Jean Arnault Has New Goals for Louis Vuitton Watches. Profit Isn’t One of Them. - Kanebridge News
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Jean Arnault Has New Goals for Louis Vuitton Watches. Profit Isn’t One of Them.

The youngest son of Bernard Arnault is taking a risk at the LVMH brand: Making a more expensive product—and making it harder to find.

Tue, Oct 3, 2023 8:48amGrey Clock 9 min

Jean Arnault was standing in a gilded, mirrored room of Paris’s Musée d’Orsay showing off Louis Vuitton’s newest watch model to a clutch of experts one July morning. The thin unisex watch, named the Tambour, is available in finishes including stainless steel, yellow gold and rose gold, he explains, and was the result of almost two years of work.

But the most valuable Tambour in the building wasn’t on display with the others. It was on Arnault’s wrist.

His version was made of a rare metal, tantalum. Tantalum gave the watch its gunmetal colour, though the metal’s hardness also meant that the watch took twice as much time to manufacture. This made it “insanely expensive” when he bought it, Arnault told me, though he refused to reveal what he paid.

“We’re only going to make one,” Arnault, 24, adds. “That’s it. It’s the only one.”

Jean, the youngest son of LVMH chief Bernard Arnault, has been fascinated by the opportunity in rare-materials watches for a while. The Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet began using tantalum in some of its watches, including the Royal Oak, beginning in the 1980s, before the younger Arnault was even born. “Incredible watches,” he says. “[Some] have rose-gold accents. Stunning.” But he says he wouldn’t feel comfortable selling a simpler, three-hand watch like the Tambour to the general public for anything near the eye-watering price he paid for his.

“Even though it costs us that much, it would be taking the client for a fool,” he says.

With Arnault, who is learning the ropes of his father’s luxury’s empire, Louis Vuitton has bet on a 24-year-old to turn itself into a player in high-end, mechanical watchmaking.

Two years ago, when he first joined Louis Vuitton’s watches division as marketing and development director, Louis Vuitton watches ran a wide gamut. They ranged from watches costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to quartz timepieces that sold for around $4,000. These are “something that could be done by a machine, almost,” says Arnault, sitting in his corner office at the Louis Vuitton headquarters in Paris’s 1st arrondissement, overlooking the Pont Neuf. On a shelf is an 18th-century French clock and a limited-edition Marc Newson–designed hourglass with blue steel nanoballs, made in collaboration with De Bethune.

Now Arnault has decided to eliminate the entry-level Tambours. His thinking was that instead of producing more affordable collections, Louis Vuitton needed to play in a different class. So the new iteration of the timepiece ranges in price from $18,500 to $52,000, putting it in competition with similar creations from the likes of Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin. Nearly a third of the Tambour’s watchcase has been shaved off, making it much sleeker. Inside there is a proprietary movement, made in collaboration with Le Cercle des Horlogers, a specialist movement workshop just outside La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.

The average price of a Louis Vuitton timepiece overall will jump fivefold to over $20,000. But it’s a challenge much more daunting than adjusting the price point.

“We’re not going to make a ton of money with this,” Arnault says of the company’s strategic about-face. “It’s not going to be highly profitable at all, but it’s really about making sure that we switch the message completely.”

Building a pedigree in watchmaking—which Louis Vuitton embarked on only two decades ago—is particularly challenging. Watch fans are deeply conservative, with models that have been around for decades like the Rolex Daytona, the Omega Speedmaster or Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak still among the bestsellers globally. Vacheron Constantin’s origins trace back to 1755, while Patek Philippe was founded in 1839. Rolex has been around since 1905.

Craig Karger, a former lawyer in New York City who collects watches and runs the blog Wrist Enthusiast, said Louis Vuitton faces an uphill battle in competing with heritage brands that focus solely on watches. “I wouldn’t personally invest 19,000 euros [about $20,300] in a steel Louis Vuitton watch, as nice as it is,” Karger says.

Louis Vuitton is hardly alone in moving upmarket in recent years, says Jeff Fowler, CEO of e-commerce watch website Hodinkee. The trend in the Swiss watch industry is clear: There are fewer watches for sale, and those that are for sale cost more—in part a reaction to the introduction of the popular Apple watch in 2015, says Fowler. The watch was so successful and ubiquitous, he explains, that it brought renewed consumer focus on timepieces, and resulted in the Swiss watch industry regrouping around higher-end products.

Founded as a trunk manufacturer by a French carpenter in 1854, Louis Vuitton has successfully expanded into categories like high fashion, menswear, jewellery and fragrances. Watches currently account for a tiny fraction of Louis Vuitton’s sales, meaning Arnault can afford to take a risk.

“Vuitton is going to have to build demand up over time,” says Fowler. “It’s not given to you.”

Jean Arnault is closely watched in the luxury industry. He is the fifth child of Bernard Arnault, the 74-year-old who built LVMH over the past four decades by buying up rival luxury firms while cultivating generations of designers. In recent years, the company has ridden a global surge of demand for luxury goods. This has cemented its position as one of the most valuable listed companies in Europe. It has also helped the elder Arnault, who is CEO and controlling shareholder, compete with Elon Musk for the title of the world’s richest person.

Growing up in the west of Paris, Jean Arnault attended a prestigious Jesuit school where one of his teachers was Brigitte Macron, now the wife of French President Emmanuel Macron. Like his siblings, he was carefully introduced to the family business, joining his father on his Saturday morning rounds to the group’s main boutiques. He would also tag along on official LVMH trips, including to China. As a teenager, however, Arnault was into cars, planes and engines. He used to tell his family that he wanted a career in Formula 1. But when he worked at the McLaren Technology Centre while studying mechanical engineering at Imperial College London, he realised it wasn’t the place for him.

“You work at the end of the day for something, which is making tenths of seconds of gains for a car to go around a track,” he says. “There’s a lot of moving parts…. I realised then that I wanted to work on [the] product as a whole.”

Bernard Arnault has always encouraged his children to pursue their interests, starting with their early roles at the conglomerate. Delphine, his oldest child, had an eye for product development, and spent some time at John Galliano’s eponymous label before joining Dior. Antoine, who loves literature, worked in the advertising department at Louis Vuitton. Alexandre brought contemporary artists to Rimowa when he was CEO. For Jean, as it was for his brother Frédéric, the passion was watches.

During his journey to McLaren in Woking, a sleepy town an hour outside of London, Jean used the time to delve into blogs about mechanical watches. He then did his fourth-year project on a component of Tag Heuer’s watches. The Swiss brand is also part of the LVMH empire and is run by his brother Frédéric, who is four years older than Jean. The two of them would frequently discuss the watch industry as well as Frédéric’s business plans—and he even allowed Jean to work on a few mechanisms.

In early 2020, Jean spent a week at Louis Vuitton’s watchmaking plant near Geneva, as he was trying to decide which of the group’s brands he would join. Michel Navas, one of the brand’s master watchmakers, recalls that Arnault spent some time taking apart and putting together a watch. At one point, Navas gave the young man a screw to clean and polish, which Arnault did with a fine abrasive. A colleague told Navas that he was going too far by assigning Arnault menial workshop tasks.

“Hang on, he’s clearly enjoying himself,” Navas answered. “He seems to love craftsmanship.”

By the time Arnault joined LVMH, following stints at Morgan Stanley and McLaren, he already had built an enviable personal watch collection. Today it includes a vintage Patek Philippe from the 1920s, a rare François-Paul Journe prototype and even a big, bulky modular timing system that was once reportedly used in a German nuclear power plant.

At Louis Vuitton, Arnault’s first public move was to establish a new watchmaking prize, which the company plans to award every two years starting in January 2024. Arnault convened a committee of watch experts and aficionados to decide on the winners, including Rexhep Rexhepi, a young watchmaker from Kosovo who founded his own label, Akrivia, in 2012.

When Arnault came to visit in early 2021, the two of them spent a couple of hours talking about watches in the atelier’s small meeting room, which looks over the garden. Rexhepi was impressed. He later agreed to a collaboration with Louis Vuitton, producing a double-sided chronograph that will be released this month. The model, limited to 10 pieces, exposes the watch’s inner workings on one side, with a white enamel dial on the other.

If Rexhepi agreed to work with him, it was in part due to the impression he’d formed back in their first meeting, when he noticed that Arnault was wearing a Journe watch.

“Oh,” Rexhepi thought, “he has good taste.”

Alongside the prize, Arnault was working on bringing high watchmaking into Louis Vuitton’s stores. Since 2011, the brand has owned La Fabrique du Temps, the atelier co-founded by Navas and Enrico Barbasini, situated in Meyrin outside Geneva. It has become synonymous with innovative, complex watch movements, but these were being used in only a handful of Louis Vuitton offerings.

On just his second day on the job, Arnault sat down for coffee near Geneva with Navas and Barbasini. “We need to stop doing quartz,” Arnault recalls them saying, referring to the fashion-oriented watches Louis Vuitton sold.

Arnault grew convinced that Navas and Barbasini were right. He pitched the idea of repositioning Louis Vuitton’s watches to his father and Michael Burke, then the brand’s CEO. Arnault wanted to upgrade the Tambour, a mainstay of the brand since 2002. He felt there were issues beyond its quartz mechanisms: It was far too chunky, for one, and its big lugs seemed outdated. Both men were cautious, he says. They wanted to ensure that a new model was ready before they signed off on any strategic shift.

By January 2022, Arnault had three prototypes of the new Tambour to show Burke and, most important, his father. Bernard Arnault has a hands-on, detail-oriented approach. He has been known to ask staff to go back to the drawing board if a design doesn’t meet his exacting standards.

A no from Arnault “has happened in the past many times,” says Jean. “It has happened to me since with products that were supposed to happen in the future but aren’t happening now…. Whether it be Michael [Burke], Pietro [Beccari, the Louis Vuitton CEO] and obviously my dad, they have a vision that we don’t have.

“Later on, once the emotions are gone and the process has been canceled, you say, ‘OK, they were right,’ ” he adds.

But this time, the meeting lasted only around five minutes. “In, out, boom—done,” the younger Arnault recalls. Bernard Arnault’s approval put the repositioning in motion. Louis Vuitton is retiring many existing models, Jean Arnault said, as well as reducing “tremendously” the number of Louis Vuitton stores that sell watches.

Since each Tambour will now be entirely handmade, Arnault says production of the Tambour would be “more in the hundreds than the thousands,” though he declined to give an exact number. He also says Louis Vuitton wouldn’t riff on the product. “We’re asking for a significant chunk of money from these people,” he says. “I don’t want to jeopardise their investment by releasing a green dial, by releasing a purple dial, by releasing a different metal. The desirability that will come from these five references will be the same over a long period of time.”

At a summer gala to celebrate the launch of the Tambour, held at the Musée d’Orsay, Arnault was surrounded by partygoers and stars, including Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender and Bradley Cooper, who appears in the new ad campaign to promote the Tambour. Signs of the broader Louis Vuitton brand’s reach were everywhere. Outside the museum, a giant billboard hung on the side of the museum showing Rihanna and her baby bump in a Louis Vuitton ad campaign.

“This is the pinnacle of what we can do, and the beginning of an amazing journey,” Arnault told those gathered. “Hopefully you’ll remember this moment as a historic moment for us.”

These days, Arnault splits his time between Louis Vuitton’s high watchmaking site near Geneva and the brand’s headquarters in Paris, where he tends to stay on weekends. In his spare time, he pursues what he calls his “unfortunate” passion for cars. “I’m trying to understand more,” he says. On Instagram, he sometimes shares photos of himself with his girlfriend, Zita d’Hauteville, the daughter of Eric d’Hauteville, who owns a watch brand and is also a French count, and Isabelle de Séjournet, an arts consultant. The two are pictured together traveling to Japan, or enjoying a meal together at a pizzeria in Naples. In one of her recent posts, d’Hauteville is taking a photo of herself in the mirror while Arnault is in the background, bent over double, chasing after her dog, Ovni.

Meanwhile, Bernard Arnault is never far away, sometimes asking senior executives how his youngest son is doing. He also has monthly lunches with his five children at the LVMH headquarters to talk shop and check in.

Jean encouraged his father to visit Louis Vuitton’s high watchmaking hub near Geneva. When Bernard Arnault did so, a few months after Jean had started, he was impressed, asking Navas during a tour of the facility whether he could take photos with his cellphone.

“Mr. Arnault, this is your house!” Navas said.

After the tour, Bernard Arnault sat with Jean, Navas and Barbasini for coffee. He asked Navas and Barbasini about their career history. Both men listed a host of prestigious names, including Swiss watchmaker Gérald Genta.

Arnault senior turned to his son. “Genta—we own this, right?”

Jean says he told him they did. LVMH had acquired the brand as part of its acquisition of Bulgari in 2011. Genta had released a few editions over the years since, but not much was going on with the brand.

Arnault senior turned again to Navas and Barbasini, asking them whether they’d like to bring back the brand. The two men briefly looked at each other before accepting. “Hell, yeah, we’ll do it,” Jean Arnault recalls them saying. He invited Genta’s widow, Evelyne, to visit Louis Vuitton’s watchmaking hub, and she quickly got on board with the relaunch. Hundreds of her late husband’s designs were never produced—and now they will serve as inspiration for the brand’s new creations, the first of which will be available next year.


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Platforms are paying less for popular posts, brands are pickier about partnerships and a possible TikTok ban looms

Wed, Jun 19, 2024 9 min

Many people dream of becoming social-media stars like YouTube’s MrBeast or TikTok’s Charli D’Amelio . But for most who pursue careers as content creators, just making ends meet is a lofty goal.

Clint Brantley has been a full-time creator for three years, posting videos on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch where he comments on news and trends related to the online game “Fortnite.” Despite having more than 400,000 followers, and posts that average 100,000 views, his income last year was less than the median annual pay for full-time U.S. workers in 2023—$58,084, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Clint Brantley, a full-time creator, draws an average of 100,000 views for his ‘Fortnite’-related videos on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch. PHOTO: RAJAH BOSE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The 29-year-old is hesitant to commit to an apartment lease because the money he gets, mainly from online tips and sponsorship deals, arrives randomly and could vanish at any moment. For now, he’s living with his mom in Washington state.

“I’m vulnerable,” he says.

Earning a decent, reliable income as a social-media creator is a slog—and it’s getting harder. Platforms are doling out less money for popular posts and brands are being pickier about what they want out of sponsorship deals. The real possibility of TikTok potentially shutting down in 2025 is adding to creators’ anxiety over whether they can afford to stick with the job for the long haul.

Few overnight sensations

Hundreds of millions of people around the globe regularly post videos and photos to entertain or educate social-media users. About 50 million earn money from it, according to a 2023 report from Goldman Sachs . The investment bank expects the number of creator-earners to grow at an annual rate of 10% to 20% through 2028, crowding the field even further. The Labor Department doesn’t track wages for these creators, also known as influencers.

It can take months or years to earn money as a creator, often through a combination of direct revenue from social-media platforms, sponsorship deals, merchandise sales and affiliate links. But those who stick with it eventually see some returns, surveys show. Creators say that’s because you can learn what kind of posts most resonate with an audience, which can lead to more followers and, in turn, more moneymaking opportunities.

But money doesn’t mean big bucks . Last year, 48% of creator-earners made $15,000 or less, according to NeoReach, an influencer marketing agency. Only 13% made more than $100,000.

The gap reflects multiple factors, including whether creators work full- or part-time, the kind of content they put out and when they started. People who jumped into the space during the height of Covid-19 lockdowns—and who focused on a niche such as fashion, investing or lifestyle hacks—say they benefited from the surge in social-media use during that time.

A small number of creators shot to fame, propelling the occupation to the top of career wish lists for many teens (and adults). But behind the scenes, creators say the job is gruelling. They need to constantly produce compelling posts or risk losing momentum. They spend their days planning, filming and editing posts while also working to make inroads with advertisers and interacting with fans.

“It is a lot more work than most people realise,” says Emarketer analyst Jasmine Enberg. “Creators who make a living doing it have been at it for many years. Most are not overnight sensations.”

Like other self-employed professionals, creators don’t get paid time off, healthcare benefits, retirement contributions and other perks that companies typically provide for their workers. That reality, coupled with stubbornly high inflation and mortgage rates , is making it more difficult to get by as a creator.

Brantley works on editing a coming video. The online tips and sponsorship deals that make up his income can be erratic, so for now the 29-year-old continues to live with his mom in Spokane, Wash. PHOTO: RAJAH BOSE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Everything is more expensive, especially groceries,” says Jason Cooper of Mobile, Ala.

A few years ago, Cooper dreamed up a sassy sock puppet named Sock Cop, who cracks dad jokes in live and recorded videos for TikTok and Twitch. He currently makes $500 to $600 a month, almost entirely from tips.

He thinks he could probably haul in a lot more if he went full-time. But with no guarantee, the 37-year-old father doesn’t want to quit his marketing job and risk losing health coverage. He now spends a few hours in the evening and on weekends on Sock Cop. If he had more time, he would feel the need to constantly make videos.

“You’ve got to feed the beast,” says Cooper.

Shrinking platform payouts

TikTok’s $1 billion creator fund, which ran from 2020 to 2023, doled out money to eligible creators for posting to the platform. Others joined in. YouTube’s TikTok competitor, Shorts, allowed creators to earn anywhere from $100 to $10,000 a month with its temporary fund. Instagram’s Reels Play bonus program rewarded creators with fluctuating payouts. Snapchat ’s Spotlight rewards program gave $1 million a day to the platform’s top creators.

Today, the platforms have revamped or completely changed how they pay creators—doing away with their funds.

Qualifications for TikTok’s current rewards program include having an account with at least 10,000 followers with a minimum of 100,000 views in the past month. Instagram is currently testing a seasonal, invitation-only program that rewards creators for sharing Reels and photos.

YouTube debuted an ad-revenue share model last year, in which qualifying creators with more than 1,000 subscribers and 10 million public Shorts views in the past 90 days receive 45% of revenue from ads that occur between posts. Snapchat has a program that gives creators who meet certain criteria, such as having at least 50,000 followers and 25 million monthly views, a portion of the ad revenue that appears between Stories. Its Spotlight program also continues to dole out money to creators.

Creators who opt into these programs or bonuses aren’t guaranteed a significant payday.

Yuval Ben-Hayun originally became popular on TikTok in 2020 because of his posts about the word-puzzle game Wordle. The 29-year-old New Yorker eventually expanded into linguistic and other education content, and by early 2023, was able to support himself and his bills of over $4,000 a month.

TikTok had closed its fund by then but was testing its creator rewards program. Ben-Hayun said in March he received about $200 to $400 per million views, and it’s steadily declined since then—even as his follower count reached 2.9 million.

The followers are still there, but the money isn’t. He recently hit a new low, receiving only $120 for a video with 10 million views.

Danisha Carter uses her phone and a ring light to create content for her TikTok channel, where she has 1.8 million followers. PHOTO: JESSICA PONS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

Danisha Carter is frustrated that TikTok and other platforms sold the idea of content creation as a job, but later withdrew the financial incentives. Thanks to creators’ efforts, she says, consumers are now hooked on social feeds, bringing the platforms billions of dollars in annual revenue.

The 26-year-old has 1.8 million TikTok followers, and her posts about beauty and exercise, along with opinions on topics ranging from dating to online bullying, regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views. TikTok has paid her a total of $12,000, Carter says. She sells merchandise for additional income, bringing in about $5,000 last year.

“Creators should be paid a fair percentage based on what the apps are making off creators,” says Carter. “There should be more transparency into how we’re paid, and it should be consistent.”

A TikTok spokeswoman declined to comment.

YouTube said it paid more than $70 billion to creators, artists and media companies in the past three years, and more than 25% of channels in the ad-revenue share model are now making money through it. “We remain committed to putting our full energy into what matters most for our creators, viewers and advertisers,” a spokeswoman said.

A future without TikTok?

Many creators and advertisers credit TikTok, which pioneered the short-form video genre, with driving stronger engagement than its industry peers. TikTok has gained more than 170 million users in the U.S. since its launch in 2016—including, Pew Research Center says, a third of American adults. They spend an average of 78 minutes a day on the app, according to market-intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

TikTok may not be available in the U.S. for much longer, at least not in its current form. In April, President Biden signed a bill into law that will force a sale or ban of the app by Jan. 19, 2025. U.S. lawmakers have expressed worries that TikTok poses a national security risk. TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, has said it can’t and won’t sell its U.S. operations by the deadline.

ByteDance sued the U.S. government, alleging the new law violates its First Amendment rights. Several U.S. creators also sued. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear arguments in September for both cases.

“To lose TikTok would be kind of devastating,” says Brandon Granberg , a 31-year-old creator from Bayville, N.J., known for interacting with strangers in public places in silly ways.

Granberg struggled for years to attract viewers on the app before one viral post two years ago took his follower count from 5,000 to more than one million. Recently he made $1,000 from a TikTok program that launched last year called TikTok Creative Challenge, which allows creators ​to earn money by making video ads for brands that don’t appear on their personal profiles. He also earned $2,800 for producing four TikTok videos promoting a website for people with foot fetishes. Granberg says he found it creepy, but did it because he needed the money.

While he hasn’t landed many other sponsored posts, he’s grown his income significantly by making marketing videos for small businesses over the past year. Most clients find Granberg on TikTok. “If it gets banned, it will definitely hurt me,” he says.

Changing tastes and algorithms

This year, U.S. social-media creators as a whole are expected to make $13.7 billion, according to Emarketer. The research firm projects the majority of that—$8.14 billion, or 59%—will come from brand sponsorships.

Advertisers have always led in compensating creators, paying out far more money than the social-media platforms and fans who buy merchandise or dole out tips. But these days, advertisers expect more from creators than just large followings, according to agency and talent representatives. They want to see evidence of strong engagement in the form of saved and shared posts, plus the demographics of creators’ audiences.

“Brands are looking at metrics that are far less predictable for creators and also very difficult to price yourself on,” says Sarah Peretz, a business-strategy consultant in Los Angeles who helps creators negotiate partnerships and deals with advertisers.

Some brands are more controlling than in the past, says Sarah Steele , a 34-year-old creator in Tulsa, Okla., who started making TikTok videos about being a working mom in 2020. “Now it’s, ‘We’re paying you and this is what we want you to say.’ ”

Earlier this year, Steele says an advertiser insisted she cite legal disclaimers in a series of sponsored Instagram posts. “It felt like I was reading off a teleprompter,” she says. “As a consumer it even turned me off to the brand a little bit.”

Creators, meanwhile, are having a tougher time attracting viewers, thanks to algorithm changes and other factors beyond their control. And while more advertisers are looking to partner with creators than in the past, “increased activity leads to increased competition,” says Peretz.

Another change is that advertisers now prefer to work with just a handful of creators on long-lasting deals rather than experiment with several on one-off projects, says Jess Hunichen, of Shine Talent Group.

Hunichen co-founded the talent-management agency in 2015, when TikTok didn’t exist and influencer marketing was still relatively new. Back then, an average deal size between an influencer and brand was usually below $1,000. Now, the average deal per campaign is around $10,000, she says.

Worth the hustle

Ronit Halmos of Los Angeles began making TikTok videos earlier this year that she describes as quick-reviews of restaurants, bars and more “with some sass and attitude.”

The 27-year-old, a full-time technology recruiter, recently landed her first advertiser deal. A kombucha brand asked her to make a 30-second post featuring her take on a line of flavors. Though it ended up getting less attention from viewers than her usual fare, she made $1,500 from about 30 minutes of work.

Tyler Haven , a 27-year-old traveling around the Pacific Northwest, charges $250 to $300 to make promotional videos that brands can post to their own social channels, and around $1,200 for posts that appear on either his Instagram account with more than 41,000 followers or his TikTok account with more than 10,000 followers.

Since January, he’s been posting videos documenting his “van-life” with his wife, Oak Haven: Their primary residence is a fully paid, fully decked-out 2004 Mercedes Sprinter T1N.

Haven said it’s been easy to grow his following organically. He believes it’s because his posts don’t depict some unattainable, picture-perfect life.

He quit his job in June to pursue full-time content creation.

“Even if I were to make $2,000 a month, which is absolutely nothing—that’s less than most people’s rent—I could live on that,” Haven says.

With the van fully paid off, the 27-year-old says he and his wife, Oak Haven, can get by with even a small income from his videos. PHOTO: TODD MEIER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL