20 People to Watch - Aaron Williams: The Bitcoin baron

The man helping pioneer 'ATMs' for the controversial digital currency

In a house in Sandy Springs, at a $12 desk purchased from Goodwill, Alpharetta native Aaron Williams is building what could become a financial empire.

The 36 year-old is working not in tweets, health care IT, or search engines, but in Bitcoin, the digital currency mined by computers that has been used to purchase everything from drugs to electric cars online. The Libertarian's fantasy that seems ripped from the pages of a modern Ayn Rand novel was created in 2008 by a mysterious person — or group of persons — known only as "Satoshi Nakamoto" and has earned fans in tech-savvy circles as an anonymous form of online payment. Its use has grown so quickly that Congress last month held a committee hearing on it. Rather than swat it down, lawmakers were keen on its potential.

To Williams, CEO of Atlanta Bitcoin, it's the Wild West.

"Bitcoin is an emerging industry," he says. "Part of the ecosystem isn't there."

He plans not just to roll out what's been dubbed a Bitcoin ATM — though technically, he points out, it's a dispenser.

People would be able to walk up to the machine, scan a QR code on their phone, and deposit cash to buy Bitcoin, which would be added to their "virtual wallet." Williams wants to unveil his first machine in February and install more throughout metro Atlanta in the following months.

How the Alpharetta native who didn't go to college made it to this point is a mix of luck, smarts, and an eye for emerging tech. A one-time temp who had a knack for creating systems and working with computers parlayed those skills into a job at a payments process firm. There he began testing credit card terminals, and over 12 years, rose through the ranks. Around the beginning of 2013, he started feeling frustrated and overlooked. Then he came across Bitcoin. It seemed like a perfect fit: "This is what I excel at, finding a new technology and applying it to today's needs."

He was fired in October when, one week before he unveiled his terminal and plan at the Crypto-Currency Conference in Atlanta, a trade publication included his employer's name in an article about his business plan. With the help of a consultant and a New York lawyer well-versed in Bitcoin whom Williams has paid with the digital currency, he's now focusing full time on his startup.

Williams estimates the dispenser business alone could be worth millions. And he has bigger plans for the many opportunities that he thinks Bitcoin could offer.

"My experience in payment processing allows me to see this as an empty space," Williams says. "One of the lines I give people is, 'If you were to go back and create VISA, how would you do it knowing everything we know now?'"