An inside look at the startup behind Ashton Kutcher’s weird tweets

In 2017, Matthew Peltier walked barefoot into a pitch meeting with venture capitalists. Young, male, man bun intact, he certainly resembled the stereotypical successful entrepreneur, but it was his startup, an app designed to bring social media stars and their fans into conversation, that drew skepticism.

Shimmur, as it was called, ultimately succeeded in raising about $7 million from Greycroft, Arena Ventures, Luma Launch, Right Side Capital Management and Techstars, according to PitchBook, but the business never took off. That is until a pivot to direct messaging in 2018 attracted the support of Hollywood talent manager Guy Oseary and his Sound Ventures investment partner Ashton Kutcher, who jumped on board to relaunch Shimmur, now known as Community.

The Santa Monica-based company has raised nearly $35 million in the form of two convertible notes following a recapitalization that occurred alongside its rebranding earlier this year, TechCrunch has learned. Investors, including the Sony Innovation Fund, have valued the text marketing platform at upwards of $200 million, sources tell TechCrunch. A spokesperson for Community, however, said there is currently “no valuation attached to the company” because of the nature of the recap and convertible notes, and declined to comment further on fundraising activity.

Community has yet to complete a public launch and is in the process of onboarding both companies and celebrities. We’re told efforts to generate attention for the business will increase in the next couple of weeks.

Shimmur was initially conceived of in 2014 as a Reddit-style mobile application that encouraged users to join “Tribes,” or groups, where they could create and upload content about their favorite YouTube or Instagram stars. Social media accounts affiliated with Shimmur went dark in 2017, and in early 2018 the site began redirecting to Digits.Chat, a service currently in private beta assumedly linked to Community. Now in their second act, Peltier and Community co-founder Josh Rosenheck are committed to building a platform for influencers and fans to interact at scale.

Questions of Community’s business began to surface in January 2019, when Ashton Kutcher took to Twitter to subtly promote the service with a phone number and a simple request to text him. Naturally, many assumed the tweet included the actor and investor’s personal cell number. In reality, he’d been working with Community to develop a better method of communication with his followers. This week, the actor resurfaced on Twitter to promote the service again. This time stating that the phone number included in the tweet would be “the only place [he] responds to public queries” because the “open web has just become too toxic.”

This reporter, of course, followed up Kutcher on his offer and sent a text to his now preferred contact. Instantaneously, I received this reply: “Ashton here. This is an auto-text to let you know I got your message, the rest will be from me. Click the link so I can respond to you. I likely can’t respond to everything but I’ll try to be in touch. Dream bigger.” The message was accompanied by a link to a Community sign-up page for Kutcher-specific updates. The fine print read that the personal messages and automated text alerts from Kutcher “may be marketing in nature,” but little other information was provided.

Community / Kutcher

While Kutcher has used his large Twitter following to spread awareness for Community, Guy Oseary has remained mum. Sources tell TechCrunch, however, that Oseary is a “co-founder” of Community, further evidence he’s put money in the business and perhaps adopted a co-founder title because of the nature of his investment. Oseary is not only a co-founder of Sound Ventures alongside Kutcher, but he’s also a longtime executive at Maverick, an entertainment and music management business behind the likes of Madonna and U2. His network would be much more valuable to Community than VC dollars.

Sound Ventures, Kutcher and Oseary’s venture capital fund, did not respond to a request for comment. Community declined to name its investors, but did say Oseary is “not a co-founder,” declining to provide additional details on his affiliation with the business.

On its website, Community describes itself as a tool that enables its clients, e.g. influencers, musicians, athletes, brands, actors, their agents and others, to have direct and meaningful communication with their “community members” using a 10-digit phone number provided by Community: “Imagine getting to know and interact with your audience as individuals—with names and faces, interests and opinions, hometowns and pronouns. Imagine reaching every single one of them,” the company writes.

Peltier, in the company’s first blog post published in June, emphasized the power of text messaging, citing an Adobe statistic that 90% of text messages are read within three seconds. Peltier also described Community’s business model, noting that they are not an ads business, rather, clients pay Community monthly or annual service fees “for 100% audience reach and limitless segmentation, in a climate free from bullying and toxicity.” Community’s terms of service agreement additionally states that once a subscription is initiated, clients can create and send text marketing campaigns to promote themselves or products with members of their community.

If Community sounds familiar — it should. Its efforts to leverage SMS to facilitate celebrity-fan relationships is akin to SuperPhone. Founded by musician Ryan Leslie in 2015, SuperPhone is a mobile messaging platform designed to meet the needs of entrepreneurs, entertainers and anyone else that juggles clients or sales contacts.

“SuperPhone is the first foray into personal relationship management,” Leslie told TechCrunch last year. The startup has raised a total of roughly $5 million at a $10 million valuation, according to PitchBook. In a blog post addressing Kutcher’s January tweet, Leslie welcomed the competition to the text marketing space.

“The game is changing, messaging is here to stay, and platforms are stepping up to help you leverage the power of this currently undervalued direct communication channel,” Leslie wrote. “This is my game. SuperPhone was conceived, developed, deployed, and battle-tested years before this week’s A-list endorsement of text over social.”

We reached out to SuperPhone for comment and in a very on-brand reply, a spokesperson for the business told me to submit my phone number to Leslie here and “unlike Ashton, Ry will text you right back once you introduce yourself.”

Commence the battle for text marketing dominance.

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