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Working on a Bitcoin startup across three continents

The co-founding team of BuyBitcoin.ph, a buy and sell site for the cyptocurrency in the Philippines, is spread all over the world. Lasse Birk Olesen, the startup’s chief product officer, is based in Copenhagen, Denmark; chief technology officer Daniel Walton lives in San Francisco, California; only half of the team is actually based in Manila, Philippines, and even then CEO Sam Kaddoura and designer James Florentino see each other infrequently as they maintain completely virtual offices.

BuyBitcoin
This arrangement was not entirely by design. The four met at a Bitcoin meetup in Manila and recognized an opportunity. Olesen explains:

During that time, there wasn’t any local Bitcoin exchange yet, so we’ve decided to start working together on a company that answers the question ‘Where can I buy and sell Bitcoin in the Philippines?’

The exchange launched in January this year to initial success. It allows users to buy Bitcoin by depositing cash at any one of the major banks in the Philippines. For those who want to sell Bitcoin, the BuyBitcoin team deposits the going rate in cash into their bank accounts.

Not long after BuyBitcoin’s launch, Olesen and Walton had to return home. Walton had
only intended to stay in the Philippines just long enough to get their exchange off the ground. He would only return to Manila for occasional visits as necessary. Olesen, for his part, had to give greater attention to the exchange he established a few years earlier, Bitcoin Nordic.

Rather than view Bitcoin Nordic as an entirely different endeavor, Olesen counts it as BuyBitcoin’s European sister in that it might help them reach out to investors, companies, and influencers in the region. Olesen hopes that Bitcoin Nordic could help BuyBitcoin form partnerships in Europe and the Middle East, which are important remittance channels for Filipinos who work overseas.

Their departures did not come at an opportune time. Competing exchange Coins.ph launched in February and received strong traction from both individual Bitcoin users and partner merchants. How could the BuyBitcoin team keep pace with competitors if they were halfway around the world from one another?

It helped that the BuyBitcoin team had been anticipating the separation for some time.

According to Olesen:

We knew from the beginning that some team members would not be able to stay in the Philippines all the time, and knowing each others’ dedication to bringing Bitcoin mainstream, the physical distance between us has worked very well. In fact, our global reach for partnerships is a big advantage.

The distance, at the very least, has not affected their Philippine strategy. In June 2014, the BuyBitcoin team reached a deal with online payment service provider Dragonpay that allows Filipinos to buy Bitcoin directly from their site. This service is much more convenient than the previous option of having to pay for Bitcoin over the counter at banks. This move is significant because it gives the ‘underbanked’ access to Bitcoin from all corners of the Philippines.

See: How a startup is driving Bitcoin adoption with selfies in the Philippines

A global edge

The appropriateness of working with a decentralized technology in a decentralized fashion is not lost on the BuyBitcoin team. “Bitcoin’s decentralization is what makes it a truly international currency and technology platform, so it definitely means a distributed team has some advantages,” Olesen says.

Chief among them is the fact that they can tap into Bitcoin communities in two additional regions – northern California and northern Europe – as they shape their strategy for the Philippines. Both those communities are more mature than the one centered around Metro Manila, and their focus extends beyond remittances and the underbanked. The BuyBitcoin team feels like this gives them an edge in anticipating trends and developments.

CEO Sam Kaddoura says that BuyBitcoin.ph uses Bitcoin Nordic as a point of comparison for tracking the growth of their exchange. Even though the Philippines is a different market than northern Europe, comparing the data helps the BuyBitcoin.ph team better contextualize their numbers.

“Most of the benchmarks we used to compare operations were quantitative in nature, such as transaction volume or number of users,” Kaddoura said. “We could quickly learn if we were growing too slow or were right about where we needed to be.”

Analyzing the data from Bitcoin Nordic also gives the BuyBitcoin.ph team greater insight into the behavior of their customers. “Although northern Europe and Southeast Asia are very much different regions, there were times when it helped to observe and compare consumer behavior – for instance, buy and sell patterns on weekly basis,” Kaddoura explains, adding that having Bitcoin Nordic as a reference enabled them to employ best practices and spot trends early on.

Walton, being in San Francisco, gives BuyBitcoin.ph access to investors and entrepreneurs in nearby Silicon Valley, but it also allows the team to get advance word of key developments in the Bitcoin world.

“With a physical presence in San Francisco, Dan has been our ‘ear to the ground’ in hearing about the latest trends, products, and services happening in bitcoin before it even hits the mainstream. With the pace that our industry moves, this can translate into a huge competitive advantage,” Kaddoura says.

Hearing news of regulatory developments around the cryptocurrency first-hand could also help when the Philippine government eventually gets around to regulating it.

“We’re moving toward a decentralized everything – Uber for transportation, Airbnb for housing, and of course, Bitcoin for currency. Why can’t we move toward a decentralized workspace as well?” Kaddoura enthuses.

He adds: “We have our disputes at times which are sometimes better handled in person, but I think we can all agree on one thing: it sure beats having to commute through Manila traffic every day.”

Editing by Steven Millward

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