“We’re working with the regulators to basically sign off on [re]launching Coins.Pro Exchange and in conjunction to that, we’re basically in the early stages of developing a Coins.ph Token, which we would like to use to reward our users. So I’m dropping a lot of alpha here!” – Wei Zhou, CEO, Coins.ph.
In an all-encompassing interview with BitPinas, Wei Zhou, the former CFO of Binance and now the new CEO of Coins.ph, the leading locally-licensed crypto exchange in the Philippines, discussed how he got into this position and how plans to bring the brand back to its crypto native roots. He also discussed plans to address user issues through the years – such as fees for creating ETH wallets and prices in general.
Before the interview started, Wei clarified reports that he bought Coins.ph from GoJek, the Indonesian tech giant for $200 million. “The actual investor was not myself [but] I am part of the investor group,” he said, while also confirming that he was officially appointed not just as CEO of Coins.ph, but the entire holding company that houses the local brand and Coins.th in Thailand.
“So two entities and the investor behind that is actually a technology buyout firm called Joffre Capital. We’ll have more disclosure on that going forward, so I want to correct that error first.”
Today April 12, 2022, Coins.ph officially announced that the deal has been finalized and has received regulatory approval.
“We have seen digital assets and Web3 applications impact everyday life in the Philippines and are honored to have the opportunity to build fully regulated products and services that will enable financial freedom for our users,” Wei said.
“As a technology-focused buyout investor, Joffre Capital sees tremendous opportunity for value creation in Coins.ph to be innovative and crypto native to serve the digital-first users in the Philippines and other regions in the future,” the buyout firm said in a statement.
Timeline of Wei Zhou x Coins.ph
Coins.ph Appeared in Binance Weekly Research
Wei admitted that his first memory of Coins.ph was in 2018 when it came up from their weekly traffic analysis data at Binance. “That was interesting. There’s this Filipino app that has like a couple of million users, that’s massive at that point, right? For a crypto business to have that, that’s pretty significant,” he said. In 2019, he reached out to Ron Hose, the founder of Coins.ph, for a possible deal with Binance but at this point the company had just been sold to GoJek. (“I remembered this very vividly because I was having this conversation with Ron while driving and physically living in Beijing.”)
By 2022, Wei is no longer with Binance. GoJek, on the other hand, was looking to divest Coins.ph to focus on Indonesia as it recently merged with another Southeast Asian giant Tokopedia to form GoTo. “They basically were divesting their assets and holdings in the Philippines and Thailand – legacy things that they did not want to invest additional resources.”
Working with Joffre Capital to Acquire Coins.ph
Now ex-Binance Wei quickly saw the opportunity. “In my mind, all those previous memories (the weekly data at Binance and the conversation with Ron) kind of triggered it,” he said, adding that soon after, he caught up with connections in the private equity and buyout industry to work on the deal together, him in his personal capacity and Joffre Capital in their professional capacity as a tech buyout fund.
The deal took time to negotiate, until finally, they cleared the final hurdle – regulatory approval. Coins.ph is a regulated crypto exchange in the Philippines and holder of two important licenses – e-money issuer and virtual asset service provider license. “We needed to have the deal vetted (by the regulators), who’s the previous controlling shareholder, who are the new controlling shareholder, the management team as well.”
“One thing that’s really cool about Coins.ph is that we actually have all the necessary licenses to carry on our current business. And then we also have a very hungry user base in the Philippines who want to be engaged, who want to use things in their native language and the native culture in their native environment,” Wei added.
Crediting the Post-GoJek Acquisition team
E-Wallet Race with PayMaya and GCash
After GoJek acquired Coins.ph in 2019, there were observations that the exchange suddenly became very complacent. The last time it added a new token was in 2018. The post-acquisition phase of Coins.ph saw the exchange trying to battle it out in the e-wallet space dominated by PayMaya and GCash, firms backed by the the largest telcos (and prominent families) in the Philippines. Today, Coins.ph has 16 million users. PayMaya and GCash have 38 million and 51 million users respectively.
In context though, 2019 was the crypto bear market. 2017 mania was clearly gone, initial coin offerings (where companies launched their own coins to fund their businesses) were over. The bear market hit the hardest at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.
At this point, Coins.ph was fully with GoJek while Ron remained as its CEO. When asked by BusinessWorld, Ron said he figured there was a bigger opportunity in mobile money vs cryptocurrency since Day 1 of Coins.ph. “That’s the difference between us and the others. We are looked at as a blockchain company, but for me, blockchain was always the means but not the end. We are focused on providing financial access to our customers,” Ron told the publication.
Ron eventually left Coins.ph. Its next CEO, Hassan Ahmed, did not stay that long at the helm and moved on to become the CEO of Coinbase Southeast Asia. Nauman Mustafa became its interim CEO before Wei arrived.
What Losing a Founder Could Mean to Coins.ph
“Anytime a company gets sold, and then the management team transitions from a sort of a founder mentality, I think there’s going to be differences,” said Wei, who admitted going through that phase multiple times before. “There’s going to be different motivations. There’s going to be different drives.”
But Wei attributed the pandemic as one of the reasons why managing Coins.ph became a bit of a challenge for its acquirers. “With all the uncertainties in the world [coupled with] an inability to sort of meet, these deals are done [by] people who might have never met. It’s sort of like strange people meeting for the first time,” Wei said, noting that GoJek itself is a fast growing business in its home country.
And with that climate, Wei thinks credit must be given to the previous management team for keeping the train running. “They may not have added new things until last year and recently, but at least the train ran on time. I’ve seen a lot of scenarios with these kinds of acquisitions where the train stopped running when the founders leave,” he said, noting that the new management intends to do a refresher.
And then there’s Axie Infinity
But how will that be done? By 2021, the crypto community in the Philippines was no longer the same Coins.ph users that GoJek saw in 2019. A whole new segment of users – like 1.5 to 2 million Filipinos and possibly more – have been onboarded to crypto by playing Axie Infinity.
The year prior, unlikely entrepreneurs have found out they can rent in-game assets called Axies to their friends, who will then play the game in order to earn the cryptocurrency called SLP. In a month, the player (now called a “scholar”) and the entrepreneur (called a “manager”). At that time, there was no direct way to convert these SLPs to money, so the managers will go through the complicated process of cashing out first on MetaMask, converting the SLP there to ETH via an exchange called UniSwap, and then transferring that ETH to Coins.ph before finally converting it to pesos, the local currency.
Axie Infinity catapulted to mainstream discussion and by now, most of the major exchanges are supporting play-to-earn gamers.
How Coins.ph Will Support Play-to-Earn
To fully support and on-board these new cryptocurrency users, Wei admitted Coins.ph has to redevelop. “I think we basically have to put a whole new product on the face of Coins.ph for this audience,” he said, noting that as a platform, they need to provide a safe, fast, and cheap service for this new segment, which are composed of asset owners like the guilds and the players themselves. Wei said because Coins.ph now supports the Ronin sidechain, allowing users to quickly transfer and out of Axie Infinity, SLP volume on the platform shot up to “a couple of million dollars a day.”
And because Coins.ph is also a mobile wallet, where users can buy load or pay their bills, “you don’t have to move it like five times before you can spend it, you can spend it right away. I think that’s one of the unique value propositions that Coins.ph has that banking apps and international exchanges do not have.”
Changing Perception and Adding More Support
The local crypto perception, at least from what this writer has observed, is that people think Coins.ph is slow, stuck with Bitcoin, and does not keep up with the times. What does Coins.ph plans to do to change this brand perception? Wei said this is through the products that are currently in their pipeline.
[Free!] Ethereum Wallets
“A lot of these things just take time to come out. In terms of prices, in terms of free Ethereum wallets, in terms of the cost and the spread, in terms of KYC backlog, random freezing of accounts, I think we’re actively working on all of that.”
Currently, creating an Ethereum wallet costs a fee inside the Coins.ph, and this should be free to begin with. (I remember also paying 20 pesos for creating my Ethereum wallet back in 2018, but right now, Ethereum wallet creation inside the app charges between 2,000 pesos to as high as 6,000 pesos.)
Wei said this is due to the technology that Coins.ph currently has, and this, he plans to address and eliminate. “There has not been any sort of real changes in the technology platform for the last couple of years. This is one of the major upgrades that we will be doing,” he answered, while also adding plans to support other blockchains as well.
Miss Universe Philippines
The press release sent today also mentioned Coins.ph becoming more active with the local crypto community. “Coins.ph plans to be much more active in the local community through online and offline events sponsorships, as well as regular user engagement and financial education initiatives,” it said. One of the activities is supporting Miss Universe Philippines. “I think [Miss Universe] is a powerful platform to deliver financial awareness. I would like to work with them long term. And you know, Miss Philippines historically has been very successful in Miss Universe and we look to support the winner to go global,” Wei said during the BitPinas interview.
More Blockchain Support
Wei also mentioned a Coins.ph rebrand but acknowledged they will first be hiring more people and putting more resources on those aspects of the business.
But their main focus? Adding more tokens and products, and the new CEO said it will be a challenging task because of the current Coins.ph infrastructure. “There’s technical challenges in terms of managing that, you have to add additional blockchain support, Solana support, Avalanche support, Polygon support, BSC support, we’re looking to add additional token support,” Wei mentioned, while adding that they are planning to have a new app release soon as well.
National Crypto Brand
When it comes to perception, Wei said he wants to make Coins.ph the national crypto brand.
“Like you have Coinbase in the United States, WazirX in India, I think in each region, you kind of have like a national champion, and I want to build Coins.ph to sort of like the National Champion of the Philippines in terms of bringing the industry with us and bringing users to us, and working with regulators.”
In a Facebook post, Luis Buenaventura II, remarked on this particular quote from Wei, which BitPinas previously published. Luis said it was interesting because “for about 5 years it already was. I’ve lost track of how many times people in international crypto conferences have found out that I’m from the Philippines and immediately asked if I worked for Coins.ph.” Before his current role as Head of YGG Pilipinas, Luis co-f0unded BloomX, which was the first locally-licensed crypto exchange to support SLP to Pesos transactions.
But Wei appears to have said this in acknowledgement of the efforts that Coins.ph competition have done to grow the Philippine crypto industry since 2019. (Coinbase itself is hiring a country director in the Philippines though recently PayMaya revealed Coinbase was its partner in creating their crypto product.)
“I go back to the DNA of the company. I think Coins.ph, its original DNA is crypto first. I think they’ve sort of put that on pause, and I want to shift and I want to go back to that DNA. I want to go back to being sort of like the most crypto native platform, serving the largest number of users.”
This interview is published on BitPinas: [Exclusive Interview] Wen Coins Token? Wen Free Ethereum Wallets? Coins.ph CEO Wei Zhou Plans to Make the Brand More Crypto Native