Square Buys Bitcoin; Coinbase and the Call for “Mission-Focus”


When we asked a dozen-odd fintech founders and CEOs what they thought was a bigger deal: AI or Bitcoin, during our FinovateFall 25 in 5 Q&A series, the number of respondents more excited by the former than the latter was sizable. But bitcoin fans made their preference known, suggesting that the brightest days for cryptocurrencies were definitely still ahead of us.

We suspect those bitcoin bulls were buoyed by this week’s news that digital payments company Square has invested $50 million in bitcoin. The approximately 4,709 bitcoins purchased by the San Francisco, California-based company represent a fraction of Square’s total assets – around one percent, as of the end of Q2 2020 – but it is not the first time the company has expressed interest in the cryptocurrency. Via its Cash App, Square has offered bitcoin trading since 2018, and a year later, the company launched Square Crypto, a unit dedicated to supporting open source work on bitcoin. But this week’s investment marks the firm’s first financial investment in BTC.

Square CFO Amrita Ahuja explained the investment in part by expressing optimism about bitcoin’s adoption worldwide, saying that it has “the potential to be a more ubiquitous currency in the future.” Ahuja added that Square anticipated participating in the adoption of bitcoin “in a disciplined way.”

It is likely worth noting that Square founder and CEO Jack Dorsey is a big supporter of bitcoin. In 2018, Dorsey said he believed bitcoin – or a similar cryptocurrency – would become the world’s single currency at some point in the not-too-distant future. CNBC’s coverage of Square’s investment noted that other tech-savvy fintechs, such as Chamath Palihapitiya’s Social Capital use cryptocurrencies like bitcoin as a hedge.

As the Black Lives Matter-inspired social justice movement swept through the Western world this summer, corporations went into overdrive with efforts to show their support for ending racial discrimination. Many of these initiatives were outwardly directed toward potential customers, potential future employees, investors, the media, the public at large … But many of these attempts to show support were more inwardly directed, with companies encouraging their own workers to make their concerns with regard to social justice issues known – even, if not especially, in the workplace.

Unique among this trend was Coinbase, whose CEO Brian Armstrong not only took a different tack to politics in the workplace, but also put the company’s money behind its Keep Your Politics to Yourself policy. Armstrong made headlines weeks ago when he wrote in a blog post that, because Coinbase was a “mission-focused” company, “We don’t engage here when issues are unrelated to our core mission, because we believe impact only comes with focus.” Moreover, he added that if employees disagreed with Coinbase’s policy of leaving politics at the front door, he was happy to offer them a relatively generous severance (including up to six months of pay depending on tenure) if they decided to leave.

“Life’s too short to work at a company that you are not excited about,” Armstrong wrote, requesting his employees decide whether to stay or go by the end of September. And with Armstrong’s Wednesday deadline come and gone, it appears that 60 workers, approximately 5% of the Coinbase’s workforce, have taken the deal.

The move has been controversial, with others in the technology community – including Jack Dorsey of Square and Twitter – suggesting that a healthier environment could be achieved if companies like Coinbase embraced the challenge of these kind of conversations. But, at this point, Armstrong seems at a minimum happy that the policy did not result in what would have easily been the worst possible outcome. “I’ve heard a concern from some of your that this clarification would disproportionately impact our under-represented minority population at Coinbase,” Armstrong wrote in a follow-up blog post. “It was reassuring to see that people from under-represented groups at Coinbase have not taken the exit package in numbers disproportionate to the overall population.”

It will be worth watching to see if other companies – in or out of tech – take a similar strategy.

Photo by Worldspectrum from Pexels