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Interview: Mark Cuban, Businessman

(alternate text) alt= Mark Cuban is an extremely successful businessman, a popular sports franchise owner, and someone who isn’t afraid to question the status quo. Although his criticisms of the National Basketball Association and its referees attract the most attention, the fact is that Cuban seems like the type to question any authority and any convention if it can be improved. Beyond the headline hype about the $1 million in fines he’s received from the league, Cuban’s real motives are simply to improve, to grow, to stretch boundaries. And above all else, to give customers their money’s worth. He’s opinionated, brash, and unwilling to sugar-coat the truth. And, more often than not, he’s right.

Raised in Pittsburgh, PA, Cuban sold garbage bags door-to-door as a child. After graduating from Indiana University, Cuban founded MircoSolutions in 1982. In less than a decade, the systems integrator was sold to CompuServe, Inc. for a reported $6 million. Once the sale was complete, Cuban considered himself retired. He traveled extensively and ended up in Los Angeles where he took acting lessons and earned bit parts in small feature films. But the lure of technology and the challenge of building succesful companies pulled him away from Hollywood and back into the corporate world. He then founded Broadcast.com which eventually sold for $5.7 billion.

In 2000, Cuban lived every fan’s dream when he purchased the Dallas Mavericks basketball franchise for $285 million. While most sports owners prefer to remain aloof in their luxury suites, far removed from the filthy masses of the paying public, Cuban sits alongside fans and his team on the floor. He is arguably the most involved owner in professional sports.

In addition to a number of other business interests, Cuban’s entertainment venture purchased the Landmark Theatre Corporation, the nation’s largest art-house chain that features independent and foreign films, restored classics, and nontraditional movie fare. Cuban was also an executive producer of the recent films Good Night, and Good Luck and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

While Mark Cuban has led a fascinating life, you might be wondering, what does this have to do with writing?

The answer is quite simple and something all of us aspiring authors need to remember: back-breaking, obsessive, passionate, dedicated, fanatical, hard work. Although Cuban comes across as a happy-go-lucky guy without a care in the world, the fact is that he continues to work his ass of to this day. Not content to rest on his billions, he is driven to create and succeed. His drive and determination are examples of what aspiring authors need if they are to reach their goals. And while his ideas about marketing and branding might strike some purists as mercenary, the truth is that as writers, we can’t stick our heads in the intellectual sand and hope our work finds an audience. Nor, can the publishing industry continue to sit back and assume readers will buy books. Cuban’s ideas provide some alternatives to the status quo that just might benefit us all.

Slushpile:  Many aspiring authors struggle with rejection after rejection from editors and agents. Although you are very successful now, you have had your share of rejection in your professional career. What was your most difficult rejection or failure?

Cuban:  A long list. From getting cut from the high school basketball team, to getting fired from jobs, getting credit cards rejected and cut up. Rejection has only been a distraction, not a roadblock. “Every no gets me closer to a yes,” was the saying I used to use.

Slushpile:  Former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight made a statement about how everyone has the willingness to win but not everyone has the willingness to prepare to win. This statement made a big impact on you. How do you think this concept influences a person’s ability to be successful in their chosen profession?
 
Cuban:  Every kid thinks they have something special about themselves. Every adult thinks they have a big idea at some point in their life. Rather than pursue every thing they possibly can to prepare themselves to enable their idea or special talent, they tend to wing it and make excuses.

There is very little knowledge that can’t be obtained through effort. With knowledge you can determine the state of any business or opportunity and find a course to gain an advantage.

Slushpile:  You are a big believer in building a strong, well-recognized brand. For even the smallest businesses, there are usually multiple people involved. They can concentrate on building the brand while also creating the company and product itself. But if I’m a lone writer trying to launch a career, how do I balance building a reputation for myself while also continuing to work on my writing? Or, do I need to concentrate on making my writing (the product) as good as it can be and then worry about marketing it later?

Cuban:  It’s called working your ass off. The difference is what you are willing to sacrifice. For every writer who wants balance in their life, there is a guy like me who gives up a lot to make their dreams come true. There is always going to be someone out there that knows they have to compensate for maybe having less talent with harder work and preparation.

One problem people have is that they lie to themselves. You may think you are more talented then the next guy. Which is exactly what the next guy thinks as well. Rarely is talent enough. You have to find ways to make yourself stand out. You do so by playing to your strengths and making people aware of those strengths. Always remember that no matter how many times you get shot down, you will get smarter, better and you only have to be right once to be successful.

Slushpile:  Some observers claim the literary industry contributes to shrinking sales by the way it presents itself. For example, they claim that many book signings and readings are fairly boring affairs, with the stereotypical, tweed-jacket-with-elbow-patches college professor mumbling at a lectern while a smattering of fans sit quietly and sip wine. These observers argue that the literary industry needs to update itself and generate excitement if it expects to attract new readers. In a similar vein, you have strong ideas on how basketball games should be viewed as total entertainment experiences, not simply a sporting event. Do you agree that in today’s culture, entertainment (literary or athletic) needs to constantly be breaking new ground and trying new things to attract and retain fans?

Cuban:  Of course. Consumers don’t make like time commitments or blood oaths to any author, producer, publisher, restaurant, or any form of entertainment except maybe a sports team.

We are all free agents with our attention, the battle for our hearts, minds and money is a war being fought on new fronts every day. If the publishing industry doesn’t recognize that, it will suffer.

A hard back book costs more than almost any form of entertainment. In fact, I can’t think of a product that costs more to experience when it’s released. Which means you are going to have to work harder.

Slushpile:  Any suggestions for how authors and bookstores could spice up their readings?

Cuban:  Go to where the customers are rather than brining customers to you. Sure book readers go to bookstores, but we go other places. Time is short for all of us, so surprise me by being somewhere I don’t expect you to be.

At Landmark Theaters, we are now selling DVDs and soundtracks of the movies we are showing. Selling movie related products where our customers are and where they never expected to find them.

The author of Brokeback Mountain should be selling and signing books where the movie is showing. I think we have sold 700 copies from behind the counter at our theaters.

Slushpile:  Often, when people suggest making book readings more about entertainment, they are met with resistance from those who feel that gimmicks degrade the integrity of the literary art. Likewise, there are basketball purists who think music shouldn’t be played during the timeouts and giveaways shouldn’t be held in the concourse and mascots shouldn’t run around tossing T-shirts. They argue that these activities divert attention from the ideal of athletics. How do you respond to those purists?

Cuban:  Do you want to sell books, or do you want to go the way of the small bookstore? They thought integrity was important, now they are thought of only when people watch You’ve Got Mail.

Your customers will vote with their pocketbooks. If you go too far, they will tell you. I would tell you that you need to develop a new generation of readers. Young readers don’t know or care what you think about integrity. They don’t know if they should even be reading books for recreation. If you don’t give them a reason, they will and have spent their money elsewhere.

Slushpile:  Authors need to produce work that is marketable, yet they must also remain faithful to their artistic intentions. In your situation, you chose not to re-sign popular guard Steve Nash at a dollar amount you felt would jeopardize the team’s future. What is your advice for drawing the line between giving the customers what they want and yet staying true to your personal vision?

Cuban:  Communicate with your fans or customers. They know we live in an ever changing world. If you tell them what you are thinking and why you are doing what you do, as I did with my blog regarding Nash leaving, they will respect and support you more.

Just be sure to be brutally honest.

A blog is a great way to do this.
 
Slushpile:  The Dallas Mavericks keep extensive statistics on referees and the way they call fouls in each game. What other innovative statistics do you keep?

Cuban:  Everything and anything we can find. Information is power. Particularly when the competition ignores the opportunity to do the same.

Slushpile:  If your stats reveal that Referee X tends to call a large number of offensive charges on centers, would that cause you to change your game plan and go to another player? Or, are your statistics primarily for proving a point to the league office? 

Cuban:  We use the data and adjust by official all the time.

Slushpile:  I keep a log of my favorite literary journals and the types of stories they tend to publish. I track how many stories are first person, how many feature male leads versus female leads, how many have intricate plots, etc. Can you think of any other statistics that might help aspiring authors?

Cuban:  I would correlate those to customer and sale info. Then I would use that, not to pick what to write, but who to market to.

It’s like the fact that teenage girls are the largest audience for slasher flicks. Who knew? But it changed all horror flick marketing.

Slushpile:  You have launched a number of companies and business endeavors in your life. And you generally have more than one effort going at a time. For aspiring authors, what advice can you give them that would help balance the need to remain committed and successful at their day job while also pouring their heart and soul into their writing?

Cuban:  Do it because you love it. Then it’s not a job. I’m a geek. I love technology. I would be online working with technology regardless of what my day job is.

Write because you love it. Because it’s what you would do twenty-four hours a day.

Slushpile:  Most people have a perception of you based on interviews and seeing you on the sidelines at Mavericks games. What is the one aspect of your personality that would most surprise people?

Cuban:  I’m not a wild man away from basketball games. I let it all out at games. At home I’m mellow; love to read (software manuals, business books, business history).

Slushpile:  I’ve read that you are a huge fan of Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead. Why do you admire this book so much?
 
Cuban:  Because Howard Roark knew who he was and stayed true to himself while around him conformity was the status quo. That’s the world today as well. We aren’t encouraged to be individuals anymore

Slushpile:  I’ve heard that you read a great deal about emerging technologies. But what types of fiction do you enjoy?
 
Cuban:  Murder mysteries, technology related thrillers. I don’t create much time to read fiction except when I’m on a wife imposed vacation

Slushpile:  The publishing industry remains a fairly antiquated business. Whether it’s because the industry has not been willing to adopt new trends or readers have not been receptive, the fact remains that E-books haven’t really caught on, print-on-demand technology is still viewed as amateurish, and techniques like podcasting readings are just now starting to be used. Why do you think some industries are so resistant to new technology?

Cuban:  Because it’s hard to admit to yourself that the way you have always done it is outmoded. That said, I don’t think E-books are around the corner for all but technical and fact and procedure based publications.

What I think needs to happen is that there has to be a stronger connection to consumers. Authors used to be famous. They aren’t A list famous any longer, even for the best sellers.

A million customers is a failed movie, but I’m guessing a number one book. You need to get us, as consumers, more attached to authors as brands.

Slushpile:  Most aspiring authors know they won’t ever make it to the bestseller list. They have to develop their own definition of being a literary success. In your life, how do you define success?
 
Cuban:  Being able to wake up every day with a smile on my face, looking forward to the day. Which is exactly how I described it when I was broke, sleeping on the floor

Slushpile:  You produced the Academy Award nominated film Good Night, and Good Luck. How did you select this project? Do you intend to produce any future films?
 
Cuban:  Also Enron, a best documentary nominee. We liked the message and thought it was relevant to what is happening with the media today.

Slushpile:  Another question about balance: as a producer, how do you balance the need to produce a commercially viable product with your own desire to create great art?
 
Cuban:  They aren’t mutually exclusive. We try to do both. Nothing wrong with doing something fun.

Slushpile:  What qualities do you look for in the people that you hire?

Cuban:  Focused, hungry to learn and willing to work hard to gain an information advantage with an understanding that the customer owns us.

Slushpile:  We always end with our interviews with the same two writing questions. I am going to alter them somewhat to fit your profession. What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without tip for success you would offer to someone?
 
Cuban:  Work like there is someone working twenty-four hours a day to take it all away from you, and play like it’s your last chance to play.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without tip for breaking into a new field or company you would offer to someone?

Cuban:  See above, and make sure you are brutally honest with yourself about who you are.

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