Sam Bankman-Fried relocated his crypto company FTX from Hong Kong to the Bahamas in September, and this week he flexed his influence by bringing 2,000 people to the island nation for a four-day business conference. The event was hosted in partnership with Anthony Scaramucci's SALT, and attracted oodles of Wall Street tradfi types who have decided it's time to look at crypto. It also attracted Tom Brady, Gisele Bundchen, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Andrew Yang, Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom, Apolo Ohno, Rick Fox, Udonis Haslem, and Liam Payne from One Direction.
But the most compelling figure in all of it was Sam himself, in unstylish cargo shorts, an FTX t-shirt, and unruly nest of curly hair.
SBF, as he is known in crypto, founded FTX just three years ago as a derivates exchange aimed at serious traders. It is now the hottest company in crypto—and it isn't close. The company boasts a $32 billion valuation. Its name is on the Miami Heat arena and on every single MLB umpire's uniform. Tom Brady, Steph Curry, Naomi Osaka, Shohei Ohtani, and Lewis Hamilton are among its stable of athlete ambassadors.
And they all rave about Sam—executives, celebrities, athletes, and politicians alike.
Udonis Haslem, the three-time NBA champion, partnered with FTX on a grant program for minority-owned businesses in Miami. I asked him how the FTX partnership came about. He said, "Do you know how much fucking money FTX gives to charity?" He added, "Sam's track record is fucking amazing." A few minutes later on stage, Sam and Gisele announced a new $1 billion charitable giving fund. Tom Brady flew in for an onstage chat with Sam about winning, and made multiple cracks about how SBF, like Brady, just keeps winning. Brady flew back out immediately after his panel (no interviews) but not before making time to shoot a couple scripted buddy videos with SBF.
Kristin Smith of the Blockchain Association, which has lobbied hard for years on behalf of the industry, told me the amount that SBF has achieved in Washington in a short time is unrivaled by any other individual. He goes for drinks with staffers on both sides of the aisle. He's turned Maxine Waters into a personal friend (her husband Sidney Williams was the ambassador to The Bahamas during the Clinton administration). He's funded multiple PACs to support candidates who support crypto.
As a crypto media peer of mine summed this all up: SBF is still in the honeymoon phase. The mainstream media is fascinated by him, even as it resists crypto and typically seeks out negative angles on the industry; politicians see someone they're willing to engage; crypto fan boys watch him in awe.
How long can this period last? The answer may depend on what he does next. For the moment, he's growing his company; traveling to D.C. to woo politicians and testify before Congress; and appearing on cable news, crypto podcasts, and at conferences. (Sam is extremely generous with his time and says yes to most interviews, though he usually does them remotely, while playing video games.) What happens when his money helps elect someone who becomes a lightning rod? What happens if his political ambitions grow? Or what happens when he simply becomes over-exposed, as tech luminaries inevitably do? Perhaps the backlash already began: This week, SBF went on a Bloomberg podcast to explain yield farming; crypto-skeptic publications like the FT roasted his answer.
Another question is whether FTX can actually recruit tech talent to The Bahamas. Traveling there for a few days of networking and parties is appealing enough, but actually living there is a different proposition. Among the conference attendees, most I spoke with admired what FTX is doing but said they would not want to move there. Nonetheless, FTX broke ground on Monday on a $60 million campus to house 1,000 employees.
Of course, the very fact that a tech company founded by a kid from California has to incorporate in The Bahamas speaks volumes about the reactionary regulatory environment in the U.S. Maybe SBF will be the voice that succeeds in changing that.
This is Roberts on Crypto, a weekend column from Decrypt Editor-in-Chief Daniel Roberts and Decrypt Executive Editor Jeff John Roberts. Sign up for the Decrypt Debrief email newsletter to receive it in your inbox every Saturday. And read last weekend's column: Did Coinbase Blow Its NFT Launch? Not So Fast.