For some of the whizz kids in the world of ‘cryptoculture’, the key to standing out from the crowd is performing stunts that raise your profile. The problem: sometimes they backfire badly.
Take the efforts of a 25 year-old crypto entrepreneur from Hong Kong known as “Coin Young Master”. During a Facebook Live session last December he was filmed getting out of a Lamborghini in one of the territory’s poorest districts, and asked if his audience believed that money falls from the sky. Cue a hail of HK$100 ($14.44) banknotes raining down from the rooftops and a frenzy from bystanders.
After winning instant fame, Coin Young Master was detained by the police and charged with disorderly conduct in public, and later for financial fraud related to sales of cryptocurrency mining machines.
A few months later a Ukrainian group took a different approach to self-promotion: it encouraged crypto-enthusiasts to climb Mount Everest by burying a hard drive with $50,000 worth of digital tokens on the mountain. The Financial Times reported that this audacious move led to a climber’s death.
Justin Sun, a 29 year-old from China, is the latest to find out that publicity stunts don’t always work out quite as planned, even when the gimmick is a lunch with Warren Buffett, the world’s most famous investor.
A pricey lunch with the sage…
“I just did something very significant. I will announce [what it is] in three days time,” Sun wrote on June 1 on his Sina Weibo account, which has more than a million followers.
In a matter of minutes his fans had guessed what he was hinting at: he had won the annual auction to lunch with Berkshire Hathaway’s founder.
Soon afterwards, Sun confirmed that he’d made a record bid of $4,567,888 for the privilege of lunching with Buffett and was the charity auction’s victor.
“I’ll also invite blockchain industry leaders to meet with a titan of investment,” he promised (winners can bring along a handful of fellow diners).
This is the 20th year that Omaha’s favourite son has offered himself up for a power lunch to raise money for Glide, a San Francisco-based charity that tackles homelessness and poverty.
Prior to Sun’s winning bid at least three other people from China had prevailed at the auction (local media reckons some of Buffett’s other lunch guests were Chinese but opted to stay anonymous). Staying low-profile is not considered a virtue in crypto-land, however, and Sun has published a dozen or so weibo posts about his upcoming lunch with Buffett.
“I am a long-term believer in Buffett’s value-based investment style. I hope to invite other famous people from the blockchain industry to join me and Buffett in order to enhance traditional investors’ understanding of virtual currency,” he wrote.
Buffett’s disdain for virtual currencies is well known: the 88 year-old has described Bitcoin, the oldest and most widely traded crytpocurrency, as “rat poison squared”.
In an interview with CNBC last month that aversion seemed to have endured – Buffett talked about Bitcoin as a “gambling device” with “a lot of frauds connected with it”. But Sun has announced that he will use his two-hour lunch to correct Buffett’s perception of cryptocurrencies. Indeed he says he hopes that Berkshire Hathaway’s investment portfolio will include Tron, the cryptocurrency platform he founded in 2018, by the time that coffee is being served.
Who is Justin Sun?
Search for Sun’s Chinese name Sun Yuchen in Baidu and a slew of catchy results pop up: BitTorrent CEO, “the youngest protégé of Jack Ma”, “the man on the cover of 2011 Asia Weekly [a magazine]”, “outstanding young person at the 2014 Davos Forum”, and so on.
In financial circles, National Business Daily noted, the young entrepreneur is better known as “crypto-land’s Jia Yueting”. The reference to Jia is less than glorious: the boss of defunct internet firm LeEco fled to the US, leaving a pile of unpaid debts.
According to a widely-forwarded article on Huxiu.com, Sun was born in 1990 in Qinghai.
Conformity, it says, was not part of his DNA. In high school history exams he would respond to questions asking him to identify reactionary characters from the past by writing down the names of some of his teachers. Asked to name a more inspirational leader, he would put down his own.
Not surprisingly this attitude didn’t endear him to his educators and Sun flunked the gaokao, scoring poorly on the college entrance exam.
In spite of this, he was eventually admitted to Peking University via the college’s alternative recruitment stream (he ended up studying history) after winning a writing competition.
“He may not be the best writer but no one can compare with him when it comes to catching eyeballs,” a friend told Huxiu.
Sun’s dream was to become a top novelist but Huxiu said his worldview changed after an exchange programme in 2009 took him to Hong Kong. There he experienced “a baptism in his way of thinking” by taking part in public demonstrations.
Sun became more entrepreneurial too, absorbing some of Hong Kong’s instinct for risk-taking. In 2013 he founded Peiwo, which soon became one of the most prominent voice-streaming apps in China.
The start-up’s success saw Forbes rank him in its “30 Under 30” list for Asia in 2017 and the magazine referred to Peiwo as “China’s Snapchat”.
At the age of 25 Sun then became the youngest of 35 ‘entrepreneur graduates’ from Hupan University, a college founded by Jack Ma (Alibaba’s boss has predicted that at least 200 of the CEOs at China’s top 500 firms in the next 20 years will have graduated from the college in Hangzhou).
These endeavours alone would normally be enough to secure Sun’s place as one of China’s most successful young businessmen, Huxiu suggested.
But Sun then embraced cryptocurrency, viewing it as a faster route to fortune.
What does Tron offer?
In 2013 Sun took a job as the China representative of Ripple Labs, a developer of virtual currency settlement protocols. In fact he had been interested in cryptocurrencies for a while, telling Phoenix TV last year that he made Rmb10 million ($1.5 million) from trading Bitcoin while he was studying for a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011.
In 2017 Sun founded Tron, which was originally pitched as a blockchain platform for the entertainment industry. Soon afterwards, the authorities banned cryptocurrency trading platforms in China, forcing Tron to move more of its focus to the US market. But Chinese media says the cryptocurrency Tronix (TRX) has still been a success, circulating mostly among sports gambling fans.
TRX prices topped out at $0.25 in January 2018, with Sun selling 6 billion Tron at its peak, KR Asia estimates. Since then the price has plunged and it’s now worth about $0.03. According to CoinMarketCap, a news portal for the crypto sector, Tronix had a market value of $2.2 billion as of this week, which ranks it as the world 12th biggest virtual currency.
Sun says his endgame is that TRX surpasses Bitcoin as the top virtual currency. But there is a lot of catching up to do (Bitcoin has a whopping market value of $144 billion), which is why he has been looking to raise his profile. For instance, Tron sponsored a conference earlier this year in San Francisco that featured NBA superstar Kobe Bryant as a keynote speaker. That event led Bloomberg to run an article describing Tronix as “the hottest cryptocurrency” and one that “rekindles memory of the Bitcoin bubble”. And back in China, Sun wants to keep Tronix in the public eye too – hence the bid for lunch with Buffett.
Banking on the Buffett effect…
Sun told Caixin Weekly he is confident he can convince Buffett to drop his dislike of virtual currencies. “It is very common in investment circles that people change their minds,” he told the business magazine, adding that “investment opportunities are best when lots of people are underestimating the technology”.
Few publicity stunts are as effective at getting investor attention as linking up with the man known as the “God of Stocks” by Chinese. Buffett has a huge following across the country. Every year hundreds of Chinese investors make the pilgrimage to Nebraska to attend Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder meeting and listen to their idol (see WiC193).
Attending isn’t cheap as the entry ticket is at least one share in Buffett’s investment firm (Berkshire’s class A share is worth more than $300,000). But buying him lunch is even more expensive. The first Chinese to do so was Duan Yongping, with a winning bid of $620,100 in 2006’s charity auction. Duan is the lead investor behind successful smartphone brands Oppo and Vivo and has even been dubbed as “China’s Buffett” himself (see WiC409).
In 2009, Zhao Danyang, a fund manager, bid $2.1 million to have lunch with his “hero”. According to the Chinese media, the low profile Zhao has done rather well ever since, earning decent returns in the private equity industry.
Things have turned out less favourably for Zhu Ye, the boss of internet gaming firm Zeus Entertainment, who needed to cough up $2.35 million to win the charity lunch in 2015 (see WiC297).
Initially it looked like the money was well spent as Zeus’s shares nearly doubled with all the media attention. But the lustre faded equally fast and Zhu’s Shenzhen-listed firm has dropped more than 90% in value from its peak that year.
In fact Zeus earned the dubious accolade of the “lossmaking king” in China’s A-share market, after revealing losses for the year to last December of at least Rmb7.8 billion (see WiC441).
How have people reacted to Sun’s stunt?
Chinese media outlets now fear that Sun’s virtual currency firm Tron could follow a similarly speculative pattern. Since winning the auction Sun has been on the receiving end of some very public criticism from the local media, internet celebrities and business bosses.
“Investors should be careful not to fall into a pump and dump trap,” Economic Daily warned.
“In the rollercoaster world of crypto-land, the top winners are a those with the loudest voices, who draw the biggest number of followers,” Beijing Business Today added. “Sun’s luncheon with Buffett is a pengci-style of marketing.” (Pengci, or “hitting porcelain”, is a phrase for scammers who throw themselves in front of cars and feign injury to solicit compensation from drivers).
Other entrepreneurs were critical of Sun’s strategy too. Wang Xiaochuan, the founder of internet search firm Sogou, went as far as to call Sun “a liar”. Wang Sicong, the princeling heir to property conglomerate Wanda Group (and no stranger to a bad press himself) also questioned the merits of investing in Sun’s “air coins”.
At the root of the reaction is the investment community’s limited faith in virtual currencies.
But newspapers said there is another dimension to why Sun has been so widely pilloried. The government wants to encourage innovation in the high-tech sector and Sun’s dogged pursuit of a quicker buck in an industry that Beijing has already banned is setting a poor example.
“Sun has done no good but harm to the development of technology, to innovation, to the fighting spirit, to the young people of our country, to younger entrepreneurs and to China’s international image,” Economic Daily fumed.
Meanwhile, Buffett doesn’t seem concerned about the criticism of his lunch guest. In an email to CNN, he said he was “delighted” that Sun had won the auction with a record bid and that he was looking forward to meeting him and his friends.
“We are going to have a good time and Glide will use his contribution to help many thousands of people,” he added.
The lunch is scheduled for July 25 in San Francisco’s Bay Area. That’s a change of venue for the event: the previous lunches have been hosted at the Smith and Wollensky steakhouse in New York, where Buffett was said to make the same order each year of a medium-rare steak alongside hash browns and a Cherry Coke.
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