What you need to know about the most popular electronic currency.
Does bitcoin matter to most entrepreneurs and business owners? The short answer is: not yet.
Someday bitcoin may matter to more of us, but that day hasn’t yet arrived and probably will be a long time coming, if it does. And I’ll explain why.
What is Bitcoin?
If you’re not familiar with bitcoin, it’s a relatively new form of currency that was created in 2008. Usually when we think of currency we think of it as backed by a particular country or government entity, such as the U.S. dollar, the European Euro, or the Japanese Yen.
Bitcoin, however, is not related to any particular government. Bitcoin is what’s known as a cryptocurrency. It’s totally digital, meaning there are no coins or paper bills, despite the name. Cryptocurrency is moved around and transferred 100 percent electronically.
How Do You Use Bitcoin?
Bitcoin can be used like other currencies at places that accept it. So, you can pay for products or services with bitcoin or transfer it to another person as compensation. Your business can also accept bitcoin as a form of payment, just like cash or credit cards. Since it is digital currency, you need some way of keeping track of bitcoin and completing transfers of it. For practical purposes, that means using a bitcoin wallet.
A bitcoin wallet is simply an electronic platform for storing bitcoin in lieu of a bank, and it also helps transfer bitcoin from one person or business to another. Using a bitcoin wallet and a “private key” that verifies your identity, you can prevent anyone else along the electronic chain from changing details of the transaction such as the amount. And it’s how you can ensure you get paid. Coinbase.com is one such digital wallet based in the U.S., and it is becoming popular.
How Do You Get Bitcoin?
You get bitcoin by receiving it in a transaction. Or you can convert traditional currency into bitcoin. As of this writing, one bitcoin is equal to roughly $460 U.S. dollars. However, the conversion price fluctuates similar to the way that any currency conversion, (e.g., dollars to euros) fluctuates.
Four years ago, one bitcoin was worth under $5.00. In 2014 the price jumped to more than $1,000 per bitcoin briefly before dropping. So as you can see, there is potential currency conversion risk and/or gain. You could end up buying bitcoin high and transferring low—or vice versa.
There are other risks as well. For instance, not being backed by any governmental entity, cryptocurrencies lack the kind of consumer safeguards, such as FDIC insurance, that many Americans expect.
Who Uses and Accepts Bitcoin?
Today bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are used by a relatively small number of people and businesses. Best estimates are 2 or 3 million worldwide.
The use of bitcoin is clearly growing, however. Need a computer? Dell accepts bitcoin on its website. Want to buy some furniture for your office waiting room? You can pay for it on Overstock with bitcoin. Ready to book some business travel? Expedia now accepts bitcoin.
Still, bitcoin is not going to replace or be an alternative to the U.S. dollar for most people and businesses anytime soon.
Bitcoin is still in its infancy, and other cryptocurrencies are also emerging, so it’s hard to tell what the long-term prospects are. Some predict that bitcoin is a bubble and may simply flare out and die after speculators lose interest.
Today, the majority of businesses can run perfectly well without using cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. Few of us have customers clamoring to pay with bitcoin instead of credit cards or PayPal. Our vendors aren’t offering discounts if we pay in cryptocurrencies. But if you see an emerging demand, choosing to accept bitcoin could be another way to provide what your customers want.
This article was originally published on Inc.