got a solid grasp on what blockchain is, why everyone’s talking about it, and how it can impact your small business. Whether or not you decide to accept bitcoins as a form of payment depends on you and your small business needs.