A colleague of mine is at The Founders Forum in LA this week. He's sending annoying photo's of all the cool people he's meeting. Will.i.am, Dynamo, Natalia Vodianova. But, I hear you saying -- he's at a tech conference?
Why are celebrities interested in tech? It's sexy (subjective I guess, but I'm a nerd), it's fun, it's important, it helps them extend their brand -- and not to be sniffed at -- it's an important part of any high net worth's investment portfolio. However, like any investor, some celebrities are pioneers and others are followers.
One such pioneer is Will.i.am; this article documents his work well; he is a champion of STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) education, has a foundation -- i.am.angel, has worked with NASA to engage young people in space exploration, owns i.am.auto (a car company) and has a partnership with Coca-Cola called Ekocycle. Oh -- and he's a director of creative innovation at Intel.
Wikipedia defines a technology evangelist as "a person who attempts to build a critical mass of support for a given technology in order to establish it as a technical standard in a market that is subject to network effects."
Britney Spears is an evangelist for Path, Kutcher's A-Grade Fund -- co-founded by Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle, and Madonna's manager, Guy Oseary, has invested in an A-list of hot startups, Snoop Dog (or is it Lion nowadays?), Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga (through Atom Factory) -- they're all doing it. Why? There's the opportunity to affect a vast number of lives and see a multiplier effect on your investments quickly. But Spears also told an Atlanta newspaper "Social media has changed the music industry. For the first time ever, artists can directly communicate with their fans. Technology touches every aspect of my career right now." So in the same way as established companies are investing to get a grip on the whole value chain environment in which they operate and which affects them, celebrities are doing the same with their own value chain or network -- and it all seems to start at technology, and its business -- don't forget.
So, should start-ups be interested in celebs? It's not just about the cash -- investment is often necessary, but you shouldn't pick investors purely on the basis of their financial muscle. All investors come with strings attached. There are significant benefits in terms of PR, noise created and popularity from having a celebrity backer, especially when start-ups often lack any marketing budget or distribution channels at all. As when you consider any investment, they will bring you different experiences and opportunities. Some start-ups never take VC money and grow at a slower pace, some take the accelerator route, and there is a lot to be said for VC firms who have done this dozens of times over.
But then the fact remains that the majority of start-ups fail. I certainly can't argue that all it takes is some good backers and a great idea. But from my start-up experience -- a strong, loyal, trusted network can be real differentiator and a pioneering celebrity tech evangelist could be as valuable as any other investor, with the added benefit of immediate visibility and a splash of glamour.