Eddy Zillain was 15 when he smashed his entire savings ($12,000, or £8,720) into cryptocurrency. Three years later, he claimed he’d turned over a million dollars. Now 21, Zillain posts countless Instagram pics of a charmed life, packed with sleek white Lamborghinis and the kind of luxury yachts that could have been dragged right off the set of the Wolf of Wall Street.
In the cryptocurrency world, Eddy’s rise-to-the-top story is far from unique. Social media is rife with self-made crypto zillionaires, who promise anyone can make as much as them. Just HODL (hold on for dear life) and DCA (dollar cost average) and you’ll cash out soon, say the crypto bros who hang out on the r/cryptocurrency subreddit and in YouTube comments.
But behind the threads and online facades, how much do these “crypto bros” really make?
Ewan, 23, says he first got involved in crypto trading in March and April of this year. “Initially I was super keen – I read a lot about crypto generally and read multiple white-papers [technical explanations of crypto projects by their creators],” he recalls. “I now basically do none of that.”
Ewan says he invested around £1,000, mainly into the two “big boys” of cryptocurrency, Bitcoin and Ethereum. Currently, his portfolio sits at around £1,350, meaning he’s made a 35 percent return over the past year or so. It’s good, but several rocket-launches off a million-pound, diamond-encrusted dream.
Meanwhile, 41-year-old Richard says his story is a real-life roller coaster.
After investing his life savings of £140,000 into Bitcoin, then Ethereum, in 2013, he says he’s gone from “rags to riches, to rags again [and is now] maybe halfway in the middle”. After several huge bull runs in 2014 and 2017, he ended up with £32 million worth of Ethereum in today’s prices. But during the pandemic he lost half of that fortune by “shorting”, AKA betting against further rises in the price of crypto.
Richard’s huge initial profits are close to the amount that some of the crypto influencers I spoke to said was typical of cryptocurrency investing.
Take Lea Thompson, who has roughly 154,000 Twitter followers under the handle @girlgone_crypto. She’s less prepared to talk about how much she’s made personally, but does say crypto gains are enough to “really change [the lives]” of some investors.
Of course, given how volatile crypto prices can be, it’s hardly surprising that crypto promises huge gains (as well as massive losses). All it can take is a tweet or SNL appearance from Elon Musk to completely explode or tank a coin’s value. For someone like Filip, who invested in Dogecoin – the memey crypto that exploded in value in April after several Musk tweets – the risk is more than worth taking on.
“I basically realised that, for a person my age, it’s worth more for me to bet on crypto than just putting a year of my income into my pension,” says the 25-year-old, who works in financial services. “Then slowly, you know, I started to get integrated and be really into the space itself… the projects and the community out there.” From a roughly £20,000 initial investment, he says he has tripled his money in just short of a year.
Filip’s profits closely resemble those of John* (who asked that VICE change his name to respect his privacy). He says he first put “£10 or £20” into Bitcoin in 2015, after being influenced by the pro-crypto economist Max Keiser. “And yeah, over the next couple of years, I started pouring a bit more in in intervals,” he explains. While he doesn’t disclose exactly how much he put in, or his total profits, he says his margins are in the “1000s percent”.
For John, though, the pull is less the money and more what he sees as the revolutionary power of the blockchain: “If you just want to make money, crypto is probably wrong, because it's extremely volatile and you may as well just go into the stock market. But if you believe in the currency and the underlying technology, [investing] is a very effective way to help along a financial revolution.”
But with a massive rise in crypto scams, and the huge inherent risks, it can feel like the crypto-investing system is rigged against newcomers, particularly as many are reliant on the dodgy advice of crypto influencers, who are sometimes involved in pumping up the prices of coins for their own profit.
“Crypto isn’t some subject that’s taught in school. And since it’s so unregulated and people are often so new to the atmosphere of investing, fake crypto gurus like to prey on people’s minds,” explains Poku Banks, who frequently posts videos about dodgy influencers alongside general financial advice for his over 344,000 TikTok followers. “They’re preying on these innocent people for their own financial advantage… It’s really like finding a needle in a haystack to get the right advice.”
If you manage to navigate all those risks, scams, fake advice and hype, then the logic in the crypto world is, to actually make money, you need to educate yourself as much as possible in advance. “You’ll never regret taking a little bit more time to learn,” says Austin, one half of the crypto duo Altcoin Daily.
In fact, the conventional wisdom within the community is: the deeper you go into crypto, the better your chances. If nothing else, that advice solves one mystery – why it is that so many people become obsessive crypto bros.
“If you're a nerd about it, that can actually benefit you greatly,” says Aaron, the other half of Altcoin Daily. “If your assets go up, you start wanting to tell your friends. It almost becomes a whole personality for some people.”