Finding Their Next Facebook
Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times
Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss.
By JESSE McKINLEY
Published: March 22, 2013
As you sit across from Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, it is easy to lose track of whom exactly you’re talking to. Tall, blue-eyed and each built as broad-shouldered as a fridge, the twins are identical right down to their entrees: a pair of lobster rolls, with potato chips. Each has an espresso; neither eats the biscotti it comes with. And while the restaurant around them is spinning with chatter on this February night, the twins are each laser focused on getting their message across.
They were both played by Armie Hammer with Max Minghella, left, in “The Social Network” in 2010.
“Our business isn’t to be famous: that’s not what we do, that’s not what we strive for,” said Tyler, who is slightly — if you look closely — broader-jowled and a hair more assertive. “But we’re not shy or have a phobia about it,” adding, “We’ll be friendly if people are friendly back.”
Cameron concurs. “Every time someone has come up to us, they’ve always been incredibly positive and almost overly effusive, in the sense that ‘I totally support you guys,’ almost to point that I’m like, ‘Hey, hey, chill out,’ ” he said. “Everyone else gets so much more emotional about it I think than we ever have.”
The “it” in question, of course, is the twisty tale of Facebook, a small Harvard-based start-up founded in 2004 that went on to become a multibillion-dollar business in the hands of a founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
As every viewer of the 2010 hit film “The Social Network” knows, that business triumph occurred without the Winklevoss twins, prompting their furious accusations that Mr. Zuckerberg had appropriated their idea for the site.
Their characters were indelibly portrayed as dumbfounded children of privilege: genetically and financially blessed, they strode into the office of the Harvard president, demanding Mr. Zuckerberg’s censure (although Mr. Zuckerberg, it must be said, came off as even more unappealing in the film). The final image of the brothers was one in which they narrowly lost not only a big rowing race in Britain, but control of the company, leaving them angry (“Let’s gut the frigging nerd,” Cameron’s character says) but, ultimately, just a side note in the Facebook story.
For most people, their story ended where that scene ended, and the Winklevii, as they were memorably referred to, were all but forgotten. In the years that followed, the two went on to compete in the 2008 Olympic Games, coming in sixth in Beijing, and engaged in a protracted legal battle with Mr. Zuckerberg and others. After being awarded at least $65 million in 2008, they went back to court to ask for more, but eventually abandoned their attempts.
“We gave it our best shot,” said Tyler, now 31. “And when we felt we had come to the end of the road, it was over and on to the next thing.” But if revenge is a dish — like a lobster roll — best served cold, then the Winklevii are feasting. The twins are more active than ever: financing start-ups, hosting political fund-raisers, and even poking fun at their own image in a television commercial.
Last year, their company, Winklevoss Capital, began working as what they call “angel accelerators” for the shopping Web site Hukkster and a financial-data-and-dish company called SumZero. Divya Narendra, the founder of SumZero, met the twins at Harvard, and was eventually a co-plaintiff against Facebook.
Mr. Narendra, who was also depicted in the movie — “I was played by a guy who looked nothing like me” — said that the twins had adapted to their celebrity in typically low-key fashion. “I think part of them enjoys the fame, and I’m sure part of them is probably annoyed by it at times,” he said. “It’s hard for me to put myself in their shoes, because I don’t attract that kind of attention. Nobody would recognize me on the street. But people do stop them.”
Indeed, they’ve recently been sighted clubbing in SoHo, rubbing elbows at Fashion Week and being trailed onto the subway by the British paparazzi (“After failing to find taxi to pick them up,” The Daily Mail breathlessly reported). In December, the twins, who live in Los Angeles and New York, hosted a high-profile fund-raiser at their sleek 8,000-square-foot pad in the Hollywood Hills for the Los Angeles Democratic mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti. In New York, they have backed Daniel L. Squadron, a New York State Senator who represents a chunk of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, in a potential bid for public advocate.
They touted Hukkster on the “Today” show last fall, and shortly after dropping their legal challenge in June 2011, they appeared in an advertisement — which they say they helped write — for Wonderful Pistachios, a spot that took a none-too-subtle swipe at Mr. Zuckerberg, with one brother mentioning that deshelled nuts were “a good idea,” and the other suggesting that someone might steal it.
“Who’d do that?” the Winklevii quipped, before an M.C. announced, “The Winklevoss twins do it cautiously.”
All of which seems to suggest that the twins have come to terms with the fact that while they didn’t ask for notoriety, they are now best known as the guys who lost out on a Sultan of Dubai-style payday. And being known, they say, is not necessarily a bad thing when trying to build start-ups.
“I don’t feel like we’re jumping in front of cameras just to be jumping in front of cameras,” Tyler said of the “Today” show appearance. “We were talking about what could be done for Hukkster.”
Cameron interjects. “I think our litmus test is, ‘Is there a purpose to it?’ ” he said. “ ‘Are we helping build Hukkster? Are we helping to build SumZero?’ ”
The one topic they do seem sensitive about is their upbringing in Greenwich, Conn., the sons of wealthy self-made parents. “Dad was a pure entrepreneur,” Tyler said. “The dinner conversations weren’t like, ‘Did the Yankees win today?’ Cameron and I would be reading business magazines and talking about guys like Bill Gates.”
But they are also quick to point out that the Winklevoss family was not always so well off. Their parents, married 45 years, didn’t go to Harvard; they went to Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts school in western Pennsylvania. Their grandfathers were a policeman and a garage owner. Their great-grandfather was a coal miner. And so on.
“We certainly grew up and had opportunities,” Cameron said. “But it’s not like our parents are aristocratic blue bloods.”
Tyler agrees that “we were born into privilege,” but adds: “We may have been born on third base, but we worked like we were starting from home plate. You know: batter up.”
Christopher Librandi, a lawyer who attended high school with the twins at the private Brunswick School in Greenwich, echoes that “they’ve got this very distinct public image, as preppy, khaki-wearing golden boys, but they don’t really fit that image.”
“They’re just driven, focused guys,” he said, adding that “they absolutely hated khakis.”
Talk to friends and colleagues of the Winklevii, and the recurring theme is that for all their seeming advantages, the brothers, who are almost painfully polite, seem to fall — by choice or by nature — right in the dull center.
The twins still tend to travel — and talk — in tandem, though little differences between them do pop out: Cameron is a lefty, Tyler right-handed. Cameron wears Adidas; Tyler wears suede sneakers. Tyler is a film buff — he’d like to produce someday — whereas Cameron seems more interested in music and books.
“When we look in the mirror, we don’t see the same person,” Cameron said.
They say they are both in relationships. Their dating status is something often asked about in short order by female friends of the Hukkster founders Katie Finnegan and Erica Bell, who met the brothers last fall for a marathon dinner meeting at the same restaurant — Lure Fishbar in SoHo — they invited this reporter. “I was like, ‘I know I’ll recognize them when they walk in the door,’ ” Ms. Bell said. “Because you don’t often see 6-4 twins walking around.” (For the record, the twins are actually 6 feet 5 inches.)
It’s a slightly old-school idea — throwing everyone in the same room — which Tyler described in idealistic terms.
“We recognize in New York there’s difficulty in bridging that gap between working in Starbucks or your living room and actually have the money to get their own space,” he said, adding that “we want to be company builders. We don’t want to just be cutting checks and saying, ‘See ya.’ ”
Up front, there’s a white cubicle set aside for a planned D.J. booth. All of which, the twins say, is part of an ethos to make their business a pleasure. “We want this to be a place people want to come to work,” Tyler said.
Despite rejecting some trappings of Silicon Valley — their office has no Ping-Pong table, which they called a cliché — the Winklevii are not immune to the type of hyperbole that often heats the air of dot-com parties and pitches. Speaking of SumZero, Tyler says, “It completely obliterates the way things have been done on Wall Street.”
Which could seem a little cocky, of course, unless you believe — as the Winklevii obviously still do — that they were critical in coming up with the idea for Facebook. They don’t offer up many opinions about Mr. Zuckerberg, but they do have a few about how their battle has been portrayed.
“It’s always been this David and Goliath, blue-blooded jocks versus this hacker kid, when really it’s a fight or dispute between privileged parties,” Cameron said. “The similarities between us and Zuckerberg are actually greater than the dissimilarities.”
“The irony,” he said, “is so thick.”