Meet the Team Behind Coinbase, the Crypto Unicorn Bringing Bitcoin to Masses

Bessie LiuMeet the Team
Coinbase

Image Source: Shutterstock.

Coinbase, the cryptocurrency exchange, began trading on Nasdaq yesterday. Its shares got a reference price of $381 each, a 52% increase from the reference price of $250 that Nasdaq set on Tuesday. As of Wednesday afternoon, the value of Coinbase was at $85.7 billion.

38-year-old Founder and CEO Brian Armstrong has become one of the richest people in the world. His 20% stake is now worth around $16 billion.

Founded in 2012 by Armstrong, and Fred Ehrsam, the current co-founder and Managing Partner of Paradigm Operations, Coinbase is the leading US-based cryptocurrency exchange and offers 24-hour trading at a daily volume of $9.6 billion.

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Armstrong had always had an interest in technology. As a high school student, he started learning basic programming languages, including Java and CSS, and designed websites for small businesses in San Jose, CA. In 2005, Armstrong obtained a bachelor's degree in computer science and economics at Rice University and then a Master’s degree in computer science in 2006 from the same university. During that time, he also worked as a consultant in enterprise risk management at Deloitte before leaving six months later to work full time as CEO for his tutoring company, University Tutor that he founded in August 2003.

It was 2010 when Armstrong first came into contact with Bitcoin. He noticed that there was no marketplace for trading emerging cryptocurrencies and saw it as an opportunity. Around the same time, Erhsam, a foreign exchange trader at Goldman, reached out to Armstrong on a bitcoin subreddit forum and decided to meet him in San Francisco, where the duo started Coinbase out of a two-bedroom apartment.

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Coinbase Co-founder Brian Armstrong. Image Source: Coinbase.

As the business grew alongside the value of bitcoin, the founders attracted notable venture capitalists, including Andreessen Horowitz’s Chris Dixon and Union Square Ventures’ billionaire Fred Wilson.

Coinbase’s popularity grew largely as the company became a mainstream crypto-asset exchange. Unlike many of its competitors, Coinbase has never been hacked, and is heavily focused on regulatory compliance.

One of the most significant hires for Coinbase to date is that of its current President and Chief Operating Officer, Emilie Choi. Choi, an M&A veteran, oversaw over 40 acquisitions during her time as Vice President and Head of Corporate Development at LinkedIn. She currently sits on the board of ZipRecruiter and technology investment group Naspers Limited. According to The Block Crypto, under Choi’s leadership, Coinbase has acquired over a dozen companies, including blockchain analytics startup, Neutrino, and institutional crypto brokerage firm, Tagomi, making her one of the most active M&A executives in the crypto market.

Emilie Choi Coinbase

Emilie Choi, President and Chief Operations Officer at Coinbase. Image Source: Coinbase.

Coinbase’s acquisitions have primarily centred around finding the right talent for the company. One of the most significant purchases was in April 2018, where Coinbase paid more than $120 million for Earn.com, a startup that allows senders to pay users in bitcoin by replying to emails and completing tasks. Earn.com’s CEO and co-founder Balaji Srinivasan became the first CTO of Coinbase through the acquisition.

During his short one-year stint at Coinbase, the Stanford professor and previous General Partner of Andreessen Horowitz oversaw the company’s expansion efforts with a wider global push and the launch of its USDC stablecoin, a cryptocurrency that is pegged to the US dollar.

Multiple leadership and team changes occurred at Coinbase after its $300 million funding round in October 2018. Notably Adam White, who held the general manager title at Coinbase and was the fifth ever employee at the company, left to become the Chief Operating Officer of Bakkt, a digital wallet app that tracks spending and digital assets.

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Coinbase employees at work event. Image Source: Coinbase.

Around the same time, some of the company’s earliest employees, including Rees Atlas, who served as a Risk Operations Manager and Dan Romero, Head of International, both chose to leave the company. Atlas now works as a Fraud Product Manager at wealth management and brokerage company, Undisclosed and Romero as an independent Angel Investor.

From December 2017 to December 2020, Coinbase reportedly grew from 199 employees to over 1,200. One of the most significant hires during this period of time was Chief Product Officer, Surojit Chatterjee, who joined the company in February 2020. The former Google executive was a founding member of Google’s mobile search ads product and had previously held the title of Head of Product at popular Indian e-commerce site, Flipkart.

Surojit Chatterjee Coinbsae

Surojit Chatterjee, Chief Product Officer at Coinbase. Image Source: Coinbase.

Despite the rapid growth, the company is aware that there should be a focus on improving its information technologies and operational systems that are critical to detecting errors, omissions and fraud. A failure to consistently update these softwares could easily lead the company into noncompliance with laws and sinking its reputation.

“Failure to scale and preserve our company culture with growth could harm our future success, including our ability to retain and recruit personnel and to effectively focus on and pursue our corporate objectives,” the company said in its SEC filing.

The long term sustainability of the profitable unicorn will be heavily dependent on the cryptocurrency landscape and the company’s ability to manage software operations that are vulnerable to hacking.

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