Austin Russell became the youngest self-made billionaire in 2021; now he owns Forbes
Austin Russell is on quite a run.
The 28-year-old founder and CEO of Luminar Technologies, 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.
According to the WSJ, Russell’s stake includes the remaining portion of the company owned by its namesake family, which sold 95% of the company to the Hong Kong-based investor group Integrated Whale Media back in 2014. It was essentially on sale from the moment that Forbes was forced to call off its merger with a special-purpose acquisition company last June, after the market soured and investors lost their 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 tech companies. By the time that Forbes was calling off its own plans to become a publicly traded company, nearly every mobility SPAC was trading below its offering price.
Luminar has not been immune to the broader downturn. Valued at $3.4 billion when it hit Wall Street, its market cap is now roughly $2 billion.
While retail investors might not be so happy about that performance, Russell told the Silicon Valley Business Journal last year that he had no regrets about the SPAC maneuver, given the capital that Luminar secured through the process and the fact that private market investors began to snap shut their checkbooks last year.
Investors in Luminar might also find it concerning that its CEO, described by Forbes itself in 2021 as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, may soon be directing some of his attention elsewhere, even while it has become both fashionable to run more than one company simultaneously (Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey) as well as to be a billionaire with a media company to call one’s own (Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs, Patrick Soon-Shiong, Marc Benioff).
Luminar just three days ago reported slightly wider than expected losses.
Some might also question the wisdom of buying a traditional media company when so many of them are fighting to stay relevant amid an atomizing landscape for media, along with advertising budgets hit hard by an accelerating pullback by advertisers.
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 give $100,000 to students who are eager to spend two years on their idea instead of “sitting in a classroom.”)
Though he has enjoyed the fruits of his work — he purchased an $83 million Los Angeles spread in 2021 that has since been featured in the hit show “Succession,” he also reportedly paid another $10.6 million for a 13,000-square-foot mansion in Winter Park, Florida, near Luminar’s Orlando headquarters — after spending his entire career focused on Luminar, he could be looking for outside stimulation.
As Y Combinator Paul Graham once said, expressing a distaste in funding founders who are especially young, sometimes the worse thing that can happen is that you succeed. “[I]f you start a successful startup, like, the footloose and fancy-free days of your life are over. You’re working for that company.”
TechCrunch reached out to Russell a bit ago; we hope to have more insight into this move for you soon.