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Do Sharks Have Nine Lives?

Barbara Corcoran, one of the stars of ABC's 'Shark Tank,' just might

spinner image Businesswoman and Shark Tank investor Barbara Corcoran, sitting on kitchen table
Businesswoman and "Shark Tank" investor Barbara Corcoran talks entrepreneurship and reinvention.
Ramona Rosales

How did you turn a $1,000 loan from your boyfriend into a billion-dollar business in New York?

For me, publicity was the big kahuna. In 1981 we were close to going out of business. So I wrote a small report to see if I could draw attention to our company. I added up our 11 apartment sales over six months, got an average and typed “Average NYC apartment price: $255,000.” Then I sent it out to everyone I knew who wrote for the New York Times.

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Two weeks later, a story on the front of the Times real estate section said, “Study Shows Co-Op Prices Nearly Quintupled.” And the first line was, “according to…The Corcoran Group.” It was like being hit by a magic stick! We had credibility overnight.

When Madonna got pregnant, I did a report on what she’d be looking for [in an apartment]. I didn’t know what she would be looking for, but she was rich and probably wanted whatever rich people wanted. I was on three different news stations that week, and they introduced me as “celebrity broker Barbara Corcoran,” which was a joke! I had no celebrities — but I got Richard Gere as a result.

You sold your business in 2001 for an astounding $66 million. But you felt miserable. Why?

It’s a hard thing to be a big deal in town and then be a nobody.

How did you reinvent yourself?

It took a while, but I finally wrote a list of what I loved and what I hated. And I found out that the things I loved were very few. I loved making people happy. I loved the media. And I loved the attention of a crowd. So I decided to go into the TV business. I thought it would be easy, but my entire Rolodex was useless.

Do you know who helped me tremendously? Barbara Walters. I went on The View and she asked me, “What do you do now?” I said, “I’m trying to become a TV expert on small business because I don’t ever want to talk about real estate again.” And she said, “You better grab real estate and make it your own if you want to go into TV. Because the minute someone else does, you’re going to hate yourself.” That was great advice.

Producer Mark Burnett recruited you for Shark Tank but later decided to go with another candidate. What happened then?

I sat down and wrote the best email of my life immediately.

What did you say?

I told him that I considered his decision to be a lucky charm because “I’ve had all my big successes on the heels of rejection.” I said he should consider inviting both of us to L.A. for a tryout. “I’ve booked my flight and hope to be on that plane.”

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I didn’t hear anything that day, but the next morning his assistant called and said, “When I walked your email over to Mr. Burnett and watched him read it, he said, ‘This girl is a real shark.’ ”

What sets great entrepreneurs apart from everybody else?

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They don’t feel sorry for themselves. I’ve bought into 40-odd businesses, and the best entrepreneurs all have that trait. They may not be really-high-IQ people, but they’re extremely good at taking a hit.

What’s the biggest mistake new business owners make?

They have an idea in their head, but they don’t see if anyone will actually buy it. Their research consists of their family and friends, and they don’t even ask them to write a check. Most people don’t realize that the only thing important in business is that you make sales. If you do, everything else will fall in place.

You credit your mother for your success. What did she teach you?

One thing was, she wouldn’t let us complain. I remember complaining to her about [my boss] Nick, who owned the Fort Lee Diner. Mostly men went there.  And they’d almost always say they wanted to sit at Gloria’s counter, because her chest was so large she could balance coffee cups on top. I just thought it was unfair. When I said that to my mother, she said, “Why don’t you braid up your long blond hair and put little ribbons on it?” I did it, and it made all the difference. That was the night [my future boyfriend and real estate partner] Ramone Simone walked in and asked to sit at my counter.

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