When Circle previewed its bitcoin wallet and exchange platform in May, then in public beta, I called it the “CryptoBank of America.” It was a nod to the company’s focus on consumers, rather than merchants, its commitment to leading with free, easy to use, and aesthetically pleasing products, its desire to serve the underbanked, and its aim of challenging the legacy banking system. In other words, this wasn’t a futuristic financial platform for the pocket-protector class, but one for everyday folks.
Today, Circle removed the velvet ropes and launched its product publicly. A lot of what I like about Circle early on remains, but it seems I was wrong about at least one thing: My choice of “America” as a descriptor was a bit shortsighted. The most striking thing about today’s launch is Circle’s international focus.
Circle is available at launch to consumers across the globe. The platform supports 160 different currencies (responsively, based on a user’s IP address) and seven languages: Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, French, German and English – which it says in a blog post will allow it to “cover approximately 40% of the world’s population.”
Circle’s international users won’t yet be able to connect a bank account, but they can deposit money using a Visa or Mastercard or transfer in bitcoins purchased elsewhere. They’ll also be able to send bitcoin to any email address in the world using the Circle wallet.
It’s an unusual strategy, considering Coinbase, Xapo, and nearly all of the company’s others competitors have elected to restrict foreign usage until establishing banking partnerships in each individual market. It could allow Circle to onboard early adopters in these non-US markets, particularly those with existing bitcoin holdings who are interested in bitcoin commerce or speculative trading. But for mainstream users, local banking support is likely an essential feature, which means that Circle’s head start in foreign markets will be tied to its ability to outrace competitors in negotiating these banking relationships.
Relatedly, the first company to bridge the US with another major market for immigrant workers (like Mexico or the Philippines) could make a major splash by enabling zero-fee international remittances. But with Circle’s fee-free approach, this would be more impactful from a usage perspective than revenue generation. The company has had little to say about how it plans to monetize the service, but it would seem that additional services like lending and escrow would be natural additions.
As was the case during Circle’s early summer beta launch, where the product excels today is in its simplicity and ease of use. In an entry on its blog today, the company wrote:
When we set out to build Circle, we imagined a new kind of Internet-centric consumer financial service, one that the average person would find enjoyable and powerful, built on the promises of Bitcoin – instant, global, secure, free transactions.
Outlining its initial product aims, it points to:
Reduce[ing] the friction that so many people – even sophisticated, technology-savvy people – often experience in acquiring and spending Bitcoin. Starting today, people can onboard into a Circle account and begin using digital money within minutes, not days. And Circle eliminates the labyrinth of fees and complex user interfaces designed for traders.
So, the question is, did Circle succeed in this aim? As someone who’s used the product in beta for several months, I’d say, yes. Circle is every bit as aesthetically pleasing and intuitive as it was heralded pre-launch. It’s the first bitcoin product that I could conceivably see my mother using. The company also helped push the industry forward by being the first to announce fully-insured consumer wallet accounts – a feature that has since been duplicated by Coinbase and Xapo – further easing the transition from fiat to virtual-currency.
Where Circle still has room to improve is in mobile. The company teased upcoming native apps for both iOS and Android at a recent conference, but have yet to release anything into the wild. Until then, consumers will be relegated to using the inferior-by-comparison mobile Web version of the product. But this seems to be a fair compromise – and likely a short-lived one – for such a newly launched product. With $ 26 million raised from investors like General Catalyst Partners, Accel Partners*, Breyer Capital, Oak Investment Partners, Bitcoin Opportunity Fund, and Pantera Capital, there’s little doubt that the company will continue to iterate quickly.
Bitcoin has been called “the Internet for money (or value).” After several years of pundits (rightly) claiming that bitcoin was too abstract and too complicated to ever truly challenge fiat money, aka “cash,” Circle hints at a future where value may be as liquid as information. The company, and the crypto-currency ecosystem as a whole have a long way to go. But whereas before there were doubts as to whether bitcoin could ever be called “accessible,” Circle suggests this is no longer the case.
(*Disclosure: Accel is an investor in Pando.)