A few weeks ago, Sameer Mehta met with one of his co-founders in a peculiar place: backstage at a rap concert. It was the only window of time that Mehta's co-founder, Nasir Jones, better known as the rapper Nas, had free in his busy schedule. So, in between sets, Nas would head off stage to meet Mehta and make product choices for their start-up, 12Society.
Founded in February, 12Society is a subscription-based lifestyle company for men, in which customers receive a monthly box of products curated by celebrities. Along with Nas, 12Society's so-called "style board" includes actor Nick Cannon, and professional athletes Michael Strahan, Tim Lincecum, Kevin Love, and Blake Griffin. Originally conceived by Mehta, Nadir Hyder, and Chirayu Patel, 12Society is just the latest in a slew of e-commerce companies going beyond the celebrity spokesperson model and actually hiring stars as co-founders. The benefits of such a partnership--it builds legitimacy, expands marketing reach, etc.--are obvious, but the question remains: How do entrepreneurs get a celebrity on board, anyway?
Choosing the right person
When Mehta was first developing the idea for 12Society, he wanted to fill in what he perceived to be a gap in cool and accessible e-commerce stores for men. At the same time, he wanted to give small brands the opportunity to gain traction with the nearly impenetrable male demographic. To do that, Mehta, knew he'd need to find celebrities who were aspirational, not merely famous. "We went with a different range of celebrities," Mehta explains. "It's people our customers aspire to become and actually look up to, not just reality stars."
Josh Berman, co-founder of BeachMint, a company that runs six celebrity-curated e-commerce websites in different verticals like jewelry and clothing, says he went through a similar internal debate when he was deciding on a co-founder. Berman, who also co-founded MySpace, had no problem making connections in Hollywood. The more difficult task was determining who he wanted to work with.
One of the first actresses who expressed interest in the company was Kate Bosworth, a celebrity with plenty of fashion cred, but not much of a social media presence. "We had to ask ourselves, what's more important?" Berman says. "The person you get along with and who will authentically represent your brand, or the person who will Tweet and immediately expose millions of people to your brand?" Ultimately, Berman decided that he and his other co-founder Diego Berdakin had the technology chops to build their own online following. "What Kate Bosworth knows is fashion," Berman says, "and we wanted someone who would do more than just endorse the brand, but would roll up her sleeves and design."
Mastering the pitch
When Mehta started 12Society, he was very much a Los Angeles outsider, so he knew it'd be even harder to get his message across to celebrity agents. So, he crafted a pitch that would make joining 12Society appear as advantageous to the celebrity as it was to the brand. Because most celebrities are balancing more than one endorsement deal at a time, Mehta framed 12Society as the perfect platform for whatever clothing brand, cologne, or grooming product these celebrities were already endorsing. Each 12Society box, in other words, was a new distribution channel for the companies and brands these celebrities already cared about and aligned themselves with. "That was our biggest selling point," Mehta says. "It won't just benefit 12Society. It'll benefit a lot of other companies they work with, as well."
According to Berman, it's also important to pay attention not just to a celebrity's reputation and day job, but also his or her hobbies. Justin Timberlake, for instance, is best known for his music and acting career. What people might not know is that he's also an art and photography buff. Though Timberlake actually approached Berman about launching what is now the interior design site called HomeMint, Berman says he learned how important it is to appeal to celebrities' off-screen hobbies. "Whatever your business is, find out who's the biggest influencer who is really passionate about that business," he advises. "Who's into photography? Who's big into yoga? They don't have to be the biggest star as long as they're super passionate and can bring that expertise to the table."
Making the connection
When it comes to actually getting in touch with a celebrity, Brian Lee, who has co-founded companies with the likes of Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, and Jessica Alba, says, "It helps to be in Los Angeles, truthfully. Celebrities are a natural resource in LA, and it's not that difficult to go out there, and start meeting people." True as that might be, all is not lost for entrepreneurs outside Los Angeles, Lee says. One easier point of entry than a cold call to Britney Spears is networking with another entrepreneur like Lee, who has deep Hollywood connections and can make the introduction.
"I get those calls at least once a week," Lee says. "It's a pretty tight-knit group down here in L.A. in the tech community, and we all help each other however we can."
Lee also notes that entrepreneurs who are willing to invest time into forming celebrity partnerships should check out L.A.'s many start-up incubators, including MuckerLab, Science, or Creative Artist Agency's own internal incubator.
Mehta, on the other hand, opted to make his pitch to talent agencies, directly. "Agencies are really starting to be more receptive to tech, fashion, and e-commerce firms, as more of them are getting started and becoming successful," he says.
If you're really serious about hiring the celebrity as a co-founder, not just a spokesperson, expect to give up equity in the company. You should also expect that even as CEO, you won't have control over Kim Kardashian's--or any celebrity's--schedule. Expect to meet at odd hours and in odd places (like backstage).
Another consequence of working with celebrities is paying for the celebrity lifestyle. "It's expensive being famous," Lee says. Expect to factor travel, wardrobe, and hair and make-up expenses into your budget whenever your celebrity co-founder makes a public appearance on behalf of the brand.
But perhaps the most surprising part of working with a celebrity, Berman says, is if you find the right partners, expect them to be really involved. "I was surprised at how much they all wanted to participate," he says. "It's amazing to see how supportive they are. They've been way more influential than we thought."