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Coinbase’s backstory and future with ‘Kings of Crypto’ author Jeff John Roberts

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No industry better epitomizes elite tech opinion as blockchain. Ignored for years in its infancy, the industry received intense interest from investors, engineers and the public five years ago, generating some of the most deeply devout evangelists that have emanated from startups since the advent of the World Wide Web and the dot-com boom. Then, it all burned down, but a few companies made it through the flames, among them Coinbase .

Coinbase today is still valued at a 2018 price of $8 billion, and is expected to go public in the coming months. Despite major controversies around its mission-focused policy and diversity, the company continues to lead the pack of consumer-oriented blockchain and crypto companies.

That makes its origin story and rise all the more enticing. Jeff John Roberts, a staff writer at Fortune, has put together precisely that narrative in his new book “Kings of Crypto”, published by Harvard Business School Press. It’s the story of Coinbase, Brian Armstrong and the dream of a crypto economy. Given all the recent discussions and controversies swirling the company and Bitcoin’s recent record-beating price increase, provides a deeper, more analytical perspective on a complicated subject.

I sat down with Roberts last month to talk more about the company, the crypto industry at large and what’s next as we head into 2021.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I think the most interesting story right now is that there is this tension because Wall Street and Silicon Valley don’t like each other.

TechCrunch: How did you get into this project and decide to write the book?

Jeff John Roberts: There’s a lot of crypto books out there, some of them not very good, but I think there’s kind of a first-generation series of books on the subject. Nate Popper’s “Digital Gold” is very good, and then the Wall Street Journal guys with “Age of Cryptocurrency is a really good explainer, so I was looking for a new way to tell the story. Focusing on a company is just sort of a narrative mechanism, since companies can be a good way to tell the story of a broader industry.

I used Coinbase as a vehicle because a lot of the early stuff in crypto is hard to understand. I think it’s still true, but crypto can’t decide if it wants to be a subculture or sort of a mainstream technology and a lot of the early writings on it celebrated the quirky angles. So I tried to tell it as more of a general interest, “Hatching Twitter”-style business story and fortunately there’s a lot of gossip and things in there to recount.

How did you get interested in crypto originally?

My own interest came about when I was at GigaOm. Back in 2013, there was a meeting in New York City in Union Square, an event called Satoshi Square every Monday at the little corner of the park. I went down to check it out, and what it emerged to be was a bunch of crypto anarchists selling bitcoin. Some of the other people there though were Wall Street traders in $5,000 suits, which left an indelible image for me. It was really funny watching that collision of cultures, with the mix of greed and counterculture.

So it was during Bitcoin’s first splash into something close to the mainstream that I covered, and then that kind of dried up and went away, as it does, and then it came roaring back in 2015, 2016 and I covered the bubble. And now there’s again been an uptick in interest. So my timing for the book wasn’t good in the sense of the pandemic (I got cheated out of my canapé launch parties) but my timing was good in that a lot of the prices are soaring today.

You’ve seen a lot in the crypto industry over the years, what’s the most interesting storyline today?

I think the most interesting story right now is that there is this tension because Wall Street and Silicon Valley don’t like each other, but for crypto, they need each other, and it’s been interesting watching them kind of dance and find a way to kind of bridge the two worlds.

Bitcoin is forever promising it’s going to change our financial world, but realistically it hasn’t, but I think in the coming decade, blockchain really is going to start doing some needed stuff and so that kind of convergence of Wall Street and the Valley [is inevitable].

Then there are also the big corporates coming in. Obviously Facebook with Libra, but Square and PayPal and I’m sure that Apple’s going to get in this game soon because they’re good at privacy, they’ve got all the wallets and they presumably pay a shit ton in transaction fees, so I think that’s the coming story and what’s interesting to me. And then Coinbase sort of sits right kind of at the center of all that, so they’re a good vehicle to tell that story.

You chose Coinbase as one of the focus companies for the book. Why them?

I mean, there’s a lot of recent cultural stuff we can talk about, but it was interesting to me because going back to what we talked about earlier: Do you want to be a rebel in a subculture or do you want to actually make a difference?

I think Coinbase was the first and the best at the latter, and Brian Armstrong, who even among many Valley CEOs is a weird dude, he saw early the need to make this mainstream. That tension goes on to this day in the crypto world — and also within Coinbase — between the purest sort of libertarian vision of holding your own wallet versus the practicality. I think Coinbase is very astute in seeing that’s where things are going and building it out that way, building sort of the crypto version of online banking.

So I think that they’re always telling you, “We’re the white knight of crypto” and so on, and then of course Andreessen Horowitz and Fred Wilson had a big role in shepherding it that way, but it was the right call and they’ve largely executed, which I think is really interesting.

What was it like building Coinbase early on? Were there some fun stories from that time?

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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SpaceX’s Starship prototype flies to 32,000 feet and sticks the landing in third flight test

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SpaceX has launched SN10 — the tenth iteration of its current prototype series of Starship, the heavy-lift reusable spacecraft it’s developing. Starship SN10 took off from Boca Chica, Texas, where SpaceX is developing the vehicle. It flew to a height of roughly 10 km, or 32,000 feet, before performing a maneuver to re-orient itself for a friction-assisted landing descent.

Unlike the last two Starship prototypes to fly this high, however, the roughly six-minute flight did not end in a fireball [UPDATE: Well, not immediately. The rocket did blow up while stationary on the landing pad a few minutes after landing, potentially due to a leak]. Instead, it completed its landing flip maneuver as intended and slowed itself for a soft touchdown, with the rocket remaining vertical and intact afterwards.

This was a fantastic outcome, and a nominal one in all regards according to SpaceX’s livestream. But why the prior explosions to get to this point? That’s partly down to the way in which it has been doing its development of this vehicle. All rocket development includes unexpected events and sub-optimal outcomes, but SpaceX has a couple of things at work that mean is efforts are subject to unusual scrutiny versus your average spaceship manufacturer.

First, it’s doing this out in the open — the Boca Chica facility is basically just a couple small buildings, some concrete pads, some storage tanks and some scaffolding. It’s extremely close to a public roadway (which is closed during testing, while the surrounding area is evacuated), and people can and do just drive up and set up cameras to film what’s going on. That’s not at all how legacy rocket makers have typically done things.

Second, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has been adamant that SpaceX pursue a development strategy of rapid iteration and prototyping with Starship’s development. That has meant it’s manufacturing and assembling Starship prototypes simultaneously, making small changes as it goes, rather than stepping back after each test and doing a prolonged, multi-month analysis before proceeding with building and flying another version.

A launch attempt earlier in the day was cut short after a brief engine fire, when instrument readings from the rocket showed a slightly high thrust value that violated what Musk termed “conservative.” The fix that SpaceX instituted was actually adjusting the limit higher in order to avoid the abort initiation.

No doubt the company will do an investigation into the cause of the explosion that followed the successful flight and landing maneuver, but the test was still successful in all the ways that matter most for SpaceX at this stage of development. Next up for Starship is likely increasing the height of these test flights. Eventually, the goal is to reach orbit, of course, but SpaceX is likely to try a few launches that remain atmospheric but far exceed this one before it attempts making that trip.

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The Aston Martin DBX is a tale of two vehicles

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The Aston Martin DBX is the brand’s first SUV — and the stakes for the iconic British luxury car maker couldn’t be higher.

Like Astons before it, the DBX is objectively handsome. Its sculptural form stretches out to unapologetic ample proportions, and stands out in the crowd of SUVs that frequent the private-school pickup lane. It’s an opulent design that scores high on aesthetics, performance and character. It’s also a vehicle that arrives late to the ultra premium SUV segment, and lacks the in-car technology and fuel economy of others of its ilk. Sales of the DBX, which starts at $176,900, began overseas last summer and entered the U.S. market in late 2020. (The version Aston Martin provided to TechCrunch for a test drive had the option-loaded retail price of $205,186 DBX, including delivery fees.)

Call it a tale of two vehicles in a time of dueling principles vying for luxury auto buyer budgets. Demand for SUVs continues to skyrocket, just as the mobility sector inclines sharply toward electrification. Aston Martin set a goal of selling 14,000 vehicles by 2023, a steep hike for a small, boutique brand. However, under new leadership, the company has dialed back those projections to 10,000 as part of its reorganization dubbed “Project Horizon.”

After an underwhelming year due to the pandemic, a new major owner and a new CEO are in place. It’s unclear which narrative will determine the DBX’s fate. The future of the company rests on its success.

Aston Martin said the DBX met sales expectations in 2020, with 1,516 units sold. The company anticipates that the DBX will make up 40% to 60% of global volume in 2021 — its first year of full production.

A tale of two vehicles

How to achieve best-in-class tech in both engineering and in-car experience is a quagmire for low-volume supercar makers who aren’t owned by a larger automaker that can lend that expertise. Aston took steps to solve this problem through an agreement reached with Mercedes-Benz AG to develop engines and electric architecture back in 2013. Tobias Moers, who headed up Mercedes-Benz’s AMG division until last summer, is Aston’s new CEO, a clue on how vital Aston still sees Daimler’s technical performance to its future.

Aston Martin has recently reentered Formula One racing, and true to the brand’s motorsports history, the DBX has sports car-like power, sprinting from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.3 seconds, using Mercedes-Benz AMG engines.

On the interior, the DBX scores high as a total sensory experience to drive (and floss in), affording its passengers panache and comfort, all swathed in Bridge of Weir leather. There are nifty options such as a snow pack, complete with a ski boot warmer.

Image Credits: Aston Martin

The other half of this product’s interior story raises more pragmatic questions about the role of in-car tech in the super luxury segment, and gets at the crux of Aston’s dilemma. Aston will always be at least one generation behind the latest Mercedes advancements. For a vehicle with a starting price of $180,000, cars that cost half the price have more advanced in-car features.

User experience

The Aston Martin DBX is equipped with COMAND, an infotainment system that Mercedes introduced in 1998, refreshed in 2014 and updated again in 2016. When it comes to tech, a few years feels like a lifetime. 

The challenge is that it’s not as simple as replacing a head-unit, Nathan Hoyt, a spokesperson for Aston Martin, told TechCrunch.

“The car would need to be revised to work a whole new electrical architecture” he said. “That said, the closer alignment we previously announced between Mercedes and Aston Martin means we will continue using MB technology for the foreseeable future.”

While Aston Martin is saddled with an older system, Mercedes-Benz has since moved on to MBUX, a new more technologically advanced infotainment system that was introduced in 2018 and has already been updated. No word on when MBUX will find its way to Aston Martin products.

In practical terms, that means a 2021 luxury vehicle that’s missing a touchscreen. What’s in its place is far too much clunky plastic to be called classic analog, which perhaps would make more sense. Think Mac keyboard, circa 2014. Apple CarPlay is standard on the DBX, but it lacks Android Auto.

aston-martin-dbx interior

Image Credits: Aston Martin

Instead of slick knobs, there are plastic buttons that seem out of step with the rest of the vehicle’s swanky naturally sourced woods. Plastic is also present on the air vents and gear selector.

In fairness, the everything-but-the-kitchen sink isn’t the best solution to in-car technology. Many carmakers have far too much frustrating and tactile tech on the dash that isn’t intuitive.

aston-martin-dbx-hyper-red-a1-aml-213-jpg.

Image Credits: Aston Martin

The tech that stood out

Aston’s done what it can to make DBX’s inner working distinct from the traditional Mercedes system. Creative thinking shows up in the 10.2-inch display’s slick graphics made for DBX on the center stack. A DB5, James Bond’s vehicle of choice, is used as an icon to indicate adaptive cruise control activation.

Aston manages to use the tech that it does have to its advantage — and it’s a whole mood.

Ambient lighting offers 64 different colors in two zones and a sound system that feels of the moment. The custom sound system boasts 790 watts over 13 speakers and a sealed subwoofer, and noise compensation tech that drowns out road noise. The combination of that cushy cabin and the boom of those speakers makes it feel as if one is driving around in a high-end theater, back when we all went to the movies, or if you’re an Aston owner, escaped into your personal home theater.

ADAS: form and function

Aston compensates for lack of computational power by making adaptive cruise control, front and rear parking sensors, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist and blind-spot monitoring all standard safety features.

Each function is housed in one of the aforementioned plastic buttons. Adaptive cruise control is on the left of the steering wheel, and can be adjusted to monitor distance and speed. The lane-keeping assist button is on the right of the center console.

The controls on the center console require the driver to glance down for a brief moment, causing the eyes to flit off the road. When lane-keeping assist is engaged, a light on the dash and a gentle twitch of the wheel alert the driver. Other switches control driver performance and Aston’s air suspension settings.

Character study

Stateside, Aston might be limited to James Bond, but for the British car culture enthusiasts, the brand is steeped in emotion, gravitas and significance. I attended the Aston centenary in 2010 in England, where I saw an outpouring of love across the U.K. for the brand’s heritage.

Under former CEO Andy Palmer, Aston was in pursuit of its future. A more modern factory in Wales was built to make DBX. But part of Aston’s intrinsic appeal is that some components are still hand built to suit the low-volume connoisseur of a few thousand-of-a-kind vehicle. As cars become more complex computerized systems, hand built becomes more of a liability.

The DBX’s path comes down to what the prospective driver wants and needs this vehicle to be in place of proper high-six figure dream machine such as the Rolls-Royce Cullinan owned by the BMW group, or Bentley Bentayga, Lamborghini Urus and Porsche Cayenne, which fall under the collective VW umbrella. Or Tesla, which is Tesla.

aston-martin-dbx

Image Credits: Aston Martin

As slick technological features become more important, Aston Martin may need to rethink how it solves for lagging behind. That may mean doubling down on what it means to be unapologetic and classic. Or using future powertrain variants to push the 21st century automaker messaging. The latter seems most likely.

A 2020 agreement with Mercedes that builds off of an existing partnership will give Aston Martin access to a wide range of technology, including electric, mild and full hybrid powertrain architectures through 2027.

Aston Martin indicated in its latest earnings call that offering a hybrid SUV will be important for the company. Tobias Moers, Aston Martin’s new CEO and the former head of Mercedes-Benz AMG, said a plug-in hybrid DBX will be offered before 2024. All-electric vehicles are part of the company’s plans as well, and have been targeted for middle of the decade.

The question is whether Aston Martin will give the infotainment system the needed upgrade to match the hybrid and EV tech.

When it comes to high-six figure SUVs, the air is thin at the top.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

 

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Daily Crunch: Google swears off ad-tracking

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Google says it’s focusing on privacy-friendly approaches to ad targeting, Okta acquires Auth0 and a flying taxi startup raises $241 million. This is your Daily Crunch for March 3, 2021.

The big story: Google swears off ad-tracking

While Google had already announced it would be phasing out support for third-party cookies in Chrome, it went further today by declaring that “once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products.”

In fact, Google’s David Temkin argued in a blog post that attempts to build alternative approaches to ad-tracking will not “meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren’t a sustainable long term investment.” Instead, he pointed to Google technologies like its interest-based Federated Learning of Cohorts.

The tech giants

Okta acquires cloud identity startup Auth0 for $6.5B — With Auth0, Okta gets a cloud identity company that helps developers embed identity management into applications.

Netflix launches ‘Fast Laughs,’ a TikTok-like feed of funny videos — This feature (now rolling out on iOS) allows users to watch, react to or share the short clips as well as add the show or movie to a Netflix watchlist.

Facebook’s Oversight Board already ‘a bit frustrated,’ and it hasn’t made a call on Trump ban yet — Board member and former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger implied that the binary choices the board has at its disposal aren’t as nuanced as he’d like.

Startups, funding and venture capital

‘Flying taxi’ startup Volocopter picks up another $241M, says service is now two years out — Alongside its vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, Volocopter has also been building a business case in which its vessels will be used in a taxi-style fleet in urban areas.

Identiq, a privacy-friendly fraud prevention startup, secures $47M at Series A — Identiq takes a different, more privacy-friendly approach to fraud prevention, without having to share a customer’s data with a third party.

After 200% ARR growth in 2020, CourseKey raises $9M to digitize trade schools — CourseKey’s B2B platform is designed to work with organizations that teach some of our most essential workers.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Eleven words and phrases to cut from your VC pitch deck — Weeks or even months of working on your pitch deck could come down to the 170 seconds (on average) that investors spend looking at it.

Create a handbook and integrate AI to onboard remote employees — Professionals have adapted to remote working, but the systems they use are still playing catch-up.

First impressions of AppLovin’s IPO filing — AppLovin’s filing tells the story of a rapidly growing company that has managed to scale adjusted profit as it has grown.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Cables could help soft robots transform into harder structures — The sub-category of soft robotics has transformed the way many think about the field.

Dear Sophie: Can you demystify the H-1B process and E-3 premium processing? — The latest edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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