Before she was a ‘Shark Tank’ celebrity, Barbara Corcoran launched an empire and became New York City’s real-estate queen. Here’s how she did it–and why she hopes you won’t listen to her.
The Power of the Press
When Barbara Corcoran launched a real-estate brokerage in 1973 in New York City, she didn’t care all that much about real estate. “I knew how to sell things,” she explains. “And I didn’t like working for other people. A good sign that you should be an entrepreneur is if it bugs you to work for someone else.” Not only was Corcoran good at selling apartments, but she also excelled at marketing herself. After she was quoted in a New York Times article about real estate, Corcoran realized that getting press was good for business. In 1981, she launched The Corcoran Report, a biannual examination of New York City real-estate statistics and trends. “Reporters depend on statistics for stories,” she says. “I figured if I could dole them out, I’d always get quoted.”
Corcoran also had a knack for stunts, long before Shark Tank. Once, she had her supposedly Native American bookkeeper (she was actually Hungarian) “smudge” an apartment to rid it of bad vibes. Three newspapers covered it. And when two Park Avenue co-op boards instituted a “pet interview,” Corcoran invited press to report on her dog-training class. “A picture of me shaking hands with a dog wound up on the front page of the Daily News,” she says.
Time to Sell
Her decision to sell the Corcoran Group was remarkably easy. After spending seven years trying to conceive a child, Corcoran gave birth to her son, Tommy, when she was 45. After he was born, things changed. “I started coming in at 10 a.m. instead of 8 a.m.,” Corcoran explains. “My top broker stormed into my office and said, ‘You don’t care about me anymore! You just care about that boy!’ ” Meanwhile, the company had made a serious profit two years in a row. Corcoran thought it might be time to sell. She had a hunch that real-estate giant NRT–which had already bought Century 21 and Coldwell Banker–might be interested. So Corcoran called up a lawyer who was on NRT’s board. Pretending not to know about his board seat, “I said, ‘I’d like to sell my business to NRT but have no idea what it’s worth,’ ” she recalls. “I asked him to be my acquisition attorney.” Corcoran was on a ski vacation and in the chairlift when he called her back with an offer of $22 million. Thinking fast, Corcoran responded, “Tell them I want $66 million.” She had pulled the number out of thin air. “I figured I’d take a shot at it,” Corcoran says. “Every time they came back, I stuck to it.” She had nothing to lose–and NRT finally gave Corcoran her asking price.
The Floating Years
After selling her company in 2001, Corcoran quickly realized that playground dates and cooking classes were not enough for her. “I thought I had made a terrible mistake,” she says. “I had no identity. My ego took a hit.” Corcoran wrote an autobiography, and then began pitching herself to TV networks as a real-estate expert. She landed a gig on Good Morning America, and then a spot on the Today show as a regular contributor. She doled out business advice on CNBC’s The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch. When Mark Burnett Productions called in 2008 to see if Corcoran was interested in doing a not-yet-named reality-TV show on which she would give business advice and invest her own money, she said, “Hell, yes!” and sent financial statements to prove she had the money to play. After receiving a contract, she bought three new outfits at Bergdorf Goodman and started imagining herself signing autographs as a reality-TV star. Then Mark Burnett’s assistant called to say she did not get the job. “I was pissed,” she says. “I wrote an email to Burnett asking for an audition, and then I made his assistant promise that she would print out the email and make him read it.” Corcoran got the audition, of course–and the job. “Entrepreneurs succeed by being pushy, right?” she says. “I stood up for myself–and got rewarded.”
Corcoran has been on Shark Tank for six seasons and just renewed her contract for another three. The gig took some getting used to. “When I built the Corcoran Group, my agents were the talent, and I was the boss,” she says. “I could delegate tasks to someone else. As a Shark Tank judge, I’m the talent. I can’t delegate any part of my role, and I’m definitely not the boss. It’s vastly different. I really like being the boss.” When it comes to investing, Corcoran looks for “kindred spirits, nice people.” When she is unsure, she explains, “I say to myself, ‘What if we grow this into a $30 million business–is this person going to be thankful?’ ” If the answer is no, she won’t invest. Corcoran has put money into more than a dozen businesses since she started on Shark Tank, and headshots of the founders hang on a wall in her Manhattan office. The shots of those she’s still excited about or considers successful are right-side up, and the others are upside down. (As of March, there were 15 photos on her wall, and all but five were right-side up.) Corcoran says she’s gotten better at figuring out who the successful ones will be. “They are always great risk takers and salespeople–and hugely organized,” she says. “They also ignore me when I tell them what to do, which I love, because that means they truly are entrepreneurs.”