The star of Discovery's 'Undercover Billionaire' explains how recovering from cancer inspired him to try and turn $100 into a million-dollar business in 90 days
- "Undercover Billionaire" is a new TV show that premieres August 6 at 10 p.m. on Discovery, in which the entrepreneur Glenn Stearns tries to create a million-dollar company in 90 days.
- The twist is that Stearns, who made his fortune in the mortgage-lending business, will have to build the new business in Erie, Pennsylvania, with only $100, a cell phone, and an old pickup truck, and without his previous contacts.
- In an interview with Business Insider, Stearns explained how his cancer diagnosis and recovery led to the idea for the show, and broke down some early lessons he learned in Erie about starting a business today.
When entrepreneur Glenn Stearns was hit with cancer five years ago, he thought about what made him feel most alive.
Stearns, who had made a fortune in the mortgage-lending business, had a lot of creature comforts to choose from, including his 190-foot yacht and flights on private planes. But none of that came to mind.
"I'd never felt more alive than when I was going for it, swinging for the fences," he told Business Insider in a recent interview. That time was early in Stearns' career, when he had nothing.
And an idea got stuck in his head: What if he tried to do it all over again? Could he build a business from scratch and recreate his self-made origin story?
"I wanted to challenge myself and see if it's possible to really make it again, or was it luck," he said. He also wanted to show his kids, who had seen him very sick as he was recovering from the cancer ("It's gone now," he added), that it's never too late to take a chance.
Stearns also had a bit of a taste for the TV spotlight that he last explored in the 2004 reality show, "The Real Gilligan's Island," a "Survivor"-like show in which the contestants acted like characters from the iconic 1960s sitcom. (Stearns played "the millionaire" and won the show.)
The end result of Stearns' drive to recreate his origin story premieres Tuesday, August 6, at 10 p.m. on Discovery, in the form of a new TV show called "Undercover Billionaire."
'The American Dream'
For "Undercover Billionaire," Discovery sent Stearns to Erie, Pennsylvania, to see if he could create a million-dollar business in 90 days, starting with only $100, a cell phone, and an old pickup truck. He wasn't allowed to use any previous contacts.
In meeting Erie locals, Stearns assumed the alias of "Glenn Bryant," a "regular guy" who had always dreamed of starting a business, and was participating in a new TV show called "The American Dream."
"I said I'd had cancer," he said, and that he was thinking that "life is short and I don't want to have my last breath and have regrets [about wanting] to see if I could build a business." That was all true. In fact, filming on the show had to be delayed because of a recurrence of his cancer, Stearns said.
"What I left out to people was that I had already built a business," he said.
From surviving to thriving
Before Stearns started the show, he'd assumed he would succeed. But those first few days in Erie shook his confidence, he said.
"That's a great lesson I learned," he said. "It's very hard when you don't have enough money to even get by … Getting past the step of surviving and getting into a period of thriving was difficult." He had to go through two stages: First getting shelter, food, and gas, and then actually building a business.
In the pilot episode, we see Stearns sleeping in his truck during winter in Erie, a balance of "coldness versus gas consumption," he said.
But, as predicted, starting from the ground up invigorated him, he said.
He spoke to over 100 people in that first week, trying to figure out what made the city of Erie tick, without any valuable business connections or toys to offer people.
"I was sitting here as Glenn this regular guy [who] didn't have the gravitas," he said. "People were so genuine, wonderful."
He talked to them about their personal lives, the story of Erie, and its young entrepreneurs. He found people who could help him get his nascent business ideas off the ground.
'Put your money where your mouth is'
During the show's run, we'll see whether Stearns succeeded or failed in his goal, but no matter the outcome, he said Discovery wanted him to "put your money where your mouth is."
To that end, after the 90 days, an independent financial evaluator will assess the value of the new company to see if it hit the $1 million mark, Discovery said in a press release. If it does, the top-performing team members will earn a stake in the company and a key role in running it.
But, the company added: "If it's a penny short of $1 million, Glenn will put $1 million of his own money into the business."
And Stearns will go back to Orange County, his family, and his toys.
Back in the game
In our interview in a cafe in New York City, Stearns wouldn't give any hint about the outcome of the show, but his smiles - from someone who dubbed his reputation "worth more than anything in the world" - suggested he was able to build something during his time in Erie.
Now Stearns said he's ready to "take a run at the mortgage banking business again."
His previous foray into the space, Stearns Lending, made over $500 million in revenue in 2014 and 1,700 employees before Blackstone acquired a 70% stake in it in 2015 (the deal terms were not publicly disclosed).
"I'm right in the middle of trying to figure out which way to go on that," he said. "I'll leave it at that."
"Undercover Billionaire" airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on Discovery.
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