Olaf Carlson-Wee Rode the Bitcoin Boom to Silicon Valley Riches. Can He Survive the Crash?




© Supplied by The Wall Road Journal.


SAN FRANCISCO—Olaf Carlson-Wee has crammed the highs and lows of a hedge-fund profession into roughly one 12 months—all earlier than his 30th birthday.

He turned $14,502 right into a $150 million private fortune by going all-in on cryptocurrencies proper earlier than bitcoin grew to become a family title. His fund, Polychain Capital, earned traders together with Silicon Valley heavyweight Andreessen Horowitz a staggering 2,303% final 12 months, after charges—amongst the finest showings for a billion-dollar funding agency in historical past—drawing comparisons to Wall Road merchants reminiscent of John Paulson and George Soros.

Now, Mr. Carlson-Wee should show he isn’t a one-hit marvel. It isn’t going properly.

Polychain has shed round 40% of the $800 million it made for purchasers final 12 months via a mix of funding losses and withdrawals by a few of its earliest traders. Some backers grumble that Mr. Carlson-Wee refuses to change ways regardless of a broad pullback from crypto. Mr. Carlson-Wee cashed out a giant chunk of his private haul in the fund months in the past.

Distinguished venture-capital agency Union Sq. Ventures has yanked a few of its cash, whereas others have fallen out privately with the agency. One investor is suing, suspecting he was underpaid when he moved to redeem his funding. Attorneys for Polychain and Mr. Carlson-Wee deny that.

Crypto fever, in the meantime, has damaged. After capturing the consideration of the investing world in 2017, bitcoin, the most well-known of a mushrooming assortment of so-called digital belongings, is down 55% this 12 months. It lately traded for $6,301, down from its peak of almost $19,280 in December.

“How a lot of it’s luck, how a lot of it’s ability and the way a lot of it’s luck disguised?” asks Fred Ehrsam, considered one of Polychain’s first traders, who’s now beginning his personal fund.

At the middle of the maelstrom is Mr. Carlson-Wee, a Silicon Valley star who wears neon tracksuits, has 5 earrings and routinely eats solely a plate of refried beans, garlic and cheese for dinner. He is handled as an oracle by wannabe cryptocurrency moguls who mob him in public.

In interviews, he in contrast his relationship with cryptocurrency to romantic love, and likened the present funding alternative to the early days of the web.

By means of every dip downward, he has continued shopping for, notably stakes in companies tied to bitcoin rivals reminiscent of the cryptocurrency ether. He manages Polychain’s roughly $650 million flagship fund—the world’s greatest in crypto—from an Apple laptop computer surrounded by classic increase containers in undisclosed, secret San Francisco warehouse places of work.

“I need to emphasize how lengthy I’ve been doing this,” says Mr. Carlson-Wee, who turned 29 final month. “That is actually similar to respiratory out and in for me.”

This account of the windfall and subsequent struggles of Polychain and Mr. Carlson-Wee is predicated on a number of interviews with individuals shut to the agency, in addition to audits and different investor paperwork reviewed by the Journal.

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Mr. Carlson-Wee’s path to high-stakes investing started in Minnesota, in the suburbs of Fargo, N.D., the place his mother and father had been Lutheran pastors. In highschool, Mr. Carlson-Wee wrote an SAT tutoring program in his spare time. He stated he had few associates; his classmates voted him “most unusual.”

At Vassar School, he majored in sociology and in opposition to recommendation from his professors wrote a senior thesis on a just about unknown digital forex named bitcoin.

Bitcoin is software program that permits individuals to change worth instantly, with none authorities middleman, primarily functioning as a digital type of cash. It was created in 2008 by an individual or individuals beneath the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.

After commencement in 2012, Mr. Carlson-Wee grew to become the first worker at Coinbase, a nascent cryptocurrency change. Till the morning of the interview, he owned just one pair of pants: denims lined in sap from a brief stint as a lumberjack. A shoestring acted as the belt. His $50,000 beginning wage was paid in bitcoin.

In July 2016, Mr. Carlson-Wee give up to begin considered one of the first-ever crypto funds out of an condominium he shared with seven roommates in San Francisco’s gritty Mission District.

With a mullet, a large assortment of classic windbreakers and a bent to converse extemporaneously on esoteric subjects, Mr. Carlson-Wee reminded some traders of the 1980s “Again to the Future” character Marty McFly.

The pitch labored: In December 2016, Union Sq. Ventures agreed to spend money on the fledgling agency at a $5 million valuation, a steep value contemplating its whole belongings beneath administration had been roughly the identical.

Enterprise capitalist Ramtin Naimi took a stake in Polychain at the identical time, and afterward took Mr. Carlson-Wee out to lunch. Over avocado toast, he requested the supervisor how giant Polychain may develop.

“Fifty million is a superb goal,” Mr. Carlson-Wee responded. A number of months later, Mr. Naimi repeated the identical query. “I believe $400 million is absolutely the proper quantity,” Mr. Carlson-Wee stated.

Polychain was rising quick as a result of cryptocurrency was out of the blue mainstream. A whole bunch if not hundreds of startups had been forming to use the blockchain, the software program that underpins bitcoin. The blockchain is claimed to give you the chance to assist airways observe flights, banks settle accounts and grocers inventory meals, amongst different makes use of.

New, competing cryptocurrencies popped up quickly by way of so-called preliminary coin choices that might increase a whole bunch of thousands and thousands of immediately. The creators of some cash gave them away to Polychain, Mr. Carlson-Wee and different early adopters, hoping for the imprimatur of approval. Polychain would later promote some for revenue.

Mr. Carlson-Wee spent hours every day at his pc, sometimes responding to strangers on social-media websites like Reddit, encouraging them to purchase bitcoin and the like. Extra massive names in Silicon Valley had been starting to spend money on the fund together with Sequoia Capital, Bain Capital Ventures and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, all keen to get entry and perception into the crypto phenomenon.

Round the summer season of 2017, Polychain irked a few of its earliest traders, together with associates who had invested months earlier on little greater than religion, when it demanded they every make investments a whole bunch of hundreds of extra. Some didn’t have the money, and had been pressured out. Mr. Carlson-Wee says the transfer was required as Polychain made modifications to accommodate bigger traders, and that solely a small variety of Polychain backers had been affected.

Mr. Carlson-Wee was rising cautious of onetime allies. He raged in opposition to an early backer, San Francisco agency Pantera Capital, which began a competing crypto fund whereas it nonetheless had entry to Polychain’s buying and selling info. Mr. Carlson-Wee blocked Pantera from receiving updates on Polychain and threatened to pressure them and different early traders to promote their stakes, earlier than backing down beneath promise of a chronic authorized battle.

In a press release, Pantera stated it “denies that it misused any confidential Polychain info or in any other case violated any obligation to Polychain.”

In early November, Mr. Carlson-Wee paid for round a dozen staff to fly to an oceanfront resort in Cancún. The crypto market was hovering and everybody was relaxed, say attendees; one afternoon, some in the group skipped an iPhone back-and-forth throughout the pool as they debated whether or not the gadget was waterproof. A couple of minutes later, the cellphone sank and was ruined.

Mr. Carlson-Wee blames a buddy, Richard Craib, for the damaged cellphone.

Mr. Craib was amongst the early traders having second ideas. He had invented his personal coin, dubbed the Numeraire, which briefly made him rich on paper as traders together with Polychain bid it up. However Polychain subsequently bought some Numeraire, miserable the worth of Mr. Craib’s holdings. Mr. Craib shortly after redeemed his funding in Polychain funds, for what he says had been unrelated causes.

Union Sq. Ventures, considered one of Polychain’s earliest backers, was additionally debating its funding. Polychain was racking up thousands and thousands in positive factors, however solely on paper, and the digital forex was unstable.

At a panel dialogue throughout Union Sq.’s annual investor assembly in November, one attendee requested for the agency’s ideas on Polychain. “Oh, Olaf,” responded Union Sq. companion Albert Wenger, inserting an prolonged pause, in accordance to an attendee. “He’s a little bit of a gunslinger.”

Union Sq. co-founder Fred Wilson says he doesn’t recall Mr. Wenger making such a remark and says the agency nonetheless has religion in Polychain. Nonetheless, Union Sq. determined to pull a few of its cash in Polychain late final 12 months, he says, in an effort to “de-risk the funding.” He says Mr. Carlson-Wee is “a unusual man” who “makes up his personal thoughts and figures issues out in his personal head.”

Mr. Carlson-Wee isn’t bothered by bitcoin’s day by day churns. On a latest weekday afternoon, he left his cellphone in his dusty, black Cadillac Escalade for a 90-minute, technology-free hike to the web site of an historic volcanic crater in the Oakland, Calif., hills.

In between digressions on film trailers (he gained’t watch them, fearing spoilers) and capitalism (in a pure, however not imminent, decline), he talked about how he doesn’t take into account himself a dealer.

“One factor I need to emphasize is that as a dealer, when one thing doubles, you promote half—or one thing like that,” he says, making air quotes over the phrase “dealer.” At Polychain, he says, “We don’t commerce. We shift round positions.”

Mr. Carlson-Wee describes his strategy as an alternative as “long-term, thesis-driven investing.” This philosophy, shared by blue-chip know-how traders reminiscent of Andreessen Horowitz, is that cryptocurrency is just one department of a bigger upending of the digital world. Most current on-line entities, from relationship purposes to enterprise cloud computing, shall be changed on a less-expensive, decentralized infrastructure, the blockchain.

The query for evangelists is which of the a whole bunch of competing blockchain platforms will attain widespread adoption. Final 12 months, Mr. Carlson-Wee was largely inserting a guess that his favored platform, Ethereum, would win out; greater than one-quarter of Polychain’s major fund was invested in Ethereum, in accordance to its most up-to-date audit.

Ethereum is down 74% this 12 months, and Polychain’s major portfolio is down by about 31% via the finish of July, the newest figures out there. In communications this 12 months with traders, the agency defended its efficiency as higher than the crypto market at giant.

Traders in the fund credit score a shift from belongings reminiscent of Ethereum into less-liquid, extra steady stakes in crypto corporations internationally. That’s a less-volatile guess however one which’s tougher to get out of in the case of an prolonged decline.

Since the begin of the 12 months, Polychain has blocked traders from redeeming their cash instantly, as an alternative placing investments right into a so-called aspect pocket that now makes up greater than half the fund. Which means traders can’t money out absolutely even when they need to.

“If cryptocurrencies go to zero, we go to zero,” Mr. Carlson-Wee stated. “I don’t assume anybody is beneath any illusions that’s not the case.”

Mr. Carlson-Wee is wealthy both means. Not like many corporations that maintain illiquid belongings which can be paid solely once they promote investments, Polychain’s major fund takes its charges yearly on paper positive factors. Mr. Carlson-Wee began final 12 months with simply $14,502 in the fund, and turned that into $150 million of charges. He cashed out $60 million, a transfer that raised issues amongst traders about his dedication to his personal fund.

He says he put aside cash for household, and subsequently invested extra in the agency’s funds.

“This mannequin won’t final,” says Jing Solar, a Polychain investor. Polychain is now elevating new funds that gained’t cost charges till they notice positive factors.

Mr. Carlson-Wee and Polychain face a lawsuit filed in March from an early investor, skilled poker participant Harry Greenhouse. In court docket filings, Mr. Greenhouse says he requested for his a reimbursement late final 12 months and was partly repaid “at price,” or for the value initially paid, as opposed to what it might be bought for. He alleges Polychain gained’t element how they valued his funding, and suspects he was underpaid.

The matter is in arbitration.

Mr. Carlson-Wee now straddles the line between crypto child and crypto king. He has pared again his time on on-line message boards to 15 minutes a day, from an hour or extra in years previous, to spend extra time on the fund. He lately chopped off his mullet as a result of being recognized for such an idiosyncrasy reminded him of “one thing a hedge-fund supervisor would do.”

He moved the agency to new places of work in a transformed warehouse. The San Francisco deal with listed on Polychain’s public filings is a pretend, designed to idiot would-be hackers and kidnappers who’ve focused different crypto merchants.

“That is going to be such an epic journey both means,” Mr. Carlson-Wee stated, smiling. “Like, if this entire factor collapsed, that may be loopy, you realize?”

Write to Rob Copeland at rob.copeland@wsj.com

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