Apr 14, 2011

Interview with a Shark: Barbara Corcoran Lays Down 6 Rules for Entrepreneurs

Barbara Corcoran is a busy woman. When she’s not selling her company for $70 million, grilling entrepreneurs on the hit TV show “Shark Tank,” or appearing on the TODAY Show with the latest real estate tips, she’s writing her latest book. And when she’s not putting pen to paper, she’s going through a full day schedule of interviews with media and bloggers like me.

I interviewed her Wednesday to get some tips for entrepreneurs; I got those, but I also came away impressed by a woman with sound advice for success in both business and life.

Barbara’s own incredible success started with a $1,000 loan, which she parlayed into a five-billion-dollar real estate business that sold in 2001 for nearly $70 million. She could be sitting on the beach somewhere instead of talking to guys like me, and running around building her other businesses.

The reason she’s working so hard? It may boil down to:

“I’m trying to make those people as rich as I can. To actually see businesses grow and bloom in front of you, that’s the fun part,” she said.

Sure, she likes money. But she genuinely wants to help others reach similar success.

We chatted a bit about a new ski home her family bought at Deer Valley in Park City, Utah. Then we went into the meat of the interview. Here are six highlights that discuss branding, entrepreneur hurdles, when to get business loans vs. VC or angel funding, and advice for women entrepreneurs:

1. Aside from a good product, what’s the most important factor that determines whether you’ll fund a startup?

“The entrepreneur himself,” she said. “It’s not intelligence, either. I’ve bought into some people who I wouldn’t want to give the founders an IQ test.

“The single most important thing is equally real passion, the ability to communicate well and to sell the idea on their feet. ‘Shark Tank’ is a great test under fire. You can’t fake passion, except with me and my husband in bed,” she said laughing.

On “Shark Tank” (if you haven’t seen it, watch it Friday nights on ABC), business owners come in and pitch their ideas to a panel of investors, similar to our own CrowdPitch events.

Appearance is also something she says business owners must pay attention to. She credits a lot of her own success to buying an expensive coat with her first commission check.

“You certainly have to look the part,” she said.

In a recent episode of “Shark Tank,” a man pitched his beef jerky business. The product was good, but his appearance turned Corcoran off immediately.

“He was wearing a stained apron; I was like ‘forget it.’ The fact that he couldn’t buy a new apron before coming on national TV was mindboggling to me. I immediately had so many negative interpretations.”

She said he wasn’t the kind of business owner that would have the right energy, that’s trustworthy and thankful – traits that she talks about in her new book “Shark Tales.”

2. When should someone apply for a business loan versus approaching VCs or angels?

Cover of Barbara Corcoran's book "Shark Tales.

The first half of Barbara Corcoran’s book “Shark Tales” is the rags-to-riches story of her life. The second half is the story of entrepreneurs from Shark Tank that she invested in.

“Always a business loan first. The business loan always answers the need,” she said.

When Corcoran was struggling early in her real estate business, she became desperate and nearly sold 85 percent of her business for $50,000. She would have sold it, but the investor changed his mind at the last minute.

“Four years later I sold it for $66 million,” Corcoran said. “In my desperation I was willing to sell 85 percent of my business. You really don’t know the riches in your hand at a bad hour. You can’t trust your judgment.”

Corcoran started with a loan of $1,000 and bootstrapped her business to what it became. Her advice is to only approach VCs or angels when you are ready to turn your company into a national brand and you need really deep pockets to do it.

“The bank is going to charge you interest, but they’re not going to take a bite of equity,” she said. “Thank God that guy changed his mind. I met him seven or eight years ago, and he said ‘What was I thinking?’ This guy had money to burn. It would have been a gross mistake for me.”

3. What is the biggest hurdle entrepreneurs need to overcome?

“Negative self-talk is the biggest hurdle. When you are having a bad patch and you are thinking you have nowhere to turn, you feel kind of like you are in the Loneliest Club. You hit many bad patches, and at one point I was really wondering if I could stay in practice.”

She talks about this in her new book, including advice she got from her mom. When she hit this low point, she said her mom “slapped me in the head over the phone.”

“My mom said, ‘You’re not worrying about money are you? What a waste of time!’ and I stopped worrying about money.”

That “negative self-involvement” is typical not only for entrepreneurs, she says, but for people in general. Her cure?

“I try to think of someone I can thank and I’ll do something like drop flowers for someone,” Corcoran sad. “It’s the best switch in the world. You’re all wrapped up in yourself and then you help someone else. They love it and you feel kind and lovely.”

4. What industry(s) are you sick of hearing pitches for?

“Every restaurant pitch that I hear from every cabbie in New York City. The Last thing I want to hear is ‘My brother and I want to open up a restaurant …'”

The two main products pitched to her on “Shark Tank” are barbecue and golf related. Some of the products include a small refrigerator that you can attach to a golf cart so you can bring extra beer, and golf balls that float in the water.

“I can’t stand golf,” she said. “So the minute they’re talking about golf, I’m out.”

5. Why is the right brand crucial for success?

In the last episode of Shark Tank (see above video), a guy pitched the “Broccoli Wad,” a band that can hold cash and replace a wallet. Corcoran hated the idea at first, until the idea evolved into renaming it the “Vinny Wad” and having celebrity Vinny Pastore as the face of the company. She then struck a deal to invest in the company.

“The right branding is 75 percent of it. Even if their business plan makes no sense,” she said.

Interestingly, Corcoran told me they never took her money.

“They bowed out. Vinny wanted to do it, but the owner just wanted prime time TV.”

She says about two businesses every year come on the show just for prime TV.

“I’m getting better at spotting it now,” she said “But I’m reborn as a sucker every season. One of the businesses from last year tripled their price after the show. Sharks swim both ways.”

6. What advice do you have for women entrepreneurs?

“The majority of new businesses are started by women. It can be more satisfying for women to start a business because they have so much more on their plate, which I know men might argue. Women are still doing 80% of the work at home, and there’s not enough time and they don’t have enough control of their time.

“What a better way to take control of their destiny and time than to be the boss. Entrepreneurship doesn’t mean you won’t work your ass off, but it means you can do it on your own terms. You can move your life a whole mile if you take control of your own destiny.

“I decided when exactly I wanted to work, and people walked around my drum. That will not happen by working for corporate America, or even mid-sized businesses. It can only happen by starting your own business where you’re in charge.”

It takes a little cash to change the world.

So what are you waiting for?

About the author


  1. Loved the post Dan, thanks for sharing.

    I thought those two guys should have taken the deal. He was probably thinking the same thing after watching that Ava The Elephant recap.

    • Thanks, Robert.

      No kidding. I watched that episode and was surprised when Barbara told me they said “No” after the cameras were turned off. Interesting to hear what happens behind the scenes.

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  2. I am glad to see a woman as one of the sharks, I think your article is right on target, you definitely have to start your own business to be in charge of your destiny and the things you want to accomplish as a person, and business owner. I own 2 businesses and my biggest hurdle is getting financing for expanding my one of my businesses. I’m in Good Ole Boy Country….


  3. I love honest and truthful financial partnership…..God’s Blessings….

    Yours faithfully

    Managing Director
    Fax To Email:086

  4. I am an Entrepreneur, I started a computer repair business out of my 2 bedroom apartment about a year ago, Now I’m trying to open a store front because the business which was just a suppliment to my income has now become my passion. The service has grown larger than my apartment can handle. This was unexpected but now I’m seeking capital to open the store. If anyone knows private investors willing to hear the idea contact me,

  5. She cannot possibly be a model entrepreneuress if she sold a 5-billion dollar business for $70 million.

  6. I really appreciate Barbara’s comments. I am just getting this business rolling and am fighting off negative self-talk that I may not be able to find my market (even though I know what I am offering makes sense – I just don’t know how to get people to buy in :-/ )

    I know what I face is the most common concern for many new businesses. I will be buying her book for sure!

  7. great article Good advise Thanks for sharing and for not giving up you give me hope. blessings and continued success
    Tour host
    Caribbean Culinary Tours & Vacations

  8. Barbra corcoran
    have business for sale had open hart three mild stroks
    never realey got off the ground through the sharks could use som info on how to sell it

  9. There’s an excellent interview of Barbara (Shark Tank investor) on
    for anyone interested in more of her and how she became an investor.

  10. Babs is right about negative self-talk. I got over it when it had cost me a lot. Thanks Dan for sharing this interview

  11. I have around 15 Invention still not on the market, I want to do dog psychology (LoVe Dogs) Own a doggy Daycare & have a dog walking business, I want to buy Two buildings to rent to people with Put Bulls (They Get A Bad Rap) Currently living in my friends basement because I say I have a pit & doors close. I also partnered up with a company called Market America. Money is my problem. What do you suggest? Oooooo I must say LoVe to see you where ever you are a Shark Tank or on the Today Show.
    Many thanks for your time
    Maria Sanchez

  12. Please pass this message to Barbara if you find it intriguing.

    I am a horrible entrepreneur. I do not buy new products; I aim to take broken toys and apply some elbow grease and a whole lot of love and see them shine. I face several challenges. Everybody likes new toys. Many people like broken down “classic” toys and spend a lot of money restoring them, just to either “collect” them as trophies or to pass them to someone else who may do the same or ignore them. Most of my toys do not cooperate. Most of the owners of these toys do not even SEE that the toy is far more valuable than it appears. They do not see the dangers of the toy in its broken state. They are very dangerous. Lives, literally, hang in the balance. I do not know if Gepetto was ever a broken toy himself, as I was, but nobody puts more love into them (as a “product”) as I do. I would love to say I am self-employed, but that is not true…I have to answer to supervisors and colleagues who do not have the passion for the repair or even see the value in the effort necessary for the repair. I teach 8th grade English. My broken toys are students who are neither so behind that they qualify for every state subsidized program, nor so successful that they have a mantle of trophies, ribbons, and certificates adorning their homes. Those kids are easy to love. I love the kids who have no idea where they are, how limited their little world will be unless they get a glimpse of possible futures now, are too arrogant for words, too ignorant to even realize they do not have a clue, and, in large part, surprisingly are “entitled,” even though we are in an unincorporated, ignored, patch of rural land outside of a rural city. I love watching Barbara work and I fully understood what she said about not dealing with those who are not “hungry.” I came from a poverty of the 70’s… Real poverty…government cheese, flour, sugar, and no choices poor. “Underrepresented” or “at-risk” kids today are raised on government and community programs that see to their needs and often their wants, having a home full of the most expensive entertainment and plethora of game systems necessary to anesthetize the mind and deprive the soul while having poor nutrition that robs their bodies of a fighting chance. Ironically, they have no clue how to be “hungry,” however, possibly due to many factors. I work hard to show them that they NEED to be hungry (yet cannot point out the obvious for political correctness reasons). I am just supposed to do a job and let the chips fall where they may. I don’t want that. THOSE are my broken toys. I wish they could hear from someone outside of their little world all the possibilities (positive and negative) that exist. I would love to have an email chat, teleconference interview, or even just a shout out from Barbara to students like this everywhere (via Shark Tank maybe). I have seen WONDERFUL kids on Shark Tank. They HAVE dreams and goals. Either they have seen their parents be hungry or their parents fuel these dreams, but the type of students I serve are vastly different. For the past two years I have seen a most unusual wave go through: self destructive and self deluded. I’m just the “mean” or “crazy” teacher who makes the most ridiculous demands of them (like all teachers I get the groans for “Take out a piece of paper,” but then they gripe if all of MY paper is gone – and don’t even get me started on how they react because I want to make them STUDY. They do not do it, but that is because I have not yet found the right inspiration that will open their eyes. Perhaps a connection with Barbara may have that effect. If you want to talk to those passionate about their product, willing to work hard, harder, go the extra mile, and BELIEVE in their product, that is this teacher. I am a veteran teacher of 20 years who has done all of that for two decades, reaching kids at different levels, creatively overcoming, but right now am at an impasse and could really use a shark. Any suggestions?

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