Nassim Khadem Reporter

Nassim covers the accounting and tax rounds for BRW, as well as general business news. She previously worked for The Age newspaper covering general news, state politics and economics.

View more articles from Nassim Khadem

How to invest in technology start-ups: Ashton Kutcher

Published 15 November 2012 04:46, Updated 21 November 2012 07:10

+font -font print
How to invest in technology start-ups: Ashton Kutcher

Big picture thinkers: Airnbnb co-founder Brian Chesky, left, with movie star and serial technology investor Ashton Kutcher. Photo: Nic Walker

Steven Spielberg’s 2002 science fiction film, Minority Report, based on a “future reality” where a special police unit can arrest murderers before they commit a crime, is now hailed by technology boffins as having inspired a decade of innovation and creation.

Although the film was made before the iPhone or iPad existed, many of the “toys” that Spielberg, with the help of a group of leading scientists, envisaged would be around in 2054, are already partially in our lives.

Futuristic images of iris recognition devices, spider robots deployed to explore dangerous places, interactive pop-in-your-face advertisements, computer-guided cars, electronic-paper newspapers with moving images and smart computers that can sort through massive amounts of data just by Tom Cruise waving his hands around in the air, are no longer a dream.

They are already here or under development.

“I watch computers get closer and closer to what I saw in Minority Report all the time,” Hollywood star Ashton Kutcher says in an exclusive interview with BRW during his visit to Australia this month.

“I think part of it was really great research by Steven Spielberg when he made it. But part of it is the dreaming and innovation that takes place and actually inspires the tech community to build things.”

Kutcher has become a well-known technology investor and is one of the most successful celebrities investing and helping promote Silicon Valley start-ups. His investments include stakes in high-profile companies such as Skype and social “check in” site Foursquare through the venture capital fund A-Grade Investments in which he is a co-founder. Other investments include Airbnb (which he promoting during his Australian visit), as well as social magazine concept Flipboard and online textbook rental company Chegg (although Kutcher isn’t a direct investor in Chegg, his production company helps promote it).

Other stars taking a dip in the tech investment space include Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian but it’s Kutcher, the former Calvin Klein model and Hollywood heart-throb, who is developing a real knack for it.

Kutcher first made his mark in 2000 when he and film and TV producer Jason Goldberg founded a production company, Katalyst – the company behind reality television series including Beauty and the Geek and Punk’d (in which Kutcher starred). Katalyst has also helped run innovative social media campaigns for Intel, GE, Pepsi and Kellogg’s.

Since then Kutcher has lifted his own social media brand – in April 2009 he became the first user to hit more than 1 million followers, beating Ted Turner’s United States media company CNN, and now the star has almost 13 million followers.

For Kutcher, who plays a technology nerd on Two and a Half Men, making the right investment boils down to several factors. The first is a lesson he learnt from his mentor – billionaire American angel investor Ron Conway.

“He’s been really influential and I think the biggest thing that I learned [from Conway] is don’t plan on making any money,” Kutcher says. “If that’s why you’re doing this, don’t do it. Plan on making great companies.”

The other element Kutcher looks for when deciding where to put his cash is to find innovative leaders who can provide solutions to problems. It may sound generic but when you look at the actor’s investments so far, what they all have in common is quick and simple solutions for the modern consumer.

“The most important things are: what’s the problem you’re solving, who is solving that problem and how simple is your solution,” Kutcher says. “You start there. And there’s a litany of other things you’re looking at but you’re probably not going to find any investor that doesn’t look at those things.”

So far, most of Kutcher’s investee companies are yet to reach the height’s of Mark Zuckerberg’s networking site Facebook (now used by one in every seven people around the world) but Kutcher-supported start-ups are growing fast and expanding globally.

With 10 million nights booked on Airbnb since Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk founded the business four years ago, Kutcher – who has had a large part to play in lifting its profile and thereby helping lift the company’s $1.3 billion valuation – is confident about its potential to transform the travel industry.

While its founders are still finding their feet – Airbnb ran into trouble last year when one of the hosts had her home trashed by a traveller and blogged the horror story – Kutcher believes businesses built on social trust will continue to evolve. Since the incident, Airbnb has introduced a 24-hour service line and free insurance against theft and vandalism for its hosts.

“There’s great potential to leverage social trust for commercial transactions,” Kutcher says. “What I saw with Airbnb was a product that five or 10 years ago couldn’t have existed because the social map hadn’t been built yet. Thanks to Facebook and other social media sites, that social map was built,” he says.

“Suddenly I knew, before I even shook your hand, whether you were a friend of a friend. Or a friend of a friend of a friend. And maybe I even had a couple of data points about you – about how we could connect or how me might know each other. What that provided to companies like Airbnb was a new form of commerce and exchange.”

Kutcher says the social map is what’s making collaborative consumption – consumers sharing and renting goods and services rather than owning them – easier than ever.

Although bed and breakfasts have always existed, the word-of-mouth referral has now moved to the internet.

“Collective consumption has always been the case,” Kutcher says. “It’s been happening since somebody decided that 501 jeans were the jeans to wear when you’re digging for gold. All we’re doing now is using the tools available to us to leverage what was already happening in a more intelligent way.”

Technology investing and movie acting require somewhat different skills but Kutcher says the common thread is an ability to create, innovate and take risks.

“A lot of the things we see being invented today were invented by the film industry 20 years ago,” he says. “Things that you saw on Star Trek – like MakerBot ... There’s a lot of inspiration that actually comes out of the film industry that drives technology.”

He says that when renowned film-maker James Cameron came up with the idea of blue people in the movie Avatar, which later become the highest-grossing film ever, people may have initially questioned his sanity.

But in the movie business, as with start-ups, “you have to be willing to be little bit insane to go for something”. Great movies, as with great start-ups, have a founder who can “go big and dream big”.

Ashton Kutcher is an actor. His first big role was in the sitcom That ‘70s Show, which debuted in 1998.

Comments