Justin Timberlake has made a fortune in the entertainment world, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg for this self-confessed geek.
His first taste of fame came when he was a small kid on the long-ago talent show Star Search and included a stint on Disney’s New Mickey Mouse Club. But his career didn’t end there. His singing talents brought him even more attention, winning Grammy awards as part of the boy band ‘N Sync. Then he ventured to movies and his adult singing career “brought sexy back.”
Child phenom, teen idol, singing star and movie actor. How many careers can one guy have?
His latest career move remains behind the scenes. As an angel investor for start-ups, he hasn’t put his name behind his money. But that’s changing, with a multimillion dollar investment into MySpace, making the once-top social network the place where everyone wants to be again.
But investors want to know: Can he really bring “sexy back” to MySpace?
A Star From the Start
Timberlake burst on to the national stage at 11 years old, when he donned a cowboy hat and brought the house down with a country tune. He placed second in Star Search, but it drew of the attention of Disney, which offered him a spot on the New Mickey Mouse Club. The talent scouts were particularly good, because he shared the stage with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling.
When he and fellow Disney performer JC Chavez grew up, they formed the teen band ‘N Sync, which, of course, topped the charts, thanks to swarms of teen girls.
He wasn’t a typical child star that fell into the pitfalls — like alcohol and drugs — common among young stars, but he does admit to some “geekier” loves that date back to those days. Speaking at ComicCon, he admitted to a lifelong love of comics and video games, which continues to today.
The Boy Becomes a Man
When ‘N Sync broke up in 2002, he could have retired a wealthy man. But instead, he released a solo album, Justified, selling more than 7 million copies worldwide. He followed that up with FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. Beyond that, he has six Grammys and four Emmys, and transitioned into acting, starring in films such as “Bad Teacher” and “Friends With Benefits.” But he foretold his tech future in “The Social Network,” playing Napster founder Sean Parker.
A Social Network of His Own
Much of what he does is heavily scrutinized — just look at his famous romances with Britney Spears and Cameron Diaz, and his marriage to Jessica Biel. With a career in the public that spans more than 20 years, you’d think his tech interests would be highly publicized as well. And they are, to a degree, but most people are surprised to learn that he has an impact in Silicon Valley, a few tech companies at a time.
Over the years, he’s lent his name to several business ventures, from clothing to fragrance and even to a record label, Tennman Records. He’s even publicized his involvement with 901 Silver Tequila, an alcohol inspired by his Memphis area code. But Tennman Digital, based in San Francisco, has been low-key, reports Reuters. It says it incubates companies that change how you share information, consume media, and interact with the people. Behind the scenes, the company has funded several start-ups, including Particle, which created micro-video app Robo.tv.
He also funded Tapulous, which created Tap Tap Revenge an app that boasts over 35 million downloads. A month after its release, one million players downloaded the game. A year later, sales skyrocketed to nearly $1 million a month. Then in 2010, The Walt Disney Company bought the company. But his Silicon Valley connections didn’t become widely known he took a multi-million dollar stake in MySpace, the once-popular social network that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought for $135 million, and sold for about $35 million.
His move, made in partnership with Specific Media, is the latest in an expanding business empire — and some say MySpace may bring him into the leagues of Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber, both of whom make millions in Silicon Valley. But unlike Kutcher and Bieber, who invest money without taking active roles, Timberlake plans to have an office and a staff of six working for him, Tim Vanderhook, Specific Media’s chief executive, told USA Today, adding that Timberlake’s creativity and business sense helps revitalize MySpace into a brand that’s exciting again.
New Ideas for an Old Website
Timberlake and Specific Media have plans beyond just returning MySpace to its former glory. They’re also teaming up with Panasonic and starting MySpace TV.
“We’re ready to take television and entertainment to the next step by upgrading it to the social networking experience,” he said, according to USA Today. “Why text or e-mail your friends to talk about your favorite programs after they’ve aired when you could be sharing the experience with real-time interactivity from anywhere across the globe?”
He wants to integrate TV with social media, so you can invite friends to watch and comment on shows, using a combination of MySpace and apps.
“As the plot of your favorite drama unfolds, the joke of your favorite SNL character plays, or even the last second shot of your favorite team swishes the net, we’re giving you the opportunity to connect your friends to your moments as they’re actually occurring,” he said in a statement. “This is the evolution of one of our greatest inventions, the television. And, we no longer have to crowd around the same one to experience it together.”
But MySpace isn’t just about television — it also has celebrity power, and Timberlake is marketing the network as a place where you can get unprecedented access to your favorite stars, connecting celebrities to their fan bases in a way that Twitter never did.
A Star in Tech, Too
Timberlake tied a lot of money up in MySpace. Some people still use the site — and it’ll draw others curious on what it’s about — but the battle against Facebook and Twitter, where friends already hang out, is an uphill fight. If he can’t attract enough big-name celebrities to connect with fans, he may, like Murdoch, find himself forced to eat the loss.
But the superstar turned investor can afford it. MySpace won’t bankrupt him — he’s a millionaire many times over. But if he fails, he’ll lose something more important in the tech world — credibility. Once high-profile websites and their owners fail, it’s hard to gain trust from investors again. And if he really wants to be a Silicon Valley titan, he’ll need MySpace to succeed, even if it never catches Facebook and Twitter. If MySpace can capture mobile visitors, it may find a niche, as people look for ways to connect on the go.
So will he bring sexy back to MySpace? It’s too soon to tell, but he’s done one thing — make people talk again about a social network that’s long since forgotten. And that’s not easy to do. ♦