#55 James & Per & Steve buy beer with Bitcoin

On Obama-day here in Stockholm we were joined by Stephen Early, owner of Individual Pubs in the UK and, earlier this year, became the first pubs in the UK to offer Bitcoin as a payment option.

We talk to Steve about why he decided to start offering Bitcoin payments, how the user experience is for everyone involved (Steve, staff & punters) as well as what makes a successful payment system. How can you beat the simplicity of cash?

(Listening time: 50 minutes)

https://twitter.com/uxpodcast/status/375941741859598336

References:

Transcript:

Per: Hello and welcome to episode 55 of UX Podcast. You’re listening to me Per Axbom.

James: And me James Royal-Lawson.

Per: It’s Obama Day.

James: It’s Obama Day. “What’s that?” you all ask. Is it international? Do we all celebrate it?

Per: Wow.

James: Do we put Obama-masks on and run around and pretend to be the presidents of the United States of America?

Per: No. Barack Obama, the president of the United States is now in Sweden, in Stockholm. Now he has just arrived from the airport I think.

James: Yeah, about an hour ago.

View the full transcript

Per: Yeah.

James: Now for the American listeners out there, this is probably very interesting because what happens when the president of the United States comes to your city as we found out today is they close your city down basically.

Per: Yes, everything is closed. I mean it would have been impossible for me to like take the car or the bike into town today.

James: Yeah. The shops and everything are open of course, we don’t mean like that but they’ve closed off a huge amount of roads in town, all the way to town and that and airports and things just so the president and all these hundreds of people can …

Per: Right. So I do believe a lot of people in Stockholm are actually working from home today.

James: Looking at the traffic this morning, then yes.

Per: And the few people sitting outside. We’re sat in a hotel lobby near Medborgarplatsen if anyone should know where that is.

James: I actually biked here.

Per: Oh, yeah. How very fit you are.

James: Oh, well no, but I just live this side of the road. It wasn’t too much effort.

Per: And I hope the sound – well, the surrounding sound is pretty OK I can think. We’re testing the new Zoom H6 for sound as well.

James: Oh, you can write about that on our kit page.

Per: Yes. Finally I think I’m actually satisfied with this kit we’re using so I’m going to write about it on our blog.

James: Well, today is episode 55.

Per: Yes, it is.

James: And we are going to talk about bitcoin. Well actually, we’re going to talk a little bit about payments and the user experience of payments and ease of payments and when you want to buy something. You did a talk last week…

Per: Yes, I did for politicians and organizations and like municipalities in another part of Sweden actually and diving into that subject of payment systems, I realized that this is going off the charts, the number of different payment systems we have, what’s happening. You think they’re making them more useful. You would assume them to be making them more useful but like paying for parking, we talked about that previously.

James: It’s so irritating at times.

Per: It’s insane.

James: It doesn’t work when you check out unfortunately for me earlier in the week and ended up making three phone calls.

Per: So I’ve gone back to cash for paying parking because I pay in seconds but it takes minutes if you pay with cards.

James: That’s exactly what I felt on Monday when I had that problem with that payment. The car park machine and I was thinking, oh no, I really need to start using money again for these because it’s easier. The user experience and the convenience of cash in those situations is still simple.

I mean I generally avoid a lot of these payment systems or an offer because they’re still too complicated. I want something that is easier than the existing one, that’s easier than my card, my Visa card or my chip and pin…

Per: Exactly, it has to be easier.

James: Or easier than cash.

Per: Yeah

James: It has got to be easier than those two.

Per: Or it has to offer some sort of significant advantage over everything else.

James: Oh yeah, it has to be really a significant advantage. Up to now everything is quite irritating or annoying or doesn’t – there’s something which makes it complicated.

Per: I also have the example of – I mean if you’re wanting to travel by public transport on buses in Sweden now, if you go to different towns, it’s a different payment system.

James: You need to register in different …

Per: Yeah, you have a different – you register beforehand. Actually at a Örebro where I was, thinking you could pay with credit card on the bus but not a lot of places offer that. So basically when you travel in Sweden, you would have no idea how you’re going to use the bus and you have to research beforehand and install apps and it’s a nightmare.

James: Which is a huge problem for users, for people trying to use public transport. But I know as well that – you may be even interested how you maybe pay for a bus trip as an individual. I have some friends across earlier in the – from England and suddenly I was in a situation where I knew how I could use the bus. But I had actually no idea how they could use the bus.

Per: Exactly, yeah.

James: And you were learning intensely. Like I learned that you could pay for the metro here with – we could pay several people’s journeys with one travel card.

Per: I heard that as well now. Yeah.

James: But what I also learned from that trip is you can’t on the buses.

Per: Really?

James: So they managed to pay for a valid journey for two people and they took the train and then we took the bus and ended up somewhere near the coast.

Per: Yeah.

James: And then we wanted to come back but they couldn’t do the same type of transaction on the way back because the bus wouldn’t – it couldn’t – the bus couldn’t. There were multi-person transactions on one travel card. You had to have personal individual travel cards.

Per: So, yeah, so people aren’t just getting frustrated. They’re getting stranded.

James: Effectively. Yeah, bus driver was nice. You better leave – understood the problem that we’ve gotten out there using preferably legitimate payments and systems but couldn’t get back using the same method.

Per: Oh, man.

James: So what we’re going to do is we’re going to ring up …

Per: We should mention something about bitcoin as well I think because it’s a difficult concept to grasp for a lot of people. We will be talking about bitcoin today because the man we’re ringing up is accepting bitcoins in his pubs.

James: Yeah, as a form of payment.

Per: And bitcoin is – you’ve probably seen it in the news. If you’re listening to our podcast, I’m guessing you’re sort of aware of it but if you Google it, it’s called a …

James: Decentralized currency.

Per: Virtual crypto currency and it’s called crypto currency because it’s sort of secure actually.

James: It’s based on public key transactions …

Per: Yeah, like encrypted email if you’ve ever used that. It’s sort of the same thing. You have a key and an unlock key.

James: But at the same time, it’s a little bit torrent like – in that it’s peer to peer. It’s peerless so there’s no central place, bitcoin.

Per: Exactly, yeah.

James: They float around. These transactions float around. These coins float around in an internet-based system.

Per: Yeah, there’s no owner of …

James: You can tell I’m not really an expert on bitcoin.

Per: No, I’m not either but there’s no central bank or central system. It’s just it’s floating around out there. It’s like cash. It’s floating around and you can pay securely.

James: But it’s the most widely adopted digital currency at the moment.

Per: Yes, it is.

James: That’s basically all we really need to know going into the conversation because we want to know more about the usability or the user experience out of this. We’re going to ring up an old friend of mine called Stephen Early and he runs a small chain of pubs in England. There are five of them now.

Per: Yeah.

James: And just before the summer or in June, he hit the news by the fact that he became the first pub in the UK to accept bitcoins and Wired and Guardian, quite a lot of UK media organizations picked up on this story and he got a lot of publicity and it became quite a topic. So it has died down a bit now and we thought it was probably a good time to bring up the topic and talk to him. He can reflect back on it. We can learn a bit about his experience and more about why and how it works.

Per: Let’s call him up.

James: Let’s call him.

[Music]

James: Hello Steve.

Stephen: Hello.

James: Hello there.

Per: Hello.

James: Welcome to UX Podcast.

Per: So Stephen, where are you sitting? This is Per Axbom speaking.

Stephen: Hi. I’m just in Cambridge at the moment. I’m visiting just to go through the books of the pub, the same as I do at the start of every month.

Per: Oh, OK.

James: Hi Steve, I’m James Royal-Lawson but you know that because …

Per: Yeah, give us a background. How do you guys know each other?

James: I will give you a little bit of background because listen to the show. If you know the theme tune to our show then that’s composed and created by Daniel Pugh who me, Daniel and Steve in the early 90s used to be in a band together. So 20 years ago. That’s how old we are Steve.

Per: So is there a soundtrack we can listen to?

James: I’ve got them all in MP3s. Dan didn’t – he wanted to get a hold of them and do some kind of reprocessing of them before I let them loose everywhere.

Per: Excuses, excuses.

James: Yeah, there are always excuses. But I would like to set them all free. It was really good fun and we did some really good stuff by then.

Stephen: It would take another 20 years.

James: I’m guessing about that. But me and Steve actually grew up in the same village.

Per: OK.

James: Kirk Ella in Hull, in England. And back in the day, you were a computer – you were very interested in computers like I was and we spent hours doing lots of geeky computer stuff in the 80s and 90s. Steve went on to do computer science. But then you got a little bit bored of it, didn’t you Steve?

Stephen: I certainly took a different direction, yes. Ten or eleven years ago, I started running pubs.

James: Which I think is an excellent move.

Per: Yeah, from computers to pubs. I mean they mix perfectly.

James: But what I like though is of course you can’t take the computer geekery away.

Per: Yes.

James: And I think you’ve done some great stuff that proves that Steve.

Stephen: Yes. Around – well, after we’ve been running pubs for a year or two, we found that we had certain problems, things like stock control. We were using tills that have just been bought off the shelf and they only really looked after the money and they didn’t have any kind of stock control feature. So I looked around in the marketplace, wondering if anyone could sell me anything sensible and the answer turned out to be no, not really. Not a kind of sensible price. So I took a lot of evenings and wrote system and we’ve been using it ever since.

Per: That’s amazing actually.

James: Yeah, the combination though of entrepreneurship of running your own pubs and then being capable of just throwing together a stock control and till system.

Per: So if we searched for your name and bitcoin now in Google, there are lots of articles popping up about how you’re accepting bitcoin.

Stephen: Yes. I have to say it has been my best ever accidental publicity campaign.

Per: Yeah, I can imagine.

Stephen: This is something I knocked it together in a couple of days, I didn’t expect it to be a big deal but then once it appeared on Reddit, lots of people became very interested and I spent about two weeks solid talking to the media about it. I didn’t expect it but not unwelcome.

James: No, all publicity is good publicity especially when it’s positive publicity.

Per: Yeah. Now why is it do you think that everyone became so interested?

Stephen: I think because – well, I wasn’t the first company to start accepting bitcoin. There are places in Germany. There are places in America. I think I was the first company to actually integrate it properly with the till system. Everybody else seems to be using a phone or a tablet or something like that just to go to a website and take payments effectively manually. Mine was the first system that actually had it properly built into tills.

James: So what was the back story to the decision to kind of – OK, I’m going to spend a few evenings now knocking together a bitcoin payment system?

Stephen: It was a combination of different sorts of things. I heard about bitcoin fairly early on. Thought that was interesting. Back in 2011, I think that it had had its first bubble and the bubble that burst and I bought some bitcoins on one of the early UK exchanges. I think I spent about 100 pounds and then 20 bitcoins and the moment I bought them, the price started dropping and dropping and dropping. Let’s forget about this for now. Yeah, it started moving and then I looked earlier on this year and suddenly realized, hang on a minute, there was that two grand. That’s not bad for 100 pounds investment …

James: Good grief.

Stephen: But there’s still nothing to spend them on. So it’s partly, so that would be something to spend bitcoins on. Partly it was due to frustration over taking cards. So we’ve been taking credit and debit cards pretty much ever since we opened.

James: Right.

Stephen: We have card terminals which are rented from the card service provider.

James: So these are the kind of classic – at least here in Europe, the chip and pin terminals that you kind of get handed to stick your card and pressing the buttons.

Stephen: We have. They’re quite nice. They’re cordless and they support Bluetooth between the handset and the base station to the base station and just plugs into the local Ethernet. They generally work very well. Transactions are nice and fast but the thing that frustrates me about them is that I can’t integrate them properly with the tills. So the workflow for accepting a card payment goes something like this:

Member of staff enters all of the drinks into the till. That happens for every transaction but the till comes up with the total and at this point, what I want to happen is they press the button on the till saying it’s a card payment and the till transmits the transaction total to the card terminal. The terminal goes through the interaction with the customer, to check the payment and so on and then returns a status to the till.

James: Exactly like you would expect in a supermarket.

Per: Yeah.

Stephen: That’s what I want to happen. Unfortunately I can’t because nobody it seems will sell me equipment that can be integrated into a till system like this.

Per: Yeah.

Stephen: So what actually happens is that a member of staff picks up the terminal, copies the total into the terminal by pressing the buttons and deals with the customer. The terminal then prints out a paper receipt. Well two, one for the customer and one for us and then the member of staff has to copy the receipt number back from the receipt into the till. This is a manual process and because it’s manual process, there are errors.

James: Yeah.

Per: Yeah.

James: When you stay Steve, when restaurant and pubs are almost always like that. Then you – everything is keyed in manually.

Per: It is keyed in manually. That’s what causes confusion with the person paying as well because I actually did a talk last week on different payment systems. I was talking about these card readers and sometimes, you as the customer, you yourself have to actually enter the sum or the amount that you want to pay.

Sometimes, the first thing you enter is your pin code and sometimes the first thing you enter is the tip. So you really have to be careful about what you’re entering and several times, I’ve actually entered my pin code when you wanted the amount so it’s right there to see for everyone.

Stephen: Which is definitely an issue.

Per: Yeah. But basically that’s an incentive then for actually – the system is broken and you found a way to actually go around it and solve it, solve payment systems without banks.

Stephen: I wanted to expand with a payment system that could be integrated directly into the till. I realized that it’s not going to be the most popular, the most common payment system but at least it’s there and it’s – building it was satisfying to put it that way.

James: Yeah, it’s s proof of concept.

Stephen: When there’s a bitcoin payment, what happens is the drinks get on the till as they always do. The member of staff presses the “pay by bitcoin” button. The till flashes up a QR code which the customer then points their phone at.

The QR code incurs a bitcoin address and amount so that’s the value of the transaction at today’s exchange rate with bitcoin and as well as application in the phone sends the appropriate number of bitcoins to that address. This is essentially – a bitcoin appears to be a broadcast network essentially. So they just create the transaction, throw it into the air and eventually it gets through the till and eventually it’s normally within a couple of seconds.

James: All right. So it’s not like they have to wait three minutes before you let them loose with their three pints of beer and glass of wine.

Stephen: So generally it works very well. They will just send a button on their phone and the till will go, “Oh yeah, we got that. Thank you very much.”

James: One advantage there I can imagine with just bitcoin is bitcoin is not one of those things – I don’t think people are going to suddenly spontaneously go, “Oh, you know what? I think I will try Bitcoin as a payment mechanism.” You’re going to come into the pub already a user of bitcoin or an owner of bitcoins.

So in that sense, you get rid of the whole hurdles in the beginning to kind of install a certain app and register yourself, transfers the money across to – whatever it is you have to do.

Per: Unless you haven’t started already or probably a person like myself I haven’t started with bitcoin but seeing this in a pub, I probably would want to get started.

James: It would spark your curiosity off.

Stephen: It is quite a visual way of paying because people see these QR codes being flashed. Yeah, what’s that? So there has definitely been some interest from people just watching this go through.

James: Have you had any times when there’s like a gang of bitcoin enthusiasts come in and they basically fight over who’s going to pay.

Stephen: We have had bitcoin enthusiasts in the pubs.

Per: Oh, OK.

Stephen: But that wouldn’t be a fight over who’s going to pay, I think.

James: Because you could really get – I mean you get your phone out and scan the code. Then your job is done. You actually can – it’s difficult to stop.

Stephen: There is a certain amount of confusion because it’s all very new. People don’t always understand what’s going on. So for example, we have people who have paid once and then saved the bitcoin address for that transaction into their wallet and then tried to pay again to the same address which of course won’t work because we generate a new address for each transaction so that we can sort out the incoming money between transactions.

James: Yes, you got the audit trail. Yeah.

Stephen: Well, in particular so that we can say that transaction there has been paid and that transaction over there hasn’t been paid yet.

Per: Right.

James: But from a user perspective then, they kind of think, oh well, I want the same round again. I want the same beers again. I will just repay the same amount.

Stephen: Yes, and wallets, they provide certainties for taking addresses because if there’s a particular person who you make payments to, you generally will want to save their address. For one time addresses like individual transactions on the till, that particular interface concept doesn’t work.

Per: Yeah.

James: OK.

Stephen: There have been some other difficulties as well. So we encode the amount to pay in bitcoin in the QR code. We have had people try and work it out themselves. They get the address to pay to from the QR code but then they override the amount and they use the exchange rate, calculate the bills into their wallet and pay us a completely different amount. So it’s the wrong thing. Generally they will slightly underpay in that case and so the till goes, “Well, we got some of the money but not all of it. Here’s another QR code so that you can pay us the rest.”

James: Oh, god, yeah, yeah. I imagine that’s – yeah, that makes it very difficult with the old transaction bookkeeping there.

Per: So there is no perfect system really.

Stephen: It’s still very young and using it in this way is throwing up ideas for improvement.

Per: Exactly.

James: What kind of tweaks have you made then since you launched it?

Stephen: I have not actually changed what I’m doing since deploying it.

Per: No.

Stephen: The big change is things be that – well, let’s talk about other ways in which it can go wrong.

Per: Oh, yeah.

Stephen: Some people have a wallet from a company called BlockChange.info. It’s a very nice website that lets you see all kinds of things about the bitcoin system. They offer a wallet that works in a web browser and on a phone. It’s has got a very nice user interface. There’s a problem with this which is when you send a transaction with it, it usually doesn’t actually broadcast it over the bitcoin network properly. So their wallets are telling them they’ve paid. The till is telling us that they haven’t and what usually happens is that the transaction rolls in some hours later. But that’s not really great when it’s happening in the bar, is it?

James: No.

Per: Right.

Stephen: And this company has been very unresponsive dealing with bug reports about this. The main difficulty is that they’re the only wallet that actually works on iPhones. Apple tends to block applications that deal with bitcoin from going in the iPhone app store. I think it’s because they really don’t want anything happening on iPhones that they don’t get a cut off.

Per: Exactly.

James: Well, you’re right. They want a cut of every single transaction that went through it.

Stephen: So yeah, iPhone users are a little bit stuck at the moment and this – the fact that we have a wallet saying we paid and the till system saying, “Oh no, you haven’t,” is a user interface problem.

James: Oh, yeah, I can mention some quite interesting discussions.

Stephen: The reason that you can’t have the discrepancies but bitcoin is essentially a push protocol. The sender of the money pushes the transaction out into the network and then essentially that’s it. Their job is done once they’ve sent the transaction and if anything does go wrong, there’s not a lot you can do about it.

There is a newer payment process being developed which actually involves the sender of the money and the merchant in a sort of separate protocol. So in this case, the QR code would encode a web address to go to essentially pick up an invoice and then the wallets would talk to the web server and say here’s the transaction and just hand the transaction over directly.

James: Oh, a bit like kind of the verify your email address links that you get when you register.

Stephen: It’s a little bit like actually handing over a signed check.

Per: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Stephen: And the merchant can take this transaction and it can fire it off into the bitcoin system and see if it gets picked up and can check its probability against the same copy of the block chain and another thing that can happen there is bitcoin relies on transaction fees, which are paid by the sender.

Well, this is completely the opposite way around to credit and debit cards where the face value of the transaction is paid by the customer and then the merchant later gets a bill for that transaction and with bitcoin, the speed with which your transaction is accepted and processed by the network depends partly on how much transaction fee you’ve included.

The incentives were all wrong here because the customers don’t really have an incentive to include a high transaction fee. They just want the transaction to get through eventually whereas merchants would really like to have it now, thank you very much.

So what this forthcoming payment protocol is going to do is it’s going to let the customer create a zero fee transaction and then the merchant creates a transaction that depends on it which actually pays the fee and then the pair of them will be accepted by the networks and work faster.

I think that is going to be a better way around to do it.

James: As long as it happens seamlessly.

Stephen: The version is the entity that has the – it has the incentive to pay to get the transaction through quickly because that will be receiving money.

James: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, it has happened seamlessly. After all, we’re kind of behind the scenes, so it doesn’t make it a more complicated transaction. Yeah.

Per: It is still dependent on a network connection because that’s …

Stephen: Yeah, the sender of the money has to have a network connection.

Per: Because that’s many of the faults of the payment systems today is that you have that connection and sometimes it takes so long for the payment to actually be accepted, whatever network you’re on actually.

One of the solutions that – actually that was proposed in Sweden like 10 years ago, like having a cash card where you actually have your money in cash downloaded onto a card but in this case maybe a phone. Would that be a possibility with something like bitcoin that actually you download a certain amount of bitcoin to your phone and you should be able to pay for it …

Stephen: That’s the way it works, yes.

Per: Yeah.

James: Because you could do it all offline, couldn’t you Steve? I mean you could still generate transactions but you wouldn’t be able to confirm the chain or the blocks or what have you …

Stephen: Yeah, the sending phone has to have some way of getting transaction over to the merchants.

Per: Right.

Stephen: At the moment, I see just done by the phone having a network connection and being able to speak the bitcoin protocol actually. In theory, it could be done with NFC or something like that.

Per: OK.

Stephen: But that hasn’t really been played with much yet.

James: Could you both talk to each other, over WiFis or over NFC, to come to agreement that this is a real transaction or do you have to go out onto the network?

Stephen: At least one of the parties has to have an up-to-date copy of the block chain. Otherwise, you have a very realistic risk of having a double spend transaction attempted which is where person A has got some money and gives it to person B and to person C. Only one of B or C can actually have it and it’s down to the bitcoin network which of these transactions is the real one. I actually take a small risk by accepting unconfirmed transactions for speed. I take a small risk that people will then succeed in a double spend attack against me. None of that so far but I’m just taking the point of view that they’re standing right in front of me. If the till then tells me, “No, the money has vanished,” I can go and take their drinks away.

James: Yeah, exactly, throw them out the pub. Yeah, you spoke about a physical transaction in front of you and we’re not talking about a very long delay anyway before you get a confirmation. You could actually take more of a risk by setting some kind of value level that you say, OK, I’m not going to worry about how long this transaction takes to clear. They can have the drinks because it’s only five pounds.

Stephen: Yeah, so we want to see the unconfirmed transactions that we know that they do at least have the money and they’re sending the transaction into the network and the danger is that they then send another transaction spending that money before the transaction to us is made.

Per: Right, yeah.

James: The sequence.

Stephen: The bitcoin, I don’t know how much you know about how it works but …

Per: Not a whole lot.

Stephen: It solves the double spend protection problem by sort of mixing the solution in with issuing the currency in the first place. So you have these people called miners busily executing a proof of work which is essentially a computation that you have to do over and over and over and over again until eventually it goes, oh, that’s an acceptable solution.

There are rewards for doing this and for producing the next block of transactions in the chain that goes right back to the start of bitcoin. At the moment they get a reward for completing the block. At the moment, the reward keeps going down over time. When bitcoin was new, you got 50 bitcoins each time you came up with a block. That’s now halved. It’s 25 and it will half again and again and again until it’s pretty much zero.

The other thing is that the transactions that you include in the block include fees and if you actually include a block that you solve, you get to keep the fees.

Well, that’s not very significant compared with block order at the moment, but it will become significant in the future.

Per: OK.

Stephen: And so by mixing up the issuing of the currency in the first place and the things that you have to do for double spend protection, I think that’s what made it kind of first viable currency.

Per: Yeah.

James: Lots of phones ringing in the background, Steve.

Stephen: Yes, my parents’ house and they’re away and I’m not going to answer their phone.

Per: Yeah.

James: No, that’s a good choice.

Per: This is your personal account that you’re using for the bitcoin process isn’t it.

Stephen: I’m really suggesting …

Per: Oh, there’s no account. OK. It’s just you as an individual.

James: Because they’re like notes.

[Crosstalk]

Stephen: I didn’t want the pub completely taking a risk on bitcoins. So what I said was the pub company just gets pounds immediately for me and I will hang on to the bitcoins and convert them back into pounds at a later date.

Per: Right.

James: You’ve effectively outsourced the payment system to yourself as a …

Stephen: Yes, I’m effectively working as a bitcoin payment service provider to the pub company.

Per: Does this mean we’re …

Stephen: So there’s a trust relationship between us.

Per: Yeah, exactly because this means more administration. I’m thinking in terms of taxes, is there anything that you have to do in the books to make this happen?

Stephen: In the pub company books, no because the pubs only see pounds and so that just goes in like taking cash or like taking cards.

Per: Right.

Stephen: Just absolutely standard. Another reason for me is that with this way, I really didn’t fancy doing multi-currency accounting in the pub company books.

Per: Exactly, yeah.

James: Especially if one of them isn’t really proper currency in official terms.

Stephen: From a personal point of view, if I make a profit on converting the bitcoins back into pounds which so far I have, it’s capital gain for tax purposes…

Per: Oh, yeah, right.

James: I really like the solution there Steve that you outsource it to yourself because running a pub with all the various taxes and regulations in bookkeeping.

Stephen: I just get to wear a different hat when I’m doing that …

James: I think it’s an excellent idea for how to solve or to keep it simple business-wise. I mean I read that you took – about 750 pounds in the first week or two of launching…

Stephen: Yes, it slowed down a little bit. We’re talking about 1000 pounds a month through bitcoin. It was worth doing but it’s still a very, very small part of our business.

James: Absolutely, but it’s not kind of like one or two transactions a month. That’s obviously for a fair few transactions.

Stephen: It’s actually bursty – you can go for a week without seeing a transaction and then you will have several days with a couple of hundred quid a day.

Per: Yeah.

Stephen: I think it probably depends who’s in town.

James: Exactly. You’ve got five pubs as we’ve said in the beginning, and which one of the pubs has the most bitcoin use and have you noticed …

Stephen: So far the one in Hackney has the most bitcoin use.

James: Right. That’s in London, yeah.

Stephen: Yes.

Per: But it’s sort of like a customer loyalty program for geeks. If you’re a geek, you’re going to go there, right?

Stephen: Yes, I think some people are coming in and doing it for the novelty.

Per: Yeah, exactly.

Stephen: That’s fine. I’m not going to complain.

Per: Yeah.

James: You’re right. It’s …

Stephen: And I think more people are passing through London, then through Cambridge and Norwich and Peterborough.

Per: Oh, yeah, of course.

James: Yeah.

Stephen: Of course from the point of view of someone visiting the country, it’s great because they don’t have to change their money before they spend it.

James: It’s a universal wallet.

Stephen: Same bitcoin that they would use at home and it all just works.

James: There isn’t an exchange rate as such although you – Although you add one I believe …

Stephen: Do you mean the fee or …

James: Yeah, because you don’t know exactly how much you’re going to get.

Stephen: When I started, I was really quite conservative and so because I didn’t know. Essentially I didn’t know how I was going to be turning the bitcoin back into pounds. Before I started, I identified a route, sending the bitcoin to a company called OKPay. They would charge me six percent at that point and they would convert that to pounds and then they would send the pounds back to my UK bank accounts and charge me one percent for doing that. So that was quite a fee-heavy route.

Unfortunately – well, actually fortunately in retrospect, the moment I started accepting bitcoin over the counters, they stopped offering that facility. So I had to go and look for other ways of doing it.

I tried various companies and what I’ve ended up doing is using an exchange called Bitstamp which has pretty low fees. So once I’ve done the conversion back from bitcoin to pounds and identified where the levels of all the fees involved, I was able to improve the exchange rates I’m offering the pubs.

Per: OK.

Stephen: And now there’s a company called BitPay who are a bitcoin merchant service provider who do essentially what I’m doing for the pub company but they will do it for anybody. They published a list of exchange rates on their website, just a JSON API page, and I’m just using that. So I’m just taking the rate, the base over pounds and saying, right, that’s the rate and I’m not charging any other sort of fee.

James: Yeah, because you have to convert the bitcoin to cash because you’ve got to feed some cash into the pubs.

Stephen: Yes, that’s right.

James: You’ve got to find the cash from somewhere.

Stephen: Yes, I can pay 1000 pounds a month for transactions for a little while but ultimately I do need pounds to come back.

James: Yeah, the minute you thought the bitcoins are going to go up in value, then you might want to do that. But …

Stephen: Well, it turns out they have.

James: Exactly. So then there’s a portfolio balance there for you, how much you’ve sold and how much you’ve …

Stephen: I reduce my risk by not holding onto bitcoins that have been spent in the pubs for a very long time or I will hold them for three or four weeks and sell them and they just …

Per: Yeah.

James: Excellent.

Per: Is this something that you would recommend others to try out?

Stephen: It’s always a thing – yeah, do it but don’t do it the way I did it.

James: Oh, that’s interesting.

Stephen: Because I started with a business advantage. I have the till software and so integrating the payments into the till software was just a two-evening hacking job. I would say to the average merchant, don’t do what I’m doing with holding on to bitcoins yourself. Use one of the payment services just like BitPay unless you really fancy taking a risk.

If you just want to include bitcoin payments in your business because you want to make it easier for people to pay you, then use somewhere like BitPay.

If you fancy taking a risk, then sure, just hold on to bitcoins yourself. But don’t come crying to me if the market pops.

Per: Yeah, exactly. I mean most merchants and establishments, I mean they’re going customer loyalty programs and having their own payment systems within a chain of stores. Like Starbucks, I know they have like 30 percent of their payments being done with their Starbucks points or whatever they’re called.

Stephen: Right.

Per: But that’s a very closed environment as well and then what I really love about this is that it could work anywhere.

Stephen: And that only works if you are a big chain.

Per: Exactly, yeah.

James: Yeah. Yeah. So you need to open a few more pubs Steve.

Stephen: I will work on it.

James: So in ten years’ time when you’ve got 50 pubs, then you will have your own loyalty scheme, bitcoin-based …

Per: So I think our conclusion from the UX perspective then is that you really looked at the steps required to pay what – the normal sort of credit card reader compared to bitcoin and you would reduce the steps from something like 12 steps to 4 steps.

Stephen: It’s definitely a better user experience for our staff than taking cards.

Per: Right.

Stephen: Give or take, some of the early teething troubles with customers, we’ve had customers turning up with bitcoin on all sorts of devices that don’t have cameras and can’t scan QR codes. Sometimes we’ve ended up printing out the bitcoin address and having people retype it into their laptop.

Per: Oh, wow.

Stephen: It worked in the end but it’s not a sort of thing which I would like to repeat on a day to day basis.

James: Getting out your laptop in a pub to type in – you’re right. That’s not …

Per: That’s fantastic.

Stephen: People don’t know what to expect. But over time, I think people will get into the swing of it.

James: Do you have any – do you think you might introduce any other alternative payment mechanisms?

Stephen: I have some ideas but I don’t want to pick up – for example, all of these bitcoin alternatives which are essentially the bitcoin protocol with the serial numbers filed off and a minor thing changed because at the moment there is too much – bitcoin was the first viable one and it is still the one with the greatest number of users and the strongest economy. I don’t want to just randomly pick up all of the others because then I would have to deal with all sorts of little fiddly minority currencies myself.

There are also people going around offering things like pound payments, phone to phone, that sort of thing. There’s a company Droplet who have contacted me.

I might consider supporting that kind of thing in the future if they actually have the API that will let me integrate into the tills, to the extent I integrated bitcoin.

James: Exactly, because you don’t want to make the process any more complicated than the business side.

Stephen: So if it’s a suitable API. So for example when I looked at Droplet, they essentially have a tablet and you can just look at the transactions coming in on the screen of the tablets and going, “Yes, we got paid!” No, I’m not going to do that. That’s going to be even worse for our staff than taking that. So I will support them when they have an API that will let that kind of payment be integrated into tills.

James: I mean that’s a really good point Steve for people out there who are thinking of setting up payment systems to …

Stephen: There are lots of them.

James: Get the API sorted, that’s good and …

Per: It’s really important.

James: … people are going …

Stephen: It doesn’t need to be complicated. It’s just that you need to be able to distinguish programmatically between incoming payments for different transactions.

Per: Yeah, yeah.

Stephen: And some people are setting up payment systems where basically there is a code for the whole shop and so people send money to “the shop” and the money is turning up without any indication of what it’s paying for.

James: That’s a nightmare to work out which transactions are which …

Stephen: So you need a little data, possibly even just a transaction number generated by the shop that needs to go through the payment processing system but then pop out the other end with the money and that’s what some of them are missing.

James: All right. Fascinating. It’s not just about – well, making these payments or payment systems work isn’t just about the user who tried to make the payment.

Per: No.

James: There are several layers to this.

Per: Oh, yeah.

James: All need to be …

Per: And this is really about the users, the business and the technology and all mixed in together and that’s what I love about it.

James: Yeah.

Per: And I love what you’re saying also Steve about it’s so much easier for the staff and the staff are users as well of the system.

James: Yeah.

Per: And I’m having …

Stephen: So you have to start with the user interface of the till. The staff is the only users of the system.

James: Hopefully.

Per: That would be great, yeah.

Stephen: People ask me sometimes why I haven’t sold this till system and the reason is that it has got a very nice user interface with the day to day staff but the management interface is still a little bit raw.

The management interface user is me essentially and so to make it usable by other people would require a fair bit more work.

James: And also they would mean that you would have to change your focus to supporting and developing …

Stephen: Yeah, I would end up with a software company rather than pubs.

James: Exactly and you moved away from that track a few years ago, so I understand.

Per: You can sell it to someone else who develops it.

James: Yeah, yeah. Be a founder of a start-up, Steve, another start-up.

Stephen: At this point, it’s a nearly 10-year-old code-base and if I was starting again, I wouldn’t do it quite the same way.

Per: Yeah.

James: As usual.

Stephen: As usual.

James: Well, I think that’s …

Per: Yeah, it has been excellent talking to you Steve and thanks for being with us.

James: Yeah.

Per: I’ve learned a lot. I didn’t know a lot about bitcoin. Yeah.

James: And well, drive safely or enjoy yourself today. Go around the pubs.

Per: Yeah, and have fun going through the books.

James: It’s because it’s very easy now because all the transactions are nicely tied up.

Per: Right, yeah. Yeah.

Stephen: I wish.

James: Excellent. Thanks Steve.

Per: Thanks so much. Bye-bye.

Stephen: Yeah, I will see you again sometime.

Per: Yeah, you too.

James: Bye.

Per: Bye.

Stephen: Bye.

[Music]

Per: Okey-dokey.

James: Cool.

Per: That was a lot to take in actually.

James: Yeah.

Per: Because I’m sort of still having a hard time wrapping my head around bitcoin and how it works.

James: At the same time, I don’t think we need to.

Per: I realize that we don’t need to.

James: No, actually. I mean this fascinates me here is that we’ve got – finished off towards the end there about the importance of APIs. Not necessarily from a user perspective because I mean we don’t go around playing with APIs.

Per: Well, from a user perspective.

James: Indirectly.

Per: Yeah.

James: For companies to adopt certain things, payment systems for instance, you’ve got to have a good API which allows you to quite simply strap this on to whatever you’ve already got. In Steve’s case, he’s on till system or yeah, the system for taking transactions.

Per: You don’t want more overhead. You don’t want more administration. You don’t want …

James: You don’t want to make it more complicated for your staff. They’re also users and have their own experience to worry about.

Per: Yeah.

James: So that’s interesting and fascinating. Again, yeah, just about the different levels of user experience, that Steve as a business owner is a user. He has to deal with the currencies. The staff working his pubs are using user interfaces in the user systems and the people coming in to make a purchase are users of the systems and it has got to be a win – well there’s a balance of wins there between all of these people.

Per: But we did realize as well that there’s a lot of challenges still in being a user of the system and going in and paying because there’s the problem with the apps, with the iPhone apps as well and there’s a problem understanding – well, the lighting as well, scanning the code, understanding how it all works. Has your transaction actually been approved or not? So there was a lot of friction there and not understanding …

James: Also example of a time when you have someone with a device that doesn’t have a camera.

Per: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, and you had to …

James: Type in the transaction and your laptop isn’t doing it. It’s not the dream perfect scenario …

Per: Right, but I love that he’s testing it and I mean – but to actually be able to challenge, really challenge the other payment systems, you have to make it even more useful for users.

James: Yeah.

Per: It would make the experience better for the users.

James: Reducing the hurdles like always with these sorts of things. We got to make the start-up ramp up in the beginning easier. I think a big challenge here, I hadn’t really thought about this but we had a quick conversation with Steve earlier and one problem he’s highlighted is iPhones and that Apple don’t like payment systems really into their phones because they want a cut of it.

Per: Yeah.

James: And this is actually a bigger hurdle than I had realized for adoption.

Per: It probably is, yes.

James: In some ways we’re saying that payment systems, they’re going to struggle to take off for iPhone until Apple launch something.

Per: I’m surprised nobody has built a web-based app because I mean the web apps can also …

James: We haven’t tried everything in the world.

Per: No, but I thought Steve would have mentioned it but …

James: Yeah.

Per: He seems to know a lot about it. But then there’s always the hurdle of people having iPhones, or novices and not realizing they have to surf the website to pay. So …

James: There’s the wallet issue that you’re going to have your wallet somewhere for bitcoins. So if you’re using a web-based thing, then you got to have a web-based wallet that’s integrated with that web-based payment thing or they actually …

Per: But it’s like you were saying. If you already have bitcoin, then paying with it is a no-brainer.

James: Yeah.

Per: The problem is getting the adoption.

James: And you could argue that same thing with Seqr or any of these kind of transaction systems that we’ve seen is here in Sweden that yeah, when you’ve got the Easy Park, the parking machines. If you’ve already set the app, of course it’s easier but same thing with internet banking here on your mobile. That’s with the bank ID. I’m not going to go and to explain about these but it’s a secure certificate system that you can install in your laptop and mobiles. It’s a pain to set up …

Per: It is.

James: It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve done in recent years.

Per: And people keep saying, “Well, it’s much easier on the mobile,” which I don’t think it is.

James: No, it’s just …

Per: But then you have the problem that I realized after having switched phones two times since I installed it the first time. Moving from phone to phone as well with an ID system is really a big pain.

James: So every two years, you got to do something that’s quite complicated and remember what you did including remembering the same code that you used two years ago. So setting up is a massive, massive hurdle and that is – well, a stumbling point with all these with these kinds of transactions is that cash and Visa or MasterCard and American Express, they’re all so much easier because they’re already now with wallets and they’re already set up.

Per: Yeah.

James: And they’re universal pretty much.

Per: But it can be a pain when the payment takes a long time.

James: Yeah.

Per: And that’s what usually – I have the example when I gave my talk. I stumbled into a store where I was a customer already. I already had the customer loyalty card and apparently they had my home address. They could send me an invoice. I wasn’t aware of this but they asked me if I was a member and I said I didn’t have my card and they said, “Your driver’s license is fine.” Then she asked in the next sentence, “Do you want to pay with this?” and then I realized, “Excellent. I want to pay with my driver’s license. That’s perfect. I just want my driver’s license and that’s all I want.”

Wow, that seems to be where our new Zoom H6 recorder has just cut off our sound from the podcast recording and we don’t know what went wrong right now and we just have to blame the presidential visit I guess. So do let us know what you think about the future of online payment systems is and let us know what you think about the show.

Stay tuned also of course for next week. We will be recording on location at the Conversion Jam Conference and we do have some surprises lined up for you. So do stay tuned. Make sure you follow us on Twitter. We won’t be using the normal feeds next week for publishing. So we will see how that goes. It will be a new thing for us and remember to keep moving.

James: And see you on the other side.

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