Robert Herjavec, who co-founded the Canadian cybersecurity company Herjavec Group in 2003, joined the first season of Shark Tank, in 2009, after starring on the Canadian version, Dragons' Den. Today, after eight seasons, Herjavec is known as "the nice judge," a description he uses to his advantage. While he admits he joined the show for the exposure--Herjavec Group opened its U.S. office in 2014--he says that being on it has taught him some lessons he didn't expect.

-- As told to Liz Welch 

"Don't mistake kindness for weakness" is a quote I live by. It hangs behind my desk. People say I'm the kind judge--I think "fair" is more appropriate. My family moved to Canada from Croatia when I was 8. We were immigrants, and when you don't speak the language or have any money, kids make fun of you. I would say to my mom, "The world hates me. Nobody's nice to me. I have no friends, and all these kids have better lives than me." My mom would reply, "Nobody in this world is better than you, but you are no better than anyone else." That inspired me to get out there and kick some butt and make something of myself, but not in a way that demeaned anybody, because I've always remembered what it's like on the other side. I've thought about that a lot since I've been on Shark Tank.

The No. 1 reason people tell me they won't start a business is that they don't think they have  what it takes. They say, "I don't think I can be as tough as Kevin O'Leary or as pushy as Mark Cuban." And I always say, "It's not about being somebody else--it's about being you and having the confidence and respect in yourself to be able to push back." What I learn every week is that success has no shape, no color, no height. You don't have to be like Mark, Kevin, or Barbara Corcoran. You can be yourself--but the underlying factor in all of us is inner strength. Barbara started her real estate company when her boyfriend left her for the secretary. Daymond John was selling T-shirts on the streets of New York City. Mark ate ketchup because he didn't have enough money for food. It doesn't matter if you are tough or kind or mean--the consistency is inner strength. The show helped me see that in myself, and my kindness is a characteristic that works for me--and my company.

I went to college for a business degree but thought it was boring. So I wound up graduating with a BA in English literature--and then I didn't know what to do with it. It took becoming a judge on Shark Tank to realize just how valuable that degree really is. At Herjavec Group, we're experts in cybersecurity--but my degree has allowed me to compete with people in this field who are smarter than I am technically, because I could always tell a better story. Shark Tank is the American dream being played out every week in front of judges in half-hour segments. The format forces you to tell a concise and compelling story. As a result, I've learned how to squeeze drama out of every moment and make an impact--both on the show and in my work.

Shark Tank has also showed me how people from humble beginnings are always inspired when they meet people who are more successful than they are. Contestants come on the show and look up to me and the other judges. And it's really hard to grow and succeed if you don't have someone to look up to. How do you build a million-dollar company if you don't know anyone who has already done it? Or a $10 million company? For me, I want to know, how do you grow a billion-dollar company? It's all relative. Mark, for instance, is worth a fortune. He owns a basketball team. He's hard driving. I never think of him with envy. Instead, I think, "If he did it, why not me?" And it's not just Mark, but the guest judges as well, like John Paul DeJoria. I look at them and think, "Why can't I build something that big?"

The importance of  scale is one of the biggest lessons I've learned. All the judges have shown me how you have to make your winnings run. Before Shark Tank, my company worked only within Canada. But as a result of being on the show, I see how cybersecurity is needed everywhere, and that to grow the business, Herjavec Group had to venture outside of Canada.

One of the things I'm most proud of is that less than two years ago, 1 percent of our sales were outside of Canada. Last year, 26 percent were, and this year, 40 percent will be. Now I look back and say, "Why didn't we do this sooner?" Before we opened our New York office, and others internationally, I asked other company founders I met who export either products or services, "What's the key? What is the first thing you did?" They all said, "We  showed up. That's how you start." So now, as a result, Herjavec Group doesn't look at the Canadian market or the U.S. market. We look at a global market. Since cybersecurity is in so much demand, we also think, "Someone is going to dominate the world--why can't that be us?"

I used to think that if you provide a great product or service, customers will find you. On Shark Tank, I've learned that this is not true. There is no such thing as genius if it's kept in a basement. You have to tell the world that you exist. Daymond has had the biggest influence on me in this respect. He sold T-shirts--the only difference was that his had the name  Fubu on them. People pay a premium for the value he built around his brand. That was a turning point for my company. We always thought we were good at cybersecurity, and that when customers worked with us, they would see that. Now, we go out of our way to let people know what we do best, which is shining in highly complex environments that need to be secure. We tend to go toward complexity as opposed to avoiding it.

I also used to think that I was good at operating a cyber­security business--that was my talent. Now I see that, first and foremost, I am good at running a business. There are many commonalities between running my company and running, for instance, an ugly Christmas sweater business or a peanut butter supplement business. Yes, you need expertise, but you also need to be an operator--someone who can read key vital signs on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, who can juggle things like managing cash flow, hiring good people, and building a great team. Teamwork and leadership are no different if you're in technology or the retail world. A great operator loves the intricacies and nuances of the business, and loves being at work every day. I see now how my passion for what I do is key to my success. Monday is still my favorite day of the week. I still get super excited about going to work--and so that is what I look for in the founders of the companies I invest in. I look for me.

I've also learned that you actually don't need education of any kind. You've just got to have the desire. Running great businesses is definitely the American story--but it's also the global dream. Whenever I go outside of America, people equate this country with opportunity. So it's not just the American dream--it's everyone's dream. Every week, I meet these dreamers. I see myself in them. And in that process, what I realize is that I'm actually a pretty good entrepreneur. But there's no point that you get to and say, "Aha! I have arrived." Shark Tank has taught me that any business is a continuous uphill battle. At my company, I take this to heart. We use the word continuous to describe our forward momentum. That really defines our  culture. We celebrate success briefly: quick high-fives, a great dinner or a party. The next day, we want to go out and add to the momentum.

Published on: Jun 20, 2016