Indian crypto exchanges are in survival mode, cutting costs wherever possible, re-negotiating partner contracts, suspending employee pay-hikes, conducting lay-offs, exploring new revenue models and rebranding themselves, all in an effort to extend their financial runways – when they run out of money.
CoinDesk spoke to employees and senior executives at six prominent Indian crypto platforms – CoinDCX, CoinSwitch, WazirX, BuyUCoin, ZebPay and Giottus. Several of these exchanges said their runways range from 21 months to four years, which can, if true, likely take them into the next bull market. CoinSwitch and ZebPay did not share their financial runway timelines.
The survival of India’s crypto exchanges has been a concern since Feb. 1, 2022, when the nation announced stiff taxes – a 30% tax on crypto profits and the more controversial 1% tax deducted at source (TDS) on all transactions. At the time, local industry leaders said they had entered a “period of pain” but that “ultimately, technology always emerges, it always wins.”
Signs of a crypto “brain drain” emerged within weeks. Ten days after the taxes were implemented, crypto trading volumes plummeted, in some cases more than 70%. India’s government then imposed a “shadow ban,” which saw local payment processors cut off banking access to crypto exchanges.
Four months into the imposition of the 30% tax, the industry’s advocacy body was disbanded and enforcement agencies were investigating at least 10 crypto exchanges for allegedly assisting foreign firms launder money via crypto. Soon, the world took note and global industry leaders such as Binance CEO Changpeng ‘CZ’ Zhao claimed India’s taxes would probably “kill the industry” in the country.
By 2023, data revealed crypto traffic in the nation continued its nosedive and that Indians had moved more than $3.8 billion in trading volume from local to international crypto exchanges.
India, as president of the Group of 20 (G-20) in 2023, has prioritized framing globally coordinated rules for the crypto sector. As a result, experts say, it needed to align with the guidelines of the global standard setter, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on virtual assets by including Indian crypto business under anti-money laundering rules.
This move, which adds some legitimacy to the sector by way of setting up regulatory oversight, has fueled a little optimism among Indian exchanges on the local industry’s longevity, even if the nation doesn’t change its tax regime, according to several industry officials. But they don’t have an answer to what happens if the tax regime stays the same – and are taking various steps to guard against such a scenario.
Indian crypto exchange CoinDCX is weathering the storm by diversifying and banking on its recent series D funding of $135 million.
“We have a runway of four years,” under present conditions, said Neeraj Khandelwal, co-founder of CoinDCX and Okto. “Our biggest bet is on our Okto Wallet. We believe DeFi [decentralized finance] will offer 10X value eventually as only 6.5 million DeFi customers exist, while there are 400 million crypto investors.”
CoinDCX has been leading engagement with lawmakers through the industry’s policy advocacy body, Khandelwal said, exemplified by a recent event, and has emerged as a major player in the Indian crypto industry after recent setbacks faced by WazirX, who ostensibly led the industry in policy engagement before CoinDCX.
Its strategy, Khandelwal says, is “investing heavily in innovation and technology,” including hiring in the space “even now” as we “never overhired.”
The exchange’s future seemed uncertain when its founder Nischal Shetty moved from India to Dubai to focus on a new project late last year. Later, Indian agencies that were investigating local crypto exchanges raided properties tied to a director of WazirX. Shortly after, Binance CEO Zhao and Shetty were involved in a public spat over who truly controls the exchange – a quarrel that continues to this day.
The events have seen the exchange lay off 40% of its staff. Yet, the exchange has a 21-month runway, said an employee who was not authorized to speak publicly about the company. “But employees who deserve pay hikes won’t be getting them,” he said.
WazirX’s survival strategy is to renegotiate contracts with partners including software vendors, the person said. Unlike some other exchanges, WazirX will not be diversifying. It will stay focused on crypto.
“That’s what the founders enshrined into us,” the person said. “The idea is to survive because [the] Bitcoin halving is going to happen in May 2024 when, we hope, a bull run will come. By then, if things don’t break, we should be around to see it.” The Bitcoin halving is when the total number of bitcoin that miners can potentially win is halved. This happens roughly every four years.
WazirX also plans to “keep chipping away at costs constantly to extend the runway” and capitalize on its 15 million registered users to attract lucrative partnerships, like a recent one with tax solutions provider TaxNodes.
CoinSwitch shed “Kuber” from its previous name, CoinSwitch Kuber, and pivoted from being a crypto exchange to a crypto investment platform.
“CoinSwitch has always been conscious of its expenses,” said Ashish Singhal, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “Today, we are proudly serving more than 19 million registered users, and are excited to grow and evolve with them by providing them with a diverse range of investment options, including fixed deposits (FD), mutual funds, Indian stocks, and more.”
Singhal also said his company has “strengthened its leadership team by hiring industry experts,” presumably to navigate regulators, even if he added that the recent step to bring crypto businesses under anti-money laundering rules was a “significant positive advancement.”
One of India’s first crypto exchanges, ZebPay, also refused to share a timeline on its runway. But Chief Revenue Officer Nirmal Ranga said it had support from an unnamed subsidiary in Singapore, in the event it loses customers, the bear market extends or things generally go from bad to worse.
“Our internal revenue strategy is to increase the lending value of our customers and concentrate on user growth,” Ranga said. “We are also trying to create interest for institutional investment.”
Given ZebPay’s team has seen crypto’s early up and down cycles, it follows two ways to survive – “use profits made during previous bull runs or use funds from marketing partnerships or investors,” Ranga said. Like WazirX, ZebPay also has a partnership with TaxNodes.
Another early player in the Indian crypto space, BuyUCoin, said its runway extends until early 2025.
“By the end of 2024, we will see a good bull run,” said Atulya Bhatt, its co-founder. “Crypto is a seasonal market and every four years bitcoin goes up and down. It will take 10 years for crypto to become completely sustainable.”
Nevertheless, BuyUCoin had to lay off 10% of its 100 people workforce, Bhatt said. At the same time, BuyUCoin has set up sister companies in Estonia and Singapore as part of a global expansion plan.
“Since we have never raised funds, we can now, given interest from partners across the globe,” he said.
After FTX’s implosion, crypto entities scrambled to publish proof of reserves. Giottus, a lesser-known Indian exchange recognized for its staking service and multilingual options in the country, said it would provide customers with proof of reserves, while rivals remained silent.
“We have a two-year runway under the current conditions,” said Vikram Subburaj, Giottus’ co-founder and CEO. “Our focus is completely on bringing in operational excellence, building your products right, drastically cutting marketing and acquisition expenses, and reducing perceived risks associated with exchanges.”
In terms of employees, Subburaj said Giottus had a compact marketing team even during bull runs and like others, it partnered with TaxNodes to improve operational support.
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