What Is Circle?

Circle is a Boston-based financial services company that uses blockchain technology for its peer-to-peer payments and cryptocurrency-related products. It was started in 2013 by Jeremy Allaire, who previously founded Brightove, a video platform company, and Sean Neville. Circle started as a consumer peer-to-peer cryptocurrency payments and exchange platform, sponsoring the popular cryptocurrency exchange Poloniex after the exchange experienced hardship 2017, and which was later spun out in October 2019.

In 2016 the company stopped offering its cryptocurrency wallet services. In June 2019 it was announced that the Circle Pay mobile and related web apps would be discontinued. As of 2020, the company's focus is on its stablecoin as "programmable dollars" for business use.

Key Takeaways

  • Circle is a blockchain-focused financial services and payments company launched in 2013.
  • Originally a consumer-facing P2P payments and cryptocurrency wallet & exchange app, the company has since refocused on commercial blockchain and crypto applications.
  • Circle launched a stablecoin in 2018 known as USD Coin, backed by actual dollars and pegged to $1 in value each.

How Circle Circle Works

Circle’s website states that its mission is to change the global economy. The company’s first product is an app called Circle Pay. The app was a bitcoin trading exchange. Circle Pay was the first exchange to be granted a BitLicense, New York state’s license for operating bitcoin exchanges. In its first couple of years, the company initially raised just under $140 million in funding and is backed by investment bank Goldman Sachs and Chinese search giant Baidu Inc., among others.  In 2018, Circle raised $110 million in venture capital to create a stablecoin on Ethereum coin backed by U.S. dollars, knows as USD Coin (USDC). 

The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) granted Circle an electronic money license. In December 2016, Circle Pay’s focus shifted to peer-to-peer payments or “global social payments." Circle also launched an open source software project in 2017 to promote payment technology.

The Circle App

Circle’s main product was an app called Circle Pay that enabled instant and free money transfer between individuals. The service was similar to Paypal’s Venmo in that it could be used for daily transactions, such as splitting meal costs or making rent payments. 

The Circle Pay app was popular with Millennials in Europe. According to the company, 90% of its customers there in 2017 were below 35 years of age and 60% were less than 25 years old. In June 2017, Circle Pay announced the integration of a free money transfer service between the United States and Europe. While announcing the launch, Circle founder Allaire said the company was working towards realizing its vision of no distinction between international and domestic money transfers. 

As of September 2019, the circle app is no longer supported.

Open-Source Blockchain Toolkit

Circle’s open source project is called Centre and is named after the Cent Routing Exchange protocol it uses. Transfers within the app take place using Centre tokens (CENT), an ethereum token. The project enables transfers between consumer digital wallets that support different currencies. It is also intended to help financial services company comply with existing regulations, such as KYC and AML, by enabling disclosure.

The project supports transfers in many countries around the world. For example, a user in the U.K. can convert British pounds to Korean won and transfer them to a digital wallet user in Korea using the app. 

Centre currently runs on ethereum’s blockchain but is designed to run on other blockchains as well. Allaire has said the protocol’s nodes will consist of payment technology apps, such as Paypal and Paytm. 

How Does Circle Make Money? 

Circle’s products are freely available in App stores and the company does not charge fees for transactions or transfers. It makes money through trading of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in Over the Counter (OTC) markets and at digital exchanges.

In an August 2017 tweet, Allaire said Circle was the second biggest crypto asset trader in the world. The company trades in bitcoin and ether and is a market maker on all major exchanges. It also provides OTC liquidity services to institutions. In the future, it may launch products that generate revenue.

“We will have future, higher-level products that we fully intend to be revenue-generating, but this first basic product needs to be free,” co-founder Sean Neville stated in a 2014 blog post. 

Circle’s Business Strategy

Circle processed $1 billion in transactions per month as of 2017 according to a statement from Allaire. It entered China, a massive market for payment apps, starting in 2016. The company’s focus in China is to “connect Chinese consumer's to the rest of the world” by enabling flow of payments going out or into China. For example, it could more easily facilitate money transfer operations for Chinese students studying abroad. 

Circle’s technology and idea of using blockchain-based tokens is similar to that of Ripple, another company focused on reducing the cost of international money transfer. However, both apps target different markets. According to Allaire, their product is targeted at users of payment apps, such as Paypal and Venmo. Ripple is working with banking institutions to implement its technology.