Nick Spanos is always pursuing a lot of big ideas at once, many of which are ahead of their time.
In the early ‘90s, he founded short-term apartment rental and real estate websites nomorehotels.com, apartmentsexpress.com, and getaroom.com, long before AirBnB dominated the short-term rental market. In 1997, he was the CEO of Livery Cab, considered a precursor to Uber. He also served as chief executive officer to an early social media platform voteme.com from 2007 to 2014, and founded the New York City-based real estate brokerage Bapple.com. Between all of these projects Spanos also found time to campaign for and work as an official advisor to Senator Rand Paul and work as a commercial fisherman.
With a heavy New York accent, gruff personality, and a predilection for bowties rather than hoodies, Spanos may not look, act, or sound like your average tech industry cult of personality. But he’s become a larger-than-life evangelist in bitcoin and blockchain circles.
At a time when regulators, investors, and the general public had all but written off bitcoin as nothing more than the currency of the internet underworld, Spanos opened the Bitcoin Center New York City, a mere 100 feet from the New York Stock exchange in 2013. The effort resulted in significant press coverage and interest from neighboring investors on Wall Street, as well as constant regulatory battles and unwanted visits from government agencies.
Today, Spanos continues to operate the country’s first major bitcoin meet-up and peer-to-peer exchange group in downtown New York from the Center’s new location in Soho.
BREAKER recently spent time with Spanos at the Blockchain Futurist Conference in Toronto, shortly before he took the main stage. A large man with an even larger personality, Spanos’s conversation is a rapid-fire of expletives, grandiose ideas, and dark humor. Spanos is quick with a hearty laugh and a slap on the shoulder to help emphasize his punchlines. This interview has been condensed and edited.
What’s in your speech?
I talk about how bitcoin is not a bubble. The lazy financial system is a bubble. The stock market is a bubble. All these financial instruments that people create are a bubble.
What’s wrong with the financial system?
We’re enslaved by the Federal Reserve System. In the beginning, people didn’t see a point to paper money, they just collected gold because they knew it had a real value. Then FDR made it illegal to own gold and use it as currency. It was proof by cage; if you don’t collect our worthless paper money and give some of it back to us in the form of taxes, you’re going to jail.
All of these financial instruments that they explain to us as being important are really all fake. Digital scarcity is a reality. There’s only a certain amount of [bitcoin].
What gets you most excited about blockchain technology?
It’s tokenized trust. The Romans had the aqueduct network, Edison built the electrical network, Arpanet built the digital network, and Satoshi built this network of trust that’s scalable to the 8 billionth person. With smart contracts on the blockchain you don’t need a third party to enforce agreements, you don’t need to have a prior relationship with the other party, the terms of the agreement are automatically executed and nobody can tamper with it.
In the past you could only trust as many people as you could interact with—which is about 150 people according to Dunbar’s Law. Now we have fully scalable trust to the end of the earth, that’s the invention. People can call it whatever they want or try to treat it like a stock, but it’s not a stock. It’s an asset class of trust.
I felt like David with five rocks.
Why did you set up the center in the financial district, 100 feet away from the New York Stock Exchange?
I felt like David with five rocks. I’m looking around at these massive buildings thinking man, am I crazy? At the time nobody really knew anything about bitcoin and were basically ignoring it, and here I am shoving it right in the financial industry’s faces. People from the Federal Reserve walked in there, people from the SEC, FBI. They came to ask if we were trading securities without a license.
I’m usually never afraid of anything. I used to be a fisherman, so the only thing I’m really afraid of is 40-foot waves. Everything else I can come back from. As soon as I walked in [to the financial district] the buildings looked like waves coming to smash me. That’s what it felt like going into it.
Everyone was after me. Everyone wanted to shut it down. Even the landlords were trying to shut it down because of what other people were telling them. I’m not sure if they leaked water on me on purpose. But they never fixed the problems we had there. They did many things to drive me out.
Why go through all of that trouble? Was it worth it?
I believe it had to happen because the news was giving out all of this bad information and we wanted to show reporters what the heck was really happening. After we opened the center we were memorialized in the Netflix documentary Banking on Bitcoin. We had a CNN special, a BBC special. We believe that we lifted bitcoin out of the back alleys and brought it to Wall Street, and that was a shot heard around the world.
How do you feel about the influx of opportunists into this space?
At first it felt a little strange, but after thinking about it, I thought ‘hey, their greed is going to bring us to a decentralized future.’ Their need to make money and learn about this is the catalyst that’s growing this by leaps and bounds. Otherwise there would be 12 people here [at the conference].
What are you working on now?
I built D.A.V.E., the bitcoin ATM, and we’re doing different permutations around the U.S. We built blockchain voting machines, and the Libertarian Party uses it for just about everything. We’re about to do it for a country. Legally I can’t talk about it at the moment. We built blockchain electric meters, and we’re working on a project called ZAP, which is the oraclization or tokenization of data. People can trade data for a sub-token of that on our exchange.
What does that mean exactly?
An oracle is information uploaded into a decentralized application, and Zap allows users to buy and sell data from each other over the blockchain. Every blockchain needs data from the outside world. All of the promises that these ICOs are making for things they are doing in the outside world, they won’t have a way to curate that data and make sure it’s truly happening in a decentralized fashion. Since the SEC says bitcoin and Ethereum are not securities—because they’re decentralized—everyone that’s offering an ICO is racing to decentralize their tokens. In order to decentralize your tokens, you need to decentralize the data that is being exchanged, or else the ICO won’t work.
That’s a lot of projects.
I was an OCD crazy person my whole life. I could never focus, even as a kid. I’ve built a lot of shit in my garage.
Is blockchain ever going to have applications in the real world?
It goes back to Dunbar’s law. Those villages and areas with 150 people, once it got any bigger centralization happened where there’s a guy that runs your life, and he doesn’t know you. The Gutenberg printing press helped destroy that, because suddenly you could get information from all over. The internet was the next step, and now with blockchain we can scale decentralization to 8 billion people. I really believe that. That’s my battle.