Between China and the US, Justin Sun’s PR game maybe running out of steam.
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As a research platform that focuses on Asia, it is perhaps ironic that we very rarely write about Justin Sun and Tron.
If someone spends all their time and company on doing marketing, do we need to do additional work to help them amplify their message? We didn’t see the need for that.
But over time, as we talk to our subscribers, we realize Justin, a master in media PR and marketing, has leveraged this information asymmetry so extensively that we now feel the need to clarify a number of things.
Let’s start out with just some look at his early life.
Justin was born in July of 1990. He grew up in a middle-class family, and his mom was a reporter for the local town newspaper while his dad was in the city planning bureau.
Justin’s parents divorced when he was 8, and later his mother got re-married and she went off to Italy. And while Justin was taken custody by his father, his father’s career hit a plateau and also began neglecting his family duties.
Justin went to boarding school since elementary school, and his relationship with his father became increasingly distant. “Ever since third grade of elementary school, I have not experienced the feeling of having a family. Wherever I go, that is where my family is. I am the family,” he says, to one of the Chinese media interviews in 2015.
The lack of love at an early age made him very eager to get noticed. An investment personnel familiar with Justin said that he is different from many entrepreneurs in the 90s’ generation, or what we would dub in the US as Millenials (in China, people like to refer to citizens by the decade that they are born). While other Chinese entrepreneurs launch companies as they are interested in the subject matter, Justin’s desire to start a company is to drive himself.
One friend says: “He is very insecure and hopes to have something to support himself at all times. While fame may be an icing on the cake for others, it’s a necessity for him.”
Justin’s Lunch with Buffett
In the last few weeks, Tron and Justin Sun have been causing a stir in thee English media, primarily because Justin outbid everyone else and paid $4.6 million to have one lunch with Warren Buffett. More recently, he’s been hyping his much anticipated lunch on both US and Chinese social media, announcing guests whom will be joining him at the lunch, including Litecoin founder Charlie Lee, and most recently with the addition of Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire.
What was curious to us was, why didn’t Justin invite any other Chinese executives? Given Justin and Tron’s fame in China, China being a very active hub for blockchain activities, combined with Warren Buffett’s highly revered reputation in China (to the extent to which another Chinese businessman bid $2.35 million to dine with Buffett in 2015), why weren’t there any Chinese executives on the guest list?
To be fair, Justin did ask Binance CEO CZ on Twitter. But CZ politely declined.
But what about the other Chinese executives? Did Justin just feel like he already made it in China so that he didn’t need to invite Chinese executives? Or are the executives in China actually distancing themselves away from him by saying no to the lunch invitation?
Or have they already distanced themselves from him a long time ago?
In the last year, Justin has been working hard at making splashes in the cryptocurrency space, with the purchase of BitTorrent in June last year, and then conducting an IEO on Binance and setting off the IEO wave this year.
In some ways, Justin has found the ultimate product-market fit of the cryptocurrency industry at its current state- filled with retail market investors who would react on any surface-level news and sentiment. They have no regard for the technology behind the blockchain projects, but instead focus on aspects such as how trade-able the token is, and when the next partnership, update or any kind of announcement is going to come out.
Indeed, people in Asia like TRON because it appeals to the pump and dump nature that’s common across many unsophisticated financial markets in Asia.
Justin also unashamedly plays to that advantage, by throwing flashy penthouse parties at conferences such as during Token2049 in Hong Kong early this year, when the whole industry was in a bear market, creating the illusion that we are not in the bear market that we thought we were.
Think about the Tulip bubble back in the 1600s, but this time, the Tulip speaks…
And of course, exchanges look at Justin favorably too because anything related to Justin Sun now is directly associated with large amount of retail trading volume, and subsequently more trading revenue. This is why we suspect TRON is now IEOing all of its products, like the upcoming Wink IEO on Binance. WINk is, in fact, a rebrand of the popular gaming platform, TRONbet.
Wei Zhou from Binance, in a previous conversation with GCR, mentioned that “whoever works hardest in the crypto space shapes the space.” We certainly recognize Justin as a hustler, but in some ways, we think he has pushed the crypto industry into a place we don’t really want to go.
Evolution of Justin Sun from Fame-Hungry to Money-Hungry
Justin had an urge for fame at an early age.
He was also a serious troublemaker in school, in where at a young age, he would often respond to English tests with answers in Chinese, and in history tests, often filling out in his teachers’ names in lieu of the villains or criminals references, and filling in his own name in lieu of the heroes.
When he was studying his undergraduate at Beijing University, the equivalent of Harvard of China, Justin became a “campaign opinion leader”, famously criticizing various school issues as well as the student council. Later he decided to run for student council leadership but lost.
As an undergrad, Justin also organized an underground salon and gathered liberal intellectuals together in a cafe by Beijing University. After security guards interrupted one of the events, Justin hoped that the organization could “formalize” and tried to enlist the organization to become part of the Beijing University Youth League Committee. Nevertheless, his organization was dissolved by the school only three days after becoming formalized. Little did he know, Justin’s various online activities have come under the school’s scrutiny and his various online activities have since then become banned.
Despite his rebellious nature in school, Justin had a way with his teachers.
More than once, Justin told a Chinese media about his life principle: “Make sure that you are first at whatever you do. If you can’t be the first, then immediately change what you are doing.”
One of his tricks to getting first in school was identifying the right department to study at. Every time Justin chose a course, he would get the teacher’s phone number and email address. He would actively communicate with the teachers, and send the teachers the paper before formal submission. The teacher would then make recommendations, and Justin recalls that tactic saved him from getting below 85 for 4 of his courses.
What’s little known about Justin was that during his college years and prior to college, he was primarily focused on writing, in attempt to becoming an influential writer. He revered young adult writers during his time such as Han Han. He wanted fame and was able to achieve so through writing and expressing his novel ideas and views.
In the fall of 2011, Justin entered the East Asian Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania for an undergrad semester. About a month after he arrived in the United States, he started an online magazine called “New Youth” with a partner.
However, half a month later, Princeton University graduate Shen Qiqi published a long post on Renren.com, China’s then facebook at the time, accusing him of the magazine. His article “The Veteran is Not Dead, 1949”, plagiarized her article “One Million of 1989”. She compared the similarities between the two articles and asked Justin to apologize publicly.
In response, Justin published a long-form statement “My Final Response” on Renren, denying plagiarism, saying that the two articles are just similar in style.
A writer of Beidou, a magazine where Justin formerly worked at as a writer, and was formerly close with Justin, said: “If this is not plagiarism, then there is no plagiarism in the world.”
Falling from his plagiarism accusations, Justin once again acquired new found inspiration that transformed his views completely. In an interview with the media, Justin highlighted how he went through a re-evaluation of his values and subverted his ideas after reading the works of Ayn Rand and his brief time spent in the United States.
According to Justin: “I used to think that the people who are engaged in literature and history are the noblest and can promote social progress. I found the opposite in the United States.”
In short, Justin has come to believe that entrepreneurs are the core of the world. The more people make money, the greater they are. “I used to think that businessmen are guilty and inferior. Now, in retrospect, for those folks studying in the Chinese Department and the History Department, so what if you did not read your books? Nothing will happen. The world will not change.”
According to past Chinese media interviews, Justin has never concealed his strong desire for fame and fortune beyond ordinary people. Without shame, he once announced publically: “I measure the person by how much money he’s made.”
After his time at Wharton, Justin decided to return to China. “Chinese students in the United States are still too marginal. You can’t get into the center of the core population. Only when I return home can I win.”
Early attempt to build out Tron in China
This was what Justin originally thought when he returned back to China, and indeed he did have some “wins”.
At the end of 2013, Justin joined Ripple Labs, an Internet finance company based in Silicon Valley. He repeatedly described to the media that Ripple is even more magical than Bitcoin in his eyes. “This is a decentralized payment system supported by the value of the network, which allows different currencies to exchange freely and with zero delays.” After more than a month, he became the head of Ripple China.
Soon he got some seed investment to start Peiwo and Tron, originally a social chatting app (think speed dating, where you get matched with people for a minute on the phone and you talk to them; here’s a demo from Justin himself) and he leveraged the technology as one of the TRON initial use cases.
During his time of building up the company, Justin often is seeing flashing his Wechat photos with influential people such as Jack Ma. When he received an interview with an important talk show host, he made sure to post it four times on his Wechat.
Nevertheless, many influential people in China have talked about how Justin is a liar and how Tron’s technology is overbloated.
Back in 2018, one of the early Bitcoiners and InBlock investment partner Xiaolai Li’s conversation was famously leaked. In the convo, Li said that Justin Sun was a cheater, along with NEO Da Hongfei and Ripple. Recording of this original convo in Chinese is here.
Another instance where we found an outright distaste for Justin was from the CEO of Sogou, Xiaochuan Wang. Sogou is a public company and owns the second largest search engine in China. Xiaochuan Wang was a technology guy, and back in 2014, he directly confronted Justin about the technology behind Tron.
Here’s how the conversation kind of went in this snippet in the beginning (the full interview you can watch here in Chinese)
Wang: So what’s your advantage? Not your technology, but you as a person?
Justin: “Well, we are doing really well, when comparing to Bitcoin.”
Wang: “How are you doing really well? I haven’t seen anything, so far its all by your words.”
Justin: “Well, you can search our success on line, for example, we participate in events with the PBOC (Central Bank of China), and these are all public information. We participated in a panel with the PBOC.
Wang: ” But that doesn’t count.”
Justin: “Why doesn’t it count?”
Wang: “Well, it’s like you participated on this talk show with me, does that count as an achievement?”
Justin: “For a new technology like ours, you can’t be too difficult and demanding…”
Wang: [abruptly] “I’m finished with asking all my questions.”
We recommend watching the whole interview if you understand Chinese. In the interview, Justin describes how he was able to participate in various panels with the then head of PBOC Xiaochuan Zhou and central bank leaders, who according to Justin saw the potential of Tron’s technology, which then helped open doors to various conversations with bank executives, whom all became intrigued with this technology.
Justin also alluded to how he was pleasantly surprised about Tron’s reception in America, by the local regulators. He mentioned that given the US regulators are somewhat more strict and have higher standards than China in evaluating these kind of technology, Tron was nonetheless still able to receive favorable recognition from the US regulators.
Mind you, this interview was done in 2014. Regardless of the type of progress Tron’s made, we don’t think it made any notable impact in the US.
Years later, Justin posted on Wechat about his interview with Wang: “I recorded a talk show with Wang Xiaochuan. I will never forget the look from him, taking me for a cheater and liar. He said that I am a cheater and will definitely fail. He said he was shameful that he had to do a talk show recording with me. In the end, we couldn’t even finish the recording. Nevertheless, in less than three years, my company has exceeded the Sogou market cap. In life, people who look down on you will be remembered.”
New life in the states?
For someone with so much history and baggage in China, it’s no wonder for Justin to make a newfound identity in the states. And being on a global stage with cryptocurrency and blockchain allows him to do that seamlessly without question.
Fast forward to now, Justin has built Tron, bought BitTorrent and issued BTT, and established himself alongside some of the top executives in Silicon Valley. With his new found wealth, he has even been pulling the celebrity card to gather eyeballs in the states.
At the TRON blockchain summit earlier this year, TRON co-founder and CEO Justin Sun paid basketball player Kobe Bryant to speak.
Additionally, his North American PR game was elevated when he and Binance held a charity event together for ALS patients in the US- celebrities such as stars from “Friends” starring Courteney Cox and Golden Globe winner Renée Zellweger attended.
And that strategy, along with the ongoing Tron token pump, has worked to some extent. At Consensus 2019, GCR has gathered from entrepreneurs that Justin and TRON are approaching multiple top-quality projects, writing many small checks but still on the magnitudes of millions to convince them to build on top of Tron’s blockchain. These founders are wavering, and many have already agreed to build on top of Tron too.
When you have a marketing machine like Justin Sun to pump you and your tokens, what’s there to lose?
PR (Public Relations) Forever
At the end of 2014, in order to improve his appearance, Justin got laser eye surgery. In order to maintain his body shape, aside from events, Justin would force himself to eat only salads.
Justin’s particularly favors PR – when he was starting out Tron, meeting major business media and looking for forum speech opportunities was his top priority.
One Chinese investor described him as “a successful entrepreneur actor”- “For example, if one originally had something worth 100 points, but then he carefully packaged into something worth 1000 points.
As long as the 1000-points bubble does not pop, then one can find the equivalent of the 1000 points of capital and industry status in the market.
And when the bubble gets big enough, and enough money is made, then he can go to the market to buy a real company, then he has completed this capital game.”
When asked about hyping himself all the time, Justin responds: this must be done to ensure the company can survive: “We are a start up. We have to rely on the boss madly do PR in order to attract investors to pay attention, or else how do we fight with the big companies? If you have not progressed for 3 months, you will be killed. PR is the pulse of the business.”
Another criticism came from technology folks in China. For their evaluation of Tron, they answered unanimously that they cannot judge Tron, as they could not see the actual product.
Justin’s response is: “We can’t be too harsh on ourselves. Google didn’t do anything for six or seven years, we have less than two years, what do these people want?