Ashton Kutcher: Hollywood A-lister and tech investor
The star of That '70s Show, Two and a Half Men and more recently Netflix's The Ranch is also a serial investor. Here, he shares his advice for start-ups
A natural fit to play Steve Jobs in the 2013 biopic, Ashton Kutcher’s business acumen goes beyond the silver screen. A serial investor, Kutcher has invested in well over 150 companies and doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon.
The energetic 38-year-old, who’s expecting his second child with wife and fellow A-lister Mila Kunis, is co-founder of two venture capital firms, A-Grade Investments and Sound Ventures. An avid fan of the tech start-up space, Kutcher has previously backed Skype, Foursquare, Airbnb, Path and Fab.com to name but a few.
Proving he really does have many fingers in many pies, the Two and A Half Men star has also put money into several Italian and Japanese-themed restaurants, has appeared as a guest judge on American business reality show Shark Tank, and is also co-founder of Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children – which drives tech innovation to fight the sexual exploitation of children.
Not just a celebrated actor, Kutcher was even placed on Vanity Fair’s New Establishment List in 2011, which identifies “the top 50 of an innovative new breed of buccaneering visionaries, engineering prodigies, and entrepreneurs”.
Speaking at Sage’s annual Sage Summit 2016 in Chicago, Kutcher discussed, among other things, the importance of not knowing, social media and what he looks for as an investor.
Admit you don’t know
At the core of Kutcher’s message was the idea that the act of not-knowing can actually be an incredibly powerful business resource. He admitted he’s spent plenty of time being “the dumbest person in the room”, and believes that from every instance of failure and ignorance comes a chance to learn and grow.
However, while many find themselves in such positons, Kutcher said people’s egos inevitably make them too proud to admit to not-knowing something, and this is why they’ll lose out in the long run. “Everyone is so worried about their ego being hurt by not knowing something. They pretend to know things they don’t actually know. They fill in the C box.”
Indeed, Kutcher said it’s the humble among us that have the best chance of becoming a successful entrepreneur. “People, generally the most successful, have the capacity to control their own emotions and the humility to ask for help and be willing to not know – which is so powerful.”
A timely piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, Kutcher reminded the audience that behind all the smoke and mirrors and bravado of some modern start-ups, it’s those that can admit to their failings and adapt, who will be the real long-term winners.
“People are willing to give you things if you have the ability to say – ‘I don’t know’.”
Challenge your intuition and instinct
Not one to be swayed by his gut instinct, Kutcher added that human complacency is ripe for disruption and that the really successful businesses “challenge some intuition that we all have”.
Believing people’s false perceptions and assumptions ‘creates false data notes’, he warned the packed house not to blindly follow conventional wisdom, but rather see for yourself if what people say is really true.
“People say to follow your instinct but I sometimes think that if fails us. We assume our reality and connect the dots that don’t exist. Great businesses usually challenge one of those data notes. Someone, somewhere used their intuition – and we assumed it was right. It just so happens the intuition was wrong and someone usually builds a business in that void and those are probably the most exciting ones.”
It’s this ability that he believes can fast-track start-ups to the very top, leaving potential competitors in their trails.
“Anytime those companies are built inside those challenged notions and challenged intuitions, those companies create a space where there are no competitors and then they get so big you can’t even compete against them.”
What he looks for when investing
A serial investor, the star of Netflix’s The Ranch also dished out advice for start-ups and what he looks for when deciding to invest.
“Are they a great person? Are they a problem solver? Can they overcome obstacles? Do they have expertise in whatever it is they’re building? Do I want to work for them? Can they sell their product?”
Looking at people he chooses to work with, Kutcher said well-rounded and multi-skilled employees are best when attempting to take the business off the ground. “In the early stage, you need a lot of people who wear a lot of hats”.
However, he conceded that a jack of all trades mentality won’t bode well for the long-term survival of the business and that designated roles need to be firmly established as well as identifying a dedicated leader, insisting overly-enthusiastic employees must learn to “stay in their lane”.
Social media marketing
While Kutcher adopts a ‘build it and they will come’ style attitude to product development, when talking about social media he advised businesses and brands to follow the leader – and see what consumers want first, and then act later.
“People aggressively chase social media platforms and they waste time doing that. Celebrities go to where the fans are, not fans where the celebrities go.”
Describing himself as ‘very aggressively’ interested in social media from an early stage, Kutcher asserted the opportunities for businesses to fine-tune some elements of their product or service by utilising social media are there, and that is a place where the public can “bring feedback in a direct way.”
To Kutcher, this unmediated form of contract will bear much more fruit than traditional marketing campaigns that can be lost on the very audience it’s trying to address.
“Elaborate plans generally fail because markets forget it’s a conversation, and they forget the loop and don’t allow for a response.”
Before exiting the stage, Kutcher was pushed for what he thinks could be the ‘next Uber’ in the tech sector, and cited cyber security as the one for aspiring entrepreneurs to look out for.
He concluded: “It will become more valuable for people over time. People will value their privacy.”
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For Gwyneth Paltrow and Zooey Deschanel’s Sage Summit talk click here.