In a TikTok video with 14.5 million views, Humphrey Yang depicts a father giving a son an iPhone 13 under the condition that it’s returned in one year.
The son, also played by Yang in the skit, reasons that he could sell the phone for $1,000 and wait for Apple to release a new model within the year, which would likely knock the iPhone 13’s price down to $600. Buying it back then would reap him a $400 profit. A year passes, and the father asks for the phone back. The son returns it, and admits to his plan.
“So you made a profit on me!” the father responds. “I just showed you what shorting a stock is. You borrow a share of a stock, and when it comes to returning it, if you can buy it back for less, you make a profit. If not, you’ll take a loss.”
Yang knows shorting a stock can be a hard concept to grasp, he tells Fortune in an interview. “So I used a simple analogy most people can relate to.”
His “simple analogy” approach to financial education has resonated with 3.3 million TikTok followers. While the app doesn’t provide clear demographics of this fan base, nearly half of TikTok’s users are younger than 30. And a screenshot of YouTube analytics Yang provided to Fortune shows that over 75% of viewers of Yang’s short-form YouTube videos are younger than 34.
His social media popularity partly explains why he’s the most trusted source of financial advice among Gen Z, as a recent Consumer Affairs survey found. Boomers and Gen X, by a wide margin, trust Warren Buffett the most. But the Berkshire Hathaway CEO fell to fourth place for Gen Z.
Considering Gen Z’s affinity for TikTok, the finding makes sense, but is still a little surprising. Buffett, 91, is one of the world’s most seasoned investors, known for his frugal ways and $103 billion net worth. Yang, on the other hand, is a 34-year-old with a finance degree who spent a year as a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch and five months interning at a Palo Alto investment bank. Then he pivoted to running operations for a mobile app and cofounded a custom art company before finally landing on YouTube in 2019.
Where Buffett trades in keynotes, Yang trades in skits filmed and edited in his Bay Area apartment. Fortune spoke with Yang about how he’s managed to snag Gen Z’s attention, which he attributes to his ability of breaking down and demystifying dense financial topics.
The secret sauce of becoming a personal finance influencer
Yang first began posting videos on YouTube after realizing he’d become his friends’ go-to guy for financial advice, figuring his persona could translate but never predicting just how much it would resonate.
He soon downloaded the up-and-coming TikTok, searched the personal finance hashtags, and found almost no videos. “I took that as a sign,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Maybe I can be the first person to do this.’”
Between September 2019 and September 2020, Yang made a video every single day. While he maintains a presence on YouTube and Instagram, his TikTok account has had his full-time attention for nearly two years.
Yang has remained consistent in his approach, simplifying complex financial topics without an iota of superiority in quick, simple videos.
He says he tries not to waste the viewer’s time since attention spans are so short, adding that he wants everyone to be able to understand the often befuddling basics of finance and economics.
“The whole industry seems like a black box for many people,” he says. “They don’t even want to get into it because it can feel so confusing. There’s so much jargon, and the things on TV aren’t necessarily explanatory or easy to watch. People don’t want to look at charts and graphs.”
What’s missing, he says, is accessibility and an on-ramp to the subject matter that doesn’t scare people away. “The more that a creator can kind of disarm the viewer—help them realize finance isn’t really that hard once they get the key concepts down—the more power they can give.”
Bridging the financial knowledge gap
Yang’s “north star goal” is impacting people and encouraging them to take control of their own finances. He understands people’s hesitation towards investing; Yang himself didn’t make his first investment until he was 25.
“I was scared!” he recalls. “I didn’t even trust myself yet. I have very smart friends in their thirties, working in tech, and even they’re hesitant to invest because they worry they don’t know enough. That’s a knowledge gap that needs to be bridged.”
But Yang, by his own admission, has a long way to go in accomplishing that mission. He says it’s largely complicated by the lack of trust people have in financial advisers and personal finance gurus, and how predatory credit companies and interest rates can be.
In Yang’s eyes, not all personal finance influencers have the viewer’s best interest at heart. Skeptical of those who try to sell trading courses, Yang says he’s more interested in educating on personal finance to the point where viewers feel comfortable investing for themselves.
“If I wanted fast cash, I’d sell a course promising a certain amount of money in 30 days—but I just don’t believe in that stuff,” he says, adding that he’d be open to explaining “all kinds of things” if he wanted to expand his audience.
He recalls a time he was having lunch at a restaurant when two twentysomethings approached him and told him his videos had encouraged them to start contributing to a Roth IRA and make investments.
“The fact that they watched something of mine, then were inspired to do something for themselves—that’s the ultimate goal,” he says. “I’m a millennial; I never had access to this kind of thing. I didn’t know what a mortgage was until I was 23. But Gen Z has all of this.”
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