Boat Race, Facebook, and the $65m twins
Sink or win, the Winklevoss twins are already the stars today after a Harvard feud over a certain website. Chris Dodd meets them
Saturday 03 April 2010
In the cafe of the Said Business School, Oxford, Tyler Winklevoss orders a pile of tuna and cheese sandwiches and bottles of still water for himself and his twin brother.
He and Cameron are identical: 6ft 4in, just over 15 stone, inseparable in looks and habits. They eat alike, read alike (classics and sci-fi). They studied together at Harvard and are both enrolled for MBAs at Oxford. Are the brothers Winklevi internet visionaries with jock tendencies or jocks with internet visionary tendencies? Either way suits them.
Since graduating from Harvard, they are $65m better off after an out-of-court settlement of their case against Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, although the value of the Facebook stock that is part of the settlement is still in dispute.
The Facebook saga arose when the brothers, with fellow student Divya Narendra, cooked up Harvard Connect, later ConnectU, in late 2002. They hired Zuckerberg, also a student, to work on their site while the twins were engaged in Harvard's demanding rowing programme. They alleged that Zuckerberg failed to deliver most of the work he promised and registered Facebook, a twin of the ConnectU idea, three days before he terminated his agreement with it.
While the legal process wends its way at about the speed of the first Boat Race crews of 1829, the Winklevi, multi-millionaires extraordinaire, work out before breakfast, study at the Said in the mornings and row in the afternoons. They have a clear pathway ahead – the Boat Race today, followed by rowing in the London Olympics, rectifying the position with Facebook and pursuing their entrepreneurial interests. Cameron's current baby is Guestofaguest.com, a city guide for the internet age. Tyler's is under wraps, wary of what happened last time.
"The attraction to me was that Harvard was such a big community, with interesting things to do and interesting people, but you realise when you're there that things are a lot narrower than you thought. It's a little bit of a let-down," says Tyler.
"Your life becomes a solid path, not as broad or dynamic or interesting on the social interaction as you imagine. It really hits you," says Cameron. Now, at Oxford, they sit at the feet of the rowing coach Sean Bowden, who puts his men through patient lessons of refined technique on the Thames at Wallingford.
The twins learned to row at Brunswick School, Connecticut, and have continued labouring at the oars through Harvard to the Beijing Olympics (where they finished sixth in the coxless pairs) and now the dark blue of Oxford. The two crews, these two stars aside, are less remarkable than in some years – experienced but not extraordinary, making for a race that is genuinely too close to call. The teams tick the same boxes on the water and are close on the scales.
In the dark blue, Tyler, the right-hander, will be in the No 3 seat and Cameron, the left-hander, in front of him at No 4, and Oxford have three other Olympic oarsmen – but if either shade of blue is clear at Hammersmith, that could be the race done.
The Winklevi have given a presentation at the Said School, drawing parallels between business and rowing. "Entrepreneurs and rowers show characteristics of curiosity and wanting to learn," Cameron says. "No business is quite the same – case studies show that both hierarchical and flat-structured companies can be successful." Hmm.
Tyler once quoted Richard II on the case against Facebook: "Mine honour is my life, both grow in one. Take honour from me, and my life is done." That's what the twins think about rowing, and it would make a good motto for the Boat Race.
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