A Brief History of the Billion-Dollar Pissing Contest

The colorful rivalries of latter-day American billionaires

By The Editors

A Brief History of the Billion-Dollar Pissing Contest
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22 January 2016

In the land of liberty, the man with the paper money is king.

To be that king, you need ambition. Cunning. A little competition in you.

Sure, there are mild-mannered rich boys. Warren Buffett still lives in Omaha and drinks Cherry Cokes with his meat and potatoes. But while the Sage of Omaha is admirable, he’s also a rare breed. Most of his more colorful billionaire brethren are looking out for those of us sitting in the cheap seats — by unzipping their wallets and seeing who’s bill wad is biggest.

So here lies a brief history of America’s elite duking it out outside of the boardroom.

Ellison vs. White, 1997

Back in 1997, Ellison’s Oracle’s main competitor in the enterprise software game was Informix, helmed by one Phil White, who bought a billboard right outside of Oracle’s $40M office in Silicon Valley. The billboard called Oracle’s software “debatable” and CEO Ellison a “fading samurai.” They made another with a dinosaur crossing the road. Ellison shot back with a joke about how Informix was suing engineers that had jumped ship to work for Oracle. In the end, Informix went out of business. Billboard wars still go on today, with a recent one pitting Hightail against Dropbox.


Ellison's yacht is bigger than yours

Ellison vs. Allen, 2003–
It’s not just size that matters to Oracle founder Larry Ellison and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It’s the add-ons. Both men have yachts so big they contain 60 foot submarines in the hull. The hull of Allen’s boat, the Octopus, can break ice so the billionaire can go explore the Arctic. Ellison’s has a full-sized basketball court. Ellison’s other mega-boat, Musashi, is 288 feet. The two also used to battle in out in the America’s Cup, though Allen has since retired from racing.

Ellison vs. Bertarelli, 2007
Ellison again. The big time adrenaline junky still supports high-risk adventures, like yacht racing. In fact, he wanted to make it more dangerous. He and Swiss pharmaceuticals mogul Ernesto Bertarelli went at it in 2007, spending over a $100M on boats and campaigns. Ellison won.

Silicon Valley vs. Burners, ~2010–
Burning Man, as you may know, is all about fostering an egalitarian community that thrives on ideas, creativity and dancing all night long thanks to the abundance of, uh, good vibes. But now Silicon Valley billionaires have joined the throngs at Black Rock and brought with them air-conditioned yurts, models, bottles and a price of entry that’ll keep out the riff raff.  

Musk vs. Bezos, 2015–
Last Sunday, Elon Musk’s SpaceX tried to launch and land one of its rockets on a barge. He failed. But when he landed a similar rocket two months ago, Amazon founder (and fellow rocket builder) Jeff Bezos snidely congratulated him via Twitter, stating, “Welcome to the club.” Bezos’s Blue Origin had successfully landed a rocket days earlier in Texas. The two have been in a space race for awhile now, and most agree Musk has the upper hand.

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