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Winkelvoss twins: Our Facebook battle isn't over

Rory Cellan-Jones | 07:00 UK time, Thursday, 1 April 2010

It was a scary encounter in an unlikely setting for a technology correspondent. In the very grand 16th-Century hall of Christ Church College Oxford I was sitting with two giant American rowers, and wondering when to broach the subject of Facebook.

Not only was I nervous about bringing up a sensitive topic, I was struggling to remember which was Tyler and which was Cameron Winkelvoss.

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The two strapping all-American twins look identical, sound identical and are prone to handing on the questions to each other in the manner of skilled basketball players.

And I was there, ostensibly, to talk about rowing - the twins are competing for Oxford in this Saturday's Boat Race - rather than the legal dispute which has occupied much of the last six years.

Two years ago, they accepted a large sum, thought to be $65 million, to settle their dispute with the founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg.

They had accused their fellow Harvard student of stringing them along when they had invited him to cooperate on a nifty idea they had conceived to co-operate on building a social network called ConnectU - and then nicking their plan and starting something called thefacebook.com.

Which, of course, rapidly became Facebook and proved to be the most powerful new force on the web, thereby turning its founder into a gazillionaire - on paper at least.

So I braced myself for a frosty reception a few minutes into my interview when I gently introduced the subject. But instead of picking me up and hurling me down the long tables in the hall which was the setting for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films, the boys seemed eager to talk.

Yes, they had been "shocked" when they learned that Mark Zuckerberg had started his social network after being mysteriously unavailable to work on their joint project - "It struck as a big injustice, it took a while for us tor wrap our heads around," said Tyler.
And no, the fight wasn't over.

They seemed almost eager to write my headline: "It is safe to say the chapter is not closed on the matter," said Cameron.

Having spent about 15 years rowing - they competed in the Beijing Olympics - they were keen to stress that they were patient enough to pursue a dispute that has already gone on for six years: "We're not afraid to take a long-term view. Six years is... a short amount of time. We're in it for the long haul," said Tyler - or was it Cameron?

The one area where they were not prepared to be frank was on the subject of that $65m payout. Was that really how much they'd made, I asked? "No comment," came the joint reply.

And I'm not sure they liked it when I suggested that some might think they didn't have the computing expertise of Mark Zuckerberg and had merely tried to hang onto his coat-tails once it was clear he was going to make a fortune: "That's just an uninformed point of view," said Tyler.

Earlier, I'd watched as the two rowers attended a lecture at Oxford's Said Business School, where they are both studying for an MBA.

It's clear that while they may not be as clued up about internet development as the Facebook founder, they do know a bit about business and economics.

They also appear to be pretty savvy about the law, and the process of valuing a company like Facebook, which has not yet made it onto the stock market.

They're in continued litigation, both over the value of the Facebook stock which forms that "$65m" settlement, and over the way the case was handled by some of their own lawyers.

Facebook itself appears both weary and slightly amused by the whole affair - the social network sent me a statement saying:

"The settlement has been enforced by the courts and attempts to delay that decision have been denied twice. We hope that discussion of spurious and false allegations and other matters that were concluded years ago are not distracting anyone from their preparations for the race. We consider the matter concluded and we wish both teams best of luck on Saturday."

You might think that the Winkelvoss twins have led a charmed life so far. They have studied at two of the world's finest universities, competed in the Olympics and now the Boat Race, and earned themselves a huge sum without doing a day of what you and I might call real work.

But what they have shown is a steely determination to fight for what they believe is right - and to win.

So my advice to their opponents - both at Facebook and in the Cambridge crew - is watch out for the Winkelvosses. They're not the kind to collapse over their oars as their boat heads round the final bend in the river.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Rory; It's just 'Christ Church, Oxford' not 'Christ Church College'...

  • Comment number 2.

    There is a big difference between the idea and the business plan. They should get (and seem to have got) paid for the development of the idea but who knows what would have happened to Facebook had all three been at the helm. Other companies (including Google's Orkut) have had the same idea and model and haven't come close to Facebooks success.

    I'd say they are taking a chance.

  • Comment number 3.

    the_fatcat beat me to it; I was delayed whilst I registered. In my day the porters would cross out the word 'college' on any mail before it was delivered to the undergraduates. Also as correctly written, Christ Church is two words whereas Christchurch, New Zealand (which takes its name from Christ Church, Oxford) is only one word. Funny old world!

  • Comment number 4.

    what is the correct spelling of 'irritating pedants'.

  • Comment number 5.

    When people boast that they went to Oxford, I say:

    "Was that on a day trip?"

  • Comment number 6.

    It doesn't matter who had the idea first, that's 0.0001% of producing a business like Facebook. The hard part, especially for a highly technical enterprise such as Facebook, is undoubtedly actually making the business work.

    Having good ideas is easy, actually putting them into practice and working out the details is often incredibly difficult.

  • Comment number 7.

    5. badgercourage wrote:
    "When people boast that they went to Oxford, I say:

    'Was that on a day trip?'"

    Actually, I didn't go to Oxford – too many left-wing, nascent BBC types there for my liking – but do know what the correct name of Christ Church is!

  • Comment number 8.

    if the author really thinks that anyone remotely near the boat race is going to 'collapse over their oars as their boat heads round the final bend in the river' then he needs to have another look at the sport.......

  • Comment number 9.

    Oxford tends to be full of left-wingers because there's a strong correlation between IQ and liberalism.

  • Comment number 10.

    Let's be honest - Facebook wouldn't have paid out $65m if the Winkelvoss twins didn't have a case, they wouldn't pay a penny if they didn't think they had to.

    Whether or not they deserved the $65m is another matter. Granted, the likelihood of Facebook becoming a hit with all 3 on board is high - after all the one that's made it work would be part of a team. The likelihood of it becoming as big as it is now is almost impossible - simply for the fact that it's pretty much as big as anyone can imagine a social networking site to be.

    It seems to me that the Winkelvoss twins are bitter over the fact that Facebook is absolutely enormous and ConnectU isn't and they aren't on board.

  • Comment number 11.

    #5 - and I bet they all fall about laughing!!!

    Rory, why should we read your blogs when you can't even get the grammar in your mini-biog at the top right of this page correct?

  • Comment number 12.

    #8 - I think that exact thing happened to one of the Cambridge rowers in 2002... probably what Rory is referring to...

  • Comment number 13.

    I have noticed that most Americans do a paid study abroad term at Oxford University and then put it on their CV as though they were accepted and attended and graduated!

  • Comment number 14.

    A faint wisp of class-tainted snobbery seems to be the elephant in the room. Earned income is sport: 'nostalgie de la boue': solecism, 'a curse of the sans culottes'. Accusations of ineluctable financial strivings from these bling bling, aggressive, lumpen Americans. This site is for the (titled) literati, please know your place or at least know your gramma'.

  • Comment number 15.

    I thought up the iPad in 1990 (search for pagelink browser 1990), thought up an online job matching service in 1989 (and won an award from the local paper) This was even before Tim had invented the browser. Turning an idea into a profitable business is what turns inventors into entrepreneurs. There's a big leap there, including forming a team, getting the funding and so on. So far I've not been as lucky as the twins. My life would be a lot different if I had their luck.

 

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