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Coin flip

Coinbase thrived when cryptocurrencies crashed. Can it take the blockchain back to the mainstream?

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It has been a bruising year for the blockchain.

A spike in the value of Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other digital assets that began around Thanksgiving 2016 collapsed this year, leaving investors reeling. The MVIS CryptoCompare Digital Assets 10 Index, which tracks the performance of the 10 biggest cryptocurrencies, has declined by as much as 80 percent over the previous year. For comparison, after the dot-com crash in 2000, the NASDAQ Composite Index lost 78 percent of its value.

The Wild West atmosphere of digital currency investing, which brings near-weekly stories of massive heists, token scams, market manipulation, and bankruptcies, cooled off this year amid new regulations and waning enthusiasm from investors. (Heists, scams, manipulations, and bankruptcies continue apace.)

But the chaos has been good for Coinbase, a six-year-old San Francisco company that has become perhaps the most successful company in the industry to date. In 2017, as investors flooded the market, Coinbase added 50,000 users a day. Last year the company, which makes products for trading (and maintaining custody) of five of the top cryptocurrencies, was used to trade $150 billion in assets

The chaos has been good for Coinbase

Now Coinbase wants to bring some order to the chaos. Today the company is announcing two more steps toward moving cryptocurrencies to the mainstream. The first is the Coinbase Bundle — a basket of cryptocurrencies, based on the current market capitalization of the coins offered by the company, that investors can buy for as little as $25. It’s a sampler platter of coins that are stored in individual wallets and can be bought, sold, given away, or received as individual assets.

Customers in the United States and Europe who verify their identities with Coinbase will be able to buy the Bundle within the next few weeks, exposing them to the cryptocurrency market with just a few taps, the company said.

Along with the Bundle, Coinbase is also giving would-be crypto customers some reading material. Coinbase will now host informational pages for the top 50 cryptocurrencies based on their market capitalization. Think of it like Yahoo Finance for cryptocurrencies — you’ll be able to see a description of the coin, links to associated white papers and project websites, historical trading data, and the current market capitalization.

Image: Coinbase

The company is also rolling out a kind of introduction to Bitcoin at Dan Romero, who leads Coinbase’s consumer product teams, says the most common question the company gets is still some variation of “What is cryptocurrency?” The “learn” pages offer a cheerful answer, and seek to advance the notion that blockchain technologies herald a revolution in how the internet works. (See the “how can crypto make the world better?” page for more.)

The company is also planning to expand the number of coins it offers for trade, though it hasn’t committed to a date. Earlier this week the company announced a new policy to list these new currencies for trading at or near the time of public launch. Coinbase was pilloried last year when, in the hours before it added bitcoin cash to the exchange, the price suddenly surged, drawing allegations of insider trading. (An investigation found no insider trading, but a lawsuit against the company is ongoing.)

The new policy is designed to decrease the potential for insider trading within the company. It will also allow investors to rate and post reviews of currencies, offering potential buyers more context about the potentially limitless number of coins that may be available for purchase on the platform.

“We were really playing catch up all through 2017, and frankly, the first half of this year,” Romero said. “We’re moving forward with new products and features again. We knew that we needed to spend a lot of time in fixing the core experience, just given all the growth last year.” 

In November, it will have been 10 years since Satoshi Nakamoto sent a link to a cryptography mailing list with a link to a paper titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” Soon after, bulls began to predict it would usher in a new era of open standards and decentralized networks. If the previous era had been defined by companies like Google and Facebook, with their giant walled gardens, the next era would look more like the previous one, with open technologies like email and web browsers.

In February, the investor Chris Dixon wrote a widely read essay about the potential of blockchain to create what he and others call “Web 3.” Dixon, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, sits on Coinbase’s board. The essay, worth reading in full, articulates why venture capitalists are making major investments in blockchain-based companies, and why so much Silicon Valley talent is moving to companies like Coinbase.

Connie Yang, who joined Coinbase as the director of design after spending four years at Facebook, said she was drawn by the chance to improve the generally medieval user experience of cryptocurrency trading.

“We were really playing catch up all through 2017”

“In the conversations that I’ve had, user experience is the greatest problem,” she said. ”There are so many interesting technologists and people who know the protocols and investors, people who are building lots of things — but very, very little broader understanding or education of the general populace, of what this is, why it’s useful, and how it can actually be beneficial to people.” 

The next step, she said, would be to deliver on the promise of a financial system that benefited people beyond the early adopters. “We want to make sure enough people are understanding it and building it so we’re actually representing everybody,” she said. “Not just the few that have been advanced enough to figure out what blockchain is.”

In his piece, Dixon argues that the Facebook era of the internet could be a historical anomaly, and that the internet could one day return to a more democratic network.

The internet is still early in its evolution: the core internet services will likely be almost entirely rearchitected in the coming decades. This will be enabled by crypto-economic networks, a generalization of the ideas first introduced in Bitcoin and further developed in Ethereum. Cryptonetworks combine the best features of the first two internet eras: community-governed, decentralized networks with capabilities that will eventually exceed those of the most advanced centralized services.

Among the companies that have bet on this idea is Facebook itself. Earlier this year, it created a blockchain division led by former PayPal CEO and Messenger head David Marcus, which it has since staffed with dozens of engineers and top design talent. It has yet to announce a product.

Given the industry’s hopes of decentralization, it seems notable that the most prominent company in cryptocurrency is a large, central trading hub. Supporters say it will simply take time for decentralized applications to be built and become popular. And Coinbase may or may not have anything to do with it.

“Does that mean Facebook or Twitter is going to be built on top of Ethereum tomorrow? No,” Romero said. “Is Uber going to go away tomorrow? No, but I do think it’s now a tool in the toolkit for software developers and entrepreneurs.”

Certainly there are bright spots. Walmart said that after a successful trial, it would begin tracking every head of lettuce and bag of spinach using a blockchain, so as to more easily identify contaminated produce. A Beijing-based Bitcoin miner filed for an initial public offering. Cryptocurrency debit cards have arrived. All of these things happened in the past month.

In the meantime, Coinbase is building a lucrative business. The company charges from $1 to $3 per trade, and takes a small percentage (50 basis points) of the sale. As the market sank this year, Coinbase surged — and the resulting flood of cash bought the company two things. The first was talent, which has flooded in from Facebook, Amazon, Lyft, LinkedIn, and other top consumer companies.

The other thing the company’s wild 2017 bought it was time. And as growth has slowed, the product organization has been able to address the cracks that emerged as thousands of new customers poured into the system every day. “When you see 40X growth in a year, everything breaks,” said Jesse Pollak, the company’s head of engineering for consumer products. “Having this time, where we could really focus on what do our customers need ... I think has really let us dramatically change the face of the consumer product and try something that people are enjoying a lot more.”

“When you see 40X growth in a year, everything breaks”

Certainly the Coinbase employees seem to be enjoying themselves. They work in a spacious office in the financial district of San Francisco, surrounded by beautiful views of the bay. In the well-stocked kitchen, backsplashes consist of tiled pennies. While I was there, a bulletin board jokingly encouraged employees to submit guesses as to Nakamoto’s true identity. Signs everywhere remind everyone of its rule for hiring new employees: “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no!”

One puzzle I’ve been trying to work out is the extent to which Coinbase’s success would herald the arrival of the prophesied Web 3. If most Americans own some form of cryptocurrency, will decentralized apps propagate more quickly? If it fails, does that cast doubt on the whole enterprise? Or are these separate questions?

I called Chris Dixon, who reminded me that the winners on a new platform are are all but impossible to predict. In 2007, few people guessed publicly that the killer apps for the iPhone would be hailing cabs and sending disappearing messages. The blockchain, he said, is likely to play out in similarly unpredictable fashion.

And in any case, he said, the idea of building apps on the blockchain has really only been possible since the launch of the current generation of Ethereum in 2016.

“There’s a lot of cruft that needs to be worked through,” Dixon said. “The good news is it’s just software. It’s not like we have to build cell towers or robots. People can upgrade software pretty quickly.”