News & Analysis

Unpacking Ashton Kutcher’s philosophies on technology and innovation

- February 16, 2015 10 MIN READ

Over the past decade, Ashton Kutcher has demonstrated his versatility as an actor, taking on both comedy roles (That ‘70s Show, Two and a Half Men, No String Attached) and dramatic roles (The Butterfly Effect). More recently, he played one of the most influential innovators of our time, Steve Jobs, in the biographical drama, Jobs. Perhaps, what many of us don’t know is that Kutcher is an entrepreneur, tech visionary, and investor in some of the biggest and most controversial tech players of today including Airbnb, Uber, Spotify and SoundCloud. Last Friday, I had the pleasure of witnessing Kutcher – Lenovo’s Product Engineer and one of the lead creative minds behind Lenovo’s latest Yoga tablet range – deliver a zealous speech about entrepreneurship and the future of technology at Sydney’s iconic Doltone House.

But the day started out a little strange. I arrived at Pyrmont, unsure about where the entry into the Doltone House was. I told a couple of bodyguards that I was there for the #TechMyWay conference, and they looked at me blankly, as if I was speaking a foreign language. “Are you sure #TechMyWay is not here? I was informed that Ashton Kutcher would be delivering a presentation at this conference? Damn, am I in the wrong place?” The guards looked at each other knowingly. An awkward moment of silence later, they said “Sorry, who are you?” I said “I’m here on behalf of Shoe String Media and am reporting on the event”. All of a sudden, they knew exactly what this #TechMyWay thing was, and pointed me in the right direction. Clearly, they thought I was a crazy celeb stalker and were simply doing their jobs.

While Kutcher is, in fact, an A-List celebrity with plenty of obsessed fans hiding behind bushes with binoculars, he did not use the spotlight to flaunt his celebrity status. He was humble and took the opportunity to share his key philosophies around entrepreneurship and innovation. And it’s certainly worth unpacking his ideas.

What’s with all the dumb questions?

There’s a saying that goes, “there’s no such thing as a dumb question”. You hear this a lot in schools. Apparently teachers reiterate this saying to inspire curiosity amongst children and encourage them to learn. I always thought it was they said it so children wouldn’t feel dumb about asking a dumb question. Regardless, Kutcher believes this idea is “complete and utter bullshit”. According to Kutcher, a dumb question is “any question that you can simply find the answer if you applied a little bit of personal effort”. In a digital world, dumb questions are those which you can find the answer to if you Google it.

At schools, a ‘dumb’ question usually receives a direct answer. Teachers don’t say ‘look it up, figure it out’. If they did, I argue that it would inspire a new way of thinking amongst children; inquisitive young minds would get into the habit of searching for solutions.

Remember THE Cory behind Mr. Cory’s cookies? He gained a reputation for being the most stylish CEO to have ever walked the earth (and he’s only 10 years old). But what’s more impressive is his business acumen. Back in 2009, Cory was fed up with taking the bus to school and wanted to buy his mum a car so that she could drive him. Many kids would just whinge and whine to get what they want, but Mr. Cory realised he needed to come up with a solution to make it happen. His solution was to sell hot cocoa to raise the funds needed to purchase a car. Outside of homework hours, he would sell hot cocoa in front of his New Jersey home.

Recognising that her son was inherently entrepreneurial, Cory’s mum encouraged him to continue selling hot cocoa to save money for college. Not only did Cory continue in his hot cocoa endeavours, he also diversified his offering to include lemonade and cookies. He was selling each item for $1; and word spread quickly that a cool kid in town was selling some delectable treats. It wasn’t long before Mr. Cory’s loyal customer base grew. Cory then decided he wanted to make all-natural cookies – with no preservatives or artificial flavours. His cookies have been a hit. He turned a grievance into a business, all before the age of 10.

Kutcher didn’t speak specifically about children, but he did point out some truths about entrepreneurship that can be applied in the context of education. For Kutcher, a great question “is armed with knowledge … armed with care and thought. It pierces into the grey matter of the world in the universe that we live in and looks for problems and inconsistency and broken things”.

He added, “Great questions cause us to sit for days and ponder a solution. Great questions expose problems; and problems are an entrepreneur’s opportunity.”

Solve a problem or build the future?

What’s unclear is the line between an inconvenience and a problem. I would like to put forth the theory that, generally, Australians are more focused on solving day-to-day inconveniences, whereas Americans imagine the impossible. In #TechMyWay’s Q&A segment, Kutcher recalled a study he read that concluded that Australians are less ambitious than Americans. It’s unclear how a researcher would measure ambition, but nevertheless, it might be true.

At the Rackspace Small Teams Big Impact competition in 2013, I asked Robert Scoble what advice he has for Australian startups. For years, he has travelled back and forth from Australia and San Francisco and has arguably immersed himself in both startup cultures to know what the key differences are. His advice for Australian startups was “dream bigger and aim higher”.

“The culture in Silicon Valley is like ‘you’ve got to transform the world’, not just make something cute,” Scoble said at the time, implying that Australians are more focused on creating things that are new and fun.

When you casually skim to US-based tech publications and blogs, you get an idea of all the amazing things American tech entrepreneurs are working on. Founders are figuring out ways technology can be used to help address, well, everything – Diabetes management, sleep disorders, global warming, poverty, education, etc. There are a lot of projects underway that make you think ‘wow’.

That’s not to say that Australians aren’t innovative. They most certainly are. Let’s not forget transformative medical innovations like the cochlear implant, electronic pacemaker, and the ultrasound – all made in Australia.

But if you mingle with local startups every now and again, you get a sense that a majority of them are trying to solve first-world inconveniences – as a first world citizen, I can certainly see how these technologies will make my life easier, but I don’t always consider them as transformative and revolutionary as founders like to think.

Time is the most valuable resource on earth

At the #TechMyWay conference, Kutcher argued that the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and visionaries ask extraordinary questions, and that it is from these questions that they build global empires. They tear down conventions that we’ve come to accept as reality. But there is one thing that’s common among these great entrepreneurs: they find ways to save time.

According to Kutcher, time exists on two vectors – longevity and quality. People are always seeking to live longer and better lives.

“I think that the most wonderful thing in the world, the most wonderful luxury in the world is being able to take your time with the things that you want to take your time with,” said Kutcher.

“It’s an amazing thing to be able to write a long-form handwritten letter and send it to someone. It actually means more because it has time involved in it. It’s an amazing thing to be able to take a stroll through the park because you get to take your time, and breathe and actually appreciate things in the world that are wonderful.”

Kutcher envisions a world where time becomes even more valuable. With the help of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), we will have superpower-like capabilities that saves us time.

“This world can become whatever we want it to be. In a world of AR and VR, you can walk down the street and have monsters jump around corners. I can leave virtual digital notes for my wife on the refrigerator, I can leave notes for my child … the entire world becomes a playground of our technology. We can place things in space and then recall them whenever we want,” he said.

At first, I didn’t quite understand the link between virtual and augmented reality and time, but Kutcher put this in context when he spoke about Bill Clinton. He said that we could become as powerful as Bill Clinton who has an ear-man who follows him around, informing him who everybody is. With AR and VR, we wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on our memories and bluffing skills in, say, a business event. We would instantly know who we’re conversing with. Some may think that a forgetful person is a lazy one, but those who genuinely struggle with remembering names and their pronunciations (who aren’t being lazy, they just have appalling memories) would be able to properly pursue opportunities that emerge in conversations. Also, it would help in not being disrespectful.

Kutcher also believes wearable technology, as it gets smarter, will help us save time. Once wearables can specifically identify individuals, permissive access to the world opens up. We would never have to remember PIN numbers and passwords. If wearables can identify us from our heart beats, sweat, fingerprints, and so on, we can have access to anything and everything.

“Once this sensor on my wrist knows that it’s me, I can have permissive access to anything. I can have permissive access to my bank account, to rooms, to buildings, I can have permissive access to information. If somebody wanted to leave information for me in a certain place, with my permissive access, I can then recall that information,” he said.

Imagine the impossible

A rhetorical question that Kutcher put forth in his speech was: why do we settle for 20/20 vision? The point he was trying to make is that we should not accept things as they are. What we have is not the best, when you reflect on what we could have. We need to aim higher and “imagine the impossible”.

“[20/20 vision] is not the best vision. Vision can get a lot better than that … I could see the guy in the back row and see what [his] reaction is to what I’m saying if I had better vision,” said Kutcher.

He applies the same logic to sound: “I should be able to hear you across the room; I should be able to hear you down the hall;, I should be able to click something and hear you without having to put anything up to my head. I think there’s huge opportunities around our input sensories.”

It is through imagining the impossible that we can effect change. It is through our curiosity about what could be that will help us achieve what was previously impossible. Who would have thought Napster would completely change the future of the music industry? Although it was shut down by the American government a year following its inception, it also led to strong piracy movements, which in turn forced entrepreneurs to found solutions like Spotify and Pandora, which have become so entrenched in the lives of Gen-Yers that we’ve forgotten about the iPod.

Today, we just use our multi-purpose smartphones to listen to music. Spotify and Pandora’s business model (despite scepticism and outright disapproval from some artists) has been constructed in a way that rewards artists. Every time a song is played, the artist is paid, however small the amount is. At a time when music can be downloaded for free (albeit, illegally), and at a time when young people don’t think twice about violating intellectual property laws, the fact that Pandora and Spotify has changed our habits of music consumption deserves recognition and appreciation by artists and consumers alike. Although technology played a part in what was believed a major crisis in the music industry, by imagining the impossible, inventors have used technology to steer us towards a solution.

The best advice…

One of the stand-out moments in Kutcher’s speech is when he talked about some of the best advice he and other celebrities received in the course of their careers. The night before delivering his speech, he decided to email some of his colleagues, asking them ‘what’s the best advice you’ve ever received that helped get you to where you are?’

These were some of the answers:

Mila Kunis: Don’t let your ego get in the way of asking for help.

Taylor Swift: Keep your hopes high and your expectations low. You’re not entitled to anything, but there’s nothing that you can’t earn. And most importantly, enthusiasm can protect you from absolutely everything.

Bradley Cooper: Often I thought about this old cartoon commercial when I was a kid that sent a message to be yourself and how vital that is to growth … I found a true difference in my daily life knowing that we all have ourselves and all we have is ourselves, our uniqueness. That is what we can use to cultivate in order to create or do whatever it is what we want to do in this life.

Chris Rock: 1) People that can’t listen can’t lead. 2) One of the keys to success is the ability to listen to people that you know that you’re smarter than.

Eric Schmidt: Always return phone calls. Take the time. If you put good energy out, it comes back. Whenever possible, say yes. Life is just who you travel with.

Kutcher himself had some valuable advice to offer. First, he said that entrepreneurs should ask for advice proactively, not during crisis moments. This way, entrepreneurs can build up a reservoir of advice that they can access anytime they need.

The reason ‘proactivity’ is necessary, according to Kutcher, is because asking for advice during times of difficulty don’t always generate the best answers: “If you ask them while you’re in crisis and you expose your crisis to them, they’ll give you an answer that is completely coloured by their own experience and their own problem, which isn’t always the best thing to do.

“The best thing to do is build up this reservoir, this library of extraordinary advice that you can access anytime you’re in crisis … When I come up against a problem, or an obstacle, a roadblock, I then go back to my index of advice that I received from extraordinary people…and usually the answer is already in there.”

His second piece of advice is to recognise that success requires hard work. Referring to a Thomas Edison quote, Kutcher said “opportunity wears overall and looks a lot like hard work”.

Another important piece of advice Kutcher offered was to keep generosity at the core of innovation. Before creating something, entrepreneurs should consider the following three questions: Is it good for me? Is it good for you? Is it good for the greater good? If an idea doesn’t fall into all three categories, then it’s a bad idea, according to Kutcher.

“If our actions are oriented by actions of generosity that are good for me, good for you and good for the greater good, we’ll always be moving the boat forward, the boat that we’re all in,” he said.

Finally, Kutcher made a compelling point about our municipalities. He said governments sit on tonnes of data and tonnes of waste; that they take our tax money, “waste the shit out of it”, and “hand us back a product that is extraordinarily subpar”. However, as we know, technology is a potent force for creating smart solutions. The Australian government is attempting to introduce more technology into public life (e.g. Opal cards, road apps), but whether they fully understand technology’s potential to effect change is questionable. Kutcher believes that entrepreneurs need step into the municipalities that we as citizens pay taxes for and improve them with technology.

Following on from this logic, I’d argue that instead of spending tax dollars on substandard products, they should set aside funds and let entrepreneurs lead the way.

The #TechMyWay conference can be viewed in full via YouTube.