Moneymakers: Making a big splash from spending a penny

Buc-ees

“You can get a lot of people to pull off the highway and spend money if you guarantee them an immaculate place in which to heed the call of nature,” says Peter Carbonara in Forbes. This is the rationale behind Buc-ee’s, which has grown from a modest convenience store in 1982 to a US titan with sales of $275m last year, and whose billboards carry messages such as: “Your Throne Awaits. Fabulous Restrooms – 32 miles”. Owners Arch Aplin III and Don Wasek target well-off customers with high-margin private brands. This has proved lucrative and fostered a “cultlike following”. The company offers no discounts and won’t let commercial lorries use its petrol stations. Most outlets consist of a single store, but the group also has 12 “enormous” travel centres that resemble “a Texas-themed amusement park”. Yet the main attraction is the toilets, which boast “spacious entryways decorated with Texas-themed maps and memorabilia” and are patrolled 24 hours a day. Of course, to reach them “customers have to walk past endless aisles” of snack food and coffee.

The porn king with a conscience

“Imagine the publisher of Pornhub.com being asked to address Harvard University undergraduates on the virtues of running a socially responsible business,” says Pavel Alpeyev for Bloomberg. That’s basically what happened in Japan last year, when Keio University invited adult entertainment mogul Keishi Kameyama “to discuss his work investing in Africa and supporting young entrepreneurs” through his start-up incubator. Kameyama, 56, dropped out of accounting school in the 1980s and took any job to pay the bills, including “a very brief adventure as a semi-nude dancer at a gay Chippendale’s club”. By his late 20s he was running video rental shops. Faced with stiff competition, he decided to make films rather than sell them – but “he didn’t have the money to finance a feature film of the non-adult variety”.

Now, after 30 years of financing pornography, Kameyama’s DMM.com portal has 27 million users and its founder is Japan’s ninth-richest man. For Kameyama, porn is just a widget – something to sell at a profit: “I didn’t get into the adult movie business because I was a fan”, he says. “But it was an experiment that worked, and once I had money, I wanted to try other things, too.” Now “adult entertainment is becoming an ever-smaller part” of DMM, which has branched out to include an investment platform and family friendly video games. Kameyama is also becoming newly respectable, as “the invitation from Keio” makes clear. Yet for a guru on socially responsible business he is full of ethical doubt: “I don’t think everything we do is right”, he says, “but in this business we’re better than most. If my own daughter told me she wanted to be an adult film actress, I’d tell her, ‘look, there are risks, but it’s something for you to decide’”.

From banks to food boxes

Timo Boldt’s career as a banker was going well, says Sophie Jarvis in City AM. Yet in 2012 he left finance to follow his passion for food. His start-up, Gousto, delivers recipes and fresh ingredients to the doorsteps of time-poor professionals and families who want to cook more healthily. In the early days, Boldt and two friends worked non-stop, often staying up until 5am to fill boxes. Today the business has 200 employees, sending out 500,000 meals a month.

Many entrepreneurs fail to make the transition from founder to CEO. Yet Boldt is very aware that a successful business relies on a bigger talent pool than the founder’s alone. “There’s almost no overlap” in my leadership team, he says. “Every single person is better than I am in every function.” In the early days he hired for “high energy” and a “can-do mindset”, but with the business now more mature the focus is on “discipline”. Meanwhile, as the business grows (it has raised £28m in funding since launch), Boldt has had to stop being directly involved in every hire. He found this shift difficult, he says, but it’s an inevitable consequence of expansion.

The Kardashians cash in

“In 2007, an LA family’s unvarnished docuseries launched on E!,” says Leslie Bruce in The Hollywood Reporter. “Reality television, female body image, social media and, above all, the economy of celebrity were forever changed.” Kim Kardashian (pictured) – star of the show Keeping Up with the Kardashians – was already infamous; a sex tape she had made with her ex-boyfriend had mysteriously leaked earlier that year. Today, helped by a marriage to the equally high-profile rapper Kanye West, she is more famous than ever, and according to Forbes, last year banked $45.5m for a brand based “on self-aggrandisement, shameless product peddling and nude selfies”. With her mother, Kris, and four sisters, she has “ushered in the era of the reality celebrity as a brand”. The family franchise has now produced nine TV spinoffs and earned the clan hundreds of millions of dollars. “How the hell did this happen?”

Jealousy surely plays a part, says Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair. The Kardashians have harnessed “the twin devils that are reality television and social media” to make the rest of us insanely jealous of the highly curated, “very artificial approximations of real life” that their brand represents. Perhaps more interesting is that 60% of those polled by The Hollywood Reporter agree that the stars are all shrewd businesswomen: the sisters run several clothing and make-up lines, and are always finding innovative ways to monetise their vast social media presence.

“Anyone with an interest in branding” should take the Kardashians seriously, agrees Kosha Gada in Forbes. They are experts at staying in the news, harnessing the democratising powers of the digital economy for their own ends, even as those forces have upended traditional gatekeepers such as film studios and music labels. You can knock their creative output, but they do have talent – in the fields of “business acumen, marketing” and “innovative differentiation”.