How Bitcoin Took Off Only After its Champions Met IRL

Recognizing that in-person conversations would be important to the development of the digital financial system, Keynote CEO Moe Levin launched a 2013 event for 300 attendees, some who now are considered pioneers in cryptocurrency. In 2018, 6,000 attended The North American Bitcoin Conference.

Author: David McMillin       

North American Bitcoin Conference

A new financial system concept outlined in a 2009 white paper grew into the annual North American Bitcoin Conference, which drew 6,000 participants to Miami in 2018.

In early 2009, a white paper started floating around the internet. Written by a mysterious author (or authors) named Satoshi Nakamoto, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” put forth a bold idea: It was time to build a completely new financial system. Around 18 months later, bitcoin had a valuation of $0.08 — the world, it seemed, wasn’t quite ready for the new financial system.

“The bitcoin project began with newsletters and discussions in cypherpunk groups,” Moe Levin told Convene. “It was very niche for a very long time.”

Levin started exploring bitcoin in 2012 on an online forum called Bitcointalk, which he considered to be the only go-to source for cryptocurrency conversations. “That was really it,” he said. “There was some discussion on Twitter, but Bitcointalk was the centralized place.”

After contributing to those discussions, Levin concluded that an online forum was insufficient for the digital currency to go anywhere. “Nobody knew each other,” Levin said. “The community needed to get together. I thought it would be great to put a face with the online username, so I posted to ask if anyone had any interest in coming to an event.”

The response was encouraging enough for Levin to borrow some money from his then-girlfriend — they have since married — to rent what he described as the “cheapest place,” a comedy hall in Amsterdam, buy some bitcoin, and plan
a conference for September 2013. The event “wasn’t well-thought-out,” Levin said. “It was more of a ‘let’s put some people together and see what happens’ model.”

His instincts were right. Approximately 300 attendees showed up, the majority of whom weren’t interested in the potential for the skyrocketing valuation of bitcoin, according to Levin. Instead, many of them were “politically-driven, libertarian types who saw an opportunity for a new kind of monetary system.” Today, some of those original attendees are considered the true pioneers of the industry. Among them: Vitalik Buterin, who went on to launch Ethereum — currently the second-most well-known cryptocurrency that is forging partnerships with Visa and other established financial institutions — at Levin’s follow-up event in North America. And the leaders who went on to launch Binance, the world’s largest bitcoin exchange, and BitPay, a payment-processing service, were also in Amsterdam at that launch event.

North American Bitcoin Conference

The North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami is where “people let their hair down and meet the interesting people who are shaping the industry.”

‘The Serendipity Machine’

“Being at the event meant that these people could collaborate,” Levin said. “I like to call it ‘The Serendipity Machine.’ The serendipity of meeting at an event, sitting next to each other and having a drink helped a fraction of those people go on to work together and launch major new projects.”

Levin has continued to rely on the serendipity machine as the founder and CEO of Keynote, a global cryptocurrency and blockchain event organizer. The company has organized the World Blockchain Forum series with events in Dubai, London, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Keynote’s landmark event is The North American Bitcoin Conference, an annual gathering in Miami Beach that looks much different than a few hundred people convening at the cheapest venue possible. In 2018, the conference attracted 6,000 participants.

Apolo Ohno

Olympic speed skating medalist Apolo Ohno founded cryptocurrency-focused company Hybridblock in 2018.

Levin wasn’t the only one who recognized that in-person conversations were foundational to the development of bitcoin and the entire blockchain ecosystem. Apolo Ohno, Olympic speed skating medalist, founded cryptocurrency-focused company Hybridblock in 2018 with a shared belief that face-to-face was fundamental to the expansion of the industry.

“In such a young space, everyone is learning and maturing together,” Ohno wrote in a 2018 Medium post titled “Why Blockchain Conferences Will Be Key to Mass Adoption of This New Technology.” “In-person events facilitate a vital exchange of ideas, and you never know what will come out of a conference,” Ohno wrote. “Bringing together people and ideas creates a cohesive community, committed to moving crypto to its next chapter.”

That year alone, Ohno’s company organized 14 events across Asia — a number that outpaced his Olympic medal count of eight — in an effort “to appeal to everyone from investors to government officials to individuals who just want to find out what blockchain is.”

Many financial traditionalists scoffed at cryptocurrency in the early days — Warren Buffett famously called bitcoin “rat poison” — but today, those same bankers are trying to capitalize on the digital financial movement. Levin acknowledges that it can be “tricky” to unite different subsets of the community: Bankers don’t have much in common with libertarians who want to do away with the banking industry. However, he has preserved the original spirit that spurred that first event in Amsterdam.

“People come to Miami to let their hair down in January and meet the interesting people who are shaping the industry,” Levin said. “We don’t target the people wearing suits. A lot of them still come, though, because Miami is the headline event.”

Bitcoin looks attractive to anyone in the financial industry — whether they’re wearing a suit or sandals. At press time, one bitcoin was worth more than $50,000.

David McMillin, former Convene associate editor, is a freelance writer based in Chicago.


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