What would you do if you needed to hire a live performer for an event you were hosting? Or you wanted a photographer to take pictures of your newborn baby? Search through Google or Yelp? Or ask for recommendations through Facebook? Or what if you have a talent that you want to showcase? Now there is an easier way to hire a Barack Obama impersonator for your company get together, a DJ for your teenagers’ Sweet 16, or even put your own comedy act out there! I spoke with Kris Jones, the co-founder of the app ‘Special Guest’ about how cool this talent booking app (and website) that he created with comedian/actor (and personal dreamboat) Damon Wayans, Jr.
Full disclosure, this is a sponsored post. All opinions are my own.
Thanks for chatting with me today, Kris! If you were making small talk with someone at a party and they asked you what you did for a living, in simple terms, how would you explain it to them?
Kris Jones: I’m an entrepreneur! I start businesses and build technology to solve problems.
What was it about Damon’s idea for ‘Special Guest’ that made you want to get involved?
Several years ago I co-founded a mobile app called “French Girls” that helps digital artists get paid to draw and sketch digital pictures. With French Girls I discovered that tens of millions of digital artists from around the world didn’t get paid to do what they love and are good at (create art). So when Damon called me and shared his vision for Special Guest App I immediately saw similarities in my experience helping French Girls scale to millions of users from around the world and Special Guest. With Special Guest there are tens of millions of talented LIVE performers (Actors / Actresses, Artists, Bands and Ensembles, Circus Acts, Comedians, Cultural Entertainment, Dancers, DJs, Impersonators, Magicians, Musicians, Photographers / Videographers, Speakers / Officiants, Specialty Acts and Kid’s entertainers) around the world that find it difficult or impossible to get paid on a regular basis to do what they love (perform) – Special Guest is the answer. What’s particularly unique about Special Guest is that Damon Jr. has grown up in and around the entertainment industry – not only is he a well-recognized and established actor and comedian, but his family has performed at the highest levels of entertainment for decades. While Damon Jr is fortunate that he’s had a talent manager since he was a kid he acknowledges that 95% of entertainers are non-managed and struggle to get booked on a regular basis. That’s where Special Guest comes in.
When you were on Apple’s Planet of the Apps, how nervous were you to be up there pitching your idea (Shark Tank style) in front of Gwyneth Paltrow, will.i.am, Jessica Alba, and Gary Vaynerchuk?
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that at times during the taping of the show (which took place over a 6 week period) I was nervous. However, in truth I was very confident based on my background in successfully building apps and because I had a terrific celebrity partner w/ a ton of passion for building an app that can help millions of people. As the taping went on I felt my confidence grow. If you watch my episode you’ll see that I have a fairly dramatic back and forth with actress and entrepreneur (Honest Company) Jessica Alba early in the show – I have to admit, I was shitting a brick at that point because she was questioning my dedication to the project and I thought her misrepresentation of Damon and my partnership might derail our success on the show. However, we got selected by will.i.am and as the show went on I realized that all I needed to do is be myself, and that paid off big time!
Grammy award winner, will.i.am is obviously known for his musical work with The Black Eyed Peas and numerous other collaborations—how did he help with getting ‘Special Guest’ ready for your meeting with the venture capitalists?
Will.i.am is insanely creative! And entrepreneurial!!! From the start Will was able to connect with our cause – to help talented performers get paid to do what they love to do. However, he helped us visualize a bigger vision particularly around managed talent – while he echoed our cause around non-managed talent he encouraged us to see the bigger picture around managed acts. For instance, he mentioned that when he tours w/ the Black Eyes Peas he’ll often get into town a day or two early and would jump at the opportunity to play an acoustic set or limited set within an intimate setting – can you imagine being able to book the Black Eyes Peas within an intimate setting like your house or office? Neither did we, but we loved the idea and he said it on a TV show! In addition, Will was very helpful in helping Damon and I prepare for the pitch with Lightspeed Venture partners, which led to us raising $1.5 million in investment capital.
What would you have done differently if you knew then what you know now?
I’ve had the benefit of making a lot of mistakes, while disproportionately experiencing incredible success over the course of the last 20 years of my life as an entrepreneur – so I don’t have any regrets and I feel like I’ve been good at applying lessons (learning experiences) to mitigate making mistakes twice. That said – this was my first experience on a reality TV show! If I were to change anything about how I approached the TV Show I would have sought out more advice from others who’ve been on reality TV. Some days of taping were 13-14 hours long and we’d wake up the next day and do it again! Cameras follow you around almost 100% of the time. I never anticipated how long the tapings would be or how strenuous. At times I wasn’t sure if I was in the middle of taping a reality show or in the middle of some endurance competition to see who could survive! All in all I would have had an experienced coach help me through the show. But again – I have no regrets!
What is still your biggest challenge?
Our biggest challenge is to maintain restraint to not enter too many markets too quickly. It’s counter-intuitive but it’s the most effective way to build an app that will eventually solve a problem at scale. The key is developing product market fit within the Greater LA market first. With LA talent that travels between New York City, Nashville, Atlanta, and elsewhere it’s very difficult to not actively launch in those markets yet. As a result Damon and I have to regularly remind our team of how important it is to build a killer product that solves the problem before putting a growth engine behind it. That said – we are 9 months in and itching to roll the app out into new communities!
How do you balance work and family demands?
Easy – Family is first and most important. Coming to this realization was one of the most empowering decisions I ever made. Turns out that it’s often easier to prioritize work if you haven’t committed to making family first. I’m a fairly busy guy in my professional life but I’ve virtually never missed a soccer game, school musical, parent / teacher, or any important date for my wife Robyn. I find that structuring your work around a traditional work day (i.e. 9 – 5) and then carving out some flex time after the kids go to bed (when I haven’t already committed to watching Stranger Things or some other show w/ Robyn) is required to create balance. I drop my kids off at school every morning and I also eat dinner with them every night between 5:30 – 6:00pm. No exceptions.
What’s next for you?
I’m just getting started. Building Special Guest into a platform that positively impacts millions of people is my mission. I’m having a blast working with Damon, the Special Guest team, our investors, and celebrity supporters – I can’t imagine another business that I’d rather be involved with! ◊◊
While I was checking out the app I saw Evan Ferrante, a Tom Cruise impersonator – Wouldn’t that be fun to hire him for an event?! I don’t know what I’d have him do exactly (I’m not planning any big bashes in the near future. Maybe walk around the Irvine Spectrum with me? lol) And I know a ton of moms who are always looking for photographers for birthday parties or family photo sessions—Well, you can find them on here too! You can download ‘Special Guest’ in the App Store here and visit their website to check out all the entertainers in your area! Thanks so much to Kris for taking the time to share with all of us about ‘Special Guest’!