It’s early May, and Patrick Byrne has just gotten off the phone with hip-hop artist Akon and is roaming barefoot in his elegant three-room suite on the top floor of The Jefferson hotel, a stone’s throw from Embassy Row in Washington, D.C.
He grabs a Diet Coke, a pack of gummy bears and some M&Ms from a minibar hidden in a tasteful armoire, settles on a plush cream-colored sofa and begins to boast about the circumstances around which the Senegalese-American celebrity sought him out. “I hear he’s a musician. We share ambitions for Africa,” says Byrne, popping a gummy bear into his mouth.
Byrne, who bought Overstock.com in 1999 and ran it for two decades, has always been a man of many ambitions. High on his list: transforming the African continent and its 1.3 billion people via blockchain technology. Like an infomercial for the nascent decentralized, distributed ledger technology that underlies cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, he waxes poetic about a future in which corruption is wiped out, people are freed from poverty, and developing nations can leapfrog ahead by putting government functions like voting, property records and central banking on the blockchain. Characteristically low on his priority list: the economic interests of the thousands of shareholders in his publicly traded former e-tailing giant.
For the last several years, Byrne, 56, spent no fewer than 220 days a year on the road spreading his blockchain gospel, despite t