Three USC student startups got to swim with the sharks, as billionaire investor Mark Cuban agreed to hear a few impromptu pitches while talking entrepreneurship before a capacity crowd at Bovard Auditorium.
Hosted by the USC Marshall School of Business and the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, the March 25 event “Tech, Sharks and Mavericks” was moderated by David Belasco, co-director of the Greif Center, as part of his class on the entrepreneurial mindset.
“It is a great time to be an entrepreneur,” Belasco said. “And in my opinion, USC is the best place in the world for students who want to launch their own businesses.”
Some of those students got a real leg up with Cuban, who, as a regular investor on the ABC series Shark Tank, is known for his keen interest in new business propositions – and for his blunt assessments of those not deemed worthy.
In the audience were teams from three student startups — EnvoyNow, Stasis Labs and TalentTrail — that were recently featured in an Inc. Magazine article on the coolest college startups of 2015. All three had experienced some level of fundraising success, but this was the big time.
Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Landmark Theatres and Magnolia Pictures, made his fortune by envisioning the potential of the World Wide Web before anyone else. In 1995, he and a partner started Audionet.com, which enabled people to listen to broadcasts over the internet.
“This thing we now call streaming didn’t exist back then,” Cuban told the audience, comprised largely of students who have never known a world without high-speed internet. “We thought, ‘This is going to take over cable!’ ” he said. “We knew it was going to be enormous. We just didn’t know how to build it.”
They figured it out, and it was enormous. In 1998 it changed its name to Broadcast.com and went public, making history at the time for the biggest one-day surge in stock price (it opened at $18 and closed at $62.75). In 1999 Yahoo! bought the company for $5.7 billion.
Cuban was joined onstage by Mark Burnett, who produces Shark Tank and who himself is a serial entrepreneur, first producing the game-changing Survivor series in 2000.
“In the end, every young American wants to start a business,” he said. “It’s the American dream.”
Feed the sharks
Belasco interjected: “Do you know what my dream is? My dream is to see a Shark Tank, college version, here at USC.”
He then asked if the two would be up for hearing some pitches from student startups in the audience. Cuban and Burnett agreed, and the crowd went wild.
The sharks were ready to be fed.
First up were Dinesh Seemakurty ’16 and Michael Maylahn of Stasis Labs, marketing a low-cost health monitoring system for hospitals in emerging markets. Although the team was awarded the Most Innovative Venture Award and the Trojan Family Choice award at the USC Stevens Innovator Showcase last year, Cuban wasn’t impressed. He peppered them with questions about their technology and then cut to the chase brutally. This product wasn’t ready for market. Thumbs down.
Next up were the four USC Marshall students behind EnvoyNow, a food delivery service specifically designed for the college market, who jumped onstage. Founder Anthony Zhang ’17 boldly took a seat in the chair next to Cuban, who eyed him incredulously.
“You think that’s gonna work?” he asked.
“Let’s see what happens,” said Zhang, who admitted later that it was mostly a tactic to calm his nerves after seeing the previous team get shaken up by the sharks.
While Cuban threw out questions, Burnett liked the idea straight off. And while another team member was explaining the money details to Cuban, Zhang walked over and shook Burnett’s hand. He had just been offered a $100,000 investment.
“Professor Belasco had told us to be prepared to pitch, but he couldn’t guarantee it. But I knew Mark Cuban being Mark Cuban, he wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to hear some pitches,” Zhang said. “And I think he enjoyed ripping into us.”
Sydney Liu ’17, a USC Viterbi School of Engineering founder of TalentTrail, which links students with internships and companies with students seeking them, came next. Although a company Cuban has invested in, CyberDust, already advertises for interns via TalentTrail, Liu wanted the chance to pitch his company to Cuban personally.
“Mark’s worked with many early stage startups, and the questions he asked on stage help me understand what things are important in our business,” he said. “I wanted to hear his thoughts about our business and potentially work with more of his companies.”
He came away with a personal invitation to talk more behind the scenes. A victory for a young entrepreneur.
Entrepreneur of the Year
At the end of a raucous evening celebrating entrepreneurship, there was a crowning moment yet to come. Lloyd Greif MBA ’79, came onstage and presented Cuban with the Greif Center’s 2015 Entrepreneur of the Year award.
“There’s nothing we treasure more than a serial entrepreneur,” he said. “And Mark fits that definition to a T. What we do at the Greif Center is what he does on Shark Tank and in life — and that is fostering entrepreneurship, inspiring entrepreneurship and funding entrepreneurship.”
Seemakurty and Maylahn of Stasis Labs, watched and nodded. Like good entrepreneurs, they believed completely in their product and had no intention of letting one ding sway them. “We have a complex system that can’t be explained in a short period of time,” said Maylahn.
Seemakurty agreed that they would continue working to launch their business. “I’d love to see him two years from now,” he said.