订阅

多平台阅读

微信订阅

杂志

申请纸刊赠阅

订阅每日电邮

移动应用

商业

玩比特币也想大到不能倒?Coinbase公司的巨头梦

Jeff John Roberts 2018年10月23日

加密货币交易领域的创业公司Coinbase已从名不见经传变身为比特币大潮里首家估值达10亿美元的公司。现在创始人布莱恩·阿姆斯特朗要证明,不管是Coinbase还是加密货币都具有可持续性,方可在华尔街占据一席之地。

距离华尔街3000英里,新兴的金融大佬正在玻璃堡垒之外蠢蠢欲动。公司总部位于旧金山市场街上方,占据了三层楼,可以欣赏海湾和城市全景。前台放着装满硬币巧克力的罐子,旁边还贴着搞笑标志“初始巧克力供应”(初始巧克力供应英文为Initial Chocolate Offering,类似币圈里的首次发行币Initial Coin Offering——译者注)。穿过前台便是开放空间,角落没有高层办公室,从硅谷巨头挖来的大牛就坐在新雇的员工旁边,手里拿着免费的LaCroix气泡水。这就是热门创业公司Coinbase的总部,业务是为区块链和数字货币重设金融系统。

但想找到这里并不容易。公司大楼外和大堂外都没有招牌,前台外面的走廊里也没有标识,只有金属大门和对讲机。他们解释说,Coinbase的员工都很低调,因为多数人有虚拟加密货币,其中一些纸面上已成百万富翁。一名工作人员说,安全措施是很有必要的,因为绑架者可能冲进来把人抓走,用“威胁拔指甲”之类酷刑逼问财产藏在哪里,而员工们将职业生涯和一生幸福押在充满波动且未经证实的金融技术上已然压力巨大。

这就是在Coinbase工作的感觉,情绪经常在乐观和焦虑之间轮转。公司成立于2012年,是方便个人和企业购买存储数字货币的交易所,最主要业务当属比特币。2017年投资者普遍对数字货币产生兴趣时,Coinbase刚好乘上东风,成为21世纪新数字淘金大潮里的富国银行(富国银行前身是一家在淘金热中兴起的快递公司,直到1905年才真正变身为银行。——译者注)。

Coinbase没花太久,就成为加密货币领域里第一家估值达10亿美元的 “独角兽”,也是第一家年收入10亿美元的公司。(监管文件显示该私人公司已实现盈利,不过并未透露具体数字。)Coinbase声称有2500万账户,这一数字比两年前增加了五倍,与查尔斯·施瓦布和富达经纪业务等业内巨头并驾齐驱。科技媒体都在热议全新估值和更高的融资轮次,还有即将到来的上市。Coinbase占据了先发者地位,俨然已成加密领域看齐的大本营。大批顶级行业人士都与35岁的Coinbase创始人兼首席执行官布莱恩·阿姆斯特朗或多或少有些关系。

尽管起步很早,头部竞争仍然激烈。Coinbase的优势主要因为去年加密货币投机激增。如今回想2017年比特币的走势,仿佛已是遥远的记忆,因为越来越多投资者开始质疑资产的价值,以及到底能否持续。比起去年12月的峰值,许多流行的数字货币价格已跌去80%甚至90%,泡沫破裂后市值已缩水6000亿美元,令人震惊。虽然新进入市场收费更低的竞争对手可能将核心服务转变为商品,Coinbase也解决了市场繁荣期间影响用户体验的自身问题,但市场崩溃意味着交易清淡,佣金收入也随之减少。

领导Coinbase的是个性内向的创始人阿姆斯特朗,他认为2017年的加密货币热潮只是一个插曲。他这一代的数字弄潮儿都认为数字货币和背后的区块链技术只是工具,将使投资、借贷和储蓄更快、更便宜,也更平等。他希望Coinbase成为向大众提供工具的银行帝国。

阿姆斯特朗和同事们已为未来奠定了基础,他们努力寻求监管机构支持,也不断投资新技术,只是还没大规模说服金融界相信加密技术的必要性。如果阿姆斯特朗无法提供令人信服的长期案例,崩溃的可能不只是Coinbase,还可能波及整个行业。

THE NEW TITANS OF FINANCE prowl a glass fortress 3,000 miles from Wall Street. High above San Francisco’s Market Street, their headquarters take up three floors with sweeping views of the bay and city below. The reception desk bears jars brimming with chocolate coins near a jokey “Initial Chocolate Offering” sign. Beyond it, in an open space with no corner offices, big shots poached from Silicon Valley giants sit beside junior hires clutching free cans of LaCroix. This is the home base of Coinbase, the buzzy startup that wants to rewire the financial system around blockchains and digital currency.

But good luck finding it. There’s no logo outside the building or in the lobby. Nor is there any signage in the hallway outside that reception desk, just fortified metal doors and an intercom. Coinbase employees maintain a low profile, they explain, because most own virtual cryptocurrency, some 
in quantities that make them multimillionaires on paper.
 A kidnapper could capture someone and “pull out their fingernails,” a staffer says, to learn the location of their fortune—as if betting your career and well-being on a volatile, unproven financial technology weren’t stressful enough.

Such is life at Coinbase, a company where the mood alternates between upbeat and under siege. It was founded in 2012 as an exchange that lets individuals and companies easily buy and store digital currencies, most notably Bitcoin. And by 2017, when investor interest in those currencies moved to the mainstream, Coinbase was perfectly positioned to capitalize, becoming a 21st-century Wells Fargo for a new digital gold rush.

In short order, Coinbase became the first U.S. cryptocurrency startup to earn a $1 billion “unicorn” valuation from investors, and the first to bring in $1 billion in annual revenue. (The still-private company is profitable, according to regulatory filings, though it won’t disclose specific earnings.) Coinbase now claims 25 million customer accounts—a five- fold increase from two years ago—putting it on a par with traditional finance giants like Charles Schwab and the brokerage arm of Fidelity. The tech press is buzzing about new, higher-valuation funding rounds and a looming IPO. And the company’s first-mover status has made it something of a home planet for the universe of crypto-oriented business; a surprising number of top industry figures are connected, in one way or another, to Coinbase and its 35-year-old founder and CEO, Brian Armstrong.

Still, life at the top is tense. Coinbase owes its preeminence in part to last year’s unprecedented speculative surge in cryptocurrency investing. Today the buoyant Bitcoin runs of 2017 seem a distant memory, as more investors question the value of assets that have
yet to prove their staying power. Many of the most popular digital currencies trade 80% or even 90% lower than their peaks last December, and the popping of the bubble has erased a staggering $600 billion in market capitalization. The collapse has meant less trading and less commission revenue for Coinbase, even as new low-fee competitors threaten
 to turn the company’s core service into a commodity—and even as the company recovers from self-inflicted problems that alienated customers during the boom.

Presiding over all this is an introverted founder who sees the cryptomania of 2017 as just one chapter in a longer story. Armstrong belongs to a generation of evangelists who view digital currencies, and the blockchain technology on which they’re based, as tools that will make investing, borrowing, and saving money faster, cheaper, and more egalitarian. And he wants Coinbase to become the banking empire that brings those tools to the masses.

Armstrong and his colleagues have laid the groundwork for that future, carefully wooing regulators and investing in new technology. What he hasn’t done yet is convince the wider financial world that crypto is a must-have technology. If Armstrong can’t eventually make a compelling long-term case, it may be not just Coinbase that crumbles, but an entire industry.

想主义者:布莱恩·阿姆斯特朗在Coinbase的旧金山总部。 “真心希望看到未来五年能实现加密技术用户增长到十亿人。”他说。图片来源:Winni Wintermeyer for Fortune

阿姆斯特朗在加州圣何塞长大,经常感觉无聊和拘束。他的父母都是成功的工程师,提供了舒适的生活和积极求知的氛围。虽然阿姆斯特朗跟20年前苹果的史蒂夫·乔布斯,还有英特尔的安迪·格鲁夫一样,认为互联网是改变社会的工具,他也担心自己错过了最好的时机,说起来两位大佬开创电脑和芯片商业帝国的地方离他家只有几分钟路程。“我大学毕业开始工作时,觉得可能已经太晚了,因为互联网革命已经发生。”他说。

然而,阿姆斯特朗很早就赶上另一场革命的开端。2009年圣诞节期间,他在家浏览网页时读到一篇化名中本聪的作者撰写的9页文档。文中介绍了一种超出银行或政府监管范围的全球货币,非常吸引人。他忍不住读了好几遍,对妈妈喊他下楼庆祝节日都充耳不闻。

如今中本聪的论文已举世闻名,文档中主要搭建了比特币的架构,还介绍了如何使用全球计算机网络保存交易的共同记录。像其他早期信奉者一样,阿姆斯特朗立刻迷上让金融体系最大限度降低中介和政客影响的想法。去阿根廷旅行一趟之后他越发着迷。他回想自己坐在布宜诺斯艾利斯的餐馆里,菜单上的价格几乎每天都在变,因为剧烈的通货膨胀吞噬着普通人的储蓄。他认为,比特币代表着储存或转移财富的方式,超出了贪婪国家的控制范围。比特币就是数字黄金。

GROWING UP IN SAN JOSE, Armstrong often felt bored and confined. His parents, both successful engineers, provided a comfortable upbringing and a brisk intellectual environment. But while Armstrong saw the Internet as a tool to change society—in the same way Apple’s Steve Jobs and Intel’s Andy Grove who built their empires minutes from his househad done with computers and chips, two decades earlier—he fretted that others had beat him to it. “By the time I graduated from college and I was starting to work, I felt maybe I was too late—this Internet revolution had happened,” he said.

Armstrong arrived early, however, for the genesis of a different revolution. While surfing the web at his parents’ house on Christmas of 2009, he encountered a nine-page paper written by a pseudonymous author named Satoshi Nakamoto. The idea it described—a global currency beyond the reach of banks or governments—was so compelling he began to read 
it again, tuning out his mother’s entreaties to join the holiday festivities downstairs.

Nakamoto’s paper is now famous for describing the architecture of Bitcoin—and the broader notion of using a global network of computers to maintain a common record 
of any kind of transaction. Like other early believers, Armstrong became enamored of the idea of a financial system that could minimize the influence of middlemen and politicians. His fixation grew after a trip to Argentina. He recalls sitting in restaurants in Buenos Aires where prices on menus were covered with stickers that changed almost daily—symptoms of rampant inflation that had wiped out the savings of ordinary people. Bitcoin, he thought, represented a way to store or transfer wealth beyond the control of rapacious states. It was digital gold.

布莱恩·阿姆斯特朗的儿时照片。阿姆斯特朗说,他认为互联网是改变社会的工具:“我大学毕业并开始工作时,觉得可能已经太晚了,因为互联网革命已经发生。”图片来源:Courtesy of Coinbase

然而要通过数字方式转移财富,普通人就得使用加密货币,早期还是很不切实际的。潜在的比特币用户不得不费劲地下载“钱包”软件,向钱包转账还得通过离岸银行,要么就得跟影子中介合作。

阿姆斯特朗的目标是让交易过程更类似在线购买股票,2012年辞去Airbnb的工程师职位追求梦想。他设计了Coinbase,客户可用传统的银行账户购买加密货币。以前购买比特币需要严格的技术支持,但在Coinbase感觉就像使用PayPal或Venmo,而且Coinbase不要求用户使用复杂的加密密钥存储货币,而由网站代为存储。

事实证明,市场对便捷的比特币服务存在大量需求。在2012年年底推出不到一年后,Coinbase用户就达到百万。加密货币饱受毒品交易和洗钱问题困扰之际,Coinbase努力遵守客户身份法律以及美国银行领域其他法规。去年数字货币狂热期间,曾出现数百种新型加密“数字货币”投资,但该公司拒绝大部分货币交易,主要是担心诈骗,或是美国证券交易委员会找麻烦。(现在共有15种加密货币,市值超过10亿美元,Coinbase只提供其中5种货币交易。)阿姆斯特朗虽然烦恼合规问题,并未因此陷入加密货币的地下圈子,圈子里普遍钟爱可卡因、兰博基尼和反政府阴谋论。Coinbase谨慎经营确实有效果,监管机构即将批准其经纪商牌照。Coinbase也在谈判争取联邦银行业务许可,这对比特币领域的公司来说曾经难以想象。

“金融产品领域最重要的是先发优势以及制定标准。”投行桑福德伯恩斯坦的分析师克里斯蒂安·博卢表示,“Coinbase就担负起了职责,也在设置监管议程。”

For this vision to come to pass, though, ordinary people would have to use crypto- currency—and in its early days, that was wildly impractical. Would-be Bitcoiners had to engage in a recondite rigmarole of downloading “wallet” software and then funding the wallet with an offshore bank transfer or working with shadowy middlemen.

Armstrong’s vision was to make the process more akin to buying stock online. In 2012, he left his job as an engineer at Airbnb to make it a reality. He designed Coinbase to allow customers to use traditional bank accounts to purchase cryptocurrency. Whereas buying Bitcoin had once required serious tech chops, the Coinbase version was more like using PayPal or Venmo. And instead of requiring users to store currency using complicated cryptographic keys, Coinbase stored it on customers’ behalf.

There turned out to be plenty of demand for an easy-to-get Bitcoin service; barely a year after launching in late 2012, Coinbase reached the million-customer mark. At a time when concerns about drug dealing and money laundering hovered over the crypto world, Coinbase took pains to comply with know-your-customer laws and other strictures of U.S. banking law. And during last year’s mania, as hundreds of new crypto “coin” investments sprang up, the company—fearful of scams or trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission—declined to sell the vast majority of them. (Today there are 15 cryptocurrencies with a market cap over $1 billion, but Coinbase offers trading in only five of them.) Fretting about compliance didn’t endear Armstrong to the crypto world’s self-styled renegades, whose tastes run towards cocaine, Lamborghinis and anti-government diatribes. But it has put Coinbase on the cusp of regulatory approval for a broker dealer license. It is also in talks to obtain a federal banking charter—a once unthinkable idea for any Bitcoin-related company.

“What matters in financial products is the first-mover advantage and who sets the standards,” says Christian Bolu, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein. “Coinbase is assuming that mantle and setting the regulatory agenda.”

图表中为比特币价格和估算的Coinbase用户数

Coinbase也是蓝筹风险投资公司的宠儿,包括早期投资者Union Square Ventures和安德森·霍洛维茨。其中安德森·霍洛维茨2013年投资2500万美元,也是在加密货币领域第一次真正下大赌注。欣赏阿姆斯特朗的人表示,这位年轻的首席执行官很快就显露追求改进的愿望。“每次跟他见面后,他都会提出追问。”安德森的合伙人克里斯·迪克森说。 “他一直很好奇,在寻找导师。”阿姆斯特朗追求自身进步堪称病态。去年他获得了飞行员执照,但对驾驶飞机感到满意时几乎立刻失去兴趣。在Coinbase,阿姆斯特朗总在告诉员工他和大家可以怎样改进。他曾将人力资源部门给自己的绩效评估发邮件给全体员工,征求改进意见。

他看很多很多书,主要通过音频。他喜欢的领域包括科学和行为心理学等,但倾向管理技巧和伟人传记(史蒂夫·乔布斯、莱特兄弟,德怀特·艾森豪威尔)。阅读迈克尔·马龙讲述惠普历史的《比尔和戴夫》之后,阿姆斯特朗鼓励员工随时找他讨论想法,争取抢在同行前面。“史蒂夫·沃兹尼亚克还在惠普当工程师时就设计出了苹果第一代电脑Apple 1。”阿姆斯特朗回忆道。“当时他在想:‘我这个创意不错,惠普应该批量生产。’但惠普没理他。然后他离开并造出了苹果电脑,对吧?”看来阿姆斯特朗最害怕的就是成功机会近在咫尺却失之交臂。

但当成功到来时,Coinbase和阿姆斯特朗发现要完善管理还有很多得学习。2017年,随着比特币和其他数字货币的价格上涨20倍甚至更高,Coinbase赚取了大笔交易费。阿姆斯特朗表示,最狂热的那段时间,Coinbase每天有超过5万新增注册用户。结果网站彻底崩溃,工程师修补漏洞感觉像用保鲜膜阻止雪崩。对Coinbase一些用户来说,使用网站的体验宛若地狱,经常出现故障,订单也无法提交。用户在社交网站推特和Reddit吐槽账户资金无法正常显示,客服对话框也毫无反应,混乱延续了数日。不少用户向美国商业促进局和证券交易委员会提出投诉。

与此同时,一些黑客也开始精心设计网络钓鱼和银行诈骗手段。Coinbase一度拿出收入的10%解决诈骗相关问题。员工压力也很大。网站崩溃后许多工程师和客服代表每天工作18小时,有些人实在无法忍受选择离职。

另一次严重打击发生在2017年6月21日,当时一只高净值的“大户”突然出手数百万美元的数字货币以太坊,导致“闪电崩盘”,价格从320美元跌至10美分之后回升,触发很多自动卖单,一些倒霉的投资者几乎失去所有头寸,只拿回很少一点本钱。与多数大型股票交易所不同,Coinbase遇到恐慌性抛售时没有设立跌停线,这是重大的技术失误。阿姆斯特朗最终决定取消部分交易帮助受害者,虽然恢复了平静但代价高昂。

加密货币最热的时期,Coinbase再次受到质疑,这次是因为比特币衍生品——比特币现金。刚开始Coinbase拒绝支持新的货币,遭到一群客户投诉后改变立场。去年12月Coinbase宣布调整之前,比特币现金的价格出现非正常上涨,有人猜测Coinbase员工泄露内幕信息,预期新资金流入之前先大规模收购。一名前雇员介绍,由于受到强烈抗议,Coinbase突然删除了通讯软件Slack上的两个频道,员工们经常在该处讨论加密货币市场和交易策略。

Coinbase完成内部调查后得出结论,称员工没有从事内幕交易。公司告诉《财富》杂志,关闭Slack聊天频道是出于谨慎考虑,而不是因为存在不当行为。随着围绕加密货币的监管制度不断发展,基于内部信息从事交易到底是不是非法还不明确。尽管如此,此番争议加上客服问题仍然传达了一个信息:虽然加密货币全国瞩目,Coinbase似乎并未准备好。

种种问题并未吓跑投资人。2017年8月,Coinbase募得1亿美元,估值为18亿美元。募资成功后阿姆斯特朗有资金也有影响力,可以聘用更多人才帮公司前行。Coinbase挖到了在推特长期担任运营主管的蒂娜·巴特纳格尔,协助重整客户服务,又请来惠普资深人士奥斯福·赫尔吉担任首席运营官。阿姆斯特朗还承诺招聘多元化:根据公司规定,副总裁级别以上的每个空缺职位招聘时,都要面试三位符合条件的弱势群体人员,33%的领导职位由女性担任。

危机发生后,员工对高管的淡定态度很是赞叹。阿姆斯特朗也相信随着公司的发展,自己也站稳了脚跟。一开始,他回忆说:“我认为(首席执行官)必须有大将之风,命令都靠吼。但我觉得比较喜欢自己的领导风格,感觉更容易协调。我的风格是努力寻求真相,而不是只想着做对。我也发现不应该尝试做不喜欢的东西,那是最糟糕的领导。”

过去一年Coinbase的员工人数翻了一番,达到近1,000人。人手充足之后,员工的工作生活平衡有所改善,彻夜工作的员工人数也减少了。阿姆斯特朗也向员工展示自己可以放松。具体举措包括恢复公司早期的一些氛围。Coinbase刚成立时,阿姆斯特朗和第三名员工奥拉夫·卡尔森-韦(现在管理美国最大的加密对冲基金Polychain Capital)经常组队,跟另一位联合创始人弗雷德·埃尔萨姆玩Halo游戏。办公室里还有乒乓球和攀岩区。现在的放松手段包括阿姆斯特朗在办公室里和卡拉OK高唱喜欢的迪士尼歌曲等。据一位员工(他说阿姆斯特朗“唱歌很棒”)介绍,最近阿姆斯特朗跟员工在旧金山卡斯特罗区一家酒吧合唱《小美人鱼》。

谷歌资深人士麦克·杜达斯表示,在巴特纳格尔带领下,客户服务明显改善,他经营一家加密货币新闻创业公司The Block。2018年年中,Coinbase宣称已消除95%的积压,并表示可在10小时内回应投诉,比起比特币狂热时已经进步很大,当时很多投诉都得等一周或更长才能解决。

当然,投诉量之所以大幅降低,主要因为比特币狂热也已退潮。12月以来,加密货币价格跌去的百分比较2000年-2002年互联网泡沫破裂期间纳斯达克跌幅还大。研究公司Diar最近报道称,Coinbase的交易量已从1月的200多亿美元下降到今夏的不到50亿美元。Coinbase收取佣金高达每笔交易价值的1.99%,因此价值和交易量同步下降也造成双重打击。此外由于新竞争对手加入,利润也承受威胁。过去一年,金融科技公司Robinhood、Square和欧洲经纪公司eToro等纷纷通过低成本或无成本交易吸引加密货币投资者。对手敲响了战鼓,阿姆斯特朗最主要使命更加紧迫,他一直希望将Coinbase转型为多元化的区块链银行巨头,不再仅仅依赖交易收入。

华盛顿特区一个酷暑晚上,阿姆斯特朗身穿棕褐色西装,跟身边几人在杜邦环岛附近一家酒店餐厅,食物既昂贵又一般。他一边吃水煮三文鱼中一边回想当天跟立法者和监管高层会面的情形。阿姆斯特朗曾是硅谷工程师,并未被政治气氛震撼。“我最喜欢的是地铁。”他指的是隐藏式单轨列车,官员和精英访客可乘坐往返国会大厦。首席执行官和团队一直坚持向政界普及加密货币和区块链知识,效果正逐渐显现,因为越来越多监管官员认为该技术是一种有用的工具,而不是犯罪威胁,Coinbase和竞争对手也迎来更多机会。

除了即将到手的经纪商牌照外,Coinbase还获准为想购买加密货币资产的大型机构客户提供托管服务。如果能吸引共同基金、养老金和私募股权基金等大客户,利润会相当可观。目前已有一些进展:今年早些时候,其针对专业交易员和机构(主要是富裕“家族理财办公室”),还有专门投资加密货币的对冲基金的服务超越了个人用户平台,交易量占比最高。

“我认为打进机构市场并不容易。”咨询公司Greenwich Associates的金融技术专家理查德·约翰逊警告称, “机构市场是另一种市场。”而且当前主流基金经理都在等更有力的监管框架出现才敢出手投资。

The company is also a darling of blue-chip venture capital firms, including early investors Union Square Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. The latter’s $25 million investment in 2013 came as the VC community’s first truly big bet on cryptocurrency. The young CEO, his backers say, quickly revealed an instinct for self-improvement. “Every meeting you have with him, he sends follow-up questions,” says Chris Dixon, a partner at Andreessen. “He’s constantly curious and looking for mentorship.” Armstrong’s bid to better himself is almost pathological. Last year, he obtained his pilot’s license but largely lost interest upon becoming satisfied he could fly a plane. At Coinbase, Armstrong will grill employees about what he, and they, could do better: He once emailed his performance review from HR to the entire staff in order to solicit tips.

He consumes large numbers of books, mostly by audio. His tastes include science and behavioral psychology, but lean to management bromides and great man biographies (Steve Jobs, the Wright Brothers, Dwight Eisenhower). Reading Michael Malone’s Bill and Dave, a history of Hewlett-Packard, prompted Armstrong
 to urge employees to approach him anytime with ideas, lest someone else snap them up. “Steve Wozniak, when he was an engineer at HP, brought them the Apple 1,” Armstrong recounts. “He’s like, ‘I built this, I think HP should manufacture it.’ And they said no. And, of course, then he left and created Apple Computer, right?” Armstrong’s nightmare, it seems, would be for success to elude him after being right under his nose.

BUT WHEN SUCCESS did arrive, Coinbase and Armstrong found they had a
lot to learn about managing it. In 2017, as Bitcoin and other digital currencies rose 20-fold or more in value, Coinbase made a killing on trading fees. During the height of the mania, Armstrong has said, Coinbase signed up more than 50,000 new customers a day. This led the company’s website to crash and sputter and leave the site’s engineers to feel like they were holding back an avalanche with Saran Wrap. For some Coinbase customers, the site became a hellish experience, as glitches reigned and orders went unfilled. Twitter and the website Reddit lit up with anguished accounts of money stuck in limbo and customer service tickets landing in black holes, unresolved for days. Dozens of other customers filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the SEC.

Hackers, meanwhile, began targeting customers with elaborate phishing and bank fraud scams; Coinbase was at one point spending 10% 
of its revenue on resolving fraud-related issues. Employees weren’t happy, either. The chaos left many engineers and customer service reps working 18-hour days, and some quit in exhaustion.

Another serious hiccup occurred on June 21, 2017, when a high-net-worth “whale” abruptly sold millions of dollars’ worth of the popular currency Ethereum. The result was a “flash crash,” as prices plunged from $320 to under 10¢ before shooting back up again, triggering automated sell orders that resulted in some unlucky investors ditching their whole position for a pittance. Unlike most big stock exchanges, Coinbase hadn’t built a trip wire to halt trading in the case of a panic selloff—a big technical blunder. Armstrong eventually decided to rescue the victims by canceling their side of the trades—a calm-restoring but costly proposition.

At the peak of the crypto boom, Coinbase took another hit to its credibility over its handling of Bitcoin Cash, a spinoff of Bitcoin. It initially declined to support the new cur- rency, then reversed its position after a wave of customer complaints. But in December, just before Coinbase announced the reversal, there was a sudden, unusual uptick in Bitcoin Cash’s price—sparking speculation that Coinbase employees had traded on inside information and bought the currency in anticipation of an influx of new money. According to a former employee, the outcry led Coinbase to abruptly delete two of its channels on the messaging app Slack, which employees used to discuss the crypto market and trading strategies.

Coinbase concluded after an internal investigation that its employees had not engaged in insider trading, and the company tells Fortune it closed the Slack channels out of an abundance of caution rather than any wrongdoing. Given the evolving regulatory regime around cryptocurrency, it’s not clear that trading the currencies based on inside information would even be illegal. Still, the controversy, combined with the site’s customer service woes, sent a message: Just as cryptocurrency was commanding a national spotlight, Coinbase seemed unready for primetime.

Its struggles didn’t scare away investors, however: In August 2017, the startup raised $100 million, giving it a $1.8 billion valuation. That provided Armstrong with the capital and clout to hire talent that could help him right the ship. Coinbase poached longtime Twitter operations executive Tina Bhatnagar to help repair its customer service shambles, and it brought on HP veteran Asiff Hirji as COO. Armstrong has also committed to hiring inclusively: Coinbase, by company rule, interviews three qualified people from underrepresented backgrounds for each open position at the VP level and up, and 33% of leadership roles are held by women.

Employees give their boss high marks for staying on an even keel as the crises unfolded. Armstrong himself believes he found his footing as the company grew. At first, he recalls, “I thought [a CEO] had to be a military general, barking orders. But I feel I’ve embraced my own style of leadership, which is a little bit more collaborative. It’s seeking the truth, not trying to be right. I also realized you shouldn’t try to be something you’re not because that’s the worst kind of leadership.”

Coinbase has also doubled its headcount over the past year to nearly 1,000. The extra staffing has helped restore work/life balance and reduce the number of all-nighters. Arm- strong, for his part, is showing his staff that he too can chill out. This includes recapturing some of the vibe from the company’s early days. Back then, Armstrong and Coinbase’s third employee, Olaf Carlson-Wee (who today runs Polychain Capital, the largest U.S. crypto hedge-fund) would team up in epic Halo matches against co-founder Fred Ehrsam, a former high school gaming champ. There was also a lot of ping-pong and rock-climbing. Today’s version of chilling out includes Armstrong indulging his penchant for belting Disney songs in the office and at off-site karaoke. One staffer (who calls Armstrong a “great singer”) described the CEO leading a recent Little Mermaid sing-along at a bar in San Francisco’s Castro District.

Customer service, meanwhile, has improved dramatically under Bhatnagar, says Mike Dudas, a Google veteran who runs a crypto-news startup The Block. By mid-2018, Coinbase claimed to have eliminated 95% of its backlogs, and it says it responds to complaints within 10 hours—a far cry from the peak of the Bitcoin mania, when many tickets took a week or longer to resolve.

Of course, if complaints are a far cry from where they were, that’s because Bitcoin mania is too. Cryptocurrency prices have lost more ground since December in percentage terms than the Nasdaq did during the dotcom bust of 2000–02. The research firm Diar recently reported that Coinbase trading volume has dropped from over $20 billion in January to less than $5 billion a month this summer.
Since Coinbase charges commissions that range up to 1.99% of the value of each trade, the simultaneous plummeting of values and volumes is a double whammy. And its margins are under threat from new competition. Over the past year, fintech companies Robinhood and Square and European brokerage eToro have wooed crypto investors with low- or no-cost trading. That ominous drumbeat adds urgency to one of Armstrong’s biggest missions: converting Coinbase into a diversified blockchain-banking giant that isn’t solely dependent on trading revenue.

IT’S A SWELTERING EVENING in Washington, D.C. as Armstrong, clad in a tan suit, sits down for dinner. He and a small retinue are gathered in a hotel restaurant near Dupont Circle, where the food is both expensive and mediocre. Tucking into poached salmon, he reflects on his day meeting lawmakers and senior regulators. Armstrong, ever the Silicon Valley engineer, is not wowed by the political atmosphere. “I think my favorite part was the underground train,” he says, referring to the hidden monorail that whisks elected officials and elite visitors to and from the Capitol. Still, the CEO and his team have been persistent in educating the political class about cryptocurrency and blockchains. And these efforts are paying dividends, as more regulators see the technology as a useful tool rather than an inherently criminal threat—opening more opportunities for Coinbase and its competitors.

In addition to its impending broker-dealer license, Coinbase has won permission to provide custody services for big institutional customers that wish to own cryptocurrency assets. These services could prove lucrative if the company can lure more big players like mutual funds, pensions, and private equity funds to trade with it. There’s already some progress on this front: Earlier this year, its services aimed at professional traders and institutions—primarily wealthy “family offices” and cryptocurrency oriented hedge funds—surpassed its consumer platform as the company’s biggest source of trading volume.

“I don’t think it’s going to be easy,” cautions Richard Johnson, a financial technologies expert with consultancy Greenwich Associates. “The institutional market will be a different one for them to crack,” especially since mainstream fund managers are waiting for a stronger regulatory framework before investing.

企业和业务发展副总裁艾米丽·蔡。蔡曾在领英工作多年,是一位技术并购专家。她帮助Coinbase收购了近十几家规模较小的区块链和金融公司,进一步巩固帝国。图片来源:Stefan Ruenzel—Fortune Video

监管框架落地时,Coinbase最近的收购可能派上用场。Coinbase招聘了企业和业务发展副总裁艾米丽·蔡,她曾在领英负责40多笔收购。3月入职以来,蔡帮助Coinbase抢先收购了十多家小型区块链和金融公司,拓展服务范围。尽管如此,总喜欢自称“加密货币届谷歌”的Coinbase仍在寻找爆款收购对象,与交易平台形成补充,就像谷歌用Gmail、地图或YouTube支撑核心搜索服务一样。

现在约翰逊和其他人表示,Coinbase最有前景的项目包括一些新型投资,称为安全数字货币,代表区块链上可投资的数字货币。阿姆斯特朗曾谈到为此类数字货币搭建另类投资市场,由Coinbase运营。支持者称,利用数字货币可将流动性较差且价格昂贵的资产,(如艺术品和其他收藏品等,一般由私营公司持有)转换为方便交易的单元。

想理解安全数字货币及其含义就像1994年的互联网一样。正如20年前人们对“浏览器”或十年前的“app”感到困惑一样,区块链相关词汇,例如“数字货币”和“钱包”等仍然让许多人困惑。Coinbase的首席技术官巴拉吉·斯里尼瓦桑是最了解行业的人士之一,他今年38岁,魅力十足,梳着时尚的刺猬头,黑白相间的胡茬,眼睛闪闪发亮。斯里尼瓦桑对数字货币的潜力写过一系列有影响力的论文,影响了整个风险投资行业。

“区块链是浏览器或操作系统出现以来最复杂的技术。”他补充说,只有少数掌握各领域专业知识的学者在讨论,具体领域包括密码学、博弈论、网络、数据库和网络安全等。但他解释说,数字货币有所不同,很多工程师都能造出,同样可带有区块链的强大属性,例如防篡改和不可破坏。资产证券化时提供了一种有效识别和分配所有权的新方法。

But recent acquisitions could help Coinbase be ready when that framework emerges. One of its recent hires is Emilie Choi, VP of corporate and business development, who presided over 40 acquisitions at LinkedIn. Since signing on in March, Choi has helped Coinbase snap up nearly a dozen small blockchain and financial firms that could help it provide a broader range of services. Still, for a company that likes to style itself as “the Google of crypto,” Coinbase is still waiting for an encore hit to its trading platform, along the lines of Google adding Gmail or Maps or YouTube to its core search service.

Right now, Coinbase’s most promising project, say Johnson and others, involves a new class of investments known as security tokens, which represent investable assets as tokens on a blockchain. Armstrong has spoken of building an alternative investment market around such tokens, run by Coinbase. Supporters say tokens could be used to convert assets that are relatively illiquid and expensive—privately held companies, for example, or art and other collectibles—into units that are easy to trade.

Trying to understand security tokens and their implications is much like trying to grok the Internet in 1994. Just as people were puzzled by terms like “browser” two decades ago or “app” a decade ago, the vocabulary of blockchain—including “tokens” and “wallets”—is still baffling to many. One of the industry’s better explainers is Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan, a charismatic 38-year-old with spiky hair, salt-and-pepper stubble and eyes that glisten. Srinivasan has written a series of influential essays on tokens’ potential to remake the venture capital industry.

“Blockchains are the most complicated piece of technology since browsers or operating systems,” he says, adding that only a handful of savants possess the expertise in a range of fields—including cryptography, game theory, networking, databases, and cyber-security—to wrangle them. But tokens are different, he explains. They can be built by a much broader class of engineers, while still taking advantage of blockchains’ powerful attributes, such as being tamper-proof and indestructible. And when used to securitize assets, they represent an efficient new way to recognize and distribute ownership.

首席技术官巴拉吉·斯里尼瓦桑。今年春天,Coinbase收购了斯里尼瓦桑创立的加密创业公司Earn.com,之后斯里尼瓦桑加入Coinbase。他是安全数字货币技术专家,Coinbase认为该技术可能是基于区块链投资市场的基础。图片来源:Steve Jennings—Getty Images

风险资本家、也是PayPal的创始人兼首席运营官大卫·萨克斯认为,7万亿美元的美国房地产市场具有高流动性且非常成熟,所以可通过数字货币细分和销售。 “这就好像所有权从模拟系统变成数字系统。现在的契约或私人证券都是文件柜里的纸,数字货币可实现数字化。”萨克斯说,他负责一家名叫Harbour的公司,该公司主要生成特定代码确保数字货币遵守安全法律法规。房地产资产数字化已从理论走向现实。举个例子,8月位于科罗拉多州阿斯彭的高档瑞吉酒店老板宣布,将以数字货币形式出售酒店19%的股份。

财务顾问兼加密货币律师普莱斯顿·伯恩认为,通过简化法规和记录方式,目前占数十个不同文件的信息将整合到区块链中,企业通过数字货币筹集资金更容易。数字货币还可降低对投资银行和其他中介的依赖,降低与合并,收购以及发行股票或债券相关的成本。“Coinbase可充分利用各种优势,占据了有利地位,因为掌握着技术。”伯恩表示。“随着科技创业公司侵蚀大银行的业务,技术优势就能充分体现。”

当然,大银行在业务被吞之前可能反手一击。毕竟银行掌握充裕的现金,而且拥有自己的技术人才,摩根大通和花旗集团等金融巨头都在资助内部的区块链项目。Coinbase并未垄断加密交易技术。Circle和Gemini等竞争对手也都在加紧搭建机构交易平台。

尽管如此,投资人对Coinbase仍然青眼有加。多家消息人士向《财富》证实,该公司即将获得大规模融资。今年4月,Coinbase收购加密公司Earn.com时,有报道透露Coinbase对自身估值约为80亿美元。该公司没有确认,也并未否认。

至于更广泛的加密货币革命,阿姆斯特朗从未放弃理想,仍在努力构建独立于银行和政府的全球支付系统。为此,Coinbase正在构建名为Coinbase Wallet的软件,帮助普通投资者驾驭数字货币。阿姆斯特朗仍然比投资人更雄心勃勃。 “真心希望看到未来五年能实现加密技术用户增长到十亿人。”他说。(财富中文网)

本文首发于2018年10月1日的《财富》杂志。 (此前版本中弗雷德·埃尔萨姆头衔有误)。

译者:Charlie

审校:夏林

David Sacks, the venture capitalist and founding COO of PayPal, sees U.S. real estate— a $7 trillion market that is highly illiquid—as particularly ripe to be subdivided and sold via tokens. “It’s like going from an analog to a digital system of ownership. Today, a deed or private security is a piece of paper in a file cabinet somewhere. A token digitizes it,” said Sacks, who is backing a company called Harbor that creates code to ensure tokens comply with security laws. The real estate idea is already moving from theory to reality: The owners of the upscale St. Regis in Aspen, for example, announced in August that they would sell a 19% stake in the hotel in the form of tokens.

Preston Byrne, a financial consultant and cryptocurrency lawyer, argues that the security tokens will make it easier for businesses 
to raise capital, by streamlining regulatory compliance and record-keeping—as information that currently occupies dozens of disparate files gets consolidated onto blockchains. Tokens could also make companies less reliant on investment banks and other middlemen, slashing the costs associated with mergers, acquisitions, and the issuance of equity or bonds. “Coinbase is in a very good position to leverage all that because they’ve got the tech,” Byrne says. “This is where the rubber hits the road, as tech startups start eating big banks’ business.”

The big banks, of course, may eat before they get eaten. Flush with cash and stocked with their own tech talent, financial monoliths like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup are funding their own blockchain projects. And Coinbase hardly has a monopoly on crypto- currency trading technology; rivals including Circle and Gemini are also jockeying to build institutional trading platforms.

Still, Coinbase remains an investor favorite. Multiple sources confirmed to Fortune that the company is in the final stages of a hefty funding round. In April, when Coinbase acquired crypto company Earn.com, reports leaked that Coinbase projected its own value at about $8 billion. The company has not confirmed that figure but doesn’t dispute it.

As for the broader cryptocurrency revolution, Armstrong hasn’t lost sight of the ideal of a global payment system independent of banks and governments. To this end, Coinbase is building software called Coinbase Wallet to help ordinary investors navigate the world of tokens. And Armstrong remains even more ambitious than his investors. “I really want to see crypto be used by a billion people in the next five years,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2018 issue of Fortune. (An earlier version of this article misidentified the title of Fred Ehrsam).

我来点评

  最新文章

最新文章:

500强情报中心

财富专栏