If Dish Network co-founder Charlie Ergen could turn back time and give his much-younger self advice, he would tell himself to use sandbags to stabilize a trailer that delivered the first giant satellite dish to a Pagosa Springs customer in 1980.
But had he done that, Ergen wouldn’t have one of the better stories of any entrepreneur to share with Denver Startup Week attendees Tuesday night when Ergen made a rare public appearance alongside Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Boulder venture capitalist Brad Feld.
“It was about 4 a.m. near Walsenburg, and there was a gust of wind and I did, in fact, say, ‘Oh, (poop)!’ because the dish went into the median. We only had two dishes. I lost half the assets of the company,” said Ergen, CEO of the Douglas County satellite TV service. “It was almost the first day of the company, and honest to God, that (starting up) was the hardest part of the business. I found at the time that I had partners who would live with me even though I nearly bankrupted the company. I had partners I could trust, and when you trust the people you’re working with, you can accomplish a lot.”
Easy to laugh about it now, of course. Dish Network is ranked 186th on the Fortune 500 list, and Ergen is Colorado’s richest man, with a net worth of $18.8 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
On Tuesday night, he contrasted sharply with the T-shirt-wearing Cuban, the other billionaire on stage and who’s known for his boisterous personality and willingness to tango on Twitter with President Donald Trump. Ergen, wearing a suit but no tie, held his own at the event at Ellie Caulkins Opera House where the two joked about how they met (“I was trying out for the Mavericks,” Ergen said) and offered some telling stories when prodded by Feld, who moderated.
“We had no money. The Chinese thought we had money. We thought they could launch satellites, so that was a good match,” Ergen said of the moment he knew his satellite TV company had made it. “In 20 minutes, we’d have a controlled explosion where we had a 50 percent chance of being successful. And it actually worked.”
For Cuban, a star on ABC’s “Shark Tank” and who in 1999 sold his internet radio company to Yahoo for $5.7 billion, his startup story began with getting fired for not showing up to work to sweep floors and open the computer store. He had a good reason: He thought his boss would forgive him because he instead made a $15,000 sale to a customer. He still got fired. So, he began calling everyone he knew and persuaded an architectural lighting firm to float him the money so he could buy and install software on the company’s computers. One referral led to another — and seven years later, MicroSolutions was making $30 million in annual revenues before he sold it to Compuserve in 1990.
He, too, credits people and vendors who helped keep the company going, especially after a receptionist made off with $82,000 of the $84,000 in the company’s bank account.
“We were two years into MicroSolutions, and I got a call from the bank and they go, ‘Mark, we got to tell you something,’” Cuban recalled. The bank explained that a lady had just cashed a bunch of company checks but had whited-out the payee name and typed in her own. “You didn’t cash them, right? ‘Oh, yeah, we did.’”
The bank wouldn’t take responsibility, and Cuban realized he had to keep going.
“We had great vendor partners and great people at the office. We didn’t have a choice. We couldn’t get mad, we had to go back to work and solve the problem,” he said. “We just went back and called our vendors, explained what happened, asked for more time and they gave it to us. We became a stronger company as a result.”
Cuban went on to start AudioNet in 1995 because it grew annoying to listen to his alma mater’s basketball games on a speaker phone. A friend in Bloomington, Ind., would set a telephone receiver in front of a radio broadcasting the Indiana University game so Cuban and his friends in Dallas could listen.
He worked with Dallas sports-talk radio stations to make audio recordings of their broadcasts, encoded them to work digitally and then put the WAV files online so anyone in the world could listen to Dallas sports radio shows. Later renamed Broadcast.com, the company soon began streaming audio — and later video — of major sports games live before Yahoo snapped it up in 1999.
“I can’t tell you how many times I explained to someone that you’re going to have a device connected to the internet and we’re going to put audio and video on it and you’re going to be able to watch whatever you want whenever you want. ‘That is so stupid. That’s never going to work. I have a TV,’” Cuban said of people’s reactions. “When we had 1 million users, that’s when we started to take off.”
The two entrepreneurs first met when Cuban was pitching another company, HDNet, a channel he co-founded in 2001 that broadcast high-definition shows.
“When we started high definition, everyone was looking at these big TVs and saying, ‘That’s a $25,000 TV. No one is going to pay $25,000 for a TV.’ And I said, ‘Just wait. It’s going to follow the same price performance curves as PCs. High definition is going to be ubiquitous,’” Cuban said. “Charlie was like, ‘Let’s give it a run.’ Dish was our second (customer).”
Ergen piped in, “We still carry HDNet, 1-800-333-DISH if you don’t have a subscription.”
To which Cuban responded, “It’s called AXS TV now, but yeah.”
The camaraderie between the self-made billionaires who both started with nearly nothing seemed genuine, giving the audience insight into how entrepreneurship gets done.
“If I could say something nice about Mark, he is going to run for president of the United States,” said Ergen, calling it a privilege to get to know someone with different perspectives like Cuban. “And it’s important if you get a chance to do it so you don’t make the same mistakes.”