Dec 20, 2020
3 mins read
Cryptocurrency giant Coinbase announced on Thursday that it has confidentially filed for a public offering, becoming the latest in a parade of high-profile startups to pursue an IPO in 2020.
Founded in 2012 as a simple way for consumers to purchase Bitcoin, Coinbase has since become a conglomerate of crypto-related business and the standard-bearer for an industry long regarded with suspicion by regulators and the traditional financial establishment.
Coinbase’s announcement comes at a time when both the IPO market and cryptocurrency prices are red-hot. The price of Bitcoin is currently near a record $23,500, and trading volumes are surging—a boon for firms like Coinbase, which makes the bulk of its revenue from trading commissions.
In its IPO announcement, which came in a company blog post, Coinbase did not provide details about how it would structure its offering. A traditional IPO, whereby banks arrange for institutions to get first dibs on the stock for a fixed price, would likely be anathema to many crypto enthusiasts and Coinbase employees.
In a recent interview, Coinbase cofounder Fred Ehrsam told Fortune the company is “Spiritually” built to go public via an offering involving digital tokens on a blockchain—the ledger technology that underpins Bitcoin, and which crypto enthusiasts view as the future of financial infrastructure.
It’s far from clear, however, whether the Securities and Exchange Commission would sign off on such an arrangement. If the agency refuses to do so, another option would be for Coinbase to pursue a direct listing in which it sells shares directly to the public. This model was recently employed by Spotify and Slack, and veteran tech journalist Alex Wilhelm has noted that Coinbase is an “archetypal” candidate for such a listing, in part because of its hefty balance sheet.
Coinbase did not immediately respond to queries about the nature of listing it would pursue.
The company has yet to reveal how much money it is making, though sources close to Coinbase say it has regularly turned a profit in recent years. The company’s last fundraising round, for $300 million, valued it near $8 billion. That figure, however, is from 2018, and it’s likely Coinbase will seek a much higher valuation owing to the booming crypto market and the recent surge in demand for IPOs.
Coinbase’s IPO will give its early shareholders, including CEO Brian Armstrong and venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, an opportunity to cash out. But it will also represent a milestone in the crypto industry’s long-running quest for legitimacy.
When Coinbase launched, many dismissed Bitcoin as a fad, while many government officials regarded it as primarily a vehicle for crime and money laundering. While some policymakers—and President Trump—continue to treat the digital currency with hostility, the past two years have seen a surge in acceptance by mainstream institutions. Indeed, a new crypto fund run by cofounder Ehrsam has attracted investments from the likes of the endowments of Harvard and Stanford universities.
Meanwhile, Coinbase has made dozens of acquisitions in recent years to help its diversify its revenue model beyond trading fees. This has included buying custody operations, which involve charging clients to safely store large amounts of cryptocurrency.
The company has been dogged by recent controversy, however, related to a decision by CEO Armstrong to publish a blog post declaring Coinbase to be an “apolitical” company. The post came in the midst of upheaval related to the Black Lives Matter protests and was regarded by many as tone deaf and insensitive. The controversy gained further traction last month when the New York Times published a piece describing how numerous Black employees had left Coinbase, with some of them citing racist attitudes among their coworkers.
In the past few months, Coinbase appears to have been laying groundwork for its IPO with a series of boardroom shuffles. The most recent of these involved adding Cisco CFO Kelly Kramer to its board and elevating the veteran Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen to full board member status.