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Coinbase, a software company that allows people to buy bitcoin and enables businesses to accept it as payment, has closed a giant $75 million investment. In real U.S. dollars.
The round is by far the biggest investment in a bitcoin company to date. Beyond its size, the funding is sure to make waves in financial services thanks to the participation of three industry investors: the New York Stock Exchange, USAA Bank, and BBVA, a multinational bank with a large presence in Spain and Mexico. Former Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit also personally invested in the company.
The investment was led by DFJ, the venture capital firm that Re/code reported in November would likely lead the round at a valuation of $400 million or more. Previous investors Andreessen Horowitz, Union Square Ventures and Ribbit Capital participated, in addition to new investor NTT DoCoMo, a Japanese telecom company.
The funding will help Coinbase expand its services to international markets and pay for regulatory costs such as getting money-transmitter licenses in different U.S. states. It also makes Coinbase the most well-capitalized bitcoin company, with $106 million in funding.
The company says 1.9 million people have created 2.1 million bitcoin wallets on its service. Coinbase charges a 1 percent transaction fee each time someone buys or sells bitcoin, and companies such as Overstock.com, DISH Network and Expedia have used Coinbase’s service to accept the digital currency from customers.
The announcement comes as the bitcoin ecosystem faces turbulence amid a year-long slide in its value. The price of one bitcoin has dropped about 75 percent in the past year to $218 at the time of writing. In the prior 12 months, bitcoin exploded from a little more than $15 per unit to $871 as speculators pounced in the Internet’s version of a gold rush.
As the value of the experimental currency has dropped, bitcoin believers maintain that a big part of its promise lies in its decentralized payment network, not in the dollar value of each bitcoin. Since each transaction currently carries minuscule fees, supporters think the network could revolutionize industries from remittance to payment processing and provide a way for some of the world’s unbanked to participate in the digital economy. Normal currency, such as the U.S. dollar, is generally subject to much higher transaction or transfer fees, cutting into e-commerce margins and making overseas money transfers relatively expensive.
Some say this is a convenient argument in the face of trouble. Coinbase, unsurprisingly, disagrees and believes future innovation will come from companies building apps on top of Coinbase’s service.
“We are building a company where the world is going, not quite where the world is today,” CEO Brian Armstrong said in an interview.
Armstrong also said he is encouraged by the fact that the proportion of commerce transactions on the Coinbase platform rose from around 4 percent at the start of 2014 to 12 percent by year’s end, which could help stabilize the price fluctuations. Some merchants are attracted to bitcoin’s lower fees. Coinbase charges just 1 percent (and nothing for their first $1 million in sales made in bitcoin) compared with the 2.5 to 3 percent that credit card processors normally charge, plus additional per-transaction fees.
But merchants still have a lot of work to do convincing mainstream shoppers there’s value in using the digital currency instead of traditional payments cards.
One way to do that is to pass on some of their savings to shoppers in the form of discounts. There could also be long-term opportunities in attracting new customers from overseas areas where credit cards aren’t common.
As part of the investment round, DFJ’s Barry Schuler, the former CEO of AOL, will be joining Coinbase’s board of directors. In an interview, he said bitcoin’s potential impact on financial services is obvious, but he’s also attracted to its ability to shake up other industries such as online media. Publishers, for example, might be able to accept tiny payments per article or video through bitcoin, whereas traditional credit card processing fee structures make this cost-prohibitive, Schuler said.
“There are only two models in the media industry: ad-supported or subscriber-supported,” he said. “But if you have a broadly adopted bitcoin mechanism for nano payments, there are tremendous ways you can put new monetization into digital media for things that people find valuable.”
“But first things first,” he added. “You have to build the infrastructure, create the currency and get it moving around. We know it’s not going to all be smooth. But I can tell you, having been there at the beginning of the internet, that there was the same bullshit going on. There was just no internet to talk about it on.”
Still, there are significant hurdles facing bitcoin, both in the near- and long-term. For one, the volatility in price will have to decrease for more people to trust it as a store of value, or as a currency. There’s also sure to be further regulatory battles, which could be exacerbated by another bitcoin company collapse.
Then there’s the issue of security. The bitcoin network is kept secure by bitcoin miners — people who set their computers to validate each bitcoin transaction, and in turn are rewarded with newly minted bitcoin. But there will only ever be 21 million bitcoin released, meaning that by the middle of next century, miners won’t have any further incentive to maintain and confirm bitcoin transactions. The plan is for them to receive higher fees instead, which will add more costs to the network, potentially reducing some of its attractiveness.
For today, Coinbase and its investors alike still think a bet on bitcoin is a bet worth making.
“People really get swept up in the price of a bitcoin and the worries about speculation,” Schuler said. “We always looked at it as not the “it” but the means to the next chapter. I really do think this particular deal probably marks the beginning of the next chapter.”