Why Coinbase’s IPO Is a Cryptocurrency Coming-Out Party

SAN FRANCISCO — Digital currency, once mocked as a tool for criminals and reckless speculators, is sliding into the mainstream.

Traditional banks are helping investors put their money into cryptocurrency funds. Companies like Tesla and Square are hoarding Bitcoin. And celebrities are leading the way in a digital-art spending spree using a technology called an NFT.

On Wednesday, digital or cryptocurrencies will take their biggest step yet toward wider acceptance when Coinbase, a start-up that allows people to buy and sell cryptocurrencies, goes public on Nasdaq. Coinbase shares received a reference price of $250 each on Tuesday evening, which would value the company at $65 billion based on all its outstanding shares.

Call it crypto’s coming-out party. Coinbase, founded in San Francisco, is the first major cryptocurrency start-up to go public on a U.S. stock market. It is doing so at a valuation that tops that of Capital One Financial Corporation or Moody’s, the ratings agency.

plan to “create an open financial system for the world” and “increase economic freedom.”

But so far, cryptocurrency is mostly a vehicle for financial speculation and trading. Few people want to use Bitcoin for everyday purchases like coffee because its price is so volatile. Many early buyers have become wildly rich by simply holding their crypto or “buying the dip” when prices fall. Others ruefully relay tales of the sushi dinner they bought with Bitcoin years ago that would be worth $200,000 today or the million-dollar pizza.

Coinbase eases that trading by acting as a central exchange. Before it and similar services were created, people had to set up their own digital wallets and wire money.

“Can it be anything more than an asset class?” Mr. Tusk asked. “That’s still very much up in the air.”

Silk Road, a marketplace for buying and selling drugs and weapons with Bitcoin until the federal authorities shut it down, and Mt. Gox, a crypto exchange that collapsed under accusations of theft and embezzlement, further tarnished the young industry.

Coinbase tried to change that. The company joined Y Combinator, a prestigious start-up program, and raised money from top venture capital firms including Union Square Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz.

Mr. Armstrong was one of the few people in the industry who seemed prepared to comply with inevitable regulations, rather than cut corners to avoid them, said Nick Tomaino, who dropped out of business school to join Coinbase in 2013.

Coinbase also persuaded well-known retailers to accept Bitcoin. “It was good for credibility when people saw you could actually use a Bitcoin to buy a mattress at Overstock,” Mr. Tomaino, who left in 2016, said. Coinbase earned money on transaction fees.

But Bitcoin’s wildly volatile price and a slow computer network that managed it made transactions difficult, and people began to see the currency as an investment. In 2015, Ethereum, a cryptocurrency network with more tech abilities, was introduced, enticing enthusiasts to build companies and funds around the technology.

Soon after, a flood of “initial coin offerings,” where companies sold tokens on the promise of the technology they planned to build, created a new boom in cryptocurrency trading. But it quickly deflated after many projects were found to be frauds and U.S. regulators deemed the offerings to be securities, requiring that they comply with financial rules.

Tesla to buy $1.5 billion worth of Bitcoin and the payments company Square to spend $170 million. In March, Morgan Stanley began offering its wealthy clients access to three Bitcoin funds, and Goldman announced that it would soon offer similar access. The mayor of Miami has proposed that the city accept tax payments in Bitcoin and invest city funds in the asset.

The stock trading app Robinhood announced that 9.5 million of its customers had traded cryptocurrency in the first three months of the year — up more than fivefold from the previous three months. Venture funding for crypto-related start-ups surged to its highest-ever level in the first quarter to $3 billion, according to PitchBook.

PayPal recently added a crypto trading and shopping feature for its customers in the United States. The company was motivated by consumer interest and advances in the technology that made transactions faster. It plans to quickly expand the offering to customers around the world.

“It feels like the time is right,” said Jose Fernandez da Ponte, head of PayPal’s blockchain, crypto and digital currencies group. “We think this has the potential to revolutionize payments and financial systems in general.”

Still, the so-called revolution faces some challenges. Coinbase has sometimes struggled to keep up with demand, with some customers who lost access to their accounts complaining that the company has been unresponsive. It has also received criticism for its treatment of female and Black employees.

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has threatened harsher regulation of the currencies, including limiting their use.

And a big drop in prices could again send speculators fleeing. In its financial prospectus, Coinbase warned that its business results would fluctuate with the volatility of crypto assets, “many of which are unpredictable and in certain instances are outside of our control.”

The industry’s biggest issue — fulfilling the promise that the technology is more than just a place to park money — could take another decade to play out.

“There’s no doubt we’re in the latest boom, and I don’t know if that’s going to turn tomorrow or two years from now,” Mr. Tomaino said. “But the busts and booms are always higher than the last.”

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¿Por qué alguien pagó 560.000 dólares por una imagen de mi columna?

“A las personas de mi generación, que crecieron en la década de 1970, les encantará coleccionar libros de primera edición, novelas como el Ulises de James Joyce”, escribió en un correo electrónico. “Lo que las cripto y los NFT abrieron es la propiedad de los derechos para decir que uno posee tal cosa, ya sea tangible o intangible, en una forma que miles, si no es que millones, pueden ver y rastrear en tiempo real, en cualquier parte del mundo”.

André Allen Anjos, un artista de música electrónica de Portland, Oregón, que ofreció 5,69 etheres (cerca de 9200 dólares) por el NFT, me dijo en una entrevista telefónica que pujar por el token tal vez se podría considerar como un gesto simbólico de agradecimiento hacia mí y el Times de parte de la criptocomunidad por, sobre todo, tomarlos con la suficiente seriedad como para hacer un experimento con nuestra propia venta de tokens.

“Es como si una publicación convencional intentara interactuar con nosotros como comunidad de una manera real y sincera”, señaló. “Yo quería dar a entender que esto es fabuloso, que están planteando las preguntas correctas”.

Anjos mencionó que había crecido en la era de Napster, cuando los músicos se dieron cuenta de que internet podría destruir su modo de subsistencia al facilitar la reproducción de canciones de manera gratuita. Comentó que la tecnología de cadenas de bloques había cambiado eso al poder crear objetos coleccionables de edición limitada timbrados con el sello digital de su procedencia. Anjos mencionó que la idea de coleccionar los NFT no era tanto poseer las piezas en sí (la mayoría de las cuales pueden descargarse de manera gratuita de internet, pero sin las firmas criptográficas especiales), sino más bien demostrar confianza en este nuevo modelo de adquisición.

“No voy a llamarlo protesta, pero es una declaración”, afirmó. “Este es el criptomundo intentando probar que existimos; nos interesa revolucionar este modelo y estamos dispuestos a invertir nuestro dinero en eso”.

No todos los motivos de los postores eran tan nobles. Sterling Crispin, investigador de Apple que tiene otro trabajo como artista de NFT, mencionó que había ofrecido 4125 etheres (cerca de 6700 dólares) por mi token porque tenía en puerta una presentación virtual y esperaba que la puja atrajera algo de publicidad.

“Dije, bueno, estoy a punto de emitir un NFT para esta presentación en solitario”, comentó. “Valdría muchísimo la pena que aparecieran cuatro etheres en el Times”.

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Why Did Someone Pay $560,000 for a Picture of My Column?

$98,000.

$143,000.

$277,000.

After more than 30 bids, the auction ended at 12:32 p.m. Eastern time, with a winning bid of 350 Ether, or about $560,000. A few minutes later, after the auction platform had taken its cut, nearly $500,000 in cryptocurrency landed in my digital wallet. I was stunned. Congratulatory texts and media requests started pouring in. My colleagues joked about stiffing the charity and slipping off to the Cayman Islands. My editor said I shouldn’t expect a raise.

The whole ordeal was surreal, and it raised the question: Why would anyone spend the price of a high-end Lamborghini on a picture of my words? After all, the NFT was just a cryptographic signature linked to an image of a column that anyone could read on The Times’s website, albeit with a few bonus perks. (I also stipulated that I would feature the winner’s name and photo in a follow-up column, and Michael Barbaro, the host of “The Daily,” gamely agreed to throw in a voice message for the winner.)

The winner, whose handle on the auction site was @3fmusic, appeared to be a prominent NFT collector. The profile on the site was linked to a Twitter profile belonging to a Dubai-based music production company, and to an Instagram account identified as that of Farzin Fardin Fard, the company’s chief executive. The user’s NFT collection included a variety of other expensive digital works, including a $14,000 “emoji portrait” of the musician Billie Eilish and a $8,000 piece titled “Jumping Spider enjoying coffee in the morning.”

I reached out to @3fmusic to offer my congratulations on the purchase and to discuss the bid. They (it’s not clear if the winner is Mr. Fard or some other individual or multiple people) declined to be named — and, because of the pseudonymous nature of blockchain-based transactions, there’s no easy way for me to identify them beyond the information they volunteered — but they sent me a statement over Twitter direct message that read:

“We are already involved in art and media for a long time now,” the message read. “Our management team is always in cooperation with some highly knowledgeable and experienced art advisers who believe that we must grow with technological movements that help us to not only promote our business but also to support artists and the art market. Thus, we have proudly decided to dedicate sufficient funds and resources to invest in NFT as pioneers of this industry.”

They also gave me permission to include an image of their music studio’s logo in this column.

Jiannan Ouyang, an NFT collector who dropped out of the auction after a high bid of 290 Ether (about $469,000), told me that he had decided to bid on my NFT for both personal and professional reasons. He’s a former Facebook research scientist who is now a blockchain entrepreneur, and he’s married to a journalist.

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