Celebrity Crypto-Investments: A Boost for the Industry, but Also a Distraction

Marketing loves celebrities — and with good reason. They're “celebrated” people, individuals invested with bulk quantities of cultural capital (i.e., public respect, goodwill and interest), which — if tapped correctly by marketing firms — can be reflected onto endorsed products. This is why they've already proven important for the cryptocurrency industry, which has enlisted the likes of Lionel Messi, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Steven Seagal for the purposes of drawing the public's attention toward initial coin offerings (ICOs) and new cryptocurrencies.

But while the above have simply been endorsements offered in return for what we can only presume were million-dollar fees, there are a number of other celebrities who support and have supported crypto more meaningfully. From Ashton Kutcher to Serena Williams, these are individuals who have actually bought crypto or invested in crypto-related startups. So instead of merely allowing their names and faces to be associated with altcoin X or exchange Y, they've provided an even stronger backing of crypto by actually putting skin in the game.

However, as validating as it may be to hear of another celebrity staking their own money on the success of crypto, celebrity investments won't be enough on their own to drive widespread adoption of cryptocurrencies, since they still remain a relatively rare occurrence. Instead, the crypto industry and community still need to focus on the core fundamentals: building platforms that businesses and the general public actually want to use.

Venture capitalist celebrities

On April 17, tennis champion Serena Williams became the latest celebrity investor in crypto. She revealed via her Instagram account that she’d secretly launched an investment company, Serena Ventures, in 2014. And more importantly for the cryptocurrency industry, she also revealed that this company had invested in Coinbase, making her a backer of one of the industry's biggest players.

It's not known how much Serena Ventures has invested in America's biggest crypto exchange, although Williams has won nearly $90 million in prize money over the course of her career, while she earned around $18 million in endorsements between 2017 and 2018 alone. She therefore has fairly deep pockets, indicating that her investment in Coinbase could be substantial — if not monumental.

Williams isn't the only celebrity to have stumped up venture capital for a crypto-related company. Arguably the most active celebrity investor in such companies is Ashton Kutcher, the actor and one-time Calvin Klein model who launched his own venture capital firm — A-Grade Investments — in 2010. Most notably, he invested an undisclosed sum in crypto transaction processor BitPay in March 2013, while in June 2014, his firm participated in a $12 million funding round for blockchain cybersecurity company BitGo, making it one of the most well-funded crypto-related companies at the time.

These multiple investments indicate that Kutcher is a firm believer in cryptocurrency, as reinforced by his comments following the BitGo investment. "People ultimately want to feel like their wealth is safe," he was quoted by Forbes as saying:

"Bitcoins themselves are incredibly secure, however the means by which bitcoins are exchanged and stored can be vulnerable. That is why BitGo is such an amazing platform."

Indeed, comments made about bitcoin at TechCrunch's Disrupt conference in 2013 show that Kutcher has been a cryptocurrency devotee for over half a decade — and in recent years, additional investments have reconfirmed his interest in crypto. In 2015, he launched a new venture capital firm, Sound Ventures, which later went on to invest in Ripple (and then to donate XRP worth $4 million to Ellen DeGeneres' wildlife charity in 2018). Sound Ventures has also invested an undeclared amount of money in exchange platform Robinhood, which expanded in February 2018 to offering cryptocurrency trading.

Kutcher may be the most committed and outspoken celebrity investor in cryptocurrencies and crypto-related businesses, but he isn't the only famous individual to be all-in when it comes to crypto. One other celebrity venture capitalist who flies slightly more under the radar is Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, better known as the rapper "Nas.” Nas launched QueensBridge Venture Partners (QBVP) in 2014, when the firm invested in Bitfury Group as part of a $20 million Series A investment round. QBVP has also invested in BlockCypher and, more recently, Coinbase and Robinhood, while Nas himself has gone on record as saying that "Bitcoin will evolve into an industry as big, if not bigger, than the internet."

The mention of Robinhood here is interesting, because it seems to be a magnet for investments from celebrity-led funds. Aside from Nas (and Ashton Kutcher), the exchange platform also received funding in 2014 from rapper Snoop Dogg and actor Jared Leto, while in early 2018 it also benefited from funding from Jay-Z's Arrive Venture Capital. And speaking of celebrity overlaps in crypto-related investments, BitPay was on the receiving end of money not only from Ashton Kutcher, but also from famed investor/author/philanthropist Richard Branson, who took part in a $30 million Series A funding round in 2014.

Such forays into cryptocurrency funding may not be massively common in the celebrity world, but the fact that they are made by celebrities rather than “ordinary” investors and entrepreneurs should provide some encouragement. That's because, in such cases, the investors concerned are highly public figures who aren't putting only their money on the line when they invest in Coinbase, Robinhood or BitPay, but also their reputations. What's more, as CryptoOracle CEO Lou Kerner told Cointelegraph, their reputations really help to drive wider interest in crypto, particularly if the investors concerned are genuinely enthusiastic about cryptocurrencies:

"Investment from a celebrity like Serena Williams often generates press, which has value, but it's pretty ephemeral. There are some celebrity investors, like Ashton Kutcher, that really dig in, leverage their celebrity status to help the company, and add real value."

Other industry figures agree with this assessment. Artem Popov, the co-founder of blockchain-based investment service Roobee, also affirms that celebrity investments can boost public interest, so long as these investments come from individuals who are personally invested in the cryptocurrency space:

"Celebrity investments certainly bring hype and make the startup in question more appealing in the eyes of the general public and retail investors. If played right, celebrity involvement can be beneficial, but I believe it should be viewed on case-by-case basis and not taken out of context. For instance, in the case of Serena Williams we're not talking about her directly supporting blockchain or Coinbase."

Celebrity crypto ownership

As Lou Kerner adds, such celebrities as Ashton Kutcher and Nas are "the exception rather than the rule," since most of the celebrities who do associate themselves with crypto do so more in terms of superficial marketing endorsements. And there have been no shortage of these in recent years: Paris Hilton, Floyd Mayweather, DJ Khaled, Steven Seagal, The Game, T.I, Harry Redknapp, Ghostface Killah, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Akon, Dennis Rodman and Shahbaz Khan have all rented their names out to cryptocurrency projects of one stripe or another. And what's interesting to note about such endorsements is that they were all for projects that were either likely to fail or downright fraudulent.

In other words, the distinction between celebrity investments and celebrity endorsements provides a useful rule of thumb. Generally, a celebrity will invest their own money in a crypto-related project because they really believe it offers value and will succeed as a business proposition. However, their willingness to be paid for their “endorsement” of a project obviously has no bearing on whether they believe in it, since they will get paid regardless of its success. It's for this reason that individual investors and traders would be better off paying more attention to investments than to endorsements.

But even if the number of celebrities who have actually invested in crypto projects can probably be counted on a few hands, there are also a number of celebrities who, rather than getting involved specifically in venture capitalism, have sought to invest in bitcoin, ether or some other cryptocurrency for their own personal advantage. These include the likes of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, actor Hugh Laurie, rappers 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg, singer Mel B, actor Drew Carey, football player Richard Sherman and musician/actor