Alex Leishman, organizer of SF Bitcoin Devs and CEO of River, joins me in this episode to talk about his journey in Bitcoin and Austrian Economics, as well as talk about how to moderate and run a successful Bitcoin Socratic Seminar meet up. Listen in and get some tips on how you can run or participate in Bitcoin meet ups in your city! We talk:
- Ground rules
- What discussion takes place at a Bitcoin Socratic Seminar
- How the rest of the world can copy this model
- River FInancial
Alex Leishman links:
Stephan Livera links:
Stephan Livera: Alex, welcome to the show.
Alex Leishman: Thanks for having me.
Stephan Livera: So, Alex, I know your reputation precedes you. I know you have a reputation for being a good moderator and host of the Socratic seminar and you’ve done a lot of work around community building and been around the space for awhile. I’d love to hear a little bit of your story on how you got into all this and Bitcoin and Austrian economics.
Alex Leishman: Yeah, well that’s very flattering. Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you feel like you’ve heard good things. So yeah I guess I can start from the start, from the beginning. I think it’s a pretty interesting story, it has a lot in common with how a lot of other people found themselves in this industry. So when I was an undergrad, I grew up in Maryland, went to the university of Maryland college park and studied aerospace engineering actually. But in my free time I was kind of, as kind of a young person in colleges being exposed to new ideas. I started being exposed to the ideas of like libertarianism, reading economists, starting with, Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman started discovering then kind of going further down the rabbit hole, learning about Mises and Hayek and all of that.
Alex Leishman: And I spent a lot of my time outside of, my engineering classes, reading about this stuff. And I remember, sophomore year I was going between, my engineering classes and I had this thick like Human Action book in my backpack. And all my friends thought I was really weird. Yeah. And so this idea of like first principles, economics, defining what a rational human is and trying to construct what the kind of emergent the emergent phenomenon that come from that art was fascinating, but kind of, fast forward to my senior year, I got around to reading Friedrich Hayek’s Denationalization of money. Like a lot of people in Bitcoin I’ve read, and this I still didn’t know about Bitcoin at this point actually.
Alex Leishman: And I read that and I, everything just clicked. I was like, wow, this idea of competing money that wasn’t completely controlled by the government was super fascinating to me. And I had kind of made up my mind that I knew at some point in my life I wanted to kind of be part of building a financial institution or a company that offered people access to money that the federal reserve didn’t control. And I know that sounds really weird, but like that was kind of like what I had decided my dream was in college and I didn’t have no idea how to do that. I thought it would look like something like, I played around with ideas, I looked at what Liberty dollar had done and I saw that it didn’t end too well for them.
Alex Leishman: I thought about, maybe offering a currency, my own money backed by commodities or something like that that sat in a vault or some ideas related to that. And then I kind of shelved that idea while I had my first job out of college and it was a management consultant consulting job. But, it wasn’t, I wasn’t, I wasn’t having that much fun. I missed engineering. I didn’t enjoy, making all the PowerPoints and stuff and that kind of job, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at that point right out of college. And then because I was kind of bored in my job, I started taking programming classes online and I took this one Coursera class called startup engineering and one of the assignments was to build a Bitcoin donation website.
Alex Leishman: And I was like, well, what is, what is like, what is Bitcoin? I kind of heard the word, but I didn’t really know much about it and I started digging into it from this assignment online and I just like, I remember the moment it just like clicked. I was like, I had that feeling that a lot of people have had, like this fulfills the prophecy. That’s how I felt. Like I was like, this fulfills the prophecy. And I just knew that like this was going to be something and I had to spend time working on it.
Stephan Livera: That’s fantastic. And what time was this?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, this was mid 2013. So Bitcoin had some traction at that point. Coinbase was up and running. I was using the Coinbase API to play around with Bitcoin stuff.
Alex Leishman: And yeah, the course was actually taught by Balaji Srinivasan, Boston on Coursera and also another professor at Stanford, Vijay Pande. I think I’m pronouncing his name right, but, so then by the end of that year, I had decided to up and leave Maryland and move to San Francisco to pursue a career as a software engineer working on Bitcoin stuff. And and that was at the end of 2013. And then, after that, I, I did so I landed in San Francisco, didn’t have a job. I did a programming boot camp and this has been about two months, kind of just learning the fundamentals of web engineering and doing a lot of Bitcoin stuff on the side. Going to the meetups out here that this was my first exposure to like real Bitcoin meetups. And I I really loved them.
Alex Leishman: I loved being able to be in a city with a community of people who just, love Bitcoin. And I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I got a job shortly after that at a company called MyCoin, which was like a Bitcoin brokerage for Taiwan, but they had an office in Palo Alto at the time and did that for about a year and a half, help build out that platform, that company, they’re still around today. And then ended up going back to grad school after that. So I ended up doing my masters in computer science at Stanford. I was lucky enough to kind of join at a time where Dan Boneh, who’s the cryptography professor there, was teaching the first Bitcoin class and as kind of coincidence would have it, Balaji was teaching this kind of add on lab unit to that class as well.
Alex Leishman: And because of my experience with Bitcoin and kind of my, time working in the industry at that point, I was well positioned to actually be a teaching assistant for that class, which was really cool. And so that was actually my first job in grad school, was helping TA that class with Dan Boneh. And a few other great guys. And so yeah, so I spent two years in grad school focusing on computer security, Bitcoin stuff. I spent some time researching, the possibility of putting BLS signatures in the Bitcoin protocol which I’m happy to talk about a little more. And after that I’ll, I’ll just kind of summarize up to now. So I spent a little time working in security at Airbnb, but I quickly miss Bitcoin stuff and ended up leaving Airbnb, joining an investment fund to kind of focus on Bitcoin deals and also building out some of their technical infrastructure.
Alex Leishman: And that fund was called Polychain capital. And so I spent a while there did some cool stuff there, helped help lead some investments in some Bitcoin companies and ended up leaving to start my own company where I am now called River Financial. While I was at Polychain, I had the opportunity to go to New York to, I think I was out there for some conference. I can’t really remember which one. And I went to one of the Bit Devs meetups out there and the guy who runs the meet up out there, Jay, he is incredibly talented. And the event that he organizes there that’s been going for years now just kind of, it blew my mind how effective it was, what the community was like. How much people enjoyed this format of event he had put on and he calls, he calls it the Socratic seminar style.
Alex Leishman: And basically what he does is he collects, 20-30 topics and prepares to discuss them for each meetup once a month. And they range from anywhere from kind of news and events in Bitcoin. I mean, maybe some company being acquired or some mining news or statistics in a Bitcoin network, to pull requests in the Bitcoin core repository or the c-lightning or LND repositories. And so, he kick-starts a discussion one by one through each of these topics. And really the main kind of meat of the event is the people in the audience who attend, who, many of whom are talented engineers or understand this stuff deeply and have conversations around each of these topics. And Jay is more ofjust the moderator. And so I was blown away by, how great that inept was and I, I thought to myself, why don’t we have that in San Francisco? And I knew we had a Bitcoin developer meetup that I’d been to for a while, but I decided, what if I could partner up with a Bitcoin developer meetup in San Francisco and bring this style of event to San Francisco. And so that was a year and a half ago and it’s been a big in a big hit ever since.
Stephan Livera: Yeah. That’s awesome. I’ve, I’ve had the pleasure of attending a Socratic seminar in Berlin with the lightning conference and I saw Jay and Ben Woosley also from San Francisco who did that role for the Socratic seminar. And I thought, this is amazing. I wish we could have this here in Sydney or just around the world, but I suppose maybe it is one factor is just having enough people with that level of knowledge. And I think in New York city and San Francisco, if there’s two places in the world that have that kind of knowledge, it’s those two. Right. but let’s, let’s jump into this. I’d love to talk a little bit about how you do it and how other people around the world can replicate that model if they would like. So can you just give us a bit of a overview on what is the format of the meetup and what are some of the ground rules of the meet up?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, so the nice thing about this, Meetup and its format is that it’s quite easy to replicate and also to adjust to your own specific city or wherever you live. And so the main way that this is structured is that I spend about three hours at least over the course of a month before each meetup, collecting topics. And I would say a good half of these topics are pull requests in github for Bitcoin core, C-lightning or LND. I often source a lot of these from the developers themselves, often the people who’ve actually written the code for these pull requests, who many of whom will potentially be in the audience to actually discuss it. And then, I also find news, I also have a number of sites that I go to regularly for statistics. And then the different kind of meetup organizers around the world.
Alex Leishman: We all actually share a lot of content. So a lot of the meetups each other on a website or, or some sort of repository where they store the topics that they have in their topic list and we’ll kind of pull from each other’s lists, which is really convenient and we kind of share the work that way. So yeah, for San Francisco, what I do is I put all of these topics and it’s basically each topic is effectively a link. And I create a list of links and put it on SFBitcoindevs.org and I put a new list up each month. I try to get it done at least a few days before the meetup, but sometimes it’s day of or just the day before, depending on how busy I’ve been. And I just, before each meetup, what I do is I open every topic in a tab and I learned this from Jay by the way.
Alex Leishman: This is totally, he started this and it’s so I actually learned from him and modify it a little bit to the San Francisco flavor, but there’s also kind of, so I go through each tab and highlight, bits of the page that, I want to pop out and cover when we have a discussion about it and, and yeah. And then, the event starts in San Francisco, it starts at 7:00 PM we have pizza and beer. Anyone’s welcome. Digital Garage is is our host actually there. If you, if digital garage, they’re a big Japanese firm, they have a coworking space in San Francisco and have been very gracious and supportive, allowing us to use that space for free, to host the event.
Alex Leishman: And yeah, so we start around seven o’clock and spend two hours just going through each of these topics. And I’m lucky enough that we have so many talented and intelligent, knowledgeable people in San Francisco that my job’s actually pretty easy because the people in the audience can carry on the discussion that my job is just to keep things on time, keep things from going too far off the rails or off track. Every now and then, you get people bringing up topics that may not be appropriate. So you just have to be willing to kind of keep everyone in line. So, so yeah. In other cities, there are a lot of these now around the world. It’s totally spread like wildfire. As you mentioned. There’s one in Berlin, there’s one in Seattle now, there’s one in Chris Stewart’s running one in Chicago.
Alex Leishman: And I think there’s, there’s one in Austin, London and it’s great to see.
Stephan Livera: Yeah, that’s awesome. And what about the roles of the meet up typically, as I understand it’s normally Chatham house rules. Are there any other, first of all, what is that and are any other rules? Can you just outline those?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, so I would say it’s largely Chatham house rules. So basically you can talk about what’s been said. We try to, we encourage people to not talk name names about who said things. And the biggest rule is no photos or videos. And that has some pros and cons. Actually, the big benefit to no photos or videos is that it helps people maintain their privacy. It helps people in who are there feel like they can really be themselves and they don’t have to worry about something being taken out of context and and being put on the internet.
Alex Leishman: The downside is, and I see this a lot on Twitter and even, our meetup pages, because we’re in San Francisco and we have all these incredibly well-respected people at our meetups the rest of the world really wants to see them and they want to hear them and they want to see what everyone’s saying in San Francisco. And so we’ve tried to kind of balance that desire with kind of two types of meetups. So we have these monthly Socratics and then every now and then we have a special presentation that is public that we film and that goes on YouTube. So just, just this week on Monday, Pieter Wuille gave a great presentation about updates to BIP taproot. And so we try to make sure that there is content that the rest of the world can see from San Francisco.
Stephan Livera: Yeah, that’s one struggle that many of us who are, let’s just say in places that don’t have the same level of Bitcoin knowledge and talent, we struggle with that. I think the other thing is you really need a moderator who has a good level of knowledge themselves. Right? Like I saw it from the one I saw with Jay and Ben Woosley, I saw Jay did a great job at just basically having,ua good level of knowledge about each of these little topics. How do you go about doing that?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, I mean, I think that, the, the nice thing about this is that my career is in Bitcoin already. I spend all day working on Bitcoin stuff more or less. And I spent the last, six years effectively spending most of my time paying attention to Bitcoin. So it’s not like that much extra work to try to keep in touch with all the developments. But I will say over the last year, as the lightning stuff has picked up and more more also protocol level improvements or updates are being considered. And more just more development activity in general. It is getting harder and harder to keep abreast of all the developments. But luckily I’m able to lean on people that attend to kind of handle the bulk of the discussion for topics that I’m not able to effectively discuss. So every meetup, there’s at least a handful of topics that I kind of have a high level understanding of. But I definitely don’t have the depth or have spent the time on understanding it, to be able to really speak intelligently about it. So I kind of delegate that stuff.
Stephan Livera: Gotcha. And in terms of getting a location, sponsorship, do you have any tips for Bitcoin meetup organizers out there?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, I mean, I would say that in terms of finding a location, I think that that you can actually sell a meetup to a coworking space as, as kind of a benefit, mutually beneficial. A lot of coworking spaces want to host meetups because it gets people in the door. Learning about the space. And a lot of these people are technical people. Engineers who will go and have their own startups. So I would say, look for those spaces in your city. It, I think you shouldn’t have to, I don’t think you should have to like pay to have a meetup. I think the actual, you’re putting, pulling together a bunch of talented, intelligent people who are, many of whom are probably entrepreneurial and that’s really valuable to many spaces to want to have those people there. And then do need money though to, basically pay for pizza, beer, maybe some equipment.
Alex Leishman: And for that, I think there’s always money somewhere and it doesn’t require that much. I mean, San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the world and our budget is, pretty, pretty modest. And so finding a company to sponsor it or maybe even just having individuals who attend, if you’re in a smaller city or town just chip in, it might be the most feasible thing to do until you can grow it to the point where maybe a company is really interested in supporting it.
Stephan Livera: Yeah, that’s great.
Alex Leishman: My own company supports the one. Yeah. And sorry, in San Francisco the sponsors are digital garage and, and my company, River Financial and also Square Crypto.
Stephan Livera: Nice. Yeah. So maybe meet up organizers out there, if you’ve got some kind of Bitcoin company in your city, then you can try and lay it on them to maybe help provide the meet up room or to maybe put up some money for the pizzas and beers and get a shout out during the meeting for that. One I guess personal experience that I’ve seen in Sydney is that there’ll be, obviously not everyone is into the development and the technical side of it, right. So there are some people who just come and they’re into, silly things like TA and stuff like that. But I’m really hoping to build more of a scene where people actually care more about the technical components of it and potentially even the economic aspects of it as well. Let’s talk a little bit about some of how you break some of these down. So I’m just looking at the sfbitcoindevs.org page and to the most recent one you’ve got Socratic 17 reading list and this is basically the stack of links that you’ve got. So talk us through what would you normally do when you talk through, say the news items. So for example, the ransom attack on the Cold Card or the Bitcoin mining in North America, what would you sort of mention for those?
Alex Leishman: Yeah. So typically what I’ll do is, before the meetup, I’ll read through the article get a sense of what the vulnerability was and, and then kind of reach out to the audience and say, has anyone, is anyone using cold cards or just had experience with this? Does anyone have, sometimes the people in the audience are the ones who maybe even wrote the article. So if it’s something like that, I’ll just defer directly to them. But for this one specifically just a few weeks ago I brought this up, gave a summary and then in the audience, the discussion kind of centered around the fact that, these types of attacks, are important to think about, but they’re very difficult to completely mitigate because of just kind of the nature of Hardware wallets and that they’d really just don’t know that much about the state of the chain. And they don’t keep a lot of state around. So, there was a pretty deep technical discussion about that actually.
Stephan Livera: Right? Yeah. And then you sort of might bring up some totally different topic, like Bitcoin mining. Okay. Then we’ve got Stratum V2 and then you’ll sort of bring up a little bit of the high level, here’s what the chain is, what’s changing with that. And then maybe you’ve got an expert in the room who is very good with Bitcoin mining and they can speak to that a little bit further. Right?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, exactly. So like, I brought up this last time I kind of brought up the fact that there seems to be this trend of increasing mining in North America. Some of the discussions centered around, well, maybe this is just, it’s still potentially a rounding error compared to the amount in China. But it is growing. There was some investor there who had done a lot of, mining or investing in the mining space who was pretty he was pretty bullish on mining in North America. So there was some pretty interesting discussion around that.
Stephan Livera: Yep. And then in terms of statistics, what sort of stuff do you normally bring up?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, so typically what I look for is anomalies in the network. And these are kind of some things that we kind of shared between the meetup organizers.So specifically we spent a lot of time looking at some of the dashboards that people have built with, good charts. So like for example, the Bitcoin Optech dashboard that looks at, the UTXO set size consolidations were there any big UTXO set consolidations what about like pay to script hash or SegWit adoption. Are there any, anomalous behaviors happening in the Bitcoin network? So if there’s ever like, for example, if there were, an increasing number of orphan blocks, right. That’d be something we discussed. Why is that happening? If there was a spike in SegWit outputs and, native SegWit adoption, why is that happening? For example, the next meetup we might discuss that because it looks like BitMex just released their support for native SegWit and we might see that we see a significant increase there. So there might be some interesting discussion around that. Things like that.
Stephan Livera: I guess you’re really leveraging just the crowd’s knowledge as well because hopefully at least one person out there has, maybe they’ve got some insight or they can hypothesize, Oh, okay, this new wallet just came online and a lot of people are using that one and it’s got bech32 or whatever. And that might be the driver behind more use of native SegWit for example?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, absolutely. we’re lucky in San Francisco, a lot of people in the audience have firsthand knowledge of a lot of the events because they work for the companies or they have friends who have, made changes that caused cause these network statistic anomalies.
Stephan Livera: Yep, and then next up you’ve got new work and research. So can you just give us an overview what you might talk about there?
Alex Leishman: Yeah. So the next thing we go into once we’ve warmed up our brains a little bit with some news and updates and network statistics is kind of more technical in depth work that’s been done. For example this could be like some in depth blog posts that people have done. For example, BitMex did a really good, really interesting experiment recently testing every major Bitcoin version’s, initial block download time. And they ran some numbers around that and presented that data. And so we spent some time discussing that and why the numbers were what they were. Some core devs were in the audience and could give insights into the specific specific changes for each Bitcoin release. And the implications of each. We’ll discuss new, new bib, new bips. So a lot of stuff basically to the mailing list, new papers. In recent months or in the last year, actually, a regular guest feature in our new work section has been Zman who’s very famous for his very in depth, well-written emails and he always has a lot of very interesting new ideas.
Alex Leishman: So I’ll include a lot of stuff from him in there. And yeah, so basically anything like that, papers, new things, ideas to the mailing list.
Stephan Livera: And then you’ve got Bitcoin PRs. So this is really getting into this very, into the detail. What do you talk about with the PRs?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, so this is my favorite section actually. And it’s what I spend the most time kind of digging into because I think it actually is pretty like novel in the sense that there isn’t a lot of, there aren’t a lot of other places for people to discover a quick summary of development happening in Bitcoin core unless they are following the IRC channel or the Github repo. But what I do is I typically go through the GitHub repo and I have some filters that I normally set in and look through the various pull requests that are going on the various conversations.
Alex Leishman: Sometimes I reach out to to core devs themselves and ask for any suggestions for interesting pull requests to review. And so I’ll collect all of these and put them in this list and they range from anything, anything from really meaty big changes, potentially even like a soft fork proposal or something like that to very small things. For example last month there was a change where someone changed one key word and in Bitcoin core changing slightly the how a data structure was declared in the repository. And that ended up leading to a pretty non-negligible increase in performance for initial block download time because it significantly reduced the amount of memory that the that the data structures were using. And so, even just saying like these little things, it seemed trivial if you look at it are pretty interesting.
Alex Leishman: There’s a lot of interesting discussion around it.
Stephan Livera: Yeah, that’s really cool. And then you’ve obviously got the lightning stuff as well. So how do you manage that with there are some meet up that of specifically lightning and you still cover it at some level in the Bitcoin devs meet up right?
Alex Leishman: Yeah. So big shout out to Laolu here. He helps keep me up to date with the LND pull requests. He sends me a good chunk of interestingL and D stuff every month to include. And I also like to include C-lightning cause I think it’s a very well engineered, piece of software. And I’m a big fan of Rusty. I actually listened to your podcast with Rusty recently and so I really like, including this. Also Lisa who one of the maintainers of C lightning has a Twitter account where she tweets the interesting commits of into C-lightning. And so I like following that, including some of that stuff. Yeah. So there are some lightning specific meetups. I’d say those meetups are more typically geared towards more projects, like a lot of project level kind of discussion. Things, people have built whereas our meeting gets into the weeds of a lot of the protocol stuff and typically there’s a lot of lightning developers at the meetup as well, who I mostly lean on to talk about this stuff.
Stephan Livera: Yeah, that’s really cool. I just keep thinking back to my experience at the, I’ve only been to one, right. I’ve been to the one in Berlin, but it was at this time when, so Jay was there and basically there were a lot of the Lightning Labs team there and c-lightning team there and just everyone was there. So it was just crazy to see all of these people who could literally speak to it in their own because from their own experience. So they were the person who is doing that work. So that was really cool. I’d love to see more of that in, elsewhere around the world. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience in trying to build a community over time or maybe San Francisco is not a good example? Just cause that was really, that’s where a lot of the early Bitcoin stuff was.
Alex Leishman: Yeah. Well, I would say that, most of the credit for San Francisco, Bitcoin devs actually really needs to go to Denise Terry. She’s been really organizing and running the, doing the hard part of this meetup for years and has just been, the hero we don’t deserve out here. There’s, and so she’s kind of done a lot of the groundwork setting up the legal entity for the meetup handling all of the organization around it. And that’s kind of really what keeps it all running. I kind of, I think have contributed to the community by bringing this, this BitDevs event along and the BitDevs style Socratic style event to the meetup. And I think this has attracted a, a regular group that monthly comes to these and really wants to come and discuss ideas.
Alex Leishman: I think before what we had, which was really great, was these one off presentations that were sporadic and weren’t always at more of a fixed cadence and it still attracted a good community, but it wasn’t something where people could come every month and they knew what they were going to get and they knew that they’d be able to come and discuss and really collaborate. So I think basically the nice thing about this Socratic style is that it attracts people who kind of want to come and contribute ideas or hear people talk about ideas. And, like you mentioned, our job is pretty easy because in San Francisco this is kind of the center of it all. So I don’t have to go advertise this meetuprReally. I don’t go and try to convince people to show up that like we’re lucky in that regard.
Alex Leishman: If I was in a smaller town, I think I would have to spend more of my time doing that. Trying to get new people involved, maybe reaching out. A lot of, times the people who find this most interesting are people who are engineers. Who kind of really can follow technical discussion but just don’t know much about Bitcoin. Right? And so they’re a software engineer. They want to learn more and they come to these sort of events to really kind of learn what to even look into. Right. And I think that’s a big value of these sort of events for people who aren’t deep in the weeds of Bitcoin engineering is they can show up. They’re probably not going to understand a good, potentially even 75% of what’s being discussed.
Alex Leishman: But they’ll be exposed to kind of what they need to look into, what there even is to know about and to learn about. And I think that’s the biggest value for a large fraction of the people who come. I’d say most of the people who show up at these events don’t understand everything that’s being discussed. And that’s totally okay. But they like that. Right. And because that means that they’re seeing this whole this whole world, of knowledge that that’s new to them. And so I think that’s a pretty easy sell to a lot of people who want to learn. And then the other kind of real valuable part of a meetup like this, especially in somewhere like San Francisco or New York, is seeing the people who really do contribute a lot to these protocols, share ideas in the event and see these ideas being cross pollinated between people who, who are influential and who are writing, the code we all use day to day.
Alex Leishman: And so, so yeah. It’s kind of a long winded way of saying, San Francisco is special, but I think, this is doable to build a fun community in other places.
Stephan Livera: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. And I’ll definitely love to say that. With the topics of discussion and the theme of the meet up, do you, did you ever get a bunch of people who just weren’t interested to get into the whole technical side of it and they would they just wanted to sort of talk more about other aspects of Bitcoin or is it more like selection bias? You just don’t hear about them or hear from them because they just don’t turn up.
Alex Leishman: So I would say that, this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot actually. there are every now and then people who don’t know what they’re getting into when they come to this and they kind of end up wanting to talk about price or something, or more political stuff. And I think what we found is like this event is technical and we just try to maintain the technical purity of it. And in San Francisco there are plenty of other options. There are plenty of other forums to discuss the higher level stuff. And there’s more social events. However, like what, like you mentioned the economic stuff, that’s where like there actually is really interesting intellectual conversation to be had. But it’s hard to figure out how to, how to included in an event that’s technical focus. So, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about and I’m not sure like the right answer.
Alex Leishman: I think that also just depends on the crowd and the community. I think that in most other places outside of San Francisco, where you’re not going to have this, this concentration of deep technical people. It might make sense to, expand the list of, discuss topics to more accessible things like economics and potentially political things.
Stephan Livera: Yeah, I guess so. But I think the other thing that I’ve personally found, even from the Bitcoin Sydney meet up is over time people do naturally want to learn more of the technical components of it. It just, I think it has bended and shifted over the times, right? So in 2017 and so on with all the shitcoin era and trading and so on was a thing. But then now this year at least speaking from a Sydney meet up perspective, we have slowly but surely been able to get people to more start thinking about the technical components of it, although not at the same level that you guys are covering it obviously.
Stephan Livera: Yeah. So do you have any tips then in terms of, imagine a meet up organizer is listening or they are looking to start a meetup, do you have any tips for them in terms of organizing presentations to sort of mix in with the Socratic seminar style?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, I mean it’s common. I know they did this a lot in New York is often these meetups. We’ll have kind of short presentations that special guests we’ll give. A few months ago we did this with an engineer who wanted to give a presentation on a BIP he was working on. And so, I have him send me some slides over and he gave a quick, five, 10 minute presentation of what he’s working on. Now I try to avoid anything longer than five or 10 minutes for our meetup because I think one of the things that a lot of people value is that they don’t have to sit through one person talking about the same thing for a long time.
Alex Leishman: But I do think that it’s a great way to add more potential depth to a meetup if you have something. Like if you have someone who’s been working on some really cool stuff and you think people would find them interesting, just preparing them, making sure that they come, ready to kind of keep it short and sweet, give them 10, 15 minutes to to help fill some time. Especially guests. Like if you have someone in town, right, who’s visiting, who, who is a core developer or has done really cool work in this space or works at one of these cool Bitcoin companies, that’s a great thing I think to bring to a meetup. Cause it’s like, Hey, this person’s visiting from San Francisco or London and they’re in town, they’re going to talk for 15 minutes, 20 minutes about something they’re working on.
Stephan Livera: I think people really love that stuff. Yeah, absolutely. So that’s something we’re trying to do as well. But yeah, that definitely, that’s something Bitcoin meet up. Organizers can look to do. Do you, what’s your view of the, at least in San Francisco, how many other Bitcoin meetups are there? Like, I presume yours is the more technical one, but I presume there are other ones also?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, there are. So there are basically two that I know of ours and there’s a Bitcoin social meetup, which is most weeks at a bar. And I actually haven’t been in a long time, so I’m not exactly sure what it’s like, but I assume they, spend time just talking about Bitcoin. Maybe, I don’t know if they have presentations. But I think it’s just more for the general more just general interest. So it’s not specifically technical.
Stephan Livera: Yup. Yup. And I think the other thing that I’ve seen and heard of is sometimes people more experienced Bitcoiners might get frustrated of explaining the same thing to new Bitcoiners over and over. So sometimes there’s, there’s a role there for bifurcation or splitting of that. So maybe you have somebody who’s helping beginners and then another area where kind of more experienced Bitcoiners can just chat about whatever. Have you noticed anything like that?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, I think that the tone that we set at San Francisco Bitcoin devs is that beginners are more than welcome and we encourage beginners to come, but it’s not going to be hand holding them through it. And if they want something like that, they’re better off reaching out individually to people to help find resources, to learn the basics going to, the social meetups or basically spending more time doing their own reading.
Alex Leishman: I think one thing actually that is lacking in San Francisco that I’d love to figure out how to do better. Unfortunately I don’t have the time right now is to kind of have these, this sort of middle ground event, right? Teaching people who are intimidated, about Bitcoin from, the ground up and some of the basics. I actually do think that’s, a gap we have in San Francisco. We have the social stuff, we have the advanced technical meetup, but we don’t really have that in between like you’re talking about. And the brave people who are okay kind of jumping in the deep end head first just show up at ours and they’re fine. Right. But I can see how it is intimidating and I do try to, encourage beginners who are in our meetup and and are feeling intimidated to ask questions if they have any. But I really do think we could do a better job in San Francisco at teaching new people about Bitcoin technically.
Stephan Livera: Yeah. And I think you’re right that honestly, I think these, these sorts of meet ups are probably a good way to learn themselves. Like, if you just go and ask those questions, that’s really a massive learning opportunity. Or even you can just listen to the discussion and you can just soak that up. So I think for listeners out there who might be a bit more intimidated, just definitely do try and go to these meet ups. At least you can soak up some knowledge out of them where you might have otherwise had to spend a lot of time reading. You can quickly condense some of that down if you can speak to people about it.
Alex Leishman: Absolutely. I mean you can read about the basics of how Bitcoin works online and that’s probably actually the fastest way to learn
Alex Leishman: The fundamentals. But what you’re going to struggle to, to learn is how do, how do the people who’ve been building Bitcoin stuff for a long time think about this? what goes through their thought processes when they’re proposing this bit or commenting on this and why did they think X or Y orZ ? And that’s what you really get at meetups like this. You, get to hear the people who work in this day in and day out. Kind of talking about how they think about it. And I don’t think there’s anything that is more valuable in understanding the ins and outs of Bitcoin development than that.
Stephan Livera: That’s great. All right. Look, let’s let’s change topics now. Let’s talk a little bit about your startup River. So high level, what is it, why did it get started?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, so, going back to the beginning of, of our conversation, I had mentioned my dream was to build this financial institution when I was younger, when I was a senior in college, giving people access to money that, the government didn’t control or that was kind of what I would, what I like to call sound money. And I didn’t know how I would do that. And Bitcoin I realized was how I could do that. And so basically River is the realization of this company, this idea that I’ve been wanting to build for about eight years now. And I had been working towards that goal. And finally able to do it. So I mentioned that the last job I had was at this investment fund. And when I left that, I told them, Hey, I really love working here. I really love you guys, but I just really need to start this company and now is the time to do it.
Alex Leishman: I wanted to build, this Bitcoin financial institution. I thought that there, that a number of companies who’ve been around in the space for a while were gonna build what I had wanted to build. And then in 2017, I kind of realized as these companies expanded across supporting a lot of different assets and what I would call very questionable cryptocurrencies, I realized they’re not really building what I wanted to build. And there’s still an opportunity to build this thing. And so, I started what used to be called Alto financial with my, with my cousin Andrew Benson and my co founder in February. And the goal of our company is to build longterm this financial institution that’s built around Bitcoin that we believe is going to be this widely used money and store of value around the world and sit there up alongside or challenge directly fiat currencies.
Alex Leishman: Initially what we’re building is a Bitcoin only Bitcoin brokerage that is a US dollar on and off ramp and provides all the kind of cutting edge functionality that people in the Bitcoin world want. So we launched a few weeks ago, we rebranded to River.com and we’re up live and running. What you can do on River is connect your bank account buy or sell Bitcoin deposit and withdraw to your account on chain or via the lightning network, set up automated recurring buys with discounted fees. And as we expand over the next few years, we’re going to be building out more and more functionality to look more like a financial institution including things like, institutional accounts more financial services potentially around lending, payroll, et cetera. So I think that, the longterm vision for River is kind of this this place where you can keep your Bitcoin or you can buy your Bitcoin and get it off.
Alex Leishman: Eventually I’d like to be able to offer some sort of pseudo custodial services for people who run Lightning nodes and we can route for them, but they keep their own keys. There’s all sorts of ways we can take this. But today we’re focused on just building the best Bitcoin brokerage out there in the United States.
Stephan Livera: Yeah. That’s fantastic. And tell us a little bit about how your, I noticed you said you were talking about self hosting. Tell us a bit about that.
Alex Leishman: Yeah, so I’m, I mean, I love our technology, so, we’ve spent about eight months building out the tech for this, for this company, and we made a few key decisions early on and one of the big decisions that we made was that we’re not gonna put anything important in the cloud.
Alex Leishman: So we run all of our stuff. Our, web application, our database, everything critical to our company is hosted on, on prem in a server cluster that we own. That server cluster sits in a 2000 pound vault that is built for the military. It’s called an IPS container actually. It is a ventilated safe, effectively for built for, military servers. They often have these on bases and so our servers live in that. And we thought the reason that we made that decision was because, it really doesn’t make sense for any startup to do that unless they’re a Bitcoin bank. And they need to know 100% their attack surface. and it’s inexcusable to be on shared computers. And so for any other sort of startup, this wouldn’t make sense to do.
Alex Leishman: It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of maintenance. But for us, we were looking at doing, if we were in G cloud or AWS, can we answer this fundamental question? Who has access to this computer? And if you’re in AWS or Google cloud, you can’t answer that question. You can’t answer how many people cause Google or AWS wouldn’t tell you. Right? You just hope that no one inside has access. And the thing about Bitcoin is for your hot funds someone just has to steal 256 bits of information and they have your money. And if we were hosting our hot wallet and AWS and our funds disappeared someday, we would have no idea necessarily why, right? It could have been an insider. So we wanted to basically eliminate any risk of an insider at some other company being a threat to our infrastructure. And on top of just you losing keys, there’s our user data and privacy, which is another reason that we’re self hosted is we take that very, very seriously and we don’t want we want as little of our user’s data in someone else’s cloud as possible.
Stephan Livera: Awesome. And as I was looking through your website, I noticed you have a focus on recurring buyers, which is becoming a new thing, the DCA style investing. Tell us about your philosophy on that.
Alex Leishman: Yeah, so our company’s focused on helping longterm Bitcoin investors build wealth. So we want to, we’re not an institution for the person day trading, trying to short the market and play derivatives and play that game. We’re, we’re, we’re interested in attracting the type of person who wants to accumulate Bitcoin over time. And we think that the best way to do that is with a dollar cost average technique. And so effectively a recurring automated buy completely removing your own emotions from your investment decision and just kind of set it and forget it. So we, our focus is making it really easy for people to just sign up, press buy once and make it a recurring buy. And then they’ll continue to accumulate over time, whether it’s weekly, biweekly, monthly, depending on their own situation. And then to encourage that actually we discount your fees if you have a recurring purchase set up.
Alex Leishman: And then another feature we’re actually working on on top of that, that I hope we can roll out in the next few months here is the option to even auto withdraw after recurring purchase. So you can imagine the flow for that would be, you can register a hardware wallet with our service. We basically get your, xPub or generate a fresh xPub on a Ledger or Trezor if possible. So we can’t see your existing coins. And then every recurring purchase, once the order settles, we send that, we send those transactions off to your own wallet so you can really set it and forget it and self custody. And we, since we built our infrastructure to be Bitcoin first and Bitcoin only, we actually can do all this really cool stuff because our own Bitcoin wallet that we built ourselves in the back end is modularized in the way that we can basically like create all these little sub wallets for all of our users and sending coins to them easily keep track of those xPubs.
Alex Leishman: So yeah, we have some pretty stuff, cool stuff going on there. And then there’s also the whole lightening aspect to all this as well. So, it’d be cool someday if we could automatically push via lightning to people’s nodes after they purchased.
Stephan Livera: Yeah, there’s a lot, there’s some ideas that just jumped in my mind straight away there. So I guess one idea there is that if the customer has to give you their xPub, so again, that’s their privacy. Is there any potential that you could use like BIP 47 stealth addresses? That kind of approach where there’s like a one time set up and then every other address is kind of shared between say River and the customer, but then River doesn’t have the like xPub of that customer. Or maybe they could use like an xPub on a different derivation path or something like that. So that, River doesn’t have everything?
Alex Leishman: Exactly. I mean, one of the problems with stealth addresses is just like the adoption and kind of the complexity of it and people aren’t necessarily going to have the hardware wallets that support any of those standards. I think with the xPub, actually what we can do is we can create like a sibling xPub, right? So we don’t get your, we have like basically exactly what you said. Either completely separate xPub from any xPub they’ve used for their other coins or something along the path that still allows us to, to not learn about any of their other coins. Right. This is a fresh xPub or a fresh path that we exclusively use. And none of the other coins go there. And so their privacy wouldn’t be impacted. That’s the goal.
Stephan Livera: Gotcha And then, yeah, you also mentioned lightening as well, so that’d be really cool to have lightening withdrawal. Now I guess the concern there would be more like managing the channel size and so on and doing the looping in and out or submarine swapping in and out. And I guess for some customers it may make sense that they just take their deposits on chain instead of lightning. And also there is that a key send idea. So what are some of your thoughts around that?
Alex Leishman: Yeah, so I think for the foreseeable future, most people will be withdrawing on chain especially if it’s like an automated withdrawal. But we already do support lightning withdrawals via the vanilla kind of lightning flow. So we already support lightning deposits and withdrawals to your account. And so basically, what you see with us is you have a Bitcoin balance on River.com and you can add to that balance by buying or depositing Bitcoin on chain or via lightning. And you can subtract from that balance by withdrawing on chain or withdrawing via lightning or selling and, but like as you mentioned, there’s a lot of better, like as the lightning protocol evolves specific specifically, there’s a lot of the cooler things we could do. So the key send idea where the ideal is right now the flow where our user has to enter an amount for how much they want to receive on lightning, generate invoice, copy that invoice and send it to someone paying. It’s kind of clunky, right? It’d be great if our users could each just get an identifier, a pubkey or something like that that they could give to someone and that person could just pay them whatever amount that needs to be paid. Right? So that’s kind of what I see in the next iteration, the next kind of stage of our lightning infrastructure supporting as the protocol matures. I can’t wait for that to be, to be usable cause I think it will significantly improve, the usability of lightning.
Stephan Livera: Right? Yeah. So even here I’m thinking of things like LN URL where the customer can just scan it one time and then their wallet will, it just does it all in the background or even this idea of maybe, again, I’m not as familiar with the technical details of it, but you might have some kind of key send idea and then if if it fails and there’s like an on chain fallback address that it sends to for the customer to receive on chain if they don’t have the capacity or there’s no route for example.
Alex Leishman: Yeah, exactly. One of the challenges here will be because we’re custodial institution, kind of being able to have these identifiers for each user and have them be unique without having to run a node for each user. So there is some work that we need to figure out there. We need to make sure that we know who the deposits going to when it comes in, if it’s kind of a key send thing. So there are some things to think through there, but overall I’m really excited about where the lightning stuff can go. I think there’s a lot of opportunity as well with this kind of like I mentioned the pseudo custodial use case where users kind of trust us, right? They trust us to buy Bitcoin and they trust us to not, they trust us to deliver the Bitcoin to them, but they don’t trust us to like hold the Bitcoin for a long time.
Alex Leishman: So for example Stephan, if you have a lightning node and you have a channel open with us you can, you buy Bitcoin from us and we just deposit to your node. And then whenever you want to send a payment, you don’t need to worry about channel management yourself. You could just pay through us. If you’re okay, with that trust model of like trusting your privacy with us for routing because we’ll be a well-connected node. Now, the nice thing about Bitcoin and I think what the fundamental kind of value add a Bitcoin to any financial institution is, is like you can always opt out, right? And you can always route yourself if you want. You’re never stuck with us. And I think that’s the beauty of lightning and Bitcoin in general. And that’s why I think it’s the next, it’s going to be the core money of our next monetary system.
Stephan Livera: Yeah. Right? And so in that example, I might have a channel open with River, but then I might also have other channels open and I can route through those as well. So I’m not kind of stuck or beholden to one particular channel or a channel partner in that scenario. And also on that topic I’ve heard of this idea of trampoline routing. And so then there’s like this idea, so again, this is a coming idea. It’s not in place now. And I know the ACINQ guys are talking about it with their app Phoenix where the idea is right now, you are basically giving off your privacy to ACINQ when you route that way, but the plan is in future that with trampoline routing, then you can actually make it so that the channel partner doesn’t actually know.
Alex Leishman: Yeah. Yeah. I mean that’s something that I find very interesting. I think, one of the challenges in lightning is going to be the privacy aspect of it and there’s going to be an interesting as lightning grows, it’s going to be very interesting to see how institutions like ours have to have to handle it from both a regulatory and a privacy perspective. Obviously, one of the biggest differences between Bitcoin, layer one and lightning is in lightening. You kind of have these long lived identities. And like you said, these, node identities live around and if you’re paying an invoice from, from River, we see this identity you’re paying to, right. Trampoline payments might be able to kind of fix some of those privacy leaks. And I’m really excited to see what, what teams like ACINQ come up with there.
Stephan Livera: Alright, look, so we’re coming to time, so maybe if you could just let the listeners know where they can follow you online and where they can find out more.
Alex Leishman: Yeah, sure. So my, my Twitter handle is @Leishman and you can also learn more about River at River.com. It’s a pretty easy domain to remember and yeah, if you have any questions about if you’re interested in starting your own a Bitcoin meetup in your city you’re interested in learning more about kind of my company, or just Bitcoin in general, don’t hesitate to reach out. Send me a DM request or, at me on Twitter. I’m pretty responsive, so yeah, I’d love to help out, anyone who is especially interested in starting a meetup.
Stephan Livera: Awesome. Well, thank you very much for joining me, Alex.
Alex Leishman: Thanks for having me Stephan.