Coinbase: A Boring Story

COIN: A Founder’s Story is a documentary directed by Greg Kohs and centered around the rise of Coinbase and its CEO Brian Armstrong. Unfortunately for anybody hoping for an entertaining watch or to learn something about the inner workings of one of the largest US-based cryptocurrency exchanges, this “documentary” is, to be frank, boring.

Putting aside the fact that no one has ever asked to see the limp monotony of taking a company public, this doc also delves into… well… sorry, it doesn’t go below the surface of any topic it touches on.

The movie begins with Brian talking about growing up in Silicon Valley. If you think that means it examines his childhood or how SV shaped him, you’d be wrong. He just lets you know that’s where he grew up. His parents appear on screen to confirm this fact. He was sort of a nerd, they all state, knowing “nerd” is no longer the disparaging remark it used to be.

Brian goes to Rice University, which is only mentioned because it provides some semblance of a timeline. Then he’s off to Argentina so he can tell us about why he got deeply fascinated by Bitcoin (spoiler alert: it’s because of inflation in Argentina).

Eventually, Brian returns to the US to start Coinbase with Fred Ersham who, while not a particularly likable character, is at least relatable (he enjoys video games and has ADHD). This seems to be the driving force behind what little story exists over the excruciating 88 minutes of auto-fellatio – that Fred and Brian are friends and their partnership and ability to vibe together is what made Coinbase successful, even if Fred is no longer an executive.

Read more: Coinbase: Politics for me, but not for thee

Heavy message, bros

But what little glimpses that we get of the pair interacting — a rooftop barbecue at Fred’s house, wandering through Joshua Tree National Park asking each other if they’d make good frontiersmen — don’t show the difficulty of working together. We never see the tension, the arguments, the screaming matches. Instead, the entirety of their relationship is viewed through the thickest rose-colored glasses.

They throw in, at some point, that Coinbase was built to make cryptocurrency easier. Given that this is a Coinbase documentary, it’s funny how brief this point is. After all, when I became interested in cryptocurrency in 2017, Coinbase was the only “trusted” US exchange. I suppose times have changed.

At the risk of sounding a little nitpicky and cruel, the film’s cringiest moments come at the hands of the one and only Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at NYU, who first states, “the meek will inherit the Earth, but they’re not gonna inherit the NASDAQ.” Okay, whatever. Isn’t that the whole point of “The meek will inherit the Earth”?

He also makes one of the absolute worst sports analogies in documentary history. It goes like this:

“If you don’t have the ability to be beaned in the face and then get up, and… blood spewing everywhere, get back to the plate and try and swing harder, you know, you’re not meant to be an entrepreneur.”

For anyone unfamiliar with baseball — like Scott Galloway, apparently — this isn’t a thing that would ever happen. Usually, if you get hit by a pitch, you get a free walk to first base. Not only that, if you were unlucky enough to get beaned bad enough to leave you spewing blood, you’d likely be taken out of the game and sent to a hospital.

But I guess that means most baseball players simply aren’t built like entrepreneurs… or something.

The only slightly uncomfortable moment in the movie is when it’s acknowledged that hiring government-sponsored contract killers was a “mistake.” It feels as though, for Coinbase, this is much the same as a kid who’s caught with his hand in the cookie jar: the mistake is getting caught.

The documentary, of course, contains a who’s who of venture capitalists and commentators: Michael Saylor, Paul Graham, Vitalik Buterin, Brian Brooks, Hester Peirce, Scott Galloway, and Nas all make appearances. Unfortunately, they all contribute precisely nothing to the story. Vitalik Buterin’s input is to quite literally state that he visited Coinbase many years ago, told them he was busy with Ethereum, and wished them luck. Uh, not sure why we’re including this.

Read more: Coinbase calls bull***t on WSJ’s “proprietary trading” claims

The climax of the movie is the climax of Coinbase: getting listed on the NASDAQ. The day of listing is filled with dramatic music and people yelling on trading floors. There’s still, somehow, nothing exciting about it.

Fred Ersham’s father cries, wishing his own father was alive to see Coinbase go public. Again, what?

The most interesting takeaway from this film is simply that CEOs don’t like being dunked on and really care about the public perception of them. I’d even venture a guess that Brian Armstrong didn’t simply want this documentary to be boring, Brian Armstrong needed this documentary to be boring. Why?

To start, Coinbase isn’t exactly considered a company with high-value morals and ethics — battling rampant insider trading, working with seedy government contractors, and disallowing any political discourse in the office while offering ratings and recommendations for politicians within their app.

Meanwhile, while the documentary suggests Coinbase has suffered a 70% decline since IPO while the reality is it’s down more than 80% and has been for almost five months. Investors can’t be copasetic about their investment.

All of this internal strife is undoubtedly weighing heavily on Brian and his employees’ shoulders, creating real problems and standoffs, moments viewers could easily be invested in. But, much like the company itself, none of the opportunities are grasped and you’re left wondering “Is there any value here, or did I just get ripped off again?

Anyway, the reason the goal of the documentary is “boring” as opposed to “entertaining” is the same reason The Social Network helped destroy Mark Zuckerburg’s reputation: if you can paint yourself as boring as opposed to evil, you win. Mark screwed up and Brian is hoping that with this… thing… he can turn the tide that’s rising against him and avoid the errors Zuckerburg made by never addressing his detractors in any way, shape, or form. At least, Brian would have you think, this is something.

It’s worth noting that while Coinbase paid $2 million for this piece of propaganda, I can never be properly repaid for the 88 minutes I spent watching it. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t try to sit through COIN.

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