I have known Vinny Lingham for about 10 minutes when he tells me people want him dead.
“I’ve had four death threats in my life,” he says. “And three of them have been in the last nine months.”
It’s a few minutes past 7 a.m. on a recent weekday. We’re standing in the lobby of a gym in Silicon Valley, waiting for the juice bar to open up. Given the hints of bodily harm, Lingham asks me to be vague on certain details, but he doesn’t seem concerned about security, or concealment. A 39-year-old with a hint of dad-bod paunch, a sculpted short beard, and salt-and-pepper hair that’s lost some of its depth but not its breadth, Lingham is perfectly recognizable from any one of the many pictures of him posted all over the internet, where—at least in the crypto world—he is something of a bona-fide celebrity.
He is the “Bitcoin Oracle,” the man who somehow nearly always guessed correctly where cryptocurrency was going, before and after dumping most of his bitcoin holdings and—despite his exit—whose counsel on these matters is still sought; he is also the founder of Civic, a blockchain-based startup with a goal no less ambitious than to get every single person in the world using blockchain technology, even—no, especially—if they wouldn’t recognize the term.
Today, he is dressed in a very “I am a Silicon Valley founder” way: black trainers, black shorts, and a black Under Armour top from Necker Island (“SIR RICHARD BRANSON’S PRIVATE ISLAND,” the shirt reminds you).
None of this is an affect. Lingham absolutely has been to Necker Island, where he has spoken on panels at the Blockchain Summit. The fast-forward speech pattern, the sign of a mouth struggling to keep pace with a brain, I recognize from a TEDx talk he gave in 2015, in which he set out to explain bitcoin (something he no longer bothers to do). And he is indeed a founder, with a string of successful exits behind him. The most recent, an online gift-card exchange marketplace called Gyft, he sold in 2014 for somewhere north of $55 million; at another previous company, a search-engine marketing firm, he claims to have “figured out how to reverse-engineer Google’s algorithm.”
That was in South Africa, where Lingham was born, went to college until he dropped out at 19, met his wife (they have been together since he was broke and anonymous at 21, “so I know she’s not after me for my money,” he says later) and lived until moving to California’s digital gold fields in the mid-2000s. He became a U.S. citizen after Donald Trump’s election but still holds an SA passport and still speaks with an accent.
He’s big in SA, where he enjoys some bona-fide celebrity as a judge on that country’s edition of “Shark Tank.” He is much, much bigger in blockchain. Though he can stand here in this gym and talk to a bleary-eyed stranger without attracting a crowd or even much attention, in the still-tiny and extremely insular coterie of cryptocurrency nerds, it is not a stretch to call him a mega-celebrity. Those fanatics who call him out on Twitter—and, in those three instances so far, wish him physical harm—all come from that world. “I’m anti-hype,” he explains, “and so people get upset with me.”
The first time someone menaced Vinny Lingham with lethal force was in the early 2000s, when he was working at an online gambling company. The other three threats—the ones that shook Vinny Lingham, encouraged him to relocate himself and his family from the Bay Area, and compelled him to ask me not to reveal too many details about his personal life at all—were because he suggested that bitcoin might not be such a great investment. By being bearish on a commodity that lost half its value during a 40-day stretch earlier this year and that remains so volatile that 10 percent swings in the span of a few hours aren’t uncommon—and by pointing these facts out, sometimes very bluntly, to a Twitter following of more than 150,000—Vinny Lingham is dealing in FUD: “fear, uncertainty, and doubt,” the cryptocurrency Kryptonite.
The thing is, with bitcoin, a Vinny Lingham prediction can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ever since he bought in at a friend’s recommendation, when bitcoin was trading in the $30 to $40 range back in 2013, Lingham has been right often enough about bitcoin that he qualifies as something as a seer. With characteristic immodesty (“A friend says I have the ability to see around corners,” he once declared on a podcast), Lingham himself pegs the predictions he made between 2014 and 2016 to have come true with about “90 percent accuracy.”
This reputation stands and people still listen to him despite, as some trolls point out with a bitter triumph, Lingham’s admission that he mostly cashed out of bitcoin when it was still trading at a lowly $1,250, a tenth of what it commanded earlier this year.
The exit didn’t lower his profile much. Put “Bitcoin Oracle” into a web search, and you are buried by pages after page of his name and his bitcoin predictions, on podcasts, many of which are very recent. BITCOIN ORACLE SPEAKS, read the chyron during a January appearance on CNBC.
“Bitcoin Oracle” is quite the sobriquet. It suggests that in the world of crypto, Lingham has achieved Warren Buffett status. This would explain why he’d be prominent enough to attract a lunatic fringe along with a loyal following, though he bristles a bit when you mention the title to his face. “That title was given to me by Ryan Selkis, by the way,” he says from behind decidedly unhip Oakley sunglasses. “I never called myself that.”
To hear him explain it, he is the Oracle because he is often right. One blog post he wrote making predictions last year, “Preventing Another Bitcoin Bubble,” is “probably one of the most accurate posts ever written,” he says. “Literally what I wrote in that blog post, it’s all come true.”
We are now flying up the San Francisco Peninsula at a smooth 75 miles an hour in Lingham’s debris-strewn Tesla Model X. Around my feet are receipts, empty bubble-packaging from gum or breath mints, and an empty Tums container. (Lingham is nursing an ulcer, evinced by the occasional slight belch in between sentences, that developed sometime around the death of his mother, at 63, earlier this year.)
We’re headed to Lingham’s day job. After selling Gyft, he founded Civic, a sort of blockchain-powered secure credentialing service. (He emerged from the gym locker room wearing the other Silicon Valley founder uniform: jeans, sneakers, and a black t-shirt with Civic’s logo, a C with a keyhole.) The company’s thesis is to provide everyone on earth “a secure, decentralized digital identity using the blockchain.” He’s got an appearance later that afternoon at a blockchain conference at a San Francisco hotel, where he’s scheduled to give a keynote address.
“Saying ‘Sell bitcoin’ on national TV would generate more death threats than anything else,” he says. “It was just too tense a topic at the time.”
Vinny Lingham gets so many offers to give so many keynote addresses at crypto or blockchain events that he could do this every day if he wanted to. He does not want to do that, and so he has to curate.
What’s interesting is that people continue to listen to Lingham talk about bitcoin despite his more or less abandoning bitcoin. Though he made waves when Gyft starting accepting bitcoin—and then all of a sudden saw the vast majority of its business done in the cryptocurrency—he sold off 90 percent of his personal bitcoin assets, he told Forbes in 2017, and he has been declaring the currency overvalued for at least as long. In December, shortly before bitcoin lost half its value, he was tweeting that holding was a bad strategy. (He went on CNBC in January and said hold, contradicting himself, because “Saying ‘Sell bitcoin’ on national TV would generate more death threats than anything else,” he says. “It was just too tense a topic at the time.”)
His critics bring up his exit all the time. This, and bitcoin maximalists in general, very obviously annoy him.
“I get a lot of criticism, like ‘Vinny sold his bitcoin at $1,200,’” he says. “Everyone kind of laughed. They didn’t ask me, ‘What did you do with the money?’”
“What did you do with the money?” I venture.
He won’t say, except to declare that he found a better investment vehicle. “Let’s put it this way,” he says. “I got a better return on it than what it is today, with bitcoin. So how you say it’s a bad decision?”
“Here’s the fundamental thing I’ve realized,” he continues. ‘If you have access to deals, dealflow and opportunities that other people don’t, then bitcoin may not be the best investment for you long-term. If you don’t have access to anything else, and you’re just sitting in the middle of fricking town in Africa or wherever, bitcoin may be the best investment you make in your life, because you have no deal access.”
He tells me a quick story in case the concept is unclear. A founder with a few successful exits recently approached him with an opportunity to invest in his new company. Lingham couldn’t tell me who—“it’s still in stealth,” he says—but he’s fully confident the new company will be worth $100 million in a year.
“And this happens often,” he says. “I have access to this deal. Why would I not take this deal?’
“In the bitcoin maximalists’ view of the world, you never sell your bitcoin,” he adds. “This makes no sense. People don’t understand the opportunity cost of capital.”
“The point is, the guys on bitcoin are so fuckin’ religious. There’s no rationality behind it. I wouldn’t go publicly saying this, but I think in the next two or three years, bitcoin cash could be bigger than bitcoin.”
“And by the way,” he adds, gaining steam. “The store of value. At 20,000 they were all going, ‘Bitcoin is the greatest store of value.’ Really? Are you still thinking that at 6,000? How’s that store of value hypothesis going, you monkeys?”
The more than 1,600 cryptocurrencies available today reflect this “stupidity” and failure to grasp bitcoin as a commodity, he says. “Ninety-five percent of current coins are going to be gone in the next two years,” he says. “It’s just not possible. No consumers are running around with that many coins in their wallets. I can’t even handle more than ten coins.”
“They’re just religious nuts,” he says. “It’s like I’m watching a trainwreck in slow motion, in my opinion.”
The biggest problem with cryptocurrency aren’t the fanatics, Lingham says. Nor is it volatility or the threat of government intervention. It’s that nobody uses it. One percent of the world’s population is “into” crypto—maybe. Maybe half that. And Lingham doesn’t care about them anymore, even if they were to start behaving. There just aren’t enough of them. Sitting on a pile of bitcoin, waiting for it to replace fiat currencies, is just too speculative a play for Vinny Lingham’s time.
“The big play in crypto is to rewire the way consumers behave,” he says. “The best use of crypto will be when they’re using it, they don’t even know they’re using crypto. That’s when crypto is winning.”
This approach to blockchain is what Civic is built upon—and could explain why those same cryptofanatics helped Lingham build the company without taking on traditional investors.
In January 2017, Civic raised $33 million when tens of thousands of people lined up to plunk down a dime apiece for Civic-issued tokens, bits of cryptocurrency attached in value to… well, absolutely nothing, aside from a generally held belief that they had value. Instead of a central bank’s paper money, which is tied to a commodity like gold, and unlike gold, which has value as both a rare precious metal and as a component in electronics, a Civic token’s value is tied to what people think of Civic—and thus what they think of Vinny Lingham, Civic’s founder, CEO, and chief evangelist. Apparently, they think of a lot of the dude: Civic’s initial coin offering was so oversubscribed that the company could have raised $100 million if it wanted to, Lingham says. “But we said thirty-three was our cap,” he tells me later. “And so we had to keep our word. Trust is important.”
Earlier this year, Civic made another splash at Consensus, a blockchain technology conference in New York. Civic showed up with what they hoped was an example of consumer technology that uses blockchain, a successful demonstration of what they called “the world’s first crypto-beer vending machine.” Upload your driver’s license to Civic, wave your phone in the area where you usually insert dollar bills, and, presto: a cold Budweiser.
It was a bit of a gimmick, but it worked. It worked because people liked it—after their trial, executives with mainstream companies like IBM posted grinning selfies, blockchain-bought beer in hand—and because it was proof that Civic’s product, age or identity verification using QR codes and blockchain, also worked.
It also bolstered claims that the technology could be used to sell other age-restricted products, like prescription drugs or recreational cannabis (should state law ever allow a stand-alone marijuana vending machine, which it does not). The big question is whether web-based services that rely on verified credentialing to do business—like Uber or Airbnb or banks—will buy into Civic.
There’s certainly an info-sec argument to be made. Blockchain would eliminate hacker honeypots like the user data of 143 million Equifax users. But even that is just a step towards the biggest play, Lingham’s long play: blockchain-powered democracy. Civic, Lingham tells me, can power a national voting system that allows you to cast your ballot from your smartphone. No paper ballots, like the ones that required eight days of counting earlier this summer before San Francisco knew who its next mayor was; no risk of meddling by hackers from Russia or anywhere else; no long waits at the polls leading voters to decide not to bother. Frictionless democracy!
Lingham is passionate about voting, I find out later at the conference (where Lingham is besieged by founders he’s mentored and absolute strangers paying homage), because of his upbringing in apartheid South Africa. As a non-white person, Vinny Lingham had fewer rights. He vividly recalls the day Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, and has sharper memories of the national election that followed a few years later, when people waited for days to vote. Fair enough, but why does voting need blockchain, I ask? Fraud isn’t a problem, it’s voter apathy and passivity. Friction, replies Vinny Lingham. Voting is a pain in the ass, so people don’t do it. Frictionless voting is voting from your phone, securely and remotely, and Lingham says that Civic can help governments make this a reality. When I mention that California has permanent absentee voting, which already allows you to ponder over your ballot and fill it out leisurely over a period of weeks, Lingham cops to not having voted in a California election yet. (He is still a fresh citizen, after all.)
The time for the keynote arrives. He bounds onto the stage to a few notes from a Funkadelic riff and launches into a nearly 20-minute speech, with slides ready but without notes, about “codifying trust.” Bitcoin adherents trust bitcoin more than they trust governments. More people trust governments than they trust anyone they meet, on the internet or in person—and nobody seems to have hacked a blockchain-powered technology, to buy things or to prove your identity, that’s not tied to something else government-backed, be it a fiat currency or identity papers.
“The point is, it’s your identity,” he says, winding up, finishing in a bit of a rush as he’s over time. “You should be able to prove who you say you are using your mobile device.”
Applause. Vinny exits the stage. It takes us a few minutes to get out of the hotel ballroom; there are too many well-wishers. Someone has a theory he’d like to explain. Someone else is asking for Vinny Lingham’s phone number. He turns to Titus Capilnean, Civic’s director of marketing. “Get me out of here,” he says.
Photos by Chris Roberts.