Senate Says Jailed Russian Spy Bonded With Overstock CEO ...

A Spy in the House of Byrne—The Ledger

_(This week’s Ledger newsletter is by David Z. Morris)_The crypto industry can be roughly divided into two groups. On the one hand, there are “crypto native” companies creating new things from scratch (think Binance or Brave). On the other hand are existing operations trying to use blockchain tech to get a further edge (think ICE’s Bakkt or Facebook’s Libra).
And then there was Patrick Byrne, who had a foot in both worlds—sometimes uncomfortably.
The CEO for two decades of e-commerce pioneer Overstock.com, Byrne became a vocal crypto proponent around five years ago, and has worked since then to position the company as a blockchain leader. Overstock was the first major online retailer to take payments in Bitcoin, starting in early 2014. The same year, Byrne began work on “tzero,” a blockchain-based alternative to traditional securities exchanges. Then he founded Medici Ventures, a venture fund and incubator that houses 18 blockchain startups within Overstock.
And now, it appears, he’s gone. Byrne resigned suddenly as CEO of Overstock last Thursday, after mounting controversy surrounding his past romantic relationship with alleged Russian agent Maria Butina. Butina is now serving an 18 month prison sentence for conspiring to promote Russian interests through conservative U.S. political groups.
Byrne’s statements on the matter have been vague and conspiratorial, including references to the “Deep State” and “Men in Black” who Byrne says drew him into “certain government matters.” He subsequently made detailed claims that the FBI directly encouraged his relationship with Butina circa 2016 as part of an investigation into Russian activities (claims dismissed by then-FBI director James Comey). Byrne says he’s resigning because these entanglements “may affect and complicate all manner of business relationships,” and that he’ll be “disappearing for some time.”
This is the sort of weirdness you’d expect from the wild-west world of crypto-natives, not a public company valued at more than $1 billion as recently as a year ago. But Byrne was known as a bit of a loose cannon well before Bitcoin was invented, most notably for his aggressive (and also frequently conspiratorial) campaign against naked short sellers. (You can read _Fortune’s_coverage of those battles here.)
This very enjoyable profile from Forbes dives into Byrne’s privileged and unconventional background—he has a PhD in philosophy from Stanford, and is apparently close friends with Warren Buffet through Byrne’s father. It also paints Byrne as easily distractable, and Overstock’s blockchain ventures as a boondoggle that’s destroying a once-profitable company.
The boondoggle part might wind up coming true, but if Overstock’s blockchain efforts are a risky bet, they’re anything but a lark. I spent some time at the company’s headquarters in Salt Lake City this past spring, and with Medici, Byrne has built a team that’s both technically savvy and fairly unified in its deeply-held crypto-native worldview. Most notably, Medici is a hotbed of thoughtful skepticism towards government, with managers and coders ranging from left-wing anarchists to free-market libertarians. There are even signs that Overstock’s presence is helping turn Salt Lake City into a blockchain hub with its own unique feel—for instance, the Off Chain conference there caters to the overlap between crypto, firearms, and “prepping.”
Byrne himself often described his worldview in libertarian terms, and he’ll be succeeded by Jonathan Johnson, who shares much of Byrne’s outlook on both politics and blockchain. Johnson is currently head of the Medici unit, and he’ll shoulder Byrne’s CEO duties on an interim basis. He’s a steady, composed counterpoint to Byrne’s swashbuckling verve, as well as a thoughtful strategist. Most significantly, his rise to the head job, even if temporary, signals that Overstock intends to stick with its blockchain bets.
The question now is whether some of those bets hit before Overstock’s retail revenues fade.
One final note: We’re running lean here at The Ledger this month, in part because Jeff Roberts is on book leave (look for his cryptocurrency magnum opus from Audible soon). That’s why they handed the reins over to me, the new guy. I recently joined the Fortune team from BreakerMag, a now defunct but much-loved blockchain-focused publication. In addition to reporting on the world of digital assets and decentralized technologies, I’ll be writing about A.I., Tesla, and other techie matters. I’ll also be authoring this newsletter every once in a while—hopefully, from here on out, with a header that actually has my name on it. Glad to know you.
David Z. Morris |@davidzmorris| [email protected]
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