This shark was once a guppy. Barbara Corcoran spent a good chunk of her adulthood swimming in circles, never dreaming she could navigate an ocean teeming with predators.
“I didn’t have confidence then,” said the real estate mogul whose fame—and wealth—has skyrocketed in the three years since she joined the cast of ABC’s hit reality show “Shark Tank.”
Funny thing, confidence. It’s easy to summon on occasion, but keeping it out and wearing it like skin, that’s a formidable challenge.
It took Barbara the guppy 22 years to don the sharkskin of self-assurance.
“Now I know I should have opened my mouth at all those jobs and said, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ and ‘Why don’t we do that?’ I didn’t because I was the lowly worker. You don’t do that. People don’t listen or look at you that way. More importantly, I didn’t look at myself that way. You gain your confidence by having success.”
The future shark’s confidence peeked out when a suave man in a tailored suit walked into the Fort Lee Diner where Barbara poured coffee and served eggs and burgers. Long-dormant self-assurance grew when she moved in with Ramon and became his real estate partner. Barbara’s confidence became a coat of maille when Ramon dumped her and announced plans to marry her secretary.
“I went from a somebody to a nobody. But Ramon did me a big favor. He told me, ‘You’ll never succeed without me,’” Barbara recalled. “He gave me an insurance policy for success by insulting me.”
Barbara began Corcoran Group with seven salespeople. Today, her company boasts 47 offices, nearly 2,200 brokers and has annual sales of $11.7 billion.
And Barbara is a television star on “Shark Tank,” which averages 7.9 million viewers on ABC.
She’s never been more in demand, but she recently made time to speak with Lake Business Magazine. Here’s what she had to say:
LBM: You’re usually pretty succinct and direct on Shark Tank. Is that by design?
BC: “Honestly, I don’t say enough. I should say more, but I like to cut to the chase and move on. I don’t have a great deal of patience.”
LBM: How often do you tape Shark Tank?
BC: “It varies. I tape half the episodes only. The dates jump around, but roughly a week in June and a week in September. A week at a time or seven to nine days at a time.”
LBM: You seem to be having a lot of fun.
BC: “I have a good time for the first two thirds of the day. The last third of the day I’m thinking, ‘Gee I wonder if the sun is still going to be out when I get out,’—which it never is, by the way. I’m also sitting there thinking, ‘God, how am I going to get out of going out with the guys tonight? I’d rather have a massage.’ They go out all the time. You have to. It’s like being in a foxhole together all day. The pressure, being there all day, it looks easy, but it really ain’t. You want to go out; you want to booze; you’ve been in the seat all day.”
LBM: How do you deal with all the testosterone on the Shark Tank set?
BC: “Cuban and O’Leary, I don’t mind. I love those boys. It’s Robert [Herjavec] that’s annoying—always hitting on the girls. He’s a chatty Cathy, no doubt.”
LBM: Are you surprised by Shark Tank’s popularity?
BC: “It took my local notoriety and turned it into the longest trips at the airport from the security gate to the plane. Because people love the show. The most I ever heard at the airport before Shark Tank came along was, ‘Aren’t you the real estate lady?’ because I constantly used to do the real estate gigs on the “Today” show. And I thought that was enormous notoriety until ‘Shark Tank’ hit and started getting traction.”
LBM: What’s it like matching wits with the other Shark Tank millionaires?
BC: “For the first three years on the show, I constantly self-talked myself into trying to be more me, and couldn’t pull it off, honestly. And I’m embarrassed to admit that. I’m always myself in a new situation, but I was intimidated. I was used to performing on TV and ignoring the audience. That I’d gotten comfortable with. I was the real estate expert, being asked my opinion. Now I’m competing for the floor, and my voice is smaller than all the sharks, including Lori’s. If you were to actually sit on the set, I would say nearly two thirds of what I’m saying is, ‘Excuse me, but … but…’ Do you know how tiring it is to be repeatedly cut off for a 10-hour tape day? A killer. And you know what it did to my confidence? Kaputed it.”
LBM: How could you be intimidated? You’re a millionaire just like the other sharks.
BC: “First of all, we are millionaires, but Mark Cuban is a billionaire. And the idea of a millionaire competing with a billionaire is, well, it’s a remarkable difference. You don’t realize that at home. You see a bunch of rich people with money to spend, but let me tell you, there’s a big difference. We’re not in the same boat. He’s in the billionaire boat, we’re in the millionaire boat. We’ve got the paddle, he’s got the outboard. No, he’s got the yacht, and he blows by us as we’re rowing.”
LBM: You had 23 jobs before you made it big. How did you feel when you finally arrived?
BC: “The first year I made a mini profit, I was satisfied. It really doesn’t make a meaningful difference if you have a lot of money. It gives you more options, but it doesn’t guarantee you have more fun. It doesn’t guarantee you better relationships. If anything, money complicates relationships. I found that out when I sold my business. When you’re scrapping like everyone else, you’re equal. All of the sudden, people see you in a different category and it complicates relationships. Everybody had a $10,000 problem the minute I sold my business. Relatives, people who claimed to know me. I don’t remember meeting them, but they said they knew me. It complicates things. Am I going to give it back? No. Because without it I can’t be in the ‘Shark Tank’ having all that fun.”
LBM: Where would you be without Shark Tank?
BC: “What would I be doing? I’d still be doing my real estate reports. There’s nothing wrong with those. It’s not as profitable as ‘Shark Tank,’ but it keeps you moving forward.”
LBM: You sound like you could almost be happy back at the Fort Lee Diner, waitressing.
BC: “I could be happy being a waitress at the Fort Lee Diner, but let me tell you, the problem is, the minute I got behind that counter today, I’d know I should be running the place.”
LBM: What percentage of your Shark Tank investments paid off?
BC: “Most of my entrepreneurs underperform. Sixty-five percent basically bite the dust. Believe me, I have enough people hung upside down on my wall—my entrepreneurs from ‘Shark Tank.’ The minute I know they’re not going to be successful, they go on their heads. They’re hanging upside down in the frames on their heads.”
LBM: Tell us about the entrepreneurs whose photos are right side up
BC: “My best entrepreneurs don’t listen to me. That’s the truth. They’ll listen, but they’ll do exactly what they choose to do. I’ve learned to identify that I’ve got myself a winner if they have the right personality to succeed, they’re sure of their footing. They’re almost overly sure. They have so many traits that lend themselves to thinking that the other guy isn’t always right. And even though I’m a partner, the fact is I’m also the other guy. I’m not them. And I respect that tremendously. They’re the ones, day in and day out working that wheel, working their business. So everything I suggest, I say, ‘Feel free to ignore it,’ so they don’t feel guilty and they don’t have to hide it from me when they go out and do whatever they please. That’s true of every one of my top entrepreneurs.”
LBM: What have you learned from being on the show?
BC: “In seasons one and two, the main reason I felt many of my businesses failed was my fault. I didn’t know what I was doing. Example: Cactus Jack, season one, terrific entrepreneur, terrific entrepreneur. I gave him half, Kevin Harrington gave him half and I allowed him to spend the whole $300,000 on one infomercial. That’s bad judgment on my part. It really is. I didn’t know how you get a cheap buy on TV. I realize it in hindsight, after I lost the $150,000 in a 30-second commercial. Gone. Burnt up. Who’s fault was that? Mine. My misjudgment. I should have said, ‘No you’re not going to do that.’ In the early years of ‘Shark Tank,’ I bought into anyone I thought I trusted and was a great entrepreneur.”
LBM: What’s easier to identify, talent or opportunity?
BC: “Identifying talent. It’s like breathing me for. I just breathe it in and know it. It’s intuitive and I think you’re born with it. Opportunity is much harder. I think what makes you size up opportunity well is experience. I only was good at real estate when I walked on the ‘Shark Tank’ set for the first time. Now I know a lot of stuff.”
LBM: Who, or what, is your greatest Shark Tank success story?
BC: “The top, based on sheer likability and success, would be Cousins Maine Lobster. Those guys are drop-dead gorgeous, they flirt with me on the phone and they are building a hugely successful business. If you’re talking sheer money— return on investment— I would say, recently, without a doubt, Grace & Lace. They definitely are my most successful company financially. They sold a million dollars of socks in three days after being on ‘Shark Tank.’ How do you sell a million dollars of socks in three days? They did it. But the best part of it is they mailed me a check, returning my money—my $130,000 investment—in a month after ’Shark Tank.’ That one check showed me that you could make instant money on this show.”
LBM: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs just starting out?
BC: “Expand before you’re ready. You know what I learned in business? It’s never a good time to expand. If you wait until you have extra money in your coffers and things are looking really rosy and you analyze and think ‘This is a good time to push ahead,’ it’s generally the worst time to push ahead because you’re the little guy and the big guy is going to outrun you because he’s got 10 times more money than you. I’ve found the best time to move ahead is during the absolute worst times. Because the big guy on the block is prudently protecting his money. He wants to control his money. He doesn’t want to waste it, he doesn’t want to ruin his reputation. He doesn’t want to have failure, he wants to keep his success so he can have a low profile. The absolute best time to expand is when everybody’s asleep at the wheel and everyone agrees it’s a bad time to expand.”
LBM: What do you do to relax?
BC: “I ride my bike when I’m in New York. I work out three mornings a week, three hours flat. And that’s not to keep in shape or for my health or anything; it’s pure vanity. It’s for the camera. I would drop the workouts if I could find a way to look good on camera without it. And what I truly, truly love to do, but don’t to do because of the workload is anything that has to do with water, the ocean. I love anything to do with the water. And I love snow skiing.”
LBM: What, besides business, gets you excited?
BC: “My whole life I wanted to have a terrace in the city, but when I found it, I couldn’t afford it. About 15 or 16 years ago, I met a woman who had a terrace on Central Park. She showed me the apartment, and I said, ‘If you ever decide to sell it, please call me.’ And a year ago she called me. And I still couldn’t afford it. [laughs] I kept my eye on it. I watched it go down, a million at a clip. I know my market. She laughed at me, but she got exactly where I priced it. I’m excited about doing a gut renovation, something I’ve been looking forward to my entire life.”