At Age 25 Mark Cuban Learned Lessons About Leadership That Changed His Life
At age 24, I left Indiana and hit the road in my 1977 Fiat X19. I was on my way to Dallas. The car had a hole in the floorboard. It needed oil every 60 miles. Some college buddies of mine had told me to come to Dallas–that the weather was great, that there were jobs and that the women were amazing. I didn’t hear the first two pieces, but I definitely heard the third.
But let me back up a bit. I’d been in Indiana for a few months, working at a place called Tronics 2000. Before that, I’d been in Pittsburgh, my hometown, where I joined Mellon Bank after graduating from Indiana University in 1980 at 22. Back then a lot of smaller regional banks still did everything on paper. Mellon had a department that went in and converted them to computerized systems. That’s what I did. A lot of my peers at Mellon were just happy to have a job. I wanted to be more entrepreneurial. I took the initiative. I used to send notes to the CEO of the bank. I once cut out a magazine story about how corporations could save money by withholding Social Security and sent it to him. He sent me a thank-you letter back. I started something called the “Rookie Club.” I’d invite senior executives to a happy hour to talk to a group of younger employees in their 20s like me. Then I went a little further. I started writing a newsletter. I did updates on current projects. I tried to inject a little humor. I thought my boss would love me for doing these things.
Instead, my boss called me into his office one day and ripped me a new one. “Who the f— do you think you are?” he yelled. I told him I was trying to help Mellon make more money. He told me I was never to go over him or around him, or he’d crush me. I knew then it was time to get out of there. That’s how I found myself back in Indiana, then on the road to Dallas.
As it turned out, it wouldn’t be the last time I had a run-in like that with a boss.
In Dallas, I moved into a tiny apartment with five buddies at a place called The Village. At the time it was the largest apartment complex in the country. The place was filled with twentysomethings. I was the last one to move in. We had only three bedrooms and three beds. I slept on the floor. I had no closet and no dresser. I just stacked my clothes in a corner. The place was a dump, and we just destroyed it even more.
None of us had any money, but we had some wild times. We threw parties at our place to save money. When we went out, we had a rule that no one could spend more than $20. We’d go to a place called Fast and Cool, and we’d all buy bottles of $12 champagne. We walked around like we were moguls. We didn’t know the difference between good and bad champagne.
Our rent was $750 split six ways. In order to get some extra time to pay our rent, the guys would write checks to one guy who would collect them all and make a deposit and he would then pay the bills. It would give us three or four days of float. One time our roommate Dobie collected all the checks and skipped town. That was the last we ever saw of him.
One roommate had a job selling burglar bars in the worst Dallas neighborhoods. One guy was a waiter. Another worked construction. I initially got a job as a bartender at a place called Elan, which was a hot Dallas club. But bartending wasn’t my end goal. I wanted to start my own business.
While tending bar, I applied for jobs. I got an interview with a company called Your Business Software. They sold PC software to businesses and consumers. I’d just bought a $99 Texas Instruments computer and was teaching myself programming. They were impressed by that. They were also impressed by the fact that I was actually willing to read all of the software manuals. I got the job. It paid me $18,000 a year, plus commission.
I was happy. I was selling, making money. More importantly, I was learning about the PC and software industry and building a client base. About nine months in, I got an opportunity to make a $15,000 sale to a guy named Kevin. I was going to make a $1,500 commission, which was enormous. It would have allowed me to move out of the apartment and maybe have a bed.
I asked a co-worker to cover me at the office. I called my boss, the CEO, whose name was Michael, and told him I was going to pick up the check. I thought he’d be thrilled. He wasn’t. He told me not to do it. I thought: “Are you kidding me?” I decided to do it anyway. I thought when I showed up with a $15,000 check, he’d be cool with it.
Instead, when I came back to the office, he fired me on the spot. I had disobeyed him. He was one of those CEOs who is all pomp and circumstance, one of those guys who seems to scream: “Don’t you know who I am? What I do?” He tried hard to look and act the part of the CEO. He wore the right suits. But he had a huge flaw: He never did the work. He never demonstrated the initiative to go out to sell. I had realized by that time that “sales cures all.” That’s a phrase I still use to this day. He was my mentor, but not in the way you’d expect. Even now I think back to things he did, and I do the opposite. And he made me superstitious about titles. I’m never listed as the CEO of my companies. There is no CEO. I am the president.
But being fired from that job was the determining factor in my business life. I decided then and there to start my own company. I didn’t have that much to lose, and it was something that I knew I had to do. I was 25. I went back to that guy with the $15,000 job and told him that I didn’t have the money at the time, but if he let me keep this job and the money, I would do the work and it would help me start my own company. He said, “Sure.”
I started a company called Micro-Solutions. I was a PC consultant, and I sold software and did training and configured computers. I wrote my own programs. I immersed myself in the PC industry and studied Microsoft and Lotus and watched what the smartest people did to make things work. I remember one day I had to drive to Austin for some PC part, to a place called PCs Limited. The place was run by this kid who was younger than I was. We sat down and talked for a few hours. I was really impressed by him. I remember telling him, “Dude, I think we’re both going places.” That “dude” was Michael Dell.
That year I made the decision to get MicroSolutions into local-area networks. We hooked up PCs at small to medium-size businesses so workers could share information. We were one of the first to do that. We resold products from TeleVideo and Novell. This was literally the foundation of my later career. MicroSolutions grew into a company with $30 million in revenues. I sold it a few years later to CompuServe. That start enabled me to found AudioNet, which became Broadcast.com, which my partner, Todd Wagner, and I sold to Yahoo. Then came the Dallas Mavericks and everything else, of course.
Oh, yeah. A few years ago, I got an e-mail from my old roommate, Dobie. It said, “How you doing, man?” I wrote back that I wasn’t going to talk to him until he paid me the $125 he owed me for rent back from The Village. He sent me the check. I cashed it.