Austin Russell is on the run quite a bit.
The 28-year-old founder and CEO of Luminarwhich develops vision-based lidar and machine sensing technologies primarily for self-driving cars 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 the eponymous family, who sold 95% of the company to Hong Kong-based investor group Integrated Whale Media in 2014. Forbes was essentially for sale from the moment it broke off its merger with a special-acquisition firm 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 private investors were still clamoring for shares in mobility technology companies. But by the time Forbes canceled its own SPAC plans, nearly every mobility SPAC was, too trade below the offer price, and Luminar has not been immune to the wider downturn. Valued at $3.4 billion when it hit Wall Street, its market cap is now around $2 billion. Just now reported three days ago slightly greater than expected losses.
Some retail investors may not be thrilled with the performance, even though Russell told the Silicon Valley Business Journal last year that he had no regrets about the SPAC. (From his perspective, the alternative would have been to potentially run out of money as private market investors began to close their checkbooks.)
Others may find it concerning that Russell – described by Forbes itself in 2021 as the 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.
While it is fashionable to run more than one company at a time (Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey), as well as being a billionaire and owner of a media company (Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs, Marc Benioff), Forbes buys when so many outlets to fight for survival takes conventional wisdom.
On the other hand, Russell has been focused on Luminar since 2012, when he left Stanford to start the company, aided by a $100,000 grant from celebrity investor Peter Thiel. (The Thiel Fellowship Program, founded in 2011, continues to give $100,000 to students who would like to spend two years on their idea instead of “sitting in a classroom.”)
Russell has been able to reap the rewards of his work in subsequent years. He bought a $83 million spread in Los Angeles in 2021 that has since been featured on the hit show ‘Succession’. He also reportedly paid an additional $10.6 million for a 13,000-square-foot mansion in Winter Park, Florida, near Luminar’s Orlando headquarters. But after focusing his entire career on Luminar, he might want to change how he invests his time.
As Y Combinator Paul Graham once said when expressing his aversion to funding founders who are particularly young, sometimes the worst thing that can happen to someone is having their startup succeed right away.
said Graham: “[I]When you launch a successful startup, the footloose 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, “Forbes is something I’ve always looked up to as a brand and as a media empire.” He also told the outlet that he does not intend to get involved in Forbes’ day-to-day operations, but that he wants to both grow the outfit and emphasize “philanthropy” within the company.
businessroundups.org reached out to Russell a while back; we hope to have more on his latest move soon.