Ah, LA, the land of palm trees, yoga, and eternal sunshine. Home to 4 million and counting, people move here every day with Venice Beach visions and Hollywood dreams higher than The Standard. The more time spent living in an “idea” of LA, the closer you get to actually living in LA and with its reality, which in addition to sunsets over Santa Monica pier also includes smog, a crazy high cost of living, the 405. The 10. The 5. All the freeways. The sun sets particularly dark over the entertainment industry, as so much amazing talent goes undiscovered due to the well-known conundrum: I need an agent to book gigs, but I can’t afford one. I won’t be able to afford one until I start booking gigs.
While there’s not much to be done about the mind-numbing traffic, there’s luckily a solution for LA performers that fits into the palm of your hand and guess what, is probably in yours right now. Introducing: Special Guest, the newest app from creators Damon Wayans and Kristopher Jones that allows people to book a wide variety of LA-based performance creatives – from actors/actresses to artists and musicians, and even videographers – all from your phone. The app is free to download so it’s a win-win for both talent and talent seeker, with the performer receiving 100% of their pay, instead of a percentage going to agents and fees.
With Wayans’ breadth of experience making us LOL through the years on In Living Color and New Girl, combined with Jones’ expansive tech and entrepreneurship background – this is something so many Angelenos can look forward to. The duo recently pitched their idea on Planet of the Apps and won startup capital to make not just their dreams, but ultimately the dreams of many entertainers, come true. Finally, a way to connect easily with potential venues and clients, so that more time is spent honing their craft instead of looking for gigs. I had the chance to sit down with Kristopher Jones and talk about Special Guest App, thinking big, and what it was like to work with Will.I.am.
With your background (in tech and entrepreneurship), you must get ideas floated your way all the time. What was is it about “Special Guest” that got your attention?
Yes! There were two things that really drew me to Special Guest App. First – my cofounder (Damon Wayans, Jr) grew up and around the entertainment industry. The fact that he is an established actor and comedian means that he has special insights into the entertainment industry and its challenges. Second, I cofounded an app with a quasi-similar concept back in 2014 called French Girls App. French Girls is a platform to help digital artists get paid to do what they love to do (draw), while Special Guest is a platform to help LIVE entertainers get paid to do what they love (perform). In both cases my passion is to leverage my experience and ability building technology platforms to help people – the idea of helping millions of talented performers get paid is by far the main thing that drew Damon and myself together to build Special Guest App.
How did you get hooked up with Damon? Did you know right away you wanted to work together?
A mutual entertainment industry friend connected us. Knowing that Damon was a celebrity I didn’t have any expectations going into the introduction that I would eventually become his business partner and co-founder. We definitely hit it off from the beginning because he was looking for a “Miyagi” (that’s what he’s referred to me as) to help bring his idea to reality. For me I love being around talented, funny people that think big. Damon definitely thinks big and is driven like I am to play at a high level to do things that are meaningful and have impact.
Tell me about the Planet of the Apps experience? Was selling your pitch totally nerve-wracking?
I still can’t believe that I was cast on a TV show and raised $1.5 million as part of the experience. Ironically, I was cold called by a producer of the show back in 2016 and they asked if I’d be interested in “trying out” for the show. At that time they didn’t even know I was working with Damon. It took a lot (x 10) of convincing Damon to join me on a “reality show,” as he is very selective with the projects since he has management and is considered one of the most sought after actors in Hollywood. But I convinced him. We got cast on the show, and the rest is history! Since it was my first time on a TV Show (I had done some TV interviews prior) it was a new experience. I’d say I was more excited than nervous for the most part, but there were definitely times when I felt confused and not certain how to respond. For instance, early in the show we were on stage with celebrity judges Will.i.am, Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Gary Vaynerchuk after getting a “green” from all four judges. One by one the judges started to drop off. It was confusing and I wasn’t entirely sure if they were dropping to add dramatic effect (remember – I had never been on a “reality TV show” before) or if it was because of something legitimately wrong with our pitch or idea. Not going to lie – the particular moment when I got into a back and forth with Jessica, I’d rather forget that exchange because she was brutally wrong in her assessment of Damon and my partnership. That said – we got selected to work with Will.i.am, which is who Damon and I wanted going into the pitch. Once that first taping completed (and we were selected by Will) I realized that as long as I played myself and didn’t even consider the idea of acting, I would be able to add a lot of value to the process.
Is there a review function on Special Guest?
Yes! Special Guest App is a marketplace app. What that means is that our goal is to be the destination that venues/hosts/anyone goes to when they want to book LIVE entertainment for an event. As a marketplace we think it’s critical that Special Guest provides users with choices (price, ratings, reviews, talent type, etc). On the one hand I’m super proud that we are a discovery platform where up and coming talent can get noticed and booked, and on the other hand we are excited by the fact that Special Guest handles the entire booking process from discovery to booking to payment (and everything in between, such as messaging, ratings, reviews, cancellation policy and agreement). We also use ratings and reviews to rank talent when users perform a search (i.e. kid’s entertainment in Santa Monica) – the search results would rank based on location, ratings, reviews, and several other factors (such as verification, total bookings, etc).
Who are some of your favorite performers that are on the app currently?
Damon Wayans Jr of course!!! He is, but in addition to him there are a lot of LA-based comedians (Paul Elia, Keon Polee, Tony Baker, Denise Williamson) and performers in the LA market across a bunch of categories, including 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. We have many former contestants and finalists from American Idol, the Voice, and America’s Got talent, as well as seasoned entertainers and up and comers. Did I mention we also have the World’s #1 Obama Impersonator (Reggie Brown) and Mr. “She Bangs” himself – William Hung.
Is it true that you and Damon worked with Will.I.am? What was that like?
It kicked ass. Will.i.am is uber creative and bright – he added so much value and support to our idea and has helped us think even bigger than we were prior to working with him. It was also amazing to see someone of Will’s experience and success validate our idea and get behind it. I felt that Damon, Will.i.am, and myself as a team were one of the best on the show!
So I actually have an uncle who is an actor from Paris looking for comedic work in Los Angeles, and I’ve told him to download the app. Any tips for him on booking gigs and building his profile?
That’s awesome! Since he’s in Paris (not LA) I recommend that he sign-up and create a talent profile (for FREE of course) on our website (https://specialguestapp.com/). That said – the key is to write an interesting “bio,” share any successes (i.e. performed at the Improv, Caroline’s Comedy Club), and to upload high quality pictures and videos. The thing I’d stress the most is for entertainers to invest in quality headshots, action shots (while performing), and crisp, high-definition videos.
Do you think this will change the role of the “agent” moving forward? If this goes well, do you think there won’t be a need for an agent anymore?
Damon and I launched Special Guest so that more talented people can get paid gigs – we think the market is much bigger than the limited supply and demand controlled by booking agents. We think there is a place for professional agents and have no immediate interest to compete with them. Instead, we want to leverage technology and mass adoption of mobile to make it easier and more affordable for anyone, anywhere to hire LIVE entertainers on demand. In doing so we believe we will help redefine the demand side of the talent marketplace resulting in more entertainers getting paid to do what they love to do – perform!!! BTW – unlike an agent/manager that takes 10-20% of a gig, Special Guest App takes 0% from performers on the app. There is $0 charge for performers to be on the app. What???!!!! Yep – you didn’t read that incorrectly. LIVE entertainers pay Special Guest $0 to be part of the app and when we get them gigs they take 100% of the booking fee. Special Guest makes money by charging the venue/host a modest fee to leverage our technology to book talent.