Bitcoin Startup Circle to Offer Old-School Phone Support

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The promise of Bitcoin is to never have to trust anyone, but one of the field's most prominent startups wants to let its users reach out and touch someone.

Circle Internet Financial, which aims to make the digital currency user-friendly for merchants and consumers, plans to offer customers phone support, according to a post on the company's blog by co-founders Jeremy Allaire and Sean Neville. While this is standard for banks and other financial services companies, it's nearly unheard of in the Bitcoin world, where the early adopters were scrappy entrepreneurs. The Bitcoin "wallet" cloud-storage services that Circle will be competing with, such as Coinbase or, typically offer customer support via email or online forums.

"In an area as new and innovative as digital money, end-users need to have trust and confidence in the companies that store their digital assets," Allaire and Neville write. "If a large transaction doesn’t go through, you want to be able to pick up the phone and talk to someone."

Especially if all you know about Bitcoin is what you read in the papers.

Circle is launching in the wake of the February collapse of Mt. Gox, once the largest exchange for trading bitcoins, where hundreds of millions of dollars in customer funds went missing. Also in February, transactions were temporarily held up at a number of exchanges because a quirk in the Bitcoin software confused their accounting systems.

Phone support at Circle will initially be available for "limited business hours," Allaire says in an email. The company has a customer operations team in its headquarters city of Boston and is hiring internationally, he says. Circle's service, which will be showcased Friday at the Bitcoin Foundation conference in Amsterdam, is currently invitation-only.

An early slogan of the Bitcoin community was that it allowed the user to "be your own bank." But Circle, which has raised $26 million in venture capital, is betting that more consumers will want to enjoy the benefits of instant, low-cost transfers and cryptographic privacy without the hassles of securing their private keys. The company vows to protect customer funds by using "multi-signature" transactions, offline "cold storage" of private keys and private insurance against theft, among other methods.

"For a lot of the early enthusiasts, the ability to download a piece of software, secure your own money on your own machine, print out paper wallets, put them in your safe, have that total control, is liberation. And it is — for those people," Allaire says in a forthcoming American Banker video interview. "But to the average person in the world, that's terrifying complexity and risk."

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