Their names are Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, identical twins and Olympic athletes, famously portrayed in the film “The Social Network” as a privileged pair of handsome Harvard jocks who believed nerdy classmate Mark Zuckerberg stole their idea for Facebook.
Of their portrayal in the 2010 film, Tyler Winklevoss said, “They were a bit stiff and maybe not full-dimensional.”
Cameron added, “Those characters are interesting, but they’re not really us.”
The Winklevoss twins are back in the spotlight again, this time as very successful investors in bitcoin, having turned their $65 million Facebook settlement into many hundreds of millions of dollars.
Cameron said, “If you believe that bitcoin is the beginning of the internet of money, you can actually buy a piece of it. Anybody in the world can. And there’s tons of people who have made a lot buying a piece of that future.”
And there is a nearly equal amount who have lost a lot.
Ben Mezrich wrote the book on which “The Social Network” movie was based. A decade later, news that the Winklevoss twins has gambled big, and won, by investing in bitcoin got his attention: “It made me start to think that they weren’t at the helm of two revolutions by accident.”
For him, the Winklevosses’ second act was too good to pass up. Mezrich said, “They’re wealthy, they’re Greek gods essentially. They’ve got everything anyone could think one would need. Why don’t they just row off into the sunset?”
Indeed, the “Winklevii” did seem to have everything: Pretty girls, private planes, invitations to all the best parties. Why did two guys – Olympic athletes raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, educated at Harvard and Oxford – gamble it all on something as slippery and nearly incomprehensible as bitcoin?
As Mezrich sees it, because of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, all over again. “They go out to Silicon Valley to become venture capitalists, and nobody wants their money ’cause everyone’s end game is to sell your company to Facebook,” he said. “And because Zuckerberg hates the Winklevoss twins so much, that becomes an impossibility.
“So, they head to Ibiza – as one does, right? – and someone walks up to them and pitches the idea of bitcoin.”
Correspondent Nicholas Thompson asked the twins to set the scene on Ibiza in 2012: “Somebody tells you about this thing: Currency that can be sent like email. It’s all based on math. You don’t have to trust a banker or a president. You just have to trust the code. And then you make a big decision, which is to buy 1% of all of the bitcoins in the world?”
“Yeah, you know, some people they might dive off a diving board. I think in this case we took a cannonball off the diving board,” Cameron laughed.
The price of a bitcoin then was in the high single digits, $8 or $9 a coin. It’s now trading about $9,000 a coin, down from $20,000 at its peak.
[Thompson noted that he does not invest in it, and wouldn’t advise his mom to, either.]
Tyler said, “Our thesis at the time was, bitcoin’s going to disrupt gold. And gold has a market cap of $7 trillion today. So, if bitcoin’s gonna be worth $7 trillion or more, this seems like a cheap asset.”
“A cheap asset being sold on a place where people sell Magic cards!” said Thompson, “as opposed to, like, in a bank.”
“That was the state of play back then. It was complete wild west,” Tyler said.
The wild west … currency free of government oversight or regulation – the perfect place for all kinds of illicit behavior. Thompson said, “It’s a bunch of people who are anarchists, who want to smash the state, whose identities aren’t known, who are selling drugs, right? Your early business partner goes to jail for multiple years.”
“That’s exactly what informed us in what not to do, and what had to change,” said Tyler.
If you don’t understand the virtual currency bitcoin, you’re not alone. “It’s hard to digest it all at once,” said Tyler.
Bitcoin is an asset that travels on the bitcoin network. By buying a bitcoin, you are buying a piece in the bitcoin ledger that represents a fixed digital asset. “It’s like buying a bar of gold, but there’s no physical component to it,” said Tyler.
Thompson said, “So, you’re buying a bar of gold, but it’s not a bar of gold. It’s just a bunch of numbers. So there’s a giant ledger, that’s worth a certain amount of money that changes over time.”
“Exactly,” said Cameron.
The twins point out most people don’t know how the internet works either, but we all use it.
“This is money that works like your email,” Tyler said. “And that was the Ah-ha! moment for us.”
Easy to use, fast, sounds great! Cameron added, “I think I turned to Tyler and said, ‘Hey, this is either the next big thing, or total BS!”
Thompson asked, “Was there a moment in the Wild West period you guys looked at each other and said, ‘What are we doing? Let’s just get out, and go back to what most of the people from Greenwich and Harvard are doing,’ which is working at a hedge fund instead of betting on this crazy stuff?”
“Instead of looking at it and saying ‘Let’s get out,’ we said, ‘Let’s get in more,'” Tyler replied. “And that’s when we started to fund Gemini.”
Getting the average person excited about bitcoin is one of the aims of Gemini, the cryptocurrency exchange the brothers are launching. Their offices occupy 50,000 square feet on New York’s Park Avenue South, where some 200 employees are working hard to make bitcoin as easy to buy and sell as possible.
And though there are other bitcoin exchanges with a lot more traffic than Gemini, the brothers hope their app will encourage regular people to get their feet wet.
Thompson easily purchased $10 worth of bitcoin using his phone. But there are lots of risks, and fees. Turning around and selling his bitcoin, it turned out, cost Thompson: “Man, I lost $2.09 with you guys!” Thompson said.
“You shoulda held!” Tyler replied.
Later this week, the twins’ old nemesis, Facebook, will announce a cryptocurrency launch of its own, called Libra. The brothers say they’re not worried. “There’s so much pie to grow, I mean, at this point, we need to be frenemies,” Cameron said.
“But Facebook has entered a lot of markets with pie to grow, and usually it eats the pie,” said Thompson.
“I think this pie is different,” Tyler said.
“One possible scenario with Facebook would be they come in and they change things in a way that hurts Gemini, but that also validates things and drives the price of bitcoin way up. So, you guys lose your company but make a ton more money. How does that feel?”
“We should hire you to come in and war game with us!” Tyler laughed.
As to how it’s all going to play out? We may just have to wait for the next movie.
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Story produced by Mary Lou Teel.