CNBC Disruptor 50

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong owns close to $14 billion of company stock ahead of market debut

Key Points
  • Brian Armstrong, Coinbase's co-founder and CEO owns 39.6 million shares of the company heading into its direct listing.
  • Based on an average private market price this year of $343.58, his stake is worth $13.6 billion.
  • Should the stock trade at or near those levels, Armstrong would become the latest tech founder to join the "decabillionaire" club.
Coinbase co-founder and CEO Brian Armstrong speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018.
Steve Jennings | Getty Images for TechCrunch

When Coinbase hits the public market in the coming weeks, CEO Brian Armstrong is poised to rank among the wealthiest people in tech.

Armstrong, who co-founded the cryptocurrency exchange in 2012 after working for a year at Airbnb, owns 39.6 million Coinbase shares, between his Class A and Class B holdings. His stake is worth $13.6 billion, based on an average private market share price this year of $343.58, according to the company's updated prospectus.

Unlike most tech founders, Armstrong will be able to sell shares right away after Coinbase goes public. That's because there's no lock-up period as part of Coinbase's direct listing, which differs from an IPO in that the company doesn't raise fresh capital but instead allows existing shareholders to sell stock on the open market.

Assuming Coinbase's private trading is indicative of where the stock will open, Armstrong will become the newest member of a growing group of tech "decabillionaires." Headlined at the top by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Tesla's Elon Musk, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, who are all worth over $100 billion, the list of tech's mega-rich has expanded significantly in recent years from surging valuations and new IPOs.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, who took his video chat company public in 2019, is worth over $16 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Atlassian co-founders Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes are each worth close to $14 billion, thanks to their company's 2015 IPO and the stock's subsequent run-up. Jack Dorsey's net worth has ballooned past $13 billion, mostly because of Square's rally. Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke and Snap's Evan Spiegel are both worth over $10 billion.

Most of Armstrong's wealth appreciation has come in the past year or so as the value of Coinbase's stock in private trades jumped more than 10-fold. The company gets most of its revenue from the trading and storage of bitcoin, which has soared more than 700% in the past year, and ethereum, which is up well over 1,000%.

Bitcoin and ethereum over 12 months
CNBC

But Armstrong has been in the middle of controversy as well. In a blog post in September, Armstrong told employees that, at a time when tensions were high because of the pandemic, protests for racial justice and a heated presidential election, Coinbase would not be a company focused on activism.

"The reason is that while I think these efforts are well intentioned, they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division," Armstrong wrote. 

A couple months later, the New York Times ran an expose on Coinbase, detailing Black employees' allegations of unfair treatment at the company, including pay discrimination. Coinbase preemptively published a blog post attempting to refute the claims.

None of that has impaired the company's growth, as private trades reached record levels in recent weeks ahead of the direct listing. But Coinbase does acknowledge in the risk factors section of its prospectus that a bet on the company is, at least in part, a bet on Armstrong.

Hefty incentives

"Because we are a founder-led company, actions by, or unfavorable publicity about, Brian Armstrong, our co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, may adversely impact our brand and reputation," the filing says. "Such negative publicity also could have an adverse effect on the size and engagement of our customers and could result in decreased revenue, which could have an adverse effect on our business, operating results, and financial condition."

Armstrong is heavily incentivized to keep the momentum going. He was paid a salary of $1 million last year, though his total compensation topped $59 million with all his option awards.

In August, Armstrong was granted a multibillion-dollar performance award, giving him the ability to purchase 9.29 million options at $23.46 over 10 years. The awards are all based on the company's stock trading at a certain price for 60 days. Based on the private market price, roughly three-quarters of the award will vest in short order. The highest tranche vests at $400.

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