As the Bitcoin industry matures, narrowly-focused companies are working to take market share from the companies that came first to the digital currency ecosystem.
Chain, a company that enables developers to build apps on top of Bitcoin's infrastructure, is one of these niche providers looking to target developers with application programming interface (API) tools.
"Early players in Bitcoin have offered a lot of services and I think that was very smart," said Adam Ludwin, co-founder of Chain, which secured $9.5 million in venture capital in August. "The market is maturing and stratifying and there's more specialized companies launching; we're going very deep for developers."
Chain operates a software as a service (SaaS) model. The company has several dozen clients that have launched products and services in the market.
Most of its clients are Bitcoin companies, including Expresscoin, a digital currency purchasing platform; OneName, which links a Bitcoin address to a username in a directory similar to the White Pages; and BitKasa, a European cryptocurrency point of sale provider.
LibraTax, a digital currency accounting and tax software provider, uses Chain to make sense of the Bitcoin blockchain, the ledger that records all Bitcoin transactions after authentication.
"The blockchain has a bunch of distracting transactions, such as return or fee transactions which makes it hard when looking at the blockchain raw to tell where the coins are going," said Jake Benson, founder and CEO of LibraTax. Chain returns only information LibraTax needs when it inputs a public Bitcoin address, a timestamp and the destination of the transactions.
Blockchain.info, a consumer wallet provider, offers a similar infrastructure service. And Coinbase recently bought blockr.io to provide a blockchain explorer service.
"Chain came to our offices and were eager to get someone integrated with their platform," Benson said. One of LibraTax's developers is friends with several developers on the Chain team.
Chain has also been in talks with some legacy payments and financial services companies, said Ludwin.
"I think there is room for both depth and breadth in companies that support the Bitcoin infrastructure," said Gil Luria, an analyst with Wedbush Securities. "It makes a lot of sense to specialize in something like security or enterprise integration, but there is also room for broad consumer service companies that can try the ambitious goal of supplanting the entire bank relationship like Coinbase and Circle."
Luria said another scenario could play out in the future as well: companies taking a broad approach could outsource non-customer facing aspects to more specialized business partners.
The concept of building more specialized services isn't lost on LibraTax, who will go live with their software in the second half of September.
"Coinbase and Circle have a ton of capital and good visionary leaders; they have the talent there to execute [many different services]," Benson said. "But more specialization does make sense. It's smarter for a young or fresh entrepreneur perspective to find a niche within the industry."
For example, Coinbase offers two tax reporting options for transactions that go through its system. Coinbase calculates gains and losses with a first-in-/first-out accounting method, meaning it assumes users are selling their oldest bitcoins first; it also offers last-in/first-out, which assumes a user is selling the newest bitcoins.
LibraTax offers four different cost basis methodologies, including both options Coinbase offers.
LibraTax does not charge for its service at this time, but premium individual versions will cost $19 a month in the future. The company also offers LibraTax Pro, which is being used by an accounting firm that it will announce soon, and LibraTax Enterprise.
"Bitcoin itself as a protocol is a very low-level protocol," Ludwin said. "If you want to build on top of that protocol it's a lot of work, a ton of engineering."
Chain's operation is similar to Stripe's business model, he said. Stripe provides APIs for payment acceptance to developers and e-commerce sites. Its customers can focus on making and selling their product, without having to worry about the back-end payments capabilities. In March, Stripe began asking clients to sign up for a Bitcoin pilot and is working with Twitter on its "Buy" button pilot.
Chain, based in San Francisco, launched in public beta in May and had nearly 1,000 developers register in the first three months, Ludwin said.
Chain will start charging for its service through a recurring SaaS model eventually, Ludwin said. The base access to the API will always be free, and the company will have a tiered model based on premium access.