When I lived in New York, I saw Barbara Corcoran’s name on real estate all over the city and in the local papers. As founder of The Corcoran Group, she grew her real estate company from a one-woman operation to $4 billion a year powerhouse with 800 agents.
This interview is full of the stories that will show you how she did it.
You’ll also hear about how she got a starring role on Shark Tank after she did the one thing that no other participant thought to do, and why she wrote her latest book, Shark Tales.
Barbara Corcoran, Corcoran Group
Barbara Corcoran is the founder of the Corcoran Group, which she launched in 1973 with a $1,000 loan and sold in 2001 for $66 million.
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Here’s your program.
Andrew: Hey, everyone, it’s Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart, and the place where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses. When I said that growing up in New York inspired me to go into business, it’s because of people like today’s guest, who changed the landscape and then autographed it. Joining me today is Barbara Corcoran. In 1973, she borrowed $1,000, and used it to build the Corcoran Group, a real estate company that she went on to sell in 2001 for $70 million. She is a shark on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” and an author whose books include, “Shark Tales” (as you can see right behind her), “How I Turned $1,000 Into a Business,” and “If You Don’t Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons On Your Pigtails,” the book that . . .
Barbara: That’s supposed to say that you’re a guy. What are you talking about that about?
Andrew: By the way, you caught my attention with the title of that book, your first book,” If You Don’t Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons On Your Pigtails,” in the bookstore. That’s not the original title that you gave it. Now, I don’t want to talk about your old book too much, but . . .
Barbara: That’s okay.
Andrew: Tell me about that, because I think that gives us insight into you as a marketer.
Barbara: Well, I must say that the title that I originally gave it was not the same one the publishing house did. The publishing house called it “Use What You’ve Got.” I argued very hard to name it “If You Don’t Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons On Your Pigtails” from the get-go, but the male publisher changed it to “If You Don’t Have Big Boobs, Put Ribbons On Your Pigtails,” and I had a very hard time convincing him that was not the way to go. We resolved it by putting a boring title on it, but when it was re-published, of course I got my way.
Andrew: In the paperback, that’s where you got your way?
Barbara: Yes, definitely. I think he was tired of arguing with me.
Andrew: Is that your persuasion tactic, to just push until you get what you think is right?
Barbara: No. Sometimes, you can push and get nothing. I mean, I think part of it is knowing when to lay low and lay off and give a little breathing room and trust the universe that there’s going to be a better time, because timing has a heck of a lot to do with accomplishing anything. But, if in doubt, in any situation as to what you should do, I think pushing is always the best way to go, because there’s something about being persistent and doing it again and doing it again. Eventually, you wear people out.
Andrew: Now, when you get turned down today, do you feel embarrassed? Do you feel like, “Hey, don’t they know who I am? I’ve got to come back in”? Or how do you get yourself back in there, and say, “Look, we’ve got to do this. I have this vision. You have to listen. Quit saying no.”?
Barbara: Well, a couple of things. I have a lot of years experience about getting turned down, so I’ve gotten pretty good at it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the insult. It seems like the more success you have in life, quite honestly, when people turn you away, it’s way more hurtful, because you think you’ve earned the right to be there and have a little bit more receptive ear. But I’m so good at being turned down, it doesn’t cut me to the core the way it used to when I was a very, very young entrepreneur.
I just make a habit of making sure that I don’t lay low too long. In other words, I feel sorry for myself. I go, “Ouch, that hurt. That bastard,” or whatever. Then, I just tell myself, “I’ve got about three minutes to feel sorry for myself, and let me move on to something else.” I think it’s not so much who takes the hit, or what kind of hit hurts, but it’s really more about how much time you give to feel sorry for yourself. I’m pretty good at that [inaudible] right about now.
Andrew: Can you give me an example of that? Let me see how, who says no to Barbara Corcoran at this point, and then how does Barbara deal with it?
Barbara: Well, for example, “Shark Tank” is the best thing that has happened to me in the last year and a half, because now I’m in partnership with 11 different businesses, not all of whom will be successful, but the great majority are going to be successful and make me a ton of money. But the important “no” I heard on that one was after being considered as a shark, I was called by Mark Burnett’s assistant two days before I was going on the plane and after I signed the media contract. They simply said they had changed their minds and picked somebody else.
Well, when I got out of this poor woman who’s on the phone with me, who this somebody else was, that somebody was exactly what I suspected. It was a young, drop-dead gorgeous, long blond hair bombshell. That rejection was painful, because I know it’s a young man’s business. I’m not 23 anymore; she was.
I wrote an immediate email to Mark Burnett telling him that I thought his rejection was a lucky charm and ending by saying I’d already bought my ticket, and I’d be on that plane. I suggested that he have us both come out and compete for the lone female spot.
If not for handling that rejection as quickly and as adamantly as I did, I would not have had the “Shark Tank” show, which, of course, we got the 11 new businesses that I now own a hunk of, which I’m adoring doing.
Rejection, assume it’s there. It’s just a question of how hard it’s going to hit, and when, and it’s going to hit much more often, if you’re an entrepreneur, than you ever envisioned.
Andrew: How did Mark Burnett respond to your request for a competition?
Barbara: It was almost like it was straight out of Hollywood. I made the secretary of the secretary of the secretary who gave me the bad news walk it over and put it under his nose, because I felt he would not have read my objection email. And you know what he said to this woman, Charmin? He said, “You know, she’s a shark. Let’s invite her out, and we will have her compete for the spot.”
There you have it. All right. So it’s about pushing back, believe me. It wasn’t until I shot the entire first season that the executive producer told me that they had rejected over 45 sharks they had signed contracts with, and not one had raised an objection. Now, that is mind-boggling. These are successful business people. But no one came back swinging. The key there is that’s who wins.
Andrew: Wow, wow. Where did you learn this? To be able to stand up, and say, “Hey, I’ve got to turn this no into a yes.”
Barbara: You know what? I think if you have a lot of hardships as a kid, it’s a great background for being an entrepreneur. I think that the more of a loser you are before you go into business, the better shot you have at becoming a winner, because you really want to make up for lost time.
I’m in that group. In school, for me, I was a horrific student who couldn’t learn to read or write until I was in fourth grade, and had the kids make fun of me. I was labeled a “dumbo.” I hated that position. I think I learned how to be a loser and get comfortable with it, honestly.
When I got out of that jailhouse–everybody adores the school, which I hated every minute I was in it–I was like, “Yes! I’m free to create a world that I like, not this stupid school world that measures you on arithmetic and reading and whatever the heck it is you want.” I think for me, I learned that ability to get back up by being a loser in the first place. I don’t aspire to it, but let me tell you, it’s not a bad background.
Andrew: Hey, you know, for me, building a business early on, a big part of it was to get women to respect me and–not to respect me, but–want me.
Barbara: You’re a handsome guy. What was your big deal with that?
Andrew: Now I’m a handsome guy. You should have seen the schlub I was when I got out of school. I was this big dork who was going to put his mark on the world through business, and be like the people like you.
Barbara: I would date you immediately–young, old, or in between–because of your eyebrows alone. Look at those! I’d be so curious to watch them go up and down like they do. Come on! You just didn’t know the goods you had.
Andrew: I didn’t. You know what? I didn’t. But I knew if I could build a good business–which I did–then I could hire somebody to help me dress and find the goods that I had.
Barbara: I think it’s about the character you’re building along the way that gets very appealing.
Andrew: The thing I’m saying is that, for me–and I feel like, for a lot of the men–is that . . .
Barbara: Sorry to interrupt., but I thought you were going to say, “The thing I’m saying is, I want to ask you out.” But you weren’t going there, were you?
Andrew: I would love it. I’m married, but I believe because you’re one of my heroes, I believe my wife would allow it. I’ve got to check in with her, but I believe she would allow it.
Barbara: Hey, I’m married, too. That’s why I’m flirting with you. No problem.
Andrew: This is wonderful.
Barbara: Stay on track.
Andrew: Let me make sure I’m recording. I am recording. Joe, please take good care of this interview. Very special to me. Please print slides of this interview for my wall.
Barbara: Please edit, Joe, whoever you are.
Andrew: In all seriousness, a big reason, a big motivation is that. What was it for you? What was that, get deep like I’ve seen you get for other people, and say, “Andrew, this is why I was so motivated to build up a business.”
Barbara: Well, for me, it had everything to do with proving to the world that I was not stupid. I just wanted to be able to build a world where I could be successful, because I had never had success. Then, to realize if you’re an entrepreneur, because I didn’t know a thing about business, nobody does going in, unless you’re educated. Even then, you still don’t know, if you’ve got the MBA, honestly, until you’re in the trenches. But for me, it was really about building the world the way I wish I would make it.
What’s better than being an entrepreneur and making your own hours, hiring your own people, creating your own marketing energy? You’re in charge. Do you know how luxurious that is? For me, that was the turn-on.
Then, again, the cheap thrill of just seeing how far you could go. Not bad, it’s like living a movie life, versus living somebody else’s less exciting life.
Andrew: Let’s talk about how far you went. There’s one moment that sticks in my mind, where you went to the ATM after you sold the Corcoran group, and . . .
Barbara: Sticks in my mind!
Andrew: What did you see?
Barbara: What did I see? Oh, my God. The prettiest thing in my whole life. What I was, of course, I had the closing of my business–and by the way, I sold it for $66 million, not $70 million. That’s always reported.
Andrew: I thought that. That’s what The New York Times said, but you sent me–or someone in your office sent me–a P.R. sheet on you, and it said $70 million. I said, “You know what, $4 million, not that big a deal. I’ve got to show the woman respect for the number she must know better than anyone else.”
Barbara: It’s $66, so I’ll see where that hiccup is. But, when I went to the ATM machine two days after the closing, and you picture these closings–I’d never had a closing on a business–there are lots of attorneys, lots of accountants running around. Everybody’s got a thousand dollar suit on. It’s just very fancy, and I’m just signing away, signing away.
But I arrive at the ATM, get my usual $200 for the week–is how I budget myself–pocket cash. I collect the $200. I always press a button, “Do you want a receipt?” Yes. I pull out the receipt, and before I tossed it into the garbage can, it read $44 million in my checking account. My first payment from the sale of the business, $44 million.
Do you know, every time I go to Citibank, now I’m up to $300 a week I give myself. But, every time I go to Citibank and hear that [makes sound of money dispensing] thing, I relive that excitement again. What a thrill that was for me. I don’t know why it was so thrilling. It seemed like a miracle.
Andrew: Well, so I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but how did life change afterwards? I spend so much time talking about the struggles of building a business.
Barbara: Yes, right.
Andrew: I want to talk about the rewards for a moment, and then go back and cover the struggles. How did life change after that moment?
Barbara: Good and bad news. The very good news is I never had to worry about money again. I had enough money to send my kids to college. I didn’t ever have to mortgage out my house and move out, which I did on many instances. Even when you move into a rent-controlled apartment, you struggle to get through a bad patch. That was behind me. It was very freeing. It was also freeing to realize that I could do whatever I wanted with my time in my life. I was free of the business.
The bad news was having that much money changes everything. For me, it complicated life. My nine brothers and sisters saw me very differently. How do I take care of them? Is it my obligation to take care of them? What were they expecting of me? What could I do for their children? Because suddenly, I was in a different field than everybody else.
Also, friends. I had one friend who put it perfectly, when he said, “Everybody had a $10,000 problem.” Everybody that had a $10,000 problem came to me. I doled out $10,000, $10,000 to cure everybody’s problems. It never cured the problems.
But it complicated life. It’s one thing, I realized, to make money. I was great at making money, building a business. It’s something very different to manage money. You know what? The hardest part for me was trusting the next guy with it. I’m running my own business, and now, what do I know about investing money to make more money? I had to learn to trust other people, and I’m still uncomfortable with it. Not so easy. Money is not what it is often cracked up to be.
Andrew: You said a statement that I wrote down to come back to. You said, “I was great at making money. I’m great at making money.” What makes you great at making money?
Barbara: I think if you have a unique sense of what works, you’re going to make money. I never worried about making money, but I worried very much and gave a lot of attention to detail on making something work. If something works, you’re going to make the money.
If you spend money recklessly–to a large degree, I did, my entire career. If I saw $10,000 coming in, I was already committing it to the next office I was opening. Before it even hit my little hands, I was out hot-to-trot to spend it. But I think when you have that kind of reckless abandon–to not be afraid of taking the chips on the table and putting them right back out on the next table–I think what happens is you tend to make money well, because you don’t overanalyze, and don’t hold back when opportunities are staring you in the face.
I think also, part of that ability to make money is not being afraid to be wrong, because when you are wrong, you’re losing money. If you factor that in, like research and development costs, let’s try this, let’s try that, one out of three works. You piss away the money on two, and you make money on one, as long as it makes up for what you pissed away.
So, I think it’s a personality trait of recklessness, to a degree, and a confidence in the universe, and an ability to see what works. If you’ve got that ability, and you can work through people to make it work, you’re going to make money. Of course, you’re going to make money, there’s no doubt about it. You can’t avoid making money.
Andrew: How did you know what would work? I mean, did you ever stop to break down your instincts, and say, “That’s probably what I’m really piecing together, in very quick fashion, but there’s a lot that goes into it”?
Barbara: You know what? I think everybody is wired differently. I think the one wire I got out of being very learning-disabled in school is I thought in pictures, which is not uncommon. I’ve since learned that many people think in pictures, not in words or charts or deductive reasoning. It’s not my thing, I don’t picture that way. I always see everything in a picture.
So, for me, when I would think of an idea–or not even think of it, but see an idea somewhere else that I could apply to my business–I would, “Ping!” Get the picture in my head, see all the moving parts, see all the people that would be right for it. I could see it as though it existed, no doubt in my mind, it existed. So, I had not a business plan, but I had a great visual roadmap. Then I would go, “Whoa, I get it. We’ll do this, we’ll do that. We’ll do that, we’ll do this,” very confidently. It worked, because I have a sense of what works. I could see it.
Yet, you know, our school system really doesn’t encourage that kind of visualization. They really encourage deductive reasoning in a hard-core business plan. I never had a business plan in my life, but I’ve always had a picture of who I wanted to be. And so, I would do everything according to that little picture, moving picture, I saw of myself, and that’s what got me from the A to the B, and wound up being practical by making things happen. I hope I answered your question.
Andrew: You did. I want more, instead of going back to the question that I had in mind as a follow-up. Can you describe one of the visions that you had, or what the vision looked like earlier, back when you were in a more uncertain place?
Barbara: One of the best just pictures that I had, a snapshot, was when my back was against the wall. I don’t know what year it was, but the stock market had crashed, no one was buying real estate in New York, and everybody was going out of business. I could actually go out of business with dignity, because it wasn’t just about me, it was about the whole industry was going down. You know, the big guys, the powerhouse firms, of course had deep pockets, and they could stay in business. But all the little and mid-sized brokers were going down, and I was a mid-sized broker.
But I, all of a sudden, had a picture. It was, thank God, I was actually writing my good-bye speech to thank my salespeople. We’re closing our doors. I had a picture that suddenly popped in my head, when my mom took us to my grandpa’s house, and pointed out the lady across the street who was a chicken farmer.
You’re like, “What the hell does this have to do with real estate?” But there’s a point here. But anyway, she showed us how everybody was arguing over five Jack Russell puppies that she had for sale, and she had like ten people who wanted them. And my mother said, “Look how smart Louise (the chicken farmer lady) is.” She invited all those city slickers for 12 noon, and there weren’t enough puppies to go around.
I’d had that image, and all of a sudden, I had a great instant solution on how to unload 88 unwanted apartments that were the dregs of the market, that insurance company had asked me to sell, and I’d said, “They’re not sellable, forget it.” What I did was, I averaged them all out for the same price, told everybody it’s a secret sale. Three days hence, we had a sale, and I sold 88 apartments for over $1 million in commissions within two hours.
You know what the trick to it was? Pricing them all alike. There were high floors, low floors. Good buildings, bad buildings. But I had, for those 88 apartments, over 3 million people waiting in line. You know what? The guy who got the worst apartment, who didn’t get the pick of the litter, he was happy with his choice, because he saw all those other people bitching and complaining behind him, who got nothing.
That’s like stealing the idea, and seeing the whole scene. I saw that movie in my head. I thought, “It might work! It might work!” Bang! It worked like a charm.
Andrew: You know, I remember that story, and one thing that strikes me is that, anyone with a more analytical approach to business might say, “Whoa. I’m going to get people who are going to take the best apartments at a great price, and the worst apartments are just going to sit there, and the whole thing is going to flop.” Did that go through your head? If it did, how do you deal with that?
Barbara: No, it didn’t go through my head, because I realized the key to that was not having enough apartments to go around. The key to that was getting enough people to show up, and I also know people. The key to getting people to show up is if they’re going to get more the next guy. That’s why it was fortuitous that I didn’t have money to advertise it, nor did I have the time.
It was just plain luck that I had to tell people that, “It’s a secret sale. Only tell your best friends, and your best clients–maybe just your family members. We don’t have enough to go around. Go early. You’ll get the pick of the litter.” It was that kind of teasing that drives people to, “I’m going to get something better than him,” right?
I understood the psychology in real estate, that nobody wants what nobody wants, and everybody wants what everybody wants. I had to create a situation where everybody wanted what everybody wanted, and there wasn’t enough to go around. No, that failure piece, I didn’t play that out in my head. I just knew I had to drive enough warm bodies into that line, you know?
Andrew: Barbara, something that stands out for me–and I told you as soon as you and I got on camera, that it stood out–you’re so good on camera, you know how to express yourself, how to tell stories well; it feels natural. But from what I see in you, you work at being who you are. How did you get to a place where you can communicate so naturally, so clearly, in a way that draws us into your stories–both here, and on TV–over the years?
Barbara: Well, two things. I think telling a story is the best way to make a point, because people get your point if you’re analyzing it and describing it. But without a story, it doesn’t stick with people. Like, we all love–we remember–our childhood stories for a reason. I think little books are . . . I think the best teaching tool is folklore story telling, and if you can apply it to business, I think people can really learn. They can go, “Ooh, maybe I could . . .” They could build on that, right?
But I think, much more important than that is, you have to practice. I remember when I gave my first speech, invited with three other speakers. I was only, what, 27 or 28, and I had a room of 500 people, and it was sponsored by Citibank, and I lost my voice. Now, that’s not unusual. So many people lose their voices, and can’t do public speaking. No different than anybody else.
But I think the difference was, I was shocked, embarrassed, and didn’t want to show my face again, and swore I would never public speak again; because of the mortification and the public shame of it, right? For me, it was a little too close to home: to being called on in that classroom, and not having the answer. Brought all that kind of crap back up.
But here’s the thing. I went and I registered to teach–at night, to a small classroom–how to sell real estate, at NYU. And you know what? I did that for 12 weeks, and I learned to speak on a subject I knew, in front of a small audience that liked me.
You ought to know, I was rewarded immediately, because in the first class, I met my powerhouse broker, Carrie Chien [SP], who is still the number one broker in the condominium market in New York. She came up to me and said, “Barbara, I made $200,000 in one year.” All of a sudden, I’m there to practice my speech, so I shifted my gears, and I thought, “I’m going to recruit that woman into my tiny little firm.”
I not only got the great experience of getting back up, the other experience of a lot of practice with a comfortable crowd; but I got a powerhouse salesperson who is going to make the biggest difference in my future sales for the next five years. What’s wrong with that? I think the key is getting the practice. I don’t think things come naturally.
Andrew: Why didn’t you take a course on public speaking, get better at it, and then sign up for a class? Why did you instead say, “No, I want to go be the authority here?”
Barbara: I didn’t have that kind of time. You know, it depends how you learn. So for some people, that might be good. Like, I learned how to speak by some jerk taking me to the top of the mountain, and saying, “See you at the bottom.” I learned to speak. I’m good at that kind of thing. Under fire, I’ll figure a way. So I figured, if I forced myself to get in front of a crowd.
The other thing is I had to do it and sign up for it, before I changed my mind. It’s so easy to think why something’s not a good idea, versus move on something in the heat of the moment. Just like that email to Mark Burnett. If I had thought about it for more than an hour, I probably would have been a graceful loser, maybe would have thought about sending him an email the next day. There’s nothing better than the fire of the moment to get your momentum to move you to the next spot.
So, I think that’s why I signed up for the shooing match of the NYU course, just to get it over before I changed my mind, and get good at it.
Andrew: You know, when I do that, I sometimes get hot-headed. You know, like I go all Middle Eastern, and I send that quick email, and I go . . .
Barbara: That’s not Middle Eastern. That’s entrepreneurship.
Andrew: That’s entrepreneurship.
Andrew: When you sometimes go too far. Did you ever have a situation like that, where you sent an email too quickly, or a note too quickly, and you said, “Whoa. You know, this might have come across a little too aggressively?” How do you deal with that?
Barbara: I’ll tell you, you’re embarrassed at the time. Like a faux pas that I actually forgot about, but when you said that, I went, “Whoa, why did I do that?” I remember that I was a phenomenal recruiter from other firms, to bring the powerhouse brokers into my shop. But one time, someone took one of my guys out, and I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was a personal failure on my report card.
But what I did to that particular large firm is, I went and I got a frozen fish–because I had just seen the Godfather movie, where they put the horse head on the . . . this is so stupid. But I went, and I got a frozen fish, huge fish, and I wrapped it in brown paper, and I had it hand-delivered to the guy who recruited my man out, and I said, “Good luck,” and I put my name on it.
That got around the industry so fast. It was tasteless, ridiculous, like, “What was I thinking?” That’s when I should have thought about it until the next morning. But I was so angry, I thought, “I’m going to threaten him.” Like, I don’t even get the message, honestly, anymore. But, a cold, frozen fish? I don’t know, there was some tie-in–I don’t remember what it was–but it was a bad idea.
How do you get over it? Time gets you over it. You move on. You get started working on your next bad idea.
Andrew: All right, you talked about how you found your powerhouse. I’m wondering about, how do you integrate new people in. First of all, actually, why don’t we talk about how you recruited other people, maybe more proactively. Then, I’m wondering, how did you make them so good?
Barbara: Yeah, first of all, people–I’ll get to that in a minute–make themselves good. You can help them along. But, how did I recruit people? It depended. Neophytes, who had no experience at all, everywhere I traveled, everywhere I went; if I liked someone and thought they had a good sales personality, and had that certain “thing’–I don’t know quite what that “thing” is, but had that certain “thing”–I handed them a business card, and said, “You’d be great at real estate sales. If you ever come into real estate sales, please, make me the first call.”
I handed out business cards to clerks; in fact, I only saw this morning, catching coffee, I wish I had a real estate company. But I’m already thinking, what position do I have? There’s a lady serving coffee at that corner place that you–I’m not going to tell you where, because somebody’s going to recruit her–she so outclasses that place in energy, smartness, efficiency, the way she’s handling . . . she makes everybody else look like five people do the work of her one. I should recruit her, but I don’t have a job for her. I’m dying to get a job for her.
Okay, but, I would hand out the card, and so I would constantly have people say, “You gave me a card.” That’s great, I knew I loved them. Come on in and see me, and I’d find a spot for them as the business grew. It’s very easy to do.
How did I recruit from my neighboring firms, that hated my guts, because I was such a good recruiter? Every time someone got a public reward in the real estate industry, I wrote them a handwritten note with flowers. Here’s the key. The line I sent to them was, “Your sales manager must be so proud of you.” Ha! They never got flowers from their sales managers. They never got complimented. It’s like a wife that’s being taken for granted and goes out and has an affair with the romancer. I was the romancer.
You ought to know, I did it consistently. It looked innocent; it wasn’t innocent. They all came to work for me, because who do you want to work for? Someone who doesn’t notice you came in, or the person who’s sending you flowers and telling you you’re amazing? Flattery–genuine flattery–with a little gimmick attached.
Andrew: I love that. I love that. Intentionally . . . do you ever feel bad about that? To me, that feels like great business.
Barbara: No. Why feel bad? I’m spending my money on the flowers–I didn’t send cheap flowers–beautiful flowers. I took the time to write a note. Why would I feel badly? I felt like I was entitled to that person when they came to me. I worked on it.
Andrew: Okay. So now you’ve brought them in the door. How do you make them great?
Barbara: I think you make them great by making them a collaborator with other people. If I had a salesman who was medium-great, and I thought they could be the top of the game, I would bring them in and have a table full of my really superstars there to greet them and introduce them properly, and say, “We’re so happy to have you in the firm.” Friendship is what they got on the day in, friendship by people that were stronger than them. That’s very sexy, and very appealing, and very comforting, a helping hand.
Then also, just having an environment where people were expected to help each other. Do you know, in real estate sales, very often the queen bees hate each other? Because they’re after the same clients, the same listings, and there’s really no upside to their being friendly with one another. I constantly was found outside the office, shoving them together, to get them to like each other. Camaraderie is how anybody really becomes great at what they do. If you have friendship around, camaraderie and helping hands around, okay?
The other is a definite belief that you express, that they have the ability to be amazing. You know, sometimes people have never had anybody tell them that. It makes a big difference. People aspire to what you see in them.
Andrew: Do you have an example actually of when someone wasn’t great–for a short period of time–and you knew they weren’t great, and that’s why you shouldn’t give up on them. But how do you turn them around? How do you bring that back out of them?
Barbara: It’s very individual. I think what you have to key into is you have to put your finger on their soul in a real way. For example, first person that just came to mind: I had a woman who was a society lady, lovely. She was the first Dove actress–you know, the Dove commercial–with the perfect face and maybe 55, never been in business, came in. She was alluring, beautiful to look at, charming, well-mannered, a hard worker, had all the traits of who should be a superstar.
She came into the firm, made no sales in the first three months. No sales in the first six months. By the ninth month, she was on notice, we were firing her. My partner actually fired her. She came in to say goodbye to me, and it just clicked in my head. She was so upset to fail at something. You know what I realized? She was actually trying to hustle people, trying to find listings, trying to find this. She was trying to be a real estate broker.
It clicked in my head that what her job was, she used to go to all the charity lunches and dinners. She was loaded. She had the best access. I said, “Stop selling real estate. Don’t show any real estate. Don’t advertise real estate. Take the next six months, and just go back to all your lunches and dinners, and make friends. She became my top salesperson within six months–not my very top, but among my top–within six months.
Why? I took the pressure off her, and allowed her to do what she did well. She wasn’t a hustler. She was a lovely lady that people wanted to be with. You know what? Sometimes, that’s all you need to have to be really good at real estate.
Andrew: Hmm. I’ve got a note here to come and ask you about P.R. You are phenomenal at public relations. You always have been. How?
Barbara: P.R.? P.R. is the most unutilized tool in building business. It’s mind-boggling to me. Public relations is like having a rich business partner with wads of cash, willing to spend it on you without any question being asked, and always more cash there for whatever you needed. You know what that was in my business, and how I built my brand day in and day out? Using publicity, using The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, by publishing reports.
I published a report in everything you could think of. I published the Top Ten Condominium Survey. That’s how I met Donald Trump. He wasn’t among the top ten, even though he was advertising his Trump Tower was the most expensive address in the world. That’s how he called me into his office, because I was exposing him–darn it! He became my best advocate in business. We partnered up on many things.
When I knew that Madonna was pregnant with a child–and we had no celebrities in our company, we weren’t the celebrity broker–I published a Madonna report, and got her on four news channels as broker to the stars. I didn’t say which stars. I didn’t happen to have any, but I got Richard Gere as a client.
You know what? I used publicity, and churning out reports, my entire career, because I found that the reporters are never really looking for story ideas–which people think they are–they think of the story ideas. They’re looking for statistics to support their story ideas; and so I became their custom-made statistician. Whatever they wanted, I churned out.
You want to know what? I rode that star right up the rank. When we had 20 people, people thought we had 100. By the time we had 100, people thought we had 1,000. We always looked so much bigger, because I was always quoted in the press. It’s the magic juice of building a brand, and best feet forward.
Andrew: The report data came from your own files, from your own sales data internally?
Barbara: Yes, initially, certainly. And honestly, it was, quite frankly, preposterous initially, because I took 11 sales, averaged them out, and labeled it “the average New York City sales price”. Fortunately for me, I was too stupid to know any better to know, you don’t do that. But I mailed it out, and that’s how I got my first publicity break, right?
But later on, with the advent of email, reporters would call me and say–this is hard to believe–I was their go-to-me girl. They would call me and say, “I’m doing a story on the effect on the oil prices in Russia on the New York business community. Can you help me out?” I would send out an email, “Anybody working with a Russian–call me.” I would put him in touch–bang, bang, bang–with eight brokers working with Russians, and he had Russians to use for his oil story or whatever.
I just would deliver fast, fast. With email, you could service these people very well. The great charm in the real estate business is, you are working with people from every industry, every country. You have access. You’re sitting on a gold mine you don’t even know you have. That’s true of many businesses, when you have varied clients.
Andrew: You know, the other thing that I always remember is, you said–I don’t even know where I remembered this, but you tell stories, and so these stories get embedded in my head–you said something like: You know, if Madonna’s selling her apartment, her real estate broker can’t go talk to the news, even though the news would love to talk about her apartment. You said … Actually, I’ll let you tell the story.
Barbara: Well, I don’t know which story that was, because I use that gimmick again and again. But I distinctly remember, there was a triplex penthouse sold on Park Avenue. I’m walking to work, a block from my Madison Avenue office, and I run into the society broker who just sold it. He should have contained himself; he didn’t. And he said, “Did you hear? Did you hear? I just sold the most expensive apartment in New York’s history!” I said, “My God, really? What was it? How much?”
I got the detail. I went right to my office. I called the press: “Did you hear about it?” The press started calling me. No, actually, that’s not true–I didn’t call the press. The press started calling me for details. I said, “Oh, please, it wasn’t my property. You should go talk to (and the guy’s name), right?” Then I would wait about five minutes, they’d call me back, and they’d say, “He can’t talk.” I’d say, “Well then, let me give you the details.”
Everybody thought that I sold the most expensive … I never said it, they never said it, but it was the sweet association with success that I was able to marry in, because of my ability to speak to the press. It worked every time.
Andrew: The one that I was thinking of is, you said, “Well, they can’t go to him,” and maybe you didn’t have the brokers connection at that time, but they want some broker to talk to about this, about real estate, about how celebrities buy and sell their homes. You said, “I’ll go be your person. I’ll do the interview. I’ll talk to you.”
Barbara: Of course, because you know what happens? If you really have your own celebrity, you very often sign an agreement that you won’t disclose it to the press. Ironically, the deal you actually make, the real deal you actually make, you can’t do anything with. But you can make hay with your neighbor’s deals, because it’s bar nothing. I mean, you heard about it, who’s doing it, who’s buying what, you can talk to the moon. Again, the important listening ears and the on air association is made with your name. Nobody remembers . . .
I remember when I put a press release what Hillary Clinton would be looking for. I just showed the dregs of the market, the apartments we couldn’t sell, the helicopter port she’d be going to. Over at the voting booth, people would [inaudible] nonsense. My sellers loved me. We were exposing them on national TV. But you know, to this day, I will still meet people, and people will say, “Oh, you’re that broker who sold Hillary Clinton.” No, she never even bought in New York. But it was that association on air that they would always remember.
Andrew: These stories are still sticking with me. You’re telling them great here. Beyond going and teaching a class, what else did you do? Do you practice your stories in front of people? Did you ever bring in a coach to help you with the media, with communication?
Barbara: Oh, no, no. You have to realize, I grew up as 1 of 10 children. Do you know how hard it is to get attention?
Andrew: I see.
Barbara: When you’re 1 of 10 kids, with only 1 set of parents–not easy. In our family, it was the person who talked the loudest and most frequently who got the attention, so we’re all good talkers. You get a big family, you’re going to talk, or you’re going to disappear. So I’m a talker, no doubt, and because I couldn’t read and write well, I made up for it with my mouth, no doubt. I had more practice there.
But no. You know, honest to God, all I’m looking forward is my next story. Because people keep asking me about these stories I’ve told so many times, I’m always looking for my next story that’s interesting. Because it can get old when you tell it the tenth time. [inaudible], you’re making it worse, you keep asking me about this stuff. Forget about it!
Andrew: I’ve got to, I’ve got to. This is just too good. You know what? It’s one of those stories that if you . . . look, I have a hard time communicating over here, and I do this every day.
Barbara: That’s not true. You [inaudible].
Andrew: But I have a hard time telling entrepreneurs, “Don’t just give out facts. No one remembers facts. They don’t come across as credible. If you tell a story”–and you’re showing how you learned the fact that you communicate credibility, and you help stick that story in people’s minds. They just, they don’t see it. I’m glad you do it, and in this interview, I think they’re going to see it.
Barbara: You know, Andrew, may I say something? Even on the “Shark Tank,” what you said is so true. Do you know when that entrepreneur is standing on that, in the shark tank, pitching us to give them our money–our own money–do you know what the first thing we hear is? The story how they got started, and it’s so engaging. You’re either falling in love with the person and you’re buying into them–which means you’re buying into their business, ultimately–or you’re not buying in.
Any guy that gets up there, and starts doing flow charts and numbers, I’m snoring already. I mean, you are so right about that. The ability, to me, to communicate a clear, concise little picture, is tantamount to success in any business, no doubt about it.
Andrew: What else should entrepreneurs who are pitching investors know? On “Shark Tank” or offline.
Barbara: They should know that they never go to their family and friends to practice on. Because they’re going to tell them they’re the greatest. You know what you ought to do? You ought to go to your brother-in-law that you can’t stand, let him tear you to shreds on your pitch. Because whether you’re going to Shark Tank, or whether you’re going to some other angel investment group to get your cash, you’re going to be questioned on what’s weak–not what’s great about your presentation, but what doesn’t add up, what doesn’t quite click as making sense. You really want someone who’s critical of you to listen to you, before you do the real deal.
Yet, most people will not practice against someone who can’t stand them. I say, that’s really … You’re head above your competitors if you can actually tolerate that for yourself, because you’ll be better prepared as to what you’ll find in the real world.
Andrew: All right, I haven’t asked you yet about how you started in real estate. How’d you get started?
Barbara: That was easy. I had a boyfriend who was drop-dead gorgeous, who I was going to sleep with anyway, but he gave me $1,000 to start the firm. Hey, you know what? He said, “You’d be great at real estate.” It was my twenty-third job. I didn’t mind it. I had liked every other job I’d had, except maybe one, about right? I thought, “Yeah, I’ll give it a whorl. What do I have to lose?” That’s not the best story. It was just happenstance that somebody gave me the $1,000 I got.
Andrew: Why dud that career stick, where the others didn’t?
Barbara: Because it was the first career I had where I worked for myself. Immediately, I was engaged, and married into the concept that I could build a world all of my own. Do you know, when I was a kid, when I had a hard time in school, I would go up to the back cliffs. Because we had a stream, and I would build massive towns, you know, we had flat stones and that stuff. Little, tiny, massive towns–diving boards. I could sit there all day, and be happy as could be.
Building your own business wasn’t that different than that. You can put people where you want them, do what you want, not do what you want. [inaudible] and it’s okay, you don’t get punished–you know, you punish yourself, of course. But, it allowed so much freedom, and that was the first time I worked from myself.
Do you know, the only thing wrong with the other 22 jobs, ever, was, I didn’t really like my boss. I didn’t know that until I got rid of those bosses. They were fine people, I’m sure, but I loved being my own boss.
Andrew: There was an article two weeks ago in the Sunday Times about Jim Cramer, where he said that at his height–where everyone thought that he was at his height–he was suffering on the inside. I think he even went through an emotional breakdown.
Barbara: I didn’t read that. I can’t picture him having an emotional breakdown. I could picture me having an emotional breakdown watching. I’ve got to read that.
Andrew: He actually, apparently, had another breakdown after going on Jon Stewart. That was a crushing blow. People would, he’d walk into restaurants, and his friends would come and try to bring him back up, because he was so down.
Barbara: Really? Wow. He takes a hit hard. But he got up.
Andrew: Tell me about you taking a hit? When in your career did you take a hit? What’s the biggest, most painful one?
Barbara: Obviously, there’s only one that stands apart in the very big crowd of hits, okay? That was when my boyfriend, Ramone Simone, and 51% business partner, announced he was going to marry my secretary. I didn’t see that train coming at all. I actually thought it was a joke when he said it. When he said, “You can take your time moving out,” it started getting real serious, fast, okay? That hit was horrific for me.
In hindsight, it was ridiculous. All it was, was a means to an end, a bridge that I had to walk over, but the bridge walking took me a long time, all right? Because I really couldn’t imagine why he suddenly didn’t want me. I mean, he had found me, taken me out of that little town, and trusted me, and given me the money, and shown me the way of the world. He was 10 years older than me. He was savvy.
All of a sudden, I felt like I’d be nothing without him. I mean, that … What was I thinking? I should have taken medication–but I didn’t–or seen a shrink, or something. But instead, I just pouted through it was best I could. But recovering from that was a hard one, hard one for me.
But, you know what? Thank God. You know, he married her. They have three children. They’re still happily married; more happily married than I am with my husband, Bill, of 22 years. Who am I to point fingers here, right? But personal insults like that, yeah, scorned lover, whatever, the whole combination.
Andrew: How did you get over it?
Andrew: How did you get over it?
Barbara: You want to know something? I don’t think I really got over it, but I think it wore me out, going to work every day and having to sit with his new wife, and me. It was, like, so pathetically degrading to me, and I couldn’t fire her, because he was the controlling partner–which he reminded me of–and it was so degrading to me, I think I just got worn out.
One day, I just got up and said, “I’m not doing this anymore,” and announced that we were going to divide the business like a football draw. He picks the first person, I pick the second. He takes the phone number, I don’t. He stays, I go. I just wanted to get the heck out of there. It was urgent.
You know what? That was the birth of the Corcoran Group. Thank God that that happened, in hindsight. But, you know, all bad things that happen are great in hindsight. They’re never so good at the time. Yet, I’m ashamed at how long it took me to stand up for my own rights, and get going again.
Andrew: Wow. You know, I’m hearing somebody in the background while we’re talking–which is fine. I’m talking to you in your office, but here’s . . .
Barbara: No noise on this side. It’s perfectly quiet. I have the door closed.
Andrew: The thing that I’m imagining is, there’s someone else in the room as you’re talking. There are people who are–and that, in many ways, makes it even more intimate than knowing there are going to be thousands of people who download and listen to this, and more intimate than knowing that there are millions of people possibly reading your book, and hearing this story. How do you get comfortable being so open about something that’s so personal? How do you do that, with all of us watching?
Barbara: You know what? It’s easier. It’s easier not to have to practice, or hide anything. It’s easier being yourself. And you know what else? Even as a businesswoman, I can see being yourself as a huge business advantage, because what do you get with anyone who’s themselves, even when they’re odd duck and weirdo? You trust them. You kind of see what you get, what you see is what you get, kind of thing. You can build a lot of good will by being yourself.
Yet, many people practice too many of the [inaudible]. You know, I went through a fancy stage. I got my hair done twice a week, coughed up for a whole year of my life. Once the company was getting bigger and important, I got kind of self-important. You know what I did that year? I’m sorry to say it, it’s a sidekick, but a good lesson for me, that I learned, sadly. In that year that I was getting fancy, and making my head getting pretty full because I kept reading my own quotes in the paper, getting my hair done really perfect and everything.
You know what I started doing? I started head-counting my market share against everybody else’s. I started watching what everybody else was doing, because I was now a worthy competitor. You know what? That was the only year I didn’t move my business ahead. That singular year, I didn’t increase my market share, because I was too busy minding the next guy’s business, and fancying myself up. It’s over. One year, I learned that lesson.
But, back to the point. I think if you’re yourself, people know, and they like you better for it. That’s got to be good for business, because business is all about people. Isn’t it, really? You know that.
Barbara: You’re in business.
Andrew: You even, in one article, you talked about trying to have a baby. I think you said, seven years, you were trying?
Barbara: Yes, seven years, but remember I started late. That’s not an unusual story. Remember, there are many couples who go through one in vitro after another, after another, and don’t ever wind up with a child. So think how lucky I was. So, that’s not unusual. The reason it started, it took so long, I think, was because I started too late. I was 41. From 41 to 46, I tried to get pregnant.
But, you know what? I had a beautiful, healthy little baby boy. That made up for all of that. It was not even important. That’s, again, a lesson in persistence. But what a prize that is! Ooh!
Andrew: You’ve actually, did I see him on Twitter the other day? You took a picture of your child with a bag, instead of–what’s it called?
Barbara: I did? No, I don’t think so. I mean, getting my son Tommy, who’s 17, to pose for anything–forget about it!
Andrew: I see.
Barbara: This is what you’ll see. His hands are both up. He’s so handsome. It drives me crazy. We’ll see. Maybe in the future, I’ll have a few good shots of him.
Andrew: How do you and Bill stay married? Since we’re getting personal, I’ve got to ask.
Barbara: Oh, God.
Andrew: How do you and Bill, considering your work hours, considering everything else, considering the fact that you just walked away with a big check, and you could have married 20 secretaries … How do you and Bill stay together?
Barbara: Well, what I did with the check, before I had the check in hand is, I had my husband sign a post-nuptial. Because I wasn’t smart enough to have a pre-nup, okay? Because I didn’t want to worry about the marriage not working out. That’s not damning the marriage, or casting it in any bad light, but that’s realistic. I just wanted to know that if things went awry–because I didn’t know how this wealth was going to play out on the marriage, on my life. I was worried about me not having a business, how I’d be. I thought I’d drive him crazy. I did, all right?
But marriage, for me–and this is my second marriage; all right, I was married for seven. Now, I’ve been married over 20 years–marriage for me is so much harder than business. Business, for me, you have a lot of people who love you. You can switch players–hire, fire. You have fans all around you. People are cheering you on.
Marriage is very one-on-one, and you’ve got to work at it. I work my ass off at my marriage, as does Bill. You want to know what? I haven’t found a better formula. I wish I could! I wish it was a lot . . .
Andrew: I got married about a year ago. I want to know how to do this right. I feel like most people who talk about how to stay married, they don’t get business. They don’t understand the hours, the commitment, the power you have in the rest of the world, and the lack of power that you have in the one-on-one relationship.
Barbara: Well, you know what? If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re married to your business. If you’re any good at what you do, you’re married to your business. So honestly, for me, when I married Bill, I knew he was OK being number two. Isn’t that terrible, to think your spouse is number two? But the truth was, he was number two in my life, how it measured out, okay? The hours put in, the satisfaction, he was number two. Signing up somebody who’s okay with that is key.
But you’re married a year–you’re having great sex. If not, you should bail out right now. You should be hot and heavy right now. You’re thinking about, “Oh, my God. How am I so lucky to find this woman?” You know what you should do? You should sit down and write a long list of everything you like about your wife, and have her do the same about you. Because about three years from today, that list is going to get shorter and shorter, and everything you hate about her is going to become bigger and bigger. That’s when the heavy lifting starts. I would really … I mean it now. You’re going to laugh at me, but make a list right now.
I wish I had done that with Bill. I could tell you in one second what I love about my husband. He’s a great guy, he’s totally honest, and he’s generous. But if I had made that list, I would have 50 things on that list, 22 years ago, and I wish I had that list posted over my bed right now. The things that drive you crazy get worse.
Andrew: That’s a great point. I actually should have done that when I stopped dating, because I knew that like 10 years from now, I’d look back and say, “You could have dated everybody. You were having a great time. Why’d you decide to get married?” And I want to have that list, just so I can touch back in and say, “Oh, no. You forgot about this problem, and that problem, and that issue over there.”
Barbara: List the problems with who you were dating, you mean? Or what was wrong with the people you dated, is that what you mean?
Andrew: Oh, no. There was nothing wrong with the people, it was just from what, I can make like a list of three like you can right now, but it was things like, it got into some kind of formula. I always said that dating a lot of different women would mean that every day, and every relationship was different. But, eventually, you got to see: No, there’s a formula. In fact, the better you get at . . . I’m sorry?
Barbara: There are patterns in everything.
Andrew: Yes! Yeah, and so if I can’t get changed, then maybe I can grow together with someone, and we can work on creating new patterns together.
Barbara: Stand by for heavy roles. You’re just a baby in the marriage front.
Andrew: I know it. Man, do I know it. That scares me.
Barbara: It should scare you. It’s worthy to be scared of.
Andrew: We only have a couple of minutes left. Let me ask you this: When I talk to people who are entrepreneurs who focus on conversions–getting more people to buy online–and I ask them, “What’s the one problem that you see?” They say, “Andrew, people aren’t making the sale process clear. They’re not saying, ‘Do this. Take this action.'” I’m wondering if the same thing is true for entrepreneurs like you. When you look at other entrepreneurs, do you see, “Oh, there’s this one glaring problem. If only the . . .”
Barbara: Andrew, are you speaking about online, selling what you . . .
Andrew: No, I’m talking about entrepreneurship in general. Sorry, I shouldn’t have gotten carried away with that side thing. But, is there one big issue that you see entrepreneurs–one big mistake–that you see them repeating over and over, and you just want to shake them and say, “Stop doing that! You’re missing a big opportunity here.”?
Barbara: You know what constantly amazes me? I will be the first one to tell someone what’s wrong, even though they’re not asking. Maybe I shouldn’t. But most people are appreciative. Entrepreneurs can’t communicate very clearly what it is they do. I know, I know, people say “the elevator pitch”, that kind of thing. I don’t even mean the sales pitch.
It’s like, I’ll meet so many great entrepreneurs, and I’ve already liked them from the first hello. I liked the handshake, and I go, “So what do you do?” and then for the next minute, I hear what they’re doing. It should be more like 10 seconds, because I’m already snoring out somewhere. I can’t stay with it that long. Already, they’re sliding down the scale of what I think of them, right?
Clarity of communication, “I sell soap.” Versus, we’re in the cleanliness business, blah-blah-blah. “I sell soap.” Okay, I got you. You’re a soap guy, right? That’s it, right? I think clarity of communication is–and it might be because of over-education today, and sophisticated language, social networking, blah-blah-blah, all these coin phrases–but clarity of communication is in short supply; and so, helpful to any entrepreneur, if you can master it.
Andrew: What do you do?
Barbara: You know what I do? Two things. I invest in entrepreneurs and build their business–that’s the Shark Tank piece. The other thing I do is, I create data and information to do real estate segments. That’s it. I do real estate segments and invest in entrepreneurs.
Barbara: That’s my life. But it sure is a lot of hours, just doing those two little things.
Andrew: Sounds like more than little. Finally, the book over your shoulder–I love that you have it over your shoulder, “Shark Tales.” What’s the book about?
Barbara: You betcha. I’ve got a book over my shoulder. Ha! Tell us about that? That’s the rags-to-riches story–which you already seem very familiar with–and the lessons I learned along the way. Plus, all of the entrepreneurs, and their stories, that I invested in, and what they did right, and what they did wrong.
Whatever happened to Cactus Jack, Daisy Cakes, Tiffany the Elephant Lady. Because these are the questions I’m asked, day in and day out, at every airport. “Hey, whatever happened to . . .” It tells you a story, and lets you know exactly how well they succeeded, or how badly they failed.
Andrew: The book is “Shark Tales.” It’s out in bookstores right now, right?
Barbara: Or it’s, of course, online. Who goes to a bookstore anymore?
Barbara: Anybody? I’m not sure.
Andrew: Right. It’s available online, on Kindle, on whatever device you have. Man, Barbara, you are so . . . I didn’t even get into what a good writer you are! I flattered you in everything else. I didn’t even get to flatter you on your writing.
Barbara: I’m not a great writer.
Andrew: You’re great at writing, because you’re a great storyteller.
Barbara: At a third grade level. Please! I know it’s not my forte, but I wrote it so many times, that eventually it became okay.
Andrew: Barbara Corcoran, my future second wife, and the book is “Shark Tales.”
Barbara: Well, keep those eyebrows going. Do not tweeze them.
Andrew: I will not tweeze, trim, or touch them.
Barbara: Ooh, no, no, no.
Andrew: Thank you so much for doing this interview.
Barbara: Thanks for the attention.
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