Reality star and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian joined the ranks of celebrity tech investors last week when she launched the private equity fund Skky Partners alongside Carlyle Group veteran Jay Sammons. The firm will leverage Kardashian’s branding know-how to help launch and grow the next generation of companies in media, hospitality, luxury, digital and ecommerce, along with Sammons’ experience steering brands like Supreme, Beats by Dre, Vogue, McDonald’s China and Moncler. Kim’s “mom-ager” Kris Jenner is also on board the project as a partner.
Obviously, a lot of startups are desperate for attention and oxygen, and celebrities love free products and need things to discuss on talk shows. So collaborations between tech and gadget companies and notable influencers are nothing new. Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas has been a long-time fixture at CES, where he has promoted his own brand of wearable devices, 3D printers and robots. Rapper Chamillionaire of “Ridin’ Dirty” fame has been angel investing for over a decade, and has made enough smart bets in companies like Maker Studios, Cruise and Lyft that he’s since started his own companies and was named the first “entrepreneur in residence” at Upfront Ventures.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen these relationships expand in depth and complexity. Obviously, a celebrity brings their personal brand to a company, and that can help expand its visibility. Traditionally, this might have been arranged along the lines of an endorsement deal; the celebrity agrees to post a few complimentary Instagrams or tweets, maybe shows up to a product launch or two, poses for a billboard and moves on with their lives. But increasingly, stars are asking for not just a fee for their endorsement, but a chunk of ownership in the company itself, and in exchange, they’re providing additional layers of support.
“For every dollar that someone might get paid in an endorsement deal, they can drive $10 worth of enterprise value,” Plus Capital founder and managing partner Adam Lilling said. His company specializes in connecting early-stage companies with celebrities and influencer-slash-investors. “So why aren’t they taking a piece of the upside vs. taking cash? Celebrities are very entrepreneurial. They build their own brand up. The idea of ‘blue people on another planet’ becoming ‘Avatar’ just like disappearing photos becoming Snapchat; they both take imagination and execution and entrepreneurship to make it happen.”
This can mean simply advice or suggestions for the management team, or collaborations around new product launches or announcements, but increasingly it also means the nuts and bolts kind of work that would traditionally be associated with real institutional investors.
“Celebrities partnering with VCs can be an incredible combination when done correctly,” Octane AI co-founder, investor and “Business Envy Podcast” co-host Ben Parr said. “A celebrity can attract deal flow that others can’t, while providing their portfolio companies with an instant audience and very important connections. In my experience, everyone responds when a celebrity introduces you to someone. VCs bring the financial rigor, tech network and institutional knowledge a celebrity may lack.”
Beyond just insight from someone who has already worked with the public and built an audience of their own, having a celebrity investor on board also indicates a level of commitment to the product, as well as authenticity, that a simple endorsement fails to truly communicate.
A number of celebrities recently invested in the Pearpop platform and marketplace, which connects individual creators and brands for collaborative projects and campaigns. It’s a bit like Cameo, but instead of making personal videos for your friends, you hire influencers to collaborate with you, to help grow your own personal audience or expand your company’s footprint. Creators on the service run the gamut from the traditional (such as musicians and craftspeople) to the more unconventional (such as clowns).
The company added $16 million in financing in April, spread out over two rounds, and already claims to have attracted 10,000 creators to the platform. “Stranger Things” star Noah Schnapp, Lil Nas X, Jake Paul, Paris Hilton and Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures have all put funds into the company. As influencers, their very presence speaks to a level of awareness of issues that face the creators and personalities likely to use the platform; having them back the company itself improves the product.
“Celebrities are enjoying being venture capitalists,” said Adam Struck, founder and managing partner of Santa Monica’s Struck Capital. “VC is the coolest game on the planet. You’re seeing all these celebrities not only create funds to take advantage of their status, but post-retirement, actually calling themselves venture capitalists. A good example is The Chainsmokers; they started off endorsing different companies, investing here and there, but now they’re full-throttle venture capitalists. It’s definitely taking it up a notch.”
We’ve also seen the rise of so-called “influencer investors” like Canadian teen Josh Richards. After building a large following on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, Richards followed a conventional path to fame, signing with Warner Records in 2020 and recording his own particular blend of Lil Dicky-inspired hip-hop. In 2021 Richards launched the $15 million Animal Capital venture fund with former Goldman Sachs banker Marshall Sandman and fellow TikTok stars Griffin Johnson and Noah Beck. Animal Capital pitches itself to founders and investors as a source for 100 million engaged users, by which they mean tapping Richards’ massive fanbase. These fans can be leveraged as customers, of course, but they’re also just a helpful source of audience information and data.
“A celebrity must put in the work to be a good VC, however,” Parr said. “They can’t just let a VC borrow their brand and do nothing else. The best-performing celebrity investors call their portfolio companies, make intros and ask thoughtful questions about the businesses they’re evaluating.”
The list of stars and notables from other industries coming into the tech world continues to grow, and now includes Snoop Dogg, Serena Williams, Jay-Z, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Sofia Vergara. DiCaprio actually took a stake in Struck Capital in 2020, and actively participates in finding new investments and mentoring founders.
“From [DiCaprio’s] team, we’re seeing a lot more activity than just writing and posting the tweet,” Struck said. “They’re helping us with business development, connecting the dots and leveraging the platform.”
At first, this group leaned heavily male, as a lot of famous women were focusing funds on industries outside of the technology space. (Two of the most famous women celebrity-slash-entrepreneurs – Rihanna and Gwyneth Paltrow – had their greatest success in the beauty and wellness space, inspiring an entire generation of Fenty and GOOP wannabes.) But this early lead has (slowly) started to erode. According to Money UK, as of March 2021, 10 of the 30 most prolific celebrity investors were female.
Kardashian has a fairly lengthy resume at this point as a businesswoman and entrepreneur. Obviously, her family is a reality TV powerhouse. Their latest series, “The Kardashians,” had one of the largest Hulu premieres in history, and a recent report from Samba TV confirms it’s one of the key shows driving new sign-ups for Disney’s streamer. Her shapewear label Skims recently doubled its valuation – now clocking in at $3.2 billion – after raising $240 million in new funding over the summer. She recently relaunched and expanded her make-up brand KKW as a complete line of skincare products, known as SKKN. (The name change also reflects her recent divorce from rapper Kanye West and subsequent change of initials.)
So when Kardashian and Sammons indicate that Skky Partners will leverage their “complementary expertise,” it may not simply be boilerplate business-speak, but a real outline of their working relationship. And if history is any guide, it could be poised to pay off; Ashton Kutcher turned a $30 million fund into $250 million in just six years as an investor thanks to early gambles on Uber and Airbnb. His firm, Sound Ventures, is among the largest celebrity-driven VC groups, with 175 investments across sectors including health, media, entertainment, and security. (Sound’s 2021 investments include the email platform Superhuman and NFT exchange OpenSea.)
“The idea that [Kim Kardashian] would move into private equity is smart because she’s a person of scale,” Lilling said. “As the company gets its escape velocity, you’re able to put gas on a fire. A celebrity…can help when there’s actually a customer base or a user base or awareness. They can help take it to the next level.”It’s worth noting that Kardashian was also one of the many celebrities who dipped a toe into cryptocurrency recently, and has lived to regret it. She’s one of three celebrities being sued by investors for allegedly making misleading promotional statements. So just like a real VC, she’s already had some bumps in the road, from which to learn.
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