The Making of a Billionaire: How Kylie Jenner Parlayed Her Makeup Talents Into a Unstoppable Empire

It's official: No other 20something on the planet can keep up with the beauty industry titan.

By Sarah Grossbart Jul 13, 2018 6:11 PMTags

Once upon a time, Kylie Jenner was just a teenager with an aptitude for makeup and a big dream. 

Having "struggled for a minute with finding something to do on my own," you know, back when she was still in high school, she keyed in on her love of beauty, feeling she could spin her $29 lip kits, simply a liner and matching lipstick, into a worldwide beauty empire that could rival the likes of Revlon and L'Oréal. 

"I want to be as big as the other [cosmetic] brands," she mused to Complex in 2016, not even a year after her first wave of products nearly broke the internet, to borrow a phrase from big sister Kim Kardashian. "It's my dream to be on Forbes." 

Courtesy of Forbes

Time to start reaching higher. Not only did the 20-year-old Kylie Cosmetics founder grace the cover of the revered business magazine this week, her likeness appeared next to a headline touting her as a "cosmetics queen" and predicting she'd become the youngest self-made billionaire. Ever. For reference, that's a title once held by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and, currently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Detractors were quick to quibble over the use of the term "self-made". After all, thanks to the luck of genetics, she's been part of the family business since the age of nine, building up her indomitable fanbase (at 111 million Instagram followers, she consistently ranks in the top 10 on the social media platform) thanks to her scene-stealing antics on a little-known reality show called Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Even couldn't resist poking fun at her undeniable head start by tweeting, "Self-made means having succeeded in life unaided."

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But it's hard to deny what she's done is impressive. In the two-plus years since she officially launched her brand, Kylie Cosmetics, she's moved more than $630 million worth of product. Using the most conservative of estimates, Forbes put the company's value at $800 million, and with Kylie owning it entirely, her net worth (including endorsements for brands like Puma and her TV gigs) hovers right around $900 million. 

"She's just scratching the surface," mom Kris Jenner told WWD in an interview last year after the brand netted $420 million in its first 18 months. "She's creating a business for herself that hopefully will last the rest of her life."


To those that didn't see this coming, couldn't possibly predict the little girl who famously swirled around a stripper pole on the Keeping Up premiere becoming a business titan, we invite you to take a gander at her old interviews. Because she's been forecasting this day for years now. 

"If I could do whatever I wanted, I would have a successful makeup line," she mused to Interview in 2015, weeks before people even really understood what a lip kit was, "and I would want to hopefully start more businesses, and just be, like, a businesswoman."

Months later, as she settled into her new entrepreneurial role, she echoed a similar sentiment to AdWeek, insisting, "My main focus is my cosmetics line. There's so much I want to do that I can't really think about anything else. I want to take my time and work on each individual product until it's perfect." 

Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

This was her niche. Something she alighted on fairly early in life, in comparison to, you know, the general population, but years after her elder siblings figured out their own means of turning reality star fame into an impressive fortune. Kim had her mobile game and a selfie-based photo book; Khloe Kardashian, a burgeoning fitness empire. Even her more reclusive brother Rob Kardashian had a sock line. 

As the youngest of the bunch, Kylie and now 22-year-old Kendall Jenner were marketed together, notching deals with PacSun and Top Shop and launching their own apparel line, now sold in 975 shops worldwide, including Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales. But as Kendall took off as a legitimate supermodel, Kylie realized it was time for her to fly solo as well. 

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Business of Fashion

"Kendall and I were really branded together, and we wanted to do everything together, and we were like a team. And then Kendall started doing modeling, and that was her thing, and then I started doing my own thing," she explained to Interview. "I just really want to be a businesswoman."

So she leaned into one of her best skills. Having spent years in the shadow of her older sisters, women synonymous with Instagram-ready extensions and expert contouring, she grew up insecure about her looks—particularly her lips, after one, presumably regretful, middle school-aged boy commented they were "really small." 

Spending hours scrutinizing YouTube tutorials and the professionals hired to adorn her face for photo shoots and red carpet situations and scouring beauty aisles for shades to perfectly match her pout, she mastered the art of drawing liner beyond her mouth's perimeter to make her lips appear bigger. 

It wasn't long before she realized she should put her money, well, where her mouth was. In August 2015, as her increasingly outsized pucker was gaining notoriety, she presciently trademarked the phrase, "Kylie Lip Kits...for the perfect pout."

Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

As fans continued to scrutinize her lips, she struggled with her decision to lie about their less-than-natural state. "I didn't want to be a bad influence," she explained to Complex. "I didn't want people to think you had to get your lips done to feel good about yourself. But they thought it was crazier that I was lying about it because it was so obvious." But as tough as the controversy was, it highlighted an unmet demand in the cosmetics industry. If social media-obsessed teenagers were willing to take part in the #KylieJennerChallenge (a somewhat reckless fad that involved placing a shot glass over their mouth and sucking in), it was clear that they would do just about anything to imitate the reality star's plump pout. 

Even after she admitted to having temporary lip fillers in May 2015, copping to taking things a little too far, her dedicated followers—at that point climbing past 50 million thanks to her savant-like social media skills—were interested in whatever natural remedies she could offer.  

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Ponying up $250,000 of her modeling cash as seed money ("I said, 'I'm ready to put up my own money, I don't want to do it with anyone else," she told Forbes) she had a company produce 15,000 lip kits in just three shades and set to work teasing the Nov. 30, 2015 launch across her platforms. 

"I ordered a really small amount and I was almost certain it wasn't going to sell out," she would later explain on her reality spinoff Life of Kylie

It was a rare case of misjudgment. Kylie Lip Kits lasted all of 60 seconds, because, as she recalled to Forbes, "before I even refreshed the page, everything was sold out." 

In the nearly three years since that day, the business has ballooned to include more shades, plus eyeshadows, blushes, highlighters and brushes and joint ventures with every sister except Kendall (though they still have their successful clothing line Kendall + Kylie), as well as momager Kris.

Of course, the family matriarch was the original collaborator, overseeing the business side of the company in exchange for the 10 percent manager's cut she collects from all of her offspring. After witnessing the success of the initial lip kit sale, she was the one to tap e-commerce platform Shopify to serve as the home base for the rebranded Kylie Cosmetics, which launched in February 2016 with 500,000 kits in six shades. 

"I didn't know where to start. What factory, who to go with; I just didn't know anything," Kylie explained in her Violet Grey profile. "My mom really helped me with that. She drove all over Los Angeles to all of these factories looking for the perfect one."

She landed on Seed Beauty, a private-label producer in Oxnard, Calif. that now handles the brand's packaging and manufacturing. Shopify takes care of sales and fulfillment. The rest of the multi-million dollar business, though, is handled by just 12 staffers—only seven of which are full-time.  

Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Kardashian/Jenner Apps

Along with limited paychecks to hand out, Kylie is saving considerably by forgoing a traditional brick-and-mortar store in favor of using the millennial-friendly online model. (Save for limited pop-up shops in New York, L.A. and San Francisco, the first of which boasted 25,000 customers in two weeks.) As she explained to WWD last year, "E-comm is the future of how people in our generation shop. Creating experiences and covetable items online helps to create and build excitement and give customers a reason to continually shop."

The bare-boned operation—run mainly from the dining table of Kris' Hidden Hills spread or from a home Kylie purchased in 2016, just a short walk away—means the shrewd star pockets more of her millions. 

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And why shouldn't she? Not only is she the brains behind the operation, she's by far the most valuable marketing resource. With more than 100 million Instagram devotees, she need only post a selfie touting her shade of the day and her young followers clamor to add it to their carts. While she insists her goal isn't to immediately run out with each new collection, she told Glamour UK last year it's been a challenge, er, keeping up with demand: "I want girls to be able to get it as easily as possible. It's just that no matter how much we make, it sells out even faster every time."

Notes Loren Padelford, whose Shopify Plus oversees the online stores for Drake, Justin Bieber and Kylie's sis Kim, "No other influencer has ever gotten to the volume or had the rabid fans and consistency that Kylie has had for the last two and a half years."

With her current rate of growth, she's on track to compete with such cosmetic industry giants as Bobbi Brown (which took 25 years to earn $1 billion) and L'Oréal's Lancôme (they hit that earnings benchmark in 2015 after 80 years). 

And she's not even close to done. An insider tells E! News she wants to "develop more cosmetic ventures within the Kylie Cosmetics brand. She is definitely trying to expand her line." Ideally worldwide, she told ES Magazine, adding, "I would love to be in stores everywhere." 

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Her ultimate goal, she told Forbes, is to one day pass this on to 5-month-old Stormi, her daughter with musician boyfriend Travis Scott, "if she's into it." Either way it will remain in the family as Kylie says she hopes to be working on her company "forever." 

And, at this point, should anyone choose to doubt her, they do so at their own risk.

"I really do feel like people don't take me seriously as a business woman because of my age and my reputation," she surmised on an episode of  Life of Kylie. "But I feel like they're starting to. I like to prove people wrong."