Frenzy

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The boom­ing stock mar­ket of the 1920s had the New York Stock Ex­change. The tech bub­ble of the 1990s had Nas­daq and E-Trade. And the vir­tual cur­rency mar­ket of the last year has had Coin­base.

Coin­base has been at the cen­tre of the spec­u­la­tive frenzy driv­ing up the value of bit­coin — which topped $14,000 (Dh51,380) yes­ter­day — and sim­i­lar cur­ren­cies. While there are many bit­coin ex­changes around the world, Coin­base has been the dominant place that or­di­nary Amer­i­cans go to buy and sell vir­tual cur­rency. No com­pany had made it sim­pler to sign up, link a bank ac­count or debit card, and be­gin buy­ing bit­coin.

The number of peo­ple with Coin­base ac­counts has gone from 5.5 mil­lion in Jan­uary to 13.3 mil­lion at the end of Novem­ber, ac­cord­ing to data from the Al­tana Digital Cur­rency Fund. In late Novem­ber, Coin­base was some­times get­ting 100,000 new cus­tomers a day — leav­ing the com­pany with more cus­tomers than Charles Sch­wab and E-Trade.

The com­pany faces chal­lenges that are a re­minder of the early days of now-main­stream on­line bro­ker­ages, which suf­fered through un­timely out­ages and harsh crit­i­cism from tra­di­tional fi­nance com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors. And Coin­base’s mis­steps make it clear that the vir­tual cur­rency in­dus­try is still young, with lit­tle of the bat­tle test­ing that other fi­nan­cial mar­kets have faced.

Coin­base’s of­fices in down­town San Fran­cisco show a startup strain­ing to keep up with growth. The com­pany of­fers all the usual perks: free lunch and din­ner, a size­able cafe­te­ria and a room with yoga mats and board games.

Re­cently, ev­ery last inch of space has been pressed into ac­tion. The day after bit­coin hit $10,000 last week, a train­ing ses­sion for Coin­base man­agers was moved to the game room be­cause the en­gi­neer­ing team needed to set up an emer­gency war room in the reg­u­lar con­fer­ence room.

The en­gi­neer­ing team was try­ing to get Coin­base back up after the com­pany’s site was knocked off­line, over­whelmed by a wave of in­com­ing traf­fic. The number of vis­i­tors was dou­ble what it had been dur­ing the pre­vi­ous peak — two days ear­lier — and eight times what it had been in June, the peak un­til re­cently.

All the big bit­coin ex­changes went down for at least part of the day, and Coin­base got back on­line faster than most. Still, any sort of down­time like that would be un­ac­cept­able in more tra­di­tional ex­changes where stocks and com­modi­ties are traded. “There are some well-known places this year when we weren’t able to keep up with the vol­ume,” said Jeremy Hen­rick­son, the chief prod­uct of­fi­cer at Coin­base. “We are not where we need to be yet.”

Most Fri­day af­ter­noons, Brian Arm­strong, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Coin­base, holds a ses­sion in the cafe­te­ria where em­ploy­ees can ask him any­thing. On the Fri­day of the record­hit­ting week, Arm­strong dis­cussed how the com­pany was plan­ning to grow and in­tro­duced Asiff Hirji, the new pres­i­dent and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer who will help him over­see it all.

The ad­di­tion of Hirji, who had the same role at TD Amer­i­trade, was an im­plicit recog­ni­tion that this new in­dus­try needs more sea­soned hands to help young ex­ec­u­tives like Arm­strong, 34. Arm­strong has been run­ning Coin­base since he co­founded it in 2012. Soft-spo­ken and re­served, he is an un­usual fig­ure in an in­dus­try filled with loud ide­o­logues. He has done few pub­lic ap­pear­ances dur­ing bit­coin’s re­cent bull mar­ket, and he recog­nises the cur­rent frenzy has come with down­sides.

“It’s prob­a­bly a lit­tle bit too fo­cused on the price or peo­ple try­ing to make money,” Arm­strong said last week. “The thing I’m pas­sion­ate about with digital cur­rency is the world hav­ing an open fi­nan­cial sys­tem.”

In ad­di­tion to the bro­ker­age ser­vice for small in­vestors, Coin­base also runs an ex­change, called GDAX, tai­lored to larger in­vestors. GDAX is over­seen by Adam White, a for­mer Air Force of­fi­cer and a grad­u­ate of Har­vard Busi­ness School. The day bit­coin hit $10,000, he was in New York speak­ing with big fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions that are look­ing into bit­coin. Some com­pa­nies are get­ting ready to be­gin trad­ing bit­coin fu­tures con­tracts this month, when that ac­tiv­ity be­comes avail­able on the Chicago Mer­can­tile Ex­change. A year ago, his Wall Street out­reach was dif­fi­cult, but “it’s all in­bound now,” White said.

Not sur­pris­ingly, Coin­base is on a build­ing spree. It re­cently leased of­fice space in New York that will han­dle the Wall Street busi­ness and a new ser­vice that holds vir­tual cur­ren­cies for large cus­tomers. In San Fran­cisco, the com­pany is adding two new floors in the build­ing where it now has one.

Still, the main con­cern among vir­tual cur­rency in­vestors is that Coin­base has not ex­panded fast enough. In May, the com­pany was crit­i­cised by a cus­tomer who could not reach any­one at the com­pany after his ac­count was hacked.

Coin­base is try­ing to be more re­spon­sive. At the be­gin­ning of the year, the com­pany had 24 em­ploy­ees pro­vid­ing cus­tomer sup­port. It now has around 180, with most of them out­sourced from a call cen­tre in Texas and an email re­sponse team in the Philip­pines. The cafe­te­ria is of­ten turned into a “Crypto Club” where new em­ploy­ees are taught the ins and outs of vir­tual cur­rency.

Daniel Romero, the gen­eral man­ager of Coin­base, said he wanted to have 400 cus­tomer sup­port em­ploy­ees by the first quar­ter of next year to pro­vide phone sup­port around the clock. But in the mean­time, there is a 10-day back­log of ser­vice re­quests. “When your cus­tomer sup­port is­sues are that pub­licly bad, and you have your site go down when peo­ple want to be trad­ing,” it’s a very hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence, Romero said.

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