Television's next tycoon
`I've had amazing experiences in my life,' Mark Cuban says
Mark Cuban may be the world's most likable billionaire.
Sitting in the lobby of the Four Seasons, wearing jeans and a striped casual shirt, the man grinning and fidgeting with a water bottle does little to uphold the stereotypes associated with the uber-rich.
There is no entourage. No handler vetting questions. No material excess. And nothing to support F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation that the rich "are different from you and me."
Cuban, who amassed his nine zeros through high-tech and Internet businesses, is known as the energetic and controversial owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
But on Sept.13, his pop-cultural fame should skyrocket when The Benefactor arrives on television. The "reality" show, premiering on ABC and CTV, has 16 contestants competing to win the validation of Cuban and, by extension, $1 million of his personal fortune.
We move to a quiet table. The first question seems obvious.
"Can I have some money?"
"Sure, how much do you want?" he replies, reaching for his wallet.
I was joking. But his response leaves me tongue-tied.
"In a negotiation, Vinay, you have to know what you want before you ask," he adds, leaning back into the booth and laughing.
Damn you, wise billionaire!
The Benefactor, you see, is all about Life Lessons. There will be challenges designed to test character, intelligence and creativity. There will be interpersonal intrigue. And, undoubtedly, some cutthroat antics.
But, mostly, this will be an exercise in subjective philanthropy the player who makes the best impression on Mark Cuban will become an instant millionaire.
From Donald Trump's The Apprentice to Fox's upcoming The Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best starring Richard Branson, the corporate adventurist who helms the Virgin Group tycoons are swooping down on TV-land like mythological creatures, squawking with prime-time advice, fluttering with talons full of cash.
Before signing with ABC, Cuban says he was approached by reality guru Mark Burnett, who wanted him to star in a sequel to The Apprentice. He declined.
"You don't follow kids, animals, or people with hair like that," Cuban says, mocking The Donald's most mock-worthy attribute.
So why do this show?
"I'd like to sit here and think of some underlying altruistic reason, but there isn't one," he says with a shrug. "This is a reality TV show. I already give away millions and millions and millions of dollars to charity. This was about the experience."
"Experience" is a word Cuban uses frequently.
"I've had a lot of amazing experiences in my life. When I'm 90 years old, I want to look back and think I tried it all."
Like most contestants on today's "reality" shows, Cuban was once an ambitious 20-something obsessed with success and money. His drive and entrepreneurial spirit emerged at an early age.
As a boy, he sold garbage bags door-to-door in his Pittsburgh neighbourhood. A couple of years later, he bagged parcels at a grocery store. To pay tuition at Indiana University, he started a chain letter and gave disco lessons.
Mark Cuban, it seems, was born to hustle.
He earned his first million at the age of 30, after selling MicroSolutions, a computer networking company he created with get this no formal computer experience.
He started another business, the content-streaming Broadcast.com, and sold it to Yahoo! in 1999 for a staggering $5.7 billion. The deal made him a billionaire; it also turned 300 of his 330 employees into millionaires.
Not too shabby considering, a few years earlier, Cuban was sleeping on the floor and sharing a modest apartment with five roommates. The sudden change was beyond the pale.
"I now have enough money that I don't have to worry about anything," he says. "But when it first happened, it was just inconceivable."
Consider the following:
"I've been in situations where I came home and the lights were turned off. I've been in situations where we literally waited until 8 o'clock to get the old chicken packs on sale for $1.29. I ate mustard and ketchup sandwiches. I ate 19-cent macaroni and cheese.
"There are still times when I drive up to my house and I think, `Man, am I living here?' How the hell did this happen to me?" he says, referring to his 24,000-square-foot mansion in a tony Dallas suburb.
"But I try to catch myself when I do that. It's already happened, so why go back? It's no different than the guy who hit the winning shot in a high school basketball game and that's all he wants to talk about years later."
The Glory Days Syndrome, I offer, making a reference to the Bruce Springsteen song. "Exactly," he says. "That's exactly right."
His first "impulse" buy came in 2000, when he bought the Mavericks for $280 million. He later went online and bought a Gulfstream V jet for $41 million.
It's a little emasculating to sit across from a guy whose net worth has increased by more than your annual salary during the course of an interview. At least, it might be if Cuban didn't seem like such a (warning: clich้ ahead) regular guy.
As owner of the Mavs, Cuban has raised eyebrows. He has famously tangled with referees and entrenched league elements who initially disapproved of his change-everything, say-anything approach.
"Whenever you challenge the status quo, people have a natural inclination to maintain it," he offers.
Cuban has emerged as an owner for the people. He writes a popular blog (http://www.blogmaverick.com
). He has personally responded to thousands of emails (he gets upwards of 500 a day). He has even incorporated some fan ideas into operations at Reunion Arena everything from the three-sided shot clock to a storage facility for baby strollers.
Cuban says it would be folly to ignore his customers. It would also betray the sort of class arrogance he disdains.
"I've been on the other side so I don't take anything for granted," he says.
"It's important for me to not think I'm too smart when I'm giving people advice. The biggest mistake people make once they become successful is thinking they're smart just because they have money."
True enough. But being able to downplay the importance of money is a lot easier when you actually have money. Cuban counters by noting that, in all the important ways, his life hasn't changed.
"I still hang out with the same people I did before this all happened. They make me pick up dinner and drinks, mind you, but it's still the same."
Now 46, and with a range of "awesome experiences" under his belt everything from playing against the Harlem Globetrotters to appearing on WWE Survivor 20 Cuban says his priorities have shifted.
"What motives me now is waking up with a smile and going to sleep with a smile. It's all about experiencing life. Money does not give me superpowers. Money is not the most valuable asset you can have time is," he says.
Last year, Cuban and wife Tiffany had their first child, daughter Alexis. Having children, he says, changes everything.
"As many things as I've done financially or business-wise, there's nothing like looking at my daughter's face," he says. "The one thing I truly believe is there are a lot of questions we don't know the answers to. But even though I can't articulate some of those answers, I see some of them in my daughter's eyes."
It would be tempting to cynically dismiss this as mushy blather from a new parent. But, with Cuban, it comes across as genuine and even touching.
"Why should I be defined by how much money I have in the bank?" he asks, glancing up as two executives take a seat near us. "Could there be a worse way to be defined? It's the ultimate insult."
Despite all your success, I ask, are there times when you still feel like that guy struggling to make it? The guy with big dreams who's eating a ketchup and mustard sandwich?
"Every minute of every day," he says. "But I worked my ass off. And now I have time to do whatever I want."