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Crypto Characters: Brian Armstrong and the Rise of Coinbase

Brian Armstrong has risen through the tech ranks, starting as an intern at IBM and ending up as the CEO of one of the most influential crypto platforms in the world: Coinbase.

Coinbase is one of the biggest players in the entire crypto market. The company was valued at $8 billion and raised $300 million in 2018 in a financing round led by Tiger Global.

Now Coinbase offers three core products: a crypto exchange, a crypto wallet and a user-friendly retail broker to trade top digital coins against fiat. The platform has 35 million users with $220 billion traded across 1000 countries.

So who is Brian Armstrong and how did he manage to impact the world of cryptocurrencies on this scale?

Brian Armstrong, CEO Coinbase

Growing Up in Silicon Valley

The future crypto mogul Brian Armstrong was born near San Jose to the engineer parents when Silicon Valley was slowly turning into a cultural, financial and technological hub.

Twenty days prior to Brian’s birth, not far from San Jose, ARPANET adopted TCP/IP, and then researchers began to assemble the “network of networks” that later became the modern Internet.

In the same year, Apple introduced the “Lisa”, the first personal computer with a GUI, and Compaq demonstrated the portable PC to the world.

For his part Brian was already learning to code in Java and CSS and started developing websites for small businesses while he was still in high school.

Brian eventually attended The Rice University in Houston, TX, where he graduated with a Masters Degree in Computer Science.

First Encounter with Bitcoin

When he first came across Bitcoin in 2010, Brian was staying over Christmas with his parents at their home in California.

At the time being, he was working for his startup UniversityTutor, already had finished his internship at IBM and obtained some experience as a consultant at Deloitte.

The piece of information about Bitcoin written by a guy named Satoshi grabbed his attention. Brian asked his mom to give him a minute and got lost in the topic.

In a couple of years he and Charlie Lee started working on the early versions of what’s now known as Coinbase. But everything started at his parents’ house that Christmas.

Launching Coinbase

Armstrong launched Coinbase in 2012 together with Fred Ehrsam and cofounder Ben Reeves, and it was just a Bitcoin wallet in the beginning. Who knew back then that in 2017 the company would become the first crypto business to attain the prestigious unicorn status being valued at $1.6 billion?

But in 2012, it was still a crypto wallet without additional products existing on top of the platform now.

Reeves left in the very beginning due to a different stance on how the crypto wallet should operate and launched Blackchain.info, another blockbuster in the crypto world. But that’s another story.

In the meantime, Coinbase (which now offered an exchange) started turning into a money-making machine. In 2015, they raised a $75-million investment led by Draper Fisher Jurvetson and two years later, Andreessen Horowitz, USAA, BBVA, New York DSF and Draper Fisher added $117 million more to that sum.

Coinbase Decides to Cooperate with US Regulators

Kraken, Bitfinex, Binance had already existed, but what was different about Coinbase is their willing cooperation with the U.S. regulators. In order to trade, users had to undergo a thorough KYC procedure, which only attracted investors even more.

The year 2018 turned Armstrong’s company into a phenomena: the platform accumulated $300 million in a financing round led by Tiger Global, so the CEO of the platform dived deep in philanthropic efforts.

Armstrong joined the GivingPledge initiative, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving back. And then, in addition to that, started GiveCrypto.org to direct cash transfers to people living in poverty.

I’m excited about the potential for this organization to help people, but I’m still early on my journey of discovering how to have the most impact via philanthropy,” Armstrong said in his blog.

Turmoil Hits Coinbase Over “Non-Political” Mission Statement

Coinbase has not been without controversy, however. In 2020, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Armstrong found himself in the public limelight due to his unorthodox opinion on current political events.

He made a statement where he said that the company wouldn’t engage in broader activism outside of their mission, which caused resentment among some Coinbase employees.

Armstrong had previously stated that he personally supports the Black Lives Matter movement but he wanted to focus on creating a mission-based culture at Coinbase.

Eventually, 5% of Coinbase’s staff opted for exit packages offered by the CEO and walked out. Despite the controversy, Coinbase remains one of the single biggest forces in the crypto industry.

Coinbase Continues Astronomical Growth

At the moment, the market cap of Coinbase’s stablecoin USDC is more than $2 billion, and this number is steadily growing, cementing the impact that the company has got on the industry in general.

Compared to its top-dog competitors Exodus and Bitgo with the accumulated number of 15 million and 550,000 users respectively, one of the first crypto clients in the industry is now only inferior to Blockchain.com with its 40 million clients.

The Coinbase wallet has more than 35 million accounts registered and Armstrong’s other product, Coinbase Pro, a trading venue for professionals, currently occupies the second place in terms of web traffiс, second only to Binance.

When a company grows as big as Coinbase there will always be criticisms and Coinbase has received negative feedback over its fee structure and relatively high amount of downtime but overall the company has contributed massively to cryptocurrency adoption over the years.

Aiming for One Billion Crypto Users

Ten years ago, when Bitcoin just popped up, Brian Armstrong wrote down an ambitious goal for himself, namely: to start a billion-dollar company.

Although this sounded unrealistic and, in his words, “crazy”, due to the hard work and energy he put into this, his dream came true, so later on, the entrepreneur wrote down another goal.

This time he wanted to learn all about philanthropy to make it right, and launched GiveCrypto.org, trying to contribute to helping people living  in poverty. The fund has already raised $4 million, including $1 million donated by Armstrong himself, but the main goal is still to be achieved, and this goal is $1 billion.

What Armstrong is aiming for this time is not only helping those in need but also crypto popularization.

He says that the majority of crypto these days is locked in trading and investment, however, his goal is to help adoption of this new technology and teach people how to buy and sell goods for crypto by simply using a smartphone.

Armstrong says that only 5 million people use crypto actively so far, whereas his goal is to increase this number up to 1 billion users worldwide.

And considering the fact that the entrepreneur has already done what seemed impossible once, it feels like he can achieve this new “crazy” goal for the second time, too.

Sources:

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Julia Gerstein

About the Author

Julia Gerstein

Julia Gerstein graduated from The Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia as a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. She had been working as a reporter at a major news agency RIA Novosti and for The Rolling Stone Magazine before she got interested in Blockchain & Crypto. For the past three years, she has been covering news, creating analytical & educational blog posts and writing about fellow cryptonians. Julia's mission is to help readers find what they need, understand what they find and use what they understand appropriately.