Undercover Billionaire and the Opportunity Narrative

Billionaire sleeping in old pickup truck - Erie, Pa

Billionaire sleeping in old pickup truck, Erie PA

by Don Rippert

The show.  The Discovery Channel started airing a new series about a billionaire who goes to Erie, Pa with an old pickup truck, $100 and a cell phone with no contacts.  His goal is to build a business worth $1m in 90 days.  If he achieves the goal he will share ownership of the business with the employees.  If he fails he will finance the business with $1m of his own money.  This show strikes me as a laboratory experiment regarding Jim Bacon’s Opportunity Narrative.

Glen Stearns.  The undercover billionaire is a real-life billionaire named Glen Stearns.  Stearns grew up relatively poor in Silver Spring, MD.  Stearns’ biography states, “At 18, Glenn Stearns had racked up a resume that impressed no one: he was dyslexic; failed fourth grade; fathered a child at 14; entertained an alcoholic’s drinking habit; toyed with trouble that landed him in jail a few nights; and graduated high school in the bottom 10-percent of his class.”  Ultimately Stearns managed to get into what is now Salisbury University then transfer to Towson State where he got his degree in economics.  On a trip to California he came to the conclusion that one could make money in real estate and he got a job as a home loan officer while splitting time working as a waiter.  Ten months later Stearns and a partner started their own mortgage lending business.  A few years later he bought out his partner, survived the Great Recession (barely) and built Stearns Lending into the mortgage juggernaught that made him a billionaire.

Erie, Pa.  Erie, Pennsylvania is a small city that once had a population of 138,000 (1960).  Today, just over 96,000 people call Erie home.  For whatever reason Erie is where Glen Stearns will try to turn $100 into a million dollar business in 90 days.  Stearns claims he had no say in the choice of Erie and had never been to Erie before the show started filming.

So far.  The eight part series has aired two episodes to date.  Stearns was seen sleeping in his truck, down to $30, working in a printing shop, selling St Patrick’s paraphernalia during a St Patty’s Day parade and flipping cars for profit.  He looked into starting a craft brewery but dismissed the idea.  Throughout the show he dispenses pithy business advice as he tries to relate what he learned in the mortgage business to creating a $1m company in Erie.

The wrap.  This is an interesting idea for a reality show.  Conventional liberal victimhood theory holds that nobody can take $100 and build a $1m business in 90 days without some form of unfair advantage.  Yet that seems to be exactly what Stearns hopes to do.  I have my doubts about all reality TV.  For example, as Stearns wanders around Erie trying to gin up the capital needed to start a business he is followed by a camera crew.  He explains this away by using a pseudonym and claiming he is making a documentary on The American Dream.  Does he get extra attention from people who want to be in the documentary?  It would seem so to me.  I also have read of very recent financial troubles at Stearns Lending and wonder whether the “Glen Stearns story” might not be a bit exaggerated.  However, it will be interesting to watch the remaining six episodes to see what tricks of the entrepreneurial trade Stearns will try.  One thing for sure Mr. Stearns … now that you are a billionaire with reality TV on your resume …. please do not entertain thoughts of going into national politics.  Please …. for the love of all that is sacred – one reality TV billionaire president is enough!

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11 responses to “Undercover Billionaire and the Opportunity Narrative

  1. The thing folks have to remember is that LIKE a lot of famous sports figures and entertainers – he is a rare person with exceptional talent – that most folks don’t have.

    The narrative that if he can do it anyone can is just not a reality – no more than any kid can become an NBA star or an Taylor Swift.

    MOST folks don’t have extraordinary talent and it is MOST folks that “opportunity” helps – otherwise – we’d not need or have ANY “opportunity” provided by the Government to “help” folks.

    There are always “success” stories but we really mess up when we ask or assert why all of us can’t achieve those same levels of success AND then accuse those that don’t of claiming faux “oppression”.

    Perhaps an interesting question is why govt should be in the business of offering “opportunity” in the first place. Should the govt be offering public school in the first place? It costs a heck of a lot of money and there are massive failures. No matter how much we spend on it – we end up with a significant number of ignorant folks…. right?

    I swear – common sense and rational perspectives are getting rarer and rarer…!!!

    • Why do you think he has exceptional talent? He failed fourth grade and graduated in the bottom 10% of his high school class. He was a father at 14 and spent some time in jail. This is exactly the background a liberal would claim makes it impossible to succeed in America. I watched the first two episodes and he wasn’t doing any real deep thinking. He tried to sell doggie fetch toys at dog parks and failed miserably. He didn’t sell one. He got temporary work at a tee shirt silk screen shop because he replied to a help wanted ad. Once he got there he realized that all their St Patty’s Day stuff was being marked down to almost nothing because it was St Patty’s Day. So, he took the stuff and went down the parade route and from bar to bar selling the stuff to people who were half in the bag. He used that money to buy a car from a used car lot that was going out of business, washed and waxed the car, put on new tires and parked it by a busy intersection with a For Sale sign. He took those profits and did the same to a second car.

      By the end of the second episode he had thousands of dollars – by hustling not by some algorithmic trading of pig belly futures.

      Anybody could have done what he did. There was no NBA star or Taylor Swift talent level.

      As far as the public schools – they seem to have failed him pretty badly. Barely graduated, held back in fourth grade, father at 14, jail time.

      The point is that he was willing to work hard, sleep in his truck, he handed out food at a shelter to get a meal, he performed menial work. He saved the money he made and turned it into more money.

      Sorry Larry but there’s no magical talent here. Just hard work. The kind of hard work anybody could have done. However, I guess it’s easier to complain and demand “Medicare for All” then to get you ass in gear and make something of yourself.

      We’ll see how it all turns out.

  2. Fascinating experiment. First observation: The goal is insane. Build a business worth $1 million in 90 days? Most people would be satisfied to build a business worth $1 million in 90 months. So, the program has set a very high bar for success.

    Second observation: Many entrepreneurs rely upon personal connections to help them climb the ladder. That’s a second strike against Stearns. He’s working in a strange city where he doesn’t have “contacts” in the banking industry to lend him money or buddies at the country club to help him get his foot in the door with local bigwigs. Stearns is truly starting out the same as any Ordinary Joe (with the exception that he has years of business-building smarts under his belt).

    • We’ll see if he builds a business worth $1m by the end of the 90 days. That does sound like a tall order but it will require a business appraisal to determine the value of the business.

      What astounds me is the inventiveness of Stearns. At one point in his use he found vintage beer cans by the side of the road and sold them for a handsome profit.

  3. Interesting post. I also read about the financial issues with Stearns Holdings but am not sure about how much to hold that against Stearns. If you recall, quite a few prominent financial firms,k such as Merrill Lynch had to merge or in some cases shut down in the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Also, I have trouble with the idea that an entrepreneur needs inside help from the monied, country club types in a locality. Plenty of high tech startups didn’t go that route, which seems so, well, Ozzie and Harriet.

    • The Chapter 11 filing of Stearns Lending happened this year as I recall. They were “bailed out” by Blackrock. Sometimes a bankruptcy reorganization isn’t that big a deal. It’s often a way of recapitalizing from equity to debt. My question is whether Stearns is still a billionaire. Regardless, he is very rich and very self-made.

      I agree with your observation that real entrepreneurs need help from cronies at country clubs, etc. They don’t. A lot of wealth is generated through well heeled contacts at country clubs but I can’t really call that entrepreneurship.

      The most interesting thing to me is Stearns’ lack of capital. $100 is not much as a start. So far, he’s been engaged in a series of low level transactions that have allowed him to start raising capital. We’ll see if he ends up building his own capital or shopping a business case to potential investors / lenders. The former would be more interesting, the latter more likely to create a $1m enterprise in 90 days.

  4. Stearns story has power and relevance because it is the story how and who built America into the commercial success and powerhouse that America is. And it all really began from the founding of the colonies in 1607.

    • We’ll ultimately see how Stearns does. A guy with a pretty pedestrian education waltzes into a town where he’s never been with $100 and a pickup truck trying to build a $1m business in 90 days. It seems like a long shot to me but it sure is entertaining.

  5. re: “exceptional talent that failed in earlier life, often in school or
    at first business attempts.

    yup. quite a few – including … Einstein and Bill Gates

    ” All Entrepreneurs Face Failure But the Successful Ones Didn’t Quit”


    Still – these folks are the rare exceptions not the norm!

    It’s like calling DJ a “failure” because he did not become an NBA star – after all a whole bunch of others did it so why not him?

    • You should watch the show. It’s on Thursday at 10 pm. He isn’t starting a technology company or developing the Theory of Relativity. He isn’t dropping strings of three pointers. On the last show he was buying used cars cheap and selling them for more money than he paid. In other words, he’s doing things that anybody could do.

      By the way, Einstein grew up in pre-WWII Germany not modern-day America and Gates went to Harvard before he decided to drop out so not quite an educational failure.

      Many liberal commentators claim the game is rigged in America. They claim you have to be born rich to get rich(er), only people graduating from expensive highly rated colleges / universities can get good jobs. Connections win while chutzpa fails. Etc. This guy is going to Erie, PA with $100 and trying to turn that stake into a $1m business in 90 days. If he can do that Larry I’d say the American dream is far from dead.

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