Known as one of China’s ‘big three’ exchanges, Beijing-based Huobi experienced a meteoric rise to the top tier of China’s bitcoin industry last year, emerging from relative obscurity to become a market leader with more than 100 employees.
Since that early success, Huobi, like other China-based exchanges, has struggled to control its international perception.
Huobi has had to fight off rumours it was faking trading volumes in a bid to attract users. Further, the future and stability of its business were called into question by China’s central bank, which has moved broadly to discourage bitcoin businesses from working with its financial services sector in March.
It’s this uncertain image that Huobi is looking to attack as it, like major competitors OKCoin and BTC China, begins to set its sights overseas.
In accordance with these global goals, the company’s international business director Wendy Wen spoke at The North American Bitcoin Conference last weekend. There, CoinDesk sat down with Wen for an extended interview where she suggested Huobi will soon add support for USD markets in a bid to attract new users both in China and around the globe.
Wen told CoinDesk:
“You can imagine how much money Chinese consumers hold in USD [...] We’re looking at the whole picture. Our actual competitors are BTC-e, Bitstamp and Bitfinex, all of those platforms. We want to be the international standard.”
To meet this goal, Wen said Huobi is investing heavily in AML and KYC compliance and overall security. But, she added: “We have a lot of homework to do.”
Data from Bitcoinity suggests Huobi is the second-largest bitcoin exchange in China, trailing OKCoin, though that exchange’s recent volume figures have been affected by its international expansion and are not currently available.
Of course, Wen also offered her thoughts on what exactly it means for a bitcoin exchange to be international, especially given the fact that Huobi, like most exchanges, does serve customers outside of its home country.
To Wen, being an international exchange means growing the business and its ambitions. Throughout the discussion, she emphasized the professional abilities of her team, noting Huobi’s strong legal, accounting, marketing and compliance divisions.
Shifting the team’s focus globally will mean a reallocation of some of its team to address this issue, Wen said:
“We’re still trying to weigh how to change or what is the right way to change. We definitely want to go international, but who is to tell us the standards of being international? It’s a long and hard way to find a standard to running a proper business in the bitcoin industry.”
She added: “We’re trying really hard, but it’s complicated and hard to say if we’re there.”
Like OKCoin’s Changpeng Zhao, Wen is confident that Huobi’s product will meet the needs of global consumers. In particular, she notes that the exchange has the best liquidity and that it now offers novel features such as margin trading and interest accounts via its new platform BitVC.
However, Huobi faces a language barrier, one that it is still working to overcome, as evidenced by Wen’s lukewarm reception from conference-goers at TNABC.
Still, Wen is optimistic that Huobi can reach these customers through dialogue, and that its persistent approach will pay dividends, saying:
“For the international users, we changed all the interface, we learned a lot of things from other trading platforms, and we have our main customers we can talk to and give feedback. So, we are trying to get a heads up about what our foreign customers really like.”
Uncertainty in China
Given the uncertainty regarding whether China will even allow Huobi and its competitors’ operations to continue, it remains unclear whether Huobi itself will need to focus internationally out of necessity. Early this year, its announcements suggested it was one of the exchanges more willing to adapt to survive.
Wen indicated that Huobi is interested in other Asian markets, and that it could seek to set up a regulated exchange in Singapore or Japan in part to reduce this risk.
However, with formal guidance from Chinese regulators unlikely, Wen suggested that the biggest focus for her company is on the developing regulation in the US, stating:
“Everyone is looking at the US market, but we’re waiting on the regulation coming up. All the exchanges will start doing something at this point.”
She also named Europe and Australia as other markets of interest to the exchange.
While both Huobi and OKCoin have their sights set on becoming the top global exchange, Wen said that the atmosphere between the companies remains friendly, especially as the major companies are grappling with issues – whether regulation or international exchange – simultaneously.
“Most of the CEOs here sit together and talk about future of bitcoin and chinese bitcoin exchanges what we’re going to do internationally,” she said.
As for now, she wouldn’t say when Huobi would make its formal introduction to the international market, suggesting that her company wants to ensure its strategy is fully in place before any moves are made.
As Wen asserts, confidence is king in the international market, and she is keen to ensure that Huobi moves lightly as it tries to secure new users.
“The way we do business is honest and professional and we do what we say. It’s going to take time for users to trust our brand. Saying is always easier than doing. What we want to present is our action.”
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