What can Robert Herjavec, the star of ABC's Shark Tank and successful serial entrepreneur who now runs the computer security company Herjavec Group, tell you about Zbjeg, Croatia--the small town in which he grew up?
"This is how out there it is," he told attendees at Inc. and CNBC's iCONIC conference in Seattle on Tuesday. "The word actually means 'escape.' I grew up in a village people escaped from." Escape he did--or rather his parents did, taking a eight-year-old Robert from a dirt-floored home to seek a better life in Toronto.
Herjavec--sharply styled in a light blue jacket, tan pants, and a generously-collared white shirt--told attendees at the conference his life story, more or less. It's a tale that's all but made for the movies.
He got his first break as a young editing assistant at a Canadian TV station. He happened to be walking by a stressed-out producer, who was loudly despairing she'd never be able to find someone by the next day who could speak Croatian to be the field producer at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Robert said he could; he ended up being the youngest field producer at the Olympics. He was, of course, grossly underqualified, but, as he put it, "I'm a big believer in, you're never going to know everything," and that, when presented with an opportunity, "you just gotta do it."
Still, his pride during the Olympics from being able to wow women at Sarajevo bars by saying he was a producer was severely dinged, he said, when he got back home and was unable to find any work.
Eventually he landed in the film business. For a time he worked for the uber-'70s actor/director Tom Laughlin, the creator of a trilogy based on the Vietnam veteran Billy Jack: three tendentious, difficult-to-describe and more-difficult-to-recommend movie amalgams of peacenik-isms and karate. Tired of the film biz, he talked himself into an early computer startup despite having no experience in computers or sales. (When asked by the founder if he had sales experience, Robert recalled, he said he'd been a waiter.)
He got the job by working for free, after extracting a promise that, should he learn the business after six months, the founder would pay him retroactively for that time. Faced with the quotidian challenge of needing to pay rent while not drawing a salary, Herjavec waited tables at night after working all day at the computer company.
That led him to computer security, the un-sexy sector in which he's built a fortune. "I knew a lot about a very narrow niche," he said. "If you want to to make a lot of money, you've got to be great at something."
An increasing interest in entrepreneurship made Herjavec famous--first via the Canadian TV show Dragons' Den, then on the American version Shark Tank--but, when asked onstage by Inc. President Eric Schurenberg if he felt that we're in a golden age for starting businesses, Herjavec demurred.
"This is a great time to start a business," he said, "but two things make it really tough." The first is that the democratization of information has made it harder to have an informational edge over customers and suppliers. The other is how competition has intensified, because so many factors make it cheaper than ever to start a company.
"Whatever value you have today is completely unsustainable," he said. "If a year from tomorrow, you're not better, faster, stronger, you're going to get your ass kicked."
Herjavec also shared observations on his Shark Tank co-stars Mark Cuban ("he is definitely full-on all the time. I really admire that. I hate to admit it, but it's one quality I've learned from him: He is always selling") and Kevin O'Leary, who appeared onstage earlier. ("I've seen Kevin do stuff that was remarkable. Then I've seen Kevin kick a puppy.")
Near the end of his remarks, Herjavec discussed his work with Seattle's men's homeless shelter Union Gospel Mission, and, in describing how one man he met there overcame a horrific history of childhood abuse and drug addiction, he came up with an apt epigram: "It's all about determination."