Selena Gomez talks tech with TUAW
Before 2011, you probably only knew who Selena Gomez was if you had teenagers or younger children. But this year the young woman who plays Alex on Disney's Emmy Award-winning Wizards of Waverly Place has made her way into the mainstream spotlight.
In the last twelve months she's starred in her second feature film, been hounded endlessly by paparazzi because she's dating one of music's biggest stars, was active in her role as a UNICEF ambassador, released (with her band) her third studio album while touring around the globe with them, and hosted the EMAs. And almost as if she's trying to squeeze everything possible into this year, she'll be working until the stroke of midnight on December 31st in New York where she'll be performing at MTV's live New Year's Eve special. Disney has also announced that the series finale of Wizards of Waverly Place will air in early January.
All that would be a lot for anyone, yet there's still one more thing that Selena has done this year. This past November the 19-year-old pop star from Texas also became a tech venture capitalist. Along with CrossCut Ventures and a group of ten other seasoned investors, she took part in a first round of funding for the iPhone and Android app Postcard on the Run. The app, which I reviewed a few days ago, lets users turn any digital image on their iPhone into a physical postcard that can be instantly sent to anyone in the world.
I've recently been finishing up a book on the cult of celebrity in America (and for research, reading way more Daily Mail gossip than could possibly be considered healthy), so when I saw Selena Gomez's name pop up on one of my tech news feeds instead my celebrity news feeds, I was taken aback. The November announcement said that Selena had become an investor in an iPhone app. But for the life of me I couldn't figure out why a nineteen year old who has so much other stuff going for her right now felt the need to do something so -- well, compared to all she's done -- so relatively small; not to mention something most others in the tech industry don't do until their late 20s or early 30s.
Don't get me wrong, Postcard on the Run is a very good app. It's actually one of my favorites. But that's all it is -- a single app. And if you're doing it for the money, why not invest in a bigger app, or a developer who has lots of apps? I mean, Ashton Kutcher I get. He's another celebrity who is also a prominent tech VC. But his strategy is fairly obvious. Lots of investments (not to mention endorsement deals with tech-friendly companies like Nikon). Big portfolio. Big profits. But a single app with a first time developer? And at 19?
So I contacted Selena's representatives and she agreed to an interview with me early last week. What I found out was something all of us reading this are familiar with. It's why some of us are developers and all of us are users. You get into it because you love the product. Because you can't stop talking about it and you want to be part of it -- any way you can.
That's exactly what happened to Selena. In September she was stuck on her tour bus between performances; she came across Postcard on the Run in the App Store and started sending postcards with it. "I have my iPhone with my all the time that's why I think Postcard on the Run is such a great concept. The one thing people have with them at all times is their phone and the app makes it so easy to send cards and keep in touch with people in a more personal way," she tells me. "I got excited about something and wanted to be a part of it."
At first I think "what's wrong with email?" but then, perhaps channeling a bit of my mother, I do have to admit a physical note is more personal than an electronic one. I ask Selena if she thinks there's room for both traditional and electronic greetings in the future? Does one mean more to her than another?
"I really think it can be a combination of both," she says. "There's something really nice and special about sending and receiving mail the old fashioned way. Who doesn't like getting things in the mail?"
A Twitter fan base of 9 million. Check. 25 million "Likes" on Facebook. Check. Likes to wait for something in the mail? Uh, check. Who knew?
After deciding she wanted to get involved it was time to contact the app's creator, Josh Brooks. I ask her if Josh thought someone was playing a prank on him at first. I mean, if I got an email from "Selena Gomez" saying she wanted to help any way she could on my next book project, I wouldn't take it too seriously.
She laughs at my question, but shrugs off the suggestion. "I actually talked to my stepdad about it and he and I reached out to Josh directly," she says. "But yeah, Josh was pretty excited."
For his part, Josh tells me that he didn't disbelieve the email, but he did admit to using Google for what it does best. "And so I checked it out and everything made sense. It was way interesting and we had a couple more emails and then hopped on the phone."
When asked how long it took from that first email to the time she officially came on board Selena says, "Not very long at all. I guess it took three or four weeks."
But the timing turned out to be serendipitous. Before Selena contacted Josh, he already had a number of angel investors committed along with CrossCut Ventures, and they were looking to finish up the financing so he could take the app further. Though Selena nor Josh are releasing individual investment numbers, the closing round that Selena invested in was $750,000.
I asked Selena why so many celebrities seem to be getting into tech investing. From an app developer's standpoint, it's good press. But besides financial incentive, is there any other reason for the celebrity to do it?
"I can't speak for others but for me, having grown up in the 'digital age' it feels like a natural," she says. "I'm always on the go, and the one thing always with me is my phone and I'm excited about being part of a technology that helps people stay in touch in a real way. Postcard on the Run's technology has the added benefit of working in conjunction with projects or initiatives I'm working on directly."
As she tells me about the features of the app, you can tell her love for Postcard on the Run is clear. "I genuinely like [POTR's] approach to the online/offline space. It's super simple -- that's key."
Like anyone else, I understand liking a product and wanting to get involved, but I ask Selena what an actress and singer could bring to an iPhone app? Especially one that had it's territory invaded by Apple and its Cards app. I mean, she's already conquered television, movies, and music. Did she really feel like she needed another challenge?
But this is where she gets back to that something no one can argue with: "I don't think it's as much about taking on Cupertino, but creating a product that people will use, love and share."
In other words, worry about the product, not the competition.
As for what she can contribute, Selena doesn't pretend to be a Silicon Valley wiz or tech titan. She openly admits that -- at least in the app world -- she's still a fresh face. "This world is somewhat new to me, but Josh and I have a really comfortable relationship. We're constantly in touch regarding everything from product updates to looking at new ways to incorporate Postcard on the Run into other projects and campaigns. More than anything, at least for now, our main goal is build the profile of the company."
And with star power like Selena's, building the profile of the company shouldn't be much of a problem. I ask her how her name recognition has affected download numbers, to which she modestly replies, "There's been a jump."
When I asked others who know Selena what she is really like I got answers of "great person," "super sweet," "family oriented," and "She's one of the most warm individuals at her level that I've ever met." Add "humble" to that list too.
So I ask Josh how much Selena's involvement has helped.
"Selena's strength is not only her ability to reach a younger audience, but it's also to speak to just a different culture that is so digitally friendly. I almost look at her as an ambassador to Postcard on the Run as she can help carry our voice to a different audience," he tells me. "When she makes an announcement about Postcard on the Run you see [download] spikes that are ridiculous. It's out of control. It's tens of thousands of downloads as a result of her supporting or pushing out something cool that's happening with Postcard on the Run. People really want to engage with her and she has fun doing it."
There's the boastfulness I was looking for. But Josh, who has a deep history in the talent and music industry, is also earnest in his reply about Selena's role as a creative advisor as well. "If you're between the ages of 16 and 22 your skill sets are just different than ours. She personifies this really interesting, multi-thread of a talent like no other. She's extremely real and genuine about how she sees this stuff working."
For now, Selena is happy working to help make Postcard on the Run a success and told me she has no other plans for any other app investments at the moment. She'll be busy performing and promoting well into 2012. However, if you're hoping to get her attention with your app she did tell me she generally likes word games and photo apps. Just make sure those apps are built out of a passion and not solely for profits.
Note: Love Selena? Love postcards? Check back the Tuesday after Christmas for a sweet promotion and giveaway from Selena, Postcard on the Run, and TUAW!
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