Elon Musk can move the bitcoin market with a tweet, to the dismay of some crypto investors and the exhilaration of others.
That inspired a quirky message in Shakepay's app: It warns customers that "Crypto transactions are irreversible. I cannot reclaim a crypto transaction. I will only send money to recipients I trust. Elon Musk will not double my bitcoin."
Musk's status as a crossover figure between pop culture and the nerdiest corners of tech is undeniable. Shakepay isn't the only one paying homage to the Tesla CEO. Online brokerage Public made an offbeat tribute to him, including a life-size statue of the Tesla founder in New York, which it announced on Twitter: "Maybe you love him. Maybe you think he should tweet less. Either way, you can enter to win a 14-inch bronze statue to commemorate his 50th birthday."
But for Shakepay CEO Jean Amiouny, turning the spotlight on Musk's influential, though at times disruptive, role in bitcoin offered an opportunity to educate Canadians about the increasingly popular but still misunderstood cryptocurrency.
Founded in 2015, Shakepay has been called the Canadian Coinbase. The Montreal-based company has served more than 600,000 customers and facilitated more than $3 billion in digital currency transactions.
In an interview with Protocol, Amiouny discussed how he and co-founder Roy Breidi thought up the startup over beers, his vision and hopes for bitcoin and how his team decided to include Elon Musk in their warning message.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Shakepay CEO Jean Amiouny.Photo: Shakepay
Why put out that reminder to your customers?
Bitcoin is new and it's just such a different paradigm that people new to the space don't know that a bitcoin transaction is irreversible. They don't know that transactions on the blockchain cannot be reclaimed. We wanted to add that page as a reminder. The fun way to do it is you make it something that's somewhat memorable, something that when they see it, they're like, "Oh, that's funny." And then the next time they put one and one together: "Okay, Elon Musk really does not want to double my bitcoin."
Reminders No. 1, 2 and 3 …
… were sensible …
Talk about adding Elon Musk to that — which was hilarious, by the way.
What role did you play in that discussion?
I don't remember, honestly. [Laughs.]
Were there people who said, "No, we shouldn't do that. It may piss him off"?
The team really liked it. Generally, we're a very collaborative team. When something new comes up or when we want a review of copy or ideas or some feedback, we'll share it with the team and the team just jumps in. I generally remember everyone laughing a little bit, and enjoying it. It was pretty unanimous.
Did you get any kind of response from Musk, or his supporters, or critics?
No. But if your article does, it would be really funny.
Tell me about your background. How did you get started in crypto?
I'm a civil engineer. I used to design buildings. I didn't practice much but as an engineer, when something new comes along, you tend to want to experiment with it. I was introduced to bitcoin back in 2012 or 2013. What I found was really fascinating. I have a pinned tweet about this. What I really liked about bitcoin was that it was programmable money. You could run bitcoin on your computer, write code and move money across borders. It was somewhat instantaneous, programmatic, objective.
It was something remarkable for an engineer wanting to write code. I've been in the fintech space for a bit and I'd always really been excited about payments and moving money. But nothing quite competes with being able to write code and being able to move money and having no one be able to restrict that. That was incredible and so fascinating.
That was the start of the journey for me. Roy [Breidi], my co-founder, and I studied together. We were having a beer in Montreal and I wanted to pay for my beer using bitcoin. This was in 2015. Bitcoin hasn't had its big moment yet. So I went to the waitress and asked her, "Hey, can I pay for my beer in bitcoin?" And she obviously had no clue what I'm talking about.
On a bar napkin, we started designing what it could look like where I had bitcoin, the merchant did not need to know about bitcoin and I can use my bitcoin to pay for my transaction. That's what gave birth to Shakepay.
Why the name Shakepay?
It's shaking things up.
That was it?
That was it.
Eventually you morphed into more of a marketplace similar to Coinbase.
Yeah, that's right. Today, Shakepay allows Canadians to buy and sell bitcoin. Our philosophy is not one where we're going to start listing a bunch of different cryptocurrencies. [Note: Shakepay exchanges bitcoin and ether for Canadian dollars.] As a way to frame it, we're not a crypto exchange. We're more of a bitcoin neobank. We think bitcoin is going to fundamentally change the way the financial infrastructure is going to allow us to transact. We want Canadians to be able to interact with it.
How do you view the rising interest in bitcoin? What do you think is driving it?
I think it's bitcoin's time. I think as time progresses, the idea of bitcoin somewhat permeates the culture and you can see that across the world.
I'm Lebanese. My father was born there. So I'm part Lebanese, part Armenian as well, and part Canadian. I have a lot of family in Lebanon. I spent some time there. I'm not sure how familiar you are with Lebanon and the economic crisis that's going on over there, but the adoption of bitcoin has surged there since our currency's de facto collapse. You can see it in El Salvador which recently announced bitcoin as legal tender, which is quite remarkable.
I think there's no going back.
One of the biggest concerns about bitcoin is its volatility. How do you let customers know that bitcoin could be worth $40,000 now, and three hours later could be worth much less?
The right way to look at this is this is not a short-term change. We're in bitcoin for the long term. We believe that the adoption of bitcoin as the base monetary standard will be beneficial to humans around the world.
The day-to-day volatility, it's something that we generally don't look at if you take the long-term view, if you're looking at 10 or 15 years. Yes, bitcoin is new. [But] it will change how we transact. I generally don't look at it on a day-to-day [basis]. I think the right way to look at it is to say, "If you believe this will change how we transact or how our monetary system works, then you should be thinking long term and not short term."
How do you feel about being called the Canadian Coinbase?
I think it's fine. We have upwards of 1% of the Canadian population on Shakepay, which is pretty incredible. We announced that a couple of weeks ago and it's still blowing my mind. I think Coinbase is a great company. Obviously they have a great brand. We're about to announce a partnership with them. We've been working with them for a long time.
Do you see Coinbase as a competitor?
I think of them more as a partner. They obviously serve Canada too. I don't have my delusions that people don't buy bitcoin on Coinbase, but I think Coinbase offers a different service. Like I mentioned, our goal is to bring bitcoin as a monetary standard in Canada. We're not going to offer all these other currencies.
For us, bitcoin really is the most important currency and our goal is to get it in the hands of as many Canadians as possible. I think this is the way you make bitcoin so relevant is by making it easy and fun.
I don't know if you're aware of this, we have this feature on Shakepay that's somewhat of an Easter egg. It allows Canadians to shake their phone and earn some bitcoin.
So if I shake my phone, I earn bitcoin. This is part of an unreleased feature set. We never announced it. Customers just found it. One customer, for example, dropped the phone and it shook. As it hits the floor or the bed or something, they realize, "Wow, I just earned bitcoin."
It's not one bitcoin. It's a fraction of it. Customers are earning fractions of bitcoin, just enough for them to know what it's like to earn bitcoin. And it's been a fun way for us to get our customers interacting with bitcoin.
So you're actually giving out satoshi, which are fractions of a bitcoin. To get it, you have to either refer a customer or sign up through a referral. How does that work out for you financially?
We consider ShakingSats, the feature that allows Shakepay customers to earn bitcoin for free, to be a marketing expense.