At 23 years of age, Barbara Corcoran had already had 20 jobs and was working as a waitress in New York City. After waiting tables in Manhattan for a long time, she took the leap, got a $1,000 loan and started building a business she was passionate about. It was a real estate company, The Corcoran Group, which she started in 1973 and built up to a portfolio of $5 billion worth of property. In 2001, she sold the company for $66 million in cash.
Currently, she is one of the Sharks in ABC’s hit TV Show, The Shark Tank. With a net worth of $90 million, Corcoran has invested in a number of businesses, and become a 50-50 partner in a few of those. When the TV show airs, it is always great to listen to her wonderful insights about business, partnerships, entrepreneurship, and the journey of building an everlasting business.
While there is definitely more to come from this powerhouse investor who has taken companies from minute little startups to national sensations, we decided to collect some of her best advice to entrepreneurs so far. For startups, today, getting acquainted with these tips not only helps you to learn and grow, but also brings insights from entrepreneurs you would otherwise not get the chance to talk to.
1) Forget the jargon
It can be hard to avoid some complex terms when making your business pitch. However, that comes at a price. The price of not speaking in simplicity is that few people get to understand your message.
Depending on who you intend to appeal to, it might not be advisable to have jargon and technical terms in your pitch. Barbara loves to invest in businesses which consumers do not have an issue understanding what the company does.
“Fancy talk doesn’t work. Entrepreneurs have to talk plain to get bought.” ~ Barbara Corcoran
If you fill your pitch with jargon, then you have already sieved over half the marketplace. Successful elevator pitches as they are now famously called are usually easy to remember because anyone can understand them – from young children to the elderly who struggle to understand jargon.
In other words, if your grandmother cannot understand what your company does, then you have not simplified it enough. We have looked at the best strategies for a successful elevator pitch which you should consider checking out.
2) Fulfill an experienced need
Do not just start a business for the sake of earning money or just to build a business. The most successful companies even on Shark Tank are those started by founders who have experienced the need for the product they were selling.
“Whenever I see an entrepreneur who invents a business out of real-life experience, it is almost always a good business,” ~ Barbara Corcoran
When you’ve experience the problem first hand, there are high chances that you are not the only one. You can easily find people who have experienced the same problem. First-hand experience also helps you experiment on the product pre-launch to see if it fulfills your needs. Testing, building and iterating are very personalized processes. Before you begin hawking your solution to others, you can confirm that it has worked for you first. You are your first client.
According to Barbara, people who try to build products whose lack they have not suffered do not have an experiential relation to the business and do not relate to the solution either.
If you’re building a business without ever needing what you are selling, then you will not be sure that people actually need your solution. It could all just be an idea in your head that goes bust if you take it out there.
3) Stand out
When Barbara was building her real estate business, she realized that people do not take you seriously if you do not stand out. So she bought a fancy coat and always wore it when she went to meet prospective clients or in marketing campaigns. The result was that she always looked different, and it mattered.
In the tech world, founders apparently want to look like each other. They want to blend in. So they wear dark t-shirts and sloppy jeans then top it off with hoodies. Everyone looks the same. Barbara insists that this is a bad strategy for a business. Impressions matter and, according to her, even tech guys need to up their game on the first impressions. It might be cool to blend in, but it doesn’t help you make a memorable impression.
Rather, it is that difference that helps people to notice you. Some of the best businesses that Barbara has invested in, mostly non-tech companies, have been by founders who have a personality that largely precedes them. They go all out in standing out. It could be something about how they speak, or how they look and dress.
Additionally, it could be the product. If the product is so good it stands out, then that helps even the hoodie guy to stand out. Once people see your product as different, everyone and everything associated with the product will stand out.
It is either you stand out via your personality or image, or you create a product that stands out. If you can make this happen, then people will begin to notice the value you are offering.
4) Don’t let rejection define you
If Corcoran had to count how many times she has been rejected, she could have been a millionaire by 25. Her rejections came and passed. She would dust herself off and rise again only to face yet another rejection. In summary, she was rejected a lot more times than she was accepted while building her real estate company. And still, she stayed relentless. Her goal was bigger than the naysayers.
Just like Barbara, many are the times we face rejection in the journey of entrepreneurship. It may come from potential customers or investors. Sometimes it may come from your very own team of employees. That should not stop you.
Keep shooting because the target is still far ahead, and rejection doesn’t mean you won’t reach that goal. It only makes your goal more challenging and far-fetched, but not impossible.
“You have to regroup really fast and get back up; otherwise the business will never be born. It’s like pushing out a baby. Just keep pushing until eventually, you have yourself a business.” ~ Barbara Corcoran
Don’t allow the emotions felt during moments of failure to impact the decisions you make for your company.
5) Embrace the power of good press
Well, they say any publicity is good publicity, but in this case, we would like to focus on good publicity. Because good publicity is definitely better than bad publicity.
At some point, growth of the Corcoran Group had stagnated, and Barbara needed a magical solution to catapult the business to the next level. At this point, it was a small company that was still trying to make it.
Barbara had sold 11 apartments that year, and she needed more clients. She used these 11 sales to come up with a marketplace report. The apartments were few, but the averages in statistics showed what was happening in the New York real estate market at the time. She decided to send this report out to journalists and bloggers.
A couple of hours later, the New York Times picked the report up. That week she appeared in one of the company’s magazines headlining the real estate section. It gave her a lot of credibility and was her pass to getting high-end clients, both buyers and sellers of properties around the city.
Good press is like the magic juice of building successful brands. Regular mentions in the media help a brand to achieve credibility. When you get credibility customers are drawn in because they assume you to be an expert in the field. No one wants to trust novices with their money. Credibility is expensive to get. You have no choice as a founder but to get it.
“A big PR effort is only worthwhile if your message reaches the people likely to buy your product. You need to figure out where your potential customers are hanging out so you can snag them.” ~ Barbara Corcoran
When we launched Pressfarm our intention was to help startups achieve this positive press. Media mentions are the lifeline of companies, and startups that make an effort to earn these mentions are well rewarded. While we do help companies reach out to journalists for publishing, we realized early on that our followers have become an important part of our business.
6) Contextualize bad news
Do you have some bad news to share with your investors, customers or employees? Do not just blast it out. Build ups are important. According to Barbara, you cannot have bad news without a preceding scenario. Knowing what led to what and how you got there is important.
For instance, if you are increasing the prices of your product, this might be good news to the company and its investors but it is bad news to customers. It is therefore important to explain why you are doing that. The reasons could range from an increased need for powerful resources to better the customer’s experience to changes in the industry. You have to contextualize this bad news in order to for people to understand and accept it.
This advice does not only apply when delivering bad news to others. It also applies to when you are on the receiving end of heartbreaking news as a company or losing customers. You have to know why you are losing customers. Then you have to find the exact problem and say, “we are failing at the moment because of A B C.” That way you put the problem in its proper context, then you and the team can work on improving the situation. If you just say “we are failing” without putting things in the right perspective, you can make bad decisions or even quit as a result of blanket statements that could have been delved into further.
7) Delegate and focus on your strengths
As founders, you cannot afford to do everything at your company. In the early days, you will manage it because there is not much to do and the clients are few and far between when they come.
However, as the company grows you have to hire. Hiring allows you to focus on the parts of the business where you are strongest at and most needed. When Barbara realized that her company was expanding, she let go of the sales part of the business and hired salespeople for that.
First of all, she didn’t enjoy that part of the business despite successfully selling a batch of 88 homes that people didn’t like. Secondly, she thought it was wiser to spend her time building the company’s portfolio by bringing in more clients instead of spending all her energy selling properties of the clients who were on board.
“When you have chemistry with a potential hire, they will most likely become a great employee.” ~ Barbara Corcoran
As she was able to delegate successfully, properties got sold because she hired a winning team; and fired fast when an employee didn’t deliver. She was also able to focus on getting more properties into her portfolio and marketing her company.
“Become better at firing than hiring – it’s crucial for building a business.” ~ Barbara Corcoran
Do not expand past your strengths. Dig deeper into that strength and make it count. Founders have to learn the hiring strategies that can help them build better teams. They must also realize that employees empower you to grow your company to bigger heights.
8) People skills are paramount
Unless you will be selling your products to animals, you have to realize the importance of having people skills. Even if you were selling animal products you would need to talk to the sitter or caretaker of the animal. Business is about people as is almost of every part of life. And proper people skills matter.
“All you need to know is how to work with people, and that’s all the business ever is. Any success or failure rests entirely on my ability to work with the people at hand.” ~ Barbara Corcoran
There is a possibility that as a founder you may be introverted and talking to people becomes a chore. There is no problem with that. If anything, some of the most successful companies were built by extremely introverted founders due to their ability to focus. However, these people got co-founders who had complementary skills. These co-founders were the face of the company and they had strong people skills. If you are looking for a co-founder, make sure they complement your weaknesses. Their social skills have to be good if yours are bad.
9) Find a branding edge
How do people know your brand? Barbara believes that they should identify you with some sort of image. One of the businesses she invested in on Shark Tank, Grace and Lace, belonged to this founder who used beautiful photos of herself to sell her fashionwear. She would design these apparels, and take breathtaking photos in them and share to Pinterest. She made $800,000 in sales prior to Shark Tank and millions of dollars after. What is important is that her company was known through the photos which gave her a branding edge.
Another example would be Buffer, a social media scheduling tool which used long-form blog posts that could often go viral due to the intensity of the data in them. The company grew to millions of users as a result of these blog posts written by their founders.
Barbara insists that a startup has got to have a branding edge. From powerful photography and storytelling to a founder’s great personality and charm, the branding edge could be anything. However, it has got to be there.
10) Not every opportunity is good
When you launch your business, there will be people reaching out for partnerships, or to offer marketing help among other things. As a founder, you have to understand that no matter the business, not every offer is good for you.
It is important to know when to say yes or no to an opportunity. Some opportunities can sling your company to the next level of growth while others can stifle its growth and sometimes even fail it.
Other opportunities might also make you lose your focus or money. Barbara insists on the importance of focusing. Set the goal and keep your eyes on it. Do not be derailed by other opportunities that might look good at the beginning only to end up killing your business later.
11) The timing for launch is critical
Have you ever launched your business at the wrong time? Maybe you’ve tried launching a fashion company immediately after Christmas, around mid-January? It would honestly be a glorious disaster.
Do not allow yourself to be the founder with a bad perspective on timing because it will cost you a lot of money and then some.
When launching your business, Barbara advises on the importance of timing. You cannot afford to waste consecutive months of hard work by launching at the wrong date. Study market trends to see how the industry is doing; do not launch too late or too early.
“Don’t get cocky just because you’ve had a good run. You can lose your business as fast as you’ve earned it.” ~ Barbara Corcoran
12) Overcome fear by doing that which you fear
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses have crashed because their founders were too paralyzed by fear to adapt to the crisis. On the other hand, there are companies which have survived and are even thriving in the middle the global economic recession we are facing. These companies succeeded – in large part – because they adapted to the situation despite the uncertainty they were facing.
Corcoran believes fear can hold an entrepreneur back and prevent them from reaching their true potential. Moreover, she believes that the only way to overcome fear is by pushing through and doing that which you fear.
“Fear of making the wrong call or judgment, and fear of not knowing enough to get going, can be overcome if you just shove yourself out there and really do it.” ~ Barbara Corcoran
Feeling fear in the face of the unknown is normal for any human being. However, fear should not hold you back from making the decisions you need to make for your business to survive. In fact, building a business always involves some element of risk. Some of the most successful companies have survived huge crises because they took a risk by making a decision in the midst of uncertainty.
Barbara Corcoran’s rise to fame is a real story of grit and determination. After facing rejection and dealing with failure several times, she went on to build an impressive empire. The lessons she’s learnt along the way can provide great insight and inspiration for rising entrepreneurs coming up behind her.