LAGUNA BEACH, Calif.—You might know Jared Leto from the silver screen, most recently taking a villainous turn in the kaleidoscopic Blade Runner 2049.
You might know Leto from his rock band 30 Seconds to Mars, a fixture on concert bills around the globe.
You might even know him as a technology investor, making well-timed bids for parts of high-flying companies like Uber, Snapchat, and Spotify.
Leto is by most measures a 21st century Renaissance man.
So what makes him tick?
At WSJ. magazine’s inaugural D.Luxe conference, Leto—clad in sunglasses, slides, a purple paisley dashiki, and with long locks tied in a bun—explained his approach to his art and his businesses.
“I’ve always been entrepreneurial ever since I sold dope as a kid,” he said, prompting giggles among his audience. “I’m sure I’m not the only one.”
At the turn of the millennium, a record label signed Leto’s band 30 Seconds to Mars. The band wanted to start a website and message board to better communicate directly with fans and sought help. It was an atypical request at the time, and Leto was shocked to find a single woman working “in a closet” in the label’s digital department. (The band eventually got what it asked for.)
“That was my introduction to community, technology, social media—this was long before Facebook or MySpace or any of those other things,” he said. “When you’re in a band you have to be really entrepreneurial. You have to become art director, social media manager, a digital expert—or you die. And you have to be really creative doing it.”
Fast forward to today, where Leto has used his creative successes to expand into hard-nosed business ventures, particularly in the technology sector and especially in California. (Leto lives in a former military compound in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles.)
“I look for things that excite me,” he said. “Companies that are changing the way we behave. Founders or CEOs that are incredibly passionate smart geniuses. And opportunities that will teach me something.”
More of Leto’s teachable investments: Nest, Slack, and Airbnb. “Every great deal I’ve ever done I’ve chased,” he said. “I’ve groveled for it. I’ve cold-called.”
Leto admits that he’s a vocal, involved investor. He’s been known to show up to corporate headquarters to flesh out ideas—so much so that Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield has touted Leto’s participation in the business software company’s roadmap. (“He found the right balance between persistent and irritating,” Butterfield told WSJ. magazine.)
“I see the art and artistry in these companies and the process these founders are making in their daily lives,” Leto said. On the other hand, “If people want me to shut up and take my money, I’m fine with that as well.”
Are today’s tech founders and CEOs “rock stars”? With millions of records sold, Leto is uniquely qualified to weigh in. “No,” he said. We shouldn’t make light of the characterization, however misapplied. “These are people taking great risks, that are doing the seeming impossible, who are unwilling to take no for an answer, who are betting on their teams to make something special,” he said.
Still, he’s not always successful in his pursuits. Leto said just today he received an email from a company that “got away.”
“It just got bought today,” he said. “My investors know it, too—you can’t be a part of everything. You ever try to make an investment and it just goes dark? That happened today.”
It’s not the first time. Leto tried to invest in Instagram about a week before Facebook acquired the company. “I was certainly one of a few that were begging,” he said. “You go up there and they all had huge smiles on their face. There were like 12 people [at the company]. I remember telling someone, ‘Listen, I will take a bag of money and put it under your mattress, just give me your address.’”
Win or lose, Leto’s tech investments are a natural extension of his work as an actor and musician. “It’s a combination of creativity and technology that’s making things really interesting,” he said.
A typical day for Leto is “creatively neurotic” yet “surprisingly focused,” he explained. A large team of people helps him and his bandmates stay organized and keep their creative lives on track.
“I hate wasting time,” Leto said. “I’m obsessed with efficiency. I’ve been practicing saying no—even things that are opportunities. Opportunity cost is a real thing.”
He went on: “I love to work. I don’t do dinners, I don’t do lunches, I don’t do breakfasts. I just fucking work. That’s what I love to do, because I love to make things and share them with the world…and I do not take it for granted for one second.”
So how does Leto stay creative? “You can only give out what you take in,” he said. If you’re a creative person and find yourself lacking inspiration, “you need to go have a creative experience,” he said. “Meditation helps too.”
That approach is the connective tissue for all of Leto’s pursuits, whether art or business. You need to keep it fresh, he says. You need to take a beginner’s approach and ask lots of questions.
“I love to learn,” he said. “I’m really curious.”