Sunny Leone is not an ordinary Bollywood star. The 35-year-old has been the most searched person on the Internet in India for four years in a row. The adult movie star-turned-actress was always fascinated with business and was a control freak when it came to finances. But that was before she met husband, Daniel Weber.
“I was 8 or 10 years old when I used to go to the street with my brother and a neighbour in Canada, and shovel snow in the driveways and earn a dollar a piece. But the snow was two-feet high and we thought we should charge more because it was double the work,” says Leone, who was born in Canada and lived there as a child. In fact, as a child, she routinely put up lemonade stands during summers and shovelled snow in the winters to earn money. “I was the girl who sold things for my basketball team and soccer team. That was before I even went to high school.”
Her interest in business continued in high school. “When I went to high school in California, I joined a club called Future Business Leaders of America. That is when I started learning a lot of things about marketing, and supply and demand. I took different classes around business and economics. We would go to young entrepreneurial conferences in that area and that’s kind of where everything started.”
I don’t believe in any business that is fast paced. If it is moving very fast, it doesn’t seem right to me.- Sunny Leone
Even at a young age, Leone wanted to start her own venture. “When I became an adult, I realised that (adult content) was a business. But more than that, I wanted to own a website and run my own company.” She used to handle everything. “If I have to be in this industry, I want to make all the money—every dollar. After all, it is my body, my image and my brand.”
So, she learnt to manage her website, learning HTML, video editing, photography, and how to build thumb gallery posts (TGP). “I would do everything from start to finish. That was when I learnt about website traffic. In a digital world, traffic is the best thing you can have. I learnt where to send this traffic and how to capitalise all of it.”
Leone says a business should be grown slowly and steadily. “Believe me, it takes at least a year to three years for a business to turn profitable. I don’t believe in any business that is fast paced. If it is moving very fast, it doesn’t seem right to me. I like the idea of growing slowly and steadily and making the roots of the company strong.”
Move to India
Moving to India was a calculated risk for Leone. When she got an offer to participate in the prime time reality show Bigg Boss in India, Leone initially declined. “I thought it was absolutely insane because I’d got so many hate mails from the Indian community. Because I had got so much hatred, I said I don’t want to go through it again.” But then her husband, Weber, went to her with a PowerPoint presentation and armed with statistics. “We had the viewership and the reach details. We started doing further research. I think at that time Bigg Boss was watched by 25 million people in 10 different countries or something. It was huge. By the time I finished researching, we both came to the conclusion that if we didn’t take this chance, it might be one of the biggest regrets we would ever have.”
She was taking a chance, and she was scared. “There was a lot of negativity and backlash for Viacom, Bigg Boss, and Colors for bringing me here because it was the first time someone from that (adult content) industry was coming to mainstream television. Meanwhile, I thought if I work for a couple of weeks, make money and then come home, I could put a down payment on a house and go back to living in my bubble. I didn’t think anything was going to come from it.”
But when she started working in Bigg Boss, she realised she was breaking into a market that she has been trying to enter for years. “Our research showed that majority of the traffic that came to my website or different social media sites was from India. We were not capitalising the traffic. Nobody made it to the ‘join’ page or purchased anything. Bigg Boss was my chance to break into a market that I had never been able to tap into.” She says people knew her and were at her website but were not spending. “There is definitely a disconnect that happens when you are someone from abroad. Living here is being a part of the Indian culture and there is a connect that happens. Hence, moving to India was very calculated.”
Taking plans further
After Bigg Boss, Leone bagged some Bollywood movies and debuted with Jism-2. She has also done a song for Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Raees, which is expected to hit the screens next year.
While Leone may be getting more and more films now, she knows that her role in the entertainment industry will not last forever. “It can end like tomorrow,” she says. Therefore, she is always thinking of branching out. “Once we got a handle of how it works in India, after signing a bunch of movies and doing different brand endorsements, we have tried to think of ways to branch out.” She considers movies as only a small piece of the puzzle. Among her other ventures are TV shows. Apart from movies, she does a show every year. At present, she co-hosts MTV Splitsvilla.
As part of the expansion plan, she has launched a perfume line—The Lust. “It is manufactured by me. Taking the Kardashian model, and some of the other artists out there in the US, the goal is to keep growing. When the movies or something else ends, I know that we have created something here above, beyond, and bigger than us.”
After perfumes, Leone plans to venture into women’s cosmetics. “I plan to create products for women such as nail polish, skin care, lipsticks…. I’m not sure about clothing right now but it is something we keep talking about,” says Leone. “We have invested a lot of time and money in it. I personally would like to invest more money in merchandising and branding because it is something that can continue forever.”
Recently, Leone wrote a collection of short-stories for the mobile-first digital publishing house Juggernaut. Titled Sweet Dreams, the stories, as defined by Juggernaut, are “fictional stories of power… emotions… desires”. “It was a little bit more difficult than I anticipated. It takes a lot of work to be a good writer.” She is also into online gaming with Teen Patti with Sunny Leone.
The next step, says Leone, may be producing movies in India. “But I am in no rush because there is a shift happening in the entertainment industry and if you don’t have great content and dialogues, usually it doesn’t work.”
Leone has stopped working in the adult content industry. Her focus now is on building her brand. “I stopped working in that industry long time ago. But we have a lot of traffic and we don’t know what to do with it. Now we have a reach of around 100 million people. Hence, let’s say, there is a company that wants me to tweet about something or put it on Facebook, I use this traffic to monetise now.” The same strategy works when she wants to raise money for charity. “We also found that the traffic is now monetised because those people are donating or spreading the word. We are able to do so many things now, which we were just not able to do earlier.”
Leone has over 1.5 million followers on Twitter; a reach she uses for promotions and branding. “Every day, we use social media to get across something that we want to say. A brand will call and say we want you to tweet about our brand once, which we do.” But she says she doesn’t like spamming. “For instance, we do movie promotions. There have been some directors who come and say ‘I want you to keep tweeting every 20 minutes the same thing over and over’. I say it is not going to happen because you are not going to get traction with this. It is not going to work. You are not even letting it get absorbed before having me tweet again. We don’t want to block them (the followers) or get them to unfollow.”
Like her business ventures, in investments, too, Leone has only what she understands. Her investment portfolio has a mix of stocks, mutual funds, real estate, and retirement funds. “In the US, we have invested some of our money in very stable stocks and some mutual funds. We also have some IRAs (Individual Retirement Accounts).” An IRA offers various tax breaks. It’s a basket in which you keep stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and other assets. “We have bought our home there. We have invested a lot of our money in real estate. We do love the idea of getting into real estate a bit more. We are also interested in investment homes. And we obviously save a lot of money.”
When it comes to stocks too, she remains updated. “When this whole Brexit happened, we lost some money, which was not fun. But I do believe that it will steadily go back up and back to normal. This is just a shock to everybody. I didn’t think that this would affect us, but it did.”
The Indian stock market, however, is not part of her portfolio yet. “It is difficult for Overseas Citizens of India and people from outside of India to invest in India. You have to follow the whole process, which is crazy.”
The Indian real estate market, too, is not in her view. “It is really difficult to invest in Indian realty. When there are so many people involved, money just goes away. And then trying to sell the house and transfer the money into our bank account out of India is another huge issue. I think buying stocks and mutual funds is probably little easier with the right people in India, than buying real estate.”
She is not interested in start-ups due to the way their valuations work. “I have been hearing a lot of information about start-ups and how they are getting evaluated. Personally, I think it is a very interesting business model that I don’t think is going to last very long. My husband might think completely opposite. I think it is great if it is a start-up that stays true to what it is, instead of getting evaluated and getting into selling some big dream to somebody else.”
Leone doesn’t look at gold as an investment choice. “I know that there are a lot of families in India that buy gold. I like wearing them—gold, diamond, jewels—rather than looking at them as an investment option.”
Daniel: the financial guru
Before Leone was married, she took care of all her finances. “As far as finances were concerned, I used to put a lot of my money back into my company. But at some point I did have to branch out. You can’t micro manage everything. Before I met Daniel (her husband), I was in control of everything.” Initially she had doubts about doing business with her husband. “When we started doing business together, it was really difficult mentally to bring someone into my inner financial and business circle. But he has a great business mind as well. So when we started discussing all these different things, it was very natural for us to come together and form a company together.” Now she thinks it is the best thing that has ever happened to her. “His business background and mine are totally different. And he just completely streamlined everything and helped me organise things because I was growing faster than I could manage. You need help at that point. You can’t think of doing everything. You will stop growing, since you don’t have the time in a day to do everything.” She says her husband manages everything, ensuring that she and her staff work every day and their money is allocated in the right places in multiple countries. However, financial decisions are always taken after weighing the pros and cons.
Being financially independent
Leone always wanted to be independent. “I wanted to be on my own ever since I was really little. Also my parents would tell me over and over again that you have to be independent. That stuck with me.” Besides financial independence, her parents always tried to tell her to save money. “I grew up in a lower middle-class family, so we didn’t have a lot of money. As I got older, I realised I should save money. She doesn’t have any money regrets. “I am pretty calculated. If I am not 100% convinced that this is going to be financially viable, I won’t take the risk. If I know that it is a risk and if it doesn’t work, I am okay with what is lost too. I think I am realistic when it comes to investments.