Brock Pierce: The Hippie King of Cryptocurrency
Twenty-six men and women are seated along four folding tables laid end to end in the ballroom of a former Masonic lodge in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. An eclectic mix, ranging from local charity workers to Silicon Valley investors to cryptocurrency early adopters, they all believe that they’re about to make history. Specifically, they are here to help Brock Pierce – a child actor turned video-game entrepreneur turned crypto titan – give away a billion dollars to charity. Not in a will after his death, but now, in the prime of his life and the peak of his career, at age 37.
Just three days earlier, Pierce was listed number nine on Forbes’ first-ever List of Cryptocurrency’s Wealthiest People, with his net worth estimated as high as $1 billion. The math isn’t hard to do: One billion minus one billion equals . . . “I’ve committed to giving away everything I have,” Pierce tells the hushed group in his gravelly, resonant voice. He stands five feet four, with dirty-blond hair and a dirtier-blond goatee. He’s wearing a leather satchel slung around his torso and a black wide-brimmed hat with two playing cards – a queen of spades and a queen of hearts – perfectly splayed, in a multicolored band. He’s a Burning Man mash-up of young Indiana Jones, Theon Greyjoy and an itinerant street magician. Or, as John Oliver once put it, a “sleepy, creepy cowboy from the future.”
Pierce pauses and corrects himself, explaining that he’s giving away “more than everything I have, based on the markets.” A squall of knowing laughter fills the room. In the days preceding this meeting, the crypto markets either dipped, crashed or corrected, depending on what expert you ask. So, by Pierce’s own estimation, the billion accounts for 100 to 130 percent of his wealth. “That’s no concern of mine,” Pierce continues, “because I don’t need anything.”
This statement appears to be valid: In nearly 10 full days together, I rarely saw him sleep in a bed or eat a full meal. He crashed on random couches, in the back seats of cars, on tables at bars. He gave away necklaces, bracelets, food, money, time, tequila, you name it. His wife, Crystal Rose, the CEO of Sensay, a company that builds messaging systems, describes him as a nomad who lives out of a suitcase for weeks at a time.
The other reason Pierce is giving away more money than he has is that he’s confident he’ll make it back. “That’s the talent he has,” says Rose, who married Pierce in an online “smart contract” that can be dissolved, changed or renewed annually. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if in two or three years, or even less, he has the same amount again.”
In a world in which sen-iority is measured by the price you bought your first Bitcoin at, Pierce has been around since less than a penny. He is the chairman of the Bitcoin Foundation; co-founder of one of the first blockchain venture funds (Blockchain Capital); co-founder of a prominent crypto advisory firm, DNA; part of the team behind the first-ever ICO (initial coin offering); and an early investor in some of cryptocurrency’s biggest coins and tokens, including EOS (currently the fifth-largest crypto-currency) and Tether (the 10th-largest), which is meant to stay stable at the price of a dollar.
Bruce Fenton, a crypto economic adviser and leading figure on the scene, describes Pierce as one of the community’s most unsung connectors: “In one way, Brock is this larger-than-life and extremely colorful character. In another way, he’s extremely quiet behind the scenes and doesn’t take a lot of credit for what he’s done. There’s hundreds of millions of revenue out there because Brock was the seed that brought people together. We’re talking about stacks and stacks of people.”
All that means very little if you’re not at least waist-deep in this oft-discussed, little-understood world. So here’s another way of thinking about what Pierce is doing: Since its inception, in 2009, when a person (or group of people) using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto created and mined the first Bitcoin, cryptocurrency has spawned a $350 billion market that’s attracted millions of investors, entrepreneurs, gamblers, hackers, activists and institutions. Even more significant is the backbone it’s built on: blockchain – an encrypted, decentralized digital ledger accessible to anyone (and controlled by no one) that could change everything that requires a rec-ord of it, whether real estate, banking, stocks, marriages, contracts or personal identification. Advocates believe this technology can help solve not just online problems like privacy, cybersecurity and the concentration of power into the hands of half a dozen big tech companies, but global problems like poverty, corruption and financial exclusion. “We are now moving toward the possibility of a separation of bank and state,” says Galia Benartzi, who co-founded Bancor, a platform for the automated exchange of cryptocurrencies. “Money, how we make it and use it, may return to the domain of the people and the discretion of the individual.”
“The right way to think about the blockchain is that it’s going to replace the entire Internet,” Pierce had said when I first met him in L.A., where he owns a Back to the Future-style DeLorean with a license plate that reads SATOSHI. “When the Internet was first being developed, in the Seventies and Eighties, we didn’t have the computer-processing capability to actually secure the Internet. By the time we got the processing ability to implement the necessary cryptography to secure it, the foundation had already been laid. So we just kept building for, like, 30 years. But it’s been fundamentally broken the whole time.”
In the future, this blocktopian vision may come to pass, or it may be subverted into a greater consolidation of power by market and government forces. Or it could lead to a dystopian takeover of world financial markets by artificial intelligence. Right now, anything’s possible – and that’s why Brock Pierce matters. For lack of a better term, he has become this world’s first cult leader.
Among other things, Pierce is trying to give this decentralized world a new center: Puerto Rico – or, as the crypto community has called it at various times: Crypto Rico, Puerto Crypto, Puertopia and Sol. Pierce leased (and intends to buy) the freemasons’ hall and an abandoned children’s museum, which he’s turning into a community center. He’s also co-founding a bank in Puerto Rico, and plans to open both an eco-resort in the island’s famous surf spot Rincón, and a large cluster of residences in nearby Mayagüez.
Why Puerto Rico? The simple answer: It’s a beautiful U.S. territory in the Caribbean that offers large tax incentives to independent investors. The island, of course, is also still trying to recover from the one-two punch of a debt crisis and Hurricane Maria. And Pierce, who is smart enough to know that a bunch of mostly rich white males buying up property in a tax haven has a colonialist stench to it, has promised to harness their energy and money to serve Puerto Rico. “We’re going to rebuild Puerto Rico with money that we saved from the IRS in a Robin Hood fashion,” he says with a smirk.
One of the people helping is Maria C. Sanchez, who runs TOPS, an after-school art program. Pierce met her in Miami last year, and urged her to come to Puerto Rico to open schools and launch her program. She was on a plane the next day. “I told him one day while we were all watching a sunrise, ‘You are like the Jesus Christ of the 21st century,’ ” she says of Pierce. “He’s just magical, and I’m nothing but thankful to him and how much he ignites my dreams.”
Few conversations with Pierce don’t include a pitch on the advantages of moving to Puerto Rico. While I was with him, three people who’d traveled to visit him that week with no intention of moving ended up renting apartments in San Juan, getting driver’s licenses and taking the plunge. A few weeks afterward, during Pierce’s first-ever Restart Week, a back-to-back confluence of three different crypto conferences in Puerto Rico, he tells me excitedly that hundreds more are following. “This is where you’re going to bring your wife and kids and build the new New World,” he encourages me more than once before going on to say that his mother, brother, wife, ex-girlfriend and nine-year-old daughter are all supposedly moving there – and his dad is considering it.
“Always be the pied piper,” Pierce says with a knowing smile as he walks down the streets of Old San Juan, blasting a trance remix of the Charlie Chaplin speech from The Great Dictator on a portable pill-shaped Bluetooth speaker. He plays the song for nearly everyone who comes out to meet him, encouraging them to listen to the entire speech, which doubles as a credo of sorts for Pierce: “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone.”
Pierce just may be the richest person in the world with no barrier to entry. Everyone is welcome to join the party, which is one of the reasons everyone likes to be around him. It’s never dull; there are always new, like-minded people to meet; and maybe, one of those folks will make them rich (or richer). To help things run smoothly, a small retinue of equally accomplished and hard-partying associates follows him around, telling the dozens of people he’s promised to meet on any given day where he can be found. The Pierce train today includes Eric Greenberg, a former Internet consultant who was worth more than $1 billion during the dot-com bubble, and Derek Rundell, who runs a venture-capital firm with Google’s Eric Schmidt. As a result of this trip, Rundell’s venture fund, TomorrowBC, will announce a $50 million collaboration with the company Pierce co-founded, Block.one.
To spend time with Pierce is to experience a new form of doing business. He very rarely goes to an office, conference room or anything one typically associates with work. His satchel is filled with small containers of various plant medicines, such as the Peruvian psychedelic San Pedro and the Amazonian tobacco rapé, which he often snorts midmeeting. He’s abandoned the idea of a schedule, and instead spends each day surrendering to, as he puts it, the “flow” of where he’s pulled, blasting global trance music from his speaker along the way. “I’m normally running three to 10 meetings at a time,” Pierce says. “I just pile them all up. I have no schedule and everybody just kind of meets at the same time. It sometimes makes people who are really important in their minds very uncomfortable because they’re used to getting an automatic three hours alone.”
As this giant ball of high net worth and wanna-be-high-net-worth rolls down the colorful streets of San Juan, two police officers stand on the corner and point at Pierce: “Mr. Bitcoin,” one of them says. Nearly every local in San Juan seems to be aware of the crypto hordes doing business in the streets, cafes and monuments of the old city. Josh Boles, an entrepreneur in Pierce’s inner circle, winces. “Now that the Forbes list came out, we really need to get security in place,” he says. “Too many people know.”
Pierce and company round a corner onto Calle del Cristo, where a cafe hawker urges them to sit at his establishment. Pierce obliges. Not because he’s hungry, but because part of going with the flow is always saying yes. To remind himself of this, he is planning to get a tattoo on his arm, in binary code, that will read “Yes please.”
As the Sol crew is drinking beer and eating chips, a Sam Rockwell-looking American in a sleeveless T-shirt depicting the Hindu god Ganesh rounds the corner and his jaw drops. He and a friend trailing behind him rush up to Pierce. “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know that I’m supposed to be here,” he gushes, and introduces himself as Danny Wojcik. After reading about Crypto Rico, Wojcik, a 29-year-old crypto enthusiast and poker player from Vegas, flew down, found an Airbnb and is now telling Pierce, “We’re gonna build a new civilization.”
“No, no, no,” Pierce corrects him. He invites Wojcik and his friend, Devin Hunter, to sit with him. “Let me tell you a little bit about why we’re here. We’re here to help Puerto Rico. We’re here in service, and we serve through gifting. We’re here to take our skills – our superpowers – and figure out how to help Puerto Rico, the Earth and the people. And integrate by supporting them, becoming one with them. That is how a good guest shows up in a new place. You got skills? You wanna put them to work? We’ll do everything we possibly can to help make that happen for you. Obviously that’s what we’re here for, so thank you for hearing the call and getting on the next plane. So you landed how long ago?”
“A couple of hours ago,” Wojcik says.
“How long are you renting your place for?”
“Honestly, like, we’re supposed to be here until Tuesday. But I’ll be here as long as possible, though. I’m ready.”
Pierce continues onboarding them: “There’s probably about 50 to a hundred of us that moved here. We probably now have 20 companies, right? But that 50 to a hundred people is about to be 500 to a thousand. And those 20 or 30 companies are about to be two to three hundred, and a lot of these are some of the top tech startups capitalized. When you start to bring this brain gain into this society, you have to bring an opportunity for jobs to the west coast of the island, because we don’t want Old San Juan to become San Francisco and drive up rent and piss off the people.”
Soon, the cafe waiter joins the conversation, and tells them about the struggles of the mountain village he comes from in Utuado, where there’s still little electricity and elderly people are in need of medical care. Wojcik and Hunter have their first Sol mission: “You wanna go there tomorrow and do some scouting?” Pierce asks them. “Let’s get an inventory of what’s needed and make it happen.”
This is a textbook example of how Pierce operates: in deals per minute, or dpms. Where most famous people might blow off a touter standing outside a tourist cafe, or deflect the overtures of an adoring fan, Pierce says yes and brings them into his inner circle with a promise of opportunity. He explains that this is because he sees life like a video game: “The universe is constantly throwing more coins and power-ups at you, and if you keep collecting them, you get more points and you go up in levels.”
Isn’t he worried about someone taking advantage of him or doing bad work that ruins something? “I don’t know any of the people I keep inviting out with us,” he quickly responds. “I don’t have time to even check. If you are making that effort, I’m gonna trust you. And if you’re legit, I’m gonna give you all the tools I have until I see that you don’t operate with integrity.”
Two days later, Pierce is splayed out in a chair in the back of a private plane, discussing his childhood in Minnesota. He is on his way to the Satoshi Roundtable, outside Cancún, an annual gathering of the crypto elite, and apologizes several times for taking a private plane, explaining that it’s not a matter of luxury but of being time-efficient. His father was a homebuilder, he recalls, and his mom was a professional disco dancer until she got pregnant with him at age 20. Like many stage moms, she might have channeled her unrealized dreams into her son. And like with many child actors, his first memory is of being on a set. Pierce was three and a half, and filming a commercial called “Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” (The irony is not lost on the man wearing the cowboy hat.)
When a film called The Mighty Ducks came to town, Pierce landed a part as a younger version of Emilio Estevez’s character, Gordon Bombay. This was followed in quick succession with bit parts in other movies shot in Minnesota: Untamed Heart, with Christian Slater, and Little Big League. After landing a part in D2: Mighty Ducks, which filmed in Los Angeles, he stayed, along with his mom and younger brother. His mother eventually divorced his dad, telling Brock, he says, “I’m doing it for you. It’s for your career.” (Pierce remembers this as “a little heavy for a 13-year-old.”)
To get roles, he began performing magic tricks that an uncle had taught him. “Fifty kids would come in to read their lines for three minutes, then leave,” he remembers. “I’d walk in and do a magic trick with coins and cards. Next thing you know, it’s 15 minutes later and we’re talking about everything imaginable. . . . At the end of the day, I wasn’t a better actor. I was just the only one they could remember.”
Meanwhile, Pierce had already shown signs of life as an entrepreneur: As he tells it, back in Minnesota, he set up multiple lemonade stands, then staffed them with neighborhood children, and did the same for businesses delivering newspapers, shoveling driveways and mowing lawns. Foreshadowing his later video-game empire, he wrote cheat guides for games like Mortal Kombat 2, then sold them to his classmates. In L.A., he bought and sold rare Magic the Gathering cards, Star Trek memorabilia and other collectibles. “As a kid, I had infinite money,” he says. “And so I knew how to always make it.”
After playing the titular role in First Kid, as the son of the president, with Sinbad as his Secret Service agent, Pierce says he “wanted to be a normal kid again.” So before the movie was released, he returned to Minnesota and joined his peers in ninth grade. “I literally walked away from all of the opportunity,” he says. “I’ve been doing this my whole life. Once you reinvent yourself three, four, five times, you eventually just realize you can do this infinitely, with whatever time you have.”
After a few months of trying to assimilate, he realized that a normal childhood was impossible due to his fame. He returned to L.A., where he emancipated himself from his mother and eventually moved to the other side of the camera as an associate producer on a film called Young Hollywood, which was never released. When he was 16, an actor friend introduced him to a wealthy Internet entrepreneur named Marc Collins-Rector. And this is where Pierce’s story starts to get murky.
Collins-Rector’s company was called Digital Entertainment Network (DEN). Predating YouTube and Netflix originals, DEN was intended to create youth-oriented programming for the Internet. By Pierce’s account, he laid out his vision to Collins-Rector of a world watching short-form videos online, and Collins-Rector made Pierce co-founder and executive vice president, giving him a quarter of a million dollars a year and a five percent stake
in the company.
“He told me, ‘I’m going to show you how it all works, which means you have to be in every meeting,’ ” Pierce says of Collins-Rector. “If someone said, ‘Oh, I don’t want Brock in the meeting,’ he said, ‘There’s no meeting.’ For someone that enabled so much for me, you’re going to be loyal.”
Pierce’s last sentence is a loaded one, and raises the question of the extent of his loyalty to Collins-Rector. “He was definitely in love with me,” Pierce says. “There’s no question about that, and I’m OK with that. That’s not a bad thing.” Collins-Rector was in a relationship with Chad Shackley, the third founder of DEN. They reportedly met years earlier, when Shackley was 16 and living in Bay City, Michigan. Collins-Rector was in his early thirties at the time. At DEN, he wanted to make a show about Shackley’s life, Chad’s World, which Pierce produced as his first project. “It was working for me,” Pierce says. “No problem. Not in a negative way, but [Collins-Rector] was basically under a spell.”
Then, in 1999, as DEN was about to go public, a lawsuit arrived from a young man in Michigan accusing Collins-Rector of luring him across state lines for sex while he was underage. According to Pierce, Collins-Rector said the lawsuit was “inaccurate” and vowed to fight it. But, Pierce claims, DEN’s executive team told him to persuade Collins-Rector to settle the suit and “make it go away.” “I convinced Marc to do that,” Pierce says. “I should have never done that.”
According to one court document, Collins-Rector settled for $1 million, but the story broke anyway, and Collins-Rector left his position and fled to Europe, persuading Pierce and Shackley to step down and join him as well. While they were jet-setting abroad, a new lawsuit was filed by three male actors who spent time at Collins-Rector’s mansion and claimed to be employed by DEN. They accused him, along with Shackley and Pierce, of sexual assault. One of the three actors, Michael Egan, was underage at the time.
The complaint, filed on July 20th, 2000, in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges a pattern of abuse inflicted on all three plaintiffs. They claimed they would come to the house where Collins-Rector, Shackley and Pierce were staying, and be offered or dosed with illegal drugs. The three plaintiffs would allegedly be forced to engage in sexual
contact with the defendants. The suit alleges that Collins-Rector would threaten everything from physical violence to Hollywood blacklisting in order to keep his victims silent.
Pierce adamantly denies the accusations against him, noting that he was 17 and 18 during this period. He also says one of the plaintiffs, Egan, originally tried to get him to join the lawsuit. “I told him, ‘Of course not, I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.’ That was the greatest mistake I ever made. If I had just said, ‘Let me think about it,’ instead of immediately rejecting the idea, everything would have gone completely differently. Because I could be a star witness against them, now they had to discredit me.” (Despite repeated attempts, including phone calls to his former lawyers, Egan could not be reached for comment.)
Christopher Turcotte, then a 15-year-old actor who regularly hung out at Collins-Rector’s house, was a witness to many of the events there. He says that Egan “had sexual contact that I saw with my own eyes” with Collins-Rector. Like Pierce, Turcotte describes Egan approaching him about being part of a lawsuit. He wanted Turcotte to claim that he too was raped by Collins-Rector, Turcotte says, “when in all reality that never happened.” When asked about Pierce’s involvement, Turcotte says, “Brock did not take part in this, not at all.”
According to a court filing, Pierce claimed that he didn’t know about the accusations until two and a half years after they were filed. Around 2003, he says, he returned to the United States, hired a lawyer and met with Egan and another of his accusers, Mark Ryan. The third plaintiff, Alex Burton, dropped the charges against him altogether; Ryan and Egan both settled their cases against Pierce. (Ryan apparently settled without damages, and Egan was awarded $21,600 to cover his legal fees.)
After nearly two decades of litigation and intense media coverage, this much is clear: Collins-Rector liked to have teenage boys around him, both personally and professionally. He also appears to have had a pattern of grooming them for sex through expensive gifts, work at inflated salaries and significant career opportunities. When asked how it was possible to spend so much time around Collins-Rector and not be aware of what so many others have alleged, Pierce responds, “No one saw anything or knew anything. It was not something out in the open. I also didn’t know he was doing this to other people. I only heard Turcotte’s version of events four years ago.” Asked why he remained with Collins-Rector despite the lawsuit, Pierce says, “I’m a pariah at this point – no one else would work with me. Of course I’m going to stay with my friend and partner.”
Meanwhile, the trio continued to gallivant around Europe. “He let me accidentally, not knowingly, blow his entire fortune,” Pierce says of Collins-Rector. “I think I spent $16 million in a year. On the best private jets, the most crazy experiences that one could manufacture.”
While they were in Marbella, Spain, running out of money together, Collins-Rector was arrested on U.S. criminal charges for transporting minors across state lines for sex that dated back to 1993. Collins-Rector was eventually extradited, and he pleaded guilty. No criminal charges were filed against Shackley or Pierce. Looking back, Pierce says that Collins-Rector “was a shit beyond belief – lies, lies, lies, lies. Like, completely fabricated stories. He knew how to manipulate. Very much the most generous person ever, which is weird, but not a lot of real empathy. Narcissistic.” (Collins-Rector, whose last known residence, according to the Florida sex-offenders’ registry, is the Dominican Republic, could not be reached for comment.)
After Collins-Rector’s arrest, Pierce stayed in Europe. “I never once read any of the media,” he recalls. “Reading my name would make me cry. I was so afraid. I wasn’t able to handle it.” Even to this day, he adds, “Anything I accomplish in my life ends up being discredited because of this narrative.”
Before he parted ways with Collins-Rector, Pierce had already found his new calling in a childhood hobby: video games. While simultaneously playing three characters on three different computers in Everquest – then five characters, then six – he realized it was possible to make thousands of dollars a day in virtual-world games. RMT, or real-money trade, is the market where in-game coins and items, which take time and effort to collect, are sold for actual currency. “I kept hiring people in Marbella, and the
goal was to see if I could get them to the point that they could play three characters at once, and that was how you got a permanent job with us,” Pierce says. “I knew where all the most valuable things in the game were.”
This turned into Internet Gaming Entertainment, or IGE. When Pierce noticed that China didn’t have much of an RMT market, he decided: “If I go teach the Chinese how much money they can make playing games, I can build an army.” Weeks after the idea came to him, he moved to Hong Kong, and soon had people all over China playing games like Everquest and World of Warcraft for virtual gold. Pierce eventually earned enough to buy out his closest competitor for $2.4 million, and over time he supposedly had some 400,000 people playing video games for him professionally.
In 2005, he hired a former Goldman Sachs banker to help with acquisitions and financing. His name was Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s future chief strategist. “He’s one of the most colorful characters in the world, let alone crypto,” Bannon says of Pierce. “When the history of this is written, Brock is going to be looked at as more of a pioneer. Because right now they look at him as more of a freak show: They get caught up in the hat, the poncho and the dancing.”
With Bannon’s help, Goldman Sachs reportedly made a $30 million investment in IGE. “Steve Bannon was my right-hand man for, like, seven years,” Pierce says. “He’s a hammer. And when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. He’s very sure and very smart. Very driven, very patriotic. He’s not most of the things that people say.”
By 2007, with IGE besieged by a crackdown from the makers of World of Warcraft and a class-action lawsuit from players accusing the company of ruining the game, Bannon had taken over as CEO. And it was in the online-gamer chatrooms that the seeds of Bannon’s future were planted; as he told journalist Joshua Green for the book Devil’s Bargain, “These guys, these rootless white males, had monster power.”
Pierce, meanwhile, was about to try to repeat his success in e-sports when people began mentioning cryptocurrency to him roughly a year after the first Bitcoins were mined. Pierce was shocked that he’d never heard of it. “There were no storytellers who knew how to convey the information in simple insights, so it required a lot of real heavy lifting to figure out,” he says. “I didn’t have the time to appreciate the power of decentralization at first. The day I got it, I knew that was it.”
Bannon recently took a leap into cryptocurrency as well, not just because of its financial implications, but because of its political ones. “This whole populist revolt is going to come down to this concept of currency,” he says. “You can see the forces that are aligned to take advantage of it. Every smart person that I admire in the world, and those I semi-fear, is focused on this concept of crypto for a reason. They understand that this is the driving force of the fourth industrial revolution: steam engine, electricity, then the microchip – blockchain and crypto is the fourth. There’s going to be a war for control for this.”
Once Pierce caught on to the potential of this new digital cash, he became an evangelist, giving away Bitcoins to everyone he could, whether to an influencer or to the audience at one of his talks. He eventually stopped giving the money away because “no one appreciated it, then they lost it, and it was a waste of my fucking time. I get messages all the time from people saying, ‘I think of how much I lost because I didn’t take it seriously.’ ”
Almost every early Bitcoin adopter has a big regret story; Pierce’s is that he had a hard drive with some 50,000 Bitcoins on it, but accidentally threw it out while cleaning his garage. At today’s Bitcoin value, that’s $330 million he jettisoned.
By then, Pierce was starting companies at an accelerated pace. He further ramped up his deals per minute by co-founding DNA, which many of the big players in crypto come through at some point for investment or advice. Tuesday pitch meetings in its Santa Monica offices, where startup coins and blockchain businesses seek early investors, have become a hotbed of enthusiasts who are busy networking themselves into new deals, ideas and relationships. Just like in Puerto Rico, Pierce focused the energy and excitement around this disruption into a single location. “I don’t really have to do much other than show up, and then tell a few of these stories that are inspiring,” he says. “If you have a bunch of conversations and entertain everybody and be a great storyteller, people tend to say yes.”
The plane lands in Cancún. Pierce walks down the stairs, blasting The Great Dictator on his speaker. He grooves to the front of the small customs line at the private terminal, then places the speaker on the desk of the customs agent, telling him, “You looked like you were enjoying it.”
Surprisingly, the customs agent doesn’t object (or search everyone’s bags for psychedelics), and the merry band of crypto oddballs continues on to the Grand Velas resort in Playa del Carmen, where the Satoshi Roundtable is being held. As he waits in the lobby for his right-hand man, Stephen Morris, to check him in, Pierce storms up to me with his lips taut and jaw clenched. He stares coldly into my eye sockets, and asks point-blank in his reverberant voice: “Are you a friend or are you an enemy?”
Taken aback, I mumble something about being neither. “I’m the guy to be afraid of,” he informs me. “But fortunately I’m a good guy.” His voice softens dramatically. “This world would be a different place if I wasn’t.” He turns and walks away. This encounter, more than anything he said on the plane, seems to show another side of Pierce. Only frightened people tell you to be afraid of them.
The conference is a mix of guest speakers (like erstwhile Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul), impromptu discussion groups, dinners and parties. At one of the hotel lounges that evening, Edan Yago, whose company Epiphyte helps banks integrate with cryptocurrency, points out, “Notice how very subdued and low-key everyone in this room is, even though half of them are newly minted billionaires and hundreds-of-million-aires.”
An hour later, Pierce shows up, very unsubdued, talking about bringing fire-spinners and a DJ from Tulum to liven up the conference. “We show up at every party, and if it’s not ours, it’s ours,” he declares with a beatific smile as he dances his way through the throng. Later that night, Pierce is in business mode, and heads to a hastily arranged phone call with the president of a Caribbean country, whom he’s selling on the advantages of digitizing its dollar. Still later, Pierce is in divine-prophecy mode. The score from Star Wars is playing on a speaker, and Pierce is standing up and conducting along, confidently proclaiming, “We are the return of the Jedi in this story. Mankind has been asleep for the last 500 years. It’s going to get very wizardly.”
And here you have all the sides of Brock Pierce: visionary and madman, idealist and opportunist, entertainer and businessman, magician and hedonist, narcissist and community builder. “He goes around helping people – he’s a general community nurturer,” says Patrick Byrne, president of Overstock, who’s working on a project that uses the blockchain to combat world poverty by granting and securing property rights. Will O’Brien, an adviser in Blockchain Capital, who has hired Pierce as a consultant, says, “I’ve seen many interactions when Brock makes a promise to an entrepreneur, and he’s followed through every time. That’s integrity.”
Meanwhile, some of his closest friends express concern about Pierce’s chaotic schedule, sleeplessness, psychedelic use and general lack of self-care. “One of my missions with Brock is to keep him alive right now,” a member of his entourage confides. “He’s in a bit of a self-destructive pattern.”
If Pierce is a force that makes movements happen, those movements often seem to leave him behind in order to grow. This year, for example, EOS, the cryptocurrency that Pierce is most associated with, has blown up. Despite Pierce’s role in its success, in March he parted ways with Block.one, the company he co-founded that developed EOS. Pierce says there were “25 reasons for it,” including that he was “too much of a lightning rod and everyone was focusing on my involvement in a way that wasn’t positive.”
The subtext is that if you embrace risk, Pierce is an asset; if you’re risk-averse, he could be a liability. “When it’s about the vision, Brock can help pull it together,” Bannon says. “Once you go from the vision world to the analog world of getting it done, Brock steps aside.”
After the Satoshi Roundtable, Pierce is back on a private plane, returning to San Juan. He leans in and apologizes for confronting me in the hotel lobby. He explains that he panicked about oversharing, and thought that maybe I was only there to write another sensational DEN story. “I’ve given you everything,” he elaborates a little later. “Everything. More than I’ve ever told my wife.”
The plane touches down in San Juan, and Pierce is back in his element as pied piper. I ask how the committee planning Pierce’s billion-dollar giveaway fared. The plan is to create a charity cryptocurrency token, tentatively called One, of which Pierce will buy $1 billion worth and then inspire other individuals to do something similar. He directs me to a messaging channel where a small group is debating nearly everything, from the name of the coin to the causes that matter most. I notice that Pierce joins the discussion only when necessary, preferring once again to set a wheel in motion, then stand back and watch it spin.
As of this writing, it has been nine months since Pierce first mentioned giving away $1 billion, and there still hasn’t been a white paper released or a penny given. But Pierce says that he is actively working on a structure for the endowment. “Giving away a billion dollars is harder than it looks,” he says. “It doesn’t happen in a weekend at a hackathon. I’ll publish a one-page comprehensive answer so that it doesn’t become a point of criticism.”
On another afternoon in Puerto Rico, Pierce is on the rooftop terrace of the Airbnb apartment where he (presumably) slept that night. He is meeting with two executives of nonprofits who were born in Puerto Rico, and they have not come to welcome him to the island. “When I heard about him, I had a moment of ‘Oh, my God, they’re gonna gentrify my island,’ ” confides Nancy Santiago Negrón, a vice president at Hispanics in Philanthropy. “ ‘We’re gonna be sold off in pieces, and it won’t be mine anymore.’ And then when I heard about them taking over the children’s museum, my panic went up.”
Santiago Negrón grills Pierce about his intentions on the island. After an hour of Pierce’s charm defense, the hostility is gone. And soon, the pair are standing up with their arms intertwined, music is playing, and she is teaching him to salsa-dance. As the bizarre meeting concludes, Santiago Negrón, all sweat and smiles, texts a friend: “I met the crypto guys to yell at them, but they’re kind of nice, so I didn’t yell at them.” While leaving, she happens to mention needing an office in Puerto Rico. Pierce quickly suggests, “You can squat with us if you want.”
And that’s the magic of Pierce: In his own optimistic, forward-driving, chaotic way, he makes things happen for those around him, whether they work for charities or hedge funds – or never worked a day in their lives. That is why, whether he does everything he says he will for Puerto Rico or not, whether he ends up giving away his entire fortune or not, whether he becomes a pariah again or not, Pierce will likely land on his feet and live to extol the virtues of the next next big thing. Too many people owe him too much.
“You know the concept of compounding interest?” Pierce asks after they leave. “I’m into compounding impact.” He pauses to let the words land. “This is not yet measurable by anything I’ve ever seen, but I believe this is a universal truth, one of the great secrets: The more you give, the more you get.”
And with that, Pierce takes a hit of rapé, lets it wash over him, then leaps up and leads his entourage into the streets of San Juan, where he will walk around like the living embodiment of decentralized blockchain technology: jumping from node to node, making bold promises about the future of money, the Internet and humanity – and leaving most everyone in his wake inspired, confused and hoping that this dream will come true.
Editor’s note: After publication, Block.one disputed Brock Pierce’s role at the company, saying he had served as an advisor, not a co-founder.
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