Sim hacks, sim swaps, and other security problems deal a lot of damage to people’s lives. Good thing Haseeb Awan of Efani and Bitaccess is ready to help out. Monika Proffitt talks to Haseeb about Bitcoin ATMs, phone security, and seamless transitions. Haseeb discusses why he built a service focused on data security and shares the plans he has in store for the future. Tune in for more great insights from Haseeb and Monika on building a new trust economy.
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Haseeb Awan Of Efani And Bitaccess
I am here with Haseeb Awan, the Cofounder of Bitaccess, one of the largest networks of Bitcoin ATMs as well as the CEO of EFANI. It’s a wonderful cell phone service provider and creator that is addressing security, privacy and anti-SIM swapping using some incredible technology. I’m very excited to talk to you about all of those. Haseeb, thanks for joining us.
Thank you, Monika, for having me on the show.
I realize you have done a lot of things over the years and when I looked into your bio a little bit, I saw that you have been in the crypto space for quite some time. You might be almost considered as one of those crypto grandfathers just by the fact that one year in crypto is like a dog year. There are seven packed in there. You have been around and in the space since at least 2013. It gives me a sense of how weathered people are, but also how successful they’ve likely been based on how long they have been involved in crypto. Congratulations on making it this long and congratulations on being so involved in a wonderful emerging technology. Did you start your time in cryptocurrency with the Bitaccess project, the ATM project or did you start with something else?
I bought Bitcoin. That was my first project.
Were you just investing?
Yeah, but my first project was Bitaccess, Bitcoin ATM.
I don’t want to go too far down this, but I think it’s so interesting and so many of our readers oftentimes have not necessarily seen a lot of the cryptosphere and this might be one of their first touchpoints. When you have something that’s so real and already used in other ways that now bridges cryptocurrency, I can’t help but think I want to make sure we touch on the amazing network of Bitcoin ATMs that you put all throughout the US. It’s international as well, correct?
Yes, we are in 15 to 20 now.
For people who are wondering, how are you going to get your crypto or how will you make it worth something to you? Bitcoin ATMs bridge that gap and the people that were doing that early on made a killing, but they also served such an important function. You are on the cutting edge of things. It’s nice to see what you have been doing. Since I don’t know hardly anything about privacy, SIM swapping and issues like that with cell phones, how did you make this transition into a SIM swapping-proof cell phone?
I was forced to do that. I did not want to. I wanted to buy a bank or build a bank focusing on crypto. I started with a cell phone company because I would SIM swap four times and I had no other option. I started a company for myself to protect myself from cell phone security because I personally believe that I am very good at security. Every few months, I would get SIM swapped and I got so tired I said, “What the hell is this?” I’m a Telecom Engineer by degree. I said, “This is not rocket science. How do we solve it?” We solved it and my friends started asking for a solution. It kept growing, and now we have so many people working with us.
How long is EFANI been in existence and where did you start? You mentioned to me before you are based in Puerto Rico, like me, which is weird. It’s like we are doing this in the same room. It seems so strange. Did you start it here or somewhere else?
Were you in the Bay Area until you came here?
Yeah. I was in Sacramento.Whenever we incorporate the token, it has to make things better rather than worse. It shouldn't add friction to the entire system. Click To Tweet
There have been so many people from the big cities, especially the West Coast. They have been flocking down here. It’s an exodus. I don’t know if this is going to be a dearth of talent in those areas anymore. The whole cryptoverse is coming down here to San Juan, Dorado and Puerto Rico. You mentioned something to me before we came on this about the distributed networks that you are working closely with. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you when you would say a distributed wireless network?
A lot of things have happened to me personally. I didn’t intend to do that. It just came along. It’s a cliché to say, “We had a problem,” but with the Bitcoin ATM, the challenge is that even companies started to want it. In April of 2013, when you were dealing with BDC and Mt. Gox, it was very difficult to buy Bitcoins. We wanted a Bitcoin and there were no other options to buy, so we said, “Let’s start a Bitcoin ATM.” That was pretty much how this started. It started off similar to the process of cell phone service too. I will say that things started left and right. I have no other option but to start a company. I did not start it as a company. I started it for myself.
People started asking for it, so I said, “Let’s do it.” One of my friends, we got him swapped at around midnight, Charlie Shrem. He said, “Can someone get the number back?” I hacked the number back. He said, “We should offer the service to others.” I tweeted about it and the product kept on growing. They say, “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.” That’s what happened.
A lot of our clients are like, “What is EFANI?” EFANI is a cell phone service for important people. We protect them from SIM swap and that’s what our bread and butter are. Our clients are generally the government, Fortune 500 company CEOs, realtors, hedge fund managers and exchangers. These are our clients.
Some of the clients are celebrities and they work in a very remote area. They will have ranches where we had a problem with coverage. They will have a ranch and they don’t have coverage there. Now, we have another problem. We have a client that we cannot serve. We started building a network for them there. Building a network is very tough. You have to buy spectrum and internet. We found a way to do it at a digital cost. It’s similar to what a Wi-Fi router costs to set up.
We started doing it and the results were pretty decent, so we said, “Why not we give it all to clients?” We looked in economics and we can probably save 90% of the cost of building a cell phone tower. We said, “Are you okay if your neighbors share the same cell phone tower?” They wanted to be the guy who wants to share. The neighbors came along and said I have the same issue too that this guy has. Now, how do you incentivize someone? It’s with tokens and that’s why Tokenomy comes in.
We started building a solution for our clients only. We are providing them the router, which is similar to a Wi-Fi router in your house and you can start sharing your cell phone service with other people. It’s an invite-only service, for now, to test out things. Ultimately, the goal is that can reduce the cost of providing telecom by 90%?
That is huge. Eventually, that will trickle to the consumer directly that we are going to start seeing these astronomical monthly fees for having phone service with your network will be challenged and dropped that far.
That’s the goal. We pay around $4 per gigabyte to carriers. By this, we can probably reduce it by $0.25 to $0.40 per gigabyte. The goal is we have a Wi-Fi router in every house. Why can’t we have a cell phone tower in our house? The world as we do with the internet now. We will get rid of Wi-Fi in the next several years. Why not make the switch right now?
Eighty percent of coverage is indoor. When you are indoors, it is when you use most of the telephones. That’s where the big companies cannot come. They can’t come into a house to install internet, but if we can set up a structure where you can set up internet in your house and your neighbors can take access to that. It makes a lot of sense.
I love the idea that more and more pieces of the market are going to be driven by distributed technology. You can have you and your chosen friends or you and your chosen community members that you can either back up your information to or share with your distributed Wi-Fi network. It’s so much more empowering to think of rather than putting everything in the hands of one large company to be able to empower a small network of people that have already been vetted.
Once we know good people, we know to trust them. It’s so much more of a peace of mind issue to be sharing a network with your neighbors where you know that they have had Thanksgiving dinner with you, you borrow a cup of sugar from them or whatever it is. That already shows such a level of concern that you never get to have, no matter how good the customer service is in a big company. It doesn’t even compare. It’s cool to see how you are leveraging the power of community, not just the crowd.
The reason why we start is like, “Monika can have her own cell phone service for her own people.” I think communities can start their own cell phone services. We were doing it because we empower anyone to become like a Shopify for starting a cellphone service where with just one click, you can start your own cellphone carrier and a cell phone carrier that people power.
Our approach is that we call it a digital carrier. We can work with the traditional carrier and connect Monika’s cell phone tower. The traditional carrier and Monika’s tower converge to provide the best coverage. If you are able to do better, they will switch to you, but if the traditional carrier is better, they will switch to them. We are trying to fill the gaps in the market. It’s a combination of centralized work and decentralized work that we are trying to build.
Incentivizing people, you said, there would be tokens. Do you have a token that’s at least at this time or are you considering it and have you firmly done your tokenomics or any of that?When you change the experience of things, it's very hard to get people to opt in. Click To Tweet
We can look at tokenomics. Frankly, I’m not a good person for that. First of all, I have less tokens for the longest time because a lot of companies will have a token for no reason. I would look at it like, “The business model makes sense if they have no tokens. If you take out the token from it, the business makes sense.” It absolutely does. You want to share coverage. How do you distribute money between people?
Do you PayPal them every month? The cost and everything do not make a lot of sense. People may want to, “Maybe give me $0.05 per minute.” How do you make those payments? That’s the easiest part of it. You then have to pay 1099. It’s better to compensate them in the form of tokens. That’s what I think like, “How many tokens will be divided to how many people?” I don’t know. That’s why I’m saying it’s an experiment. We want to build the product first that works before we started giving other tokens. That’s why we started our clients first to test out things and everything. We were small. We have a pretty decent community within our team, who are our users. We are testing all the products before we make them public.
I can’t wait to find out more about when you are going to be incorporating a coin and how that’s going to work. I specialize in tokenomics. I always have my little ear to the ground on, “What are the tokenomics? What are they doing?”
I think tokenomics is pretty simple. The ultimate goal is whenever we incorporate tokens. It has to make things better rather than worse. It should not add friction to the entire system. How can you transfer value between ecosystems much faster? If we have no token, does it work better with the token or do we do worse with a token?
I have worked on some economic models. I created an economic model. I published it in a couple of places and the Data Driven Investor picked it up once they saw it on Medium or whatever. It is a deflationary economic model that can drive the prices down in such a way that you force the market to try to compete with you in a very difficult manner. You can go to scale and grab massive market share very quickly simply by being able to be so price-competitive.
It made me think of that when you said that already you have the goal of being extraordinarily price competitive and even if you are price competitive, you are dominant. I could see how very good tokenomics in place there could augment that. I’m excited to see what you guys are going to make with that.
In a goal of distribution system here, it should be better. If we are saying, “Centralized systems are bad.” You need to do a better job.
You had talked about in your bio that you have been involved in 30-plus companies. Is that right?
I have invested in 30-plus companies.
You have been investing in companies directly, not just in cryptocurrencies for how long?
My portfolio is probably 80% of crypto, but 20% is outside of crypto too. It’s been happening for several years.
You made the pivot to start investing directly into companies, not other coins or whatever. Are you talking about early ICO?
I’m not talking about ICO. This is investing in companies directly.
Is that through a VC methodology or are you an Angel investor?
Mostly, it’s Angel investments.
Did you find any of the other companies that you were either investing in or may be passed on help to guide you in what your next venture would be yourself or did you become your own market and you had your own problem? You were the number one customer and you followed your own needs.
For all the things, the number one is the customer. The Bitcoin ATM is the easiest way for me to buy Bitcoins. For this network, I will be user number one because I believe that I want to make sure that I serve my need first. A lot of people will talk about distribution, but with banking, they will go to Chase Bank. They like to promote one product, but they will use another product. If something goes wrong, I should be the first victim. I should basically suffer the first pain.
If it goes wrong, it will go wrong on you first. That’s a great way to save face in the market. Instead of like, “I have debugged this completely. I have been the person that’s been mad at customer service before I had customer service.”
As a distribution economy, it is our responsibility to make things that people want and people want to use.
That’s a tweetable almost right there. Make sure you make things that people want from you. You can’t be like, “If I make it, I can convince the market to like this. I’m sure they are going to figure it out. They need it once I show them.”
You shouldn’t come up with a solution first before a problem. We have two problems. The number one problem is that data is expensive and our devices are getting data-hungry. The costs will go up. The second problem is there are areas with no better coverage. I will give you an example. They do not have phone coverage in some areas. There are a lot of areas that it doesn’t make sense to have. Can we empower those small communities to build their own networks?
Is there any component of the distributed wireless network that is dealing at all with VPN or the ability to cloak where a person’s location is? Is that something that you guys have addressed? It’s like a half step away from things that you are already chewing on and trying to solve.Our goal is to make sure that people don't have to change their behavior, but still have 10X the security. Click To Tweet
That’s what we do at EFANI. The concept of a distributed network is there. I believe it could be like an app store where you can buy apps so you can say, “I want to have a VPN.” You could click on one button and now, for $2 per month, you have a VPN on your phone and you can do whatever you want to do. At EFANI, we have a product where we can cloak people’s location and tell if someone is spying on you. If someone is following you, we tell you. We block spam calls. We have the technology in EFANI and we will probably start licensing out those technologies in the network that people can build because not everyone needs security. With EFANI, we are not for everyone. We only serve the top 1%.
Do you see that market needs expanding once you have the infrastructure in place and maybe cost comes down and there are tiered levels of this type of security? Do you ever see that this is something that more than the top 1% of people would be a customer for?
I don’t think so. Ninety-nine percent of the customer in the US are already looking for cheaper plans regardless of how rich they are. If they give them iPhones, they will probably give their DNA. That’s how the mentality works. We talk about privacy, but privacy is more like made in America. People will buy it as long as it’s cheaper than made in China.
On one side, they were adding $5 extra. If you share your data, people will opt for it. General consumers do not care about it. For EFANI, that’s why we had to separate both companies because EFANI only serves a very specific kind of people. We do not even offer our premium service to the public. You have to go through a process. You will not even see our premium product if you go to our website. It’s by invite-only. We cannot onboard more clients. It’s for a specific set of people.
Is it in your roadmap in the future to be making? Even the distributed networks, is there none of that?
The distributed network will work for everyone. That’s where everyone can build. Monika can build her own cell phone service. They can build their own service. I’m saying that our technology with EFANI is not for everyone. We are not allowed to give it to everyone. There are some restrictions on how we can give and we cannot give. It’s like a bulletproofed car if you think about it.
Are you familiar with SecureMeet? It’s a competitor to Zoom, but they are totally peer-to-peer, encrypted in and are not trackable and can’t be hacked.
I have heard about it. The problem with all of these challenges is that a lot of times, when you change the experience of things, it’s very hard to get people to opt-in. I will give you a simple example. If you are used to an iPhone and I ask you to use this another phone, you may use this for one month or two weeks, but you want to move back to your services after a while.
A lot of these services are not a good experience. We have looked into the Google phone. We have looked into other phones, but they don’t integrate well. People want to use Google maps. They want to use Gmail and Google search. I use DuckDuckGo as my primary search provider, but sometimes I have to move to Google because the results are not as great.
I want to go somewhere and they told me they have to track me. What I believe is that the product has to be good. If we use EFANI, I will give you an example. It’s a regular cell phone service. You don’t see any difference from your regular cell phone service. You can make and receive a call. The only thing is they are better and more secure.
Is that the same type of apples-to-apples comparison that you are going to make sure is there for the distributed wireless networks as well? Once people have their distributed pod or whatever, their community that they are leveraging and they are working with, does it work exactly the same?
One hundred percent. You should not even know that this is distributable. Our goal is to make the transition seamless. A person who is a user would not notice that he’s now distributing it. It has to perform better than other networks. If it doesn’t, then we have failed.
This is a very exciting tech. I can’t wait until it’s not invite-only. Being able to even get on your waitlist to see how this is going to go, I can’t wait until you are scaling it out. I can think of so many places that I go. I travel a lot to rural places. I like to be outdoors. I have friends that live in the middle of nowhere. Going there and being able to bring a real solution to them in their small pods of communities that are maybe a few miles apart sounds like an exceptional and cool thing to bring to the market. Thank you.
A lot of times, we have technologies that are good, but if I ask you to use different things or to use the thing like the Signal app. I love the Signal app. It’s a good app. I have a couple of similar apps, but a lot of them will go back to, “What method is convenient?” Our goal is to make sure that people don’t have a change in behavior but still have a ten security. If you have a convertible car, I don’t take you out of a convertible car and put you in a tank. I want you to drive a convertible car, but with ten security.
I’m thrilled about it. Even just these three companies that you brought into the world, I’m thrilled to see how they brought massive value in the market and out in the world. The greater that they have grown. Your track record is fantastic. I can’t wait to find out when this is going to be available. Even in San Juan, I have pretty much one provider that I can go with for my internet. I cannot wait until that changes. Thank you very much. Please expand to San Juan and Dorado area early. I will be your early urban adopter of this. I promise.
I’m getting excited about that, too, because the response that we are getting here is awesome. People want to have their own coop cellphone services.
I’m so glad that I got to talk with you about this and get a heads up and early knowledge of it. In terms of keeping an eye on you, we have got links for where people can find you and where they can keep an eye on what you have got that might become more available as it gets beta tested and rolls out. I can’t wait to have you back on the show once you have launched and it’s out there. We can talk to and maybe even have some customers talk about their experiences and how it’s seamless for them. I’m excited to see this. I’m excited to see my cell phone or all of my data bills go down. That will be very nice because right now, it’s like, “I have no choice. I take what they will give me.” Thank you for bringing some competition to this space.
You are welcome. I’m excited about this too. My role is to make things simple.
I want to thank you for being on the show and I can’t wait to keep an eye on what you are going to be doing next and how soon this is going to be available to us in the San Juan area. Until then, we will do round two once we get another press release from you on what’s the latest.
I would love to share more.
Thank you so much, Haseeb. It’s been an absolute pleasure. I’m with Haseeb Awan, the CEO of EFANI and Cofounder of Bitaccess, which was a Bitcoin ATM company. He is someone who knows what’s going on in the crypto and needed usability space. He’s made early moves and he’s doing great things. Please keep an eye on all of his cool companies. On that note, I will catch you in our next interview and, hopefully, round two soon. Thank you so much, Haseeb.
About Haseeb Awan
Haseeb Awan is a Pakistani-born Canadian living in the United States who loves to play cricket. He is a serial entrepreneur and successful businessman and has been named among the top 100 influential people in FinTech globally. He has a master’s degree in engineering management from the University of Ottawa. He has also studied Financial Markets at Yale University and holds a Project Management Professional (PMP) designation.
Before Efani, Haseeb co-founded Bitaccess, a company that first distributed bitcoin ATMs across over 50 major cities in 15 countries years ago. Like every great success story, however, there are always challenges.
For Haseeb, it wasn’t long before cyberthieves came around. For more than three times, he suffered financial and emotional damage from sim swap attacks. He studied the business of traditional mobile service companies and learnt that the majority of individuals were well-served from a security perspective.
However, for those highly targeted like Haseeb, more needed to be done. So, Haseeb leveraged his experience and network and designed a secure mobile service. As he shared the solution with friends, family and colleagues, the EFANI community organically grew larger and stronger.
So, while Efani started as Haseeb’s personal project, it has quickly turned into a solution of the future – helping individuals and organizations keep their data safe from intruders.