Coinbase, the newly public cryptocurrency exchange, has had it share of ups and downs. Still, the nearly nine-year-old, San Francisco-based outfit got a lot right ahead of its highly successful direct listing this week, including, seemingly, inviting in former federal prosecutor Katie Haun to join its board in 2017.
At the time, Haun had just spent 11 years working for the Justice Department, handling cases relating to violent murders and organized crime and, later, the fast-growing world of cryptocurrencies. In fact, as part of her job, Haun had gotten to know Coinbase and other up-and-coming startups to better understand digital currencies and decentralized systems. Because Haun, who won every case she argued, was ready for a change, when Brian Armstrong reached out about a formal role, she said yes. (A year later, Andreessen Horowitz, which wrote its first check to Coinbase in 2013, separately brought her aboard as the venture firm’s first woman general partner.)
The combination has proved powerful, and lucrative. As an independent board member at the outset, Haun was given shares for her service that are reportedly now worth roughly $150 million (a16z’s stake is valued at more than $11 billion). Meanwhile, Haun — who recently renewed her board term — says the company’s most impactful days are still ahead.
We talked yesterday with Haun about Coinbase’s valuation, its evolution from here and her work with a16z’s crypto fund, which she co-leads with longtime general partner and fellow Coinbase board member Chris Dixon, and where the team has likely “seen and done more deals in the last couple months than in the last couple years,” she said. She also noted that a16z has been pouring the majority of its money into tokens. Our chat has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
TC: You were working on these intense cases, including murder trials and at some point, your superiors at the Justice Department offer you the chance to figure out what Bitcoin is all about. How did that lead you to Coinbase?
KH: I actually came to know Coinbase through some of the work I was doing on crypto cases in the government in the early days. I founded the U.S. government’s first cryptocurrency task force out of the Justice Department and part of our job was to go meet with companies or entrepreneurs in the space and get to know what they were up to and how we could work with them. Of course, as with any industry, the government’s objectives didn’t always align with the crypto industry’s. But sometimes there were synergies [and] sometimes they might need to reach someone in the government at one of these companies. Coinbase was not the only crypto company that I was interfacing with in those government days. There were many others. But that’s how I first came to know it.
TC: Because not everyone is going to know the specifics of your career, you played a role in prosecuting Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht and also discovering two corrupt federal agents involved in that case. Is that right?
KH: I actually did not prosecute Ross Ulbricht, I did not prosecute the Silk Road case. What I did prosecute is what we’ll call the twist to the Silk Road case, and that was that a couple of the agents on one of the task forces that was investigating Ross Ulbricht and the Silk Road actually turned out to be double agents working both against the government while being federal agents. When I [first received] a tip that we had a rogue federal agent, I thought it was a conspiracy theory. So I thought I would go look into that, mostly to just clear this individual’s name.
TC: Was this a career federal employee?
KH: Yes, this was a federal agent for well over a decade, and it turned out there were two, and they weren’t working together–
TC: Which is even weirder!
KH: Right? The other one was also a career federal agent, which is extremely rare. It happens on TV, where you have corrupt police or law enforcement. But I can tell you that in reality, having been a federal prosecutor for over a decade, this was certainly a first for me. And so I looked into the high level, and what we found was that, let’s just say hundreds of thousands of dollars at the time — now it would be tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars at today’s prices of cryptocurrency — moving around. When we looked into it initially, we thought it must just be some poorly backstopped undercover operation. But the more we looked at it, the transfer patterns were not making sense, and they turned out to be going to personal accounts, which then really piqued our interest.
[In fact] companies like Coinbase [and] other exchanges that kept compliant records were instrumental to our ability to solve that case because of the information that we were getting from those exchanges, but also, the blockchain itself. Without the blockchain, I can definitively say we never would have solved that case. Those agents would still be federal agents today. Had they just been using wires or fiat, we would never have been able to solve the case because they were going to financial institutions across the globe and flashing the badge and saying ‘delete these records.’ They could not do that on the blockchain.
TC: In terms of traceability, a16z has investments in some NFT companies, including Dapper Labs, a blockchain company working with the NBA and others to create NFTs, and, more recently, OpenSea, which is itself an NFT marketplace. Can I ask what you think of the potential for people to use NFTs to move money illegally from point A to B? It’s something I wrote about recently.
KH: Money laundering is something I prosecuted at the Justice Department; I prosecuted one of the largest ever, if not the largest ever, online money laundering case: the case against BTC-E. We also led an investigation into the Mount Gox hack and we harnessed blockchain technology to help solve those cases, ironically.
I did read your article, Connie, and I found it really interesting, because at first I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, NFTs’ and ‘let’s see how could criminals exploit this,’ because the thing about criminal actors is they are often early adopters of new technologies. I’ve said before, they’re beta testers.
I think when you think about money laundering, the thing you have to step back and realize is that 99.9% of money laundering crimes with fiat today succeed, which is staggering. I think there’s this perception out there that ‘Oh, when wires or fiat money or physical goods are used, money launderers can’t do their thing,’ and that’s just completely contrary to reality.
What I would say is that crypto is a step-level function improvement. The reason I say that is because it leaves these what I call digital breadcrumbs in a way that the physical world or your cash, even wires, by the way, though wires are somewhat digital, cash, physical goods don’t quite leave. With NFTs, I think that ultimately actually it makes it easier for investigators to trace because of those digital breadcrumbs.
TC: Speaking of NFTs and some of your firm’s deals, how would you describe your pacing right now?
KH: We’re deploying currently out of our second crypto fund. And I think it’s really exciting to start seeing a lot of these things work and capture mainstream attention. And just frankly, there’s been a lot of launches also in the last six months. So that’s also been really exciting. So although the pace is definitely frenetic, it’s an incredibly exciting time in the space. Obviously, yesterday was a milestone for Coinbase but also just for the entire crypto ecosystem.
In terms of pace and how many deals we’re seeing, I would say that we’ve seen and done more deals in the last couple months than in the last couple years, and stay tuned for some of our announcements there, because we’ve done a lot in this last quarter and they haven’t all yet been announced. There’s really an explosion of activity in the space.
We’re also doubling down on investments we’ve made years ago. You mentioned Dapper Labs. The Andreessen Horowitz Crypto Funds have invested in Dapper Labs several times over the years, including out of our first crypto fund, so it’s just really exciting to see now all of the progress that team has made.
TC: How does the process of evaluating these crypto deals differ in comparison with traditional startups?
KH: Some categories are the same and some are completely different. One thing we always look for is a founding team that has a real vision and that can execute; Coinbase is a tremendous case study in that. We also consider the total addressable market. And we look at not just the product and tech but also its defensibility. Could others come along and quickly take over this idea? Those are some of the characteristics that are the same.
What’s different in crypto is first, regulatory and compliance. Have code audits been done, [have] vulnerabilities [been] found? What’s your plan for security, particularly if you’re talking about areas like decentralized finance.
We’re also [focused on] token economics. What we’re investing in at Andreessen Horowitz Crypto now largely is tokens. Because we’re a [registered investment advisor], we have that flexibility. We still think there are plenty of [opportunities] that merit equity investment; Coinbase is a prime example of an equity investment, not a token investment, but we’re increasingly doing a lot in the token space. I would say, the majority of our funds are deployed in tokens. And when you’re talking about tokens, you want to have really thought through token economics at the outset. Has the team set aside enough tokens for the community? Once the protocol is live, what does that look like? Are they going to Airdrop tokens? What’s their go-to-market strategy? Are they incentivizing early employees with tokens? So I would say the token economic model is something that we look at very heavily.
TC: Are you saying that the firm is looking at buying tokens, meaning buying slugs of currency, versus investing in foundational technology?
KH: We see tokens as foundational technology because we see these protocols, in many cases, as foundational technology.
I think what you might be asking me is, are we investing in the tokens versus the equity of a particular company, and the answer is very much yes. I could say the vast majority of our crypto funds are deployed into the tokens themselves, the assets themselves now [including] Bitcoin or Ethereum, for example. Then apart from that, we hold tokens in a number of different protocols that we acquired just through acquiring tokens — not because we owned equity in a company that distributed the tokens.
In some instances, we have owned equity, where a team has then created a token, and we get token rights as part of our original equity investment. But increasingly, what we’re seeing is the ability to just go buy tokens. We can buy them over the counter and we are definitely doing that.
TC: What percentage of the crypto fund’s assets are invested directly in Bitcoin and Ethereum? Is it a sizable percentage?
KH: We’ve never disclosed an actual percentage, but we definitely have a sizable position in both Bitcoin and Ethereum, which I can say because we’ve disclosed that before. So that’s really all I’m comfortable saying.
TC: That Bitcoin is now so valuable has been a boon for Coinbase, which makes most of its revenue off transaction volume. Can you help readers understand how this company is worth $87 billion today? Presumably it won’t be as reliant on those fees going forward (owing to pressure from rival companies).
Sure, it’s definitely true that the company has plans to diversify from just purely transactional revenue, although make no mistake, transactional revenue continues to be an important segment of the business now but also in the future.
However, I think we see diversification away from that in terms of recurring subscriptions or services. The best way to think about Coinbase is that it’s at the ground floor in some ways, because right now you have 56 million people on the Coinbase platform but well over 100 million people around the globe doing things right now with crypto: buying it, selling, even holding crypto assets. And we really see that as the ground floor because we’re seeing projects that are enabling entirely new industries.
Within crypto, we’ve talked about one already: NFTs. There’s [decentralized finance]. But there’s just so much more out there, like digital identity.
One of the things we’ve seen with crypto is that we can’t always predict where those new behaviors or products and services will lead. I mean, when the iPhone came out, did we think that would lead to behaviors like ride hailing, the gig economy, TikTok streaming? One of the things that we see for Coinbase is that it’s very well-positioned — because it’s a crypto-first company — to capitalize on all kinds of different behaviors in the crypto economy that we don’t even yet know about.
TC: A lot of wealth was generated inside of Coinbase this week, with presumably a major divide between the haves and have nots. How does a company in this position deal with that issue?
KH: People who are attracted to Coinbase are attracted for a number of reasons. Economics is certainly one of them. But the candidates I see coming through Coinbase, there’s something about the vision that attracts them to the vision of the company and to crypto as a movement and as a technology.
I can also tell you that the management team is very much here for the long haul and is very much invested in building the future. At 7:22 a.m. the morning after the offering, [Coinbase sent out an email] saying: “Okay, on to the next thing, let’s keep the focus.” And by the way, the same thing was true when the price of Bitcoin hit $10,000. I just happened to be in the Coinbase offices and the mood was, let’s keep building.
TC: Can you comment on whether Andreessen Horowitz sold part of its shares in this week’s offering and if so, what percentage? I’m assuming that the firm took some money off the table.
KH: Unfortunately, I can’t comment on any of that.
Note: Because a16z is an RIA, Haun made clear during our interview that she wasn’t offering investment advice or directing her statements at any investor or prospective investor in a16z funds.