High-tech • Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner

A High-tech success story. Their Internet broadcasting company sold for more than $5 billion? Yahoo!

September 1999By Comments

IN THE HIGH-ENERGY, HIGH-DOLLAR WORLD of Texas high tech, the metaphors fly fast and furious. “We’re cable on steroids,” Mark Cuban says one minute, and then, the next, “It’s like playing basketball twenty-four hours a day. Only in this game, they raise and lower the hoops every ten minutes.” Forgive Cuban his rhetorical enthusiasm. These are heady days for him and his partner, Todd Wagner—respectively, the president and the CEO of Dallas’ Broadcast.com, which was launched on the modest premise that you should be able to listen to any radio station anywhere in the world on your computer and which today dominates the burgeoning industry of “streaming” audio and video over the Internet. A little more than a year ago, on July 17, 1998, their company went public, and by the start of the next day the price of one share of its stock had skyrocketed from $18 to $68, setting Wall Street records. In February they made history again by hosting a live Victoria’s Secret fashion show, attracting 1.5 million viewers—a high-water mark for single-day visitation to an Internet event—and setting new standards for various forms of online chaos. Then, in April, their wealth on paper ($3.8 billion for Cuban and $700 million for Wagner) turned to gold when cybergiant Yahoo! announced it would buy Broadcast.com for $5.7 billion in common stock and options.

Not bad for a couple of Indiana University alums who simply wanted to follow Hoosier basketball in their new hometown of Dallas. In the beginning—that is, four years ago—Cuban and Wagner called themselves AudioNet, and their idea seemed somewhat preposterous: Why would anyone want to configure a $4,000 computer to make it work like a $6 radio? But they believed they were on to something. “It wasn’t about building a better mousetrap, because there was no mousetrap,” says Cuban. “Todd went, ‘You’re the geek, you figure it out.’ So we did, but we didn’t even know if there was a business there. We were broadcasting from the second bedroom of my house, and we’d get on the Net and type, ‘We Are the Kings of the Internet. Is Anybody Listening?’ And we’d get these e-mails back: ‘Yeah. Shut up.’”

Undeterred, Cuban and Wagner proceeded to break down the geographical barriers of a global medium while building their company into an online gateway to the broadcasts of more than four hundred college and professional sports teams and 420 radio stations from around the world. Simply by logging on to www.broadcast.com, anyone with the right software installed can tune in to the BBC World Service; Rush Limbaugh and Art Bell; exclusive all-Celtic and all—Native American formats; live police scanner broadcasts from Dallas, New York, and L.A.; flight control communications from DFW Airport; live television news broadcasts from more than fifty stations, including WFAA in Dallas, KTRK in Houston, and KENS in San Antonio; more than three thousand albums on the CD Jukebox; an audio book library with 1,400 titles; live cameras from Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras; even President Clinton’s videotaped deposition in the Paula Jones case. Not for nothing is the roof of Broadcast.com’s converted warehouse in Deep Ellum crammed full of dishes, antennas, and a greater satellite downlink capacity than that of any entity in Texas save for NASA (whose voice transmissions from space—what do you know?—can be accessed on the Broadcast.com site).

“In the early stages you’re absolutely just swimming upstream, hoping to catch that break to get going,” Wagner says. “For us it was little things. We would have events where Motorola would come in as an investor. That’s your first stamp of credibility. Mort Meyerson sits on your board. There’s another stamp. You get Intel as an investor. There’s another stamp. Then you raise $25 million. There’s another stamp. You’ve got Tom Hicks and Steve Hicks as investors and then you have Yahoo! as an investor—more stamps. Then you have an investment banker who wants to talk to you, and finally Morgan Stanley takes you public. Then you get Mary Meeker, probably the best-thought-of analyst in the world, covering the company. It all builds. But then you’ve got to leverage that, because none of it matters if you don’t turn it into revenue—if you don’t figure how to run the business.”

While they seem to have gotten that part down, Cuban says, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It takes him less than three minutes to steer the topic to what’s next, like getting out in front of the coming explosion in bandwidth capability, which promises to make sounds and visuals rather than text the preferred means of communicating on the Web, or exploiting business-to-business opportunities that threaten to render conventional audio and video conferencing and networking obsolete. Why fret over how many parties can be hooked up to the same conference call when the possibilities are endless on the Internet? That’s one reason Intel bought in early: The chip manufacturer’s executives wanted outsiders to hear speeches by their dynamic chairman, Andrew Grove.

“Part of who we are is being ahead of the technology curve, being able to take new technologies and create new businesses out of them,” he explains. “Before us, people didn’t stream sporting events. Broadcasting on the Internet was an industry we invented.”

THOUGH EACH PARTNER HAS A CLEARLY DEFINED role—Mark’s the gearhead, Todd’s the bottom-line guy—they’re not Felix and Oscar. In fact, they’re quite alike, from their dark hair and rugged features to their lack of outside lives (both are single and spend the little free time they have working out at the gym).

Cuban, who is 41, became intimate with corporate ways after founding MicroSolutions, a systems integration firm, in 1983; seven years later he sold the business to CompuServe for more than $3 million and went on to head a venture capital firm specializing in high-tech start-ups. Wagner, 39, an attorney by training, reconnected with his old college buddy in Dallas after a successful eight-year corporate law career, including stops at Hopkins and Sutter and Akin, Gump. By all accounts, despite the double edge of fast fame and the potential perils of working together in a high-stress environment, they’ve remained friends, a reflection of the trust they’ve built up over time. “There’s a bond we have because only he and I have experienced what we’ve experienced together,” says Wagner. “The change in our lives, the change in our interactions with people, the fact that everybody in the world is coming out of the woodwork wanting to meet with us—we talk about that a lot.”

That perspective translates into a sense of cool and calm that prevails despite the coming pressures they face, such as reconciling losses of $16.4 million last year against $22.4 million in revenues (analysts project a profit in 1999), fending off competition from all directions (rival WebRadio now claims two thousand radio stations), and directing a sales force of more than one hundred to live up to Yahoo!’s expectations (“They didn’t buy us to watch us go on vacation,” Wagner says drolly). Most daunting of all is the challenge of not letting their success go to their head. So far they seem to have succeeded: There was no IPO party, nor has there been any accumulation of fancy new threads, fabulous homes, fast sports cars, or other rich man’s toys (though Cuban did join a group that unsuccessfully bid for his hometown NHL team, the Pittsburgh Penguins). The expectations for them are too high. “It’s one thing to lose my own money,” Cuban says. “It’s a whole other thing to lose somebody else’s. Going public wasn’t an accomplishment. It’s being a successful company that’s the accomplishment. All an IPO means is people made a bet on you. You have to reward them or you’re dust.”

And they’ve worked hard to avoid screwups. Cuban has drawn on the lessons he learned at MicroSolutions: The Internet business, he says, is mostly the same as the PC and software businesses, except “the Internet business is a lot faster. The rules that I applied then I apply now. At the same time, there’s a lot of stupid money coming into the Internet industry. If you’ve got a dot-com, here’s the money.”

“We took not a dime of venture capital money, and we had no preferred stock,” Wagner says proudly. “We built it so we were going to be the ones making decisions. Venture capitalists come in, change the management, take preferred stock, and bring in a co-manager. Mark and I believe in ourselves. I want the chance for Mark and Todd to run the company, for us to take it from start to finish.”

Two principles guide their decisions. First, “we’re agnostic about technology,” says Cuban, noting that rivals Windows Media Player and Real Player both work for Broadcast.com’s audio and video. Second, don’t ever mess with someone bigger than you. “You never compete with Microsoft when they’re number two in an industry,” he observes. “When Microsoft is number two, you make them your friend because they’ll pay you a lot of money if you help them be number one.”

“The character trait Mark and I share more than anything else is we don’t want to lose,” Wagner says. “Second is just not acceptable. Let’s win, and let’s win by a landslide. We see it the same way every day. That, I think, helps us to be where we are.”

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