On a rainy night in Austin, Texas, over a long table well-provisioned with baskets of stale tortilla chips, Chris Champion, aka Chris Sweis, is selling an idea. Like so many visionaries and charlatans of the crypto sphere, he’s conjuring a universe of possibilities, all thanks to a technology that’s going to “change the world as we know it.”
I’ve come to this private dining room of a downtown Tex-Mex restaurant to attend a meeting of the Crypto Dinner Club, which Sweis bills on his website as a series of “social gatherings for whales and ICOs.” Sweis tells me that attendance at monthly Dinner Club events in Los Angeles ranges from 80-200. Tickets go for as much as $525.
Here in Austin, however, there are perhaps 15 people, and none of them look or act like whales (owners of large quantities of cryptocurrency), except perhaps the ebullient Sweis himself. Tonight’s turnout is an aberration, Sweis says, a one-time result of bad marketing. Two nights later, in Miami, he suggests, former White House press secretary Anthony Scaramucci might attend. The Mooch himself! It’s easy to assume Sweis is lying, except that Scaramucci would make such a perfect complement to Sweis’s brazen hoodwinker’s charm.
In 2018, gatherings of would-be crypto investors are an illusionist’s playground. Of course, one dinner can’t be taken as representative of the entire marketplace for blockchain public events, but the methods of selling on display can tell us something about where the market stands now, in crypto’s cool season.
“I don’t think I have a vision,” Sweis says of the Crypto Dinner Club brand. He started it on a whim, buying dinner for a bunch of colleagues at a conference, and it has taken on a life of its own through over 100 dinners since then. He reckons that some of the wild success of the Dinner Club—again, none of which is apparent at the thinly-attended event in Austin—is due to crypto enthusiasts needing an excuse to get out of the house, away from their computers, and talking to people face-to-face.
“I find food is a great environment” Sweis says. “You go to an event where you sit in a chair and you’re being talked at—that gets exhausting. But I guarantee you, if you sit next to a whale for three hours, eating food, you’re gonna learn about their children, about their lives, but you’re also gonna learn about crypto.”
The first three times I ask Sweis where he’s from, he’s evasive, finally answering, “my mama’s womb.” Eventually, he admits he’s based in Las Vegas, adding, “but I live in a mobile world.” Later, I overhear him tell someone else that his roots are in Chicago—which squares with his “Da Bears” accent. Sweis’s story, impossible to verify, is that he first bought bitcoin eight years ago, made a lot of money, and is now devoting his life to investing and creating platforms for other investors to meet.
A series of blocks can build an un-hackable chain. Arranged differently, the same blocks can come to resemble a pyramid.
Sweis points to various people around the table in Austin, marveling at how amazing it is that Crypto Dinner Club has brought them together. There’s a college student, an ayurvedic practitioner, a plumber, and an ex-NFL player who now runs health clinics in San Antonio that offer intravenous vitamin treatments.
There is a problem with Sweis’s argument. All the people around this table, except me, have one important thing in common, and it’s not enthusiasm for investment in cryptocurrency broadly speaking. In fact, a few I talk to have never bought crypto. Instead, all of these people are linked by their present involvement in a multi-level marketing company.
This becomes clearer as cocktail conversation winds down and the presentation part of the dinner begins. The speaker is the well-tailored, jet-lagged Paul Rogers, CEO of PrimeMyBody, a company that sells cannabidiol (CBD) oils through what Rogers politely calls “network marketing.” If you want to buy or sell Prime My Body’s oils, you must pay an annual fee to become a representative. The more customers you sign up (all of whom must become representatives themselves), the more you get paid.
A series of blocks can build an un-hackable chain. Arranged differently, the same blocks can come to resemble a pyramid. It soon becomes clear Sweis has become involved with PrimeMyBody because the company is launching an ICO. For a minimum investment of around $300, the pitch goes, the dinner attendees can buy tokens that can be used to purchase CBD oils from PrimeMyBody. Tokens will also be used to pay reps and to simplify international business transactions.
As Sweis keeps cutting into Rogers’s presentation to clarify points about cryptocurrency and name-drop big industry players, the pitch evolves. Soon, it’s no longer just an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a “nano-enhanced hemp oil” that will help you “experience natural, vibrant energy.” It’s an opportunity to gain first-hand experience of an entire technology, cryptocurrency, that will change the world and one’s fortunes. This is also where the pretense of Crypto Dinner Club as a social gathering drops, and I start to feel like I’ve wandered into a hard-sell presentation for condo timeshares in Florida.
It’s Rogers who ends up inadvertently summing up the ethos of Crypto Dinner Club for anyone interested in taking a ride—or being taken for a ride—on the crypto roller coaster. “My dad always taught me, if you want to be great at something, go find people who are already great, learn from them, and go do likewise,” he says, exhorting the dinner attendees to trust him and Sweis and not to miss out on this golden investment opportunity. “If you approach stuff arrogantly, then you’re never gonna learn. You’re always gonna be defensive.”
Later, Sweis gives me the update: Scaramucci was a no-show in Miami.