Bitcoin is a digital asset and payment system with a market capitalization of around $452.1 billion as of Feb 4, 2023. It is considered by many to be one of the most successful digital currencies ever created. The first-ever bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) was launched in October 2021, pushing the cryptocurrency to new all-time highs.
Bitcoin's stratospheric rise since 2009 has created a surprising and diverse set of millionaires (and billionaires). But who owns the most bitcoin? It is tough to say for sure who owns the most bitcoin, as wallet addresses are anonymous in that they are not associated with the account owner's name. The only way to tell is if the owner has publicized their holdings.
Many bitcoin holders have made their wealth by creating products to grow Bitcoin's still-nascent ecosystem. For example, some have created exchanges for trading cryptocurrency and the derivatives that have emerged from it.
Of course, Bitcoin was—and still is—a risky asset class. The absence of regulatory guardrails and the cryptocurrency's price volatility have attracted criminals and investors alike. But those drawbacks only serve to highlight the achievements of Bitcoin millionaires because they not only were early adopters but also predicted its economic opportunity.
- Launched in 2009, Bitcoin is the first and remains the most successful blockchain-based cryptocurrency in the world.
- The price of Bitcoin is volatile, ranging from under $10 in 2010 to $65,000 in November 2021 and back down to less than $16,000 in November 2022.
- Most top Bitcoin billionaires became rich by creating products and services to grow the cryptocurrency ecosystem.
- This overall price increase has also created millions for people that bought and held their bitcoins. These early adopters hoped for a lucrative opportunity, started accumulating or mining in the early days, and held on.
Changpeng Zhao (CZ)
Changpeng Zhao is the founder of Binance, the world's biggest cryptocurrency exchange by trading volume. According to Forbes, Zhao's net worth was $4.5 billion in February 2023.
Zhao, who immigrated to Canada at the age of 13 from China, came to Bitcoin via a poker game with friends. He went all-in on cryptocurrencies thereafter and even sold his apartment for Bitcoin in 2014. Binance, which was started in 2017, handles transactions that run into billions of dollars on a daily basis. While it may not be as well-known as Coinbase to U.S. customers, Binance is bigger and offers more coins and derivatives to customers than its main competitor.
The exchange's nimble ascent has taken a toll on its regulatory standing. It is under regulatory scrutiny in some financial jurisdictions and has been forced to operate without a headquarters.
Song Chi-hyung is the founder of Dunamu, the parent company of the leading cryptocurrency exchange Upbit in South Korea. Chi-hyung launched Upbit in 2017—within three months it was South Korea's top crypto exchange. According to its third-quarter report, the exchange netted ₩219.3 billion (won), or $175 million in income. In 2021, it had a total comprehensive income of ₩2.15 trillion (won), or $1.73 trillion.
According to the Forbes Real-Time Billionaire list, Chi-hyung is worth more than $3.7 billion.
Brian Armstrong is the founder of Coinbase, North America's biggest cryptocurrency exchange by trading volume. He co-founded the exchange in 2012 after quitting his job as a software engineer at Airbnb. Armstrong has a 19% stake in Coinbase and is estimated to be worth $2.7 billion by Forbes in February 2023.
Due to its easy-to-use interface and credibility, Coinbase is considered the gateway for retail investors to join the crypto ecosystem. The exchange has suffered many hiccups, such as halts in trading while attempting to scale operations amid crypto volatility. The exchange went public in April 2021 and had a total market capitalization of $17.08 billion at the close of trading on Feb. 17, 2023. Armstrong said he started Coinbase because he wanted the world to have a "global, open financial system that drove innovation and freedom."
Jed McCaleb is a well-known figure in cryptocurrency, as he was the founder of the notorious exchange Mt. Gox. He sold the exchange in 2013, one year before hackers stole nearly $460 million worth of cryptocurrency.
McCaleb went on to assist in launching the cryptocurrencies and blockchains Ripple and Stellar. He still holds about 3.4 billion XRP, which at February 2023 prices, sets him at close to $2.4 billion in total worth.
After launching Stellar in 2014, McCaleb founded the Astera Institute, a 503(c)(3) non-profit for developing technology for human advancement, and Vast, a company reportedly working on artificial gravity technology.
Cris Larsen is another well-known figure in the cryptocurrency arena, having co-founded Ripple alongside Jed McCaleb. He is still the executive chairman of the company. Before cryptocurrency emerged, Larsen co-founded the online mortgage lender e-Loan, which was later sold to Yahoo.
Larsen, referring to cryptocurrency and blockchain, told Forbes, "The internet of value is more than just laying out a new way of doing finance. I think, fundamentally, this represents the final step in globalization."
Forbes placed Larsen's worth at $2.2 billion in February 2023.
Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss
Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss parlayed the millions they earned from their lawsuit against Facebook into cryptocurrencies. They became the first billionaires in the crypto ecosystem after the late 2017 surge in Bitcoin prices. Forbes estimates their net worth at $1.1 billion each.
While most of their estimated wealth comes from investments in cryptocurrencies, the Winklevoss twins are also entrepreneurs who started the Gemini cryptocurrency exchange. The exchange was valued at $7.1 billion after its $400 million fundraising in November 2021. They also own Nifty Gateway, a platform to buy and sell non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
Bitcoin has attracted numerous unconventional investors over the years. None, however, has the zeal and enthusiasm of Michael Saylor, CEO of software firm MicroStrategy Inc. (MSTR). The firm began acquiring the cryptocurrency in August 2020 by snapping up $250 million of bitcoin. At that time, the firm said it was buying the cryptocurrency to better use the cash holdings on its balance sheet.
Over time, Saylor has become a fierce supporter of Bitcoin and appeared at news and cryptocurrency conferences to evangelize its benefits and use cases. By December 2021, MicroStrategy had increased its holdings in Bitcoin to $3.5 billion, swooping in to buy the cryptocurrency during price dips.
MicroStrategy's stock price skyrocketed by more than 337% (as of December 2021) after it announced the Bitcoin acquisition. Meanwhile, Forbes estimates Saylor's net worth to be $1.6 billion as a result of his bet on Bitcoin. In December 2022, Microstrategy again made a bitcoin purchase, adding 2,500 more to its holdings. As of February 2023, Microstrategy holds about 132,500 bitcoin—close to $3.2 billion.
Who Is the Wealthiest Person in Cryptocurrency?
According to the Forbes Real-Time Billionaires List, Changpeng Zhao, founder of cryptocurrency exchange Binance—is estimated to be worth $4.5 billion, making him the wealthiest person in cryptocurrencies.
Who Owns the Most Bitcoins?
The anonymous developer of Bitcoin Satoshi Nakamoto is rumored to hold more than 1 million bitcoins. However, due to the nature of cryptocurrency, this cannot be proven. The address that holds the most bitcoin is 34xp4vRoCGJym3xR7yCVPFHoCNxv4Twseo, with more than 248,597 BTC. At February 2023 prices, that's close to $6.1 billion.
How Many Crypto Billionaires Are There in the Forbes Billionaires Index?
There are eight cryptocurrency billionaires in Forbes' ranking of billionaires, subtracting Sam Bankman-Fried, who was the ninth.
How Can You Earn Billions From Cryptocurrencies?
Contrary to the popular perception of cryptocurrencies, the wealthiest people in its ecosystem have not generated their wealth through bitcoin investments. Instead, they have minted profits by identifying existing gaps in the crypto ecosystem and starting products or services to plug that gap.
The Bottom Line
As cryptocurrencies became popular, the number of people making billions off the new asset class increased. Crypto billionaires are a motley bunch—some have made their billions by providing products and services to the emerging ecosystem, while others have generated profits by taking advantage of crypto volatility.
Investing in cryptocurrencies and other initial coin offerings (ICOs) is highly risky and speculative, and this article is not a recommendation by Investopedia or the writer to invest in cryptocurrencies or other ICOs. Since each individual’s situation is unique, a qualified professional should always be consulted before making any financial decisions. Investopedia makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy or timeliness of the information contained herein. As of the date this article was written, the author does not own cryptocurrency.