“I still remember the day I became a millionaire,” says 33-year-old crypto-currency investor Parker Chan.
After a night out drinking with friends in Jakarta, Chan, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, checked his phone, and there it was: his first million.
If it sounds like the volatile crypto-currency market is at the mercy of twentysomethings and their whims, it’s because it is. If it sounds like crypto investors don’t actually care about the cash hitting their bank accounts, it’s because they don’t. For all his millions, the average crypto investor—millennial, male, nerdy, with no aspirations for a Bezos makeover—is unmoved by the trappings of wealth.
While traditional bankers are finally hopping on the bandwagon, staking their claim on tokens and coins of the crypto community over endless Clubhouse get-togethers, true crypto investing, around since 2009, is an act of protest—against baby-boomer parents who held them back, bank tellers who charged pointless fees, the unpaid internships and unforgiving job market of 2008, and even the 2020 pandemic that ruined, well, everything. Why should they listen to conventional wisdom?
Unlike Wall Streeters determined to grow up and make millions, crypto investors evoke Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, adamant in their defiance of norms. Their fluency in this murky tech language, which the rest of the world is just starting to wrap its head around, is the key to a shiny new kingdom, and they are its kings.
Silicon Valley Bros on Steroids
Twenty-nine-year-old Sam Bankman-Fried has a reputation for falling asleep on his office beanbag. The Hong Kong–based investor also happens to be worth almost $9 billion across his crypto-currency derivatives-exchange company FTX and crypto-trading firm Alameda Research. Bankman-Fried made headlines last year when he donated more than $5 million to the Biden campaign. Responding to the Nasdaq publication’s request for comment on FTX’s rumored sponsorship of the Miami Heat’s stadium, he just sent the 👀 emoji.
Then there is Justin Sun, the C.E.O. of Singapore-based blockchain company Tron, who spent $4.6 million to have lunch with Warren Buffett in 2020 (as part of Buffett’s annual charity event). Despite the fact that Buffett reportedly told Sun that crypto-currencies are worth zero “in terms of value,” after lunch Sun presented Buffett with a Bitcoin, which at the time of publication was worth more than $60,000.
Buffett reportedly gave away his Bitcoin, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing to irk Sun, who has a reputation for buying up pretty much anything in order to demonstrate what he believes is an investing paradigm shift. He was as vocal about his underbidding on the Beeple NFT, which sold to crypto alias MetaKovan for $69 million at auction at Christie’s last month, as he was about losing money on a $12 million Gamestop investment. Sun’s choices seem to be more about making a point than making money. If the occasional joke on the system costs a little extra, so be it.
Chan fits the enfant terrible mold, too. A lifelong nomad, the former police constable left England for Berlin in 2008, then traveled to Dubai and Jakarta before landing in Singapore.
He began seriously investing in crypto-currency in 2017, a time when his portfolio was “jumping by a few thousand dollars every day,” and made $30,000 on Bitcoin in a matter of weeks. The following year, Chan was earning a fixed-U.S.-dollar-amount salary in crypto-currency and had “gone full crypto.”
Chan remembers crypto’s illicit origins: years ago, at a party in Thailand, a man paid $3,000 in Bitcoin for “drugs, hookers, you name it,” in order to hide the transaction from his wife (ultimately a shorted investment given the value of one Bitcoin today).
So-called E-girls, fake passports, and other debaucheries of the Dark Web are still available in Bitcoin, even if they’re no longer taking center stage.
Insisting that property is just “money tied up,” Chan can’t bring himself to increase his rent from $1,500 a month, or even to buy an Apple Watch, despite the fact that he is now worth more than $20 million. Instead, he proudly strolls the streets of Singapore in his $9 flip-flops from 7-Eleven, his $10 haircut, and a black T-shirt from an Amazon five-pack.
Chan’s best friend, also a newly minted crypto Englishman, wears a baseball cap he found in the trash in Japan … before he was worth more than $4 million, of course. Together the pair spend hours drinking $3 beers with the locals as suited-up bankers rush by.
“People like that think that they should tell me how to handle my money,” Chan tells me. “I mean, people that are herding maybe 100 grand a year working for Credit Suisse or whatever … [thinking] they have a better handle on the world than me, because I’m sitting here drinking a $3 bottle of beer at two in the afternoon on a fucking Tuesday.”
He barely pauses.
“The irony of that juxtaposition,” Chan says, “is that I probably have more money than they’ll make in their lifetime.”
As recently as December, Chan was worth less than a million dollars. “My portfolio can swing like 100 grand a day, up or down,” he says. To him, the money in his pocket is “kind of meaningless at this point.” Firstly, because everything is priced out in crypto-currency in his day-to-day—the asset value doesn’t feel real, with one investor likening it to “Monopoly money”—and secondly, because he already has more money than he knows what to do with.
“Once you get past, like, maybe two million, honestly, it’s all just kind of numbers on a screen, right?,” Chan says. “I think it’s the same for my other friends that are crypto rich now. It hasn’t changed our life.”
Now that these risk-seekers who thrive on short-term investing are multi-millionaires, their future is uncertain. They never listened to traditional advice, and the worst of them are blowing their money as fast as it comes. The wildest plan Chan has for his millions, meanwhile, is to quietly pay off his sister’s mortgage. His biggest problem is that he has no idea what to do next.
Alexandra Bregman is a New York City–based journalist