When I began writing about Discovery’s reality show “Undercover Billionaire” — in which entrepreneur Glenn Stearns hides his identity to try and create a million-dollar company in 90 days in Erie, Pennsylvania, starting with only $100, a cell phone, and an old pickup truck — readers immediately wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes.
The show follows Stearns, who goes by the alias Glenn Bryant, as he begins to scrape together the cash and new connections needed to bring a business to life.
But there’s a bit of TV magic going on. To explain the cameras following Stearns around, Discovery gave him a cover story: He was a regular guy who had always wanted to start a business and was participating in a new show called “The American Dream,” to see if he could do so in Erie.
As some readers pointed out, the cameras likely legitimized Stearns in the eyes of some business owners he approached. They didn’t see him as just some disheveled man who looked like he’d been sleeping in his car — which he had been — but rather a contestant on a reality TV show.
But that could only get Stearns so far. He still had to convince them to invest their time, and labor, in his vision.
“I had some people who were not interested at all,” Stearns told Business Insider in a recent interview. “They didn’t make the cut” of the TV show. He said the ones who chose to join his team had small-business experience and a history of taking chances. They also responded well to the idea of helping bring jobs to Erie.
“It’s a very hyper-local environment,” Stearns said of the Erie business climate. “They don’t like being called dreary Erie.”
These people helped Stearns build his restaurant, Underdog BBQ, into a business that employs over 50 people, features 11 local beers, and has continued well after the show’s conclusion, Stearns said.
“It’s maturing and growing, and continuing to do better and better,” he said. “When you only have 90 days, it’s basically at a launching point. We have great management in there now…I still am probably every day on a call with those guys.”
What you didn’t see on the screen.
There were a few times during the show when Stearns admitted he had to break character.
“You can’t buy a house with a fake name,” he said in reference to the house he flipped to get start-up cash for Underdog BBQ. “I’m not going to commit fraud.” But he said the producers tried to structure it so that someone with $35,000 in income could have qualified for the same loan he got to buy it.
And while viewers see Stearns struggling to get Underdog BBQ off the ground, the series didn’t show his health problems that almost derailed “Undercover Billionaire” entirely.
“The show really hasn’t talked about how I’ve been through a lot of health things,” Stearns said. “They have downplayed that and I like that.”
He didn’t want the show to be too “poor me,” he said.
But Stearns actually had to postpone the shooting of the show because of a recurrence of cancer, which he was first diagnosed with five years ago, he said.
‘There’s probably 10% who want money…’
Stearns said he’s proud of how “Undercover Billionaire” turned out.
“Some shows are there to create drama, mindless entertainment,” he said. Of those who contacted him, he said, chuckling, “There’s probably 10% who want money.”
But the majority of people reaching out weren’t asking for anything, he said. They found the show inspiring.
That speaks to how “Undercover Billionaire” reaches beyond its core premise over the course of its eight episodes. As I watched a screener of the finale, I found I didn’t much care about the big reveal at the end: Whether Underdog BBQ would be valued at $1 million by an independent evaluator.
It was clear that Stearns and his team had built something substantial from scratch in 90 days. Whether it could endure was another question, but it could already stand on its own two feet.
The finale of “Undercover Billionaire” airs at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, September 24.