Forbes Magazine posits that, at 21 years of age Kylie Jenner is the youngest “self-made billionaire ever,” effectively besting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who previously held the record; Zuckerberg made his first billion by the age of 23 in 2006. A few months prior to Forbes' most recent feature, Ms. Jenner graced the cover of a previous issue for being the “youngest self-made almost-billionaire, with a net worth of $900 million.” There is no question that Kylie Jenner is an extremely successful entrepreneur. We applaud her success, but take issue with Forbes' assertion that she is “self-made.” To draw such a conclusion is laughable, egregious and even irresponsible.
We credit Ms. Jenner for leveraging her ~175 million social media followers (this includes over 100 million followers on Instagram alone) to build a formidable cosmetics empire. Kylie Cosmetics generated an impressive $360 million in revenues in 2018 via the sales of lip kits, eyeshadows, eyeliners and more to her fan base. Jenner’s latest business extension involves a partnership with the popular cosmetics retailer, Ulta Beauty, which will mark her first foray into the brick and mortar retail space.
A GQ profile on the young entrepreneur highlighted that,“it's important to remember that Kylie's cosmetics business was built by grinding. It started with her consistent assault on social media.” Indeed, achieving a critical mass of followers is paramount when building a brand online (take it from us, we know!). The significant difference between Kylie Jenner and most other young entrepreneurs looking to utilize social media is that Ms. Jenner’s foundation had already been laid, so building the house that encompassed her empire was considerably easier. At The Quintessential Centrist, we do not discount the hard work Ms. Jenner clearly has devoted to her business. However, we do think it is important for young budding online businesspersons, to understand and appreciate the following: Scale is imperative when leveraging social media to build a profitable brand. In fact, Ms. Jenner herself alluded to the importance of scale, telling Forbes, "it’s the power of social media…I had such a strong reach before I was able to start anything.”
In attempting to reach a critical mass of users, the greatest challenge is to retain the first, second and third batch of followers. It is irrefutable that Ms. Jenner had scale well before she started her own business. First, she was previously a well-known celebrity for years via her family's televised reality show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians. At age seventeen, Kylie Jenner proceeded to have lip fillers; an event that was in turn highly publicized in her family's reality show. Her sisters feigned big sisterly concern and bombarded her with faux-reprimands. Within weeks, “Kylie’s Lip Kit” was born. Well done and masterfully orchestrated without any PR or ad spend.
Online, growth is exponential, not linear. Hence, it is materially easier to get to 100 million followers from 50 million, or to 50 million from 10 million and so on, than it is to get your 1st million or few hundred thousand followers. Ms. Jenner’s core fan base was provided to her courtesy of reality television, not created by her. Unquestionably, she took what was given to her and grew it. She was astute, in-tune with social media and clever about leveraging her celebrity but she does not qualify as somebody who was self-made.
If anybody in the aforementioned family is self-made, it is Kim Kardashian. She built a business empire of her own largely due to the profitable return on her assets derived from one of the first amateur porn videos that “accidently” made its way online. She successfully leveraged that exposure to create a powerful brand of her own. One could credibly argue that this borders on a form of prostitution - which for the record, we think should be regulated, but legal - however, it goes without saying that there were and continues to be millions of young American johns willing to pay per view.
The mainstream media coverage of Kylie’s ascent to power businesswoman has been biased. The screaming headlines, incessant Instagram referrals and her most recent exposure in Architectural Digest, GQ, and Forbes, that coined her the youngest billionaire overlook certain truths which potentially gives young people looking to build a business a false sense of reality.
Many in Generation Z and those even younger equate the unrelenting rise of Ms. Jenner to the so-called American dream. However, there is a fine line to be drawn between reality and reality television. Quite bluntly, Kylie Jenner is an outlier. Those in her generation have as much chance as winning a billion-dollar lottery ticket as becoming Kylie. We are not here to either vilify or extol her successes, but rather to put it into context. Unfortunately, reality television has become the new norm for what is considered relatable or attainable -- but it is far from real. Ms. Jenner is not the American Dream; she was "self-made" while barely older than a toddler. She has also been pushed - exploited even - from the time she was in diapers by one of the most relentless "momagers" in the modern era. It is the American public and the American youth who are worse off in this day and age of scripted success and wealth.
Undoubtedly, Kylie Jenner is smart and savvy. She successfully pandered to the acquisitive instincts of young American girls and boys who are mesmerized – obsessed some would argue - by their physical appearance, need for relevance, and fear of irrelevance. At TQC, we do not begrudge any entrepreneurial person, regardless of their personal circumstances, to realize unlimited earning potential. That said, we would be remiss not to point out that Ms. Jenner sells and subtly encourages a self-obsessed culture that places a higher value on selfies than on true substance. This is harmful to the fabric of our society and thus, an entire generation.