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Ashton Kutcher on the Thrill (and Risk) of Playing Steve Jobs

Inc.'s Jeff Haden interviews the man who dared to portray one of the world's most iconic entrepreneurs. Here's what Kutcher learned from the role.

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Entrepreneurs are used to feeling like it's "me against the world."  Disbelief, doubt, skepticism, criticism--entrepreneurs face it all.

So does a guy who dares to play Steve Jobs.

Ashton Kutcher is an actor and producer and an investor in companies like Spotify, Airbnb, Foursquare, and Uber through the A-Grade VC fund he co-founded.

And he's also playing Steve Jobs in the upcoming biopic, "JOBS." (I saw an early screener. Here's my review.)

I talked to Kutcher about the thrill (and the risk) of portraying an iconic, often-beloved figure, what he learned about entrepreneurship from playing Steve Jobs, and some of the qualities every entrepreneur needs to be successful.

Spoiler alert (always wanted to say that): He's really smart.

To many people Steve Jobs was a little like Oprah: They never met him yet they somehow feel they knew him. Did you struggle with how to portray him, knowing that everyone will have their own opinion about whether you captured the "real" Steve Jobs?

Steve, like most of us, had a public face he wore. When he was onstage presenting his products he was kind of like a magician--people are really familiar with that iconic image of Steve telling you about the next most amazing thing.

When we got into the film I realized there's a guy behind that guy. He wasn't always that Steve Jobs: There was a life that created the person who became Steve Jobs. So I reached out to his friends, his colleagues, etc. to get their account of Steve, and as you can guess there were conflicting accounts.

Ultimately my goal was to honor someone I admire, and the best way to honor someone is to be honest about who they are, both gifts and faults. I decided to portray a version of Steve that had a desire to create products that were loved by the masses so he could be accepted and loved by the masses. He had faced rejection in his life, and I think he tried to build great products that people loved so in a way that would extend to how they felt about him and his company.

You're an entrepreneur and investor. Did researching and playing Jobs change how you view being an entrepreneur, being a leader, working with people?

Steve definitely had qualities that I admire and try to emulate and share with other entrepreneurs. His focus, his ability to make the hard decision, his ability to inspire, his compassion for the consumer, his feeling that it isn't good enough for something to work--it needs to work beautifully and simply, too.

I also admire his honesty; sometimes being brutally honest is incredibly valuable. While maybe he could have been more judicious about it, he had a job to do and very little time to get it done.

I also admire his ability to maintain a singular focus and not let other people tell him what to do with his company. Arguably the best thing Apple did was to not chase the dollar. They chased the innovation, knowing the innovation would bring dollars and revenue.

I think a lot of times when large companies grow they become risk averse. They start to focus more on revenues and shareholder interests, and in time shareholder interests become more important than consumer interests. When you build a great, innovative product, your shareholders will be happy. Steve didn't try to please shareholders; he tried to please consumers and knew that would, in time, please shareholders.

There's a scene where Steve decides not to give stock options to a few of the guys who helped out in those early garage days. As an entrepreneur and investor, where do you shake out on that?

In playing Steve I had to find a way to justify his position. I personally probably would have rewarded them, but at the same time there is that question of, "Where do you draw the line? Who was, and still is, essential to our success?"

That's a tough decision. I liken it to a guy who's managing a football team: You've got that player who's been a great contributor to your team, but now he isn't essential... and somehow you have to let him go.

That's one thing that made Steve successful: He was, at times ruthlessly, able to draw the line and make a decision that may not have been better for the individual but was better for the whole.

By the end of the movie Jobs is a full-on charisma machine, able to inspire and engage people almost at will.  You meet a lot of entrepreneurs and self-styled "visionaries." How do you decide when a person--and their idea--is all show and not so much go?

When you're looking at an early-stage start-up it's usually just one or two guys and a PowerPoint presentation. So you really have to discern whether a person has the moxie to go the distance.

Twenty-five percent of it is the idea: the problem they're solving, whether the problem has great density, whether they've developed a viable solution--but the rest is whether the individual has the passion to overcome great adversity.

I don't know anyone who is extremely successful who hasn't had to overcome some pretty awesome challenges. It takes passion and purpose, knowing why you want to solve a problem, having compassion for the consumer that you're solving the problem for and then the know-how and resources to pull it off.

There are lots of questions you can ask but in the end it's largely instinct. When I met Dave Morin from Path, I knew this guy would tear anything down in an effort to make his company successful. The same was true for Jason Goldberg from Fab and Ben Milne from Dwolla.

You just get a sense from someone that they're a winner. They refuse to let the people who tell them they can't do something be right.

Earlier you talked about focus, yet I could argue you're anything but focused: actor, producer, entrepreneur, investor--lots of irons in lots of diverse fires.

But I do try to keep a single purpose. I have a singular vision about what I want to create and share with people. I use that purpose as my true north, and if the things I'm doing don't match that purpose, I let them go.

Once you sit down and you actually spend the time defining your purpose, your true north gets really clear, the things you should be doing get really clear... and then you start to become okay with saying no. Saying no is hard, because it's easy to be afraid not being liked or to want to avoid rejecting someone, but saying no can be the best thing you do. Once you learn how to say no when it makes sense, it gets easier and you can drive towards your goal.

I'm fortunate that I've had a diverse upbringing, a diverse life, gotten to touch a lot of diverse industries, so what I try to focus on is inspiring, helping, and mentoring people who have a great desire to solve problems. The thing I get the most joy from is helping other people become really successful in their efforts to solve big problems. In terms of focus, I try to map to that.

Say I'm an entrepreneur. Aside from being entertained, what do you hope I take away from the movie?

Steve Jobs wasn't always Steve Jobs. He was a guy who made phone calls and had to spell his last name because no one knew who he was.

As an entrepreneur you have to knock on doors, get rejected and keep going, deal with adversity and competition. You are your biggest adversary at some points. At times it seems impossible--but it can be done.

If you're just walking out of college you may be walking into fewer job opportunities, so instead of working for someone else you may need to create the world around you.

I hope the people who see the movie are inspired to do that, to make the things they want to make, to make them beautiful on the outside and the inside... just like Steve did.

IMAGE: Courtesy of studio/Glen Wilson
Last updated: Aug 9, 2013

JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.
@jeff_haden




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