What tech management can learn from Mark Cuban

“First there’s the innovators, then there’s the imitators, then there’s the idiots.”
3 February 2020

Mark Cuban is worth an estimated US$4.1 billion, according to Forbes. Source: AFP

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, outspoken tech investor Mark Cuban shared his thoughts on artificial intelligence (AI) and the cyclical nature of innovation.

Cuban is, at times, a controversial figure. A number of parallels suggest that he was the inspiration for Russ Hanneman, a character on the satirical HBO series “Silicon Valley.” Hanneman is a boisterous, flashy, self-celebrating, foul-mouthed billionaire who made his fortune by “putting radio on the internet” (as Cuban did, by selling Broadcast.com to Yahoo at the peak of the dot-com bubble).

In one scene, the Hanneman character recounts his rise to the top: “All of a sudden I’m 22 years young and I’m worth 1.2B. Now a couple decades later, I’m worth 1.4. You do the math!”

He leans back, with his arms confidently crossed. Then, the other character in the scene, a coder and founder, actually does the math. He replies, “Inflation is like 1.7. I think CDs are 2 percent, so… that’s less than a CD…”

Barely fazed, Hanneman replies, “Well, no one ever got laid putting money in the bank, am I right?!”

Despite these funny sendups, there is something naturally magnetic and media-savvy about Cuban. When he sits on a panel of investors, as part of the reality TV series “Shark Tank,” he frequently seems to be the intended target of startup founders’ pitches. They crave his investment and guidance.

Here’s what tech management can learn from Mark Cuban:

# 1 | Be sincere about AI efforts

“Everything is AI now, right? And people still don’t really know what AI is,” he said in conversation with Andrew Wallenstein, host of Variety’s Strictly Business podcast. “You know, so people put ‘AI’ on their résumé and you’ll ask them questions, and it will be a spreadsheet algorithm — you know, if this, then that.”

The search for qualified tech talent is a real problem, affecting the development of innovations like AI, VR, and 5G (or even the hypothetical 6G).

Currently, many leading companies are on the lookout for AI experts who know the ins and outs of Python and can write bug-free, self-modifying code. They also need people who can contribute to the natural language understanding modules at the heart of virtual assistants, who can refine customer analytics platforms with better audience segmentation and engagement, and who can interface with IoT hardware by using embedded stack protocols and edge computing.

I wrote about the dramatically varying definitions of AI in early 2018, and as Mark Cuban pointed out onstage at CES 2020, we are still far from any consensus. It’s clear that the term “AI” is intended to have some value as a sales buzzword but this value pales in comparison to the truly transformative and disruptive value contained within a more rigorous understanding of AI.

Cuban paraphrased a Warren Buffet quote about the natural progression, or corruption, of good ideas: “First there’s the innovators, then there’s the imitators, then there’s the idiots.” He indicated that we’re now going through the imitation phase with a lot of AI products. However, he’s “hugely bullish” on the long-term prospects of voice-based, ambient intelligence, which he categorizes under the innovation stage.

# 2 | Be an innovator and early adopter

“AI is hard,” said Cuban. “It is really hard to do, you don’t know what data to use, you don’t know if your outcomes are correct. There are so many uncertainties, but it’s even harder for small companies. That said, if any of you are entrepreneurs, if any of you are in the business world — if you don’t know AI, you’re the equivalent of somebody in 1999 saying, ‘Yeah I’m sure this internet thing will be OK but I don’t give a shit.’”

Cuban also talked about his experiences going viral on TikTok.

# 3 | Know when to get out of something

It’s rewarding to get in as an early adopter. But it also makes sense to get out of something, particularly when more attractive or suitable opportunities arise and when an exit would be profitable. All investors have a risk/reward ratio that informs their decision-making. Cuban considers his individual pain/reward ratio.

He used to own Landmark Theaters and is still involved with production companies.

“We didn’t sell Landmark because we thought there was some overwhelming move away from going to theaters. Just because: I was just tired of dealing with the shit of it all, you know,” Cuban explained at CES. Amid laughter from the audience, he added, “At some point, it’s just like, fuck this, I’m out!”

# 4 | Be candid

We’ve all encountered someone who has proclaimed that they have “no filter,” almost with a sense of virtue, when this really represents a conscious decision to not reflect upon the likely impact of their words and actions upon other people. At the same time, we’ve all encountered someone who hides behind jargon and passive-aggressive or imprecise communication. It’s a fine line.

Overall, Mark Cuban’s candor is refreshing and a key part of his charisma.

On the “Shark Tank” show, Cuban objects most vehemently whenever a founder makes exaggerated, fraudulent, or pseudoscientific marketing claims. He has many strong opinions and readily shares them.

Cuban also reminds us that being candid doesn’t necessarily mean being critical. We can also be heartfelt and earnest.

Cuban is the owner of the Mavs, a Dallas-based basketball team. After the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and other passengers in a helicopter accident, Cuban paid his respects on social media, noting that “Kobe was an ambassador for our game, a decorated legend and a global icon” in addition to being “a loving and dedicated father.”

Cuban also took a moment to reflect on the preciousness of life and tweet out his appreciation:

# 5 | Maintain optimism and playfulness

Cuban is largely optimistic about the future of technology. He seems to be having fun with his wealthy lifestyle but he also respects the value of hard work, persistence, and ongoing learning. And he accepts that some things are necessarily chaotic or beyond his control.

When asked by Business Insider what advice he’d give to his 20-year-old self, Cuban replied, “Don’t stress. Don’t change anything, have fun, don’t stress. You don’t have to know what you are going to be when you grow up, you don’t have to have answers, you don’t have to have the perfect major, you don’t have to pick the perfect job. You’re allowed to fuck up.”