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!