The most important thing about Coinbase's mega-round isn't how much it raised. It's who invested
The big news in the bitcoin world today is that Coinbase has raised another mega-round of funding. But it’s not the dollar figure – $75 million – or the reported valuation – approximately $490 million – that are the most significant developments here for the company (or the industry). Where Coinbase really moved the needle is in adding the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) to its list of investors, as well as several large banks and former financial services executives.
Coinbase has been on a roll of late, growing its consumer wallet accounts from 600,000 to 2.1 million in 2014, and seeing its merchant adoption swell to 38,000 users including household names like Dell, Overstock, and Expedia, not to mention integrating with payments giants PayPal (via Braintree) and Stripe. But with the bitcoin ecosystem continuing to face the glare of global regulatory uncertainty and with prominent platforms like Mt. Gox and more recently BitStamp suffering costly security breaches, the knowledge sharing and credibility boost coming out of this investor syndicate should go a long way toward easing many lingering doubts.
In addition to the NYSE, Coinbase added strategic investors including US military financial services firm USAA, Spanish banking giant BBVA, former Citigroup CEO Vikram S. Pandit, and former Thompson Reuters CEO Thomas H. Glocer. This round marks one of if not the first investment by the mainstream financial community into a bitcoin company. (The round was led by DFJ Growth and also included Japanese telecom DoCoMo and existing venture investors Andreessen Horowitz*, Union Square Ventures, and Ribbit Capital.)
Looking toward the future, it’s possible that stock exchanges could one day sell shares of stock using colored coins, aka a Blockchain-based system for managing distributed assets. It’s even possible, although not necessarily likely, that shareholder dividends could be paid in digital or crypto-currency (bitcoin or another altcoin), rather than via fiat currency. Looking to the banking sector, one of the most promising applications of Blockchain technology has always been its ability to facilitate ultra-low fee payment transactions, international remittance, and money transfers. For multi-national banks looking to serve consumers and businesses around the world, Bitcoin (and competitor platforms like Ripple and Stellar) should hold massive appeal.
BBVA Ventures executive director Jay Reinemann confirmed as much in a statement today, saying, “At its core, Bitcoin is a decentralized protocol that enables exchange of value among parties around the world, giving it the potential to alter the financial services landscape.”
Given the NYSE’s preference for human-powered trading systems – a fact that’s served it well in the wake of Facebook’s NASDAQ IPO clusterfuck – it’s unlikely that the granddaddy of exchanges would be the first to adopt such technologically progressive ideas. Indeed, NASDAQ is widely believed within the industry to be working on several of its own blockchain-related projects (although it has never confirmed as much publicly), and may get there first. But the newly formed relationship between Coinbase and the NYSE bodes well for Wall Street’s eventual adoption of Bitcoin and the Blockchain in some form or fashion.
“With this investment, we are tapping into a new asset class by teaming up with a leading platform that is bringing transparency, security and confidence to an important growth market,” NYSE President Tom Farley said in a statement today. “We look forward to supporting Coinbase’s growth utilizing our global distribution capabilities and market expertise.”
Not everyone in the bitcoin community is happy about today’s news. Many are holding on to the hard-line, anti-establishment ideology on which bitcoin was founded and thus see Big Finance’s involvement as a step in the wrong direction. But with Bitcoin looking to move from a niche to mainstream technology, having access to decades of relevant experience, not to mention friends in high places, is very much a positive development.
Others have reacted to the news by asking why the bitcoin price has not reacted more positively. The answer is likely a mix of the fact that this round, which officially closed in December, and other prominent funding rounds are widely anticipated – at least in the abstract, if not in detail – and are effectively priced into current market prices. Additionally, there remains significant downward pressure on bitcoin prices, including the inflationary effects of some 3,600 new bitcoins (worth $767,000 at current prices) entering circulation daily, increasing adoption by merchants who instantly convert all incoming bitcoin to fiat currency thus creating sell-side pressure, the declining profitability of mining, and negative news events like the BitStamp hack and Silk Road trial. So while Coinbase’s funding is a major positive signal, it’s not altogether surprising that it hasn’t been enough to send prices “to the moon.”
Marc Andreessen*, who is among bitcoin’s most avid VC supporters, is one of many prominent voices dismissing the significance of bitcoin’s price fluctuations. In a tweetstorm on the state of bitcoin to begin the year, he wrote that price volatility was part of the system design and necessary for its early growth.
23/The price of BTC has very little to do with the level of creativity of thinking that's going into new Bitcoin apps, or their usefulness.
— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) January 5, 2015 In the near-term, the major result of today’s news is that Coinbase will have more cash with which to build out its platform, drive consumer and merchant adoption, and further expand into international markets. But looking ahead, today’s investment round could mark the moment when bitcoin went from rebellious financial industry outsider to a member of the in-crowd. We don’t yet know what that will mean for integration and adoption, but the possibilities have never looked so bright.
As the most heavily funded and now most well-connected bitcoin company, Coinbase has only strengthened its hold on the pole position to lead Wall Street into the Blockchain era.
[*Disclosure: Andreessen Horowitz partners Marc Andreessen, Jeff Jordan, and Chris Dixon are personal investors in PandoDaily.]