Despite fighting what must be an incredibly cost-draining battle against the top U.S. securities regulator, Coinbase (COIN) is in a period of fluttering activity. Last week, the biggest publicly traded crypto company launched a new blockchain, Base, which has seen a surprising amount of uptake largely due to a couple viral apps. And today it announced the formal founding of Stand With Crypto, an “independent nonprofit organization for advancing pro-crypto legislation.”
At a time of low crypto volumes, meaning low cash flows for a company that historically has derived almost all its revenue from trading fees, Coinbase has started talking more and more about what the future of crypto adoption will look like. First, notably, as transaction fees have slipped Coinbase has seemingly found a more sticky revenue source with a subscription model.
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CEO Brian Armstrong talked about the three pillars of adoption during the company’s recent public earnings call, including blockchain scalability; utility, meaning non-financial crypto use cases; and righting the wrongs of incomprehensible crypto regulation in the U.S. Or lack thereof, a topic it knows only too well. Considering Coinbase is one of the few companies ever to actually leap over the trust and knowledge gaps keeping people out of crypto, it’s worth tuning in.
In a sense, the first two “themes” are two different sides of the same coin. Or, at least, they are ways of addressing issues that are closely related. Armstrong seemed especially bullish on current scaling solutions, including Bitcoin’s Lightning Network and its own Ethereum scaler Base. No surprise there, especially considering the company has been signaling a Lightning integration ever since Bitcoin NFTs clogged up the chain — but it still attracted attention.
Blockchain scalability and utility are tech issues, and technologists can easily imagine technical solutions. It’s possible the crypto industry, in its 13 years of existence, has over-indexed that type of thinking about infrastructure — the “build it and they will come” type of jazz. But in a real way, non-financial use cases for crypto were largely out of reach for years, with blockchains being a seesaw where any time there’s a meaningful influx of users transaction fees rise and price most people out.
That could change with L2s like Arbiutrum and Optimism for Ethereum, which, as Armstrong noted, have seen meaningful adoption over the last six months. When making predictions all I can offer is counterfactuals or affirmations, but we’ll see. Build a longer or better seesaw and more people can fit without immediately spiking txn costs, and with people will come demands for message services, social media, and so on.
The last point I’ll make is that when coming up with examples for non-financial uses, Armstrong did immediately go to decidedly financial examples: “Things like stablecoins for payments, DeFi, NFTs, these have already gotten substantial traction. But I think with Layer 2 solutions coming online, these can get much, much bigger,” he said.
And later: “But if we can make the utility that much better, the payments faster and cheaper globally, more and more people will use crypto every day, and that's how indirectly it will just help our business grow. So I'll leave it there.”
Given that tech issues likely have tech rather than social solutions, crypto’s main hurdle is Armstrong’s last pillar: regulation. During the call, Armstrong made several references to the Stand With Crypto working group Coinbase has been spearheading.
Stand With Crypto, like many blockchain lobbying groups, will seek to influence the direction of U.S. laws covering and designed for crypto. This is important for two reasons. One, there are two live bills that, if passed, could transform the industry — i.e. the crypto market structure bill (officially FIT21) and the “stablecoin bill,” both passed by the House Financial Services Committee and the House Ag Committee with bi-partisan support and are heading before the Senate. And second, there’s a growing chorus of crypto advocates who think crypto’s existing lobbying network in D.C. has largely failed the industry.
Look around at the lack of crypto regs and legislation and you might agree, but then it’s not an easy job selling crypto especially after the market gouging we had. Coinbase may have better luck with an aligned lobbying group rather than funding others, or it might be entering at a more opportune time. There are certainly going to be more chances to mold crypto regs going forward than five years ago.
But the world of politics is perhaps even less predictable than tech adoption, and it remains to be seen what rules the U.S. will have. There are two imperfect models ahead: crypto reforms in Canada that have started to drive out businesses, and the European Union, which recently passed the bloc-wide MiCA regulatory package that is seemingly turning Europe into a crypto hub. There’s obvious problems with the comparison, including that Canada is a much, much smaller market than the U.S., and Europeans have greater tolerance for government oversight than we do. But the point holds: Which way USA?
It’s easy to overstate Coinbase’s role in the history of crypto adoption, and it’s not always clear the company will always be as prominent given its legal issues and the lackluster demand for crypto. Then there’s the fact that as the company itself noted “on-chain is the new online” meaning crypto is moving away from centralized companies to actual blockchains. But it's still a bellwether for the future prospects of crypto.
The headwinds are a-blowing, but, if built on solid enough pillars, that bell will continue to ring.