Last week Forbes published what has become its second annual clickbait attempt. It was clearly success and I’m upset with myself for continuing to give them attention, even if it’s negative attention. Trust me though, there’s a good reason I’m writing about this.
Of course, I’m talking about how Forbes is labeling Kylie Jenner as the youngest self-made billionaire. I think most people look at “self-made billionaire” and laugh for reasons that I hope are obvious. Her sister, Kim Kardashian, and the whole family have been household names since 2007… and while I have never watched the TV show, I don’t think anyone credits the success of the family to ten year old Kylie. If Honey Boo Boo made the whole family tens and/or hundreds of millions of dollars, I’d give her credit for being self-made. There’s a sizable gap between the Kardashian’s success and Honey Boo Boo.
(Note: I have to pause to make a disclaimer here. I’ve got zero hate for Kylie here. I don’t think she asked for the “self-made” label from Forbes. Even if she did, I’d still blame Forbes for granting it. I’d like to think that Kylie’s focus is, rightfully, on the word after the label. A billion dollars is a billion dollars.)
When I saw the self-made label being applied to Kylie Jenner, I instantly thought, “ShoeMoney!”
I’m sure you did too, right? (Probably not.)
One of the benefits of having been blogging since before Kim K debuted on The Simple Life is that I have a history of articles that most cover inane stuff. One of them was the phenomenon of an internet marketer named ShoeMoney.
Back in 2010, ShoeMoney wrote an article about he built a million dollar product without Google. The product was The ShoeMoney System.
In 2010, I wrote that I’m not a fan of internet marketers. The reason why is that The ShoeMoney System was significantly promoted on the very popular ShoeMoney blog (which was in Google). It was also listed as a million dollars in revenue, not profit, which can be two very different things.
Today ShoeMoneySystem.com redirects to a blog post no ShoeMoney.com that has been taken down and gives and error. That’s the million dollar business.
Obviously, Kylie’s make-up business has a lot more staying power. I only want to compare the two, because neither seems to be self-made. Instead it seems to be a product of significant promotion from another source.
Is Kylie Really Self-Made?
I’d say there are four (maybe more) reasons behind Kylie’s success… and three of them shouldn’t be credited to Kylie.
1. Kylie Jenner’s Famous Family
It could be reasonably said that she was a product of her sister, Kim. In fact, when I looked up the Kardashians’ family net worth, People magazine wrote in the Kim Kardasian profile, “And hey, [Kim] can pretty much take credit for all of her siblings’ fortunes.”
It’s hard to make a case for being self-made if someone else can take credit for all your success.
It’s worth noting that Rob Kardashian is worth an estimated $10 million. So if you want to make an argument that Kylie’s a self-made billionaire, I think you also have to make a case that Rob Kardashian put together his $10 million fortune himself. For some reason, I don’t see anyone making that case.
2. Zuckerberg’s Social Media Empire
Fittingly, much of Jenner’s financial success is due to Forbes former youngest self-made billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg. The Washington Post (paywall) has a great article asking if is “self-made” really true. I think the key quote was at the end:
Even Jenner appeared to be aware that she isn’t fully self-made, telling Forbes Tuesday that her success was due in part to her existing influence.
‘It’s the power of social media,’ she said. ‘I had such a strong reach before I was able to start anything.’
It’s not that Zuckerberg invented all of social media, but Facebook (and Instagram of course) is the biggest platform by far. And Kylie Jenner is the highest paid Instagram influencer. They are estimated to be worth a million dollars each. If she makes a thousand Instagram posts, that’s a billion dollars without the need of a make-up company at all.
Obviously Jenner deserves significant credit for developing and cultivating such a strong social media presence. We just have to acknowledge, as she did herself, that “it’s the power of [the] social media” tool and family fame.
3. Seed Beauty
I wanted to learn a little more about Kylie Jenner’s make-up line. I was curious if she was really spending time in the garage testing out the formulas and refining the ingredients.
As you might be able to imagine Kylie Jenner isn’t spending her time in a make-up lab. The story behind the make-up is all that came from a company called Seed Beauty that “was built on the back of a 60-year-old family business.”
It turns out that Seed Beauty is extremely involved in the make-up. According to that article:
[Seed Beauty] would become a true partner of its brands, adding capital, brand incubation, and fulfillment to its hands-on offerings.
‘Brand incubation’, Laura explains, is a level up from the traditional celebrity brand and manufacturer relationship. White label or private label, as these arrangements are often referred, are largely transactional.
Don’t call Seed Beauty ‘white label’. The company is working hand in hand with brands to grow them from the ground up.
The paradigm shift, thanks to social influence, is that anyone can amass huge audiences, suddenly finding themselves in a position to monetize that influence. What do you do with an audience, nothing to sell to them, and no business experience?
Laura recognized an opportunity.
Does that sound like Kylie Jenner’s self-made business?
4. Kylie Jenner’s Smart and Hard Work
That article about Seed Beauty had a lot more to say than what I quoted in the last section. It said that Jenner plays a very active role in the business. It’s clear that she’s involved in all the decisions and that she isn’t just slapping her name on a product.
Importantly, Jenner set this all in motion by seeking out Seed Beauty and pitching them.
There’s a phrase that underpins my entire website, “Work smarter, not harder.” It’s clear to see that Kylie has worked smart. I don’t know enough to say whether she’s worked hard. From my position on the outside, it doesn’t appear like it. However, it’s not fair to make that assessment from a distance.
Forbes’ Definition of Self-Made
From all the above, it is clear that I don’t agree with the label of “self-made.”
That Washington Post article cited why Forbes used the words “self-made.”
Forbes actually put together a 10 level scale going from different types of inherited money to self-made. Here’s are definitions and examples of each level:
1: Inherited fortune but not working to increase it: Laurene Powell Jobs
2: Inherited fortune and has a role managing it: Forrest Mars Jr.
3: Inherited fortune and helping to increase it marginally: Penny Pritzker
4: Inherited fortune and increasing it in a meaningful way: Henry Ross Perot Jr.
5: Inherited small or medium-size business and made it into a ten-digit fortune: George Kaiser
6: Hired or hands-off investor who didn’t create the business: Meg Whitman
7: Self-made who got a head start from wealthy parents and moneyed background: Rupert Murdoch
8: Self-made who came from a middle- or upper-middle-class background: Mark Zuckerberg
9: Self-made who came from a largely working-class background; rose from little to nothing: Eddie Lampert
10: Self-made who not only grew up poor but also overcame significant obstacles: Oprah Winfrey
The problem that I see with this list is that Kylie Jenner could be seen as either #4 or #5. The fortune or business that she inherited is the family’s entertainment empire and social capital that goes with it. She could also be seen as the #6 who hired Seed Beauty.
One of the dangers here is that it looks like Kylie Jenner is in the middle. However, the first three categories are essentially the same to me. Also, I think we can agree that 99.999% (and many more 9s) of peole start in categories 8-10. Even the number of people in category 8 is pretty small compared to 9 and 10.
You can think of it as a very short and very wide pyramid with a almost everyone at the bottom and Kylie arguably starting at the top (or so close to the top that it isn’t worth dissecting).
I think this is one of those cases where it’s a combination of things.
It isn’t like a bag of a billion dollars fell right into Jenner’s lap. However, she’s obviously been in a very unique environment that was essential to her success. She’s used that opportunity to multiply her fortune many, many times over.
After nearly 1500 words, I think there’s still a lot more discussion to be had. Please don’t be shy and comment below.