Austin Russell became the youngest self-made billionaire in 2021; now he owns Forbes
Austin Russell is on a run.
The 28-year-old founder and CEO of Luminar, which develops vision-based lidar and machine perception technologies primarily for self-driving cars, told the Wall Street Journal earlier today that he is buying an 82% stake in Forbes Global Media Holdings in a deal that values the company at nearly 800 million dollars.
According to the WSJ, Russell’s stake includes the remaining portion of the company owned by its namesake, who sold 95% of the company to Hong Kong-based investor group Integrated Whale Media back in 2014. Forbes was essentially for sale from the moment it called off its merger with an acquisition firm with special purposes last June, after the market soured and investors lost appetite for SPACs.
Luminar itself had better timing; it went public via a SPAC merger in 2021 when retail investors were still clamoring for shares in mobility technology companies. Still, when Forbes canceled its own SPAC plans, nearly every mobility SPAC traded below the offering price, and Luminar has not been immune to the broader downturn. Valued at $3.4 billion when it hit Wall Street, its market cap is now about $2 billion. Just three days ago reported a little greater loss than expected.
Some retail investors may not be too happy about the performance, even while Russell told the Silicon Valley Business Journal last year that he had no regrets about the SPAC. (From his perspective, the alternative would be to potentially run out of money, as private market investors began to close their checkbooks.)
Others may find it worrying that Russell – described by Forbes himself in 2021 as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire – will soon turn some of his attention elsewhere.
Shareholders – and Luminar employees – may also find the acquisition confusing.
Although it has become fashionable to run more than one company at once (Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey), in addition to being a billionaire owner of a media company (Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs, Marc Benioff), buying Forbes when so many outlets fighting to survive money conventional wisdom.
Then again, Russell has been focused on Luminar since 2012, when he dropped out of Stanford to start the company, aided by a $100,000 grant from renowned investor Peter Thiel. (The Thiel Fellowship program, founded in 2011, continues to award $100,000 to selected students eager to spend two years working on their idea rather than “sitting in a classroom.”)
Russell has enjoyed the fruits of his labor in subsequent years. He purchased an $83 million Los Angeles listing in 2021 that has since been featured on the hit show “Sucsession.” He also reportedly paid another $10.6 million for a 13,000-square-foot mansion in Winter Park, Fla., near Luminar’s Orlando headquarters. But after spending his entire career focused on Luminar, he may well be looking to change how he invests his time.
As Y Combinator Paul Graham once said when expressing his distaste for funding founders who are especially young, sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a person is that his or her startup succeeds immediately.
Said Graham: “[I]If you launch a successful startup, for example, the loose and fancy-free days of your life are over. You work for that company.”
In a statement to the WSJ, Russell simply said of his motivations that: “Forbes is something I had always looked up to as a brand and as a media empire.” He also told the outlet that he doesn’t plan to get involved in Forbes’ day-to-day operations, but that he wants to both grow the outfit and emphasize “philanthropy” in the business.
TechCrunch caught up with Russell a little while ago; we hope to have more on his latest move soon.