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Bitcoin’s Guardian Angel: Inside Coinbase Billionaire Brian Armstrong’s Plan To Make Crypto Safe For All

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Near the foot of San Francisco’s California Street stand the august stone pillars of a bank dating to the 19th century. A few paces away sit the offices of Coinbase, the largest American exchange for cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. It’s a beehive of software engineers and young marketing executives. There, the worlds of by-the-books banking and crypto-anarchism collide. 

In style and philosophy, Brian Armstrong, the 37-year-old billionaire cofounder and CEO of Coinbase, is in the camp of the financial anarchists. He sits, jammed alongside lieutenants, in a row of tiny desks resembling library carrels. He wears a black T-shirt, black pants and shiny white sneakers. He talks about a brave new world in which we are liberated from the shackles of giant banks and government-controlled money supplies. During an expansive interview, this usually reserved and press-shy entrepreneur declares why he got into this business: “I wanted the world to have a global, open financial system that drove innovation and freedom.”

In following a business model, though, Armstrong fits in with the pinstriped financiers working down the block. Eight years after its start, his firm has opened 35 million accounts, presides over $21 billion of assets and is on target, we estimate, to top $800 million in revenue this year.

That success comes from acting like a bank. Coinbase draws in customer funds via bank wires. It stores its assets—numerical keys that unlock coins—in vaults. It boasts of insurance coverage from Lloyd’s of London. It has a security staff of 41, including an Iraq War veteran assessing perimeter risks and a Ph.D. cryptographer doing the same for mathematical assaults

The selling proposition here is security—security conspicuously lacking at some of the exchanges with which Coinbase has competed. The Mt. Gox exchange in Japan went bust in 2014 after hackers spirited away coins worth $480 million. Customers of QuadrigaCX, which was one of Canada’s largest exchanges, have been unable to retrieve $150 million in crypto since the founder supposedly died suddenly in December 2018, holding the only set of keys to unlock their money. They now want the body exhumed. 

Chief Operating Officer Emilie Choi has led Coinbase Ventures to invest in 60 blockchain and cryptocurrency startups. ETHAN PINES FOR FORBES

In order to capture a gilt edge, though, Armstrong has had to veer away from the antiestablishment ethos that got bitcoin going. He plays ball with government inspectors, for example. 

The Coinbase compliance staff, already numbering 55, is expected to grow to 70 by quarter’s end. They comb through transactions looking for money laundering. They will conform to a controversial new rule that mandates a paper trail when customers move coins from one exchange to another. Coinbase dutifully sends 1099-K reports to the IRS on traders who in one year do 200 or more trades involving a combined $20,000 or more in proceeds. 

Given all this snitching, how does Coinbase appeal to diehard crypto fans? One way is by having a menu that includes 26 newer currencies, some of which are explicitly designed to offer more privacy than bitcoin does. The other is a service, introduced in August 2018, that enables a customer to move bitcoin into a personal wallet exempt from know-your-customer and anti-money-laundering regulations.

“If you are an individual and you want to store your own cryptocurrency, you’re not a financial service business,” says Armstrong, mindful of any U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network cops who might be listening. “And there are companies, including us, who provide tools for people to store their own cryptocurrency and use it.” 

orn near San Jose to engineer parents, Armstrong displayed an entrepreneurial streak as early as grade school. He recalls being hauled into the principal’s office on charges of operating a candy-reselling venture on the playground. The business flings continued with a scheme to resell used computers and, after he earned a master’s degree in 2006 from Rice University, a startup that matched tutors to students. He worked on the education venture while living in Buenos Aires. “I had just decided, I’ve never been to South America. I want to travel for a year and try to work on this remotely as an adventure. Figure out what I want to do with my life,” he says. “[It] was an interesting experience to see the financial system in another country like that, that had gone through hyperinflation.” 

Later, as a coder at Airbnb, Armstrong had his crypto epiphany. His employer was sending money to landlords in Latin America. He describes the process this way: “High fees . . . long delays . . . opaque. We’d try sending money to somebody in Uruguay and didn’t know how much would show up on the other side.” 


“I wanted the world to have a global, open financial system that drove innovation and freedom.”

Brian Armstrong

In 2010 he read the manifesto, published by a person (or persons) under the alias Satoshi Nakamoto, that proposed bitcoin as an underground currency. Its transactions are recorded on a ledger called the blockchain, maintained in duplicated computer files by a band of self-appointed guardians called nodes. Disputes about transactions and ground rules are resolved by majority vote. The nodes are kept honest, and trouble-makers at bay, by requiring a participant in the network to engage in some arithmetic busywork before certifying a batch of transactions. A node who completes the arithmetic task is awarded a few new coins. 

The busywork, called mining, did not interest Armstrong. But he did see an opportunity in the business of safeguarding the keys to the coins and setting up transactions. Anybody can do that with some readily available software, but if you mishandle the protocol your coins will be stolen or lost. 

Armstrong took a flyer on bitcoins, buying $1,000 worth at $9 a coin. The price sank to $2. He kept the faith. 

Working weekends and late nights, Armstrong wrote code in Ruby and JavaScript to buy and store coins. He was doing for the bitcoin network what an earlier generation of programmers had done for the internet by creating browsers. 

It was fun. Was it worth quitting his day job? A $150,000 capital infusion from Y Combinator, source of seed funding to Airbnb and many other illustrious startups, answered that question in 2012. Fred Ehrsam, a Goldman Sachs alum, joined the venture and gave Coinbase credibility with the banks that would be wiring money to it. 

Venture capitalists, led by Andreessen Horowitz, have showered half a billion dollars on Coinbase. “It’s like if Google made Gmail for bitcoin,” says Chris Dixon, an Andreessen partner who serves on the Coinbase board. “And that’s literally the way they described it.” 

Its last round of funding valued Coinbase at $8.1 billion. Ehrsam, 31, has since left Coinbase but retains a stake; he keeps busy arranging venture capital for startups that aim to use cryptocurrencies and blockchains to build transaction networks for corporations. 

Chief Financial Officer Alesia Haas admits that Coinbase’s monthly profitability swings with price of bitcoin. ETHAN PINES FOR FORBES

The essence of what Armstrong has in mind can be captured in the word defi, which stands for decentralized finance or, if you prefer, defiance of authority. Defi is supposed to reach into all aspects of wealth; someday, supposedly, blockchains will support trading, peer-to-peer lending and loan collateralization without the usual financial institutions as intermediaries. Intriguingly, Coinbase has a broker/dealer license. Could it someday end-run stock exchanges? Maybe. 

If the grand vision for Coinbase is to be a gateway to decentralized finance of all sorts, the revenue for now is coming from more mundane things like trading commissions. Coinbase allows amateurs to go in and out of crypto, or swap one crypto for another, for fees and spreads that come to 2% or so. At archrival Binance, these small-fry speculators would pay 90% less, but they’d be dealing with a firm that mostly inhabits the shadowy world of offshore finance. Malta-based Binance has only a small presence in the U.S. 

Serious traders get a better deal. They use Coinbase Pro, a different platform that replicates the bid-and-ask order book of a stock exchange; here the combined buyer and seller commission ranges from 1% for small trades down to 0.07% at the $100 million level. 

Somewhat more than half of Coinbase Pro’s trading volume comes from algorithmic trading. Furious trading doesn’t look socially productive, but it lubricates the capital markets. Bid/ask spreads on bitcoins, now worth $9,300 apiece, are measured in dimes. In percentage terms, the crypto spread competes with the spread on the very liquid SPDR S&P 500 ETF. 

The trouble with commission income is that it’s extremely sensitive to crypto prices. When bitcoin collapses, as it did in 2018, trading volume shrinks and the dollar revenue from each coin goes down. 

So Coinbase is trying to create stable revenue streams to balance out the commissions. A big one, says Alesia Haas, the company’s chief financial officer, is coming from a custody operation for institutional clients. This digital warehouse, greatly expanded by Coinbase’s acquisition last August of Xapo’s institutional business, holds $8 billion of bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies.

“We’d try sending money to somebody in Uruguay and didn’t know how much would show up on the other side.”

Brian Armstrong

A new revenue source is “staking.” Here, the holder of certain coins, such as tezos and EOS, collects fees for confirming transactions on the network. There is no electricity-gobbling busywork calculation as with bitcoin, but some finesse is needed, because messing up the recipe causes the player’s stake to be confiscated. Coinbase handles the details and splits stake revenue with its customers. It’s rather like a stockbroker lending out your margined securities to short-sellers, except that there you’re unlikely to get cut in on the revenue. Click here to read more about the tax implication of crypto investing.

Another Coinbase product, called USD Coin, developed in partnership with cryptocurrency exchange Circle, lets customers put up U.S. dollars in exchange for a cryptocurrency that has the same value but can be traded more quickly. The dollars in question earn interest that Coinbase shares with its customers. 

Coinbase says it handled $80 billion of transactions last year. (Binance boasts of a daily volume that annualizes to $1 trillion.) Is that enough for a profit? CFO Haas allows that the bottom line flits in and out of the plus column from month to month. But, she adds, if you exclude non-cash items like charges for goodwill amortization and the hypothetical value of employee options, Coinbase has been solidly in the black for several years.

In a firm fixated on growth, the money goes out the door almost as quickly as it comes in. Coinbase has quadrupled its staff to 1,000 since hiring chief operating officer Emilie Choi two years ago. At headquarters, construction workers can barely keep up with the new hires streaming out of the onboarding room. There are offices in New York, Dublin and Tokyo. And then there are bets on the future. 

Choi, who came to Coinbase after doing business development at LinkedIn, has taken the venture capital portfolio from nothing to 60 firms. It includes Bison Trails in New York City and Alchemy in San Francisco, both aiming to help corporations use blockchains, and Amber Group in Shenzhen, China, which is applying artificial intelligence to cryptocurrency trading. Says Choi: “A lot of the stuff that we’re doing in the venture side of the house is things we probably wouldn’t do as a principal but that we think are really interesting.” 

Armstrong adds, “These venture bets could be huge, but we don’t know if they’re gonna work. And they actually should have a pretty high rate of failure. Otherwise, we’re not thinking big enough.”

Brian Armstrong at Coinbase’s new headquarters in San Francisco’s financial district. 
JAMEL TOPPIN FOR FORBES

Crypto has been condemned as rat poison by Warren Buffett, as a fraud by Jamie Dimon and the mother of all scams by doomsday economist Nouriel Roubini. Where’s the payoff to the economy? 

It’s coming, Armstrong says. He posits a future in which thousands of startups use crypto to raise capital in a global marketplace no longer controlled by Wall Street firms. Within a decade, he predicts, the number of people participating in the blockchain economy will explode from 50 million to 1 billion. We are destined to enjoy a financial system that is “more global, more fair, more free and more efficient.” 

There is an emotional component to the quest for financial liberation. Coinbase’s newly hired chief product officer, Surojit Chatterjee, talks about what happened when India all but destroyed currency holdings in a surprise attack on the money supply. His 80-year-old father spent five hours in line to retrieve the equivalent of $30.

Many countries, including Mexico, Argentina, Russia and Cyprus, have perpetrated wealth confiscations of this sort, in which some store of value is frozen or forcibly converted into something less valuable. The U.S. is an offender, too. FDR seized gold in 1933, replacing it with pieces of paper that have since lost 95% of their value. 

Like gold, bitcoin is too cumbersome to be used as a means of exchange. The convoluted mechanism for adding transactions to the ledger means it takes 10 minutes to confirm a payment and that only four transfers can take place per second. You can’t run a global economy on that. 

Solutions are on the way, Armstrong says. One is to consider bitcoin a store of value and add a layer atop it for transactions, much the way a quiescent base of vault currency and Federal Reserve deposits supports a torrent of checks and electronic payments in the banking system. The other is to create new digital currencies built with transaction speed in mind. Among the ones Coinbase supports are litecoin and bitcoin cash. 


Coinbase has a broker/dealer license. Could it someday end-run stock exchanges?


In December, Coinbase got a first-of-its-kind authorization from Visa to issue debit cards that allow holders to make purchases at the 46 million locations (including ATMs) that accept Visa, and have the money drawn from a Coinbase account holding cryptocurrencies. Initially, these debit cards will be available to residents of 29 countries, but not the U.S. Still, Coinbase could eventually develop its Visa authorization into yet another business line: issuing credit cards on behalf of other crypto exchanges. 

Banks, meanwhile, aren’t missing the opportunity to redesign payment networks using old-fashioned dollars. Zelle, an instant-payment system run by a consortium of big banks, ran $187 billion of traffic last year, putting it well ahead of PayPal’s Venmo. Zelle is mostly aimed at retail clients doing things like splitting dinner tabs, but has handled transactions as large as $3.2 million. 

No question, disruptive technology is coming to the banking system, and Coinbase will be a part of it. It is the only outfit to appear on both the Forbes Fintech 50 and Blockchain 50 lists. But Armstrong is going to have plenty of competition, starting with central banks, which are plotting their own digital currencies. Facebook hasn’t given up on Libra, which is intended to be a globally accessible digital currency backed by assets like dollars and euros. 

Let a thousand flowers bloom, says Armstrong. “When I started Coinbase, most people thought [blockchain] was crazy. Governments and the old guard, the blue chips, are now investing in this technology. So let’s just say that’s a very good thing.”

Cover Photograph by Jamel Toppin for Forbes.

Michael del Castillo, Forbes Staff, Crypto & Blockchain

William Baldwin, Senior Contributor, Investing

Billionaires

How This Billionaire-Backed Crypto Startup Gets Paid To Not Mine Bitcoin

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It’s everyone’s dream to get paid to do nothing. Bitcoin miner Layer1 is turning that dream into reality — having figured out how to make money even when its machines are turned off. 

Layer1 is a cryptocurrency startup backed by the likes of billionaire Peter Thiel. In recent months, out in the hardscrabble land of west Texas, the company has been busy erecting steel boxes (think shipping containers) stuffed chockablock with high-end processors submerged inside cooling baths of mineral oil. Why west Texas? Beause thanks to a glut of natural gas and a forest of wind turbines, power there is among the cheapest in the world — which is what you need for crypto. 

“Mining Bitcoin is about converting electricity into money,” says Alex Liegl, CEO and co-founder. By this fall Layer1 will have dozens of these boxes churning around the clock to transform 100 megawatts into a stream of Bitcoin. Liegl says their average cost of production is about $1,000 per coin — equating to a 90% profit margin at current BTC price of $9,100. 

So it’s odd how excited Liegl is about the prospect of having to shut down his Bitcoin miners this summer. 

Already this year west Texas has seen a string of 100-degree days. But the real heat and humidity don’t hit until August, which is when the Texas power grid strains under the load of every air conditioning unit in the state going full blast. During an intense week in 2019, wholesale electricity prices in the grid region managed by the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) soared from about $120 per megawatthour to peak out at $9,000 per mwh. It was only the third time in history that Texas power hit that level. And although the peak pricing only lasted an hour or so, that’s enough to generate big profits. Analyst Hugh Wynne at research outfit SSR figures that Texas power generators make about 15% of annual revenues during the peak 1% of hours (whereas in more temperate California grid generators only get 3% of revs from the top 1%).

Turns out that running a phalanx of Bitcoin miners is a great way to arbitrage those peaks. Layer1 has entered into so-called “demand response” contracts whereby at a minute’s notice they will shut down all their machines and instead allow their 100 mw load to flow onto the grid. “We act as an insurance underwriter for the energy grid,” says Liegl, 27. “If there is an insufficiency of supply we can shut down.” The best part, they get paid whether a grid emergeny occurs or not. Just for their willingness to shut in Bitcoin production, Layer1 collects an annual premium equating to $19 per megawatthour of their expected power demand — or about $17 million. Given Layer1’s roughly $25 per mwh long-term contracted costs, this gets their all-in power price down 75% to less than 1 cent per kwh (just 10% of what residential customers pay). 

It may seem like grid operators are paying Layer1 a lot for something that might not even happen, especially with coronavirus reducing electricity demand, but it makes total sense, says Ed Hirs, a lecturer in energy economics at the University of Houston and research fellow at consultancy BDO: “It’s a lot cheaper option than building a whole new power plant or battery system just to keep it on standby.” 

And although this may be a new concept for cryptocurrency miners, it’s been done before. Two decades ago industrialist Charles Hurwitz bought up power-hogging aluminum smelters in the Pacific Northwest and made more money reselling electricity than making metal. “It used to be called load management,” says Dan Delurey, a consultant with Wedgemere Group. “In old commercial buildings you might still find telephone wires connected to air conditioning systems so that grid operators could send a signal to shut off.” More recently we’ve seen companies install radio-based devices to control hot water heaters and lighting systems. Indeed, grid management is a hot enough area that in 2017 Italy’s power giant Enel bought Boston-based Enernoc for $250 million and Itron ITRI bought Comverge for $100 million. What’s emerged are entities, like Layer1, that Delurey calls the “prosumer” — producing consumer. 

As for Layer1, Liegl says his next step is to vertically integrate into financial products, including Bitcoin derivatives and more. “We are building an in-house energy trading division to leverage this into being a virtual power plant.” 

His message to any pikers still trying to mine cryptocurrencies from their bedroom PC or even via cloud services: “I can’t think of something more irrational at this point. It’s like if I wanted to dig a hole in my backyard and try to get oil out of the ground.” 

Christopher Helman, Forbes Staff, Energy

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Google Diversity Report Shows Little Progress For Women And People Of Color

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Google released its seventh consecutive diversity report on Thursday, revealing modest gains in representation for women and people of color, and a disproportionately white, Asian and male workforce.

The percentage of black hires in the U.S. grew from 4.8% in 2018 to 5.5% in 2019, a .7% increase. The percentage of black hires in technical roles also grew by .7%, the largest increase in the share of black technical hires since Google first started publishing diversity data. Latinx employees, on the other hand, saw a dip in hiring, dropping from 6.8% in 2018 to 6.6% in 2019. The percentage of Latinx employees in technical roles increased by a mere .2%.

Female employees didn’t fare much better, dropping from 33.2% of global hires in 2018 to 32.5% in 2019. Over that same time period, the percentage of women hired for technical positions remained at about 25.6%—a far cry from gender parity. But hiring only shows one side of the coin, which is why Google began to include attrition rates in 2018.

As in previous years, women continued to have a lower than average attrition rate in 2019, while Latinx attrition in the U.S. dipped below the Google average. Attrition was highest for Native Americans and increased significantly for black women.

Overall, Google’s workforce representation—defined as hiring minus attrition—saw a slight uptick for most underrepresented groups. Black and Latinx employees represented 9.6% of the U.S. workforce in 2019, up from 9% in 2018, and women represented 32% of Google’s global workforce, up from 31.6%.

The representation of women and Latinx employees in leadership roles also grew, increasing by .6% and .4% respectively. The percentage of black employees in leadership positions didn’t change year-over-year and dropped by .2% for Native American employees.

Although the needle has barely budged for women and people of color in tech over the last year, Google has made it a point to invest in diversity programs. Through its philanthropic arm, Google.org, the company committed $10 million to support low-income students and students of color in Bay Area STEM classrooms in 2019.

Internally, the company has launched smaller initiatives, such as running all job postings through a bias removal tool, which it says has led to an 11% increase in applications from women. And in an effort to retain diverse talent, Google expanded its retention case management program for underrepresented employees who are considering leaving the company.

Looking at its most recent diversity figures, however, Google concedes that there is considerable room for improvement. “The Native American population is one of those areas where we remain flat and so we will continue to invest more focus in 2020 to make sure that we’re targeting this population as well,” says Melonie Parker, Google’s chief diversity officer.

While she wouldn’t specify what that investment would entail, Parker says that the company is moving forward on its 2020 diversity goals and will continue to focus on representation and creating an inclusive culture companywide. She also notes that even the smallest percentage gains represent thousands of jobs for underrepresented groups. 

One area where Google has seen significant progress is in its internship program: Globally, 40% of interns in technical roles were women in 2019 and 24% of U.S. interns were black and Latinx.

Ruth Umoh, Forbes Staff, Diversity & Inclusion

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Jeff Bezos ‘Trillionaire’ Is Trending On Twitter. Here’s Why

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TOPLINE Jeff Bezos’ wealth suddenly caught Twitter’s attention on Wednesday amid ‘claims’ that the world’s richest man is set to become a trillionaire, in part thanks to pandemic-driven demand that has sent Amazon stock soaring.

KEY FACTS

  • Bezos was trending on Twitter on Wednesday after a months-old study by small business advice platform, Comparisun, resurfaced, claiming that Bezos net worth could reach $1 trillion by 2026.
  • The company analyzed the market cap of the highest valued firms on the New York Stock Exchange, as well as Forbes’ 25 richest people. Chinese real estate billionaire Xu Jiayin is second on the study’s list.
  • But Bezos has a long way to go to become the world’s first trillionaire. At the time of publication, Forbes values the 56-year-old’s net worth to be $143 billion. He owns a 11.2% stake in Amazon, and his wealth has surged upwards from around $125 billion in March.
  • Amazon is predicted to be one of the winners of the pandemic as demand for online shopping, streaming and delivery services flies.
  • Sales in the first three months of the year topped $75 billion, up from $60 billion in 2019. The potential for a second wave of the virus and further lockdowns could keep that demand high.
  • Bezos joined Forbes’ list of 400 richest Americans in 1998, four years after he founded Amazon, and had a net worth of $1.6 billion at the time.

KEY BACKGROUND

Amazon AMZN shares are up more than 28% so far this year. But the company is now up against “the hardest time” it has ever faced, Bezos said in April. The company predicted operating profits of $4 billion in the three months to June, but is now committing that entire amount to “COVID-related expenses” such as higher wages for hourly teams, buying up personal protective equipment for staff, and developing coronavirus testing facilities.

The company has been under fire from former employees—both office staff and warehouse workers—for allegedly silencing them after they spoke out about a lack of protection against the virus. Amazon has let go a number of employees, claiming that they breached company policy. 

TANGENT

In February, Bezos pocketed $3.1 billion after selling $4 billion worth of Amazon shares since January.

Isabel Togoh, Forbes Staff, Business

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