Jon Hayes ’03 stood on the set of the ABC television show “Shark Tank” and considered the deal that billionaire entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban had just offered: $320,000 for 10 percent of Hayes’ Cary-based tech startup RewardStock.
“Mark Cuban is probably the single most influential investor in the startup world,” reflected Hayes, himself a former Wall Street investment banker. “He’s got a huge portfolio and a huge network, and he’s also a very visible investor; people recognize his name, and that alone opens a lot of doors and lends a lot of credibility.”
As the cameras zoomed in on Hayes’ face, his steely cool gave way to a smile. “Mark,” he said, “you’ve got a deal.”
Cuban rose from his chair and embraced Hayes with a smile of his own: “I had no doubt.”
RewardStock is a membership website that manages credit card and airline reward points for users — maximizing their cash value by automatically transferring them among programs using an algorithm Hayes and his team developed. On the “Shark Tank” episode, Hayes said he booked a $40,000 honeymoon in the Maldives for $200 in cash using the techniques as well as round-trip flights to Hawaii for $16.
Months after the summer taping in Los Angeles and a week after the episode aired — the handshake is an agreement in principle with detailed terms to follow — Hayes says he and Cuban just recently finalized their deal.
Since the episode aired, “we’ve had an explosion of users coming to the site and signing up, and our small team has been working around the clock as we try to onboard all those users,” Hayes says. “We are proud that our servers didn’t crash — that happens frequently with companies that go on ‘Shark Tank.’”
Hayes says this transformational moment for his business arose from a progression of events leading back to his days at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
“I wouldn’t be on ‘Shark Tank’ if I weren’t running a pretty cool startup,” he says. “I wouldn’t be doing that if I didn’t have the investment banking and finance training. And I can say with a high degree of certainty I would not have been an investment banker if I didn’t go to an Ivy League school — if I didn’t go to Princeton. And I feel like I probably wouldn’t have gotten into Princeton if I didn’t go to Science and Math. You can take it all the way back.”
Hayes grew up in a military family. Born in Durham, he lived up and down the East Coast as a child before landing at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh. He was chosen for a special program where Shaw University placed public school students in weekend and summer internships at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Research Triangle Park.
“It was a bunch of smart kids from public schools all over the Triangle area,” he remembers. “One friend was a year ahead of me and had just applied to Science and Math, which was the first time I heard of it. My grandmother had planted the idea that I should go to an Ivy League school when I was 8 or 10 years old, and when I looked at the stats for how many people went to Ivies from my current school versus Science and Math, I was blown away.”
He applied but initially didn’t get in.
“At that point in my life, it was the biggest disappointment I’d experienced.”
He attended the first two weeks of his junior year at his home high school, but then got a call from the NCSSM Admissions Office to tell him, “‘Hey, I know that we initially weren’t able to accept you because of space, but you are the one person on the top of my list. If you are willing, we have converted a broom closet into a bedroom. It has no windows, but the bed is yours if you want it.’ Before they finished their breath, I said, ‘Yes, I want it!’”
After a few weeks, another student withdrew, and he was soon able to move into a regular dorm room. Indeed, he achieved his goal of being accepted to Princeton. He now returns to NCSSM annually to recruit current students to apply to the elite university.
“One of the things I say to those students is that the School of Science and Math is so rigorous, you really have all of the educational preparation that you need,” Hayes says — even compared with those who attended elite private boarding schools. “That’s an important part of this story, because if I had to come up with even ten or twenty thousand dollars for (prep school) tuition, I simply wouldn’t have gone. I think that it says a lot about the state of North Carolina that we have this amazing resource, and that it’s a public resource.”