Mark Cuban turns failure into success Featured

2:18pm EDT March 1, 2011
Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner and HDNet chairman, president and CEO Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner and HDNet chairman, president and CEO

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Mark Cuban’s parents wanted him to learn a trade so he’d have something to fall back on. So the guy — who is now worth $2.5 billion — got a job working for a carpenter laying carpet and quickly learned he was absolutely horrible at it.

He was so terrible at his next endeavor as a short-order cook that he couldn’t tell if the food was done right unless he tried it, so he always cut off tiny pieces to sample.

And then there was the time that he was a waiter in a nice restaurant and could never open the wine bottles without getting cork in the wine.

“It was just horrible,” he says. “I was like, ‘Why aren’t you scheduling me more hours?’ [They said], ‘You can’t do this worth a damn, Mark.’”

But through all of these early experiences, he learned that it’s OK to not be good at everything.

“I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how many times you failed,” Cuban says. “You only have to be right once. I tried to sell powdered milk. I was an idiot lots of times, and I learned from them all.”

He applied lessons learned in his failures as he started Broadcast.com, an audio and video portal, which he later sold to Yahoo for $5.7 billion in stock. His failures also helped him succeed when he bought and turned around the Dallas Mavericks NBA franchise and co-founded HDNet, an all high-definition television network. And these are just a few of his successful ventures that have landed him at No. 144 on the Forbes 400 Richest Americans and No. 400 on the World Billionaires lists as well as a guest venture capitalist “shark” on ABC’s “Shark Tank” reality TV show.

“I don’t care if you’re working a counter at McDonald’s or as a bartender like I did or as a doorman like I did, when it fails, whatever it may be, you’re going to learn,” he says. “You’ve got to take that positive orientation to it and develop your skills.”

Cuban has refined many skills over the years as he’s built his businesses, and he’s learned a lot. But in particular, he’s learned how to look at opportunities, how to know himself and how to be ruthlessly focused.

Look at opportunities

If someone wants to pitch Cuban an idea, he’s open to it, but he’s not going to take a meeting for it. Instead, he wants to keep the details short, sweet and to the point.

“What I tell people is, ‘Anything you’re going to tell me in a meeting or a sales pitch, put it in an e-mail, and I’ll read it, and you know, give me as much technical information or business details as you can,’ because that takes all the personality out of it,” he says. “It lets me deal with just the facts or the details, and once I have a feel for the details, then we can deal with the personalities and the people involved.”

Cuban can quickly — often within seconds — recognize if a pitch is something he’s interested in or not. He starts with whether it’s an industry he wants to be in. He knows he wants to steer clear of websites driven by advertising, he’s not interested in being part of the next cool fashion trend, and it’s safe to say that his early experiences in the restaurant industry are just one reason he doesn’t want to open a restaurant of his own. Instead, he tends to stick to technology and play to his own strengths.

He says that just looking at the industry is about 90 percent of it. Beyond that, he looks for any red flags.

“The more people try to sell you on the size of a market, that’s usually a first red flag,” Cuban says. “If someone says, ‘This is a billion-dollar market, and all we’ve got to do is get one-half of 1 percent, and we’ll be making X, Y, Z,’ that’s someone usually selling themselves.”

Another red flag is if someone also says that the company is going to be better than an established player — like someone saying the company is going to be a better Facebook than Facebook. Also, he looks at how people react when he brings up competitors. If they start saying what those folks can’t do instead of talking about what gives this opportunity a unique competitive advantage, that’s a good indicator to him, as well.

“What people fail to grasp is once you introduce something, whoever the competitors are, they’re going to introduce the exact same thing,” he says. “It’s pretty much impossible to protect ideas like that when you’re already in an industry, so just trying to be faster, better, cheaper, just one-upping somebody, that’s also a red flag. When I see someone trying to be a one-upper, I’m usually turning away.”

The last element he looks at is whether there is a product or a feature.

“You look at things like location-based services — Gowalla, Foursquare and the like — and then you look at Facebook adding places or Google adding places, and you have to ask yourself, ‘Even though Foursquare and Gowalla pretty much wrote that business, are they features of somebody else’s products like a Facebook, or can they operate as a stand-alone business?’” he says. “That’s also a decision point you have to make.”

Cuban says you have to be patient and recognize that timing is part of an opportunity, as well. That’s what he’s done with the model he has now — releasing movies simultaneously for home viewing and in theaters and sometimes even prior to theatrical release — with Landmark Theatres, HDNet and Magnolia Pictures. He had to own all of those different elements, and people had to be open to it if he was to succeed, and it’s catching on now that the market is ripe for it.

“You can’t just automatically walk in and start a business every year or always have the right idea at the right time,” he says. “But you have to recognize when you have a unique opportunity and be able to pounce on it. There’s not always going to be an idea. There’s not always something. You just have to be willing to say, ‘OK, this is the lull period, but I keep on working, and I keep on learning, and if things change, there will be a unique opportunity, and when it comes, I’ll pounce on it.’”

Know yourself

Before Cuban ever made any money, he says he had so much “piss and vinegar” in him that he’d do anything necessary to win, but as his businesses have changed over the years, he realizes that this once-prevalent personality trait isn’t one of his strong suits anymore.

“It used to be picking up the check and closing the deal was the ultimate, and now one, ‘I love you, Daddy; can we go get some ice cream?’ conquers all,” he says.

And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be if he didn’t recognize it.

“I always thought, ‘I’ll just dive in,’” he says. “It’s like working out. There’s multiple kinds of workouts. Sometimes you tell yourself you’re going to go to the gym and get a great workout, and then you realize that you remember why you need a trainer — you need someone to push you. When you have the piss and vinegar, you don’t need anyone to push you. You just dive in, and you get the best possible business workout.”

He now looks for people with that piss and vinegar in them or in their company so he can complement them. Additionally, Cuban has always been a “big-picture geek” that understood sales, marketing and technology, but when it comes to the administrative side of making all the little things work, that’s where he’s had to find people to help him. He says it’s critical to make sure you’re grounded in reality about your abilities.

“You have to be brutally honest with yourself,” he says. “You (can’t) lie to yourself. You have to know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at. You can’t all of a sudden be a home-run hitter. You can’t be a dunker if you can’t dunk, right? It’s that simple. …You better figure out what you’re good at and be great at it.”

One easy way to tell if you’re being honest with yourself is your success record.

“[It’s] just wanting to win,” he says. “It’s not an ego thing. It’s very binary. Is there money in the bank or not? Are you successful or are you not? It’s very simple. The people who lie to themselves typically end up with more problems.”

If you can recognize your strongest skills and those of the people around you, then you can win in business.

“It’s about winning,” Cuban says. “Your ego gets rewarded a whole lot more by winning in terms of your business success and the success of your company than you do by winning an argument or a battle or just trying to prove to people that you’re good at everything. When someone tries to tell me they’re good at everything, I know they’re lying.”

Have a ruthless focus

When Cuban became the Dallas Mavericks’ owner, he walked into a losing franchise that struggled to fill seats, and he didn’t say, “I’m the new owner; do what I say.” Instead, he put his desk in the middle of the sales bullpen, put a copy of the phone book and old sales leads on his desk, and he started calling people along with everyone else.

“I said, ‘Look, we’re speeding up, and either you’re on the train or off the train,’” he says. “‘If you keep up, you stay on. If you don’t, we’ll still be friends, but you know, you’re going to fall off the train, and we’re going to figure out how to move forward without you.’”

To succeed, you have to be completely focused on what it is you want to do.

“You have to go in and be very specific about what your goals are, what you’re willing to accept and what you won’t accept,” he says.

The first thing he clarified to his employees was that they were not in the basketball business — they were in the entertainment business.

“We were going to be more like a great wedding than a good high school basketball game,” Cuban says. “A great wedding, you remember Aunt Susie getting drunk and dancing with Cousin Billy, who you hated, but it was fun to watch. What makes a good wedding fun is everyone getting together and yelling and screaming and having fun.

“When you remember the first sporting event you went to, you don’t remember the score or the date. You remember who you were with and what you did with that person.”

He then had to be clear regarding what they needed to achieve. The old arena had 17,700 seats, and there were 41 home games plus playoffs, so he put up signs saying “17,700 times 41 — that’s our goal. That’s how many we have to sell.” He asked them how they were going to get there and said nothing else mattered. He promised the team and coaches that he’d do everything in his power to give them the resources they needed to get the losing franchise winning.

As a result, games became electric with entertainment, which brought people in, and he hired new coaches to help the team win.

“I made it quite clear what we were trying to accomplish,” he says. “There was no ambiguity at all.”

In these situations, he says it’s important for you as the leader to set those goals and not rely on a group of people to do that.

“You have to know exactly what your goal is, and you have to know how you’re going to get there,” he says. “Where companies fail miserably is they try to create goals by committee. You can’t have committee leadership. If you don’t know, you’re preparing yourself to fail.”

Communication also plays a key role in setting goals and staying focused on them.

“Good leadership is being able to explain how you’re going to kick your competition’s ass and being able to explain to everybody how they’re going to participate in doing that,” he says. “Otherwise, what are you doing there?”

He says you also have to adjust your communication depending on the type of people you have in your organization.

“Are you dealing with 18-year-olds, 25-year-olds, 40-year-olds?” he asks. “Are you in a very competitive business that moves quickly? You have to match the circumstances and the context and adjust accordingly. If my business is where I trust people and things are going well, then all I need is a weekly report via e-mail. That’s it. Just tell me what’s going on — bad news first — and then we’ll deal with it. If I’m in a situation where things aren’t going well, then I’m going to be up your ass. It just depends. It’s when you try to do it the same way every time, that’s when you run into problems.”

His intense focus paid off — the Mavericks have become a winning franchise and reached the playoffs now in each of the full seasons since he bought them, and fans are packing the arena to wildly cheer alongside the animated Cuban.

“Ideas are the easy part,” he says. “It’s the execution of the idea that becomes the difficult part.”

How to reach: Dallas Mavericks, (214) 747-6287 or

www.mavs.com; HDNet, (214) 672-1740 or www.hd.net

Cuban on titles:

It’s OK to allow people to raise their voice to you. I want people with strong opinions that they get passionate about. I don’t care if someone is yelling and raising their voice in my direction. It’s not a sign of disrespect. Hell, it’s a sign of passion. … If someone is passionate about something, share the passion. And if I don’t agree with you, I’ll tell you, but at least I’m going to appreciate the passion. That means you care.

A lot of CEOs say, ‘Don’t disrespect me,’ or, ‘I’m the CEO.’ I just hate that, when people hide behind a title. I’ve never been CEO of one of my companies until this year when I had to do it, and the reason I wasn’t was because, A, I didn’t care about titles and, B, I was superstitious — I’d been the president of every company that had been successful. To me, titles never matter. I try to keep all our organizations very flat. I never wanted managers reporting to managers. There was everybody, there was the level of management, and there was me. If I had to have somebody in between me and the managers, I minimized it as much as possible.

It’s not as much setting the ego aside; it’s setting formality aside. It’s ego, but if you’re a good CEO and you’re in a successful environment, there’s 1,001 ways to get ego gratification, and it should be in winning as opposed to driven by title. If anybody ever makes you feel like you’re a lowly anything, the problem is not yours, it’s theirs.

Cuban on control:

It’s not that the glass is half full or the glass is half empty, it’s who’s pouring the water that matters. And that’s the way it should be. Everyone’s, ‘Oh, you have to look at it positively.’ You have to take control of the situation.

Sometimes you can’t — then you have to figure out who’s in control. When you think about it, if someone says, ‘Is the glass half empty or is the glass half full?’ that already means you’re at a disadvantage, because you’re stuck. You’re making an adjustment about what’s already done as opposed to figuring out if I want to pull to the top, pull halfway or pull down. It’s not about taking a positive or negative attitude. It’s about taking control.

That’s part of the job. If you’re trying to kick everybody’s ass and you realize you’re getting your ass kicked, you better re-evaluate. It happens. You get your ass kicked from time to time. If you’re playing the game, you’re going to lose some games, and you have to go and figure out who’s beating you and why.

Sometimes you can’t. MySpace isn’t going to know why Facebook beat them, but they did. Yahoo doesn’t have an immediate response or an immediate solution [to Google]. If they said, ‘Mark, you go run Yahoo,’ I wouldn’t have an immediate solution for how to beat Google. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t.”

Cuban on the role of the CEO:

The show ‘Undercover Boss’ is a good learning model. You’ve got to get out there and watch. You’ve got to get out there and experience. And you’ve got to be out there. I’ve always had the attitude that there’s no job in my company that I shouldn’t be willing to do. I can’t ask someone to do a job I’m not willing to do myself. If I see paper in the parking lot, I’ll stop and I’ll pick it up. I won’t call someone to do it.

I don’t have a PR agent. I’m probably the easiest CEO in America to find and e-mail and to get ahold of. It’s more efficient and takes less time to deal with things directly via e-mail than it does for someone to go through your e-mails and go through this and not know what you’re missing and then have to have them communicate to you and you communicate back to them. The time it takes for you to answer an e-mail or hit the delete key, if it’s not worth responding to, is probably about 20 percent of the time it takes to go through one, two, three assistants. I go into Hollywood and I see four assistants sitting outside somebody’s door, and I’m like are you [expletive] kidding me? It takes more time to deal with them than it does to do it yourself. Sometimes CEOs get caught up with what they think CEOs are supposed to do. Rather than working in a way that you think CEOs are supposed to work, just do what you know is the right thing to do. Do the most expedient thing; do the most efficient thing. That sets a better precedent and a better example than doing things the way you think a CEO should do them.

Whatever you think is the standup of your culture, you have to do it yourself. If it’s selling, you have to be a salesperson. If it’s programming, you have to understand programming and engineering. If it’s design, you have to understand design. If people don’t think you know your business, how are they going to respect you and follow you?

Cuban on learning:

When I get into a business, I try to know it better than anybody else. It doesn’t matter how much I have to read or how many people I have to visit or what I have to do — I’m going to do it. There’s always someone out there trying to kick your ass. If you’re not out working, they are going to kick your ass. Regardless of what it is, I want to know more than anybody about what we’re doing. …

It’s an ongoing, nonstop process. That’s my job. My job is not to shake hands and glad hand and say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ My job is to get into a business and learn it better than anybody else and try to come up with angles and ideas that they haven’t.

You’ve got to love learning. The hardest thing, particularly once you’ve reached a level of success, is people have an inclination — myself included, and I’ve kind of learned the hard way — to say, ‘OK, I’m smart. I know this stuff.’ You’ve got to always say, ‘There probably is somebody out-working me; there’s some 18-year-old kid, somewhere, who’s trying to know this stuff better than I do.’ … Either the kid wins or you’re going to put in the same amount of work and have the same understanding or better of that 18-year-old or whoever it is. I don’t think most leaders are willing to do that. I think most leaders say, ‘I’ll just go out and hire the right people, I’ll package the right people, I’ll take some basic understanding,’ and that’s how they get outdated very quickly. The world changes very quickly. You have got to love to learn because the world always changes.