Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong: How the “Crypto King” Works

Made it in just ten years Coinbase the rise to the most successful crypto exchange in the USA. Today it is worth nearly $40 billion. The success made the company’s founder, Brian Armstrong, a billionaire – and one of the most powerful men in the tech world. Jeff John Roberts followed the rapid rise for his book “Kings of Crypto”. A conversation with the author.

BTC-ECHO: When did you first meet Brian Armstrong? What impression did he make on you?

Jeff John Roberts: As a tech reporter for Fortune, I’ve covered a lot of startups. Coinbase was still small then. I first met Brian in 2014 or 2015. He’s not very charismatic, an odd guy. So many people underestimated him. People I spoke to for my book would often say, ‘Oh, he’s going to be pushed aside for a real CEO. He doesn’t have what it takes.’ But he has a greater drive and stamina than almost any other leader I know. What he lacks in charm he makes up for in sheer determination.

BTC ECHO: How is he weird?

Jeff John Roberts: In the early days of the company, he was extremely clumsy. He does strange things. For example, he had a performance review done about himself. Then he sent the results to the whole company. He once tried to organize a retreat, like companies do, so that everyone feels included. His idea was: They should hunt an animal together. But I think he’s improved here.

Brian Armstrong, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs

BTC ECHO: Coinbase’s spectacular success made Brian Armstrong one of the most influential tech leaders of our time. If you compare him to the likes of Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, what does he have in common with them – what makes him different?

Jeff John Roberts: He wants to be like these people. He told me he only reads biographies of CEOs or heroes like the guy who went to the moon. Brian sees himself as something special. He’s on a mission. That connects him to the likes of Jobs and Musk. He puts the company above everything, including relationships and friends. That’s the culture at Coinbase. They pride themselves on working 16 hours a day.

Jobs and Musk are known for their ruthlessness. They really enjoy destroying other people. Brian isn’t like that. He is a nice person and not very contentious. He doesn’t like confronting people he works with. This has also led to chaos in the company. It got very political at times. He let other people run amok with their activism.

The cover of “Kings of Crypto”. The book tells about the rise of Coinbase. The German translation was published by Börsenbuch-Verlag.

BTC ECHO: In 2020, Brian announced that Coinbase should be a strictly non-political company. He was heavily criticized for this step. From exTwitter-CEO Jack Dorsey, but also from the New York Times. What drove him?

Jeff John Roberts: The decision came at the height of Black Lives Matter, when there was a lot of arguments about politics in tech companies like Facebook or Twitter. He didn’t want Coinbase to become a place or forum for political activism. This got him into a fight with the New York Times, which probably wasn’t the best idea. He wrote this blog post stating: Coinbase will only tell the truth.

A lot of people in the company thought: Why are you doing this? Many in the media and in business also saw this as a mistake. This guy is ridiculous they said. Brian doesn’t seem to have a sense of how other people see things. But you can’t deny his success. I also had to revise some of my beliefs about him.

Coinbase: The “Most Legitimate Company” in Crypto Space?

BTC ECHO: Coinbase markets itself as the “White Knight of Cryptocurrencies”. How important was this image for the success of the company?

Jeff John Roberts: I think it was absolutely essential, especially in the early days. Bitcoin was a kind of renegade. It was as much an ideology as it was a currency. Many people involved see themselves as anti-authoritarian. But the reality back then was that many criminals were using Bitcoin, the percentage has dropped sharply. Law enforcement and the government have been very suspicious of Bitcoin.

It was a very clever strategy to be on the right side of the regulators all the time. This made the company the most legitimate mainstream company in this space. And now they are using their own political clout to close the gate behind them and stop other crypto companies from growing too fast. It’s a classic story.

BTC ECHO: How do they hinder other companies?

Jeff John Roberts: I don’t think it’s quite that far yet. But we’re starting to see signs of Coinbase behaving this way. That’s just what every company does at some point. When you’re big enough, you start lobbying the regulators and the government, you can write the rules in your favour. That’s the way things go. You’ve seen that in other industries, like the big phone companies. At first they fought the regulators, but then they managed to manipulate the rules to preserve their monopolies.

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong: The Crypto King?

BTC ECHO: You aptly named your book “Kings of Crypto”. Crypto prides itself on being a decentralized movement, leaderless and with distributed power. She doesn’t need kings. Or is it?

Jeff John Roberts: Yes, that’s the irony. There is a saying in English: meet the new king. He’s the same as the old one. The crypto economy worships decentralization to get away from banks and governments, but now we have these new masters. I think that’s just human nature.

There has been a lot of discussion about this problem lately. There’s a big venture capital firm called Andreessen Horowitz. They invest in almost every crypto project. Whenever a token is issued, there is talk of the decentralization of the future. And then you look at it and realize: wait a minute. Andreessen Horowitz owns half of the tokens and pulls the strings.

Marc Andreessen, the founder of Andreessen Horowitz, is a very influential person in Silicon Valley. He was the mentor of both Mark Zuckerberg and Brian Armstrong. These people see themselves as very independent thinkers. But in the end they only say what Marc Andreessen said in the morning. It’s just Silicon Valley libertarianism, free speech absolutism, and anti-government fighting. The old kings are still there. They’re just wearing new clothes.

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