YAKIMA, Wash. — Most customers at the Phone Shop in Union Gap visit to purchase phones and accessories and get their mobile devices repaired.
But in recent months, it’s been the place for owner Chris Briskey to evangelize about Bitcoin, a well-known type of cryptocurrency; think of it as electronic cash. It’s also been the go-to place for those who have purchased or want to purchase Bitcoin.
In April, Briskey got a Bitcoin ATM, which allows people to convert cash into Bitcoin and vice versa and access it through a virtual wallet online. The ATM has attracted Bitcoin investors from all over the state since its installation.
Bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies and the accompanying technology have gained attention in recent years, even catching the eye of banks and other mainstream technology companies. Some in the financial industry, such as hedge fund managers and venture capitalists, see long-term investing potential.
In the Yakima Valley, cryptocurrency has remained a niche interest. But the dedication to learning, investing and talking up the concept makes up for the relatively small number of interested people.
Briskey calls Bitcoin “digital gold” that could prompt a major shift in how people obtain and use money.
“Once we started learning about the technology, it completely blew our minds,” said Briskey, who started purchasing Bitcoin about eight months ago.
Interest from people like Briskey stems from the belief that cryptocurrency could be potentially life- or societal-changing, said Quinn DuPont, a research associate at the University of Washington’s Information School. DuPont has done extensive research on cryptocurrency and blockchain, the digital ledger used to record cryptocurrency transactions.
“It’s about the people and the way (the technology) is adopted,” he said.
The idea of exchanging money without the watchful eye of a government or centralized entity such a bank is appealing, he said.
DuPont noted that the development of Bitcoin came in light of the recent financial crisis in the U.S., which created distrust in traditional financial institutions and the federal government’s ability to regulate those institutions.
Those who develop cryptocurrencies show, in essence, that the function of creating and maintaining a currency or other unit of money wasn’t limited to just a government, he said.
“They realized that if you wanted to take down a society or change a society, that money is an important part of that,” DuPont said.
For Tim Coulter, another Yakima resident, the world of cryptocurrency and blockchain has been life-changing, especially for his career.
Coulter, a software engineer, spent eight years in New York and California working at various startups. Around 2012, a co-worker talked up Bitcoin, but Coulter didn’t think it would amount to anything.
That changed when he saw the price of a Bitcoin had increased from $5 to $1,000 by the end of 2013. He then started purchasing different cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, but mainly for fun: “It was like playing the stock market but in a more accessible way.”
But what drew his attention was the blockchain, the digital ledger technology that provided a record of cryptocurrency transactions.
Blockchain technology’s notable feature is its ability to record transactions in a decentralized way. The ledger is not located on a centralized server; rather, each computer on a network has a copy. When the ledger is updated with a new transaction, all the ledger copies are updated at the same time.
In 2015, Coulter started working for a company that supported development of Ethereum, a blockchain tied to a cryptocurrency called Ether. Coulter compares Ethereum and Ether to a machine at the arcade and the tokens required to use them.
Today, he works for a project called Truffle, a suite of tools to help developers who create applications that run on the Ethereum platform.
Coulter moved to Yakima in September 2015 with his wife, who works as a psychologist with Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. He works remotely for Truffle.
Along with working as a developer for a blockchain platform, he also has purchased the Ether currency and has collected additional Ether by verifying transactions on the Ethereum blockchain.
After years of working in startups and being around others interested in technology, Coulter yearned for a community that shared his passion. He’s also wanted to find promising developers who could work at his company.
Earlier this year, he started an Ethereum group in Yakima. He’s had a handful of meetings and met a few people, but he believes there’s more work to be done.
“It’s a slow process,” he said. “As cryptocurrency and Ethereum become popular, we can build that community here.”
While he has a financial and career stake in getting more people interested in Ethereum, he said the heart of his effort lies in…