Hannibal Buress talks tech investing, Melvina Masterminds, and the process of discovery
By Min Chen
They’re rich, they’re famous, and they work harder than you–we’re talking about the celebrities who are turning to the tech world to grow their already-impressive personal wealth. Ashton Kutcher, Jay Z, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jared Leto are all artists who have backed some of the most successful startups today.
Also in the lineup of this savvy group is Hannibal Buress [hannibalburess.com]: comedian, actor, podcaster, philanthropist, and investor. Buress was a highlight at RISEConf 2019 with his investment approach that both informed attendees and left them in stitches. Jumpstart spoke with him at the conference to learn more about his diverse career path and a venture that is especially meaningful to him.
After falling in love with stand up while he was attending Southern Illinois University, Buress rose to prominence quickly and is known for his strong comedic voice and effortless storytelling ability. He became a respected talent through his work as a writer on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, and went on to star in several hit films, including Neighbors, Nice Guys, and Spider-Man: Homecoming–often stealing the show with his signature deadpan delivery. He’s also known for his work on Comedy Central’s Broad City, his Netflix special Hannibal Buress: Comedy Camisado, and his podcast Handsome Rambler.
The type of portfolio companies he takes on are as eclectic as his roles in the entertainment world. On his RISEConf panel ‘All Jokes Aside,’ Buress discussed how startup success is guided by prolific idea generation and making sure the idea connects with your audience, which is similar to his creative process. He says that he’s drawn to companies that spark something in him.
“If it’s a product where I immediately start thinking of ideas for them, how to promote or how to expand, then that’s usually a company I’ll invest in,” he adds.
His current portfolio includes Patreon [patreon.com], a monetization platform for creators; cannabis vaporizer company, Pax [pax.com]; San Francisco-based roastery, Red Bay Coffee [redbaycoffee.com]; beauty app for women of color, Bonnti [bonnti.com]; and VisuWall [visuwall.com], an online B2B marketplace that monetizes vacant commercial real estate.
Despite already juggling multiple projects, Buress has also turned his attention to the non-profit space with his tech and art center on the West Side of Chicago, Melvina Masterminds. Named after the block he grew up on, Melvina Masterminds is a space for the community’s youth to convene, express themselves through the arts, and develop skills that will create opportunities for them in today’s tech-driven industries.
“It was just me wanting to create a space that I didn’t have when I was growing up, where a kid who’s not into sports just has a space to try something else,” says Buress.
Buress has been a longtime supporter of local youth initiatives, but felt detached from the process of solely making monetary donations. He realized that he wanted to execute his vision for his former neighborhood, as “it is something that [he] couldn’t wait for somebody else to do.” This vision not only encompasses empowering the younger generation, but also elevating the area.
“The neighborhood where I grew up–it’s very residential and it’s not a destination neighborhood in Chicago,” says Buress. “So I want to make that area a place where people from outside the area could come to hang out and have a movie theater, music venue, cafe, and make it kind of a great spot.”
Melvina Masterminds is still preparing for an official 2020 launch; so far, the center has organized events around coding, 3D printing, AR/VR, and esports. Buress hopes to test the waters in the coming months and curate events based on the community’s feedback. He and his team are also planning to organize programming around music production, writing, and art in the future.
“We can really use these events to gauge what people are enjoying, so I’m really excited about this kind of discovery process,” says Buress.
The approach of continual discovery also informs Buress’s professional decisions. When asked about how he chooses his projects, Buress says that it all comes down to: “If I think it’s gonna be fun to do it, then I do it.” Fans have a comedy special to look forward to, which he filmed on August 10 in Miami, with other tour dates spanning the remainder of the year.
Those of us in the startup circuit may get to meet Buress again at the next big tech conference, as he’s attracted by the crowd they draw. He says that “it’s always fun to just see what people are really passionate about and the range of ideas, from very serious stuff to trivial things.”
Like comedy, entrepreneurialism is about taking the right risks. While they may not always pay off, it’s this passion that gets companies off the ground and has the audience coming back for more.
Tune in to Buress’s musings on Instagram: @hannibalburess.
Min is Jumpstart’s Editor in Chief.