Blockchain Technology Explained
Blockchain is a ledger. Some of the most popular blockchains allow individuals to make instantaneous transactions on a decentralized network. By design, there are records kept on all blockchain transactions, and strong encryption algorithms ensure that no transaction can be altered once complete. Each block in the chain contains information on a transaction, and the chain linking the blocks together can be thought of as a ledger, listing the order in which the transactions occurred.
If you’ve been following developments in technology or business finance over the past couple of years, you’ve likely heard the terms “blockchain” and “Bitcoin” thrown around. They’re usually described in pretty confusing, complicated-sounding ways. So if you’re looking to have blockchain explained in simple, no-nonsense terms, you’ve come to the right place.
The reason you hear so much about blockchain is because blockchain technology revenues have risen dramatically over the past few years. By 2023, the blockchain technology market is expected to be worth more than $23.3 billion, with a majority of that expansion coming from the financial sector. That means blockchain and Bitcoin are technologies that can actually have an impact on you and your small business.
So let’s dive into everything you need to know about blockchain. Here is a blockchain explainer for you and your business.
What Is Blockchain?
Blockchain is a technology that can allow individuals and companies to make instantaneous transactions on a network without any middlemen (if they are decentralized). Transactions made on blockchain are completely secure, and, by function of blockchain technology, are kept as a record of what happened. Cryptographic encryption algorithms ensure that no record of a transaction on blockchain can be altered after the fact.
It’s important to note that blockchain is still emerging, which means many of its use cases are still being tested. Although the financial services industry in particular has embraced blockchain, with one out of every three businesses planning to adopt blockchain by 2020, 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.
Here’s a more in-depth look at what a blockchain looks like.
A Visualization of How Blockchain Works
You can explain a blockchain as literally a chain of blocks. Those blocks represent data, held all together in a specific order. The data stored in the blocks includes information about a transaction (date, time, amount), who is participating in the transaction (via a “digital signature“), and information that distinguishes an individual block from other blocks in the chain. This information is expressed as a unique code called a “hash.”
You can also imagine a blockchain 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 two very important concepts lumped together, so let’s take a closer look.
Blockchain Allows Companies to Make Transactions
Let’s say that the lemonade stands in a town are all using blockchain technology to process transactions.
Say John buys a lemonade from Sandy’s lemonade stand. On John’s copy of the blockchain, he marks that transaction down: “John bought Lemonade from Sandy, $2.” His copy gets spread around town to all the lemonade stands and lemonade buyers, who add this transaction to their own copies. By the time John has finished drinking that lemonade, everyone’s blockchain ledger shows that he bought his lemonade from Sandy for $2.
Blockchain Allows Companies to Verify Transactions
Let’s go back to the part where John’s blockchain copy was sent around town. In reality, everybody else wasn’t just adding his new block of data…. They were verifying it. If his transaction had said, “John bought Lemonade from Rishi, $500,” then somebody else would have (automatically!) flagged that transaction. Maybe Rishi isn’t an accredited lemonade salesperson in town, or everybody knows that that price is way too high for a single lemonade. Either way, John’s copy of the blockchain ledger isn’t accepted by everyone, because it doesn’t sync up with the rules of their blockchain network.
A lemonade stand is obviously a very simple way to explain blockchain, 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. No one can change the records, so blockchain is a trustworthy and fair source of information that any one can verify.
Some Blockchains Are Instantaneous
Here’s another thing about blockchain—it can be very fast.
Blockchains built for speed can process and verify transactions 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 can get processed by computers in milliseconds.
The reason why blockchain can be much faster than the alternative is because it’s decentralized, so let’s talk about that to finish off the definition.
Blockchain Is Decentralized
Certain Blockchains operate with no central authority. This is the kicker. Blockchain can let people or companies add and verify their transactions—without a single governing body making sure everything is 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:
- You write up the recipient of your money, the amount of the check, the date of your payment, and so on.
- You give the check to your landlord.
- Your landlord deposits the check in the bank.
- The bank processes the check, taking a few days to verify that all the information is correct, that you’re good for the money you promised to your landlord, and that the check isn’t counterfeit.
- Finally, your landlord receives their rent money.
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:
- You pay your landlord.
And … that’s it. Your transaction gets recorded on your blockchain, your landlord’s blockchain verifies the transaction, and everything is set.
Decentralized blockchains 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 the rundown on blockchain explained. 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.
The Nitty-Gritty of Blockchain Technology Explained
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 three most important parts:
- A network of computers/participants
- A network protocol
- A consensus mechanism
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 three 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.
5 Advantages of Blockchain
That’s blockchain explained. Now, the all-important question.…
Blockchain technology has four big advantages:
Since everyone in a blockchain network has access to the ledger and the rulebook, nobody involved gets left behind. You can see who owned or paid or gave or did what, at various points in time, whenever you want or need. It’s a totally transparent system. Furthermore, to ensure there are no nefarious nodes added to the blockchain, blockchain networks require new computers to participate in a “consensus test” (more on this later) to ensure they are trustworthy.
If a computer passes the consensus test, they become eligible to add blocks to the blockchain. This process is what those in the cryptocurrency world call “mining.”
Since everyone has a copy of the ledger that they use to validate the newest version, it’s a democratically secured system, too. There’s no single company or agency with extra power. Everyone is in charge. Furthermore, new blocks on the blockchain are always stored linearly and chronologically. After a block is added to the chain and receives its own hash, it is virtually impossible for a hacker to alter that block without having to then go back and alter every preceding block in the chain (which would require an immense amount of computing power).
3. Instantaneous Transactions
Blockchain transactions can take way less time than transactions that involve some sort of middleman, simply because they are self-validating.
4. No Central Authority
This one might sound a bit abstract—who cares if some sort of authority is watching over your transactions? But here’s the deal: When there’s a middleman, that middleman tends to slow things down and skim off the top, taking transaction fees and charging late penalties and all that business.
5. The Double-Spend Problem is Solved
One of the major benefits of blockchain technology is that it solves the double-spend problem. Here’s the short of the double-spend problem: Because digital money is just a computer file, it’s easy to counterfeit with a simple “copy and paste.” Without blockchain, banks keep track of everyone’s money in their accounts, so that no one “double-spends”—or spend the same money twice. Blockchain solves this problem differently and more efficiently than banks: it makes all transactions and accounts public so it’s blatantly obvious when money is being counted or used twice. (Don’t worry, your personal information isn’t included on the blockchain, though.)
The short story?
Using blockchain can potentially speed up transactions while cutting costs associated with third-party banks and lowering the risk of fraud. That means more speed, affordability, and security for everyone.
4 Disadvantages of Blockchain
There are a couple challenges to implementing blockchain.
1. For Blockchain to Work, Everyone Needs to Cooperate
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.
2. Blockchain Isn’t Regulated Just Yet
Blockchain is “emerging,” remember? 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.
3. Blockchain Could be Hacked, Raising Security Issues
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.
As you can tell from this guide, a simple explanation of blockchain technology isn’t easy. To really understand blockchain, it pretty much requires adopting an entirely new vocabulary with words like “hash,” “nodes,” and “mining.” Because of this, it’s taken quite awhile for blockchain to finally get mainstream appeal.
Who Uses Blockchain?
Here’s a brief list of some industries looking to incorporate blockchain technology:
- As we discussed, banks and financial services are using blockchain to cut out the middlemen—and a lot of time, money, and risk—when dealing with monetary transactions.
- Industries that are at high risk for fraud are starting to use blockchain to verify their wares. A few companies are implementing blockchain to prevent the false certification or sale of blood diamonds and stolen art, for example.
- Digital content like music, movies, and online ads could use blockchain to prevent piracy. By using new file formats that can play the media and encode blockchain data that reflects intellectual property and payment history, musicians and filmmakers wouldn’t be losing out on millions.
- In medicine, blockchain technology can be used to prevent the theft of pills through the supply chain and give medical history ownership back to patients (who can distribute it to their doctors, for certain amounts of time, as they want or need).
- In the food and drink industry, farmers could use blockchain to monitor their crops—and trace where and when food recalls occur.
- Insurance could be dramatically changed. Imagine a world where you can get insurance that lasts for a few hours, like if you’re doing some extreme sport. Or where Uber and Lyft drivers can bypass insurance companies by combining their money together on a blockchain and creating a safety net for themselves.
- Blockchain could help in politics by minimizing election fraud and increasing voter turnout. Each vote could be stored on the blockchain, making it impossible to alter. The blockchain could also increase transparency, while lowering the manpower needed to administer an election.
- Supply chains can use blockchain to record product status at each stage of production. Because blockchain is permanent and unchangeable, it makes it possible to trace each product its source.
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, Deloitte has a more in-depth breakdown of which industries are investing in blockchain technology.
Small Business and Blockchain: What’s in It for You?
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 explaining blockchain technology, we hinted at something that could actually make an impact on your business: a blockchain-based currency called Bitcoin.
Bitcoin is a strange concept to wrap your head around—unless you understand blockchain, that is.
What Is Bitcoin?
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 $165.34 billion, with each bitcoin clocking in at around $9,174 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 of 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 this is 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 bitcoins can make fast, secure, low-fee transactions whenever they want, to anyone in the world. It’s a universal currency.
Acquiring bitcoins 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).
Note that, in order to run transactions on the Bitcoin network, participants must run a program called a “wallet.” Learn more about Bitcoin wallets here.
Bitcoin Miners and Your Financial Security
With a market that large—spanning the entire Earth!—how does the Bitcoin blockchain get monitored? After all, the whole point is that the blockchain gives Bitcoin its stability and security, right?
People called Bitcoin miners get paid in bitcoin in exchange for running complex algorithms on their super-powered computers (the aforementioned consensus test) 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 big catch is that the cost of infrastructure for mining can be prohibitive for some—which is a hindrance to Bitcoin’s “decentralized” nature.
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.
6 Reasons Small Business Owners Should Consider Accepting Bitcoin
It’s a contentious topic, but thousands of small and large businesses around the world accept bitcoin as payment.
Accepting bitcoin simply entails….
- Advertising that you accept bitcoin.
- Figuring out how you want customers to be able to pay (through an online merchant solution, an in-person touch-screen app, a point of sale system, or a QR code, for example).
- Working with your accountant to understand how to incorporate bitcoin into your finances.
- Setting prices often to accommodate for Bitcoin value fluctuations.
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:
1. It’s Cheaper
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.
2. It’s Fast
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.
3. It’s Border-Proof
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.
4. You Can Hold Onto Them as an Investment
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.
5. Like With Cash, Bitcoin Transactions Are Final
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.
6. It Has Marketing Potential
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.
5 Potential Drawbacks of Small Businesses Using Bitcoin
Are you ready to adopt Bitcoin for your small business? Hold on a moment—there are downsides for you to consider. Many of them overlap with the disadvantages of blockchain explained in our earlier section.
1. It’s Unregulated
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.
2. Its Value Fluctuates
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.
For example, in the later half of 2018, Bitcoin’s valuation started dropping precipitously. Bitcoin regained its value for the most part, but it’s important to watch the Bitcoin market if you’ve invested in this for your business.
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 potentially 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.
3. Taxes and Financial Planning Can Get Complicated
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.
4. Pricing Can Also Get Complicated
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.
5. You Have to Be Comfortable With Technology
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.
What About Ether?
No blockchain guide would be complete without mentioning ether. Ether is a digital currency, just like bitcoin. Unlike bitcoin, ether operates on the Ethereum network (whereas Bitcoin operates on the Bitcoin network). Both are built on the blockchain network, meaning both currencies can be decentralized, transparent, and secure.
The difference between Ethereum and Bitcoin is something called “smart contracts.” With Bitcoin you can take part in a global financial network—with Ethereum you can participate in a global computational network through the use of smart contracts. According to BlockGeeks, “a smart contract is a computer protocol intended to digitally facilitate, verify, or enforce the negotiation or performance of a contract. Smart contracts allow the performance of credible transactions without third parties.”
This means Ethereum can have an array of practical applications in finance, medical records, supply chain management, and more. So where Bitcoin aims to disrupt payments, Ethereum has the goal of disrupting internet systems that store data and keep track of information.
While none of this is directly meaningful to a small business owner (unless you want to build your business on the Ethereum network), it helps to understand that ether and Ethereum exist, and are major players in the blockchain space.
What Business Owners Say About Blockchain Technology
Now that you (hopefully) understand the ins and outs of blockchain, let’s end by hearing from entrepreneurs who use blockchain technology. We asked small business owners across America about the pros and cons of blockchain, how they use it in their business, and any advice they’d give to others. Here’s what they had to say:
“Businesses mainly think of cryptocurrency or blockchain as an alternative to money and assume it’s just a way to pay suppliers, retailers etc. However, one of the biggest advantages and most useful aspects of blockchain for businesses is it can handle agreements such as financial contracts and insurance policies. All parties on the blockchain are privy to a shared ledger that cannot be changed. Clients and companies can easily verify any agreements added to the chain. Smart contracts can also use blockchain to verify that the terms of the contract meet the benchmark criteria. All handled in a programmatic way with the blockchain software.” — Peter Mead, head of marketing, Bitcoin Australia
“Blockchain is relatively new in the healthcare industry, but it’s a huge improvement compared to the current way records are stored. The main challenge with blockchain is that it’s still in its infancy stage, and not a lot of people fully understand its capabilities. However, once that obstacle is overcome there are many challenges in healthcare that can be alleviated including lack of consistency with privileges and rules, differences in data standards, and the need to create health information exchanges.” — Brandon Schroth, digital manager, Gillware
“The best way to adopt blockchain technology is to get familiar with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ether—adopt them as a payment method—and then figure out if deeper use of distributed ledger technology can benefit your business in any way. If SMB’s choose to accept cryptocurrency, they should take time to understand the custody issue with cryptocurrencies—they can outsource the payment processing or choose to store and secure cryptocurrency themselves.” Charles Phan, CTO, Interdax
The Bottom Line
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.