All across the world, people are making money from crypto. A decade ago nobody had heard of bitcoin, bar a handful of geeks and cypherpunks in some quiet corner of the internet. The world was reeling from the effects of the great crash of 2008, but the traditional financial system still seemed unassailable.
Flash forward to the present day and 2011 seems a lifetime ago. Crypto has exploded, its market cap now over $2 trillion and showing no signs of slowing down. Bitcoin has been joined by thousands of other cryptocurrency platforms and projects, all seeking to become the household names of tomorrow. Billions of dollars of trading is done every day and crypto has become an asset class all of its own.
The bull market we are currently in was kicked off by the sudden flood of institutional money into bitcoin. Companies and corporations began to see its value and to invest accordingly. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic only accelerated this trend, as government stimulus money led many to sense the spectre of inflation lurking around the corner. Big-name brands like PayPal and Tesla announced that they were getting into crypto, with many more sure to follow.
Away from the headlines about major companies allocating portions of their portfolios to crypto are the millions of retail investors also pouring money into the ecosystem. In a world of deep uncertainty about the future where the richest 1% own more than the poorest 50%, crypto has been a way for the man and woman in the street to make some money on their own terms. Some have made a lot, others not so much, while plenty like to imagine what they would have made if only they hadn’t sold when they did.
But while we’ve all made a few bucks here and there, our gains pale in comparison to those of some of crypto’s biggest hitters. A new breed of billionaires has emerged in the last few years, who owe their wealth to the success of crypto and the projects they either founded or backed. Plenty of rich folks have made themselves even richer by getting into bitcoin early, but an elite group have amassed their fortunes largely from crypto alone.
It can be hard to accurately assess people’s crypto wealth, as the market is much more volatile than those of other, more established asset classes. Those who hold all or most of their wealth in one coin or token can see their fortunes tumble or rocket overnight, so it isn’t always easy to tell who is richer than who.
Nevertheless, there are several crypto billionaires out there who are undeniably ahead of the pack when it comes to total net worth and we’ve gathered the top ten for you below. Some may find themselves displaced in the future by others currently lower down the ladder, while others may only just be getting started.
1. Satoshi Nakamoto: $58.5 billion
Well, we don’t know for sure who the creator of Bitcoin is, whether he’s still alive, or whether he’s even a he. Many potential candidates have been discussed, yet the person who set this whole runaway crypto train in motion remains as mysterious and elusive as ever.
Satoshi first put forward the idea for Bitcoin in a whitepaper of 2008, as the world struggled to come to terms with what the big banks had been up to in the lead-up to the financial crash. Back in its early days, Bitcoin could be mined on a normal, everyday computer – a far cry from the vast and power-consuming mining farms of today. Whole bitcoins were worth just a few cents, which explains why one early adopter used 10,000 of them to buy two Papa John’s pizzas back in 2010.
The price of Bitcoin didn’t do much at first. In 2010 one trader tried to auction of 10,000 BTC for the princely sum of $50. Nobody took him up on the offer, which would have netted a buyer half a billion dollars just over a decade later. It wasn’t until 2013 that the price of BTC started to seriously heat up.
When he mined bitcoin’s genesis block on the 3rd of January 2009, Satoshi’s reward was 50 BTC. However, he also set aside 1 million BTC for himself at the start of the project, which has sat untouched in a wallet known to be linked to him ever since. With the price of bitcoin sitting at around $58,000 at the time of writing, this makes Satoshi’s stack of 1,000,058 BTC worth around $58.5 billion.
This monstrously large hoard of bitcoins would make Satoshi the world’s 21st richest person, just behind Michael Bloomberg and ahead of such figures as Jack Ma, Michael Dell and the Murdochs. However, it looks unlikely that he (or she) will ever come forward to claim their glittering prize. The wallet holding the bitcoins has remained untouched since 2009 and the funds in it are unlikely ever to be accessed.
It seems unlikely that we’ll ever learn what became of Satoshi and who he really was. If he is still alive then you have to admire his restraint: not touching a stack that would make you one of the richest people on the planet shows remarkable self-control. Either that or he’s forgotten the password.
2. Sam Bankman-Fried: $10 billion
There’s quite a gap between Satoshi and the next crypto billionaire on our list, though this one is at least around to enjoy his newfound wealth.
Sam Bankman-Fried only completed his degree at MIT in 2014, before setting up liquidity provider and trading company Alameda research three years later. SBF, as he is often known, then went on to set up the FTX exchange two years after that and is also the founder of the Serum decentralised exchange for good measure.
All these achievements would be impressive if they were spaced out over a long career, yet SBF is not yet 30 and already one of the most well-respected and influential figures in crypto. And also one of the richest. Both Alameda and FTX are big players, the latter being the sixth largest exchange in the world, with a $3.5 billion valuation and an expected turnover of $400 million for 2021.
Much of SBF’s wealth is tied up in the FTX equity he holds, as well as a considerable amount of the exchange’s FTT tokens. This hasn’t stopped him from making forays into the worlds of politics and philanthropy however, with Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign receiving $5.2 million. He has worked with the Effective Altruism movement throughout his career and funds causes as diverse as animal rights and anti-AI concerns.
Now based in Hong Kong, where he moved in order to found FTX, (he famously sleeps on a beanbag at the company’s HQ) Bankman-Fried looks almost certain to become a lot richer as time goes on. At the rate he’s going, no one should rule out a White House run sometime in the 2030s.
3. Brian Armstrong: $6.5 billion
Armstrong is the co-founder and CEO of Coinbase, one of the largest and most popular crypto exchanges in the world and many investors’ entry point into crypto. He began his career as a software engineer working for the likes of IBM, Deloitte and Airbnb, before teaming up with former Goldman Sachs trader Fred Ehrsam in 2012 to develop Coinbase.
Coinbase launched in October 2012 in San Francisco. It grew rapidly and was valued at $8 billion in 2018, when it secured $300 million in a financing round. Like many other online businesses, it has seen its revenues go through the roof as a result of the pandemic and reported $1.14 billion of revenue for 2020.
This was up from the $483 million reported the year before. Many of the millions of people stuck at home with nothing much to do began investing on the platform and it now holds $90 billion of crypto assets.
As of March 2021, Coinbase’s valuation had risen to $68 billion, with the company poised to go public via a direct listing later this year. Armstrong’s 20% stake in the company means he is now one of crypto’s richest people (on paper at any rate).
Coinbase’s listing on the Nasdaq exchange will be a big moment for the crypto space. One of its biggest brands is reaching across the divide to embrace the world of more traditional finance and its success or otherwise will be a major factor in whether or not other big-name crypto companies decide to follow its example.
Brian Armstrong is not the most publicity-hungry crypto bigshot out there, though he does tweet regularly to his 500,000+ followers. Perhaps he can put a call out to Twitter asking how he should go about trying to spend all that money he’s found himself with.
4. Micree Zhan: $3.2 billion
Next up on our crypto rich list is one of the more enigmatic and less well-known figures to feature here. Not a lot is known about Micree Zhan (also known as Zhan Ketuan), who together with Wu Jihan set up Bitmain, the largest manufacturer of cryptocurrency mining chips and other hardware in the world.
Zhan was born in Fujian, China in 1979 and studied electrical engineering at Shandong University, before taking a master’s degree in microelectronic engineering from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2004.
Zhan and Wu set up Bitmain in 2013 and the company was well-placed to capitalise on the crypto boom which came along afterwards, reporting revenues of $2.5 billion in 2017. Things appear to have turned sour after that however, with Zhan and Wu struggling for control of the company and Zhan being ousted in 2019. He was eventually able to buy enough company shares to make himself the majority shareholder and reclaim his position as CEO.
The dispute between Zhan and Wu rumbled on for a while, though CoinTelegraph reported in December last year that a $600 million settlement had been reached between the warring pair, which resulted in the company being effectively split between the two founders.
Although the unedifying spectacle of the company’s founders battling it out for control (quite literally at one point) can’t have been good for business, both Bitmain and Zhan now seem to both be doing alright or themselves, with the company thought to be worth somewhere between $40 billion and $50 billion and branching out into AI to broaden its market.
5. Chris Larsen: $2.8 billion
The Ripple co-founder has been much in the news of late, as both he and company CEO Brad Garlinghouse are named as defendants in the lawsuit brought by the SEC last December. It is alleged that both Larsen and Garlinghouse sold $1 billion worth of XRP without registering it as security. Both Larsen and Garlinghouse face being forced to return the proceeds of any XRP they sold – as well as the prospect of multi-million dollar fines – if Ripple loses the case when it goes to trial later this year.
Larsen is one of the older faces on this list and previously founded Eloan back in the 90s, followed by peer-to-peer lending platform Prosper a few years later. In 2012 he partnered with Jed McCaleb – another controversial crypto figure – to found OpenCoin, (later rebranded to Ripple), which aimed to use blockchain technology to facilitate international payments between banks. The XRP token was born around this time too.
McCaleb’s undignified exit from Ripple was documented by a New York Observer piece back in 2015 and left Larsen in charge. He stayed on as CEO until 2016, when he was replaced by Garlinghouse. Larsen’s huge stacks of XRP – he is thought to hold around 5 billion – at one time made him one of the richest men in America.
His net worth took a big hit when the price of XRP tanked following the end of the 2017 bull market, though he remains a wealthy man, albeit with much of his wealth tied up in a token that faces an existential threat from the SEC’s lawsuit.
If Ripple loses the case, which many observers seem to think it will, then Larsen’s net worth could take a severe blow, especially if XRP is unable to survive the fallout. Having scaled the heights of crypto-based wealth, he could find himself one day plumbing some previously unthinkable lows.
6. Changpeng Zhao: $2.1 billion
Another uber-wealthy crypto exchange founder to make our list is perhaps the best-known of them all. Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao, better known as CZ, saw the exchange he founded become a market leader just a few months after it launched in 2017.
Born in Shanghai, CZ’s family then moved to Canada and he graduated with a degree in computer science from Montreal’s McGill University. After stints working in Tokyo and New York, he returned to Shanghai and founded Fusion Systems in 2005, a company that specialised in building trading software for banks. It was while in Shanghai that he first heard about and began investing in bitcoin, reportedly selling his house in order to invest in it.
Binance (a portmanteau of ‘binary’ and ‘finance’) went live in 2017 and was headquartered in Shanghai. Despite a rocky start to life, which saw the much-anticipated Binance Coin (BNB) tank after its launch, the exchange recovered and began to grow rapidly. In the summer of 2017 however, it became clear that the Chinese government was looking to crack down on crypto exchanges and CZ took the decision to move the company out of China altogether.
After a stint in Japan, the exchange was registered in Malta, with its ever-growing staff working remotely from across the world. The road has been rocky, especially in the wake of a major hack in 2019, but Binance is now safely ensconced as one of the biggest names in crypto, with expected profits of around $1 billion for 2020.
After initially falling flat, BNB has soared in value over the past year, with a market cap behind only Bitcoin’s and Ethereum’s. As Binance staff are reportedly all paid in BNB, it’s not surprising to see CZ taking his seat in the billionaire’s club lounge.
7. Michael Saylor: $1.9 billion
Next up is one of the most passionate and outspoken Bitcoin bulls around, who can be relied upon to talk up the digital gold at the drop of a hat. It wasn’t always such a cosy relationship though. In a 2013 tweet, Michael Saylor opined that bitcoin’s days were ‘numbered’ and the project would soon sink without trace. Fast forward eight years and he’s changed his tune somewhat, calling it:
a swarm of cyber hornets serving the goddess of wisdom, feeding on the fire of truth, exponentially growing ever smarter, faster, and stronger behind a wall of encrypted energy.
I couldn’t have put it better myself. Saylor is the CEO of software firm MicroStrategy, which made the headlines last year when it became one of the first large corporations to start adding BTC to its treasury. It now holds nearly $4.5 billion of BTC and Saylor hasn’t been shy about picking up some for himself either. He reportedly holds nearly 18,000 of his own, quite apart from his stake in MicroStrategy.
Saylor has had his ups and downs over the years, with an SEC investigation into MicroStrategy’s finances helping to wipe out a great deal of his fortune, though the company ultimately survived the hit to its share price. Saylor was also criticised at times for his lavish and louche lifestyle, which saw him spend more time on his yacht than in the office.
Those days appear to be behind him now and, for the time being, it seems he can do no wrong. BTC’s price continues to break new all-time highs, thus making his investment in it all the cannier and he’s more likely to be seen making bullish claims about bitcoin’s potential than living it up like he used to.
8. Jihan Wu: $1.8 billion
And so to Micree Zhan’s one-time partner at Bitmain, who holds a smaller stake in the company (20% as opposed to Zhan’s 36%) but still shouldn’t be complaining too much about his lot in life.
Wu was born in Chongqing, China in 1986 and graduated from Peking University in 2009, having studied economics and psychology. It was his discovery of and subsequent interest in cryptocurrency which prompted him to approach Zhan about setting up Bitmain, which grew to become the largest producer of mining chips in the world.
Wu apparently raised money from family and friends to buy 900 BTC in 2011 and was also reportedly the first person to translate Satoshi Nakamoto’s bitcoin whitepaper into Chinese later that same year. Some also hold him responsible for the hard fork of Bitcoin which resulted in the creation of Bitcoin Cash in 2017, though Wu denies this. He was, however, a vocal advocate for instigating an increase in the Bitcoin network’s transaction capacity.
9. Cameron & Tyler Winklevoss: $1.6 billion each
The Winklevoss twins will perhaps always be best known as the nemeses of Mark Zuckerberg, who they successfully sued for stealing their idea for Facebook. Contemporaries at Harvard, Zuckerberg and the so-called ‘Winklevii’ both claimed to have had the original idea for the platform that the Zuck went on to build. After being awarded a hefty $65 million worth of Facebook stock, the Winklevii sold much of it and invested the profits into BTC when it was trading at around $100.
As well as a venture capital firm, the twins are also the owners of the Gemini crypto exchange, which operates in the US, Canada, UK, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. Users are able to buy crypto assets through the platform, which also provides custodial services to HODLers. The exchange currently has a daily trading volume of around $200 million.
They may not enjoy Zuckerberg-like levels of wealth, but Cameron and Tyler aren’t likely to find themselves short any time soon.
10. Barry Silbert: $1.5 billion
The last spot on our list goes to someone who, at a mere 17 years old, became the youngest person ever to qualify as a stockbroker in the US. Barry Silbert’s first foray into business involved selling baseball cards while still at school, though it’s safe to assume that he no longer has much time for that particular line of work.
After a stint as an investment banker, Silbert set up a number of projects, including SecondMarket, which allowed companies to trade illiquid assets. After hearing about bitcoin in 2012, he switched his focus to crypto and is responsible for two of the biggest investment vehicles in the space: Grayscale Investments and Digital Currency Group (DCG).
Both of these entities have brought institutional investment to crypto and provided further investment in crypto projects in their turn. This has enabled Silbert to accumulate a substantial fortune himself – something, one imagines, he was always destined to do.
The New Billionaires on the Block
With the exception of good old Satoshi (wherever he may be), none of the above names are close to the top of the tree when it comes to obscene wealth. The really, really, rich are still drawn from more traditional fields of industry, commerce and, of course, inherited wealth. But not so long ago, the thought of anyone making serious money from the likes of bitcoin would probably have got you laughed out of the country club. Not so nowadays.
A new breed of billionaires is emerging and their numbers are sure to increase as crypto continues to grow. The $2 trillion market cap barrier has just been breached and $3 trillion can’t be far away. There’s still a lot of money to be made. Now, who fancies having a guess at Satoshi’s password?
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