Entrepreneurs extraordinaire share startup tips

The University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School.
By Michael R. Malone

The University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School.

Entrepreneurs extraordinaire share startup tips

By Michael R. Malone
Board of Trustees chair Laurie Silvers teamed with her husband and business partner, Mitchell Rubenstein, to share insights with budding entrepreneurs about their experiences in creating the Syfy Channel and a galaxy of other startups, in a presentation hosted by the Miami Herbert Business School.

Laurie Silvers and Mitchell Rubenstein, both attorneys specializing in media and entertainment, recounted the trials and tribulations—and ultimate extraordinary success—of turning their fantasy for a science fiction channel into a reality in the early 1990s, a venture they later sold to USA Network that is now owned by NBCUniversal Television. 

Their Distinguished Leaders Lecture, moderated by John Quelch, dean of the University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School, and Patricia Abril, professor and chair of the school’s Department of Business Law, took place April 13 at the Finker-Frenkel Family Promenade. 

Key to creating the Sci-Fi Channel, the original name for what became one of the largest cable channels at the time, was to secure the support of universally known author and professor Isaac Asimov and Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. 

“How we ultimately got to these iconic men was a long journey of finding some people who had some connection with them,” said Silvers, chair of the University’s Board of Trustees. “You need people out there touting your idea and reinforcing it so that people will take you seriously.” 

Rubenstein’s own fascination with science fiction fueled their odyssey to fill “the huge missing niche” in the media industry at the time. 

Together the partners set more than 100 business meetings over three years in an attempt to raise funding and advance the project. The biggest challenge was securing a transponder to broadcast—only two satellite companies at the time had that technology.

They were able to convince GE by agreeing to pay $500,000 up front. 

“To buy the satellite transponder took pretty much all the money we had at the time—it was a giant leap of faith,” Silvers said. “As an entrepreneur you sometimes do things that don’t seem to make sense, but they do to you, so you take the risk.” 

“Up until then, we weren’t told ‘no,’ just that we weren’t ready yet,” Rubenstein explained. By simply adding a slide to their presentation about securing the transponder from GE “gave us instant credibility,” he noted.

Silvers and Rubenstein met in high school in Miami. Both went on to study law and practiced together in the same firm before becoming business partners and a married couple. The early going for two entrepreneurs in the same household sometimes pushed patience to the brink, Silvers said. 

“We had two young children at home at the time, and both of us were flying all over the country,” she said. “How do you take care of your family? How do you make payroll and supervise a staff?” 

“It was years and years, and we couldn’t get people to pay attention to us,” Silvers added. “But we jumped in with the idea that we’re going to figure it out, and we did. There were enough positive things happening that kept us going.”

Quelch asked if their appetite for startups satiated after the sale of the channel. 

“One of the things about starting from scratch and building—and then selling— something big is that it relieves pressure a lot of people feel,” Rubenstein said. “There are many benefits to being an entrepreneur, so we started all over again. And we like to think big, so we have tackled some big things.” 

Those big things have moved the partners to build a radio, TV, and internet conglomerate that includes being majority owners of four South Florida FM stations, co-CEOs of Hollywood.com, and co-founders and managing members of a global esports and gaming company, among other ventures. 

A student asked, “How do you develop a vision and stick with it?” 

“It’s not easy, you have to be very, very focused,” Silvers responded. “We’re both lawyers, and one of the things they teach you as a lawyer is to identify your issues and obstacles. You have to believe in what you’re doing and devote everything to it.” 

Silvers, who is a double alumna of the University with a bachelor’s of arts and law degree, credited her law degree with teaching her that focus. 

“I entered law school as one persona and graduated another. I read every contract, and when I get to any quirk in the road, I’m always using those law skills,” she said. 

Paying forward the success she’s known has become pivotal, Silvers said. 

“As a woman going through the process, I had a lot of obstacles,” Silvers said. “So, a lot of what I try to do is to help so that women in the next generation don’t have those same obstacles. I feel it’s my obligation.”