Notes from the video you should have watched. —Brought to you by DataFox
Ashton Kutcher is a really smart guy.
The public got a glimpse of his intellect not too long ago at the Teen Choice Awards. Ashton went up on stage and delivered an inspiring speech. It went viral. It was the perfect venue to deliver a message to millions of people, his fans, many of whom idolize him - though that may be for his acting career. But not unlike the way young entrepreneurs idolize Mark Zuckerberg, or the next guy to reject a (multi) billion dollar offer.
To reach that audience, Ashton had to choose a different venue. Y Combinator’s Startup School. It was October 29th, 2011, and the Stanford auditorium was full of first-time founders. With alumni such as Dropbox, Airbnb, and reddit - YC’s accelerator program consistently attracts the cream of the crop. In fact, it wouldn’t be unwise to speculate that that sitting in that auditorium is actually the person we’d all soon refer to as “the next Mark Zuckerberg.” Ashton’s message focused on eliminating that mentality.
If you have 30 minutes to watch the startup equivalent of Ashton’s Teen Choice Awards speech, we highly recommend that you watch the video. If you don’t, or if you’d like to learn more about what Ashton looks for in a company, the value he offers as an investor, and some words of advice for why you should not try to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, read on...
Early Days & Solving Problems
Ashton was a biochemical engineering student in high school, until he took a big risk and dropped out....to become a model. Which really pissed his dad off because he had “this great summer job in General Mills making Cheerios” and school was the only thing that was a sure thing. So he started getting really interested in technology, engineering, and solving problems. His own problems, other people’s problems, in technology, philanthropy, and even performing. Everything he did was about solving problems.
“The single biggest thing I look for in entrepreneurs is people who genuinely want to solve a problem. A real problem.”
Red Flags During a Pitch
Ashton sees a lot of entrepreneurs with really great ideas. But as he gets to know them; if they jump from explaining the problem they are solving to who they can emulate or how much money they’ll make - a red flag goes up. “I think, wow… that guy wants to be Mark Zuckerberg.”
When you're pitching your "billion dollar company" or talk about all the money you'll make, you are jumping to the effect.
- “If you want to be a real entrepreneur you have to be the cause.”
- “You have to be the creator of somebody else's new reality.”
- “If your chase is for a billion dollar company, you may not make a dollar."
Those guys that want to be Mark Zuckerberg, or girls that want to be the next big entrepreneur - not the next big but the one that already exists... If you want to be Mark Zuckerberg, the best you are ever going to be is 2nd place - because Mark Zuckerberg will always be a better Mark Zuckerberg than you.”
Lessons Learned: Carl G. Fisher
Most people have never heard of Carl Fisher. But after you read this story, you’ll be wondering to yourself how you didn’t know who he was.
One of the Greatest Marketers in American History
- Opened the first automobile dealership in the U.S.
- Invented the headlights (figured people were going to want to drive at night)
- Started the Indy 500
- Financed the construction of the Collins Bridge so he can get to the swamp land on the other side (Miami Beach)
$100 Million Fortune
- Built Miami Beach (casinos, hotels, infrastructure)
- Convinced Congress to build the Dixie Highway so that people would come (nobody came
- Made full use of President Warren Harding's Miami Beach vacation for free publicity - by using a baby elephant named “Rosie” as the President’s golf caddy!
- Florida land boom of the 1920’s happened (now everybody came)
- Had one last brilliant idea: to spend his entire fortune building the "Miami Beach of the North" at Montauk
- The stock market crashed in 1929, which led to the Great Depression... and Fisher lost everything
Carl Fisher’s Legacy
Carl Fisher died in a trailer home outside of Miami. About a week before he died, someone took him up in a blimp over Miami, and he was able to see what he had built. But that’s all he had. He didn’t have a dime. He didn't have a penny. Hardly anyone would remember his name. But he gave that to all of those people, and he knew that no one could ever take that away from him. He could never lose that.
Photo Credit: Robert Scoble
He might not have been able to see, but he had the vision to know that it wasn't about his name, or somebody remembering him, and it wasn't about the billion dollars. It was about uncovering that which was conceived. The swamp land. The corners of the room. The way people can exchange, the way people can connect with each other, the way that a database can be built. It's about Airbnb changing the hotel industry. It's about disrupting markets boldly, in a way that you can leave that behind for everybody else to have and share. Carl Fisher knew that. So you might not remember his name, but you use his product everyday, and you might have visited his town.
Advice For Young Entrepreneurs:
- It’s not about being like somebody else
- It’s not about the billion dollars
- It's about how you can affect other people's lives, enrich them, improve them
- How you can eliminate the space between people
- How you can eliminate pain and friction, and
- How you can uncover that, which one day, was just a big swamp land.
Ashton: “I don’t know anything else about Carl Fisher so don’t ask me anything” [Laughs]
How Ashton Finds Companies to Invest In
- Usually finds companies through recommendations by other founders from his portfolio companies
- Tries to only invest if he can offer value
- Has a team go over a referrals email address
- Puts out initiatives for the type of companies that he's looking for
- “If anything surprises you, if anything seems too stupid or too smart - send those first”
- Usually it's the ideas that are too illogical or way over somebody's head that interest him most
- Ron Conway is Ashton's mentor - taught him everything he knows about investing
- It's not necessarily about the city or the environment - it's about the talent
- Attracted most to companies from the Bay Area/New York
- There’s a culture of people that have similar goals surrounding you (giant support system)
- Note: This talk is from 2011… The LA startup ecosystem has grown significantly since
- So much innovation happening so fast - must surround yourself with people to keep you updated
- 50% of what any company does is copy/mimic what other successful companies are doing - it's the other 50% that is real innovation
Ashton’s Value-Add to his Portfolio Companies
- Tries to meet with all of his portfolio companies as often as he can (always available on email)
- Marketing advice
- Product feedback
- “Making calls”
“One of the things that I do as an actor is try to understand why people do the things that they do, so I actually use all the products of the companies that I am invested in, and I give product feedback consistently and constantly.” “I can get phone calls back from people. They might not know why I am calling, but if I wanted to get a hold of pretty much anybody, I can get a return phone call. So sometimes that comes in handy…”
Also, see Robert Scoble's Quora Answer to "What does Ashton Kutcher bring to the table as an investor?"
- “I want to change people's lives. I want to help people. I want to give, and share, and connect with people.”
- Doesn’t matter if it’s through investing, acting, or philanthropy - just wants to share with people
- “The thing that makes me feel the best is making other good people succeed, so I kind of just follow that path.”
That's the end of Ashton's talk. A unique perspective and some very valuable insights - particularly for 1st time founders or if you're thinking about starting a company...