Jackie Fast doesn’t think celebrities make good entrepreneurs. Instead, they make great assets for young companies.
On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, the Sandbox Studios managing partner discusses why many celebrities are exploring startups. Sandbox is a $30 million seed-stage fund that invests in brands that are being built by celebrities.
“The motivation for me is absolutely everything,” Fast said. “Why is this person doing this? Often—I mean, 100 times out of 100—it's not because they care. They want to make more money.”
Fast started her consultancy, Slingshot Sponsorships, at 24, after she was passed over for a role at the organization at which she was working.
“I was very qualified for the role. Even to this day, I still am annoyed about it. I applied and the CEO just said, ‘You're too young. You need more experience’.” She quit soon afterward and by 26, Fast signed Prince as her second client—without realizing that the iconic musician was notoriously uninterested in sponsorships.
“Prince was one of my first clients and—I didn't know this at the time—but the reason we got Prince was because nobody wanted to work with him to do commercial stuff. Because he didn't care. He's all about the music.”
Fast helped launch his album “20Ten” through Spotify and the DailyMail. It was the first time an album had launched on the growing music platform, and the move helped Prince quickly climb the charts.
“That just catapulted me into the music scene,” Fast said.
She took on clients including The Rolling Stones, Duran Duran and One Direction.
“My whole ethos was that social media and digital technology was changing and shaping the way that consumers and fans could engage with the things that they loved,” Fast said.
Slingshot prepared Fast to evaluate celebrity-backed companies and consider how their audiences can help a product thrive.
“A brand fundamentally is trying to ship product. So there are certain times when consumers are more receptive to information. And a lot of that is when they are enjoying themselves, they're having fun, they're in a calm place,” she said. “So any of those kind-of core emotional, humanistic things that connect people with other people—if a brand can insert themselves in the middle of that—that's where the recall comes from. That's where you start associating your own individuality with a brand.”
Celebrities began eyeing equity deals more seriously after George Clooney sold his tequila company, Casamigos, for $1 billion in 2017. Instead of promoting the brand for cash as most celebrities do, Clooney—one of its founders—opted for equity. When the brand eventually sold, he did well.
“When George basically did nothing and made a billion dollars, everybody was like, ‘Oh my goodness, we should be doing this. Why are we taking fees?,” Fast said.
The problem, she added, is that most talent agents make their money through commission and wouldn’t benefit from equity deals. Many of them ignored celebrities’ requests, leading frustrated talent to reach out to startups on their own—sometimes even using DMs to initiate contact. Often the resulting deals were not good ones, Fast said. Large talent agencies including CAA and WME have since set up venture arms for their clients.
Sandbox’s portfolio includes Kylie Cosmetics, Fabletics and Aviation Gin. The fund also invested in the animation studio Invisible Universe, alongside partners including Reddit co-founder and investor Alexis Ohanian. Invisible Universe partners with celebrities to create animated characters and build their following on social media. Once they gain traction, they can become the basis for books, shows, podcasts and other creative ventures.
“With these small animation companies, they can turn around ideas in a day and a half,” Fast said. “They create short form content that goes on Instagram Stories, TikTok [and] Reels, and they build momentum and following through lots of short-form content.”
While Fast invests in products built by celebrities, she said she views them less as entrepreneurs and more as a way for companies to gain instant brand recognition.
“I'm investing in a route-to-market and an asset that most companies don't have access to,” she said. “I don't look at the celebrity as like a person or a founder. I look at the celebrity as the marketing arm or the marketing special dust that you can add to a product.”
dot.LA editorial intern Kristin Snyder contributed to this post.