Punk'd by the Web
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
In his Los Angeles production office, Ashton Kutcher, the star of Punk'd and That '70s Show, is leaning over a coffee table doing algebra. It's the day before his production company, Katalyst Media, will launch a game show called Opportunity Knocks, and Kutcher is trying to make a point: Just because he can't spell his stepdaughter Tallulah's name doesn't mean he's stupid.
"I didn't name her!" exclaims Kutcher, who is married to Tallulah's mom, Demi Moore. "It's not like I sat down with the wife and went through 'Should we have two l's or one l?' She's my stepdaughter!... I was never a good speller," he adds. "I'm a math person."
Kutcher has a challenge. He's a model turned actor turned camera pitchman turned successor to Bruce Willis in the Moore household. Getting people in the business world to take him seriously is no easy task. Though he has a track record in Hollywood, producing TV shows and films, he's now venturing outside his comfort zone to Silicon Valley.
Among his projects: partially bankrolling SaysMe, a website that allows users to create their own advertisements, and helping found Ooma, a phone company. In 2008, he introduced Blah Girls, a website featuring three gossipy cartoon teens. Later this year, he plans to produce an online series with Slide, which makes widgets that work with social-networking sites.
Yet the going has been rough. Within a few months of its launch, Ooma lost key executives and was short on cash. Traffic on SaysMe has dropped noticeably since the presidential election. And when Kutcher unveiled Blah Girls at a conference for tech startups, he got hammered for offering little in the way of new technology. A writer for Inquisitr.com suggested that Blah Girls had been admitted to the conference only because it was backed by a "C-list celebrity."
Now Kutcher is working to prove his tech bona fides by making Blah Girls a success. So far, his proof consists of a sponsorship by Vitamin Water. Instead of ads, viewers who go to the site or log on via MySpace will see the Blah Girls drinking megabottles of Vitamin Water. If the episodes catch on and travel throughout the Web to social-networking sites, they will generate new revenue with each viewing-a model that has potential, says YouTube founder Chad Hurley. Yet it's unclear how much money Blah Girls is making since Kutcher declines to provide details. In terms of traffic, Blah Girls in mid-January ranked 103,796 out of almost 200 million sites on the Web, according to Alexa.com, which tracks Web traffic.
Blah Girls, which is centered on three celebrity-obsessed teenagers, may seem like an unusual project for Kutcher. His private life with Moore, Willis, and their children has been chronicled endlessly, often mercilessly, in the tabloids and on gossip sites like TMZ. Yet on Blah Girls, the teens skewer everyone from Kutcher's peers, like Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer, to children of stars, like Suri Cruise. In one episode, the girls rate celebrities as "hot" or "homeless," with actress Heidi Montag earning a "homeless" designation because she looks as if she is "made of plastic."
Kutcher says he got the idea for the show while driving his stepdaughters to school. "Hearing this sort of ?'Oh my God, blah blah blah' every morning was inspiration for the voices of the characters," he says. Yet while the Blah Girls repeat some of the more inane tidbits that circulate about actors and actresses, they also poke fun at Hollywood. At one point, they decide to become paparazzi, and Britney, one of the Blah Girls, decks a photographer who blocks her shot of Jessica Simpson.
In the tech world, Kutcher's willingness to make light of celebrity has cut both ways. While Kutcher was seeking funding, more than one big-name investor turned him down, dismissing him as a lightweight. Even those he didn't approach, like LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman, were skeptical. "I invest in Silicon Valley, not Hollywood," Hoffman says. But in the end, Kutcher's red-carpet connections were useful. When he needed $10 million to fund this foray into tech, Kutcher landed his key angel at the 2007 premiere party of Die Hard IV-starring Bruce Willis.VisitÂ Portfolio.comÂ for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers.Â Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.