Monday, 27 May 2024

Winklevoss Brothers

The real life all-American twins are back, and this time they’re ready to win big

FANTASTIC MAN - Winklevoss_1_fm22

Ring loud your opening bell, because the Winklevoss twins mean business. Famous for missing out on the Facebook fortune, the athletic New York state natives Tyler and Cameron taught themselves to write HTML code at the age of 13. Standing proud at 6 feet 5 inches tall, the brothers now boast a wildly varied portfolio of almost 50 technology businesses. Not ones to shy from battle, the two have recently set their sights on bringing the perplexing Bitcoin – the decentralised digital currency released to the World Wide Web in 2009 – to the mainstream. A promising proposition, considering the currency is quickly becoming a widely accepted form of payment, taken by everyone from retail behemoths like Amazon to mom-and-pop shops like Helen’s Pizza in Jersey City, where a slice costs 0.00339 Bitcoin. Indeed, the twins are already seeing returns in the tens of millions, and have used the digital dollars to snag themselves seats on a space shuttle trip with Virgin Galactic.

The brothers are identical to the untrained eye, and their yin-yang approach to teamwork was perhaps best put to use during their time as competitive rowers, with Tyler at starboard and Cameron at port. The duo impressively crewed for both Harvard and Oxford universities and represented the US in the 2008 Olympic Games, finishing sixth.

From Fantastic Man n° 22 — 2015
Photography by ROE ETHRIDGE

FANTASTIC MAN - Winklevoss_1_fm22

Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, the twin investors and champion rowers, are holding court in the conference room of their headquarters. Far from the hordes of tech investors in search of the next killer app across the country in California, the Winkevii, as they collectively came to be known after their portrayal in David Fincher’s ‘The Social Network’, the 2010 movie about their protracted legal battle with Mark Zuckerberg over the creation of Facebook – are now based in Manhattan. Just as their glass-walled offices are barely distinguishable from one another – the only discernible difference being that Cameron has a black-and-white Glen Luchford photo of Kate Moss hanging in his and Tyler has a colour landscape photo by Patrick Smith – it’s practically impossible to tell the brothers apart. Both are a strapping six feet five inches tall and unsettlingly handsome, with lantern jaws, presidential hair and slightly turned-down mouths that suggest tight-lipped gentlemanly restraint. Cameron arguably has the thinner face and richer voice. “I can call a friend on Tyler’s cell phone,” he says, “and they’ll know it’s me, even though the number showing up is his.”

Adds Tyler, who comes across as the slightly more taciturn of the two: “I mean, if you look at our history and path we probably couldn’t be any more identical, but our friends can tell the difference between us. We have different voices, different gaits, different postures. When I look in the mirror I don’t see a twin.”

There are other subtle differences, of course. Cameron is left-handed, for one, and he concedes that his brother, Tyler, who is five pounds heavier, is also slightly stronger when it comes to the sporting arena. Competitive rowers since the age of 15, the brothers, who were raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, and both studied at Harvard and Oxford, represented the United States in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, placing sixth in the men’s pairs rowing event. They’ve rarely gone out on the water since settling in New York, but their dedication to their former sport provides a telling insight into the degree of discipline and routine that they bring to their endeavours. “It was getting up at 6am, rowing, eating, sleeping, rowing, napping, eating, in bed by 10pm, six days a week, eleven and a half months a year, for 15 years,” says Cameron.

FANTASTIC MAN - Winklevoss_2_fm22
Tyler and Cameron have their eyes on the prize.

Tyler adds, “Our parents are self-made people, and they ended up doing well, but I think we sort of worked like we had nothing.”

Cameron continues: “Rowing is about how good you are. What your time is, whether you can move fast enough. I think from that, we’ve sort of gravitated towards merit-based environments.”

The young Winklevii were overachievers who excelled in Latin and studied classical piano for twelve years. Both of them were accepted early into Harvard, but their instinct for parlaying their activities into profit was evident long before that. Says Tyler, “Our first start-up was actually the rowing programme at our high school in Greenwich, Connecticut. There was no rowing there or anywhere around, so we approached the headmaster and he gave us a green light. By our senior year, there was a full Varsity programme. Now, I think that every school in the area has a Varsity programme, and probably upwards of a thousand kids a day are rowing in and around Greenwich.”

This entrepreneurial acumen has now evolved into a host of tech start-ups. After their unfortunate encounters with Facebook, Cameron co-founded the website Guest of a Guest, which he went on to sell to focus on Winklevoss Capital, the angel investment firm he and Tyler founded after receiving their MBAs from Oxford in 2010. The company maintains a portfolio of about 50 mostly tech companies, including Shyp, an Uber of sorts for sending packages; Paddle8, an online auction house for art and collectibles; Luxe, an app that connects drivers with on-demand valets in cities across the US, and Cambrian Genomics, an Orwellian-sounding concern that makes hardware and systems for laser-printing DNA.

Now, the 34-year-old millionaire twins (it’s not exactly clear how much the brothers are worth, but given Facebook’s lofty stock price, estimates peg the more than 1.2 million shares in the company that they received after litigation as worth over $200 million) are looking to make their mark with Bitcoin, the digital currency created by anonymous programmers in 2009 that evangelists see as the future of all transactions and sceptics dismiss as being akin to the Dutch tulipomania of the 1600s. Not content with owning one of the world’s biggest stockpiles of Bitcoin (over $30 million worth, by their own estimate), they have created two products to help boost the infrastructure of the internet cryptocurrency: Winkdex, an index that serves as a price benchmark for bitcoin; and Gemini, a New York-based licensed exchange where users can buy and sell Bitcoin for fiat currency. The twins are also seeking the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s approval for the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust, an exchange-traded fund that will trade on Nasdaq with the ticker symbol COIN. “We don’t just have skin in the game on this,” says Cameron, “we have our entire body in it.”

And yet despite all of that unabashed enterprise, in the collective imagination, the brothers have coalesced into one Harvard-educated cultural punching bag. Since ‘The Social Network’ dramatised their hissing dispute with Zuckerberg around their claims that he stole the idea for Facebook from them, they have been lampooned everywhere from the news media to ‘The Simpsons’ as bumbling upper-class jocks with no tech bona fides and more than a little sense of entitlement.

FANTASTIC MAN - These budding entrepreneurs don’t have a lot of time for fashion. Instead, they opt to keep it simple in custom-made suits by TOM FORD. “TOM’s our man. He gets it done.” Indeed!

The novelist Dana Vachon wrote of them in ‘Vanity Fair’ in 2011, “The Winklevosses seem almost a parody of the Jazz Age sportsman: Tom Buchanan in eerie duplicate.”

That they were in and out of court as often as Lindsay Lohan didn’t help their cause. Nor did their decision to dispute the terms of their 2008 $65 million settlement, accusing Zuckerberg of securities fraud. They lost and were censured by the judge, who made note of their propensity for suing, but the Winklevii were judged even more harshly in the court of public opinion.

Says Tyler, “Look, there were a lot of opinions about us flying around, but not a lot of people knew who we really were, and so they defined us by three months in our lives. And even that was informed by a movie, which is just kind of silly, because the movie is not a documentary, and even documentaries have agendas.”

Adds Cameron: “You know, the beauty of the movie is that it’s not supposed to be conclusive. But people definitely took sides, and not always ours. Over time we’ve tried to keep our heads down and build cool stuff, and I think people sort of see that now and are like, ‘Okay, these guys don’t have to be doing this, so what does it say about them that they are?’ I think the facts eventually rise to the top.”

Alexander Gilkes, the co-founder of Paddle8 and a long-time friend of the Winklevii, says, “Not only are they immensely affable, they are also uncannily astute about the markets and companies that they invest in. They seem to rely on savvy intuition to guide their decisions and then act with efficient pace and agility that they undoubtedly owe to their oarsmanship and sporting prowess.”

Listening to the twins talk and talk and talk about the facts of their business, specifically about the efficiencies of Bitcoin, it’s hard not to take them at their word that they’re in it to win it this time. And with good reason. At a time when fiat currencies, particularly in Europe, are more volatile than ever, Bitcoin is garnering serious momentum – thousands of businesses, from the murky Pirate Bay to the altogether more above board Victoria’s Secret, now accept it as legal tender. “The current market cap for Bitcoin is $4.2 billion,” explains Tyler, “which is smaller than a lot of tech companies. If it is going to be a global currency and fulfil a lot of the promises that we think it could, it could be worth a hundred times that.” Given that Gemini plans to take a quarter of a percent fee on both sides of the transaction, you can see why the brothers are excited by the prospect of Bitcoin taking over the world.

FANTASTIC MAN - Here, TYLER wears a wool jacket by CALVIN KLEIN COLLECTION with a cashmere crew-neck sweater by BRIONI, while CAMERON wears a wool jacket and cashmere turtleneck, both by BRIONI.

And so, understandably, being reduced to dumb men of action is a stereotype that sticks in their craw. Don’t get them started on the framing of their battle with Zuckerberg as a classist tussle between elite meatheads and a socially awkward outsider. The twins recognise that they were raised as children of privilege, but they insist that Zuckerberg is cut from the same chinchilla. “Please,” sniffs Cameron. “His parents were both doctors, and he lived five or ten miles from us.”

Explains Tyler: “I think it’s easy to paint the world in simple brushstrokes, but at the end of the day it was a bunch of privileged kids who had a dispute. At Harvard he was in Kirkland, which is actually a more privileged house than the Quad, the dorm that we were in. It wasn’t like, you know, the haves and have-nots.”

On the subject of reputation damage control, there is also the pressing matter of accessories. Cameron would like to set the record straight: unlike his character in ‘The Social Network’, he has never worn ear warmers. As for media reports claiming that the Winklevii wore matching manbags to a screening of the movie? “Never happened,” Tyler states flatly. “It was a sleazy attempt to get headlines by a journalist who described my laptop case as a man purse. But I can assure you that we do not own manbags.” People have sued for less.


Photographic assistance by Chris Bisagni. Digital operation by Jonathan Nesteruk. Stylist assistance by Josefine Forsberg. Grooming by Sarah Sibia at See Management.