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Book Review | Kings of Crypto: One Startup’s Quest to Take Cryptocurrency Out of Silicon Valley and Onto Wall Street

Rating: 3.5 out of 4.
Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press
Pages:
236
Author:
Jeff John Roberts

Jeff John Roberts is a staff writer at Fortune magazine who covers IP and bitcoin. His debut book Kings of Crypto tells the story of the rise of Coinbase – currently the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the US – and the ascension of its co-founder and CEO, Brian Armstrong, into the Silicon Valley pantheon.

Contrary to my expectations of the book being only about Coinbase’s co-founders and their startup struggles, it dishes out far more than just that.

Credit must go to Jeff John Roberts for casting the net wide as he leaps beyond Coinbase and shines a torch on the entire crypto-industry and the cardinal events that shaped it between 2012 and 2020.

Back in 2012, Y Combinator, the famous startup accelerator, saw merit in Brian’s idea of simplifying the buying and selling of Bitcoin and decided to give it legs.

The story of Coinbase is a little different from other Valley startups. When Brian and Fred Ehrsam co-founded Coinbase, things were quite different. People used to mention bitcoin and scam in the same breath. So the challenge for Brian and co. was not only to get their startup off the ground but also to fight the stigma that encompassed the entire crypto fraternity.

Kings of Crypto book review
Fred Ehrsam (L) and Brian Armstrong (R), image source: www.wired.com

Further, Coinbase’s fortunes were intertwined with those of the Bitcoin since it would be the only cryptocurrency on its platform for a long time.

But bitcoin’s volatility wasn’t the only thing that threatened to hamper the growth of Coinbase. The chaos on the outside and inside of the organization was equally distracting.

Inside, it was the cofounders’ own reality distortion field that queered the pitch one time too many. Outside, it was the lawmakers seeking a sniff of any criminal activity on the app. There was also Bitcoin Core – the diehard exponents of bitcoin – that Brian and Fred had frequent run-ins with.

Bitcoin core challenged and barricaded anything that appeared to run counter to the vision of its enigmatic founder Satoshi Nakamoto. To them, Coinbase was a deviant entity.

In a chapter aptly titled Civil War, Jeff recounts the protracted feud between the bitcoin conformists and Coinbase.

Brian and others, in order to scale bitcoin, were pushing for increase in the the size of each block on the blockchain from 1 Mb to 2 Mb. Doing this required making tweaks to the original bitcoin code – something that was sacreligious to the original batchers and hence, they went berserk on Coinbase.

The final third of Kings of Crypto takes you into the ugly side of startup world.

It narrates a typical Valley script. When a startup begins to achieve scale, the investors often bring in adult supervision to aid young co-founders.

The unintended outcome of this move is that the adults often fail to gel with the early-stage employees resulting in ego clashes. This is exactly what happened at Coinbase. After months of skirmishes and infightings, Brian wrested back the control of his venture, but was left the last man standing.

I have a small bone of contention with Jeff John Roberts. Inadvertently, perhaps, he positions Coinbase as the safest crypto exchange. It could well be. However, he invariably labels those emanating from other parts of the world as ‘shadowy’. That kind of bothered me.

Consider this. A few years ago, hackers managed to break into the digital wallet of Bitfinex – a Hong Kong based exchange and stole $73 million worth of bitcoins. So, does the fact that the walls of Bitfinex were breached makes it a murky operation? This book makes you think so.

Overall, Jeff John Roberts’ book makes a strong case for the adoption of cryptocurrencies. But the road to institutional adoption still looks a far cry.

Many countries still don’t see bitcoin and other cryptos as trustworthy options. You even got the proponents of decentralized experiments such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb starting to step away from bitcoin and with sound logic. All in all, we are in for a long haul.

While the powers-that-be have gained trust in blockchain, the ‘decentralizing’ aspect of bitcoin still bothers many. As a consequence, many governments have entrusted their central banks to launch Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs).

Since I am no authority on cryptocurrencies, it is hard for me to foresee what the launch of CBDCs would do to crypto wallets and exchanges like Coinbase. While the future unfolds, Coinbase has become the numero uno crypto exchange.

As of this writing, bitcoin has soared past $50,000 and Coinbase has bagged a valuation of $77 Billion ahead of its IPO. Stellar, isn’t it?

Verdict

Kings of Crypto is not a very long book. From the very first chapter, there is a certain tempo to it.

Jeff John Roberts introduces the key characters, digs up interesting narratives related to them and then keeps the momentum going. Each chapter ends with a light cliffhanger that keeps the reader hooked.

The thing I appreciated the most is that not once does he let the temptation of technical writing override him.

He writes in an unobtrusive yet compelling style. Something that carries the reader along with unforced ease. He deciphers technical concepts such as blockchain, dapps, DeFi and more, so that even a sixth grader gets it.

I highly recommend Kings of Crypto. Anyone interested in the evolution of cryptocurrencies should read this book.


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