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LA Tech Series

110799

Everywhere you look, celebrities are entering the tech world

Everyone from Jessica Alba and Ryan Seacrest to Stephen Curry and Bono are getting in on the action

Innovation series by Steven Loeb
August 1, 2015 | Comments
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/3f41

Last year, in the run up to our Vator Splash LA event, we highlighted one of the most unique things out the tech scene in southern California: its celebrity culture. No other place on Earth has that many famous people concentrated in one tiny area, and entreprenuers have figured out how to leverage that into big checks and a lot of press.

Now that we have another event coming up in Los Angeles in October (get your tickets here!) we have decided to check back in with some of those companies and entreprenuers, to see what they are up to since we last check in.

Likely the most successful celebrity/tech entreprenuer is Jessica Alba, who was a keynote speaker at last year's event and co-founder of The Honest Company, a subscription service that offers eco-friendly baby and family products.

Since we last wrote about her, The Honest Company went and raised a $70 million round, bringing its total to $122 million in venture capital funding. Unsurprisingly, the company is seen as a potential IPO candidate, something that co-founder Brian Lee addressed at Splash last year. 

"We never started this company with the intent of selling it. We started this company really with the idea that we could make a difference in this world and really create safer and healthier environments for everybody," Lee said.

"I think that, to achieve that, you have to reach a certain scale. You're not changing the world, you're not saying that many people, if you're doing $20 million in revenue. Even $100, $200, $500 million. You get there by being dramatically large and I think the only way we can achieve that by is taking the company public."

So don't be surprised if Alba becomes the first famous person to take a company public.

The other most famous tech founder is, surprisingly, Kim Kardashian.

Her first foray into tech didn't go so well; she co-founded Shoedazzle in 2009 with Brian Lee. The company raised $66 million, but it spun out of control when Lee left for the Honest Company and CEO Bill Strauss decided to cut subscriptions. Lee came back, but ShoeDazzle was able to climb back up, and the company, which was valued at $200 million in 2011, sold to Just Fab in 2013 for between $10 and $30 million.

Kardashian so far seems to be doing much better in her second try, as the creator of her own mobile game, called Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. It was expected to rake in $200 million last year, and has been so successful that, in April, it actually caused Glu, the company behind the game, to raise its revenue outlook for the full year to between $262 million and $287 million. It has previously forecasted it to between $245 million to $275 million.

Now Glu is even trying to repeat that success by signing Britney Spears to a five-year contract in order to use her voice, and likeness, in a mobile game. Once again, for better or worse, Kim Kardashian has turned out to be a trendsetter.

Every time I see the trailer for Straight Outta Compton, it reminds me that, for a whole generation, Dr. Dre is just that guy who sold headphones. To them he's "Beats by Dre" not "N.W.A."

Maybe that will change now that he'll have more time on his hands since Apple bought Beats for $3 billion last year. (The release of the movie also seems to have reminded Dre of who he used to be, as rumors are now swirling about the potential release of his first new album in over 15 years)

The purchase included both its headphones business and its music streaming service, which has been turned into Apple Music. 

That makes Dre the only celebrity I can think of to actually take his company to an exit. At least until Alba does it at some point.

One celebrity who entered the tech world in recent years was soon-to-be ex-American Idol host Ryan Seacrest. Things did not go as he planned, however.

In 2013, Seacrest founded Typo Keyboard, which made an iPhone case that added a hardware keyboard. He also put in $1 million of his own money to fund it. Seems like a good idea, right? It seems like something people might want.

BlackBerry agreed on the "good idea" part, but not on the execution, suing the company, and accusing it of patent infringement. When Typo updated the design, calling it the Typo 2, BlackBerry sued the company again, saying it still was too much like technology developed by BlackBerry.

The end result: BlackBerry won, and in June Typo agreed to stop selling its product altogether.

Seacrest, out... is a joke I'm sure a lot of people made when Typo folded. 

By now you've probably all heard of Goop. It's the lifestyle blog founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, the one that has become famous for telling regular people to buy stuff, like clothing and food, that is way, way out of their price range.

Of course someone compiled a list of Paltrow's ridiculous suggestions, like $295 pajamas, a $900 blanket, and a $1,500 enamel skull pendant that looks like something you'd buy at your local Halloween store. Goop has basically become a poster child for what happens when an ultra-rich, and out of touch, celebrity tries to relate to regular people. The results are a little mind-boggling, to say the least (see below).

Now Goop is planning on going from just suggesting things for you to buy, to selling them to you directly. 

In November, it hired a new CEO in Lisa Gersh, who was previously CEO and president of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and co-founder of Oxygen Media, and it revealed plans to expand its e-commerce push, and to launch its own label, in the apparel, beauty and home categories.

Among the products that it is now selling (and I wish I were kidding about this) are $1,695 "hip-hop themed clutches," including one that says, "Hov," in honor of Paltrow's BFF Jay-Z, and another honoring Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. Because those two guys were such good friends in real life that it's pretty likely that Biggie actually had Tupac killed.

One pretty under-the-radar startup that was founded by a celebrity (it was one that I had never even heard of before I started doing research for this article) is HelloGiggles, which was co-founded by New Girl star, and half of the indie folk band She & Him, Zooey Deschanel.

The company describes itself as "a positive online community for women (although men are always welcome!) covering DIY and crafting projects, beauty, friendship, sex & relationships, pop culture, pets, television & movies, nostalgia, fandom, tips on savvy and stylish living meant to inspire a smile."

How under the radar is it? Despite being founded in 2011, the company did not raise any funding until nearly a year ago. And that was only and undisclosed amount of seed funding from investors Michael Pierce, Pritzker Group Venture Capital and Third Wave Digital.

If there was one company that took advantage of celebrities to further its brand it was Beachmint. The company was a social commerce company which featured six celebrity-curated, subcription-based sites from actress Kate Bosworth, Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen, Jessica Simpson, Rachel Bilson and Justin Timberlake.

The company had been struggling in recent years, however, with reports coming out that the company could be folding, as well reports that founders Berman and Diego Berdakin were in danger of losing their jobs.

Now BeachMint, as it was known, is no more: in August of last year it struck a deal with publisher Conde Nast, to merge with Lucky Magazine, a rag dedicated to shopping and style.

The combined companies, which are now known as The Lucky Group, are being run by BeachMint’s  technology, customer service and commerce operations. BeachMint’s CEO Josh Berman became CEO of the Lucky Group, while Lucky’s executive in chief Eva Chen became chief creative officer and Gillian Gorman Round, General Manager and Senior Vice President for Lucky, is now be its new president. 

The company’s Board of Directors is comprised of BeachMint’s existing shareholders along with Condé Nast representatives.  Anna Wintour, Condé Nast’s artistic director, is also serving as an advisor on the deal.

Not even all that celebrity muscle could save BeachMint in the end.

Speaking of Timberlake, being a part of BeachMint was nowhere near all of his involvement with tech companies. The sometimes-singer, most-time (in recent years, anyway) actor, is also an investor, having put money into companies that have including image tagging platform Stipple, as well as music education startup Miso Media.

Most importantly though, he, along with Specific Media LLC, bought MySpace in 2011 for approximately $35 million. They then relaunched the once-flagging social network as a music destination in 2013.

Among the most noteworthy features of the new service included a "persistent player," which gives users streaming access to 53 million songs, a My Radio feature so that users can create, and program, their own radio stations, an analytics suite that offers a set of visualized data reports telling artists how big their audience is, and a  feature which allows members to filter searches by account type, such as musician, photographer, writer, or even developer.

Oh, and there are GIFs. The new Myspace also comes with a tool which will allow users to create, and then share, animated GIFs. 

While you don't hear much about it now, and most people would likely be surprised it still exists, 50 million people were visiting MySpace as of January. It also had over 300 million video views in November, good enough for 16th place on comScore’s Video Metrix ranking. 

Many celebrities dabble in technology every once in a while, but few actually make a career out of its. The exception is Ashton Kutcher. Formerly a biochemical engineering major at the University of Iowa, Kutcher co-founded the venture fund A-Grade Investments in 2011, which has invested in companies like Spotify, Airbnb, Dwolla, Path, Fab, and Uber.

Some more recent investments have included Timeful, Casper, Product Hunt and Wit.ai.

Kutcher, himself, has personally invested in Secret, Duolingo, Flipboard, Twitter, Hipmunk and Blekko. This month alone he has put money into GoButler, Airtable, GitLab, Flipboard and Pager.

The other big time celebrity/tech entreprenuer is MC Hammer.

Hammer was the co-founder and CEO of Wiredoo, a search engine that showed users related information. Prior to that, Hammer was co-founder and CEO of DanceJam, a YouTube-esque platform for sharing dance videos.

He’s also invested in Square and Kiip, and has worked with startups like Pandora when it was still Savage Beast, and YouTube back when its office was still located above a pizza place.

On a more personal note, I live in Fremont, around 15 minutes from the infamous Hammer Time Mansion. So, in a strange way, I feel a bit of a connection to the former hip-hop star. He's our most famous (former) resident.

Here's a name you might not be too familar with: Troy Carter. But you have heard of his most famous client, Lady Gaga. She's the lady that wore that dress made out of meat that time. Yeah, her.

Besides being Gaga's former manager, Carter is a big-time tech investor. He is the founder of AF Square, an angel fund and technology consultancy with investments in over 40 startups including SpotifyWarby ParkerSongzaDropboxFab and Uber.

He has also launched a startup accelerator focused on startups in entertainment and culture called SMASHD Labs earlier this year. 

Maybe Carter's interest in tech rubbed off on his former client, as Lady Gaga has also put millions of her own money into startupsm, including Turntable.fm.

Her most famous investment was in niche social network Backplane, which was founded by Carter. She and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt contributed to a $1.8 million round that also included Google Ventures, SV Angel, and Menlo Ventures.

Gaga reportedly got a 20% stake in the company for her money, due to the fact that the company's first network was one dedicated to her fans, called LittleMonsters.com. It was successful, reaching one million registered users in a year.

Backplane apparently could not replicate that success anywhere else, and it has since tried to pivot multiple times, first into a platform that allowed anyone to build and monetize their own social networks. As of earlier this year, it is now known as Place.xyz, a platform for creating themed social networks and browsing others in a single app.

It doesn't seem like Gaga has much to do with the company anymore, especially since she left Carter in 2013. 

The most common advice for aspiring writers is "Write what you know." Maybe the same thing should be said for entreprenuers: "Found what you know."

Obviously Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (who has directed the star in movies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers) know comedy. So that's what they did: they launched Funny Or Die, a comedy video website in 2007 that has gone to be one of the biggest on the Web.

The site's first video, called “The Landlord," has over 82 million views, and the site has raised $18 million in venture capital, with investors including Time Warner and Sequoia Capital.

Funny or Die soon may be out of Ferrell and McKay's hands, as there have been rumors that they are looking to sell it, with a possible price of $100 million to $300 million. 

It's not only actors and musicians that have entered the tech scene, but atheletes as well.

Having grown up in New York City in the 90s and 2000s, it was hard not to find any young boys who didn't idolize Derek Jeter (unless they were dirty Mets fans. Then they loved Mike Piazza, which is just sad). I always liked him, but I also found him strangely aloof. He never said anything interesting or noteworthy, or even seemed to have much of a personality at all. 

Given how private he is, a lot of people found it strange and interesting that he would found, of all things, a media company when he retired. In October of last year he launched The Players’ Tribune, a site that “will present the unfiltered voices of professional athletes,” to its website.

Basically its a place for athletes to say what they want to say, and to control the message in the process, rather than letting the media spin it. Jeter is serving as founding publisher and Gary Hoenig, one of the founding editors of ESPN The Magazine, is its editorial director.

The company has already raised $12.5 million in funding. 

Remember when we all thought Kate Hudson was going to be the next great actress? Her performance in Almost Famous is still so good, and nothing she has done since then, including a series of terrible romantic comedies, has come anywhere near it. Though the same can be said for just about everyone involved with that movie (Aloha? Really, Cameron Crowe?Come on!)

Maybe Hudson will fair better as an entreprenuer. She has already started one company, Fabletics, a subsidiary of JustFab, that is an online subscription retailer that sells women's sportswear and accessories.

It launched in 2013, and could soon be getting an expansion: when Fab raised an $85 million round in August of last year, one of the ways it said it would spend its money would be to expand Fabletics into more countries in western Europe, as well other markets outside of Europe.

Since Jared Leto won an Oscar for Dallas Buyer's Club in 2013, returning to acting after having not made a movie in five years, he has also turned himself into a major tech entreprenuer/investor. I'm not sure if one has to do with the other. 

Some of the companies the former My So-Called Life star has put money into include Zenefits, Radius, Meerkat, Platejoy, Reddit, Nest and Wish.

Leto has also founded three companies: The Hive, which focuses on social media management for brands; The One and Only Golden Tickets, which is now operates under the Adventures in Wonderland moniker; and VyRT, which deals with the live-streaming of concerts, but remains in beta.

Like Dr. Dre, Jay-Z decided that getting into the music streaming business was a good idea. Until Dr. Dre, Jay-Z's foray has been a disaster.

Earlier this year, Project Panther, a company that is owned by Jay-Z’s S. Carter Enterprises, paid 464 Swedish Krona (equivalent to a little over $56 million in U.S. dollars) to buy Swedish company Aspiro, the company behind two music-streaming services: WiMP and Tidal.

Given Jay-Z's status as one of the mos famous music moguls on the planet, this seemed like a no-brainer. But this quickly went south, starting with a press conference in which he, Beyonce, Kanye West, Madonna and a bunch of other very rich musicians essentially demanded that people give them more money

Tidal was being marketed as a high-end service, one that costs a whopping $20 a month, as opposed to services like Spotify and Pandora, which are free. The rationale for that is that it gives artists more money, which may be fair, but I can't imagine how many people are willing to pay more to line the pockets of millionaires. The whole thing made Jay-Z and his friends seem out of touch and elitist. Which they most certainly are. 

As of March 2015, the service has over 580,000 paying users. Spotify has 15 million. 

A lot of musicians, it seems, put their money into music streaming services (see: Dr. Dre and Jay-Z) but Neil Young went in a different direction, focusing not on how people were able to access their music, but what it sounded like when they did.

His company, PonoMusic, which was founded in 2012, launched the PonoPlayer, a portable digital media player and music download service for high-quality audio.  The company's stated mission is to "recreate all the feeling, spirit, and emotion the artists worked so diligently to capture in their original studio recordings." 

The company raised over $12 million in funding, and another $4 million from Crowdfunder in August 2014. The player was released in January, and reviews were pretty mixed on whether the $400 price tag is worth it. 

The truth is, though, that not many people can really tell the difference in audio quality, nor do they really care, leading many to believe that the Pono is doomed to ultimately fail. 

As you can see, a lot of celebrities launch their own companies. Not many of them, though, are meant to actually benefit other people. 

The same cannot be said of Oscar-nominated actor Edward Norton,  which launched CrowdRise, an online platform supporting crowdfunding projects for charitable causes, in 2010. 

"CrowdRise's core principles are that giving back should be fun, and that people have unprecedented power to leverage their personal capacity for good," it says on its website. "CrowdRise's custom-built platform and game theory, as well as the company's proven record of designing creative crowdfunding strategies, has positioned itself to be the dominant brand in social fundraising."

The CrowdRise community was named a “Top 25 Best Global Philanthropist” by Barron’s. Isn't it nice to see a famous person doing something to give back?

He may not be super well-known on this side of the Atlantic, bit Stephen Fry is a comedy legend in the U.K. As a tech entreprenuer, though, not quite as much.

In 2011 he announced the launch of Pushnote, a company that enabled comments on any web page, allowing users to reply to their friends' comments from across the Web and follow interesting people. It did not require any separate accounts or log-ins.

Just 18 months later, though, it was dead

Here's a quote that should show you the disparity between Fry's reputation in his home country as a comedian and as a tech investor: "You can't say much worse about a social media offering than this - it was such a turkey that not even Stephen Fry could make it popular," said Andrew Orlowski of The Register

Paul Hewson, aka U2 frontman Bono, is maybe the least surprising tech investor ever. This guy seems to have his hands in everything, and tech is the hot thing right now, so there's Bono getting involved as well. I'd be shocked, frankly, if he wasn't investing in some startups. 

He is the co-founder of  private equity firm Elevation Partners, a firm focused on large-scale investments in media, entertainment and technology businesses. It has nearly $1.9 billion in committed capital.

It has some pretty impressive portfolio companies,  including Facebook, Palm, Yelp, ShareThrough and Forbes Media.

Also, am I the only person who kind of wants to think the firm was named after this?

Since I moved to the Bay Area in 2012, the place has been on a hot streak, with the Giants winning the World Series in 2012 and 2014, the 49ers make the Super Bowl in 2013 and the Warriors wining the NBA Championship in 2015.

Stephen Curry, a guard with the Golden State Warriors, an MVP and a two-time NBA All-Star, is also a tech entrepreneur, becoming part owner of CoachUp, a private coaching company, earlier this year

Curry became friends with CoachUp founder Jordan Fliegel, who previously played professional basketball in Israel,  a few years ago, which is what leading to Currys involvement.

In addition to owning part of the company, Curry said that he will be also "provide strategic guidance as CoachUp expands its brand and nationwide network of coaches."

Founded in 2011, CoachUp has raised $9.4 million in funding, including a $6.7 million Series A round in November 2013. Investors in the company include venture capital firms such as Point Judith Capital, General Catalyst Partners. Breakaway Ventures, Data Point Capital, and Suffolk Equity Partners, as well as individual investors, including Paul English and Albert Dobron.

Curry isn't the only Warrior to enter the tech world. His teammate Andre Iguodala became the Menswear Style Director for online clothing resale store Twice in May.

Iguodala, who oversees the men’s marketplace, is responsibile for organizing seasonal and themed lookbooks, along with with creating suitable original content geared towards the male demographic. 

Twice was bought by eBay earlier this month, to help it expand its investment in eBay Valet. The company said it will gain access to Twice’s technology and customer list, and it will be making offers to 10 members of Twice’s team. Twice’s co-founders Calvin Young and Noah Ready-Campbell will be joining eBay when the acquisition closes.

(Image source: billontheroad.com)


Related companies, investors and entrepreneurs

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Shoedazzle
Startup/Business
Description: Name of the company
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The Honest Company
Startup/Business
Description: The Honest Company (www.Honest.com), founded by Jessica Alba, Christopher Gavigan, Brian Lee and Sean Kane, was created to ensure that pa...
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Crowdrise
Startup/Business
Description: Name of the company

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