Brian Armstrong is being patted down with a makeup sponge as a big green screen looms behind him.
“Coinbase is a company with an ambitious vision: to create more economic freedom,” he reads off a teleprompter, but flubs the final part of the line. “We’ll try that one again.”
The stoic, bald Armstrong, clad in a favorite black jacket, is standing on an empty stage, reciting lines about Coinbase, the company he founded, for a promotional video for investors. A self-described introvert, Armstrong is notoriously averse to media appearances, except in the right context—including taping the 88-minute-long documentary COIN, which the company commissioned.
The film, released in early October, documents Coinbase’s scrappy beginnings as a Bitcoin exchange in 2012 all the way through its public direct listing in 2021. But it wraps up before the turmoil of the current year, which has seen Coinbase wrestle with lackluster product rollouts, bungled launches in new countries, and grim earnings.
These recent events have prompted withering media accounts about the company as a whole and, by implication, Armstrong’s leadership. This crested in June when Coinbase slashed headcount by 18%—a move that came just days after Armstrong published an inflammatory Twitter thread in which he chastised dissatisfied employees for criticizing executives and suggested they “quit.”
The question today for Coinbase employees and investors alike is whether Armstrong, who founded the company a decade ago, is still the best fit to be CEO.
“There’s always going to be a question when you have the founder of a company, the one who establishes the vision, about whether that individual is the best person to actually execute toward that vision. And I think that that’s what we’re facing right now,” says BTIG managing director and analyst Mark Palmer, who covers Coinbase.
Fortune spoke with former employees, analysts, early investors, and others, who described a methodical and dedicated CEO generally admired by his employees—but whose decisions have placed Coinbase in a precarious position.
Coinbase’s rocky year
The history of Coinbase and its CEO is well known: Brian Armstrong grew up as a self-described “shy” kid in San Jose. After discovering the Bitcoin white paper in 2010, Armstrong started Coinbase and enrolled it in the famous Silicon Valley Y Combinator program in 2012. He had a simple but compelling vision: make it easy for anyone to buy and sell Bitcoin.
Since those early days, the company has grown dramatically and today offers services like staking (the crypto version …….