Two years ago, Raleigh’s Jonathan Hayes was trying to calm his nerves before he appeared on “Shark Tank,” the popular ABC reality show where entrepreneurs pitch ideas to well-known investors.
He was on the show to tout his startup RewardStock, whose technology helps users optimize frequent-flyer miles and hotel and credit card reward points.
What resulted was a “very intense” few minutes that involved island-themed dancers, as he quickly tried to sell his company on national television. In the end, he did well enough to net a six-figure investment from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Now, it’s Cuban turn to net a return.
That’s because RewardStock has been bought by financial information giant Experian, Hayes told The News & Observer.
The deal closed earlier this year, and terms were not disclosed, though Hayes described it as a “great deal for everyone involved.”
He plans to stick around with Experian for the foreseeable future, as the company integrates RewardStock’s technology into its platform. Experian has not yet responded to a request for comment.
“I started this with the confidence that ultimately I would get to a place like this,” Hayes said in an interview. He said the journey has been surreal. “But it is one thing to aspire to something and it is another thing to realize it.”
Thanks to his experience on “Shark Tank,” Hayes has been one of the more prominent entrepreneurs in the Triangle in recent years. His company’s rise is an example of how an entrepreneur can tap into the resources of the Triangle.
A graduate of the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham, Hayes returned to the Triangle after quitting his job in investment banking in New York. He’d always wanted to come back here to start a family. But the move was in part prompted by the idea for RewardStock.
Hayes had spent three weeks researching how to use credit card points to pay for his honeymoon to the Maldives. And he ended up paying about $200 for a $40,000 trip. But it was a confusing and time-intensive process, and most people waste their points, leaving money on the table.
So he went to work creating a proprietary algorithm that could do that research in just a few seconds. And thus RewardStock was born.
He started the company in Raleigh, mainly for the lower cost of living, but he quickly found a string of resources that helped him build the company.
He got a grant from the entrepreneurial foundation NC IDEA. He joined the American Underground hub of startups in Durham, where he connected with more experienced entrepreneurs. And he was selected for the inaugural Google summit for Black founders that is held in Durham every year.
“I did not expect or know this robust entrepreneurial ecosystem here,” Hayes said. “That was icing on the cake and I have really found it to be a great environment to build a company. (The Triangle) is an incredibly collaborative and collegial environment.”
It was also a local investor that gave RewardStock its first boost. The Cary venture capital firm Cofounders Capital invested $350,000 in RewardStock in 2015.
The deal gave Hayes access to free office space for him and his two employees, and an investor that continued to support him while the business grew.
David Gardner, managing partner of Cofounders, said when he worked with Hayes it quickly “became apparent how smart and passionate he was about the technology and value he was creating.”
“We are thrilled for Jon and his team and their successful exit to Experian,” Gardner said, adding his firm received a “nice return” from the sale.
Cuban, who invested $320,000 in RewardStock for a 10% ownership stake, was the only other investor in the company. The N&O has reached out to Cuban for comment, but has not yet received a response.
Hayes described Cuban’s advice as really valuable, and said they have kept in touch following the sale.
Experian had always been in the back of Hayes’ mind as a potential partner.
It is one of the largest credit-reporting companies in the U.S., and it tracks the kind of data that RewardStock could leverage into advice for its users.
In the past few years, Hayes said, the company has tried to expand beyond providing credit scores for people. It has also invested in creating platforms that help people decide which credit card or loan might be best for their financial profile.
There was a lot of alignment between the two companies, Hayes said.
“There is a void of clear and unbiased guidance” around consumer finance, Hayes said, “and that is central to what we built at RewardStock and what Experian is doing now.”
With Experian, he said, RewardStock will have more resources to leverage data into advice for people.
The deal, which resulted after years of conversations, allows Hayes and his team to keep working on the RewardStock technology, even as it is integrated into Experian.
“Ultimately, what I am aiming to do is help people get as much value as they can out of their financial decisions,” Hayes said. “(Travel points) are one application of financial rewards, but it is not the only one.
“What I would love to see — and as a consumer would love to experience — is the type of platform that really optimizes my outcomes by making better financial decisions.”
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate