From the outside looking in, there are a number of fascinating methods, modes, and philosophies at play inside of Mark Cuban: a good old-fashioned Protestant work ethic, a hippie-ish “follow your bliss” mantra, a bit of the idealist and a holler of carnival barker, a touch of the numbers man and a dash of the revolutionary. If Warren Buffet and Don Quixote were to collide with Thomas Edison, we might have the 56-year old Cuban, who is worth $2.7-billion* at last count. He's an owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, the art house chain Landmark Theatres, the indie film distributor Magnolia Pictures, and is the chairman of AXS TV. If that weren't enough to keep him busy, he's also got stake in the recently launched, free texting app, Cyber Dust, which automatically deletes all traces of one’s sent message 24-seconds after it is read.
But wait, there's more! Cuban is a shark – or well-monied investors – on ABC’s hit reality series Shark Tank, the most watched television show on Friday nights. For Cuban, married a dozen years to former advertising executive Tiffany Stewart and a father to their three kids, hard work is not only fundamental, but mandatory. As a son of an automobile upholsterer, Cuban worked his way up to become one of the world's richest men. With his can-do attitude, the only question he’d ask you is this: are you willing to outwork everyone else to accomplish goals you’re consistently told you shouldn’t be able to reach?
For all intents and purposes, you’re living the American Dream, something countless others have not achieved despite being, by your own estimation, smarter than you. What is the key to your success then?
I think what has allowed me to be successful is that I can absorb more information than most and drill down to the key business elements of that information and make faster decisions. And of course, I truly try to enjoy every minute of my life. I can never understand why anyone wouldn't.
As a kid in blue collar Pittsburgh, you bought and sold stamps to generate a college fund, you sold trash bags to afford a fancy pair of sneakers. Where does that work ethic come from?
Those are true stories, and there are many more of them. I would package baseball cards and have my only little marketplace to sell them in our local park. I was born to sell it as a kid. I think it’s partially innate, and partly it’s because my parents were always very clear: if I needed anything that wasn’t a necessity, I was going to have to save my money and buy it myself. That meant not only did I have to buy basketball shoes, but I had to figure out how to pay for college as well.
Even when I started taking night classes at the University of Pittsburgh when I was a junior in high school — I took psychology at the university and also signed up for a class on Russian Education that turned out to be a grad school class and way over my head — I paid for it. Same thing when I was dropping out of high school my senior year and started attending Pitt full time. I had to figure out how to pay for it.
You bailed on your senior year of high school to enroll in college, you moved to Dallas and slept on friends’ floors, you worked as a bartender, you got your hands dirty and your feet wet with a number of very savvy, vanguard projects from which you a made a good deal of money by 1990, and then you traveled the world for a while. Was this period of time capricious, deeply strategic, or incredibly lucky? It all could have gone very badly.
I knew how to sell. I felt confident I could run a business. I was willing to outwork anyone. I wasn't afraid to live like a student on next to nothing. So that meant I had absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain. Where it really clicked was when I realized I could teach myself how to program in Basic, some “old school” programming languages, and could pick up any type of technology if I just spent the time to read the manual. That turned out to be a very valuable combination that really gave me confidence that I could succeed in the technology business.
Did you have a road map, or were you hurtling along on instinct alone?
My guiding principle and motivation was that I wanted to retire by the time I turned 35. There actually are two books that I bought and still have — Paul Terhost’s Cashing In On the American Dream: How to Retire at 35 and Andrew Tobias’s The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need — that were my personal financial road map. They taught me what I needed to know and what I was going to do: I was going to bust my ass. And then I was going to retire and travel and party like a rock star by the time I was 35 years old. I did it by 30.
There must have been some challenging times along the way, though. We’ve read countless stories about how Mark Cuban enjoys his billions, but not as many about how he survived the leaner times.
Probably about a couple months after I moved to Dallas after college, I gained a lot of weight. I’ve always had a problem with my weight, but I ballooned up to probably 225 or 230 pounds from 200. That created a lot of stress for me personally, even when I knew I was making strides professionally. It came from having no money and going out with my friends every night so we could eat free bar food. Literally. Every night. We would then time our return home from the bar so we could go by the grocery store around midnight because that was when their “Chicken Packs” went on sale — two pieces of fried chicken and some potatoes for $1.29. We would buy them and save them. But fried chicken didn't help my weight problem. It took probably another year before I got it under control. It was no fun. I literally had to beg for the few dates I had during that time of my life.
The economic news these days is pretty consistently grim, especially for the middle-class who, according to recent reports, is rapidly disappearing. Is the American Dream still an attainable thing? If so, is it harder to realize today than it was a few decades ago?
I don’t think it’s harder today than it has been in the past. I think achieving the American Dream has always been built on hard work and finding something you are good at and doing everything you can to be great at it. I truly believe the biggest challenge we all have isn’t ambition or in many cases even effort or knowledge; it’s finding the one thing we truly can be great at.
Can you share an example of what you mean?
Well, I had no idea that I really loved technology — and was good at it — until I stumbled into it because I needed a job and was willing to take anything in order to scrape by. Not everyone finds their niche. Not everyone is willing to search for it or take chances while they are young to find out what it is they are good at. I’m not talking about passion. Everyone is passionate about something, but that is rarely what we are good at. More often than not, when we are good at something, we work harder at it. When we get really good at it, it turns into our passion. But you have to be willing to try a lot of different things in order to get there. That’s probably the best advice I can give someone just starting out in the world.