Megabank Joins Coinbase's Record $75 Million Funding Round
Coinbase has raised $75m as part of a Series C funding round backed by a host of impressive first-time bitcoin investors including the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), Fortune 500 financial services group USAA, Spanish megabank BBVA and Japanese telcom giant DoCoMo.
The round, which smashes the previous record for a bitcoin company, was led by Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) Growth Fund, of which noted bitcoin investor Tim Draper is a partner, and included long-time bitcoin-friendly investment groups Union Square Ventures, Ribbit Capital and Andreessen Horowitz. Former Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit and former Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer contributed personal investments.
Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong sought to frame the funding as one that will help shift the mainstream perception of bitcoin during what has so far proven a rocky year for the industry.
Armstrong told CoinDesk:
”I think this just really changes the conversation. There’s smart money out there that is betting big on this and is totally unphased by the whims of the price and what the market is doing. They’re much more concerned about the fundamentals of what’s happening in the network ... and across those metrics, everything is looking great.”
He went on to explain that all the participants in the round are excited about innovations in the bitcoin space, and that they want to leverage their investment in Coinbase to learn more about what might lie ahead.
“A lot of these companies they want to invest in category leaders,” Armstrong continued, “and we made a convincing case that that was us.”
Coinbase intends to use its new capital to grow its employee base, while focusing on improving its mobile product as it eyes entry into developing markets.
“We want to expand responsibly,” Armstrong said. “We’re in 19 countries now and our goal is to be in 30 by the end of 2015.”
The $75m figure is by far the largest ever raised by a bitcoin company, doubling the $30.5m raised by bitcoin wallet provider Blockchain and equaling roughly 23% of the public capital raised by the entire digital currency industry in 2014.
To date, the California-based company has raised $106m.
Eleven new countries
While Armstrong didn’t mention Coinbase’s new target markets, he talked generally about the types of markets the company is seeking to capture with its new funding, putting a particular emphasis on the global underbanked.
“In India, there are 100 million phones that are connected to the Internet, 2% of those people have a credit card or bank account and those people don’t have a desktop computer and they don’t have email,” Armstrong said.
He also noted that Coinbase needs to tailor its product to the needs of this customer base, translating the app into new languages, optimizing for slower Internet connections and enabling know-your-customer (KYC) due diligence without a reliance on more familiar identifiers like email addresses.
A sizable amount of the funds, Armstrong added, will be used to meet Coinbase’s regulatory burden in its new jurisdictions, a factor he called a “continued pain point”.
Still, Armstrong believes that Coinbase will also find market share outside the developing world, even if that will be in ways perhaps not expected by early adopters.
“Bitcoin will take off in areas that are underserved by traditional payment systems right now, areas where people’s next alternative is dramatically worse,” he said, citing microtransactions, cross-border payments and peer-to-peer lending as examples of verticals he believes will be profoundly impacted by bitcoin.
Doubling down on tech
Armstrong also continued to emphasize that he believes Coinbase can best secure a long-term future by providing a foundational platform to a new generation of developers through its API platform, Toshi, which it launched in September.
Notably, he suggested that developers might be bitcoin’s most enthusiastic market yet, making the API service a potentially key indicator of Coinbase’s future success.
“There’s a lot more experimentations, and if you go to GitHub, the number of bitcoin projects exceeds those on Stripe, Braintree and PayPal put together,” he said. “Bitcoin has captured the hearts and minds of developers around the world and they’re all trying to build cool stuff with it.”
Armstrong voiced his belief that Coinbase stands to gain by enabling the continued growth of bitcoin beyond payments, empowering developers with the tools to create new behaviors and new use cases for distributed ledgers.
Coinbase claims to have captured 47% of the market with its API, a development he cited as “huge” given that he believes many applications of the technology have yet to be uncovered.
Real user growth
Yet, while Coinbase has certainly improved its platform in many key areas, one issue that is continually dissected by the mainstream press is the overall lack of consumer adoption that has occurred despite bitcoin’s visibility in the tech and financial press.
Armstrong indicated that the company now has more than two million wallet users, and that the firm's metrics suggest user growth does not correlate with the price of bitcoin.
Still, Armstrong asserted that Coinbase’s investors aren’t concerned about the company’s current user base, but are instead focusing on how it can grow in the long term.
“These are the kind of questions that investors were asking, they wanted to see if the fundamentals of this infrastructure that you’re building are there, but not just us, the bitcoin network,” Armstrong noted. “They’re looking at this short-term stuff as a distraction,”
Overall, Armstrong seemed largely conservative when talking about how the bitcoin ecosystem would continue to develop, suggesting he sees the technology’s road to wider adoption as being one that will require persistence and patience.
“There’s never a moment when [adoption] happens,” he said. “It’s like the Internet, there was huge hype, there was a crash. There’s not going to be a moment where everyone says it’s now mainstream, but there will be interesting milestones.”
The case for Coinbase
Throughout the conversation, however, Armstrong made the argument that Coinbase was able to garner its impressive capital because of strengths that go beyond the underlying power and potential of bitcoin.
“We have Fred Wilson as an investor and he thinks we’re one of the best product execution companies he’s ever seen,” Armstrong said, further describing the company’s ability to set and meet goals as “ruthless”.
For example, Armstrong cited his team’s success at signing up billion-dollar merchants and shipping products like its 'Vault' storage accounts, USD balances and account insurance in 2014, while expanding to 18 new countries at the same time.
“When I look back over 2014, we checked off a lot of items for the company and hopefully bitcoin as a whole,” he stated, adding that while the company hasn’t been perfect, it has largely kept the confidence of its users.
For now, Coinbase also has the confidence of a new class of investors that could enable it to pursue an even bigger and bolder vision for bitcoin in the face of the inherent existential risk that dogs the still-nascent technology.
Armstrong, however, asserted that while the mainstream market may not see the big picture of this latest funding round, they will over time.
“Smart money often makes contrarian bets,” he concluded. “That’s how they win big.”
Funding image via Shutterstock
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