There is a saying that goes, ‘not all super heroes wear capes’ and there is one such ‘Super Hero’ in blockchain world that goes by the name Gabriel Abed. Gabriel is in the league of very distinguished people who discovered bitcoin and blockchain usability very early. He co-founded Bitt, a payment solution for end-users, banking institutions, merchants and central banks that promote social inclusion, financial empowerment and economic growth. After registering one of the world’s first blockchain company, Bit Edge Technologies, Gabriel is also known as one of the key people behind world’s first stable coin and he holds some key advisory roles in governments and blockchain startups.
I had the pleasure talking to Gabriel, as he shared his amazing journey so far, the challenges he faced and his undying love and struggle for the blockchain integration in different sectors specially in the socio-economic structure of our society.
- Gabriel lets start from the very beginning. Please tell us your background and how it all started for you?
Gabriel: I was born and raised in Barbados in 1986 and my educational background is in technology as I got my associate degree in computer science. Then I went to Canada in 2006 and did 4 years of honor program, did my bachelor in IT with major in network security. I was in University of Ontario Institute of Technology where I discovered bitcoin, it was actually a very close friend of mine Dave Aldwinckle, who introduced me to bitcoin. I remember the two of us were having a conversation about that stuff and the next thing was that we were in a class room in university mining bitcoin on our school laptops.
Later that year, I finished university and returned to Barbados and launched Bit Edge Technologies in November 2010. I went to get it register on the corporate registry of Barbados government and registered one of the first blockchain companies of the world! The problem with Bit Edge was that first, I personally couldn’t understood blockchain technology at that time. Secondly, it wasn’t developed to a point where we understood what it could be and thirdly the use cases were not known at that point. All I saw at that time was it is a system that can be used for digital assets trading and a really cool alternative payment system. Throughout the 2010-2011 period there was no activity and I focused mainly on alternative software systems and application development and built some beautiful businesses for clients as well as ourselves. It wasn’t until 2012 that one of the businesses we built which took payments over internet of non-tangible assets was .bb domain. I started selling domains, connect main retail website and become a wholesaler for them, on top of it I’d also provide a retail service. Now the problem came when the banks decided that selling non-tangible assets is against their policies since its not a physical product that I was selling which I thought is outrageous! So because of that I lost my processing facilities my sales went down as customers were unable to pay me, I no longer had credit card processing and I was unable to take payments and PayPal was not conducive to the Caribbean regions. Chinese were buying .bb domains like crazy as in Chinese it means baby. We had a customer that would buy 1,000 domains, so for a small company like ours, that profit margin and volume is life or death! The customer suggested if I could take bitcoin and of course I said yes, absolutely. Then I started to work out how many companies in the region face the exact problem and how could this technology can solve this particular problem. This question later became the first step towards bitt.com.
By 2013, one of my childhood friend named Oliver Gale, took interest from our discussion we were having about bitcoin and its price. At that time, I was about to open a mining facility We later ended up opening it together in Trinidad & Tobaggo. In Barbados, my team was focused on building Bitt, and went on to launch a digital asset exchange. Now by 2014 we couldn’t keep both businesses going as there was a mining operation that was intense and hardware was always breaking. Back then mining was really tough, then there was bitt.com that reached to the level that it needed resources of its own. As a young guy with startup businesses and basic income, it was very hard to sustain a team in the world of finance and technology. I was unable to do both and we ended up to focus on Bitt, the digital asset exchange. While focusing on Bitt, we realized that banks were not allowing us to create a friction-less solution for the remittance that we wanted to offer and for the last mile of problem that we wanted to solve.
So If someone in the United States wanted to send money to Barbados or Caribbean, they usually have to face upwards of 15-18% in frictional fee. We thought that with bitcoin, we’d be able to reduce that to 2-3%! 1% on buying side, 1% on sell side and maybe 1% on the cash-out process and it was the cash-out process we realized was the issue. Looking at how money works in a society and how Dollar functions, we realized that it didn’t matter how useful bitcoin was, we’d always be stuck with the inefficiencies of the Dollar based system we have in front of us! So we started to turn more towards the technology that bitcoin offer. You know ironically, bitcoin was providing us a service in allowing us to use a value transfer system that removes correspondent banking relationship from that value transfer process. I remember, I was in a hotel in Dominica when an idea popped on my head that was bigger and we didn’t see it at that time and what really kicked in was ‘how do I create a parallel fiat currency to cryptocurrency? From there on, I started to learn how money really works, I researched central banks, the monetary expansion policy, the money development life cycle, the supply-chain of money and how all that functions in a society. It came to me that the only solution is to go directly to the chief monetary authority, the central banks themselves and recommend that they launch a utility of their dollar which is digital. In doing so, they can utilize the blockchain technology to build a resilient, secure, immutable, one Caribbean digital dollar environment, to form one of the strongest trade regions and that for the last 4 years ended up becoming Bitt’s core mission.
- That really is something Gabriel! Have you faced any problems registering bitt in Barbados at that time?
Gabriel: Well the thing is bitcoin wasn’t a security and we were only trading bitcoin into fiat currency i.e bitcoin to Barbados dollars. So when we first launched the exchange in late 2013 and early 2014, we were predominantly focused on the trading aspect. We did fall in the jurisdiction of the financial services commission as a matter of fact, we went to them, the regulators in Barbados and begged them to regulate us. We wanted a regulated exchange licence, we wanted a regulated banking licence, we wanted so many things but the government wasn’t clear on what we were and didn’t have an understanding. They were taking a very laid-back approach of wait and see process. It wasn’t the case of us not engaging the government, it was the case of lack of understanding and the education frontier that we were pushing on this very complex subject back in 2014. The results were allowing us to move forward but it didn’t gave us full regulatory clarity. At the same time government didn’t stop us from doing what was needed to do. So it wasn’t the best scenario and at the same time it wasn’t the worse scenario either.
- And how are the conditions right now?
Gabriel: It’s a whole different story now. Right now the government of Barbados is fully endorsing Bitt. Our new Honorable Prime Minister Mia Mottley, has made a statement that she is going to become the project leader of mMoney and the government integration services to launch digital money pilot with the government of Barbados. This signals a massive paradigm shift in the Caribbean region. We proved everyone wrong in the sense that innovation and the drive is still alive. The company is still strong, it grew, the idea held merit and as a matter of fact the idea held water that the IMF managing director, Christine Lagarde recently said that all central banks should start looking at blockchain-central bank digital currencies. ‘Central bank digital currency’ is the term coined and created by Bitt. I’d say things are looking amazingly beautiful for our region, the financially underbanked and the future of our company.
- Please tell us how many people are actively using the platform?
Gabriel: Right now bitt only launched its full product for the ecosystem in January and we’ve been adding features and functionalities to it while testing them along, it’s more like the chicken before the egg scenario. How do you launch a mobile money network, get merchants to accept it and then get users to go and spend that mobile money to merchants. Who comes first? Does the consumer comes first? Consumers say I don’t have merchants to spend the mobile money on so I’m not going to use it. The merchants says there are no users and therefore I’m not going to accept it. We had to breakthrough that over the last 9 months and right now we have thousands of consumers on an island that only has 280,000 population. We have a large active user base who are currently using the app and we have some of the major corporations on the island accepting the mMoney which is a huge accomplishment for the team. My personal estimate is by the year 2020, if the mMoney tean continues doing what they have been doing, we would have half the island on our platform. So it’s a 3-5 year process of transitioning away from a cash dominant society, who’s alternative payment system is the credit card network, to a domestic system with grass-roots initiatives that’s built by keeping the unbanked in mind.
- That’s quiet a success keeping in mind the island’s population. How stable is bitt as so many people are using the platform?
Gabriel: Extremely stable. Don’t get me wrong, like all software products you can assume that your product is bulletproof and then something comes up that you never expected. Those kind of bugs likely cause a bad user experience but in terms of loss customer funds or the security behind the mechanism of what Bitt is, we’ve been quiet fortunate that we’ve been bulletproof to this day. The development team is continuously amending any bugs that we find on our day-to-day basis while ensuring that our next design phase of Bitt is coming up with a new suite of features.
- Do you have a specific date of rolling out Bitt’s new version?
Gabriel: Remember the current product on the market provide the ability for the user to send and receive digital dollar on their mobile phone and to store a contact for a digital PE on their phone, to get verified, compliant and allow them to have access to Barbados Digital Dollars with the ability of sending and receiving it. Now in the future, we may want to add features like payroll or bill payment and we’ll simply just roll them in to the app. Our users will wakeup on mornings to new features around their digital dollar.
- So how big is Bitt’s team currently?
Gabriel: Well the team is run by Senator Rawdon Adams, who is Bitt.com’s CEO. The team is made up of around 50-60 people and our board is made up of 7 persons. We’ve quiet a solid team full-time working and operating in our headquarters in Barbados. Our team is made up of Americans and Canadians on the minority and on the majority we’ve Barbadians, Trinidadians and Jamaicans. We’re a Caribbean run and owned company with some great American and Canadian partners.
- So Gabriel, is all of Bitt’s team under one roof?
Gabriel: Yes, under one roof. Come work, live, sweat and enjoy Barbados with us. We do believe in remote work, in this day and age it’s almost a necessity, so don’t get me wrong, a lot of our staff worked remotely from time to time. Bitt can be seen as a family and the mission is one that if you’re not there every single day eating, sleeping and dreaming it, then there maybe a disconnect in believing in it. This mission is one that is so critical, so big and massive that you cannot have any weak points and the team needs to be the strongest ever!
- That’s great! Please tell us what challenges Bitt is facing currently?
Gabriel: The challenge we’re facing is education. First thing is educating the central banks and the monetary authorities around the world that blockchain is extremely useful and extremely positive for their integration. I can have huge ramifications for their economy’s growth on a positive side. So education is critical to understand that blockchain is good, so stop being fearful and move towards embracing it.
The second thing is the sale cycle and the length of time it takes. We’re not launching an average retail store that’s selling some shirts. We’re launching a central bank digital currency, then going to the central bank and selling them on the notion of transitioning from the physical printing press and move towards a digital printing press. Do you have any idea how long it takes? Not a day or a week but that’s a five year cycle! So the next challenge is the sale cycle in weathering that storm. And being resilient and consistent in your approach is the key in delivering this market.
- Have you also talked to other central banks for blockchain integrating ?
Gabriel: Several around the world. We are in engagement right now with Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, the Central Bank of Curacao and Saint Martin and the Central Bank of Barbados along with several others. We’ve started feasibility studies, explored pilots, launched an entire ecosystem and hosted regular working groups. We also host a central bank meet blockchain Conference. Governors from different parts of the world fly to our Conference in Barbados to learn about where blockchain and central banks are going.
- That’s amazing! Let’s go back in time a bit. Please tell us how you managed to start these businesses and with how much funding?
Gabriel: When 2014 hit, we made the conscious decision to focus on Bitt full-time. Throughout that period in 2014, I was the only one funding bitt. As I was the only one funding, it was really stressful and at times painful for me. It got to the point where I was on my last dollar but I was quiet fortunate that I met a gentleman from Trinidad&Tobago named Peter George who later became one of my life’s greatest mentor and Bitt’s first investor. I told him about the concept that I had of creating a central bank digital currency and a digital asset exchange that would allow that currency to move between bitcoin and he absolutely loved it! Within weeks we got our seed capital and I used that seed capital to expand the team from under 8 people to about 20 and built a prototype using a variant of the mastercoin protocol to create the world’s first narrow money representation of a Central Bank Digital currency on top of bitcoin’s blockchain. J.R Willet from the Omni Foundation published a paper in 2002 about the mastercoin protocol which inspired the creation of the digital dollar.
So we became the world’s first stable coin tat was in line with a process of monetary issuance policy, and while tether was on the market at the same time and all this stable coin discussion, we were still the world’s first stable coin and we got the central bank to give us the approval. We went on to launched the prototype digital dollar of Barbados in February 2016, after years of amending our process flows and years of knowledge.
Two weeks later, Dr. Patrick Byrne of Overstock, a multi-billion dollar retail outlet of the United States took a position in our company giving us a massive investment of $16 million to help us achieve our objectives and our mission over the last few years, to which we have been doing so with great success.
- That’s some inspirational story Gabriel! Please share with us every bit of it.
Gabriel: Of course you should hear how he invested man, how he invested is the coolest part and how we met each other! So there’s an exclusive bitcoin meetup event called ‘Satoshi Roundtable’. It’s one of the oldest and the most exclusive bitcoin meetup as only like the top and handful of the bitcoin world gets invited to this event and its invites only. I heard about it through the ‘Great vines’. I reached out to the organizer Bruce Vincent and I said something to extent of ‘I absolutely have to come to this’ and he said ‘Gabriel I don’t really know you or any of your work’. I said ‘ look man I created world’s first central bank digital currency and here’s the news article on it, here’s the prototype and software.You need to let me in for this conference’. I arrived very late to the conference due to flight delays, I remember going towards the dinner hall where everyone was meeting up. I didn’t really know anyone there and I was sitting down with another friend of mine when this guy and a lady walked past me and the lady looked at me like she knew me, she pulled the guy’s hand next to her and said something in his ear, then that guy went to some other guy and whispered something in his ear. I was wearing my Bitt shirt, now that guy came over to me and asked me ‘young man are you from bitt.com’? I replied yes and he asked ‘are you Gabriel Abed’? After I said yes he said ‘I’m your biggest fan! What you’ve done to central banks is you’ve turned back the dial of control of their transparency and you’ve given it to the consumer against their money printing. I’m a huge fan of your work’! I said ‘thank you I’m humbled’ and he said ‘oh forgive me I’m Dr. Patrick Byrne, CEO of overstock’.
Overstock was one of the first multi-billion dollar corporation to take bitcoin and when they agreed to take bitcoin, the price of bitcoin increased by a massive percentage in that day! That day when the bitcoin price increased, we were so happy that they started calling ‘the bitcoin messiah’. My reaction was ‘oh my God you’re the bitcoin messiah! I’m your biggest fan’! We had a brief talk and some other people came to meet him and we lost our connection. Then at night around 11 p.m, at Club Med in Port Saint Louis, Florida, where the event was taking place, I was lost and upset walking around when I saw a tall man in dark, walking towards me. It was Patrick and he said ‘do you want to join me for a discussion’? I said yes, we went to his room and we started discussing our history and then we discussed theory of money, Austrian School of Economics, Byzantine Fault Tolerance process of bitcoin and we started nerding back and forth.
I’m part of this group called Caribbean 2030, which is a think-tank for the Caribbean region, setup by the UK foreign office and the CAPRI with the aim of further Caribbean integrated by 2030. Some very important persons are on this team, like the prime minister of Jamaica, ministers from all over the Caribbean islands, entrepreneurs and a lot of influential people. I was discussing with him all these key accomplishments and how Caribbean is a very special place. We spoke about how I’m working towards building the reputation with contacts I have and how I’ll achieve my targets. At 4 a.m in the morning in my shock, he said to me if I’ve all those contacts then prove it. I showed him a list of the Caribbean 2030 members and he chose 4 people. I called senator Jennifer Raffoul of Trinidad at 4 am! He said ‘senator I’m sorry to wake you up but I’m with this young man and I’m about to make massive investment in his company would you vouch for him? The Senator vouches for me. Then we called a member from the United Kingdom foreign office, who also vouched for me. Then he called someone in Barbados ministry and he vouched for me as well! Everyone we called at 4 am, vouched for me and my work.
By 6 am that morning, I haven’t left Patrick room yet and we’re still discussing the possibilities. Shortly after going to my room, I was told to get my stuff and meet him downstairs. By 9 am, I’m boarding his private jet and preparing to flight back to Jamaica to meet with the people from stock exchange and the minister of finance. And then we flew to Barbados, all in one day! All in one day, I get everyone on the round-table for him. I got the minister of finance, representatives of central bank, head of the bankers association, everyone in one room like I said I would, to meet with Patrick. In a small island of a developing state unlike developed nations, I can get the resources and players to the table in a single day and we pivot quickly which is our advantage. We move quickly because we are small and small boats are able to turn fast. Patrick flew to the island with me and he met everyone, he loved what was said, loved what Bitt was doing, loved the team and weeks later we got our investment.
- What a story Gabriel! So currently, what’s the focus of Bitt?
Gabriel: Bitt’s short term goal is to get the ecosystem to function perfectly in a society. What I mean is, ensuring the end-user can send and receive, ensuring merchants can process, in fact anywhere you can spend cash on the island, I would like to see a digital dollar solution in place. Making sure mMoney is the dominant payment solution to be used on the island of Barbados. Making sure the product is the best, we capture the market, expand the product to other islands and other jurisdictions and that’s exactly what we’re doing right now.
- How long do you think it’ll take you to achieve that?
Gabriel: Bitt is already achieving it! We have partnerships lined up with other financial institutions and other nations. In the Caribbean there are over 20 different nations to focus on, even if one says no, I got 19 others. The beautiful part is if one starts following a process, the rest will do it, like the domino effect if one falls the rest as well. Therefore, eventually, the entire Caribbean will be using a central bank digital dollar, within the next 10 years.
- As we’re talking about regulators and cryptocurrency adoption in the Caribbean, in your personal opinion, do you think SEC will approve a bitcoin ETF any time soon?
Gabriel: I think the SEC is doing what they think they need to do to protect consumers. I believe they are trying to play catch up in terms of their own education. You can see it from the training, hiring and expansion of their team. They’ve just expanded their crypto team, to focus on it. They are playing catch up while trying to protect the end user which is great and I think it is extremely important, specially for America. But on the other hand, bitcoin doesn’t need their permission and the institutional investors, consumers or whoever will come regardless because bitcoin utility is not dependent on the SEC, the government or any approval and permission, that’s the beauty of decentralized platform. So my opinion on the SEC ETF decision is it’s great for them, it’s for the regulators and the Americans and I wish them best of luck in whatever they decide to do in protecting their audience but ‘honey badger don’t care’!
- In your opinion, what other industries or verticals can adopt blockchain?
Gabriel: If a solution makes something more efficient, faster, cheaper, transparent and more secure, then my opinion is, that is a better and superior solution. If it applies to trust centers, central authorities and the mechanism at which trust is being utilized in an internet based transaction, then I think blockchain has an extremely bright future to disrupt that and I believe that it’ll absolutely be disrupting it. We won’t see it right now, although we’re seeing the cracks and we’re starting to see companies that are making promises for the last 5 years like our own has started to deliver all those promises. We’re starting to see traditional markets fold and change in their approach as they realized cheaper, faster, better is just better! And they’re moving in that direction.
You can see 4 years ago, if you told me that Amazon will launch its own blockchain enterprise service, I’d have laughed at you but they did it very recently. So anyone who ask me if blockchain has a future?, I always say look at the world’s largest companies, are they using blockchain? Look at the young entrepreneurs and what’s their passion? It’s a blockchain based passion! Where all the developers working right now? I cannot find a developer to build a website, but I can find a developer who wants to do something in blockchain and they all are moving towards it. I’m seeing business models coming out that the world has never seeing before! Models that we could never visioned and we’re seeing a brand new incubus of innovation hitting our market and we don’t even know what’s coming next. This is just a start!
I would say let’s sit back, do our part and understand that there is a liberal movement towards the freedom of information and blockchain is a major component of that and nothing can stop it!
- Do you think there’ll be one eureka moment for massive blockchain adoption?
Gabriel: No I don’t think there’ll be one big eureka movement, there are going to be thousands of eureka moments! There is going to be Kodak moment to happen for many companies in our current field of finance and that Kodak moment will result in new blockchain companies.
One can think of any vertical like hospital medical records, birth certificates, background checks, identity based systems and even stock markets.
- You also hold some key advising positions, please tell us more about them.
Gabriel: I’m the contracted advisor to the Premier of Bermuda and several other blockchain companies. I advise them on the future of blockchain technology and the legislation amendments that they need to make, to put their country ahead and hit their targets. In the case of Bermuda, their goal is economic growth, foreign direct investments, jobs creation and its the same with Barbados. I also advice several ICOs but my expertise comes from my ability of understanding the regulatory field, technological field and the business world along with economics. Merging all those together makes me quiet a worthy advisor to governments, or at least they seem to think so.
- What is your advice to new blockchain startups?
Gabriel: If I were starting a new blockchain company, I would ensure that I use blockchain for its true utility and not that I wanted to raise capital because it’s easy to raise capital if you build a good product and that’s a fact! If you build a good product, money will be thrown at you. If someone is using blockchain because they think they’ll raise money, I would advise them to get out of here and because they are going to fail from day one.
Firstly, if you’re a true blockchain company, use blockchain for its inherent value based systems and build along those lines. Secondly, ensure that you don’t see yourself short. If you have built a disruptive solution, don’t sell it out to the first person that gives you money. Take your time, explore whats out there and make sure you get a fair value of your business that does not demotivate you as an entrepreneur. Thirdly, make sure you treat your team with love because at the end of the day this field is growing competitive. The only thing that will keep your team at your side and loyal to you is love. The love for the mission, love for their fellow comrade and company and the love for the organization’s aim.