Austin Russell is having a strong run.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier today that the 28-year-old founder and CEO of Luminar, which creates vision-based lidar and machine perception technologies primarily for self-driving cars, is purchasing an 82% stake in Forbes Global Media Holdings in a deal that values the business at close to $800 million.
The WSJ claims that Russell’s share in the business comprises the residual stake held by the firm’s namesake family, who in 2014 sold 95% of the business to the Hong Kong-based investor group Integrated Whale Media. Since canceling its merger with a special-purpose acquisition company in June of last year, when the market deteriorated and investors lost interest in SPACs, Forbes has virtually been on sale.
The timing of Luminar’s IPO through a SPAC merger in 2021, when retail investors were still screaming for shares of mobility tech companies, was superior. Even then, practically every mobility SPAC was trading below its offering price by the time Forbes decided to cancel its own SPAC plans, and Luminar has not been exempt from the general decline. When it first appeared on Wall Street, it was worth $3.4 billion; today, it is only worth about $2 billion. It recently revealed losses that were a little greater than anticipated.
Despite the fact that Russell told the Silicon Valley Business Journal last year that he had no regrets regarding the SPAC, some retail investors might not be as pleased with its performance. (In his opinion, the alternative would have been to perhaps run out of cash when private market investors started to close their checkbooks.)
Some people may find it worrying that Russell, who Forbes itself referred to as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire in 2021, will soon be focusing some of his attention elsewhere.
Employees at Luminar as well as shareholders may be perplexed by the deal.
Purchasing Forbes at a time when so many outlets are struggling for survival defies conventional wisdom. It has become fashionable to hold stakes in multiple businesses at once (Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey), as well as to be a billionaire owner of a media company (Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs, Marc Benioff).
Russell, meanwhile, has been concentrating on Luminar since 2012, when he left Stanford to create the business with the help of a $100,000 grant from well-known financier Peter Thiel. (The Thiel Fellowship program, established in 2011, still awards $100,000 to chosen students who are motivated to work on their idea for two years rather than “sitting in a classroom”).
In the years that followed, Russell has reaped the rewards of his labor. In 2021, he paid $83 million for a Los Angeles property that has since been featured in the popular program “Succession.” He allegedly spent an additional $10.6 million for a 13,000 square foot mansion in Winter Park, Florida, close to the Luminar headquarters in Orlando. Yet after concentrating on Luminar for his whole career, he might be looking to change the way he uses his time.
Paul Graham of Y Combinator once claimed that sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a person is that his or her startup succeeds right soon, expressing his dislike for backing founders who are very young.
Graham declared, “If you launch a successful firm, like, the days of your life where you could be carefree and fancy-free are over. You are employed by the business.
Russell explained his intentions in a statement to the WSJ by stating simply that “Forbes is something I had always looked up to both a brand and as a media empire.” He also stated to the outlet that he has no plans to get involved in Forbes’ daily operations, but rather that he wants to expand the company and place a strong emphasis on “philanthropy” within it.