Barbara Corcoran
(Photo: Barbara Corcoran Inc.)

Q&A: Barbara Corcoran

She built a vast real estate business from nothing, then became a star of TV’s 'Shark Tank.'

Barbara Corcoran, who built a highly successful New York-based real estate sales business, is now best-known as one of the feisty stars of ABC-TV’s Shark Tank. She has appeared in all 14 seasons of the series and is about to tape a 15th. Since the beginning of this year alone, she has made 130 deals on the show, the largest being a $350,000 investment for 40 percent of a company. Such projects represent quite a jump for Corcoran, who grew up in Edgewater, New Jersey, the second of 10 children, and struggled in school, where she was a D student. By the time she graduated from the only college that would accept her, New York’s St. Thomas Aquinas College in 1971, she’d learned she had dyslexia. 

In 1973, when Corcoran was 23, a boyfriend loaned her $1,000 and partnered with her to start a New York City real estate company. After seven years, she left to launch her own firm, the Corcoran Group. She developed innovative ways to sell apartments and founded The Corcoran Report, a newsletter that covered real estate trends in the city. She sold her firm in 2001 for a reported $66 million.

Corcoran—who authored the bestselling Shark Tales, How I Turned $1,000 into a Billion Dollar Business—hosts a popular podcast, Business Unusual with Barbara Corcoran. She is a motivational speaker and has discussed business and real estate on every major TV network. 

Barbara Corcoran
(Photo: Barbara Corcoran Inc.)

Corcoran travels 30 to 40 times a year, including two trips to Los Angeles to tape Shark Tank. She flies privately on about 10 of those flights, always by hitching rides with friends. Corcoran, who has a married son, lives in New York City with her husband and 17-year-old daughter.

You seem to credit your mother for nearly everything you’ve learned about business. 

She instilled in me that [my nine siblings and I had] the right to be anyone we wanted to be. We never felt any limitations. 

What about your father? 

He taught us insubordination because he always quit his job every three to six months. He told the boss to shove his job where the sun don't shine, so we grew up thinking it was terrible to work for somebody else. None of the 10 of us work for anyone except one sister. 

You've said nothing is more important than a team working together. How do you get a team to work together?

You treat everybody equally. Everybody's got something special going for them. You have to figure out what it is and point it out to that person and the other team members whenever you can. You have to set an example of mutual respect. And you have to eliminate those highbrow people who think they're better than everybody else. 

You've said that every big success happens after you think you've exhausted your options. Can you give an example?

I was writing a speech, knowing I had to go out of business because I had no resources, and I thought I’d tried everything. But then I thought of pricing 88 unwanted apartments at one price and offering them at the same exact time. I created a rush on the market when nobody was buying, and I made over $1 million.

Whenever I really moved ahead, it was always on the heels of some terrible misjudgment or failure. I think that brings out the best in someone who knows how to hustle. You reach deeper and you find one more thing you could try. And you never know if that one more thing will be the thing that turns a corner. For me, it always was.

You also believe in expanding before you’re ready. Why?  

I would rent a space for 60 salespeople even though I had a hard time finding 30. It put such pressure on me to recruit, to push ahead, because I had a huge overhead. It’s the only way to grow a business and advance against entrenched competitors. I wasn't going to catch up by just doing the same as they did. I had to overreach, and the pressure to fulfill what I overreach for always works for me.

Yours was one of the first companies to put your real estate listings online. Did that change the business?

It used to be that total control was in the hands of the listing agent. Not anymore. It's in the hands of the consumer. So yes, it totally switched the power play in real estate. 

What was your most memorable private jet trip?

Robert Herjavek was on the set of Shark Tank and asked if I was going back to New York that night and wanted to come on his jet. An hour later, without any security, without even showing my ID, I was walking onto his jet. He had his initials on everything: the napkins, the rug, the seats, the walls. Even better than the trip was Robert telling me that when he was between private jets, he took his kids on a first-class flight on Delta. And when his children walked in, they said, ‘What are all these people doing here?’ Can you imagine? That’s rich.

These days, do you borrow someone's jet or just hitch rides with jet owners?

I'm really good at hitching rides. When I was 30, I was in Cape Cod and had to get to New York to do something pressing. I couldn't get on a commercial flight, so I took a taxi to a local airport and asked, “Anybody leaving for New York?” A guy gave me a free ride to Teterboro Airport. 

I did it even when I was on a Shark Tank budget. I was in a boondock place in California where I was going to be traveling by car for four hours to get to LAX and I told the driver to pull into a little airport. I walked in and there was a guy leaving for LAX. So, I hopped on his plane. You can pretty much hop a plane wherever you want.

I don't think anybody could do that. You’re a celebrity!

On my first private plane trip, I was a nobody. Someone flying alone is very happy to have company as long as you look presentable. 

Does flying privately help businesses?

Oh, very much. If I was in the kind of business where I had to visit clients all over the United States, which many of my Shark Tank colleagues do, the private jet is tremendously helpful, because you can have much more face time and can get to many more small towns to get more business. 

I know you bring your own food when you fly commercially. Do you do that when you fly privately?

No, but I always bring a Scrabble board because everybody likes to play. I lose on purpose because a guy in a private jet doesn't want to feel like a loser in Scrabble.

If you could buy any jet, what would you choose?

I wouldn't buy a jet. I’d buy a seaplane because you have so much fun with a seaplane. You can land, jump off the platoon, sunbathe, go wherever you want. The world is your beach. 

Barbara Corcoran
(Photo: Barbara Corcoran Inc.)

In 2019, for your 70th birthday, you held a mock funeral. 

I wanted to pull something over on my good friends who planned to surprise me with a party. I heard about it and went along with it. But then people walked in and saw me lying dead. They couldn't believe their eyes. I was only dead for about 10 minutes. A minister and a rabbi both gave lovely speeches over my body. And then I got to hear what people said about me before I was dead. That was pretty cool. I would recommend dying early for anybody in a fake way. Then have a great party afterwards. 

In 1994, you sold Donald Trump the Plaza Hotel and he agreed to pay your company a $4 million commission. He started to pay but then a negative New York magazine article came out about him. He sued you, claiming breach of contract. Your defense was that he had already given the same details to other reporters. The judge ruled in your favor, claiming the only damage was to Trump's ego and that the Corcoran Group was entitled to the rest of the $4 million. How did that make you feel? 

I was thinking, Thank God I had the money to hire a great attorney to sue this guy. I had a good judge who wasn't on the payroll of anybody and thank God he listened to our case and awarded me the money because we deserved it. We worked our butts off for that money.

In 2001, you sold your company. How did it feel to be suddenly jobless?

I never felt jobless because I was job hunting right away. I was probably unemployed for two weeks looking for some kind of paid gig. And I finally got it from Fox TV, which hired me for one spot a week, so I felt like I was up and running. I knew I would take that spot and roll it into something big. For sure, I was going to not be happy sitting home and driving my husband and kids crazy.

Your next move was to become one of the original investors on Shark Tank. Have you learned anything from the other sharks? 

I've learned we're a lot alike. Everybody has their own style, their own expertise, their own gifts. But we're all scrappy hustlers and could make something of nothing. I would put my money on any of those sharks. I'm always looking for that trait in online entrepreneurs and when I find it, they always do well. When it's not there, they never succeed. They could be the smartest people in the world, but they don't succeed. You need to be a scrapper, and you need the vision. All the sharks on the show have great ambition. That's what got us to where we wanted to go.

Barbara Corcoran
(Photo: Barbara Corcoran Inc.)

What have you learned from the show about yourself?

That I’m more insecure than I care to admit, scared almost every time on the show. But I've also learned that I could have been in any business—plumbing supplies, paper supplies, running a beauty salon—and I would have been successful. It's not about the business you're in. It's what you bring to the job. For me, it wasn't luck, and it wasn’t real estate. It was hustle. 

What's the biggest mistake you've made in business?

Probably not feeling my self-worth sooner. I had a business for seven years with my boyfriend and after he left me for my secretary, it took me a year to finally say goodbye. I should have had the confidence to go right out the door. I wasted a year with that kind of self-shame and torturing myself. When he left me on a Friday, I should have had a new business by Monday.

Are you involved in any philanthropic causes now?

The number-one philanthropy is family. I have nine sisters and brothers and 20 nieces and nephews. My first job is to pay for the education of everyone in my family, and we've gotten 37 kids through college and medical school. My other philanthropy is for dyslexia causes.

What’s next for you?

We're going to have a TV show come out on my life, and I’m working on two more books, which are coming out slower than I want. Everything I do will be along the lines of helping people get to who they want to be.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I really don't care about legacy. What counts is what change you’re going to make today. 

Long-time contributor Margie Goldsmith has visited 144 countries and written about them all and has also interviewed numerous celebrities for BJT, including Sir Richard Branson, Sean Penn, and Francis Ford Coppola.

This interview has been edited and condensed.