Dwolla today put an end to the speculation about its secret star investor. The Des Moines-based online cash transfer startup confirmed that Ashton Kutcher did, in fact, contribute to the $5 million Series B round it announced in February.
And as that news rippled out across the internet, Kutcher and Dwolla CEO Ben Milne explained why the relationship between investor and company transcends the very tidal wave of publicity it was already generating.
Sure, Dwolla landed itself as prominent of a startup pitchman as you’ll find in Kutcher, the Hollywood star and prolific tech investor who has backed companies like Skype, Path, Zaarly, Milk and Airbnb.
But there’s more to this story of Iowa-born star invests in Iowa-based startup. That was a point Kutcher and Milne both emphasized during the special edition of PrairieCast recorded before a small audience this afternoon at StartupCity Des Moines, where Kutcher and Milne joined SPN’s Danny Schreiber for the first public discussion of Kutcher’s involvement with Dwolla.
Oh, come on, some will say, Kutcher — he of “Two and a Half Men” and 10.1 million Twitter followers — is better at something than he is at building buzz? Sure, Milne says.
“Ashton as an investor is brilliant,” Milne said. ‘”And it took me awhile to actually understand that, because I didn’t know anything about (him).”
So, before bringing Kutcher on board for Dwolla’s Series B, Milne sought the advice of Bo Fishback, the CEO of Zaarly, another of Kutcher’s investments with Silicon Prairie ties. “The first thing I did was call a few people and just kind of asked around, and I asked Bo very point blank, like, ‘What is the value? Is it branding? What is the value?’ ” Milne recalled.
“And as I’m finding, Ashton is absolutely brilliant on product. There are changes that seem very obvious to (him) that don’t seem obvious to me, and that came out very quickly after we spent a couple hours together.”
Kutcher said that’s due in part to the amount of time he devotes to product when he works with startups.
“A lot of my time is actually spent just using products and thinking about the way that people use products,” he said. “And at the end of the day, the reason I like working with consumer companies … is that I use products as a consumer, and I want to feel it and I want to know how many clicks is it going to take me to get form here to here.”
“Ashton is absolutely brilliant on product. There are changes that seem very obvious to (him) that don’t seem obvious to me, and that came out very quickly after we spent a couple hours together.” – Dwolla CEO Ben Milne
In that way, Kutcher’s work as an investor bears a striking resemblance to another of his professional pursuits.
“It’s really similar to being an actor in that when you take on a character you’re taking on somebody else, and so you think about how they do things or why they do things,” he said. “And I look at a product the same way I would break down down a character I was going to play and try to get inside the mind of that person, the user, the consumer.”
Though Milne values Kutcher’s product input, Kutcher’s hardly a helicopter investor who’s likely to hover. Kutcher’s distaste for meddling investors became evident when he was asked about funders who try to strong-arm startups after they’ve provided capital.
“Tell them to get the hell out,” Kutcher said. “They’re an investor; you already have their money. Tell them to get lost.”
It was one of several instances that Kutcher flashed the same sort of fire which Milne, a mile-a-minute speaker prone to peppering his prose with the occasional colorful phrase, often exhibits when discussing the startup.
Kutcher did it again when he got going about the future of payments. “There are so many people vying for the space, and there are a lot of MSPs (merchant service providers) that are doing it, from Square to PayPal to this one to that one,” he said. “And you can’t confuse Dwolla with that, because those MSPs are still relying on credit card companies.”
“When you really start to look at holistic solutions, it’s Dwolla,” Kutcher said. “And people are gonna see it. And, listen, it’s pretty frickin’ cool.”
Equally exciting, Kutcher said, are the conditions capable of breeding disruption that exist in his home state and that he hopes his new investment can capitalize on.
“I think one of the opportunities that’s here is being able to look at broken industries from the outside and rebuild them in ways that people could never think of,” Kutcher said, “and I think that’s really powerful.”
For Kutcher and Milne’s complete conversation with Schreiber, see the video at the top of this post.