Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article do not constitute investment advice from Bitcoin Reserve.
Sergej Kotliar is the Founder and CEO of Bitrefill, a gift card and mobile top-up company that accepts bitcoin.
What was your background before bitcoin? How long did it take you to switch to bitcoin full-time?
I have a M.Sc. in Engineering, and have been programming since my teenage years. Did a previous startup in the early 2010's. Started paying more attention to bitcoin in 2013 and relatively quickly went all in. At first it was the Dunning-Kruger type of stuff, "cryptocurrency consulting", but at the end of 2014 the first experimental version of Bitrefill came out.
How did you come up with the idea of Bitrefill?
I wanted to try to sell stuff with bitcoin, something digital that doesn't require shipping. Stumbled on an API for prepaid phones and gradually realized how many people have a prepaid phone (5B) and that allowing bitcoin to be exchanged for phone airtime is incredibly useful for lots of people.
Bitrefill is one of the first merchants to roll out full support for the Lightning network, even though it's still considered experimental technology. What makes you excited about it?
We learned the hard way in 2017 about the scaling limitations of Bitcoin and its impact and developed expertise in different solutions. Payment channels are one of those things that was known from the start that one day it would become needed to scale, so when Lightning came around, it fit the bill. It's bitcoin-like in the sense that it's a fully open-source network where everyone can participate fully if they so choose to.
Besides offering gift cards and top up services, Bitrefill has Lightning-specific services like Thor Recharge and Thor Lightning Channel Capacity. Do you see this side of your business grow its own legs eventually?
With Lightning already integrated, are you considering other bitcoin-adjacent technologies like the Liquid network?
Who are your biggest target audience?
People who live on crypto, people who have income in coins from salary or earnings or remittance receivers, people who are moving into the circular bitcoin economy.
There is a debate about whether you should spend bitcoin or only hold it long-term. In the framework of your business, which side of the debate do you support, or is there a balanced approach to the issue?
I think the debate is stupid. Yes, money is for saving wealth, and bitcoin is good at that. And yes, money is for exchanging stored wealth into goods and services. The one depends on the other and vice versa. A fully centralized bitcoin with infinite scaling wouldn't be bitcoin, and equally a bitcoin that does 1 transaction per day wouldn't be valuable just because it's scarce. Just like gold originally was, bitcoin today needs to be both scarce and useful in commerce.
Do you think the current financial situation in the world will give a boost to the bitcoin economy?
Yes. Both with the macro events going on with central banks, which forces people to learn about how money works and where it comes from. And frankly, understanding how bitcoin works is infinitely simpler than understanding how fiat money really works. But also, I think a recession will give rise to a more decentralized cash-based gig economy, and that bitcoin as digital cash can serve a hugely useful niche. And this bitcoin needs to scale, and fast.
So, my urge to Lightning developers and entrepreneurs is this: Put in any last minute polishes you can now, because the window of opportunity for us to make this into digital cash will be opening shortly, so we don't have time for perfectionism but rather should prepare to be handling new people coming in.
What, in your opinion, is the biggest roadblock to a circular bitcoin economy?
More opportunities for people to earn a living in bitcoin.
What advice can you give to entrepreneurial newcomers looking for opportunities to start a bitcoin business?
Ship early, and try to find something that people want. You'll know they want what you're building if they are complaining about its flaws. It's much better to have a service that gets complaints than one that doesn't, so don't focus on the last details but rather focus on things that people need badly enough that they'd be willing to put up with your initial imperfections. And pay attention to how people actually use what you're building—it's likely different from what you assumed.