Illustration by Samantha Hahn.
Barbara Corcoran is a legend. She built a real estate brokerage empire in NY from zero. If you lived in NY in the 1990s her presence was inescapable. She started her business with a $1000 loan and sold it for $66 million in 2001. The rest of the world got to know her down-to-earth sensibilities via ABC’s reality show Shark Tank. Barb is a force of nature — sharp, lovely, and doing her best to elevate those around her. The lessons she told me were so simple, yet so right on: family first, stay connected, find joy, work hard, and trust our gut instincts.
To help worthy women entrepreneurs get a leg up, she is pushing the word out about a great opportunity: The Systane Real Relief for Visionary Women campaign’s $5000 grant program. This conversation with her is one of the most fun, and personally most useful, I have ever done. She is a master. So that all of you can get what I got, it is only lightly edited for grammar. The rest is pure Barb.
Tell me a little bit about what your day-to-day is like these days?
Way too busy, way too many hours, but I’m enjoying 90% of it. I keep going till I run out of gas. Generally, I don’t work on weekends because I have very young children. At least for my age they are young — a 13-year-old and a 24-year-old — and like every parent, they come first. Other than that I work my ass off.
Podcasts and TV
What are the projects you are working on?
Right now I am launching a second podcast, yet to be named. I love podcasts because you get to help people one-on-one. I have people phone in on my 888-Barbara line all the time asking very shockingly intimate questions I wouldn’t want people to publicly hear, but I find I get great feedback because I had a lot of folks listening out there. I’m working on a TV series about my life, it will be sold this fall, and hoping to get multiple bidders. I’m also working on a new show that I’m going to co-host. Other than that I do Shark Tank. I do public appearances. I’m not writing any books because I don’t have the time right now, and I’m leaving enough time to have fun.
“I want to get it all in!”
Why are you doing all this? I mean, there’s no reason you have to work. Why are you working now?
Well, because you only have a limited amount of time. I certainly don’t need the money. But what I really do need in life, and always have needed, is tremendous enjoyment. See how far I could go. In business, see how far I could go. See how much joy I can get out of the work, not only the work ethic around the work. I’m trying to get ten dollars’ worth in every buck. As a good friend has been saying for the last 40 years, “You know, you only have ten good years left,” and that is how I live my life. I want to get it all in!
What do you do to stay relevant in the world?
If you stay in the world, you’re meeting people every day, you’re relevant. I probably meet on an average day 40 new people that I have conversations with. Doing this, you cannot not be relevant. I don’t have time to watch TV or read newspapers, but I’m hearing it first hand as it plays out in individuals and that keeps me fully relevant. I am constantly in the moment, and what is more relevant than being in the moment?
Supporting Women in Business
What is this new women’s business grant program?
It is the Systane Real Relief for Visionary Women campaign and I am so thrilled to be part of it. I have been using Systane for years, and they found out about it. It’s the first thing I put in my bag because I have a problem with dry eyes, which I didn’t know I had. When I discovered the solution through my eye doctor, he recommended Systane, and I haven’t had the problem since. A great product that I’ve been using frequently throughout the day for many years. I love this Real Relief Women’s campaign and what it’s going to do for my favorite people in the world, which is women starting businesses and trying to build young businesses. It gives $5000 grants to many women across the country who really don’t have that $5,000 to get started or to make their business a little bit stronger than what they can do on their own. Then I get to counsel the grand winner, which is my favorite thing in the world, for two hours and revamp their business and give them a roadmap of exactly how they could get to the finish line.
Compensate for Your Weaknesses
Brilliant. You have a lot of experience speaking with new entrepreneurs. What do you find are the most common obstacles that new entrepreneurs have? What are their blind spots?
The blind spots are themselves. They don’t know what they’re lacking. So they don’t seek out compensating for it. You know, each of us has certain gifts and certain liabilities, but most people starting businesses focus on the wow wow wow. They haven’t paused to think, “Hey, where are the obstacles going to be?” Or more importantly, when they reach them, they don’t pause and say, “How can I compensate? Who do I need to help me?” They don’t reach out to help. “Could I get a partner? Could I barter my service for someone’s service?” Like, let’s say I’m a phenomenal accounting firm and I’m just starting social media; could I barter my accounting for some social media help? People tend not to pause and think about how they can compensate for a liability. As a result, they stumble. This has been responsible for most of the businesses that have not done well that I have invested in on Shark Tank.
Getting past that obstacle has been the reason why the ones that are making a ton of money have done so well. It is simply a personality trait of recognizing whether you can do something or not.
I’m looking at the applications coming in in the Systane Real Relief Visionary Women’s Campaign now. I can tell you, reading between the lines on the applications — and by the way, the applications are due by summer’s end on Systane.com — looking at those applications, I can tell you 90% of them fall into the same category. It’s women that aren’t aware of what their gifts are and how to play them up. They’re not aware of what their liability is, to work around it. A part of this program is, we’re giving sage advice to all those women that win the grants to help them, you know, really make their dream come true. That’s such a worthy cause.
The Heroics of “working around a hole”
Who are your heroes?
Of course my mother. She raised 10 kids on a shoestring budget in a two-bedroom flat. We were fed, we were clothed, and most importantly we were loved. It was a tremendous feat. She also ran her household like a business, and I built my business like a household.
But my everyday heroes are most of the businesses we chose on Shark Tank. They are the people who did not have the great mom I had. They didn’t have the household where they had clean bedsheets and everything else, the kid that wasn’t told they were loved, didn’t have one good parent whereas I had two. Somehow they took life by the horns and made a huge success of themselves despite their beginnings. Those to me are the most remarkable heroes because I frankly don’t believe I could have done that without the underpinnings of a lot of love and confidence that I got from my family. Yet I see it every day of the week. It happens, and they wind up being the most successful entrepreneurs. Most of the successful people I’ve met in life are working around a hole, and that’s what makes them successful — they are making up for lost time. Those are the people that I feel slightly diminished by, because I think, “How did they do this?” [Barb herself has been diagnosed with dyslexia, could not read or write until she was in third grade.]
Act Quickly, Trust Your Gut
How do you go about making a big decision like to start a new business?
I tend to do it very quickly, because I am a believer in action. A lot of people get it right, I get it going. I don’t ever go out of the gate with everything right. When you go out with the right people, the right plan, the right finances, what happens is you don’t get it going. And if you do this, you find that when you do go out into the real world, you don’t find what you expected.
You can’t make something inside and apply it to outside. It just doesn’t work that way. So for me, I’m quick to act without a lot of information, trusting my gut. The reason I trust my gut, is I see it as a culmination of everything you’ve learned in life: that’s what a gut reaction is. It’s your gut talking to you. It’s a mixture, like a complicated recipe of all this stuff that’s happening in your life. And so you get a gut reaction if you, like, don’t like someone, or don’t trust someone, and then you talk yourself out of it because there are fine credentials and education. In the end, you are losing money because you couldn’t trust the guy. So I’ve learned to trust my gut in everything I do, and I never really make mistakes that way. I make mistakes in my own judgment pursuing something but not in all the peripheral stuff that I’m judging. I’m not afraid to make a lot of mistakes.
I throw a lot of stuff on the wall. You know, 10% of it might work and I’ll have to feel the pain of the 90% where I misused the money, or pissed it away, disappointed people, had public shame and all that stuff. I’ve been there and done that enough. I’m old enough that I get through it and I’m not so worried about it. I’m just looking for that 10% that is going to hit.
“The giver always wins”
Wow, these women that you’re mentoring have a tremendous resource in you. I’m just thrilled that you’re able to do that with them.
I’ll be more thrilled than you! You know how they say, Are you the giver or the taker? The giver always wins. I go home smiling and feeling good.
People Are the Foundation of a Business
I know a little bit about your background and how you started your real estate business. What’s your hiring process? What do you look for when you hire somebody new?
I’ve never changed. I hire people all the time. It’s what builds businesses. It’s not the software, the mechanics, the organization. All these things are very useful, but it’s the people you build on — this is your foundation. It’s all people people people.
I do a couple of things when I’m hiring people. I don’t really resumes because I’m going to be biased right from the get-go: what they’ve done, where they’re coming from, on and on. The interview winds up being just a reiteration of the resume. It confirms the resume and is a pretty empty interview.
I like to just go in and get to know the person as though we’re on an island, got stuck together and I want to learn about them. So my questions are more like, Tell me about your mom. What kind of student were you at school? How did you feel there? Did you have good teachers? What’s your dad like at home? I trying to get a feel for the personality.
The Importance of an Optimistic Personality
I’ve learned that if I can hire someone with a phenomenally optimistic personality, they can learn anything. When I hire someone with a super high IQ, maybe they are a little bit know-it-all. Perhaps well educated, not that I have any objection to that, but if it’s rubbed off on them the wrong way I know that they’re not going to be able to learn quickly or to have as broad a vision. I really hire attitude over experience every time. I trust my gut. One question I always ask is, Do I like this guy? I like this girl. If I don’t like them, I just don’t hire them.
“The customer always has the answer”
One of the biggest things about starting a new business, and you touched on it earlier, is this idea of not getting it right. There’s the endless product-market fit that everybody is striving to hit. Do you have any general guidelines for how you optimize that sort of thing?
The founders have to realize they don’t have the answer, and worse than that, they don’t know they shouldn’t have the answers. They are bumbling along, a little confused. So my belief is, the customer always has the answer. You know, why isn’t it selling in the first place? Let’s look at sales. Are they going up or going down? Sometimes it’s not a matter of reshaping the product, or repricing it, or redesigning it. People spend a lot of wasted money on all that stuff. The key is finding if there is even a demand for the product.
I can’t tell you how many Shark Tank businesses I have invested in where I found there was no demand for the product. I haven’t made that mistake in the last 7 or 8 years. Now I insist that people go out into the street and see if they can get someone to pay for it.
Even a prototype, just take an order. Usually, you find out everything wrong when you can’t get money out of somebody’s pocket. Your customers will always tell you the truth if you ask them. I mean, when I have a problem with a product today, I have a huge following on social media, and I will go in and get reactions: “What’s wrong with the name of the business?” and I will get 700 names from that. Customers and potential customers always have the answers, but you have to ask. But most people are so busy doing, they don’t have time to be asking.
Apply for the Systane Grant
Wow, Barb, it’s been great speed dating with you. You’re awesome.
Are you asking for a date, you young man?
Oh, gosh no! My wife is listening to this right now.
Oh, one of those married men who pulls out the wife card? I get it. You’re one of them. Is your wife going to be starting a business soon?
Actually, my wife is one of those kinds of people that you described earlier who’s been working around the hole and she’s quite successful.
She is qualified for applying for Systane grant. Have her go onto Systane.com and apply for her $5000 Real Relief Grant. We are willing to support her business; I don’t care how much money she is making. I would love to counsel her for 2 hours as a grand prize winner. Just remember that I started my second business when I was 50. A lot of people think they are old and it’s over, but I just don’t believe so.
The Real Relief for Visionary Women campaign is joining Barbara Corcoran and with iFundWomen, a crowdfunding platform designed for female entrepreneurs, giving applicants a chance to win a $5,000 grant for their company. Eight winners will be selected, and the grand prize winner will also receive a 2-hour mentoring session from Barb.