Everything You Need to Know About the Winklevoss Twins in 5 Minutes
People usually don’t say nice things about the Winklevoss twins.
Larry Summers, who was the president of Harvard when the identical pair attended, has called them “a**holes.” They were portrayed in the blockbuster movie “The Social Network” as brawny buffoons born with many advantages and zero wits about them. “Twinklevoss,” “Winklevii,” and “Testosterone Titans” are just a few of their nicknames.
And perhaps all of this is fitting for Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, even if it’s not entirely fair or true. Today, they're billionaires due to crypto, but that financial windfall may soon be coming to an end.
Starting With Advantages
These champion rowers with all the personality of automatons are indeed physical specimens, likely carved from the sands of time by God himself. The twins were raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, a suburb of New York City and one of America’s most affluent towns. They founded the town’s sculler club, then went on to row for Harvard and Oxford before joining the U.S. Olympic team.
They are rarely, if ever, seen apart. Their fashion sense is a mix between GQ and Brooks Brothers. They have a propensity to finish each other’s sentences while knowing exactly what the other is thinking. And, until recently, they were best known as the litigation-happy, sour-grapes losers of the who-invented-Facebook-and-thus-turned-ungodly-rich soap opera. But things have changed.
It’s true that the settlement they reached over the creation of Facebook did make them rich. (Despite settling, they maintain that Mark Zuckerberg stole their idea.) But it was savvy investments and a big bet on cryptocurrency that made them very rich.
Even though Bitcoin’s price has fallen since, the currency is still thousands of times more valuable than when the brothers heavily invested in it.
But let's go even further back...
Silver Spoons and Golden Oars
Cameron and Tyler were born in Southampton, New York on Aug. 21, 1981 to Howard and Carol Winklevoss, both devout Christians. Despite this upbringing, the twins insist they come from humble roots.
In an interview with Vanity Fair magazine, Cameron and Tyler said their father went to a small Christian college, his father only completed eighth grade, and his father was a coal miner. Their mother was raised in a family of traveling vaudeville performers.
Still, the twins attended ultra-exclusive private schools — first the Greenwich Country Day School, which counts President George H.W. Bush as an alum, then in later grades the Brunswick School, which is one of the top 50 private schools in the U.S. It was at Brunswick that they would start rowing.
Joining the Crew
It was their mother, Carol, who steered the brothers into rowing. At the time, they had a rowing neighbor, who, like the twins, possessed the lean and muscular build that makes for a competent sculler. However, Greenwich had no rowing club at that time so Carol had to take the boys a half-hour away to Saugatuck.
Eventually, they became so enamored with the sport that they convinced Brunswick School administrators to let them start a rowing club.
Off to Harvard, then Oxford
Cameron and Tyler started studying at Harvard University in 2000, graduating with business degrees in 2004. They were, of course, members of the rowing team and also the social clubs Procellian and Hasty Pudding.
The brothers enrolled in the Said Business School at Oxford University in 2009, earning master’s degrees in business administration in 2010. They were members of the Christ Church school at Oxford and also joined the rowing team there. In fact, they competed for the Blue Boat, the highest level of rowing at Oxford, at competed in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.
It was also at Harvard where they met Mark Zuckerberg and started a social network that would go on to have huge ramifications.
How the Twins Met Zuckerberg
The Winklevoss twins and their friend, Divya Narendra, conceived of a social network in late 2002 that sounds a lot like Facebook. It was called HarvardConnection and it was intended for college students, not just at Harvard but at schools around the country. They began working on it in early 2003, hiring several programmers before coming into contact with Zuckerberg later that year.
Zuckerberg had already established himself as a coding prodigy with his own social site, Facemash. It was a big hit on campus, because apparently people enjoyed ranking each other based on attractiveness, which is the only thing Facemash did. Zuckerberg got into trouble for using Harvard property for the site, but he was not expelled from school.
Knowing his reputation but still appreciating his idea, the Winklevosses and Narendra asked Zuckerberg to design their social network. This is where things get murky — and that murkiness would eventually lead to a lawsuit.
Was Zuckerberg Stalling?
No contract was drafted outlining what Zuckerberg would do for the trio, although several emails from Zuckerberg to the team certainly indicated he would be building their site.
Zuckerberg goes from initial enthusiasm to waning interest fast, which led the Winklevosses to claim Zuckerberg was stalling their site so he could build his own similar site. Instant messaging exchanges between Zuckerberg and his friends seem to confirm this.
Facebook launched in earnest in early February 2004. Only a few weeks prior, Zuckerberg had told the Winklevosses that he was too busy to finish their site and that it needed a lot more work.
The Facebook Lawsuit
Facebook was an instant success — in was even mentioned by the keynote speaker during Harvard’s 2004 graduation ceremony — and the Winklevoss twins were instantly stark-raving mad about it. They had eventually found a coder to finish their site, now called ConnectU, but it was not very popular and never would be. Facebook, however, would soon change the world.
By September 2004, when ConnectU officially filed suit against Facebook for breach of agreement and stealing their idea, the twins had graduated from Harvard. Zuckerberg had dropped out to instead live in Silicon Valley and work on Facebook full time. Peter Thiel had just invested $500,000 in the startup and things were looking bright.
In response to the Winklevoss lawsuit, Zuckerberg and Facebook countersued. Both lawsuits would go on for years before the parties agreed to settle in 2008. The settlement was supposed to be confidential, but due to a poorly redacted PDF file, we know it was for $65 million in cash and Facebook stock. (Facebook at the time was valued at $3.7 billion.)
Most experts agree it was a huge sum based on the evidence made public, although it wasn’t enough for the Winklevosses because they tried to have the whole thing undone. They said the shares they received in the settlement were not as valuable as Facebook claimed.
Finally in 2011, a judge told the twins to stick to rowing.
The twins not only became very rich in 2008, they also competed as rowers in the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Reaching such a pinnacle of sport was always a goal the brothers shared. They even believe their dedication to rowing helped them navigate the Facebook lawsuit for all those years.
In China, the twins did very well even if they did not medal. Competing in the coxless competition (a “coxless pair” is a special row boat for two made for racing), they made it through two rounds of heats and the semifinal to get to the six-boat finale. That’s where things went off-course, as the Winklevosses finished six out of six.
Still, there was speculation that the twins would again compete in the 2012 Games, although they eventually decided against that. Perhaps it was because they had moved into investing and other financial endeavors with their Facebook settlement money and didn’t have as much time for sculling.
Time to Decompress
Cameron had told The Harvard Crimson just after the ‘08 Games that he and his brother were taking their time with their next business venture.
“At this point, we’ve been trying to relax, decompress, and take stock of the situation,” he said. “With respect to any other projects, just keeping my eyes and ears open to see what might come along. Sometimes these things just fall into your lap.”
Just a few years later, something else would fall into their lap — Bitcoin.
No Risk, No Reward
After the Facebook settlement and Olympics, we might have never again heard from the Winklevosses if not for their multimillion-dollar bet on cryptocurrency.
The twins first heard about Bitcoin while vacationing on the island of Ibiza. Much like his brother had predicted, Tyler said, “We were on vacation, not looking for the next big thing, but that’s how it always works. It’s very serendipitous. You don’t predict when you’re going to fall in love.”
They were intrigued enough to start amassing a fortune of Bitcoin.
The Rise of Bitcoin
Only a year later, in 2013, the twins revealed to the New York Times that they owned $11 million worth of the currency, mostly purchased when it cost about $10 per coin.
By 2013, a single Bitcoin was worth $120. And also at the time, many more people were skeptical of the currency, believing it to be the backbone of the black market more than anything else. But the twins were believers.
“People say it’s a Ponzi scheme, it’s a bubble,” Cameron told the Times. “People really don’t want to take it seriously. At some point that narrative will shift to ‘virtual currencies are here to stay.’ We’re in the early days.”
Fast forward to the end of 2017, the year Bitcoin became mainstream and incredibly valuable. By the start of 2018, one Bitcoin was worth about $14,000 — making the Winklevoss twins Bitcoin billionaires.
In the first months of 2018, it slid back to $6,000 to $7,000 a coin — while it was precipitous fall, it was still an impressive return on their investment.
Banking on Crypto
Unlike other holders of large Bitcoin wallets, the Winklevosses have no intention of diversifying their holdings by cashing out. In fact, they are doing quite the opposite and always have when it comes to virtual money.
They also own $350 million in other cryptos, mostly main Bitcoin rival Ethereum, and in 2015 they started and remain majority owners of cryptocurrency exchange Gemini. Their joint holdings exceeded $2 billion by the end of 2017.
The move that really helped them become Bitcoin billionaires was demanding that part of their settlement with Facebook be paid in stock options. By 2012, when Facebook went public, the twins’ holdings were valued at $300 million. But they also stuck with Bitcoin through thick and thin, when the price fluctuations over the years led many others to abandon cryptos, and they plan to keep doing just that.
A Different View of Cryptocurrency
For all the headlines about the Winklevosses and cryptos, the twins don’t quite share the founding principle of Bitcoin — that it is a completely unregulated currency that no one single entity can ever control. In fact, the twins see regulation as a positive, which is why they created Gemini.
“Every investor around the world wants to invest in U.S. markets because they’re regulated, and they’re licensed, they’re trustworthy, they have confidence,” Tyler told "Forbes" in 2013. “If you take that away, the global economy will take a hit like nothing else. We want to create that for Bitcoin.”
They also sought to create the world’s first Bitcoin exchange traded fund, or ETF. It would be an investment fund comprised entirely of Bitcoin but traded on a traditional stock exchange.
This idea was also criticized as running counter to the whole idea of decentralized currency. And it was ultimately rejected by the SEC in March 2017.
Where’s Their Wallet?
People who own Bitcoin have to store it in a digital wallet. But instead of actual money in the wallet, it’s a series of numbers. Being entirely anonymous, these numbers are all you have to lay claim to your Bitcoin. Lose them and lose your money.
The Winklevosses came up with a solution to this problem that is also part of the foundation of their Gemini exchange, which is one of the only regulated crypto exchanges in the world and has to protect customers’ assets.
The twins cut up a printout of their private crypto keys, sliced it up into sections, and stored it in multiple safe deposits around the country.
Most twins are pretty close, and the Winklevosses are no exception. They live together, work together, travel together, go on double dates, and generally spend all their waking hours side by side.
On the surface, the only real difference between the two is that Cameron is left-handed and Tyler is right-handed. Oh, and Cameron owns an old SUV while Tyler doesn’t have a car.
The Winklevosses Today
The Winklevoss twins are also known for their investments in other crypto companies like Marathon Digital Holdings and the cryptocurrency wallet company, Ledger. In 2017, they invested $100 million in Coinbase. They also continue to grow Gemini, which is now one of the most popular cryptocurrency exchanges in the world.
With the U.S. cracking down on crypto with a challenging regulatory environment, the twins have established a European headquarters in Dublin for Gemini, ahead of the EU's coming regulations.
In January 2023, U.S. regulators have charged Gemini and Genesis with illegally selling crypto assets to hundreds of thousands of investors. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is investigating the case.