“I have a theory and I really believe it. I think your worst weakness can become your greatest single strength.”
An embodiment of the “from rags to riches” trope, Barbara Corcoran is one of America’s widely known businesspeople. She is also a speaker, author, columnist and a Shark on Shark Tank (US). At the age of 72, she has a net worth of about $100 million, as of 2021. Being the real estate queen of New York City, her rigid work ethic, instinctive “overwork and over-preparedness” and her audacious risk tolerance are, essentially, what contributed to the founding and establishing of The Corcoran Group.
Born in 1949, Corcoran was the second of ten siblings. She suffered from dyslexia and was unable to read until eleven, eventually graduating from college. After graduating, she did try teaching for an entire year, at which point, she realized she wanted more. By the age of 23, Corcoran had already worked at more than 20 jobs and was, then, employed as a waitress.
GROWTH AS A BUSINESSPERSON
While working as a waitress, her then-boyfriend convinced her to work at a real estate company. In 1973, while working as a receptionist, Corcoran also co-founded Corcoran-Simone after taking a loan of $1000 from her boyfriend. She didn’t really care all that much about real estate, but she knew how to sell things and she didn’t like working for other people. According to her, “A good sign that you should be an entrepreneur is if it bugs you to work for someone else”.
The split from her boyfriend seven years later ultimately caused the equal division of the company and employees of Corcoran-Simone. When she left her business partnership, her former boyfriend told her she would never succeed without him. She felt that she would rather die than let him see her not succeed. It was that insult that became her insurance policy to continue in business, no matter what, because she didn’t want to let him see her fail.
She went on to form the Corcoran Group. She also realized she was good at marketing and that press was good for business. Hence, she also formulated the Corcoran Report in the 1970s, which was a newsletter covering statistics and trends of real estate in the USA. She believed that if she doled out stats, she’d always get quoted by reporters. After having a child at 45, she started spending lesser time at work and the company was making serious profits for the same, so she thought it was time to sell. She was offered $22 million for her stake in the Corcoran Group by the NRT (National Realty Trust), a residential real estate brokerage firm located in the US. She negotiated to eventually sell her stake for a whopping $66 million, a number she had pulled out of thin air, in 2001, sticking to the number, because she had nothing to lose. That’s $44 million more than she was offered.
BECOMING A SHARK
After selling her company, she started getting bored and thought she had made a terrible mistake, feeling like she didn’t have an identity anymore. She began pitching herself to TV networks as a real-estate expert and landed a few gigs. Mark Burnett’s company approached her for a not-yet-named reality TV show where she would give business advice and invest her own money. She was eager to be part of the show and eagerly sent her financial statements to prove she had the money, but she did not get the job. Annoyed, she was persistent that she was perfect for it and that’s how she ended up being a Shark on Shark Tank. “Entrepreneurs succeed by being pushy, right? I stood up for myself and got rewarded.”
Becoming a Shark took some getting used to because when she was in the Corcoran Group, her agents were the talent and she was the boss, so she could delegate tasks to someone else. As a judge, she’s the talent and couldn’t delegate any part of her role. When it comes to entrepreneurs and investing, Barbara looks for nice people who are kindred spirits. When she has doubt in her mind, she thinks, “If we grow this business to be worth $30 million, would the entrepreneur be thankful?” If the answer’s no, she doesn’t invest. Over time, she’s gotten better at figuring out which businesses would be successful. That being said, she is perturbed by what Shark Tank has done to startup culture because it made people believe that if they have one good idea, they can get rich overnight. The pitch is not the business, it’s just a first date. She’s also troubled by the fact that it makes people believe that the right way to fund a business is by giving away equity, which isn’t mostly true. She does miss the unvarnished and unpolished investors of the first few seasons, who were wet behind the ears, aren’t cocky and don’t have ridiculous valuations.
NOTABLE SHARK INVESTMENTS
- Original Comfy: Barbara offered $50,000 for 30% of this blanket-sweatshirt hybrid company. She once said that the company got to more than $150 million and is the most successful company she has invested in.
- Cousin’s Maine Lobster: Barbara invested $55,000 for 15% of this lobster roll food truck company. It has made more than $20 million and has seen exponential growth.
- Ava The Elephant: Barbara made a deal for $55,000 for 55% of the medicine dispenser cum toy company, which is, now, in more than 10,000 retail stores.
- Daisy Cakes: Barbara made a deal for $50,000 for 25% and a royalty of $1 per cake, until she recoups her money.
The headshots of the founders of the company Corcoran invested in hang on a wall in her Manhattan office, of which those she considers successful are hung right-side-up and the others are hung upside down. She believes her entrepreneurs to be great salespeople and risk-takers. They also ignore her when she tells them what to do, but she loves that because that makes them true entrepreneurs.
There was a point in time when Barbara had to address a crowd of 800 people but blanked out. She was so distraught, that she thought she would never publicly speak again. Though she took a hit, she refused to let this setback define her, seeing it as an opportunity to redefine herself. The day after, she called NYU and pitched teaching real estate sales, even claiming she was an excellent speaker. Her next 5 years involved teaching courses at the university, which, eventually, made her an excellent speaker. Self-fulfilling prophecy, indeed. She took a terrible experience and capitalized on it to augment her skills.
Her growth to fame and fortune, before and after her association with the Corcoran Group, has been much inspiring to women globally. She is widely known for crossing gender barriers at a time when gender roles were much more stringent and defined. Gender discrimination was more prominent back then in mainstream fields such as business, law and real estate. “Whatever you got, you have to accentuate. I ran my female card up and down the ladder my whole career because I was in a man's world. It was worked by women but owned by men. I was the only female owner in my field at that time”, she remarked, channelling her rage against the system to gain more success. She is often known to credit much of her drive to succeed to her mother and considers her to be one of her first inspirations. She fondly remembers, “She had 10 kids. I never saw her sleep; I never saw her lay down. I didn't even know when she slept”. Much of her core business values are a direct result of her tough upbringing.
Growing up poor has been one of the greatest contributors to her growth as an entrepreneur, according to her. Her tough economic conditions, due to the lack of any form of stability, is something she believes to be one of her greatest weapons. She remarks, “Poor people have nowhere to go but up”. Corcoran derives much of her business persona from the various barriers that she has experienced in the course of her life. In her case, adversity truly turned out to be the breeding ground for success. Despite fighting hard for her success, she still feels like it was all a fluke and believes she suffers from imposter syndrome, having persistent self-doubt. She felt it was luck that got her a loan for $1000, it was luck that that got her the right people to hire, the right offices, the right neighbourhoods, it was luck that got her to put confidence in the right people and take confidence away from the wrong people, it was luck that she was able to fight her competitors and win the #1 market position, despite a male-dominated network. Yet, her success ought to be attributed to her skills and hustling.
It’s unfortunate that when most people think of their favourite Shark, Barbara Corcoran is not the first name that comes to mind. While many make fun of her for often going ‘out’ on Shark Tank pitches, the making of Barbara is well established, due to the resources she has invested in building herself as a businessperson. She has grown much, in terms of both personal and business life. Though, not able to relate with an adequate balance between the two, she has achieved well in both fields. Many might disagree with her philosophies in life, but they have worked really well for her and continue to do so.
“The best mistake I ever made was believing that I was stupid. It was a childhood thing, but it played out big-time as an adult. It scorned me the rest of my life - in a good way.”