If bullshit is an art form, my high school friend Moe Levin is Pablo Picasso.
Last week, Levin hosted the fifth annual North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami, where he shared a stage with movie stars, entrepreneurs, and blockchain’s pioneers. But I knew him long before he became a leading event organizer in the cryptocurrency world.
Levin joined my all-Jewish high school in Toronto in the 11th grade following an expulsion from another, more religious institution outside of the city. I didn’t pay much attention to the young man who seemed both the most rebellious and religious student in the 200-person class. That is, until the 12th grade, when a media studies teacher assigned us to work together.
He did little to prepare for our project. When anxiety compelled me to confront him about his lack of effort, he just shrugged and said not to worry. A few days later he got up in front of the class, made up an entire presentation on the spot, and got us an A. Twelve years later Levin hasn’t changed one bit. He’s just scaled up.
His Miami conference helped launch Ethereum in 2014 and has got attention for supporting numerous well-known crypto companies like Dash, Neo, Wanchain, Tzero, Polymath Aion, and Blockchain Capital. Along the way Levin has also invited plenty of controversy, including a now infamous after-party held at a Miami strip club.
I had always been intrigued by Levin’s ability to talk his way into anything, and got a chance to see him in action a couple of years ago.
I was invited to cover the World Government Summit in Dubai, featuring prime ministers of Japan and the UAE and the founders of Tesla, Uber, and LinkedIn. Knowing Levin had done business in the country, I wasn’t surprised to learn he had already secured a pass. Levin showed me around some of his favorite spots in the city. Everywhere we went, valets, bartenders, managers and waiters rose to greet Levin when we entered the room. It was impressive, but I later realized this might have been a trick to impress me, because he asked me to play similar games on others.
Every time I saw him speaking with people at the conference I was to approach, apologize for the interruption, enthusiastically state how thrilled I was to meet Levin, hand him a business card, and then slip away. For every card, he would buy me one drink that evening. I was not short on alcoholic beverages on that trip.
On my final day in Dubai, Levin asked if I wanted to see the grand ballroom of the Burj al Arab, a super-luxurious hotel on its own private island. I had always wanted to see inside the extraordinary structure, but there was just one problem. It was guests only—no outsiders like me allowed.
In a classic move, Levin made me another deal. I was to accompany him to a meeting where he would negotiate a fee for renting out the ballroom for his next crypto event. He needed me to be disinterested. “You’re going to see some really cool stuff in there,” he said, “but no matter what you see, no matter how amazing, you’re not impressed. The expression on your face is disappointed. You have to look like you were expecting better.”
For the next hour, I stood alongside my old buddy as we were given a private tour of the chandelier-lit ballroom surrounded by marble pillars, dancing fountains in the lobby, private outdoor pools, and a penthouse bar made entirely of gold. All the while, I maintained my best poker face. It must have worked, because a few weeks later Levin hosted a blockchain event in the ballroom of one of the world’s most exclusive hotels.
These maneuvers ultimately led Levin to assist the UAE government in creating the Blockchain Council, a public/private partnership featuring more than 40 companies in the Middle East. I never thought I’d see the most religious member of my all-Jewish high school wearing Kandura (traditional Arab garb) to meetings with high-level government officials in the Arabian Peninsula. He didn’t even correct people when they assumed his first name was short for Mohammed.
Levin’s first event was held in Amsterdam in 2013, at a time when he had only about 20 euros to his name. He had moved to the Dutch capital with his now fiancé Anique Bosch after completing a masters in psychoanalysis in her native Austria, and was able to rent a small comedy club thanks to a 2000 euro loan from his then-girlfriend.
“The exhibitor hall and the speaker hall were the same room. It was interesting, but he had all the early big names from bitcoin there, because there were no other events in bitcoin at the time,” says Levin’s long-time business partner Josh Dykgraaf.
Levin began making a name for himself in crypto but wanted more recognition for his work. His solution was to put his name on the conference.
“Basically he wanted to put ‘conference by Moe Levin’ on all of the conference material, which I really didn’t want to do,” Dykgraaf says. The two eventually arrived at a compromise, and created a new company logo based on Levin’s almost comically large, square-rimmed glasses.
“It’s probably the most effective logo I’ve ever done,” says Dykgraaf. “Creating this image around him has been very effective in getting top tier speakers, and it’s turned Moe into someone people want to know.”
It’s hard to look in any direction at the North American Bitcoin Conference and not see Levin’s glasses. The outline image shines on the inner and outer walls of conference halls and networking venues, on every page of the conference brochure, on the screens next to speaker presentations. It’s even printed on a pair of socks given to every attendee.
Following the Amsterdam event, Levin hosted another in Miami six months later. Vitalik Buterin would launch Ethereum from that stage, and keynote speaker Charlie Shrem would be arrested on money laundering charges while traveling to the venue.
Soon Levin hosted more events in Chicago, Los Angeles, London, and Dubai.
Previously anonymous to those outside the industry, it seemed like the whole world was suddenly paying attention to Levin as the price of bitcoin swelled ahead of his 2018 event in Miami. “I’ve always known I deserve the spotlight,” Levin says now, only half-jokingly.
Levin was followed by a CNBC camera crew for much of the event, but the press was generally less than positive. He was also called out by John Oliver during a segment on Last Week Tonight when he stopped accepting bitcoin payments as the value of the currency plummeted, a move Levin attributes to the rising cost of bitcoin transactions during the sell-off.
When bitcoin’s value picked up steam in late 2018, hewas forced to make some last minute changes to accommodate a crowd of 5,000, more than double the initial expected turnout. That led him to book E11even, a venue large enough to accommodate the conference’s networking party that also happened to be a strip club. While there were no strippers present during official networking hours, it wasn’t a good look for an industry already struggling with a lack of female participation. In the weeks that followed the New York Times, Bloomberg, Business Insider, The Guardian and others published scathing stories about bitcoin’s “bro-culture.”
“It was so hard to read those things,” says Lyndsy Robson, the chief of operations for Levin’s event production company Keynote and one of the six-person team’s four female members. “Moe found it difficult as well, but being female, to read them was really gutting.”
Each event that followed has included ticket giveaways and free booths for female attendees and entrepreneurs. Robson’s team has reached out to industry women’s groups about creating a more inclusive environment, but she understands that last year’s reputation will be hard to shake off. “The perception of Moe is certainly different to the one that I work with,” she says. “I wouldn’t work with him if it was true.”
The bad press may have taken its toll on the team, but it hasn’t stopped them from prominently listing every high profile publication that covered the conference on their website, whether the coverage was critical or not.
Having sold only 100 tickets two months ago, Levin thought he might have to cancel this year’s events, and possibly retire from event hosting altogether. Then sales picked up over the holidays. This year’s list included Alexia Hefti, Deloitte’s blockchain tax lead, Ken Russell, the Commissioner of the city of Miami, Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock.com, and a surprise appearance by Entourage star Kevin Connolly, who announced a new crypto-themed show.
“That we have fewer people than last year is okay,” said Levin. “We don’t have dentists from South Florida trying to make money off crypto. We have interesting people that care and are dedicated.”
In the end, the conference crowd numbered nearly 1700 people. That’s not quite 2018’s numbers, but Levin takes an optimistic view. “If you gauge it against the average drop in cryptocurrency prices, which is 93 percent, we’ve only dropped about 55 percent in ticket sales, so we’re beating the market,” he says with a smile.
Levin is already advertising the company’s next event in Las Vegas in April, which will be followed by another world tour, including events in London, Dubai and Amsterdam.
“This event, because it’s the longest running and most well attended conference in the industry, it’s kind of a canary in the coal mine,” he says as the 2019 conference comes to a close. “If there were 100 people licking their wounds, it would be sad, but that’s not the vibe. The vibe is positive; there’s good energy.”
I knew Levin was never going to take a traditional path in life, but I never imagined he’d stumble on a role that so perfectly fit his strengths. Twelve years after high school he’s still spending his time connecting with people, building communities and sometimes getting up on stage and making up presentations on the spot. Considering how far he’s gotten, even if you don’t agree with his methods, you have to respect the artistry.