Erik Finman is one of the world’s youngest bitcoin millionaires – an achievement he’s not shy about flaunting. The 19-year-old’s Instagram feed is full of ostentatious photos of himself stepping out of private jets or lying on beds covered in money with captions like: “Cash so worthless compared to Bitcoin I’m sleeping on it …”
In one photo he is pictured smoking, with the caption: “Sometimes you just need a good smoke to relax when you have to live with the exhausting burden of so much money and too many beautiful women.” After one of his fans admonishes him, he replies: “Don’t worry guys. It’s not a real cigarette. Just a hundred. Don’t smoke!”
The teenager, who first bought bitcoin at age 12 with $1,000 from his grandmother, styles himself in a similar vein to the notorious Martin Shkreli; he’s just younger and not in jail.
However, all is not as it seems with Finman. Far from being a vapid bitcoin bro, he admits his social media presence is a carefully calculated front. “I think being a provocateur is a fun way to get people to pay attention to my ideas,” he tells me over the phone from his current base in San Francisco. “You see the reaction to it, people go crazy. But that helps draw attention to the actual world-changing projects that I want to do.”
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Finman first heard about bitcoin when his older brother took him to an Occupy Wall Street protest. He fell in love with the revolutionary potential of cryptocurrency, he says. An early adopter, Finman bought his first bitcoin when it only cost around $10. Just a few years later, it hit around $1,100. Finman sold $100,000 worth of bitcoin when the currency was on the up and, at age 15, used the money to start an online educational business called Botangle, which matched students with tutors via video chat. He was inspired to start the business, he says, because he had “a terrible school life”. One teacher told him to drop out and work at McDonalds while another held an “Erik Finman roast session” where students were encouraged to make fun of him. Despite his business success, his parents wouldn’t let him completely drop out of school. So he made a bet with them: if he made $1m before turning 18, he wouldn’t have to attend college. He won that bet last year.
Education is a big deal for the Finman family. His parents met at Stanford while getting their doctorates in electrical engineering and physics and his entire family, he says, is very smart. “I think of them as the Elon Musk version of the Kardashians,” he says. His mom was involved in Nasa in the 1980s and, Finman says, “almost became an astronaut on the Challenger mission”. However, she got pregnant with Finman’s brother and, luckily, avoided the tragic launch. Apart from his experiences with high school, Finman seemed to have an idyllic childhood. He grew up on a llama farm in Idaho, for one thing. “We had one llama called Sausage who unfortunately got turned into a sausage,” he reminisces.
In 2015, Finman made his best business move: he sold Botangle’s technology. The buyer offered him either 300 bitcoin or $100,000 cash – he opted for the bitcoin. At the time it was a gamble, as bitcoin had dipped and were worth around $200. Even though the currency continues to fluctuate wildly (I spoke to Finman shortly after the South Korean cryptocurrency exchange Coinrail was hacked, causing the value of bitcoin to plummet 10% to two-month lows) he’s still made good on his investment. One bitcoin is now worth around $6,500. Finman has 401 bitcoin as well as various other cryptocurrencies and continues to bet on its future. “Bitcoin will either be nothing or everything, and I think it will be more everything. Or crypto will, at least,” he said.
Like his mother, Finman is also interested in space exploration. He’s currently working on a project with Nasa to launch a satellite containing a digital time capsule into space. The capsule will contain popular music and videos as well as other representative sounds of life on earth, and a Taylor Swift CD. Why Taylor Swift? “We just reached out to her out of the blue, and she was into it,” Finman shrugs. The project is meant to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Voyager launch, which carried the “Golden Record”, a compilation of music and images from Earth, curated by the astronomer Carl Sagan, into space as a gift for any extraterrestrials who might stumble across it.
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Sending satellites into space might be enough to occupy one person, but not Finman. The entrepreneur has a number of projects on the go. He recently created a robot suit based on the four-armed contraption worn by Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man for a 10-year-old child with hypermobility issues. The child, Aristou Meehan, is the son of one of Finman’s mentors, and wanted his own Doctor Octopus suit to help “solve his problems”. So Finman made it for him. “I wish someone would have helped me like that when I was his age,” he says. There has already been some interest by investors in adapting the suit for various uses, says Finman, but he’s moved on from it. Right now his big project is building a physical school and disrupting education. He’s tight-lipped on the actual details: “I’m still in early stages.”
While Finman’s social media presence may be satire, he’s still rich and young. Doesn’t he ever go a little off the rails? “Oh yes, I got a fast car, did all that,” Finman says. “Traveled all over the world. Went a little crazy. Made a couple of stops in Ibiza and Monaco. I had to get it out of my system, you know.” He’s also been careful to make sure his former teachers know about his success. “I remember when the first article [about me] came out, I sent it to the worst teacher I had. The subject heading just said ‘look at me now bitch’.” Finman put a tracking pixel in the email so he knows the teacher opened it. “But I didn’t hear back.”