Winklevoss twins: What we’re up to now will be bigger than Facebook
The ‘testosterone twins’ have moved on from the Facebook debacle and believe they know where the future lies
Tyler Winklevoss takes a seat in the Austin, Texas, hotel where we’re meeting. “I’m feeling the time difference,” he says.
It is one hour behind in New York, where he and his twin brother Cameron flew in from last night to take part in the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival of film, tech and music.
The Winklevoss twins are identical, both towering more than 1.95m. It would be uncanny if it weren’t for Cameron’s slighter frame.
They know The Daily Telegraph well, having spent a year at Oxford University, where they both took a seat in the blue boat during the annual rowing clash against Cambridge.
By then they had settled for $20m in cash and $45m in Facebook shares in a legal battle with fellow Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, who they accused of stealing their idea for Facebook.
That money was used to help set up their cryptocurrency exchange, Gemini, for which the pair are in town to promote a mobile app.
The case also led to the release of Zuckerberg’s e-mails, including one where he described users as “dumb fuckers” for sharing their personal information with him, and inspired 2010 film The Social Network.
The battling Harvard classmates’ lives have taken a different trajectory.
Zuckerberg, a quiet coding type, lives with wife Priscilla Chan and their two children in a century-old whitewood home in California.
The brothers, dubbed “testosterone twins” by the tabloids, own a lavish bachelor pad in New York’s trendy Soho and have been seen on red carpets with models on their arms.
“I don’t have kids, but like, if you’re a parent you don’t just turn on and off,” Tyler puts forward when I ask about running a business.
“It is a 24-hour job that is all-encompassing and that is what a startup is, so you have to do a good job of carving out personal time and time for yourself.
“But it is not like a Monday-through-Friday exercise. It is all the time and, you know, it is great and it is fun in its own way, but it is definitely not for everyone,” he says. Fun, he claims, “no longer becomes the central point of your life, it becomes more like a footnote”.
But the pursuit of fun is where their journey to becoming billionaires began.
On a hot August day of 2012, when Zuckerberg was punching the keys on his laptop in Silicon Valley, the twins were enjoying a holiday in Ibiza when a stranger asked them if they had heard of a secretive virtual money that a small select few were buying and selling on the internet.
“Somebody recognised us, probably from the movie, and asked if we had heard of Bitcoin. We thought it would be a complete zero or the next big thing and became fascinated,” Cameron says.
The premise of Bitcoin was to create a way of sharing value among peers without the need for an intermediary like a bank.
For many in the trading world who had become disillusioned with the unpalatable tactics of many global financial institutions, it offered a solution to what they perceived was a broken system.
This could eradicate corruption, provide anonymity and disrupt currency.
The twins decided to gamble using the money they won in the Facebook settlement. The amount they bet varies depending on which newspaper or magazine you are reading, with some claiming they bought a reported 1% of all Bitcoin in circulation and others suggesting they gambled it all.
When I ask whether this was true, they offer a deadpan stare. “We don’t want to go on the record about that,” says Tyler.
Silence lands in the room. Tyler looks at his communications director and everyone begins to laugh nervously.
Either way, they are happy to be described as “Bitcoin billionaires”, a label they acquired during the December 2017 boom when one Bitcoin soared to $20,000. It now sits at about $3,600.
Driven by market speculation, economist Nouriel Roubini, who predicted the 2008 crash, described it as “the mother of all scams”. Warren Buffett said it was “a delusion”.
In retaliation, the twins told CNBC that older people in the financial industry didn’t understand the future of money. The industry was hijacked by charlatans, including the creators of marketplaces where traders could buy and sell drugs using the coins.
Mt Gox, the first widely used Bitcoin exchange, went bankrupt on February 28 2014 – with 650,000 bitcoins missing.
Customers, including the Winklevosses, who have not revealed how much they had in the exchange, never saw their money again.
The twins opened their own coin exchange, Gemini, in 2015. Tyler says he does not look at the price every day, despite claiming to be working on deals behind the-scenes at the exchange tirelessly.
“That doesn’t seem very productive.” Buying some of their earliest Bitcoin at $8, “we are still doing better”, he adds with a grin.
Born into affluence in Connecticut to a business professor and privately educated, the Winklevosses have not had to worry about money.
During their Facebook battle, they claimed it was not about the financial reward “but the principle”.
The risk they took on Bitcoin pales in comparison to that taken by those who plunged their savings in to buy during 2017’s peak.
Cameron smirks when I ask about the toll it has on their cortisol levels.
“If you can’t handle price swings you probably shouldn’t be investing or starting a company. Startups feel like that too. We are good at dealing with that; that’s why we are in this game.”
But building a business around an unregulated and chastised internet coin and cushioning a team of 200 dedicated employees from its volatility is another thing.
Cameron believes Gemini – a play on the early space missions and the zodiac sign representing twins – will be as successful as Amazon.
“In the first 10 years, a lot of people were like ‘Amazon isn’t competing with Barnes and Noble’. But we know how that played out. Cryptocurrency is so young; we are only a couple of years into this journey.”
However, they are due another clash with their nemesis, Zuckerberg, who has his own team dedicated to blockchain and is building its own coin for payments.
The twins are stony-faced when I ask whether they feel vindicated about the Facebook boss’s fall from grace.
“Yeah, we have been pretty busy in crypto so not really reading those papers that much,” Tyler says, adding that it is “cool” that he is entering the same market.
Cameron says that it is “really positive” that Zuckerberg might launch a digital coin pegged to the US dollar.
The pair are not sore losers, and they promote Gemini on Facebook and Instagram, which they use for personal accounts. But they cannot resist a subtle dig.
“Crypto is transferring value and putting markets on certain resources, which is, like, greater, like, brings more people in, like, than, like, sharing photos right?” Tyler says. “Which is powerful. People want to connect and stuff, but if you actually pay people and things in value that is almost, like, more significant.”
The twins believe there is something bigger than Facebook coming.
Perhaps the next Hollywood script will reveal how losing out to Zuckerberg created a chain of events that helped dismantle the central banking system. “Whatever we saw in the last 25 years, this movie could be bigger,” Cameron says.
– © The Daily Telegraph