Apr 8, 2021 • 8M

Bitcoin Billionaires: Book review

Story about bitcoin and the Winklevoss twins

 
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Today, I am doing a special session. It’s a review of a book called Bitcoin Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. 

Accessibility: A

Learning: A

Enjoyment: A 

Overview

Bitcoin Billionaires is one of those books you could see being made into a movie. It’s not that far fetched given that the author, Ben Mezrich, also wrote the award winning “Social Network”, the movie about Facebook. In some ways, it feels like Bitcoin Billionaires continues that story except the focus is now shifted to the Winklevoss Twins. 

Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss became famous as the tall, Harvard-educated, Olympic rowers who alleged that Mark Zuckerburg ripped them off while founding Facebook. The author weaves the bold story of how the twins became among the first bitcoin billionaires along with a colorful dose of bitcoin history. The Winklevoss twins founded Gemini, one of the largest US based crypto-exchanges and Nifty Gateway, a leading NFT marketplace. The book lays bare the tension between ideologues like Ronald Ver and businessmen like Tyler and Cameron. Additionally, key developments like the Mt Gox hack and the Cyprus banking crisis also feature in the story. Mezrich does a great job making bitcoin history fun to learn. 

Key stories

  1. Storing bitcoin in banks: The twins have taken extreme measures to safeguard the private keys to their mountain of bitcoin. The private keys - a long alphanumeric code - are split up and stored in bank safety deposit boxes across the country. Funny how banks are keeping crypto safe probably without them even knowing it. 

  2. 2013 Cyprus banking crisis: What would you do if you woke one morning and 10+% of your life savings were gone? This was the reality for bank account holders in Cyprus in 2013. The banks were too big to fail but the government didn’t have the funds to bail them out. As a last resort, the government dipped into all bank accounts while everyone slept. This set off a bitcoin price rally as consumers lost confidence in fiat currency. Flashforward to 2021, the US has printed unprecedented trillions of dollars related to COVID. There are rising concerns about the US government spending and the dollar’s value. Part of the current bitcoin bull run is motivated by investors seeking shelter for the funds.

  3. Silk Road takedown: Ross Ulbricht founded Silk Road to enable anonymous transactions. It quickly became synonymous with drug smuggling, human trafficking and money laundering. Silk Road used bitcoin as its primary currency until it was shut down in 2013. However, the damage was already done. Bitcoin had become associated with criminals and the dark web, a shadow it’s still struggling to shake today. 

  4. Silicon valley vs crypto: Early bitcoin enthusiasts were outsiders in Silicon Valley. The Winklevoss twins were occasionally shunned by folks wary of not upsetting Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. This outsider mentality is helpful as an innovator and an entrepreneur. Along the way, bitcoin became less fringe and much of Silicon Valley has embraced cryptocurrency to some degree. Google has gone from banning crypto ads to adding cryptocurrency prices in Google Finance. 

  5. Bitcoin ETF: The Winklevoss twins began the quest to launch the first US-based bitcoin ETF in 2013. 8 years later, there are now 2 Canada-based bitcoin ETFs but none in the US. Major firms like Fidelity have now also proposed ETFs. I think the SEC will eventually approve a US-based bitcoin ETF. This struggle highlights some of the difficulties associated with innovation and introducing a new asset class. 

  6. Purists vs Pragmatism: There is some tension within the bitcoin community between purists and pragmatists. Some bitcoin purists are wary of the existing banking sector and governments. They would prefer to operate in a peer-to-peer, permissionless, tamper free environment without government oversight. On the other hand, pragmatists prefer to operate within the existing banking sector and seek government regulation to foster growth.

  7. Charlie Shrem: was the brains behind BitInstant. In 2012, BitInstant was the leading vehicle by which early adopters purchased bitcoin via a network of over 700,000 store locations.The author suggests that 23-year old Charlie was caught up in the tension between purists vs pragmatism. He was ambivalent about enforcing KYC (Know-Your-Customer) requirements and alerting authorities to suspicious transactions.  Ultimately, Charlie was arrested and imprisoned for money laundering. He was released in 2016. His fall from grace highlights the importance of coloring within the confines of the law and delegating (he served as CEO and Compliance Officer). The optimist in me is rooting for a comeback story for Charlie. Let’s see. 

Conclusion

I really enjoyed Bitcoin Billionaires. I probably wharfed it down in a couple long reading sessions. The book is accessible and engaging. I highly recommend it for folks who are new to crypto and want to learn about the history and key characters. One day there will be a movie made about the times we are living in. Let me know what you think. As always, I appreciate book recommendations or any other feedback you might have. Have a great day!