Life often imitates art, but perhaps never as strangely as in the case of Ashton Kutcher, the heart-throb US actor better known in Britain as Mr Demi Moore.
Recently, Kutcher, replaced Charlie Sheen in the cult TV show Two And A Half Men: he will play an internet billionaire. How apt for the actor described by some as one of the “savviest” investors in Silicon Valley. Kutcher has carved out a reputation as a master of the highly complex and ultra- competitive start-up scene, investing in some 40 different technology projects either through his Katalyst fund or as an individual. They include some of the biggest names in internet technology, such as the phone service Skype, alongside much smaller start-ups, some of which are a closely guarded secret. There’s a lot of buzz in particular around a German project called Amen, which claims to be strangely addictive. Kutcher has invested alongside Madonna’s manager, Guy Oseary. But what is it? Nobody else seems to know.
Kutcher ’s emergence as a red-hot venture capitalist is all the more peculiar since his acknowledged acting speciality has hitherto been playing dumb hunks in comedy sitcoms like Dude, Where’s My Car? and That ‘70s Show. One of twin sons born to factory workers, it was his looks that got him out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At the behest of a talent scout, he quit his studies in biochemical engineering and was soon modelling for Calvin Klein. From there it was a short hop to Hollywood. Kutcher met Moore, now 48, in 2003; two years later they married in a Kaballah ceremony.
Starting in 2007, Kutcher ’s first forays into the technology industry were flops. But his interest in the net grabbed the attention of several Silicon Valley heavyweights, including Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, who roped him into backing Skype. That bet came good when Microsoft bought the outfit for $8.5bn in May. Kutcher ’s fast-rolling publicity ball – aided by his early adoption of Twitter – is a boon to the circle of fellow investors around him. Having beaten off CNN’s rolling news in the race to be the first to gain one million Twitter followers in 2009, he now has more than 7.6 million.
Kutcher isn’t shy of using his celebrity power to champion his and Moore’s favourite causes. When Village Voice magazine questioned the couple’s assertion that there are up to 300,000 under-aged sex slaves in America, he accused it of promoting child prostitution and urged an advertising boycott. Soon afterwards, American Airlines withdrew its advertising. Indeed, Kutcher may actually succeed in killing off the Village Voice. That’s Twitter power for you.
Does he deserve his reputation as a tech guru? Many celebrities – including MC Hammer, Justin Timberlake and Kim Kardashian – have flirted with technology businesses. But Ashton Kutcher is by far the most prominent entertainment star in venture capitalism. In recent years, he has become an early investor in some of the most talked-about internet start- ups, including Foursquare, the mobile social network; Path, a photo-sharing app; and Airbnb, which matches budget conscious travellers with people wanting to rent out spare bedrooms. Yet it can be difficult to gauge what Kutcher ’s Twitter followers get so excited about. A random bunch of tweets from 2009 include such gems of banality as “Our dogs just took us for a walk” and “Stomach flu, Be gone! Who can say that they’ve thrown up and had diarrhea (sic) at their rabbi’s house? 2 pts for me”. Moreover, despite Kutcher ’s growing reputation as a technology guru, his pronouncements on the subject are often gnomic. When explaining his investment strategy he has a habit of falling back on metaphors involving fast cars and new girlfriends.
Some of the hype about secret blockbusters has uncomfortable parallels with the 18th-century South Sea Bubble, which climaxed when investors were invited to chance their arm “for the carrying on of an undertaking of great advantage, but no one to know what it is”. Indeed, the blurring of Kutcher ’s fame and his personal technology investments hasn’t been without its problems. Last month, he guest-edited an online magazine showcasing several of his start -ups, without explicitly declaring an interest. That prompted speculation of a possible investigation by the US regulator SEC, though it quickly blew over. He may never have the star quality of a Charlie Sheen, but for the moment Ashton Kutcher ’s dazzling ascent continues unimpeded.