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The Motley Fool Interviews Gemini Co-Founder Cameron Winklevoss

By Motley Fool Staff - Apr 5, 2021 at 7:24AM

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One of the heavyweights of the crypto world sits down for a chat with The Motley Fool.

Cameron Winklevoss is a Bitcoin (BTC 1.45%) billionaire and co-founder of the popular Gemini exchange along with his identical twin brother Tyler. Cameron recently sat down for a chat with The Motley Fool's Chief Growth Officer, Anand Chokkavelu. In this video, recorded on March 18, you can learn where he sees Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies heading in the long term, how individual investors should get exposure to these digital assets, the potential of blockchain technology, and much more. 

Anand Chokkavelu: Hi, I'm Anand Chokkavelu. This is our Bitcoin day on Motley Fool Live. As David Letterman would say, our next guest needs no introduction, so we'll summarize with just a few nouns and adjectives. Bitcoin billionaire, identical twin, Olympic rower, entrepreneur since his early teens, co-founder of Winklevoss Capital Management and Gemini, which you'll see on his background there. It's one of the leading platforms where you can buy or sell Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, so he's the perfect guest for us today. Thanks for spending some of your day-to-day with us, Cameron.

Cameron Winklevoss: Thanks for having me and thanks for the flattering introduction. Really appreciate it.

Chokkavelu: As the description Bitcoin billionaire would imply, you were pretty early on in identifying the possibilities. What was your wow moment with Bitcoin?

Winklevoss: So my brother, Tyler and I found Bitcoin in the summer of 2012, we were in Ibiza, of all places. We were actually on vacation, not looking for the next big thing, and somebody from Brooklyn recognize us from the social network, the Facebook saga, and started talking to us. He asked us if we had thought about Bitcoin virtual currency before, and we hadn't at that time, and it sounded crazy. Then after a shot of tequila, made a lot more sense. We got back [stateside, started reading as much as we could about it. Think what's struck us was twofold. One, this is the first money purpose-built for the Internet, that you could send around the world, like email. That was amazing and groundbreaking to think about. The second thing was, if you look at the properties of Bitcoin, they really mirror gold, and they are actually the equal or better to gold properties. So if you look at gold, gold is scarce, Bitcoin is truly fixed at 21 million Bitcoin, and those are divisible up to 100 million pieces, so you don't actually have to buy a full Bitcoin. That's one of the biggest education hurdles I think, we see, as people see Bitcoin at $50,000 and they say, ''I can never afford a Bitcoin,'' when you can actually go to Gemini and buy as little as $5 worth of Bitcoin. It's not like Berkshire (BRK.A 1.60%)(BRK.B 1.72%) Class A shares, where you have to pony up a couple of $100,000. You can actually just buy small fractions. So it's even more visible than gold, way more portable and easier to store, in as much as it doesn't take up physical space. Storing it is obviously one of the hard problems that Gemini tries to solve for, and allowing customers to use Gemini to store their Bitcoin and other crypto. But really, the digital gold framework in narrative struck us right away, as this is a potential emerging store of value that has gold like properties that works on the internet.

Chokkavelu: Right on. Now, definitely correct me if I'm wrong here. But one thing that strikes me about your world view, and it's somewhat rare in the cryptocurrency space, is how you seem to focus on how cryptocurrency can work collaboratively with the traditional financial system, and not or. Can you share some thoughts on that?

Winklevoss: Yeah, absolutely. I think Bitcoin and crypto forces the financial system to become better and up their game at a minimum. I think competition is always a good thing, or understanding there's new ways to do things. But Bitcoin is really not gunning for the dollar. It hasn't proven to be a great medium of exchange, currently. It's really a store of value. The first Bitcoin transaction involved two pizzas, and they were Papa John's Pizza (PZZA -0.69%) and I think there were sold in 2010 or something for 10,000 Bitcoin. They must have been really good slices of pizza, because today that value would be, I think half a billion dollars. That's really a great example of why you don't want to spend your Bitcoin, just like you don't want to spend your gold. If you were holding gold in the 1970s, you'd be up something like 26, 27 times. If you held US dollars, you'd have lost something like 96%, 97% of the purchasing power of those dollars. Dollars, the inflation, they lose value and purchasing power and as a result, people want to spend them and it's a much better currency than something like Bitcoin. There are things called stable coins. Gemini actually issues one, where you can get a token that represents a dollar and use that and decentralize finance and send it through the internet or whatever. But Bitcoin really hasn't proven to be a great currency at present, and it may never be, just like gold is really not used as a currency today. It is sort of commodity money and Bitcoin is much more near money than gold. But I think that if it's a store-of-value, that's perfectly fine and at a $1 trillion market cap, which it recently crossed, it still has about a 10X to go before it overtakes gold and we think that Bitcoin's really first-step is gunning for gold and vying for that value mantle.

Chokkavelu: Kind of related to that, the optionality there, even in that base case. What does Bitcoin have to do to be truly mainstream? We've seen it take such strides, we're just a dozen years in or so and obviously there were a lot of things. I remember, you got the Mt. Gox situation. I remember reading about just how, early on, when you all were setting up your keys, you were going to different banks around the US and almost covered operational thing. You've got the cold storage and things like that. But now there are lots of options. I think maybe in the last year, Bitcoin has really come into the public conversation more. What does it have to do or achieve to become truly mainstream, and how close are we?

Winklevoss: Yes. I think part of it is education. When we first got into Bitcoin, the common prevailing view was that it was only used for drug dealers and illicit activity and terrorist financing, all of which has been proven to be effectively false, and whatever kind of dark market activity that happens on Bitcoin, pales in comparison to other major currencies, right. We obviously monitor for that. We take it very seriously, we have obligations and we don't want bad actors in the system, but it is not a system of bad actors. But that was the narrative. So education is important. There's also this concept that Bitcoin was totally anonymous in this wild west, and it's actually not totally anonymous. We work a lot on education, whether it's engaging with regulators to help them think through the problems, or just talking on Twitter. We're very vocal and active there and trying to get to demystify a lot of these concepts. Then COVID-19 has actually accelerated, I think the adoption of cryptocurrencies in Bitcoin, in a big way, because of all the money printing and people are looking at what's going on and like, "Wait a second, where are these trillions of dollars coming from, they're actually just being printed." What does that mean to the other dollars that I'm holding? Like COVID has accelerated the decline of a lot of brick-and-mortar. The uptake of big tech in many ways, I think it also has brought Bitcoin to the forefront faster, so there's always going to be these catalysts. In 2013, the Cyprus bail-in really brought a spotlight to Bitcoin and people said, "Wait a second. Okay. If you could have deposits in a bank account in Cyprus and the government can one-day just come in and hair cut everything above a €100 thousand and it's just gone." It was called the bail-in, as opposed to bail out, in 2013, in that sense, the Bitcoin price. That was one of the big catalyst moments. It wasn't driven by people in Cyprus saying, "Let's now go into Bitcoin." It was really everybody around the world seeing what was happening in Cyprus and saying, "Wait, maybe I should just get some disaster insurance over here and checkout Bitcoin." I think a lot of people view it as a break glass, a way to future proof against inflation or fiat regimes just acting poorly." We've seen a lot of mismanagement over the past couple of decades. I think it's frightening and I think it's a good way to protect yourself.

Chokkavelu: Great, let's talk about the competitive landscape in finance of which you're part of. We've got traditional banks, we've got newer fintech players like Square (SQ 6.39%) and PayPal (PYPL 2.70%), we got Robinhood, SoFi, Affirm (AFRM 9.98%) even. Crypto focused players like Coinbase and Gemini, even traditional retailers like Walmart (WMT -11.38%) are getting into banking. It seems like everyone is landing and expanding into each other's spaces a bit. How do you think this whole ecosystem will evolve over time, how does it look?

Winklevoss: Yeah, it's a really interesting question. Banking feels to me like it's tied to the old economy in many ways, and a lot of these institutions have been around for 100-plus years and there's been a ton of consolidation. I don't think bankers are not technologists, and that's one of the struggles I think a lot of people come across. Wires get lost, and a lot of these systems are done. It's not really modernized. I think fintech is the expression of banking in the new economy, and trying to really bring a tech game to the space. I think that's why fintech is exploding in a major way because there's truly a need, there is just a gap that's not being met by a lot of the banks out there. Then if you look globally, you zoom out, there's a billion-plus unbanked individuals out there. If the current system could get there, they would be there. They want more customers, and there are, and they can't really address these folks. I think something like Bitcoin actually has the potential to do that at social scale. All you really need is an internet connection, and there's more smart devices than people on the planet right now. With that address, you can send and receive and transact and hold Bitcoin. You cannot hold gold, and that's why I think gold does not take the leap in the streaming. It just can't do that, and that's why long term I'm not really bullish on gold. I think that near-term it's probably fine, and it will do OK. It won't be the fastest to outrun inflation, but I wouldn't say it's a bad bet, it's just not the best bet in my opinion, it doesn't make that leap. I think crypto has the potential to address the underbanked and the unbanked in the ways that the existing system simply cannot do, and that really excites us. The ability to empower individuals through access to basic financial services. I think longer-term, that's what's really exciting about the vision. We're not building inside the limitations of the existing system, we're trying to build this alternative avenue to get people really into the system.

Chokkavelu: Kind of keeping your feature head-on, this whole interview probably keeping the future head-on.

Winklevoss: Sure.

Chokkavelu: What's something in the blockchain/crypto universe most people today can envision at all, but will take for granted five years from now?

Winklevoss: I think one of the most interesting developments has been decentralized finance. That's really had a boon over the past year, where people are building projects that are permissionless, where you can lend and borrow funds. You can trade. You can just show up to these smart contracts and send your collateral in and transact, you don't actually need permission to do that. It's really rearchitecting big pieces of the financial system in a decentralized, permissionless manner, which is super exciting, and it's all being dealt on Ethereum (ETH 2.59%). I think the next question a lot of people would have would be, "How do I invest in this wave?" The simplest answer is that you could invest in projects directly, but then you have to pick winners, so to speak. If you think of Ethereum is basically this decentralized computer, and Ethereum is like Manhattan, and buying ether is like buying a parcel of land, and these projects are like skyscrapers. By owning the land as people build on top of it, build these skyscrapers, that brings value to you as a property holder. Really the weighted index DeFi, which I think is one of the most important frontiers being built in crypto today. You can simply buy Ethereum, and then you have a pro rata share of this piece of land that all this good stuff being built on top of it. A lot of that value accrues to ether holders, because these projects require you to use ether to use them. So they are ether eaters, and they create demand. What we've been telling folks, and again, this is not financial advice, just want to say that. A lot of folks approach us and they say, "Hey, how should I enter crypto?" Our view is Bitcoin's the entry point, it's the store of value, it's the oldest, it's the most liquid, it has the largest market cap. We've been in it personally for almost nine years now. Bitcoin's really the starting point, but Ethereum is a place where it makes a lot of sense to have chips on the board. Whether that's a 70-30 breakdown between Bitcoin or Ethereum, or 60-40, 50-50, that's a personal decision. I think that's what we've been discussing with folks who ask us, how do I approach this space? Because Ethereum indexes so much of this amazing activity that's going on, and then Bitcoin is that digital gold. I think if you look at the performance, Bitcoin's done incredibly well, and Ethereum's done well too. I think individuals are well-served to look at both of those projects.

Chokkavelu: That's a great avenue. I've got a bunch of questions around that topic, we'll hit them. But Ethereum is that those are helpful percentages, that's probably a lot higher than even those of us who are familiar with Ethereum, and investing in it would have the 30-50% versus a Bitcoin 50-70%. How do you look at that? This might be getting a little far field, but most of the people who are watching this are primarily stock market investors. I'm going to say that most of the people haven't invested in cryptocurrency at all. What percentage of a portfolio seems reasonable to you to split between stocks versus crypto?

Winklevoss: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. Look, Tyler and I we joke, we don't have our skin in the game, we have our bodies in the game. We are long Bitcoin, Ethereum, a couple of other projects, and we obviously found a Gemini. We're the sole investors in Gemini. We're all in, and heavily weighted crypto. I think maybe a starting point for investors, which is look to see if you do have a gold allocation. What is that? Is that between one and five percent of your portfolio? Then ask yourself, this new form of gold, should you have some exposure, and whether that's taking all of your gold exposure and putting the Bitcoin or some fraction of it. Tyler and I wrote a stock piece on why we think Bitcoin is worth $500,000 a coin in August. The Bitcoin was trading around $13,000 a coin. We used the gold framework to back into that price per Bitcoin. At $50,000 a Bitcoin, yes, it's depreciated five times, but we believe there's another 10x in it within the decade, potentially more, because Bitcoin can really reach more people than gold because of its properties. I can't think of another investment that offers that asymmetric return over the next decade. If that's 1% of your portfolio, that becomes 10%. That's a pretty awesome return, a worst-case scenario you've lost one percent, but you've got that 10 percent or 10x outside. I think that Bitcoin is not just like an asset, it's really like a movement. It's kicked everything off, the decentralization of the world, and I think that it really should be viewed under the lens of a invention or innovation that is as powerful as the Internet. The problem with the Internet is you have to pick companies. You can't really index the entire Internet. I guess you could buy a basket of stocks, but early on, if you could actually buy property on the Internet, that would be the best way to do it. With Bitcoin you can buy property of the network, and with Ethereum you can buy property of the network. These are movements and when you talk to millennials and Gen Z, and I think millennials will become a huge percentage of the workforce within the next decade. You don't have to explain to them why they want software instead of hardware and physical gold, it's understood. You don't have to convince them. They're already in crypto, they already live online. They see and they understand fluently where it's going. It's a bet also that all these individuals that are coming into the workforce and starting to earn value, where are they going to store it? They're not going to store it in the IBMs (IBM 2.47%) or the blue chip equities. I think they're going to put in to crypto, and so it's really a index on the future. I think that's the right way to look at it, and so how much you want to allocate to the future? We've seen what FAANG has done in the past decade. You could have said, "2014 you are like the Amazon (AMZN 4.11%)."  It's like 5x from 2014, and I don't think it's slowing down, because these companies are building into the future, and they've got incredible network effects. Bitcoin and Ethereum are networks. The more people that adopt and enter these networks, the more value. They follow in that cash flow, which is just n squared, the more nodes or participants. It's like buying a cellphone. If there's only one person with a cellphone on the planet, it's not a very useful technology. If you buy a cellphone, all of a sudden without knowing, you've made mine have more utility and more value. You can't take the company model or discounted cash flow when looking at Bitcoin or Ethereum, you have to look at them as really networks of money and the value, and you're incredibly powerful and they have incredible growth potential. That's the lens, I would not take the DCF company model that Warren Buffett uses. That's why he doesn't really get Bitcoin because he's not paid to see the future, he's paid to find things that are cheap. I don't think he ever will get Bitcoin, and that's OK.

Chokkavelu: I think his billions are safe. [laughs]

Winklevoss: He's got enough of them. He doesn't have to figure it out.

Chokkavelu: You touched on, with Ethereum. It's as a picks and shovels play of DeFi, decentralized finance. Do you also buy that for NFTs since it underlays a lot of the non-fungible tokens for those unfamiliar that's like the $69 million [inaudible] JPEG that sold or the NBA top shots for crypto kiddies? Do you see that as a bull case for Ethereum as well?

Winklevoss: Absolutely, yeah, because these NFTs are minted on ERC20. Actually, they're non-fungible, so they're probably ERC71 or some other iteration. But effectively, those are Ethereum smart contracts. That minting process requires ether to do and these NFTs are sent on the Ethereum network which charges fees in ether. You are also indexing to an extent that incredible boom of online art and collectibles, and the larger that grows, the more Ethereum it's going to use and the more it's going to be built. There's all kinds of cool things built around that ecosystem that we can't even predict that a year or two from now will be built on Ethereum because of the NFT movement. That's a great point that you bring up, it's another reason. This is a new frontier that really came about in a big way in the past year, and there are others out there that we're not even discussing or thinking about could be around like rights management or title insurance or really cool insurance contracts around parametric insurance and all kinds of things that you can build on Ethereum. That's all going to add value to holders of ether.

Chokkavelu: It sounds like, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but you're talking about, but I think it's a really good framework for folks because the more you dive into stocks or cryptocurrency or music even, the more it becomes fun to just do really obscure things when you should just be buying the Beatles. You've got Bitcoin and Ethereum, there are thousands of cryptocurrencies. These NFTs, it's unclear which platforms will win much less which things within that platform or type of NFT will win. Is that your world view on that that hey, the meat and potatoes or Bitcoin and Ethereum, there might be [inaudible] but that's only for an average regular investor of one percent to five percent of your portfolio. These other things, even less so.

Winklevoss: I think I agree with that general assessment that they are the meat and potatoes of a crypto portfolio. I joked that Bitcoin is the gateway drug. It's really the starting point. It's the easiest to understand because it's the simplest. It's digital gold, it uses that framework. If you know about gold or spend time, you don't really have to know a ton about gold. It's just really easy to analogize, it's a starting point. But Ethereum, it's this creative space that's unbounded in terms of the possibilities, it's this operating system where you can really build anything. So it's really hard to analogize that to the potential in the sense that you can use digital gold for Bitcoin and that gets you to $10 trillion, and then to push beyond that, you have to think about how it gets there. With Ethereum really, it's hard to put a bound on creativity and people building on this really cool system. I think those are the two obvious starting points, and you index so much of the activity that's going on. Now, Tom and I, we love marketplaces so we own Nifty Gateway, Gemini owns Nifty Gateway which is one of the largest NFT marketplace out there. We love the marketplace and being the provider of that for artists and people to buy NFTs. But a lot of these marketplaces are private, or you could buy NFTs but then you are having to pick an artist, an index on the next BEEPLE or the next digital Warhol. A lot of people are doing that and really enjoying trying to collect art and stuff, and I think that's awesome if you want to do that. But buying Ethereum is also really straightforward way to index a lot of this stuff.

Chokkavelu: Great stuff. We've only got a few minutes left, so I'll have one weighty question and then we'll end with a fun one. The environmental impact of Bitcoin, a lot has been written recently about that where the system is setup where it takes more and more energy as we go along. But there are also lots of potential ways to solve it or alternatives. I guess you usually see the big picture really well. How are you looking at this down the line? How are we going to grapple with this? Especially if Bitcoin stays very, very relevant, how are we going to grapple with the environmental impact?

Winklevoss: Thanks for the question. One thing to note is these are open source software projects, so they are upgradable. They will evolve and they do evolve. Ethereum is actually moving to proof of state. So won't use proof of work mining going forward within I think a year or so. That may be more energy-efficient, the mining process, and consume a smaller footprint. There are ways to change or upgrade mining algorithms to potentially have less of a footprint. Whether Bitcoin does that, it's probably unlikely. I think Bitcoin is going to be on proof of work from here on out. It's the most conservative, there's so much value tied up in the network that changes are done very slowly and take a long time, and many of the changes will never be made because the goal is to lock it down and keep it censorship resistant and super reduce the attack vectors. Bitcoin is not experimenting, it's not going to be the place where you experiment with new fangled algorithms, I think. Whereas Ether is taking a different tack. All of that being said, these conversations around the green aspects of Bitcoin or lack thereof, I think fail to really have a larger, more informed context. If we're going to talk about the energy consumption of Bitcoin, we should look at the energy consumption of the Internet, we should look at the footprint of smartphones, and we should really look at the financial system. What is the actual energy consumption of the financial system? A lot of the processes, quite frankly, that have not been automated, all the skyscrapers that support tens of thousands of individuals and stuff. I would reckon that the cost to that system is enormous. We're not having that conversation, we're zeroing in and narrowing in on Bitcoin, totally negating the fact that Bitcoin is this incredible breakthrough that is going to unlock all kinds of efficiencies and savings and productivity around the globe. We have to look at both sides of the equation and what efficiencies will it bring to the financial system long term? What prosperity will bring, if it can bring a billion people online into the financial system going forward? I think it's great to have these conversations, but I'm not seeing the actual informed nuance, larger context conversation. Sometimes, I don't think there's a conversation questioning the green impact of the iPhone and smartphones. They clearly consume energy, they didn't exist 25 years ago, and the amount of consumption on that. I think it's a good conversation to have. But let's do it in this context and understand what is the net. I think the net overall for humanity, prosperity is enormous. I think it's going to bring incredible efficiencies and will allow us to do things that are fundamental to human financial inclusion, privacy, and human rights. That's a conversation I would like to have and I think we'll get there, but right now we're not there.

Chokkavelu: Great, and now let's take it down 12 notches into [inaudible] We'll end on this. You've been involved in many aspects of the American economy, let's say the most interesting subculture, the world of cryptocurrency, Wall Street or Silicon Valley?

Winklevoss: Crypto is definitely one of the most interesting. and because there's a lot of means in crypto. When we first were meeting Bitcoiners in 2012, the electricity in the characters we were bumping into, it was definitely the Wild West. Some people did really, really well and some people went to jail. There's a binary outcome, but there's a number of us who are still building in the space today, who have been OG and been there for the past decade. It's a really interesting group and I love the community. Sometimes there's a lot of disagreement and heated debate, but I love it. In the NFG space, when we started walking in there about two years ago, I felt a similar energy and electricity. You also find this with the Ethereum community. They're super vibrant and exciting places to be. Silicon valley, the first principles, a lot of the thinking, and the audacity to think big and fail big and just take big risks, I think is amazing. It's been really powered the growth story for many years, and that's been amazing. I think it's breaking up a little bit in the sense that crypto is really a decentralized global phenomenon. You don't have to be in Silicon Valley to be building crypto. I think that's healthy. So there isn't as much of a Silicon Valley for crypto. We're seeing kids in Scandinavia building billion-dollar projects on DeFi and they just graduated college. There is no centralized hub. I think New York is one of them in the sense that we're there and a lot of companies are building in New York, but it's really a decentralized phenomenon which is super exciting. I think when you start to meet people in the space and look at the projects, to my earlier point, as an investor, that's the kind of electricity you really want to get behind. I think there's some really interesting stocks in companies out there, but I'm more into building and getting behind massive movements like the Internet, like bitcoin. I think you'll be happy if you head in that direction.

Chokkavelu: Right on. Now thank you, Cameron, you've shared some wonderful thoughts and I think you've given a lot of our viewers just some really good insights into the space. We hope to have you again soon. Thank you.

Winklevoss: Awesome, thanks for having me. Thanks so much and if anybody's interested in crypto, Gemini.com, that's where you can check it out. Thanks so much.

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