Downplaying Bitcoin, Circle Downloads $60M For China, Europe Push

Circle Internet Financial aims to make transferring money to a friend across town or on the other side of the world as easy as sending a text message. That plan got a big boost with Wednesday’s announcement of a $60 million windfall from mostly Chinese investors and the formation of a Beijing-based venture that will work to bring Circle’s mobile payments service to the world’s most populous country.

Founded in 2013, Boston-based Circle uses blockchain—the distributed ledger technology that powers the digital currency bitcoin—to enable users to send and receive payments instantly, without fees, via mobile messages that can be personalized with pictures, emojis, GIFs, and so on.

The company got its start as a bitcoin payments service, but has since expanded to traditional currencies. Circle stopped marketing itself as a bitcoin service in recent months, after it raised a $50 million venture round last year and added the capability to send money in U.S. dollars. Bitcoin isn’t mentioned on Circle’s home page, nor was the word used even once in the company’s blog post announcing the $60 million raise yesterday.

Currently, Circle users can transfer money in the form of U.S. dollars, U.K. pound sterling, and bitcoin, including the ability to convert between any of those currencies. Circle said Wednesday it will add euros in the next month with the launch of its service in Spain, part of a broader push into Europe. And its independent China venture, established six months ago, is working on securing regulatory approvals to offer its service there and add China’s renminbi to the company’s currency options.

“We founded Circle on the vision that we should all be able to exchange value the same way we share content, information, and messages on the Internet,” Circle founders Jeremy Allaire and Sean Neville wrote in a blog post Wednesday. “Money should work the way that the Internet works—instant, global, free, open, and fun. Executing on that vision involves connecting the world’s major currency zones.”

China represents a significant opportunity for Circle, given that mobile payments are already hugely popular there. “Messaging and payments, [peer-to-peer] lending, and novel forms of saving and investment, powered by the Internet and software, are accelerating at an incredible pace in China, outpacing the West,” Neville and Allaire wrote in the blog post.

But gaining a foothold in China could be difficult. If Circle gets the green light to operate there, it will be up against more established China-based competitors like Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay, which respectively boast 760 million users and 450 million users worldwide, according to Bloomberg. “We don’t have any belief that we can come in and dethrone those products, but there’s an opportunity for Chinese consumers that want to share value globally with friends in other parts of the world,” Allaire, Circle’s CEO, said in the Bloomberg report.

Circle’s China-based investors might be able to boost its efforts there. The new venture round was led by prior Circle backer IDG Capital Partners, the Beijing-based venture firm. China-based Baidu, CICC Alpha, China Everbright Limited, Wanxiang, and CreditEase also invested. U.S. backers in this round include Breyer Capital, General Catalyst Partners, former IBM chief executive Sam Palmisano, and Silver Lake co-founder Glenn Hutchins.

Circle has raised $136 million from investors to date. The company said it expects to process more than $1 billion in transactions this year.

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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