Please note that there are people and companies in the space that these points do not apply to, but the space is viewed as a monolith and has perception issues.
Cryptocurrencies are a vast field of an already enormous value, but with an even more immense potential… which has yet to be actualized. As the sector closes in on its fifteenth birthday, it is clear that the asset class is not going anywhere (hopefully), with approximately 20% of Americans owning some amount of one cryptocurrency or another already. Despite this growth, public understanding and trust in the asset class remains tepid, which seems natural given the sector’s volatility, speculation, abuse, lack of regulation, and distrust. Combined, those features make the future of crypto uncertain - even perhaps jeopardized at scale. So how does this get addressed? One thing is for sure: it won’t be a single event or action or change that turns the situation around. But a more pertinent question emerges: who has the most significant role in changing these dynamics? To answer that question, crypto executives, investors, bankers, etc, will need to take a long look in the mirror.
Scapegoating the average person for their ignorance and telling them to do their own research just builds more resistance. According to a report from the Milken Institute in 2014, “only 57 percent of US adults are financially literate—as measured by those showing knowledge of at least three out of the four basic financial concepts assessed by the survey: risk diversification, numeracy, inflation, and compound interest.” In my last article, I spoke about people's general misunderstandings about cryptocurrencies - which types are cash equivalents, a currency, investments, etc. Yes, people need to do their research and take responsibility for their financial well-being - but when it’s clear that the lack of financial understanding is so widespread, what is the likelihood of the average person having the prerequisite understanding to operate functionally in the crypto-space? And our elected leaders, who have the position and authority to challenge and check these institutions, are demonstrably out of their depth. It’s clear the situation is fundamentally not understood by anyone but the people working in fintech. If crypto companies want to change this paradigm, leaving it to the uninformed masses won’t yield the desired results.
And make no mistake - as valuable and future-facing as these assets and technologies are, they could fizzle and evaporate if not tended to carefully. An abundance of scams and fraudulent coin offerings, which ultimately led to SEC regulation of ICOs, have become a breeding ground for distrust, keeping public engagement limited. The cycle has continued with the launch of meme coins, which amass tremendous value while being based on nothing at all. A lack of regulation keeps the crypto sector untamed, which makes the whole industry seem untrustworthy, as bad actors grab the headlines and solid products are not generally known by the public. This could lead to a retaliatory and agitated SEC that responds with regulation that strangles the market instead of enabling its potential.
What do you do with this awareness? The historic reaction is sneering at the ignorant and allowing people who “get it” to claim to be the smartest person in the room. But what is the goal? Tech evangelists hope for crypto to rival or overtake fiat currencies, to stabilize as a new sector of the global economy, and allow for utopian transparency and economic equality for the disenfranchised. These goals are wonderful, but the outcomes of the past 14 years should be clear: adoption at scale has not occurred, and may not occur, given the roadblocks in the path. The only way to manifest this vision of a crypto future is to enable broad adoption of these assets and marketplaces, and to accomplish that, they’ll need broad understanding and overall stability.
Someone - some group - will have to change what they’re doing to make these changes possible. So who would that be? The government, who’ve demonstrated their lack of understanding again and again on CSPAN? (Remember Lindsay Graham asking Mark Zuckerburg if Twitter was the same as Facebook?) The public, who don’t understand or trust the markets or the assets? Neither of those groups possesses the understanding to do things differently, let alone the position to bring helpful change to the situation. Who does that leave?
You - us, we, the people working in and running and creating cryptocurrencies, exchanges, blockchains, managing funds, etc - are the ones who need to change. We are the ones responsible for this mess. And we are positioned to do the most to change this space meaningfully.
Aren’t we the pioneers? The degens of crypto built this new asset and environment after all. Tech IS a pioneering sector, and the products and commodities it has developed have completely changed us and our world. We all remember images of Steve Wozniak in his garage surrounded by boxes and circuits and soldering tools, or Bob Noyce holding semiconductor designs, building the future of computing. That’s probably how we should view those who founded the industry and those who work in it, those working to create a new financial system.
But that’s not how they’re seen. Ask the average person on the street for the name of someone working in cryptocurrencies, and the most likely response is Sam Bankman-Fried. For many, crypto remains the modern-day equivalent of the emails from the late 90s from a Nigerian prince promising vast wealth if you’d help them with a few thousand dollars today. This perception might be unfair and an over-generalization, but nonetheless, that is the perception, and it works against expanding cultural acceptance and engagement in crypto.
If we want our sector to ripen as we imagine it can, we have to shepherd the technology and the people who could be using it. So, the industry needs to shed the rock star, rebel self-image and put on their khakis and button-downs, and become the trustworthy gatekeepers inviting the masses to come and experience what can be a welcoming future.
The following is a list of the roadblocks in the path of broad crypto adoption and what the industry can do to clear those hurdles for themselves, those already part of the ecosystem, and those we hope to bring under the crypto tent.
Many people are still unfamiliar with cryptocurrencies and don't fully understand how they work, what they are, or what they can do. This lack of understanding (among other factors) has led to scepticism and reluctance to adopt. According to a survey conducted by the UK's Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in 2020, 38% of adults in the UK didn't understand cryptocurrencies at all, and only 71% of those who had heard of cryptocurrencies could correctly identify their meaning.
In order to encourage and enable broad adoption, the first objective must be increasing the general public’s understanding of crypto technologies. This seems obvious, but public-facing training in crypto is scarce at best. It may seem tedious or backward for the same people creating this incredible technology to be asked to also train users with it. After all, isn’t the axiom of our era “do your own research?” Furthermore, there are already some educators out there. Coinbase, the most trusted, largest crypto exchange out there, already publishes material meant to familiarize and educate potential investors in the basics of the field. So why us?
Well, for a couple of reasons. One - no one else can! Crypto is a nascent industry with a much smaller footprint than traditional financial services. On top of that, many of the benefits of DeFi cater to a small audience, not because they aren’t helpful, but because people don’t realise they can benefit from it, in no small part due to the lack of financial literacy we see in the US and globally. Suppose people need to understand traditional assets to understand digital ones, and the average literacy is low. In that case, the average person has an extremely low probability of getting there independently and will need help. Secondly: while Coinbase has taken a limited responsibility to be an educator here, why would you want to leave it to them? That would be like Uber creating advertisements for individual drivers instead of their own platform.
One particular issue for the adoption of cryptocurrencies by the average consumer is to resolve the question of crypto’s intrinsic value: is it actually worth anything? This topic moves into the theoretical/philosophical realm of economics in general but is a crucial question to address since so many people wonder about this. The answer is a bit mushy, but what holds true for any item of value or holder of value or financial asset is equally true of cryptocurrencies: nothing’s value is intrinsic until you turn it into something. Arguably, when people mention stocks and bonds, the intrinsic value comes from calculation via fundamental analysis and a discounted cash flow model, but those analyses in themselves are highly subjective based on your own personal views and what you believe certain variables should be. Let’s also consider the idea of credit cards; they only really work because there is a legal agreement in place stating the plastic in your hand can be used for payments. You agree to pay the credit card company, and they agree to pay the retailer. It only works due to the legal contract surrounding it and the scale of adoption. Just like there is a legal and enforceable agreement tied to bonds and stocks, holders feel like they have recourse in some way if things go completely wrong. So, if the space could figure out how to give people a sense of security or recourse, there is a significant chance to scale. Please note that this is not to say there is intrinsic value in all cryptocurrencies. No one is trying to defend meme coins.
Grassroots communication with the average person about the benefits and utilization of crypto can expand the average person’s capability, interest, and willingness to step into this space. Remember the wildfire adoption of iPhones and iPads? Once the use and operation of new, convenient, highly-functional tools become intelligible, the market will eat it up. To borrow from “Field of Dreams,” if you teach them, they will come.
User Interface/Ease of Use
Tied to education, would-be users struggle with the complex and limited nature of the one ramps into the crypto space. People don’t understand where their assets are/would be held, moved within, bought, traded, etc. A survey conducted by Fidelity Digital Assets in 2020 found that 36% of institutional investors cited a lack of user-friendly platforms as a barrier to entry for cryptocurrencies. Some investors have stopped using cryptocurrencies because they found the technology too difficult to use. This could be due to issues with wallets, exchanges, or other technical aspects of cryptocurrency use. A survey by Finder in 2021 found that 13% of respondents who had previously used cryptocurrency cited technical difficulties as the reason for stopping.
Cryptocurrencies (and the exchanges that manage them) should have a vested interest in simplifying the user interface as much as possible to encourage and enable engagement with the average consumer. After all, a photo editor might need Photoshop, with all its bells and whistles, layers, formats, tools and specifications, but the average person is quickly lost in it all and can meet their basic needs with a simple editor app on their phone. Without a convenient, intuitive interface to allow the masses in, crypto will only be accessible to those already trained and proficient in these technologies - i.e., the people (and funds) who are already there.
Potential users frequently cite crypto’s infamous price volatility as a major concern that holds them back, and unfortunately, there’s no one silver bullet for addressing and reforming this. A survey conducted by HSB in 2021 found that 55% of small to medium-sized businesses in the US wouldn't consider accepting cryptocurrency payments because of concerns about volatility. Issues related to supply and demand (which fluctuates and can often be manipulated), government regulations or lack thereof (which are legislated and applied by officials who may or may not understand these assets, platforms, and/or companies), media hype (frequently intended to induce drama and entertainment as opposed to clarity and education), and investor and user sentiments (which are subject to all these issues) are but a handful of its contributing factors. Bad faith actors in the space, scams, and criminal activity further disrupt any possibility of calmness in the sector. Given this laundry list of issues, stabilization may seem like an impossibly far-off dream.
But it isn’t. Solving or addressing crypto’s volatility does not/will not mean one single response but an array of responses, each targeting different aspects of the problem. Educating investors and new users will allow new users to help populate and fill the sector, bringing stability. Supporting regulation - both by not resisting regulation AND working with regulators who are clearly in over their heads - will bring trust and transparency to national and international communities. Helping enhance the security of crypto wallets, the blockchains themselves, and rooting out scammers and fraudulent coins, will allow newbies to invest with at least as much confidence and peace of mind as with traditional fiat currencies and assets. And as all of these aspects become modified and improved, crypto will be able to address its issues of investor retention.
The regulatory landscape surrounding cryptocurrencies is still being determined in many countries, including the US, which can create confusion and risk for potential users. A survey conducted by PwC in 2021 found that 53% of institutional investors saw regulatory uncertainty as the most significant barrier to entry into cryptocurrencies. Part of the appeal of crypto since its foundation was its decentralized, ‘wild west’ nature which allowed it some space from government control and management. Wanting to avoid government involvement and possible interference may seem like an advantage. Still, part of what regulation brings is the general public’s ability to trust that various cryptos and new coin offerings are legitimate and not a scam. If a person is on the fence about getting into crypto or not, their belief in the market’s legitimacy as a byproduct of regulation will ease users’ minds and encourage engagement.
Working with regulators to develop sensible policy is also strategic in the sense of coming off as reasonable to regulators. With the SEC making continued noise about stepping in and clamping down on the cryptosphere, there is a risk that the regulation would take on an overreaching intensity which could cripple this young space, setting it further back. Perhaps crypto is already on an inevitable path towards a robust and irreversible place in our lives and world, but it’s also possible that this path could be disrupted. Electric cars are all the rage now. However, their dominance could have taken off more than twenty years sooner were it not for the poor interaction of governmental standards, regulations, and conflicting business interests. Preemptively working with regulators could establish a positive dynamic with those groups, which could also result in those regulators understanding crypto better, which could lead to the government being able to help the average person grasp it as well. Everybody wins.
Anything new in the technological space brings natural concerns about security and safety, but typically, these spaces work their way towards reliability and trustworthiness over time. Remember the paranoia and anxiety surrounding dating apps in the early 2000s? Compare that to now, where online dating is the most common way in which people become acquainted. Crypto ought to be no different, but it isn’t there yet. Because cryptocurrencies are digital assets, they are vulnerable to hacking and theft. A survey conducted by Kaspersky in 2020 found that 81% of respondents were afraid of being hacked and losing their crypto assets, and 49% said that they would never use cryptocurrency because of security concerns. And these concerns aren’t only based on pearl-clutching and timidity. In 2022 alone, $3.8 billion worth of cryptocurrency was stolen globally - a new record - and approximately half of that was attributed to hackers working with the regime of North Korea, which used many of these funds to bolster and support its weapons and missile programs. Obviously, this is very serious stuff.
Similar to the other crypto liabilities addressed in this article, cryptocurrency companies and exchanges have a vested interest in working with the relevant parties involved to create an atmosphere of security and trust for users in order to ensure security and safety, and then to shift the mindset. After all, a car manufacturer is not a body shop, but for there to be a car market, you need there to be body shops. Current and future investors need robust and enforced security processes and procedures, as well as transparency and interaction with governing bodies and regulators.
Crypto has historically been characterized as an outlaw, too-rich-to-care space, which in retrospect, appears to work against its long-term prospects. Now, it must be shed for something more predictable and trustworthy to encourage new players to enter the arena - and older players to remain in it.
It’s hard to convince would-be investors to jump into a new space when so many people already familiar with and invested in crypto have jumped out. The exact number of people who have left the space is unclear, but the many factors that contribute to this exodus, including those addressed already (and outlier events like exchanges collapsing or governments banning crypto), are apparent. Many have lost trust in the technology and the companies managing it. (According to a survey conducted by Chainalysis in 2021, 20% of respondents who stopped using cryptocurrency cited a loss of trust.) Others may have soured on the asset class due to a personal experience, such as a hack or theft, or a general lack of confidence in the overall security of cryptocurrencies. There also remains a limit of use cases for cryptocurrencies and tokens. Users may have decided to stop using crypto altogether if they couldn't find enough places to spend their cryptocurrency or didn't see the value in using it for transactions. A survey conducted by the Cambridge Center for Alternative Finance in 2019 found that 29% of respondents who had previously used cryptocurrency cited a lack of merchants accepting cryptocurrency as a reason for stopping. When it rains, it pours, and crypto has a plethora of issues holding back more broad adoption.
It may seem obvious, but if crypto companies can tackle the issues that are nibbling away at retention, we can hold onto the users we already have and encourage new investors by example, word of mouth, etc.
In my previous article, I addressed how investors can recontextualize their approach to crypto to make more informed, strategic decisions. Future articles will look at new roles the governing bodies involved could play that would stabilize these assets and marketplaces, making them more attractive to the investors we’d like to see come into this space. But I’d like to end on a hopeful thought; we are the people we’ve been waiting for. (The Martin Garrix and Bono song, not the depressing documentary about English schools) Other emerging sectors in the past have gone through similar upheaval and scandal: the advent and commodification of electricity, the automobile, mobile and smartphones, and the list goes on. These sectors always begin as outliers before becoming durable, ethical, and sustainable components of ever-more modern life. If we play our roles responsibly, crypto will be the same.