Before Bitcoin: The Rise and Fall of Flooz E-Currency
In the late 1990s, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Spencer Waxman was in Morocco on holiday when he heard an Arabic slang term for money—flooz—that stuck with him. In the dot-com boom taking place back in the United States, URLs with obscure etymology were popular. When Waxman and partner Robert Levitan decided to co-found a novel way of disrupting the online commerce industry, calling it Flooz.com was almost a foregone conclusion.
What Levitan and Waxman envisioned was a virtual gift certificate that would drive business to participating online retailers, give consumers some sense of security over their private information, and make shopping for stubbornly gift-resistant recipients easy. Rather than merely offering cyber currency, this was a service with purpose.
Unfortunately, it was also one that was doomed to fail.
Non-cash currency has been with us since the Chinese used cowry shells to sort out debt for goods and services more than 3000 years ago. In the 1960s, credit cards became an alluring alternative to saving and carrying paper bills. When online retailing exploded in the 1990s, it was only natural that startups would begin to explore virtual payment methods.
At the time, digital transactions were perceived by many consumers to be a near-guarantee of identity theft. Handing a card to a vendor in a closed-loop retail environment was one thing, but the thought of hackers seizing their information once it was entered into the borderless environment of the internet kept many away from online shopping.
As it turns out, that paranoia would turn out to be justified in our current climate of constant data breaches. It was also good for businesses hoping to turn their apprehension over credit card security into a monetized solution. Flooz.com debuted in 1999, just one year after another currency-based URL, Beanz.com, had garnered press. Beanz were a kind of earned points system, with approved transactions gifting customers with redeemable gift vouchers. Flooz took a different approach: Customers would sign up to Flooz.com and purchase gift certificates for specific retailers, which they could then use themselves or pass along to a gift recipient via email.
For businesses, it was a way of driving traffic to sites; for consumers, it was a way to keep credit card transactions limited to one vendor; for Flooz.com, being the intermediary meant taking a 15 to 20 percent cut of completed transactions on the selected retail sites, which ranged from Godiva Chocolates to Barnes & Noble and Tower Records.
To help Flooz.com cut through online marketing noise, Levitan enlisted actress Whoopi Goldberg to be their spokesperson. In exchange for company shares and Flooz.com money, Goldberg led an $8 million ad campaign for radio, television, and print that extolled the benefits of using Flooz.com.
Whether it was Goldberg’s pitch or the concept itself, Flooz.com met with a receptive audience. The company debuted in the fall of 1999, and had opened 125,000 accounts by January 2000. That year, roughly $25 million in Flooz.com money was purchased and used. (In a nod to the impenetrable vocabulary of the internet at the time, the media loved to point out that Beanz could be used to purchase Flooz.)
Bolstered by the attention and early success, Flooz.com was eventually able to raise $35 million in venture capital. Consumers could meet their gifting obligations by emailing a code to their gift recipient without having to waste time shopping. For a time, it appeared Flooz.com would become a leading method of payment for online transactions.
But it didn’t take long for the seams in the Flooz.com model to show. While gifting vouchers to family and friends was convenient for the gifter, the giftee was stuck with a very limited number of vendors that took Flooz.com as payment. If Amazon, for example, had a deal on a DVD or book that Barnes & Noble didn’t, Flooz users were out of luck. Shopping for a bargain wasn’t possible.
The second and most crippling detail was one Flooz.com was forced to make in order to strike deals with vendors. The company guaranteed its transactions, meaning that it would make good on orders even if Flooz dollars had been purchased via fraudulent means. By the summer of 2001, that commitment became a tipping point. Agents from the FBI informed Levitan that they suspected a ring of Russian hackers had purchased $300,000 worth of Flooz in order to launder funds from stolen credit cards.
This created a paralyzing cash flow problem: As their credit card processor withheld funds until Flooz.com could secure the transaction, people were still busy redeeming Flooz dollars they had already spent. Retailers then looked for Flooz.com to reimburse them. Suddenly, customers trying to pay with Flooz were greeted with error messages that the site was down.
Those issues, coupled with the fact that corporate clients had already started to move away from gifting employees with Flooz dollars, forced Flooz.com to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in August 2001. Court papers cited almost $14 million in liability. (Beanz.com was also a casualty of the dot-com bust, when participating retailers processing the points steadily went out of business.)
Levitan rebounded, founding the Pando file sharing network and selling it to Microsoft in 2011 for $11 million. Meanwhile, Flooz.com remains a barely-remembered footnote in e-currency, though it would be hard to chart the rise of digital funds like Bitcoin without it. Like with so many other good ideas, timing is everything.