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Celebrities take starring turn in startup culture

By Peter Delevett, San Jose Mercury News –

Dave Morin isn’t easily star-struck. The early Facebook employee is a close confidant of Mark Zuckerberg, and when Morin left the social networking giant two years ago, it was to launch a startup with Napster founder Shaun Fanning.

Still, Morin couldn’t quite hide his surprise a few months back when Britney Spears walked into his San Francisco office.

The CEO of Path, which bills itself as a more intimate social network than Facebook or Twitter, said the pop princess is among the most active of a growing number of “celebrity angels” — stars from the music or movie industries who are aligning themselves with tech startups as advisers, evangelists and, sometimes, investors.

“Social media has changed the music industry,” Spears said in an email to the San Jose Mercury News. “For the first time ever, artists can directly communicate with their fans. Technology touches every aspect of my career right now.”

Other frequent visitors to Silicon Valley boardrooms and startup dens include rappers Snoop Dogg and MC Hammer and actor Ashton Kutcher.

Kutcher’s A-Grade Fund — co-founded with Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle and Madonna’s manager, Guy Oseary — has invested in an A-list of hot startups. Among them are Flipboard, Airbnb and video chat site Airtime, the latest collaboration between Fanning and his Napster co-creator, Sean Parker.

“Ashton is probably the most sophisticated thinker in Hollywood,” Morin said. “I trust his opinion as much as any product entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.”

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, singer Justin Timberlake — who played Parker in the Facebook movie “The Social Network” — has been helping reinvent social networking pioneer MySpace, which he and other investors bought last year.

Also in L.A. is Scooter Braun Projects, launched by the talent scout who discovered a Canadian teen named Justin Bieber on YouTube and turned him into a superstar. Braun recently formed a startup incubator and investment arm; he and Bieber have put money into social music site Spotify and mobile video platform Viddy, among others.

The trend is so pronounced that tech commentator and former Mashable Editor Ben Parr just raised a seed venture fund, called #DOMINATEFUND, entirely from Hollywood celebrities. Parr declined to discuss the details, but he noted the outfit has already invested in a number of new companies with Bay Area ties, including education apps-maker Clever and lyrics site Rap Genius.

What isn’t necessarily a given, though, is that big-name backers will mean big-time success for a startup.

“They have to bring more than a check and celebrity,” said John Doerr of venerable venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers.

Advocates of such partnerships argue that entertainers and entrepreneurs can teach one another ways to manage a brand and build an audience.

“Where I can pencil in my expertise is on the ground, for lack of a better term. I’m feeling what the people are looking for,” said Printz Board, co-founder and musical director of the Black Eyed Peas. He’s an adviser to San Jose, Calif.-based Monkeybars, which lets up-and-coming artists sell music online.

Peas frontman, meanwhile, was named Intel’s “director of creative innovation” last year, proving even “old” tech companies are eager to work with today’s hot artists.

Baby-faced singer Greyson Chance, 15, recently made his first startup investment, in a New York educational video game-maker. He’s also living proof of the Internet’s ability to disrupt the entertainment industry’s power structure.

Two years ago, the Oklahoman’s performance of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” at a school talent show went viral on YouTube. With 49 million hits, the performance landed him a recording contract with Gaga’s manager, Troy Carter.

Greyson, who just wrapped a concert tour of Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, said new broadcasting platforms like Twitter and Spreecast are key to building and keeping a fan base. And with guidance from Carter — who last fall joined with Menlo Ventures on the Talent Fund, a $20 million portfolio of media startups — “I definitely want to do more investments,” he said.

David Lee, managing director of influential seed fund SVAngel, said the changing nature of tech has taken it out of the sole purview of coders and chief technology officers.

“Technology is more accessible to people now: You can understand Airbnb, and that’s much different from having an opinion on Cisco or Genentech,” said Lee, whose fund counts Hammer among its investors.

“There’s a natural, mutual benefit for both technologists and certain folks in the entertainment industry,” Lee added. “And, I would say, other industries as well.”

Another pioneering matchmaker between Silicon Valley and Hollywood is Los Angeles consultant and investor Robin Bechtel. She’s credited with putting together one of the first band websites (for rockers Megadeth), selling the first digital single (for Duran Duran) and persuading Warner Music Group to cut a trailblazing deal with YouTube at a time record labels were looking to sue the video-sharing upstart.

These days, she makes regular pilgrimages to Silicon Valley, introducing Hollywood movers and shakers such as Spears’ manager, Adam Leber, to entrepreneurs like Morin for potential partnerships.

“I explain that just because you’re rich and famous in Hollywood doesn’t mean diddly squat in Silicon Valley,” said Bechtel, whose agency is dubbed Silicon.Wood.

But with the business success of stars like Jessica Alba — who recently co-founded The Honest Company, an online retailer of natural baby products — Bechtel expects to see more entertainers put their names and fortunes behind tech startups.

“I think,” she said, “you will see next year as ‘the’ year of the celebrity entrepreneur.”



Among the “celebrity angels” who’ve helped found or fund tech startups in recent years are:

—Leonardo DiCaprio, actor: Led a $4 million seed investment last year in New York mobile-social startup Mobli.

—Dr. Dre, music producer: In 2006, founded consumer electronics-maker Beats in Santa Monica, Calif.; last year, mobile phone giant HTC bought a majority share for $300 million.

—Will Ferrell, comedian: Together with serial entrepreneur Randy Adams — who helped get Yahoo off the ground — Ferrell in 2007 co-founded humor website Funny or Die, which has landed funding from top-shelf venture investor Sequoia Capital.

—Kim Kardashian, TV bombshell: Co-founded Santa Monica e-tailer ShoeDazzle in 2009; its Bay Area backers include Lightspeed Venture Partners and Andreessen Horowitz.

—Bruno Mars, singer: This month, joined Silicon Valley’s Kapor Capital and 500 Startups to put $2 million into Santa Monica digital music startup Chromatik.

—Edward Norton, actor: Investor and partner in Crowdrise, a New York site that helps raise money for charity.

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