Aussies in the Valley: Coinbase product lead Reuben Bramanathan on why there are no tall poppies in San Francisco


Positioned at the bay end of San Francisco’s massive Market Street thoroughfare and stretching across three floors of one of the tallest buildings in the city, it’s hard to believe two years ago just 50 people worked at Coinbase.

So expansive are the offices of the multi-billion-dollar cryptocurrency exchange I quickly found myself lost in them, loitering awkwardly in a hallway as throngs of startup-types rushed past me, many in bright blue Coinbase shirts, and equally as many in deep conversation about Bitcoin.

The meteoric rise of cryptocurrency caught the world by surprise at the start of 2017, as a rising coin price of almost every major cryptocurrency and token was joined by an insane flurry of development and speculation.

Startups popped up seemingly overnight, brandishing a technical whitepaper and a hastily assembled founding team, asking for funding from a community who were more than willing to provide. Projects raised millions in literal seconds through hyperbolic initial coin offerings, with investors and founders alike hoping the project could be the ‘next Bitcoin’.

At the forefront of this development was Coinbase, founded in 2012 by Brian Armstrong and Fred Ehrsam. The company’s premise is a basic one: to provide a simple way for users to buy and sell leading cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum.

So as prices began to skyrocket, so did Coinbase’s users and trading volume, processing millions upon millions of crypto transactions daily as fledgling investors tried to jump on the crypto bandwagon. Today the company is rumoured to be worth over $10 billion, a significant coup for venture capitalists, which include Aussie firm Reinventure who backed the startup in 2015.

The company’s growth and positioning at the forefront of its industry has made it an attractive place to work for anyone with an interest in cryptocurrency, and the company has grown from 50 employees in 2014 to over 500 today, with the majority of them working out of its Front Street offices in San Francisco.

‘Where we make the Bitcoins’

One such employee is fellow Australian Reuben Bramanathan, who, after a flurry of panicked Whatsapp messages, comes to rescue me from my hallway, a full floor below where we were actually supposed to meet.

Finally on the right floor, we walk towards a cafeteria-cum-visitors section. “Welcome to where we make the Bitcoins,” he jokes as we walk through the doors and past a giant blue ‘Coinbase’ sign.

Seeing me chuckle, Bramanathan looks relieved. “You have no idea how many people think I’m serious when I say that,” he says.

Reuben Bramanathan. Source: Supplied.

We sit down at one of the few free tables in the cafeteria, the rest filled either with people lunching, chatting, or tapping away on their laptops. Bramanathan explains Coinbases’ growth has meant some staff have been forced to work in the cafeteria, with the company eyeing further office expansion beyond its already impressive three floors.

For Bramanathan, the former lawyer joined the startup in 2015 on the cusp of its launch, and now works as the product lead for Coinbase’s Asset Management division.

He tells StartupSmart while working at a large Australian law firm in 2013 he became interested in the cryptocurrency space, and attempted to pitch the partners at the firm the benefits of getting ahead of the curve by providing crypto-related advice to clients.

“That didn’t work out. In 2013 we were a bit early, so they just laughed me out the door,” he says.

Joining forces with some other Sydney-based lawyers, Bramanathan launched Adroit Lawyers which he ran for about a year before leaving for Silicon Valley.

“We helped out a lot of the early-stage exchanges, ATM providers and other crypto projects in Australia at the time, but again 2014 was a bit early for most of them,” he says.

“I realised as a lawyer the place I could have the most impact was in the US and at Coinbase, so in 2015 joined as one of four people on the legal team.”

Tall poppies slashed

Making the jump to Silicon Valley wasn’t as daunting for Bramanathan as might be expected. The founder says he was surprised about how easy it was to adapt to working in the Valley, drawing a lot of similarities between how the tech scene there operates and how it operates in Melbourne and Sydney.

“People are generally young, liberal, and not afraid of trying new things,” he says.

But moving from the world of law into a startup team of just 50 people was a bit of a culture shock, with Bramanathan saying he had to adjust to the company’s values which were unlike the values of anywhere he’d worked prior.

These included open and transparent communication and clear feedback, things which are “awesome” but shocking to get used to. The Aussie says, by and large, people are much more open in the US, which can be hard for Australians who are less inclined to crow about their achievements.

“We’re less good at self-promotion, so you have to turn it up a notch when you come over to the Valley. Be prepared to assert yourself, and you have to have a story,” he says.

“Everyone here wants to hear your story, not just your list of experience and skills. Craft a narrative about where you’re going.”

Bramanathan advises founders to “switch off” any inkling of tall poppy syndrome which is prevalent in Australia, saying failure, ambition and optimism is celebrated in San Francisco.

Australians do hold the upper hand when it comes to team-building, however, with local founders having a much different set of “soft skills” compared to a lot of US entrepreneurs.

Just last week it was announced Coinbase has closed a Series E raise of $US300 million ($423 million), bumping the company’s valuation even higher.

With this capital comes growth, which as a whole Bramanathan is excited for. However, the founder says he does sometimes miss the days when the startup was smaller.

“As a non-technical person, you can have a lot of influence in the early days as a bit of a generalist. But as growth happens, you have to be comfortable with your influence and visibility over the company being limited,” he says.

And while a cup full of sodden tea leaves has about as much chance as anyone in predicting the future movements of the cryptocurrency market, it’s likely no matter what happens, Coinbase will be here to steer the ship.

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