It was one year ago that Digital Currency Group, the leading investment firm in digital currency startups, bought CoinDesk, the leading trade publication that covers digital currency news. Now CoinDesk is making its own acquisition, its first ever: CoinDesk has bought Lawnmower, for an undisclosed price.
Lawnmower first launched in 2015 as a roundup app (a popular format these days for finance-related apps) for buying bitcoin. You would connect the app to a credit card, and it would round up the spare change on your transactions and use it to buy bitcoin. The purchases were made through a plug-in to Coinbase, the No. 1 US bitcoin wallet.
Last summer, Lawnmower shifted its buying model, ditching the roundup structure and instead allowing users to buy bitcoin any time they wish, and to have the app make a monthly purchase of a pre-set amount. “We viewed the spare change roundups as more of a limitation,” said cofounder and CFO Alex Sunnarborg at the time. “If you want a serious investment platform, spare change is going to be inherently low-volume.”
But the real value of Lawnmower was its data.
As the app evolved, its bitcoin price chart got better and better for users: visually clean, easy to adjust, updating in real time. (In my opinion, as a reporter who has covered bitcoin and blockchain since 2011, Lawnmower is the best mobile app for price data, while CoinDesk has the best desktop price charts.) Along the way, Lawnmower added price charts and data for additional digital currencies Ethereum, Ripple, and Litecoin. It also created its own Lawnmower Blockchain Index, a fund with different digital currencies, weighted by market cap. Tracking the performance of Lawnmower’s index provided a useful gauge of how these assets were performing overall.
Lawnmower’s data (on each coin’s price fluctuation, market cap, total supply, and trading volume) is why CoinDesk came calling. CoinDesk will roll Lawnmower’s data into its own desktop site and mobile app, and into its paid research reports, a business it is looking to expand. “Pretty much everything CoinDesk is doing is right in our skill set,” says Sunnarborg. (Lawnmower had even added news headlines to its app, so a sale to a news outlet makes some sense.) Lawnmower cofounders Pieter Gorsira and Patrick Archambeau will lead CoinDesk’s engineering team, while Sunnarborg will join CoinDesk’s research team as an analyst.
“While we were excited about Lawnmower’s buy/sell functionality and the traction they had made, we were much more intrigued by the data and market research elements,” says Ryan Selkis, who moved over from DCG to run CoinDesk’s business after DCG acquired it last year. DCG, led by Barry Silbert (who founded SecondMarket in 2004 and sold it to Nasdaq in 2015), has invested in 80 digital currency startups.
Lawnmower’s app will shut down soon, and CoinDesk will take the data elements, but not the bitcoin-buying functionality—specifically to avoid any ethical conflicts. “Since we did ultimately see a conflict with owning an app that facilitated the purchase of digital currencies, buy/sell functionality will not be included in the new CoinDesk app,” says Selkis.
Indeed, it would raise ethical red flags if a web site objectively covering bitcoin companies also offered users the ability to buy bitcoin. CoinDesk being owned by a bitcoin startup investment firm also might raise similar alarms, but at the time of purchase, DCG vowed to assemble strict walls between the CoinDesk editorial team and the CoinDesk business side. At the CoinDesk office, there is a literal wall between the editorial team and the business team.
“I think the divide with the new research department will be about figuring out where the research product makes sense,” says Sunnarborg, “and what the wall is between a long editorial feature piece, versus a paid research piece. It’s exciting stuff but definitely there’s a divide we will navigate.”
Selkis says that while the CoinDesk editorial team will remain strictly separate from the business side, “There may be some overlap with the product and research teams, none of which we view as detrimental to our [editorial] team given the removal of buy/sell functionality.”
Customers with bitcoin balances in Lawnmower will not need to transfer funds over, since all Lawnmower accounts exist through Coinbase accounts.
The bitcoin industry has seen a fair amount of consolidation in the past two years, especially among bitcoin exchange sites and particularly among non-US companies. To name a few: last year Kraken, which is US-based but does most of its trading volume in euros, bought New York-based exchange Coinsetter, after Coinsetter had previously bought Canadian exchange Cavirtex. Kraken also bought Dutch exchange CleverCoin. In 2015, Mexican exchange Bitso bought Mexican exchange Unisend.
Lawnmower had raised $200,000 in funding from firms including Draper Associates and Boost VC; it won’t share how many users it had amassed, but Sunnarborg says that once it shifted its bitcoin-buying model to automatic trading in a set amount, 80% of users chose the automatic trades. “What that says to me is this market moves so fast, a lot of people want a passive strategy so that they can just sit back and they don’t have to pay such close attention to the ups and downs each week. It’s a responsible strategy.”
In addition, once Lawnmower added price data for additional coins like Ripple and Litecoin, users took to them frequently. That has a lesson for bitcoin media like CoinDesk: “I think everyone is realizing they can’t just cover bitcoin and blockchain, they also need to cover Ethereum, Ripple, and so on. It’s proof that this is an interesting asset class.”
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering technology and sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.