Investor Chris Sacca joins ABC’s “Shark Tank” as a guest shark. He tells Jefferson Graham about the experience on #TalkingTech.
By Sean Fujiwara
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Outspoken billionaire tech investor Chris Sacca wasn’t prepared for the rough and tumble ways of the Shark Tank.
“I was waiting my turn” to speak, he said. “You have to just bark.”
Sacca, 40, is adjusting to his new role as a “guest shark.” He has taped four episodes of the popular ABC investment series that begins airing Fridays at 9 p.m.
Sacca landed the Shark Tank gig in an unconventional way: By blasting the show in tweets to his 1.6 million followers, only to run into the top producer of the show at a Halloween event last October here in Manhattan Beach, a sleepy Los Angeles surf city of 35,000 residents.
“Our fans jumped all over him,” recalls Shark Tank’s executive producer Clay Newbill of the initial tweet fury.
But Newbill liked Sacca’s story and his forthright style, and says he met with Sacca five times to convince him to come on the show. On the set, Sacca, who is partial to embroidered cowboy shirts (he rarely appears in public without them) showed he “really had done his homework,” Newbill says. “He wasn’t intimidated by the other Sharks — he went toe to toe with them.”
The nation may be getting acquainted with Sacca for the first time, but the former Google employee turned billionaire angel investor is well-known in the technology industry for making sharp investments (Uber and Twitter are two of his large holdings) and for having an even sharper tongue.
He used his stature and social media presence to very publicly pummel the Twitter board of directors over the company’s lack of direction and momentum, first in a 8,559-word manifesto and then repeatedly on Twitter. Ultimately he helped pressure directors to replace CEO Dick Costolo with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, but not before accusing the board of being “jammed with members who don’t own a lot of stock, don’t use the product and are in the way.”
His public shaming of the board in an industry that usually holds those kinds of conversations behind boardroom doors didn’t win him friends on the board, some of whom dubbed Sacca the “Unabomber,” for his frequent outbursts, according to Vanity Fair. It’s a name he says he didn’t appreciate. USA TODAY reached out to several board members about Sacca, and all declined to comment.
Sacca says he tried working within the system at first, and when that wasn’t working, “I took a shot and called a spade a spade.”
The strategy worked, he says. “We got the result we wanted.”
In the technology world, Sacca is something of an indomitable force.
Forbes pegs Sacca’s net worth at $1.2 billion, with a golden track record for picking hits — he was an early investor in Uber, Twitter, Kickstarter and Instagram. Trained as a lawyer, Sacca began his Lowercase Capital in 2008.
That track record and maverick style have earned him a permanent slot on the tech speaking circuit and many fans.
Start with his 1.6 million Twitter followers, far more than most celebrity tech investors, with the exception of Shark host Mark Cuban, (3.8 million.) In contrast, venture capitalist Fred Wilson has 515,000 followers and Benchmark Capital’s Bill Gurley has 363,000 followers.
Sacca says fans appreciate that he’s not afraid to speak his mind, no matter how high profile or powerful the target. When Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ became the third-richest American last week thanks to a big stock rise in the company, Sacca attacked Wall Street types who complained about Bezos’ business strategy. “Someone should let him know he’s doing it wrong,” he said in that tweet.
Or his thoughts on money sender PayPal: “Hey kids! Ever wondered what the Internet looked and felt like in 1999? Just use @PayPal.”
This week he’s turned up the volume to promote his Shark Tank gig, doing Twitter Q&As, live video Periscope sessions and more, to plug the show.
Sacca pal Hunter Walk, a former Google co-worker who now, like Sacca, runs an investment fund, says using Twitter to get the message across pays off.
“Accessibility is rewarded,” he says. “Authenticity is rewarded.”
Sacca’s success, he says, has been that he’s always been willing to “challenge conventional thinking,” and that resonates with entrepreneurs.
Sacca spoke at a recent USA TODAY #talkingtechLIVE event in Los Angeles, where many of the questions from the crowd concerned how Sacca says he once worked his way out of a $4 million debt. During his law student years, Sacca had a stock portfolio worth $12 million — only to see it fall to negative $4 million within a matter of weeks.
Sacca says he got out the debt hole by taking on various jobs he found — from writing contracts to doing voiceovers for an audio book. He eventually landed on his feet as a lawyer, working as a general counsel for tech firms, then joined Google as head of special initiatives in 2003. He started his Lowercase Capital investment and advisory firm in 2008.
On Shark Tank, high-profile investors like Cuban listen to pitches from entrepreneurs and then debate whether to put in their own money.
Sacca says his investment strategy is simple: “I’m looking for founders from whom I can sense the inevitability of their success,” he says.
Brad Feld, who runs the Boulder-based TechStars fund to find future tech start-ups, has invested with Sacca before, and says his friend just has a “remarkable sense” of what will work. He can “visualize what the future of a product might evolve into along with an uncanny ability to determine which founders are amazing.”
Shooting Shark Tank also reminded Sacca why he got into tech investing in the first place, advising entrepreneurs such as Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom, who sold his company to Facebook and, in the early days of Uber, company founder Travis Kalanick.
“As my business has gotten bigger and the stakes have gotten higher, with that has come a lot of politics and friction. I spend less time than ever working on product,” he said. “But Shark Tank brought me back to those early days of my career when I was just meeting with a pair of founders who had a great idea, a bit of code, and boundless ambition.”
Sacca will appear on the show several more times this season, says Shark Tank’s Newbill.
And with the tapings of the show behind him, Sacca is a convert.
“If you’re a watcher of the show, you’re constantly screaming back at the screen,” he says. “So to do it directly was a dream come true.”
Follow USA TODAY tech columnist and #TalkingTech host Jefferson Graham on Twitter @jeffersongraham.
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