Digital Currency Exchange with Sung Choi of CoinMe | Soar Payments LLC

Digital Currency Exchange with Sung Choi of CoinMe

As cryptocurrencies become more mainstream, simplifying the process of buying, selling, and storing digital currencies is essential. In this episode our guest, Sung Choi the Vice President of Business Development at CoinMe guides us through the process of developing technologies that are changing how people experience their digital assets.

Payments & Fintech Insights In This Episode

  • How simplifying the process of engaging with digital currencies is on the rise.
  • The role of consumer protections in converting common currencies into digital assets.
  • The importance of consumer access and trust in kiosk transaction experiences.
  • The future of borderless peer to peer money transmission systems.
  • And so much more!

Episode Transcript

Heather: Hi, everyone. Welcome to PayPod. I’m your host, Heather Bodie. And today, we are going to be talking about a simple and affordable way to buy, sell, store, and manage digital currencies. Joining me today is Sung Choi, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at Coinme, a leading digital currency exchange. Sung, welcome to the show.

Sung: Heather, thanks for having me.

Heather: I love to start off our shows by exploring a little bit about you. How’d you get into fintech? Tell me about yourself. What led you to this point in your career?

Sung: My background doesn’t necessarily scream someone that would go to fintech. I got my undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering. I got into real estate right after that, which also doesn’t really fit what I did previously. It was during the 2008 real estate bubble crash. And then I got a master’s in economics because I lost my job after the 2008 crash and didn’t really use the economics degree either. And although I got into renewable energy after that, so, I guess, you could argue it was at least useful working on solar farms and wind farms and the like. And then after that, I got a law degree, which I guess I also don’t use because I’m not a practicing attorney. And somehow that all led into fintech and crypto.

Heather: As a person who is also, I like to use the phrase multi-passionate, I have a high level of respect for all the different paths through education that have led you to this point.

And I do think they all connect in some way, right? I know you and I have only just met, but I can’t help but feel all the time in my own career that all of the strange yeses that I said along the way have made it possible for me to be successful in the space I’m in now. So, I feel like there’s probably a lot more connection than you just let on, so.

Sung: I’d like to tell my parents that as much as I can and having supported me through all this. But yeah, I definitely do agree.

Heather: Absolutely. And also it indicates to me that you’re open to what is next and that you dive all in and go for it in a really strong way. So, I feel like if I were looking for incredible qualities in somebody to incorporate into a business I was building or working on, it’s exactly the sort of thing that I’m always looking for.

And maybe it’s a little selfish because it’s sort of the way my life has played out as well, but I love hearing it. Aerospace engineering. I want to find a way to circle back to that at one point. But for the moment, let’s talk about Coinme.

With crypto still being relatively new in the grand scheme of things, it seems almost daily we’re seeing new companies emerge onto the market with tools to help everyday folks integrate cryptocurrency into their lives. So talk to me about Coinme. How does it work? And why is it so important?

Sung: So, Coinme was founded in 2014. So as far as crypto companies go, we’re one of the older ones. We are actually the second crypto company in the U.S. to get a money transmission license. We’re about a month behind Coinbase on that. So, we’ve been around for a while. And really, the core premise for the company is simple, which is to provide easier, simpler ways to access digital currencies.

So the way the company chose to do this, especially initially, was to allow for cash on-ramps and off-ramps from crypto. And you can imagine, back in 2014, there was not a lot of trust around digital assets. So to ask someone to wire money to a digital company or to connect your bank account and then do an ACH to some random app, that was a bigger hurdle than what it looks like today.

Heather: Yeah, felt a little scary at that time, for sure.

Sung: Yeah. So, the co-founders, what they decided to do was, “Let’s allow people to transact in a way they’re very familiar, which is [inaudible 00:04:08.419] an ATM-like experience, and either deposit cash or withdraw cash.” And to make it even simpler, rather than telling the user to go and, “Go make your own bitcoin wallet,” which in 2014 was a very difficult thing to do. Today, it’s real simple, but back then, it was much harder. So rather than having people do that on their own, the company just provided a digital wallet that worked just like a fintech account so that you could just deposit crypto or withdraw your crypto in the form of cash.

That’s how the company was founded, and that’s our core competency today. We have tens of thousands of locations across the U.S. where you can interact with us in such a way to deposit cash, withdraw cash. We’re live in 49 states and Puerto Rico, and within the next…a very short amount of time, we’re hoping to have the last 50th state, which is the state of New York, live as well.

Heather: When you say you have these actual machines, like physical locations, what kind of transactions are the… What does your typical customer look like?

Sung: It’s a good question. We are partnered with Coinstar and MoneyGram currently to allow you to transact with us, deposit cash and withdraw cash. So, it’s customers that come to grocery stores, customers that might walk by a machine and see that the functionality to buy bitcoin at a physical location is available.

If you look at Coinstar machines, they’re typically at the front of every grocery store, there’s a nice large touch screen that displays… They call it an attractor screen, where they give you value props like buy bitcoin here. And about half the Coinstar machines now also have a 32-inch advertising screen on top, where you can even better present different value props and advertisements. So, we’re on these screens to let people know that you can buy crypto there.

And one cohort that we get is people that are curious about crypto but haven’t really interacted with crypto yet. So, these crypto-curious individuals that might be a little less technical, a little less comfortable sending money online, they get to experience digital assets for the first time at a physical location, at a location that they trust, and using a kiosk that they’ve seen probably for two or three decades of their lives.

So, we make it really simple and easy and provide that element of implicit trust. Even if you haven’t heard of Coinme before, you’ve heard of Coinstar, you’ve heard of Walmart, you’ve heard of Safeway, you’ve heard of Kroger. So, there’s a lot of trust built in because of where these machines are, and how you can interact with them.

Heather: I feel like the phrase “crypto-curious” will now be forever embedded in my vernacular. So, I tend to… And pardon my ignorance on this, I tend to associate those Coinstar machines with a location to deposit coins, especially now that traditional banks are not taking them as readily as they used to.

I have this story I love to tell. A couple of years back, I bank with a major institution, and I went into a branch with a giant jar full of quarters, and they told me they couldn’t take them. But if I wanted to roll them myself, I could go sit in an empty office, and they would provide me with the paper rolls. And I thought we’ll, this is a very, very strange interaction. Are people purchasing bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies through your machines with coin deposits?

Sung: So, I should have clarified that. We only take paper bills. Most of these machines actually have a bill acceptor on the side as well. Coinstar is able to provide more than just the coin counting service. So, we take advantage of the bill acceptors, which allows you to do a bit more in transaction volume than you would if you could only use coins.

Heather: Beautiful. Thank you for that clarification. I just know when we talk about these brands that, like you said, the trust is built in because we know the names, but we also have these sort of preconceived notions of what those kiosks, if you’ll call them, will provide. So, thank you for that.

Sung: Yeah, definitely.

Heather: So, let’s talk a little bit about consumer protections. I know we’re also in the very early days of compliance restraints and regulatory functions around crypto. What sort of consumer protections are in place in these particular smaller, I would say, interaction of purchase and selling moments inside of a Kroger, for example?

Sung: That’s a great question. And you’d be surprised by how well regulated these types of activities are. So, most states have departments of financial institutions and they regulate the movement of money. And this is why we have money transmitter licensing is because most states view our activity in allowing users to take money and convert it to digital assets as a money transmission.

So, it’s the same regulations that cover companies like Western Union or MoneyGram, where the regulator ensures that the way we conduct business adheres to the safeguards that they’ve put in place and have been in place really for over 100 years to…going back to the days of Western Union. That early in its infancy.

So, we have to go through some rigorous licensing applications. They have to dive into our business model. They have to understand our operations to a very fine detail. And then once we get the licensing, we are subject to exams by the states and also by the federal regulators as well on things like our anti-money laundering policies or know your customer policies.

Really, all the details that you could possibly think of as to how we do our business, even technical audits of how our tech stack really operates, all of that is very thoroughly audited by the state and federal regulators.

Heather: So on top of those physical locations, you also have an app, am I correct?

Sung: That’s correct. We offer a mobile app and a web app, so it’s the same thing whether you access it from your web browser or our mobile app where you can see your crypto balances. Also, you’re actually able to buy and sell digital assets using a debit card through our mobile app as well.

Heather: That feels like, for me, the level up or the real sales point in relationship to Coinme. Not only having that ability to have that physical interaction but also to know I’m carrying it with me, I’ve got it on my app, I can make those purchases and those sales without having to actually seek out a physical location, so that hybrid experience, I think, is important and has a lot of value.

Sung: We definitely agree. It provides that very familiar experience of… When a user thinks about a financial product, they want both physical and digital access. And our goal is to deliver the most convenient methods of access to our customers.

Heather: Having been around since the “early days,” like you said, having started in 2014, so in crypto land, you’re on the older side of providers in this exchange space, what are some of the biggest learnings you’ve had from having that eight-year runway?

Sung: So, like anything, crypto is cyclical. Our cycles just tend to be a bit more dramatic than most industries. And as a company, we’ve been through a lot of what’s called a crypto winter. So currently, crypto prices are down across the board, but this isn’t unusual.

When the co-founders started in 2014, it was right in the middle of a crypto winter during that time. When I joined the company in 2017, that was a few months before we went through a pretty major crypto winter in 2018. And today, we’re going through another cycle as well. And really, what you learn to do through these cycles is, one, you learn to prepare yourself. I guess it’s the whole, “Game of Thrones: Winter is Coming.” And it’s here, and we’ve been preparing. And two, you understand that during some of these cycles is when the companies that are built for the long hauls, this is where they thrive.

As a company, we’ve always been very focused on real-life use cases. And we want to provide access to people that want and need to use digital assets for whatever reason it might be, rather than just for the purpose of speculating on the price because those customers will be a little more fleeting versus the ones that are using it for utility case, those will stick around.

So, as a company, one of the main use cases for people that are unbanked or underbanked, they can get access to the digital assets because we have these cash on-ramps and off-ramps. So, whether it’s for the purpose of saving or sending or using it as a payment method, the way we’ve built our product, it’s been very helpful for these individuals.

And as a company, we’re also expanding internationally where we think that there are markets where these tools will actually provide a much greater utility. So, if you think about countries like Argentina, where there’s a lot of currency fluctuations, a lot more inflation than even what we’re seeing today, the use case of digital assets like stablecoins or even traditional assets like bitcoin, or crypto assets, anyway, those become much more helpful.

And then the one product we’re really excited about is we recently made an announcement with Circle, which is the issuer of USDC, the largest audited asset-backed stablecoin in the world, where we’re going to be providing a borderless peer-to-peer money transmission system where people can access digital assets anywhere and find fiat on-ramps and off-ramps, cash on-ramps and off-ramps anywhere in the world. So, the mission of the company is to provide these great on-ramps and off-ramps that are familiar and accessible.

Heather: That’s really cool. I can’t help, but I made the connection early in your answer… The 2008, you’re in real estate, when we went into the housing bubble. Then 2018, a year into you joining a career in crypto, and then there’s a winter. You know, it must have felt personal?

Sung: I have thought about that, but I think the learning I had was to stick with it this time. And I was a bit more passionate about crypto than I think with real estate. But I told myself, I need to stick through this and make sure that I can help my company come out better on the other side. So that was that. That was a big goal of mine. And I think we’ve done okay so far.

Heather: You did it. And like you said, here, you are in another winter, and it’s not foreign this time. It’s to be expected because of the volatility of cryptocurrency because of its newness, so good on you.

Sung: Fortunately, as a company, we’ve actually been able to… There’s a lot of layoffs in the industry, but we’re able to maintain our team and actually grow a little bit through this time as well. So, I think the preparation has been very helpful.

Heather: Great. That’s incredible news. That’s really fantastic. So, if you could stare into a crystal ball, what do you think the landscape is going to look like, say, 10 years from now when it comes to crypto cash exchange?

Sung: I think you’re going to find it more available through many international locations. I think we’re going to be removing a lot of borders because that’s the whole point of crypto, is to put money on the internet and let you move it, transact with it, and do whatever you want with it as easy as you can send an email. So, I think crypto is going to help remove a lot of the borders that traditional financial infrastructure has enforced around the world.

Heather: Incredible. I’m excited. As a crypto-curious person, I’m very, very new to the space personally when it comes to my own investment strategy and my own, both real cash wallet and also digital wallet. So, I always love having these conversations with folks who have all the inside scoop because it ups my crypto-curiosity. So, I was going to ask you what’s next for Coinme, but I feel like that partnership you were talking about, is there anything else we should keep our eyes out for, or anything you can give us the inside scoop on?

Sung: Yeah. So, we’ll be expanding into Latin America, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala later this year. Not all at the same time, but in a stepped approach. And we’ll be launching additional partnerships where you’ll be able to pick up cash very conveniently in over 20,000 locations, and it’ll be through a ATM cash withdrawal-like experience. So, we’re very excited about that. And that will be launching sometime in the next two months.

And we’re just trying to make things more convenient for our users so that they have easier access. So, you’ll be able to find more tools in their mobile app and more physical access. By the end of the year, we’re expected to have somewhere close to 100,000 locations where you can deposit cash into your wallet at pricing that’s even more competitive than what you see today.

Heather: Incredible. Absolutely incredible. All right. To close out our show, we like to do a segment where we have five questions. Rapid Fire. Sung, are you ready?

Sung: All right. Let’s bring it on.

Heather: Okay. All right. Make a prediction about the changes in the immediate future of crypto. What do you think we’ll see happen in the next 12 months?

Sung: I think you’re going to see a lot of mergers and acquisitions. It’s a very volatile space right now, but the ones with the resources are going to consolidate the best companies so that they could make a bigger push once things come back to life a bit.

Heather: What’s one cool piece of payment or finance-related technology other than Coinme that you’ve come across recently that impressed you?

Sung: I really like the Lightning Network. It’s not something I’ve come across recently, but it’s something that’s become much more popular recently, where it’s a more efficient layer of bitcoin, like a second layer on top of bitcoin that lets you make bitcoin payments instantly rather than the 20 to 30 minutes that it could potentially take bitcoin transactions to confirm as secure payments.

An example I can give you is, in El Salvador, when El Salvador made bitcoin legal tender, a lot of retailers started integrating Lightning payment. So, if you can go to El Salvador and make a payment at McDonald’s over the Lightning Network, make bitcoin payments, so it’s a really cool tool to be able to make instant bitcoin payments.

Heather: I love that. And how satisfying to see those, sort of, small transaction use cases of the digital wallet. I just think it’s really amazing.

Sung: Yeah, definitely.

Heather: Okay. In the next five years, most people, they’re going to make a purchase either with crypto or Apple Pay or something else. Which one do you think and why?

Sung: I still think over the next five years it’s going to be traditional payment rails, like debit cards and credit cards, like actual physical plastic. But I do think that right around year five, you’re going to see a lot more QR code or NFC-type payments.

Heather: Yes. What’s a piece of advice you have for someone who…especially with such a robust background as you do in so many different specialties, what’s the piece of advice you have for someone who’s considering fintech specifically as a career path?

Sung: I think fintech’s a great career path. I think there needs to be passion around what a company is doing as its mission. It’s easy to find a large name and say it’s a great company to work for and work for them, and that probably works for some people.

But especially, if you’re trying to work for a startup, you really need to be aligned with what the company is trying to do so that you can wake up in the morning and be excited about the problem you’re trying to solve.

Heather: I love that. Having that both internal alignment and intellectual alignment can make such a world of difference, especially when it comes to startups and all of the tech world because you need that grit, that sticktoitiveness to it to get through those “winters,” so to speak. So having that passion for it is essential. What’s the best business advice you personally have ever received and from whom?

Sung: A friend of mine that I went to college with, actually, and managing people was difficult, but something that he told me was, “If you ever have to let someone go, they need to know that it’s coming.” This is not the happiest of all things that one has to do in life, but the way that I interpret that was you need to communicate to the person of the expectations that you have, and how they can perform better. And you need to have communicated that to them well in advance so that they have the chance to do better and then personally understand that, “Hey, I was given an opportunity, and I didn’t meet the expectations.” Because if you don’t do all that, that means as a manager, you failed. Because as a manager, you need to make sure that you give your staff all the opportunities to succeed. So that’s something that I’ve really taken to heart.

Heather: I’m going to take that with me today as well. Sung, that does it. Thank you so much for joining us today. If people want to get in contact with you, or they want to learn more about Coinme, where can they find you?

Sung: We’re available at And you can reach me, actually, and email me directly, or I’m fairly certain I’m on Twitter somewhere and LinkedIn as well.

Heather: Wonderful. Thank you so much.

Sung: Heather, thanks for having me.

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Industry Spotlight


Coinme is a leading digital currency exchange on a mission to make digital currency more accessible for everyone. When the world has access, everyone has a fair chance for financial prosperity.

Coinme operates a leading licensed cryptocurrency cash exchange in the U.S., founded in 2014 with a mission to be the world’s most trusted gateway to digital currencies and a better financial future. Through partnerships with Coinstar and MoneyGram, Coinme enables thousands of physical locations in 48 states to facilitate the cash purchase and sale of bitcoin. The company offers an enterprise-grade API helping to “crypto-enable” legacy financial systems and a vertically integrated suite of consumer products providing a simple, trusted, and affordable way to buy, sell, store, and manage digital currencies.

As a licensed financial services provider and venture-backed, Coinme is well positioned to lead the way.