Surfin’ Bitcoin Conference, Casino Barrière Biarritz, France.
Josselin Tonnellier organized the first Surfin’ Bitcoin Conference to educate people about Bitcoin and his French startup StackinSat, through which Europeans can accumulate Bitcoin via dollar cost averaging.
“Bitcoin is quite niche in France. We have a lot of blockchain and shitcoining,” Tonnellier remarked.
There aren’t many Bitcoin-only businesses in France. It’s remarkable that a team of about five people was able to coordinate and fund a conference of Surfin’ Bitcoin’s size, with just ten sponsors, notably among them Bpifrance, an investment bank for entrepreneurs.
According to Tonnellier, more than half of this year’s conference attendees were professional Bitcoiners. Nearly 25% were Bitcoin enthusiasts and OGs, and about 25% of them were general crypto enthusiasts.
Tonnellier originally brought Surfin’ Bitcoin to the South of France to decentralize the event away from Paris. Over the past few years, Surfin’ Bitcoin has grown from a few hundred attendees to about 2,000.
There were just over one hundred speakers at the conference. About 35% of them came from abroad, mostly European countries. For the first time the event included English content, with around 45 scheduled English speakers, and around 50 who spoke in French.
The first day of the conference was free, drawing in early conference attendees and tourists from the beach, some of whom experienced their first touch-point with Bitcoin, together viewing the French documentary Le Mystère Satoshi, by Remi Forte.
The conference hosted several debates—for example, Austrian economics vs Keynesian economics and crypto venture capitalists vs Bitcoin venture capitalists—in an attempt to stir up controversy, but also to win over crypto curious attendees with the Bitcoin maximalist point of view.
The main stage French presentations were packed throughout the conference, and what many of the English panels and workshops lacked in attendance they gained in interactivity between the audience and the speakers.
One Norwegian speaker even opted to come into the audience to do impromptu small group discussion of how best to defend Bitcoin mining from the often disingenuous environmental, social and governance (ESG) arguments against it.
The strength of Bitcoiners is that they are motivated whatever the situation, and that’s a strength altcoiners don’t have, Tonnellier noted.
“If the price is going up, I’m happy. If the price is going down, I’m happy because I accumulate more Bitcoin on the cheap. My clients understand that at StackingSat,” he said.
Tonnellier mentioned the recent failures of LUNA and Celsius, commenting that “we’re very sad by all the people that were wrecked by it, but it’s a way to clean the ecosystem of the actors who are not doing business in a proper way.”
He continued, “All the lending and defi stuff is quite dangerous, and can collapse very easily.”
Meanwhile, Bitcoin is thriving. “Bitcoin has faced many adversities throughout its life, and each time it comes out stronger,” he said.
The media in France hasn’t been too positive about Bitcoin, and Tonnellier noted the regulatory hurdles of launching both StackingSat and the conference. He hoped the conference itself will provide a positive Bitcoin touchpoint for the local Basque community.
The main downside to the Surfin’ Bitcoin conference was also its greatest virtue, the location.
The casino is beautiful. Light floods in from the two-story windows overlooking an expansive, sunny promenade, La Grande Plage. The busy beach is buffered by cliffs, swarms of swimmers in the rolling Atlantic and pods of surfers in the morning and late afternoon.
The allure of Basque country is so strong that many foreign attendees remarked on how hard it was to sit through full days worth of Bitcoin programming.
To the Southwest, attendees could see the mountains and lights of Spain. To the Northeast, the lighthouse on the cliffs and the luxurious Hôtel du Palais, a former imperial vacation villa built for Napoleon III.
Up and down the coast as far as one can see, an eclectic mix of architecture winds through the 12th century whaling port, with its endless roughcast villas, the gray stone of Bidache, the red stone of the Rhune, lining Biarritz’s alleys, bridges and staircases climbing the hills.
When walking between stages, down the exhibition hall, or taking lunch on the expansive casino roof, dotted with French conference attendees smoking cigarettes and chatting, you could see hundreds of people lying in the sun, up and down the coast, dozens tumbling in the waves.
Tonnellier’s goal was to educate people on Bitcoin in a relaxed environment by the beach, rather than host a “bowtie conference in Paris.”
Indeed, on the rooftop of Casino Barrière Biarritz, just a stone’s throw from the beach, over 1,000 Bitcoiners gathered at sunset, casually eating, drinking and networking.
Some danced as the DJ played on the closing night of the conference, most clustered in groups, chattering about Bitcoin and legacy finance until 4:00 a.m., when many then returned to their beachside hotels, or then parted to go clubbing together.
There seemed to be little small talk among enthusiastic Bitcoiners in Biarritz, many of whom have aligned philosophies, principles and lucid hyperbitcoinized visions for the world’s financial future.
Pierre Rochard, VP of research at Riot Blockchain, moved away from France at a young age. He opted to speak in English at this year’s Surfing’ Bitcoin Conference.
Pierre attended his first Bitcoin conference in New York in 2013, where he met Suhas Daftuar. The connection later led to a Bitcoin job at Chaincode Labs.
At the time, during the 2012–2013 Cypriot financial crisis, Pierre recalls the sentiment among Bitcoiners on Reddit was that the bank run in Cyprus would trigger mass Bitcoin adoption.
The belief among Bitcoiners draws parallels to this day, where the network’s adoption is often assumed to be inversely proportional to the unethical behavior of central banks, and global state theft via inflation and taxes.
“You can’t really just foist Bitcoin onto the general public, and expect them to be interested,” Pierre remarked.
He went on to explain that the general public views Bitcoin as just a brand among crypto brands, in part due to the misleading advertising of the large crypto exchanges.
“Bitcoin’s node software is strictly superior to Dogecoin’s node software, for example, and the brand is just very far downstream from that fact,” he added.
Pierre recalls losing interest in Bitcoin during the 2014-2015 bear market. “I certainly didn’t rage quit or lose confidence in Bitcoin. I started focusing on building my own quadcopter drone instead.”
In 2015, when the price of Bitcoin was around $300 dollars, Pierre recalled a tongue-in-cheek conversation with Michael Goldstein. “We should just keep the Nakamoto Institute website up, even if Bitcoin doesn’t become a thing, as a historical artifact.”
Today, Pierre’s wife Morgen Rochard runs a financial planning practice, where she has succeeded in helping 90% of her clients get exposure to Bitcoin. “Most of them also hold their own private keys,” she said.
Pierre sees the perfect audience for Bitcoin conferences as the curious-to-casual Bitcoiners who are looking to further educate themselves.
In 2018 Pierre attended Consensus, where, at a satellite event put on by The Block, he was invited to speak on Bitcoin maximalism. At that event he met the team of his current employer, Riot Blockchain.
Pierre considers the challenge of conferences to be striking a content balance between pop-culture Bitcoin and open-source Bitcoin audiences.
An engaging balance was struck in Biarritz, with entire stages dedicated to expert-level Bitcoin content and technical workshops, and several controversial debates between professional Bitcoiners and altcoiners.
Prince Philip Karageorgevitch of Serbia
Prince Philip Karageorgevitch first encountered Bitcoin in the run up to $100 dollars in 2013. He first bought bitcoin in 2017 and held it through the bear market, buying regularly.
The prince began to learn more about Bitcoin in response to global government overreach during the covid pandemic. “That’s when I realized there’s something not right with this world.”
“I’m a Bitcoin maxi,” he stated. “Eventually I will probably be working in Bitcoin.”
At the conference Prince Philip delivered a keynote on why he is bullish on Bitcoin and also moderated a panel on the future perspective of Bitcoin and crypto markets.
He believes the benefit of Bitcoin conferences is that the crypto curious might educate themselves and become maximalists.
“Altcoiners also know there’s something wrong with the world, but they don’t know what it is really. They understand that money corrupts, but they don’t understand their money is corrupt,” he said.
Prince Philip explained how Bitcoin is the only ethical alternative to the fiat system, a maximalist position with which many crypto enthusiasts don’t agree.
“People aren’t taught about what money is really. They don’t understand how the wars of history are funded,” he said.
Indeed, many of those who neglect Bitcoin as a form of self-sovereign savings have left the market, and it remains to be seen how far below $20,000 bitcoin speculators, whales and noobs will send the price.
The common strategy among the French conference goers was to just buy and hodl Bitcoin, though many also spoke of small allocation, speculative derivative plays. Despite the bear market, there is no shortage of Bitcoin conferences in the coming months.
“This bear market is great because it sorts out those who really care about Bitcoin from those who are just here for fiat gains.”
Prince Philip commented that the crypto sponsorships and speaker slots that often accompany Bitcoin conferences are a good opportunity to educate people on Bitcoin maximalism.
“Right now nation states are considering Bitcoin,” he argued. “They have to because it’s a threat. If it’s a threat they have to have an insurance hedge against Bitcoin. The only insurance hedge against Bitcoin is to buy Bitcoin.”
The IMF and World Bank won’t admit it, but tourism increases in countries and cities that are friendly to Bitcoin. The greatest example of this is El Salvador, where tourism increased 82.8% in the first half of 2022, in part due to the influx of thousands of visiting Bitcoiners.
This is evident at Biarritz as well, where over the course of three days, thousands of Bitcoiners descended on the sunny Basque city, packing its hotels, beaches, clubs, tapas bars and restaurants.
Prince Philip remarked that in Serbia, however, the populace mistrusts governments, and is skeptical of outside powers, viewing Bitcoin as too good to be true. The country has gone through multiple wars in the past 90 years, experiencing the third highest hyperinflation in the world during the 1990’s.
Prince Philip concluded that with education, Serbians will understand how Bitcoin adoption empowers them to take control of their own money.
Charles Guillemet, CTO at French cryptocurrency hardware wallet company Ledger, has a background in cryptography and security. He joined the firm in 2017.
According to Guillemet, Ledger currently has over 800 employees and is the largest crypto hardware wallet provider on the planet.
When I asked Guillemet whether he was a Bitcoiner, he hesitated. “Definitely I think Bitcoin is king. It has a unique value proposition in the ecosystem.”
Guillemet believes Ethereum also has a unique value proposition, “which can be respected as well.”
“With Ethereum there are plenty of technical challenges, and maybe a more efficient blockchain could take its place,” he conceded.
We agreed that Guillemet is a Bitcoiner, but not a Bitcoin maximalist.
I asked Guillemet whether he preferred Bitcoin or crypto conferences. He replied, “At Ledger we don’t have a religion. We are providing security tools for users to get onboarded. We have different trends.”
“What’s important for us is the seriousness of the project,” Guillemet said. I asked him how he qualified that. “It’s difficult. Does the project pass the test of time? Scammy projects don’t pass the test of time often. An ecosystem of developers is a good sign.”
Minutes later, Guillemet said that Ledger is looking to further platformize their product, so that “every single chain can be implemented within the device.”
In terms of Bitcoin developments at Ledger, Guillemet said that they will soon release the ability to run your own full node. Ledger is also working to integrate Tor to protect users’ privacy and release a Bitcoin credit card, to which users will be able to send Bitcoin as collateral for fiat credit.
Guillemet commented that conferences are good for exchanging ideas. “Bitcoin is a crossing point for technology, economics, and geopolitics. If you don’t get that, you don’t understand Bitcoin.
“It’s a paradigm shift. It’s not easy to understand Bitcoin when you come from the fiat monetary system,” he added.
In the event of a hardware wallet know-your-customer (KYC) regulatory crackdown in Europe, Guillemet commented that Ledger would have no choice but to comply. Nonetheless, he wants to ensure the current Ledger users are self sovereign.
He concluded, “For me what is apparent in Bitcoin and cryptocurrency is that if you don’t self custody, there’s no point.”
Carvalho is a self proclaimed toxic Bitcoin maximalist, meaning he doesn’t believe blockchains outside of Bitcoin are necessary or ethical forms of money. He is also skeptical of attempts to expand the idea of the Lightning Network outside of any non-payment use cases.
When I asked Carvalho how his business accounted for a multichain future, his response was, “By ignoring it.”
“The only people who care about a multichain world are people who are trying to sell you their chain,” he said.
Carvalho first bought Bitcoin in 2012 and attended his first conference in early 2013. “I was basically a full time Bitcoiner two months after getting some.” Over the next few months he plans to attend four Bitcoin conferences.
To be sure, Carvalho is an opinionated, but rational Bitcoiner. In reference to the Bitcoin Conference’s invitation to have him debate Eric Wall in Amsterdam, he commented, “Bitcoin debates should seek truth, not drama.”
“You can’t refute FUD [fear, uncertainty, and doubt]. You can try to rationalize with it, but they will keep changing the angle.”
Imagining his debate with Wall, Carvalho riffed, “You cannot innovate on Bitcoin in a way that compromises censorship resistance. Every shitcoin does that.”
“If the prerequisite for me taking you seriously is I have to accept a censorable blockchain, then the argument is over for me,” he added.
Carvalho opined that Wall, who is not a Bitcoin Maximalist, is coming to Bitcoin Amsterdam to sow seeds of dissent. “I would like to see Bitcoin Magazine not focus on clicks and drama, like every other media outlet.”
Carvalho’s opinion, shared by many maximalists, is that if a business or individual offers their own product on a blockchain that is not Bitcoin, they should not be able to sponsor or get on stage at a Bitcoin conference. “These are business decisions, not Bitcoin decisions.”
The role of Bitcoin conferences, he said, is education and news.
In terms of the near-future outlook for Bitcoin, Carvalho would like “to see something cause Bitcoin to stop correlating with the U.S. stock market.”
“It’s really frustrating me,” he said. “A lot of the ownership of Bitcoin is still speculators and traders.”
Carvalho concluded, “As a community and as a movement, we need to be promoting the idea of using Bitcoin as long-term savings, while also spending and accepting Bitcoin as a payment method.”