Michael Rihani is holding a bitcoin-emblazoned basketball in his hands.
It’s a ball commemorating the Bitcoin Classic, a tournament sponsored by Cash App, during which champions are rewarded — in bitcoin, of course. Rihani explains how this piece of sports memorabilia ties into the fintech company’s mission, which is to “redefine the world’s relationship with money.”
“We’re helping customers touch and feel bitcoin, even though it can feel like magic internet money,” Rihani said.
Unlike the U.S. dollar, Bitcoin isn’t something that can be held in one’s hands — but still, its impact is tangible. Alongside his peers at Cash App, Rihani, who works as a bitcoin product lead, supports the company’s efforts to help consumers see bitcoin’s potential for themselves by meeting them where they are, whether that’s at a basketball court or a grocery store, so that they can see the digital currency’s potential for themselves. Because although Rihani may have referred to bitcoin as feeling like “magic internet money,” there’s a lot more at work than meets the eye.
Bitcoin Engineering Manager Milly Rowett describes bitcoin as an alternative currency created “by the people, for the people,” rooted in computer code and mathematics.
Yet despite its humanistic origin, Rowett admits that the way bitcoin works is inherently complex, which can feel exclusionary for everyday people.
TAPPING INTO BITCOIN’S POTENTIAL
According to Rowett, while Cash App is not yet available outside of the United States and the U.K., the product holds the potential to accelerate bitcoin’s move to a day-to-day currency, which would greatly benefit emerging markets, such as Nigeria and Argentina. In places such as these, government-issued currency, or fiat currency, is susceptible to hyperinflation and government seizure. Bitcoin would allow these markets to exchange currency freely and quickly. “No one controls bitcoin,” Rihani added. “No one can compromise the system because of its decentralized nature. Everyone is on the same playing field.”
In order to demystify bitcoin and its influence, Bitcoin Brand Lead Maria Pesce and her creative teammates aim to humanize it through approachable, digestible and even playful branding.
“Bitcoin doesn’t need to be this jargon-y concept that’s exclusionary, as if you have to read an entire encyclopedia to understand it,” she said. Her team at Cash App also creates educational content to explain the currency, including an illustrated children’s book called My First Bitcoin.
While Pesce’s team embraces unconventional initiatives to reinforce bitcoin’s accessibility and creativity, Rihani and Rowett focus on building a product that’s easy to understand and impactful. All of these efforts, from engineering to product design to marketing, are intended to “give the product soul.”
“Money can be a very stressful and personal topic,” Rihani explained. “We try to make it interesting and fun both within the product and outside of it.”
“Money can be a very stressful and personal topic. We make it interesting and fun.”
Reframing the Culture of Bitcoin
“If you’ve ever been to a bitcoin conference, it’s easy to feel out of place,” Pesce said.
Excessive displays of wealth have been a fixture of the bitcoin scene for the past decade, reinforcing the idea that digital currency is solely for the eccentric billionaire, not the average person with a nine-to-five job. Cash App wants to turn this on its head by establishing what bitcoin would look and feel like if it was actually for everyone.
Pesce said the company is striving to reinvent the wheel when it comes to bitcoin marketing. For instance, it’s easy to have someone speak at a conference and regurgitate the same futuristic talking points, but let’s take it a step further and get outside the four walls of a conference room. During the Bitcoin Miami conference, Cash App created an actual marketplace filled with local vendors and popular brands while gifting passersby with bitcoin so they could use it in the market as a currency and experience it for themselves.
“It was a curated space that created a low-stakes way for everyday people to get bitcoin in their hands and experiment with what the future could look like,” Pesce said.
A part of Cash App’s plan to reach more communities involves humanizing bitcoin. From iconic Rucker Park basketball tournaments, to inspiring creatives of bitcoin’s potential at NYFW, to collaborating with artists at Art Basel, Cash App is inserting bitcoin into subcultures that it hasn’t had the opportunity to thrive in yet.
“I feel like Cash App has a unique essence and flair that makes us as a brand stand out in the financial space,” she said. “Creatively we’re always trying to push visual limits and connect with our customers in an authentic way.”
“Creatively we’re always trying to push visual limits and connect with our customers in an authentic way. ”
Simplicity is Key
Behind the vibrant, inclusive design, the technology that powers Cash App’s platform is what has made the company an innovator in the fintech space.
According to Rowett, the company is continuously breaking ground in the engineering realm. As a part of Block, the global technology company with a focus on financial services, Cash App has access to some of the industry’s most innovative organizations, including the bitcoin open-source development nonprofit Spiral.
Last year, Spiral, another part of the Block ecosystem, created the Lightning Development Kit, which was used by Cash App’s engineers to launch support of the bitcoin Lightning Network product. This product is designed to facilitate instant, scalable, lower-cost transactions, which is radically changing the bitcoin landscape.
While the technology that powers the company’s products may sound complicated in nature to some consumers, Rihani and his teammates ensure that the impact is easy to understand. He said the company’s product is designed to be as approachable as possible by rejecting technical jargon and relying on a simple UX instead.
Rihani also considers the company’s offerings to be accessible, particularly the Bitcoin Roundups feature, which allows consumers to invest in bitcoin through their everyday purchases. For example, if a Cash App Card holder buys a coffee for $3.50, that purchase will round up to $4, with the extra $0.50 automatically invested into bitcoin.
“If you’re curious and want to experiment with and learn a little bit about bitcoin, you don’t need to make this big, stressful commitment,” Rihani said. “You can just flip a switch and ease into it with Cash App.”
Bitcoin is inherently global, given its decentralized nature, so it only makes sense that Cash App employs individuals from across the world to harness its power.
With a distributed team spread across North and South America, Europe and Australia and hailing from countries including El Salvador, Lebanon and Brazil, the company has a wide range of diverse perspectives to help refine its bitcoin technology and brand. In fact, many team members came to Cash App with more bitcoin curiosity than hands-on experience, and Rowett explained that those perspectives are brought to light in cross-functional collaboration, which the company relies on to bring its global team members together for carrying projects across the finish line.
‘We’re Just Getting Started’
Cash App’s mission to “redefine the world’s relationship with money” will take some time to accomplish. But time doesn’t deter from the excitement Rihani and others feel when they talk about the future; it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
In line with its mission, the company wants to bring the power of its app to people outside of the United States. In Rowe’s mind, this feat will require careful thought and ample people power to continuously refine its approach.
“We are essentially disrupting ourselves when you think about it,” she said. “The future is incredibly bright, but it’s also like riding a rollercoaster.”
Rowett added that the fast-paced nature of the bitcoin landscape, coupled with its immaturity, make it an especially energizing environment.
“There’s always something happening,” she mused. “I imagine this is what it felt like to be working on the early internet. We feel like a pioneer front-running the industry.”
“I imagine this is what it felt like to be working on the early internet. We feel like a pioneer front-running the industry.”
With several key projects in the works — such as a bitcoin wallet with both hardware and mobile components, called Bitkey — Block is at a pivotal stage in its growth. For both existing employees and those who join Cash App over the next year, these undertakings unlock the opportunity to build a future beyond what anyone can imagine.
“Bitcoin is so much bigger than us,” Pesce said. “We’re really building the foundation for something that the next generation will hopefully experience and utilize daily.”
Pesce, who considers her work at the company to be “one of the biggest marketing challenges of her career,” acknowledges the roadblocks that come with working on a new digital asset class. Nevertheless, she considers the work to be “consuming, powerful and influential.”
For Rihani, working at Cash App isn’t just exhilarating from a professional standpoint. He believes the work they do has the potential to help people across the globe — including his loved ones.
He said his family and friends in Lebanon have lost 98 percent of their finances due to hyperinflation, and they’re far from the only ones to be affected by a volatile financial system. By supporting bitcoin, he feels he’s doing his part to help others achieve economic stability, one feature update at a time.
“We’re literally paving the path for bitcoin, which is scary at times but also very rewarding,” Rihani said. “It’s a massive opportunity to help billions of people all over the world, and we’re just getting started.”