The crypto payments space is seeing a surge of activity these days as developers strive to make decentralized finance as user-friendly as web2 experiences.
Eco Inc., an a16z-backed payments startup that’s raised $95 million in funding to date, just unveiled a decentralized payments project called Beam. In an interview with TechCrunch, the company’s CEO Andy Bromberg described Beam as a non-custodial payment system that functions like a “global Venmo.”
The wallet’s non-custodial nature means that no centralized party, such as a bank or exchange, has access to users’ funds. This is an increasingly attractive feature for consumers, especially after the FTX implosion. The wallet is not linked to one’s identity, making it an ideal choice for those who want financial privacy.
The challenge facing many self-custodial wallets, according to Bromberg, is that they require users to be crypto-savvy. Beam’s goal is to make decentralized wallets intuitive enough that even people new to crypto can be onboarded within minutes.
To begin using Beam, users need only visit the wallet’s website, where a QR code linked to a wallet address is automatically generated. From there, they can transfer USDC stablecoins from their existing wallets or use the popular on-ramp service, Moonpay, to convert fiat into crypto.
To transfer funds to others, users can share a wallet URL that contains the cryptocurrencies. This means that the receiver doesn’t need to already have a crypto wallet set up in order to receive the tokens.
While these features may seem straightforward compared to the wide range of options available on Web 2.0 payment apps, the reality is that “it’s so much harder to do things decentralized,” as Bromberg noted.
“The promise of crypto is self-custody, decentralization, censorship resistance — all these things, and if you want to maintain those in a product, it adds all sorts of developer friction to build that,” he said. “What we’re really proud of here is [Beam] is the closest I’ve seen to a web2 experience.”
The app is “instantly globally available,” added Bromberg. Traditional financial products, in comparison, “need to be launched country by country because you have to be touching the banking rails in every country.”
Beam is not trying to compete with other wallets on the market, many of which tend to serve general purposes, like logging into decentralized apps, said the CEO. Rather, it’s “more like a payments wallet built with guardrails.”
“It does a narrow set of things and only support certain tokens and certain interactions,” he said. “I think it actually decreases the chance that people get scammed or defrauded.”
In its early stage, Beam is targeting peer-to-peer payment scenarios and strives to eat into the global Venmo use case — especially in dollarized regions outside the U.S. Its more ambitious goal down the road is to become the global Visa.
Blockchain’s technical progress
With new technical upgrades emerging in the blockchain ecosystem every few months, Eco has had to stay on top of the constant development.
“I think literally until the last few months, it wasn’t possible to build something that felt as seamless and easy as cash,” said Bromberg. “And now it is with account abstraction, roll-up development and new blockchains, that we’ve built this really compelling, really easy wallet.”
Simply put, account abstraction allows developers to add new functionalities such as social recovery to wallets, eliminating the vexing 16-word seed phrase and improving the usability of self-hosted wallets. Account abstraction has been possible thanks to a new Ethereum standard, ERC-4337, which has given rise to a new class of wallets called “smart contract wallets,” which are programmable.
Building on a smart contract, Beam has its access keys sharded into three places — one’s Twitter account, a password they set up and their browser, any two of which can reconstruct the original key.
The issue with some smart contract wallets, according to Bromberg, is that they are serving crypto-native users. For instance, one needs to already own Ether in order to send USDC.
“That’s like saying, in order to send someone dollars, you need to have like Venezuelan currency in your wallet. It doesn’t really make any sense for consumers,” Bromberg suggested. Instead, Beam lets users pay a fixed fee in USDC when they transfer USDC.
Beam is also replacing long, confusing wallet addresses with ENS domain names, which are decentralized identities running on Ethereum. Within Beam, users can create their own ENS names by paying with the native Eco tokens. Say I have registered “rita.beam.eco,” and my name will simply be displayed as “rita” on the platform.
Roll-ups, or Layer 2 solutions, tackle another major challenge in crypto’s usability. They lower gas fees (transaction fees) and increase a network’s throughput by processing transactions off-chain and then submitting them to the main network in batches. Beam is powered by two of these Layer 2 methods, Optimism and Coinbase’s Base.
Eco is building with a team of 45 employees across North and South America. Its previous investors include Andreessen Horowitz, Coinbase Ventures, Founders Fund, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Pantera Capital.