Is there anything the Winklevoss twins can't do?

They went to Harvard, set up their own social networking site, won a $65m settlement when they accused Facebook of stealing their ideas, rowed for America in the Beijing Olympics, and are now competing for Oxford in the Boat Race

Cahal Milmo
Wednesday 03 March 2010 01:00

As multimillionaire identical twins with a $65m court settlement in their favour and the sort of physiques that allowed them to tower over Arnold Schwarzenegger in a recent photo, it was always going to be difficult for Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss to blend in seamlessly with their fellow students at Oxford University.

To give them their due, the 6ft 5in MBA students, whose statuesque prowess at rowing led to one newspaper in their native East Coast America dubbing them "testosterone titans", have dealt uncomplainingly with the travails of student life in Britain.

After failing to get a room in their college of choice, Christ Church, they sought out digs off the city's Iffley Road student ghetto only to find that the high turnover of occupants at the address meant the 28-year-old Harvard graduates failed a credit check when they tried to get iPhone contracts. They settled for pay-as-you-go phones instead.

But a very different world of Hollywood movies, A-list parties in Manhattan and high-powered lawsuits over claims that their idea for an Ivy League social networking website was stolen and turned into Facebook is never far away from the Winklevoss twins.

When combined with the fact that they were this week unveiled as the transatlantic core of the Oxford crew in the university Boat Race next month – to go alongside their appearance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics – questions are being asked as to whether these lantern-jawed scions of Greenwich, Connecticut (sometime home of the Bush dynasty), are among the most extravagantly over-achieving individuals ever to walk among the dreaming spires.

After all, there cannot be many scholars of global commerce in Oxford's Saïd Business School who know they will be featuring in one of Paramount Pictures' autumn blockbusters, The Social Network, about the creation of the Facebook phenomenon. Produced by Kevin Spacey and written by Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, the film features Armie Hammer, an up-and-coming Hollywood star, playing both twins with the help of some Parent Trap-style technology.

The brothers, who rise at 6.30am each day to cram in 12 weekly training sessions at the Boat Club alongside 20 hours of lectures, were yesterday eager to play down the Hollywood razzmatazz and their ongoing legal dust-up over what they insist was their pivotal role in the genesis of the $5bn website that is rapidly heading towards 500 million users. The brothers' own networking website, ConnectU, mustered just 70,000 subscribers.

Tyler said that while he and his twin accept the wider interest in the Facebook tale, they are concentrating their energies on helping Oxford win a third straight Boat Race as part of a team that includes three Olympians. With suitable deference to the 20-minute battle of oarsmanship played out on the Thames, Tyler said: "[The Facebook saga] is one part of who we are and it's also minor to the task at hand. At the end of the day, we're students trying to row for the Blue Boat."

As twice American national champions, Harvard blues and sixth-placed finalists in the men's pair at Beijing, it would be difficult to underplay the importance of rowing to the Winklevosses. Certainly they pursue their chosen sport with all the purist zeal of Spartan warriors in ancient Greece – and make no secret of it.

Speaking to the Boston Globe, Cameron said: "One of the cool things about amateur athletics is that I think the pursuit is sort of the pursuit of excellence for nothing more than trying to be excellent... We're getting a lot out of it, but it's not like an NBA championship, or something like that. We're trying to be good at something for the sake of being good."

With a reported $20m (£13.4m) in cash and another $45m in Facebook shares set to be parceled out between the brothers and another Harvard contemporary as the result of an out-of-court settlement reached with the web giant, it is likely that the Winklevosses can afford the luxury of such dedication to lung-busting exercise when many of their peers will be focused on the more mundane task of eking out their student loans at Lidl.

The brothers are reluctant to discuss the result of their four-year legal battle with Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, because of an ongoing dispute about the value of the stock options and a counter-claim from a Harvard contemporary for a share of the settlement.

The Winklevosses claimed that they had been working since 2002 on a website to link students at the 50 universities and colleges in the Boston area and hired fellow Harvard undergraduate Zuckerberg to write computer code for the venture in November 2003 after hearing that he was an adept programmer.

When Zuckerberg launched Facebook in February 2004, the twins cried foul and attempted to have the venture shut down – starting a legal battle which endured while the rival networking site became a vast success and their own venture foundered.

In court documents filed against Zuckerberg, the Winklevosses alleged that the Facebook founder "never intended to provide the code and instead intended to breach his promise... and intended to steal the idea for the Harvard Connection website, and in fact he did so". For its part, Facebook and Zuckerberg denied the claims and issued a countersuit against ConnectU.

The case was settled 18 months later and details of the confidential deal were accidentally disclosed by a law firm last February, revealing that, whatever the result of the ongoing proceedings, the twins are likely to be the only multimillionaire competitors in the history of the 181-year-old Boat Race.

But mixing with more privileged and high-achieving members of society is nothing new for these men with the Colgate grins of the East Coast's Wasp elite. Their father, Howard, built a successful business selling software for the analysis of pension plans and the family were raised in Greenwich – a favoured haven for hedge fund managers and old-money American dynasties.

Despite their insistence that they came up with their social networking website idea because there were a lot of people in Harvard "we hadn't met and may not meet", rubbing shoulders with the glitterati has never been difficult for the twins. Pictures abound of the pair in the company of celebrities including MC Hammer, Aaron Eckhart and Arnie.

Indeed, such is their ease on Manhattan's A-list party circuit that Cameron has put the Facebook experience behind him to set up, a virtual meeting point for New York's elite social scene with details of people and venues. The pair hope to copy the format in cities around the world. Perhaps predictably, the brothers are reluctant to raise expectations of future success too high. Tyler said: "Remember what happened last time."

Over-achieving undergraduates

* Larry Page and Sergey Brin The founders of Google began work on their revolutionary search engine in January 1996 while they were PhD students at Stanford University in California. Within a year they had registered the name, and later incorporated the company in a friend's garage. The company made a profit of $6.5bn (£4.3bn) last year.

* Jan Sramek At the age of 22, the Czech student combined his studies at Cambridge and the London School of Economics with stints working at Goldman Sachs, UBS and Deutsche Bank while co-writing a motivational book, Racing Towards Excellence. After starting his first company at the age of 13 (a jobs website), he is now considered one of Goldman's star London traders.

* Oprah Winfrey After a deprived childhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the future first lady of American broadcasting landed a job as a radio presenter while studying at Tennessee State University. She was then poached to become the city's youngest and first black news anchor.

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