Snoop Dogg, a man of many names, talents and interests, is on yet another mission, one that positions him about as far away as possible from the image he's cultivated over the last quarter century. Today, he's a tech entrepreneur.
Born of the MTV generation, Snoop's rep was built around SoCal gangsta rap, smoking blunts and generally being the ambassador of West Coast hip-hop, with occasional dabblings into such far-afield ventures as directing porn and coaching his son's football team. And now he's speaking at Google conferences.
Besides having a massive social following, the Doggfather is a veteran Redditor, invests in several apps and has his own YouTube network. His latest play: investing in a location-based communications platform launching next year.
A Long Way From Death Row Records
In early October, Reddit, the self-proclaimed "front page of the Internet," announced it had raised $50 million in a financing round led by Y Combinator president Sam Altman and involving 13 other investors, among them Snoop. What many don't know is that the most popular comment during Altman's Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on Reddit was by way of Snoop's handle on the platform, Here_Comes_The_King: "Whaddup Sam! They let the Dogg in the building. Now do I get an official title??"
Snoop is a die-hard Redditor, having amassed 10,700 link karma and nearly 600,000 comment karma. (For the uninitiated, karma, according to the network, "reflects how much good the user has done for the Reddit community.") The artist has run several successful campaigns via Reddit, including one that had him selling a shirt to raise funds for the Marijuana Policy Project. He is also the moderator of three sub-Reddits, including the weed-appreciation thread r/trees. "I'm the go-to guy for giving advice in the woods," he boasts.
Quietly, Snoop has built an impressive following in the social space. He's got 3.9 million followers on Instagram, 11.6 million on Twitter and over a million subscribers to his YouTube channel, westfesttv, home to his weekly news show, GGN.
He was also one of the first investors in anonymity-based app Secret and photography app Shots. In late September, he helped launch zero-commission stock-trading app Robinhood. The still-unnamed location-based project set to launch next year is being developed by the marketing firm Cashmere Agency, which says it sought counsel from digital gods Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg.
Snoop explains his investment philosophy in his trademark easygoing style: "I've been meeting people out there, just trying to, you know, spread my business and liking what they have to offer. Just slowly, surely getting involved, and the best way to get involved is to make investments in things that I dig."
With a technology sector valued at more than $119 trillion, it's no surprise Snoop wants to break off a piece for himself. "This is the most frenzied creation of wealth in the history of the Western world," says Chris Raih, founder of sports and entertainment creative agency Zambezi. "These tech entrepreneurs have become rock stars. The nerds have taken over. They're the ones that celebrities want to be involved with."
Lee Maicon, head of strategy for digital agency 360i, points out that dwindling revenue from music sales means that even top artists cannot rely as heavily on hits for income anymore. "Guys in their 40s are not going to make money selling records," he says. Whereas back in the day, celebrities like Jay Leno used to invest in independent production companies, the digital world now allows for even more diversity of investments.
Snoop is not, of course, the first celebrity to try his hand at tech entrepreneur.
Ashton Kutcher, who created venture capital firm A-Grade, was an early investor in Skype, Foursquare, Uber, Airbnb and Spotify. Justin Bieber also took a piece of Spotify, in addition to Tinychat, Stamped and Selfie. Meanwhile, Bono—who in September was named this year's Adweek Brand Genius Brand Visionary—has funded Facebook, Yelp and Dropbox. (See sidebar.)
Of course, not all investors end up winners. As Duquesne Capital Management CEO Stanley Druckenmiller warned in an interview with CNBC, 80 percent of companies that have pursued IPOs have no earnings to report. And eMarketer analyst Cathy Boyle points out that with app stores overcrowded, it's difficult for startups to stand out—though having a celebrity name attached certainly doesn't hurt.
"We're approaching a bubble if we're not already in it," warns Zambezi's Raih. "It feels a little bit frenzied. I take a lot of these investments with a grain of salt. I would hope that these celebrities have done their homework."
Not Just a Pretty Face
If there's one thing that stands out about Snoop the tech investor, it's that he genuinely likes and, more importantly, actually uses the products he's funding, according to Ron Conway, founder of angel investment firm SV Angel, who bonded with the rapper over their shared position against gun violence.
Conway—who has invested with Snoop on many ventures, including Reddit and Secret—realized the star was the real deal after he saw him on stage during a charity auction featuring some of his artwork, using his carefully crafted public personality to raise money for social good. They've run several successful crowdfunded campaigns together, including a recent effort to benefit the Inner City Urban Development (ICUD) sports leagues in Des Moines, Iowa. Snoop put the campaign on Tilt and was able to raise more than $21,000 to keep the program running. "Ninety percent of celebrities out there don't even know what Tilt is. Snoop embraces this technology," Conway says.
Tech is very much part of Snoop's DNA nowadays. Conway recalls that during one charity event, Snoop was DJing under his moniker DJ Snoopadelic, and people were asking to go on stage with the star to take a picture. Conway refused, saying that he didn't want to interrupt Snoop while he was working. Snoop overheard the request, somehow tracked down a Square mobile payment device, and then announced to the crowd that anyone who wanted to make a donation on the spot could take a photo with him. "We raised thousands of dollars that night because of that gesture," recalls Conway.
Snoop admits he wasn't always into tech but came to realize it was a means to an end—that is, a way to connect more intimately with his fans. He worked with Cashmere Agency—founded by his manager, Ted Chung—to build his image into one of the biggest brands on social media.
"Being that close to the people is always important," says Snoop. "With social media like Instagram and Twitter, I'm able to have a relationship day to day with the people who love what I do and support what I do."
GGN is a reflection of that desire. Snoop says he grew tired of turning on the TV and seeing wall-to-wall news accounts of murders, kidnappings and other crimes. That's why he set out to create a news-style show based on having fun (and smoking chronic, of course) and focused on opportunity and positive individuals.
Snoop figured his pitch would either get laughed out of traditional media or mutated into something he didn't want to be part of. "If I was with a network, they'd try to censor me or water me down, make me something they wanted me as opposed to me being in control of what I'm doing and giving the people what they want," he explains.
Snoop's headliner show, run on what he terms #PuffPuffPassTuesdays, is anchored by his journalist persona, Nemo Hoes. Celebrities like Seth Rogen, Larry King, Pharrell Williams and rapper YG have paid visits. And perhaps unsurprisingly, Snoop recently spoke to former journalist Charlo Greene, who went viral after she quit her job on live news after revealing she was the owner of the Alaska Cannabis Club. Snoop claims he doesn't let managers get in the way of who comes on the show. Rather, he wants his friends and newsmakers, principally viral stars.
Ironically, some of the very networks he bypassed now want a piece of the action.
"The networks want to see if they can take the show onto traditional media and improve the model by being unabashed and uncensored—that's what they want," says Chung. "I don't think Snoop could achieve that by pitching it and going through their red-tape system."
Snoop's knack for finding opportunity in seemingly incongruous settings is notable. For example, last year he was introduced to Overstock.com by a member of the Cashmere team, around the same time that Overstock was looking to launch a new marketing campaign. Snoop agreed to work with the e-commerce site as long as it "show[ed] me the money," he jokes. He would come up with an idea that involved the whole Broadus family. (Broadus is Snoop's real surname.)
The project included social callouts and TV commercials that were expanded into a branded music video for his reggae song, "The Good Good." A special section of the Overstock site is dedicated to products curated by him and his clan.
"When we do deals with people, we don't let them tell us what to do," Snoop explains. "We basically dictate to them what needs to be done because we bring in the aspects and elements that they don't know about. That's what we master. Our expertise is being creative and adding that to the business side."
Snoop's talent for reinvention will be tested most by the messaging app—it's the farthest he's strayed into the tech startup space. But as always, his confidence is unshakable. "As long as you know me, baby, I've been branching out," says the impresario. "That's what I do. That's all I know. I don't ever stay on one side. I live on the edge. I make it difficult for the competition—that's what I do."
And it's just that commitment to embracing the changing times that got him invited to speak at the annual Google Zeitgeist conference in September. There, he would address changing his life around and trying to promote positivity and happiness, all while decked out in a button-down shirt, tie, Polo sweater vest and horn-rimmed spectacles. Recalls Conway, "He was dressed so conservatively that I walked by him and asked, 'Where's Snoop?' He said, 'I'm right here, Ron!'"
It would have been all too easy, as 360i's Maicon points out, for Snoop to have coasted on the momentum of his rap career. Instead, he's bringing the same salesmanship from his musical past to bear on this next chapter.
Maicon says he saw a foreshadowing of this in one of Snoop's very first hits.
"In 'Gin and Juice,' there's this lyric, 'With my mind on my money and my money on my mind,'" Maicon relates. "This is all completely on brand if you look at that as a filter."