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From homeless to making his first million: How the 25-year-old CEO of an NFT collection launched a toy line at Walmart

Luca Netz
Luca Netz grew up homeless before becoming a self-made millionaire.
Courtesy of Luca Netz

Welcome to “How I Made My First Million,” Fortune’s newest series in which we interview today’s most powerful people about how they amassed their wealth. You’ll hear from founders, entrepreneurs, investors, and creatives across the globe on how they joined the seven-figure-club, what they’d do differently, and their best piece of advice for building wealth.

Key takeaways

  • Age: 25
  • Career highlights: Jack of all trades at Ring, founder of a drop-ship business selling fake gold chains, CMO of Gel Blasters, CEO of Pudgy Penguins
  • Approximate net worth: $100 million
  • Age at first million: 18
  • Prior debt: $0
Whether or not you can fully grasp what 25-year-old Luca Netz does, here’s one unmissable fact: He’s made millions selling NFTs with the warm likeness of chubby Antarctic creatures. 

Netz is the CEO of Pudgy Penguins, an NFT collection existing on the Ethereum blockchain. The brand launched in July 2021, and its first batch of “characters” sold out in under 20 minutes. Netz purchased the company less than a year later, and today Pudgy Penguins’ market cap . He most recently launched Pudgy Penguin Toys, which are sold at Walmart.

Netz, a serial entrepreneur and 10th-grade dropout, firmly believes in the power of NFTs to completely reinvent every chain of commerce and line of business. The full extent of their power is yet to be realized, he told Fortune, but he’s eager to be on the ground floor, watching the new arena take a foothold. 

From upselling Burger King sandwiches out of his backpack in middle school, to packing boxes at home security manufacturer Ring, to selling fake gold chains on Shopify (which made him his first $1 million), Netz—who grew up homeless—hasn’t taken a break. Even today, he shrugs off the Gen Z laziness stereotype by working six 12-hour days per week, without vacations. It’s all made him a multi-millionaire, per account statements reviewed by Fortune. Netz estimates his on-paper net worth to be $100 million.

He spoke with Fortune about selling his first company for $8 million, his biggest splurge mistake, why he thinks restaurant meals are a waste of money, and what you can learn from his journey.

You grew up in poverty in Los Angeles. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and how it shaped you into who you are today?

It was not easy. We were bouncing around, home to home, a guest bedroom and Vegas bedroom and couch to couch. It gave me a lot of different perspectives. I think your adversity is your greatest superpower, not your greatest weakness. I took growing up in an unfortunate circumstance as my greatest superpower.

What was it like bouncing from house to house? 

We were homeless for about 10 years. We lived all over the world, from South Africa to Paris to London to New York City to Los Angeles. We did that as long as my mom could muster it. Eventually, she was able to get a job. Being an illegal immigrant [from France] at the time, it was definitely very difficult to do. When I was about 12 years old, we settled down, finally, in mid-city Los Angeles.

How did your upbringing shape your views on money?

Growing up poor gave me an understanding of the value of a dollar. That’s something that I’ve never lost track of. I understand what it is to make $1, to spend $1. And I understand the difference between having $1,000 and not having it. 

Did you ever work as a young kid or teenager? 

When I was in middle school, I started selling chicken sandwiches from Burger King out of my backpack. I would jump over the fence, go to Burger King and get some chicken sandwiches for $2 apiece, and I would sell them in school for $5. I also did that with soda and gummy worms. 

I dropped out of high school my sophomore year [Ed. note: Netz tested out of school via the California High School Proficiency Exam, which was discontinued in 2023]. I got my first job at a tech startup called Ring. I was one of their first employees. I got that job printing out 100 resumes and going up and down Tech Row in Santa Monica and handing them out.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your time at Ring?

I got a job packing boxes and fulfilling their first online orders. I was not an engineer or C-level executive—I probably had the lowest position you could have possibly gotten. But I’m thankful and grateful for that opportunity as I was able to kind of work up and earn a bigger role in the company.

You were 16 when you were working at Ring, but you became a self-made millionaire at 18. Between those two years, how did you make your first million dollars?

I was working at Ring, listening and getting my education through YouTube videos and mentors. It eventually led me down a rabbit hole of selling things online via Shopify and e-commerce. This gave me a unique opportunity to tap into a niche that was untapped at the time, which was men’s jewelry. I found an Instagram post that mentioned that hip hop was the fastest growing genre of music. And hip hop has a very unique style. So I thought to myself, how can kids look like their favorite rappers? The best answer that I got was getting a gold chain. 

Some of these rappers had gold chains that cost tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, or in some cases, millions of dollars. In that case, you could sell cubic zirconia diamonds and gold-plated jewelry that looked and felt the same for $200. Basically, I found a supplier for these gold chains, and I started reaching out to the fan pages of the rappers who I knew I wanted to promote my products, but I couldn’t afford to.  So I went to a Kendrick Lamar fan page with 100,000 followers on Instagram. Instead of paying Kendrick Lamar a million dollars to promote my chains, I would pay his fan pages $50 to $100. And every single time I paid them, and they posted my promotion, we would make $1,000 to $2,000 to $5,000 back every single time. I scaled the business up pretty aggressively once I cracked that code. Within nine months of starting the company, I had made my first million.

How many chains did you sell within those first nine months?

I don’t know, but by the time I sold the business, we had sold over 300,000 individual chains. Nothing was custom; we were basically taking gold chains that would, if they were solid gold, cost you $5,000. We would take the gold-plated versions and sell them for $120.

How much did you sell the company for?

$8 million. 

How did you spend your first $1 million?

I was very frugal with my first $1 million until I was in the L.A. social scene. I was with some pretty prominent figures, and I felt really left out because I was wearing Dickies and a Gildan t-shirt. It wasn’t untiI I felt like a wallflower that I decided to spend some of the money. But I never went down the rabbit hole that others did, where they blew all the money they made. The first thing that I purchased [with my first $1 million] was actually a home for myself. I was 19 and I bought my first million-dollar home. Probably the second thing that I purchased was a 2019 BMW M4, which was my favorite car at the time. And then I bought some sneakers, some watches, and some nice attire, but I did not go overboard. BMWs instead of Ferraris. And instead of Louis Vuitton, Theory.

Did you ever have any debt?

I never had any debt other than the social debt that I thought I owed my mom, and that was rectified when I bought our home.

What is your total net worth today?

On paper, it’s probably $100 million or more. Obviously, that’s different from what’s actually in the bank. But my total net worth on paper would be north of $100 million.

Pudgy Penguins is an NFT collection offering exclusive experiences and IP licensing opportunities to members. How would you explain it to someone who’s unfamiliar with Web3?

Pudgy Penguins was an NFT project that took the world by storm in the summer of 2021. It was printed in the New York Times, it was all over all the new stations. It was created by 18- and 19-year-olds in their college dorm basement. They weren’t able to build the business, but they had all of the culture, all of the lore and all of the community that is necessary to drive a business like this towards success. 

Ultimately, what broke the camel’s back was my frustration with their ability to build. That led me to purchasing the business for $2.5 million. Pudgy Penguins is the world’s next great character brand. It’s going to impact tens of millions of people through content and products that make them feel involved. And it’s a new era of IP distribution, where brands have been known to be building around the basis of brand and consumer. The new era of brand building, I think, is going to be around brands and participants. Building Pudgy Penguins has been an interesting one, but one that I think solves a greater purpose, which is reinventing the IP business.

What does it mean to keep Pudgy Penguins as penguins for the brand?

The purpose of the Pudgy Penguin is to make people feel good. It exists to be a friend in a world where friends are diminishing. And ultimately, our whole thought process behind building the brand and building the character is: How do we create this familiar, non-intimidating, non-taboo character that people can fall in love with and ultimately love for the rest of their lives?

You recently launched Pudgy Penguin Toys, which are sold at Walmart. Do you know who’s purchasing them?

Our current demographic for Pudgy Toys is 16- to 24-year-olds, both men and women. They are the purveyors of culture, and they’re who we’ve been targeting through our content strategy this whole time. Obviously, we have people from all sides of the spectrum, from 60-year-old women to five- and 10-year-old kids.

What were some of the projects you were working on prior to starting Pudgy Penguins?

I was the CMO of Gel Blaster, which is North America’s fastest growing toy company. Those little water Orbeez that you see getting shot around all over Tiktok and Instagram? That was me and the crew.

How did you manage to land the CMO role? 

We [ed. Note: Netz and his investing partner] actually became Gel Blaster’s biggest investor at the time. We not only wanted to own a huge piece of Gel Blaster, but we believed in our vision to bring it to the masses. That money was to not only accelerate the marketing strategy, but to tell the existing founder that we were serious about what we wanted to do here—we were willing to put our money where our mouth is.

You are 25. This is super impressive for someone who is only 25 years old. Have you run into any challenges, considering you’re still so early on in your career?

When you look at what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, it starts with your resilience and ability to persevere through problems. The people who fail versus the people who succeed are the ones who continue and don’t give up, versus the ones that don’t even try or give up when things get tough. In today’s ever-changing landscape, there’s a plethora of issues that will arise, whether that’s through marketing channels, ads managers, or supply chain issues. But I think ultimately, it’s your responsibility as a leader and as a founder to push through all of those problems.

Do you think being so early in your career has helped you succeed in any way that maybe you wouldn’t have if you were later on in your career?

One of the great things about being a young entrepreneur is your ability to pivot and have a finger on the pulse of culture and what’s working. In today’s day and age, culture has been built upon social media. My key advantage, versus maybe the older generation, is my finger on the pulse on what’s viral. That gives me an ability to meet the demand and to meet the consumer where they are. I think a lot of the older entrepreneurs are stuck in their ways, and in an age where technology is running the future of our lives, you need to be able to move with that future. Being young gives you that advantage.

Speaking of technology, there’s something new popping up on social media every day. What’s one of the biggest challenges you faced when trying to pivot through all these trends?

It’s really important in a world where there’s a shining dangling carrot in front of your face every day that you stick true to your north star. Real success is going to be driven by the enterprise value that you can build around your business and not chasing the latest trend.  Now, it’s important that if you see a trend, and you have the ability to leverage that into your favor to grow your business and to grow that north star, that you do it. But it’s important that you don’t pivot and steer off of that north star to go follow the trend.

That’s a great perspective. Did you always know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Since day one. I had a hard time following rules—I wanted to make my own. I wanted to lead the charge and lead the team. I knew pretty much since I was young that this was my destiny. I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but I knew I had to prepare myself for that moment.  My best advice that I can give to young entrepreneurs is that everybody at some point in life gets an opportunity to change their life. I think the difference between those who are able to yield and take that opportunity are those who prepared themselves. 

What does your average day look like?

My day-to-day is a 12-hour sprint from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week. That’s something I have been doing for the last 18 months. I start my day by walking my dogs, I then take meetings from basically nine to 12, I then have a 30-minute lunch break, because it’s really important to put that stuff in the calendar. If not, I’ll never be able to eat. And then from 12:30 to about eight, I take meetings, I talk to the team. And from six to eight, I make sure I get my personal time, what I call critical thinking time. It’s really important to block out at least two to three hours a day where you can critically think and work on the business, and not in the business.

Do you allow yourself any time for work-life balance?

I am actually a little aggressive on this stance. I’m not a huge believer in work-life balance, or at least I haven’t been for a long time. As I get older, I see the importance of it more and more. My balance is: I have a Saturday, when nobody can call me and nobody can bother me. And I can sleep in for as long as I want, and I do exactly what I want every Saturday. But Sunday to Saturday, I work every single day. 

What about vacations or holidays?

No more vacations for me. I do not take vacations anymore. I travel a lot for business, so I try to enjoy myself on those travels. But coming up shortly in December, I will take my first vacation in the last two years.

Have you hired a wealth manager, or do you maintain all of your accounts yourself?

This is one of the most underestimated things. A lot of entrepreneurs think they can handle everything themselves, but I’m a huge believer in having a team that knows what to do best. I have an executive assistant, an accountant, and a wealth manager. I have a personal banker, and I have my own venture fund that’s run by its own team.

Are there any things that you don’t shell out for or you think are a waste of money?

Expensive dinners are a waste of money. Because once you eat it, it’s gone, and there’s nothing left to enjoy. I think good food is important, but I am not a firm believer in $1,000 steaks, or gold flakes on your steak. I don’t like steaks more than $100, but I will have expensive meals. I just don’t enjoy having expensive meals the same way somebody else might.

Since becoming a millionaire, have you made any large or costly purchases you regret?

No purchase that I regret more than my Rolls Royce Cullinan, which is easily the worst car I’ve ever owned. It’s a great car on its face. But it’s big and clunky—I call it the oil rig. It has no gadgets and no functionality. Outside of the pretty orange interior I have, it serves no purpose.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for people looking to accumulate wealth?

Don’t compare your life and your journey with others. I think once people accrue wealth, they want to be like the person they see on social media. Trust your truth. Trust your journey. Do what’s in the best interest of you and your family and the people around you. And don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. The Joneses’ life is not as good as you think it is.

Do you have any advice for people looking to invest in NFTs?

Buy what you love and what you believe in. At the end of the day, NFTs are digital identities and communities and they are the next generation of brands. It’s important that when you align yourself with this identity and you align yourself with this community, it’s aligning yourself with something that you truly, truly believe in.

What power do you think NFTs have compared to other forms of wealth?

NFTs are going to disrupt multiple 100-billion-dollar business verticals that include gaming and collectibles, as well as fine art. The disruption of NFTs has yet to be really seen. At its core, NFTs just yield a better value proposition for collectors. There’s no friction in buying and selling. There’s no inauthenticity issues. There’s no spoofing, there’s no problems with rarity, or quantity. It is completely transparent and on a chain. It’s going to be the ultimate disrupter for any and all collectibles.

How can people protect their NFTs?

Set up a separate computer for NFT trading and NFT collecting, and to keep all of your prized assets on a ledger away from anybody [who would] take it from you.

What is the best or worst piece of money advice you’ve ever been given?

The best piece of money advice that I was ever given was to commit to your high-conviction debts. I thought a lot of businesses would succeed, and the ones that I really believed in, I did not size in with high conviction, and I regret it. Now, when I believe in something, I put my money where my mouth is. 
The worst money advice I ever got was to manage my own investments. I’m good at being an entrepreneur, I’m good at building businesses, I’m good at building brands. I should not also be a professional money manager, understanding money markets. 

What do you think young aspiring entrepreneurs can learn from your journey?

To never give up. I know it sounds really corny; it’s been repeated tons of times. But at the end of the day, the difference between people who’ve made it and the people who haven’t is the people who haven’t stopped trying and the people who have kept going. So my first and most important piece of advice is keep going.  My second piece for young entrepreneurs is to start early. The earlier you start, the less risk averse you are. I think understanding what comes with age is as you become older, more things come into your life that allow you not to take risks. And the younger you are, the more opportunity you have to take risks and to go above and beyond trying something that you typically wouldn’t try. If you had a family or people who were counting on you to make the bills every single month, [you’re less adventurous]. So if you’re a young entrepreneur, you have a huge advantage. Now’s your time to give it a shot. And you have plenty of years to do something different if for some reason it doesn’t work out.

What’s the best way for a young entrepreneur to figure out how to actually ‘entrepreneur,’ per se?

The same way that I learned. There is a plethora of content out there in the world. Digest it, learn it. Don’t try to think about who’s a good entrepreneur and don’t learn from your local guru. I learned from the people who’ve really done it. I learned from Steve Jobs, I learned from Bill Gates, I learned from Steve Ballmer, and all of their content is out there on YouTube for you to digest and enjoy. You do not need to learn the get rich quick schemes that a lot of people are selling. Learn from the people everybody knows. Learn from the companies that have done it for many, many years. That content is available to you.

What’s next for you?

Fulfilling our mission and fulfilling our north star, which is just building that character brand, which is the next great brand that every single family in America and beyond knows and loves. If we can accomplish that, I not only will be personally fulfilled but I think the business will also be where I want it to be.
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