"False fame," says Barbara Corcoran, puttering around her bright, minimalist Park Avenue office. She's wearing no makeup and her skin looks pink, partly because of the bright fuchsia T-shirt she's wearing, and partly because she had a skin procedure earlier in the day that her dermatologist promised would make her look younger. "So much of my success depends on how I look, and I'm 67," she says, shaking her head. "Why didn't I have this [fame] in reverse, when I looked good? What a joke."
Corcoran is about to begin taping the eighth season of ABC's Shark Tank, and no one is more aware of looking the part than she is. And Corcoran looks amazing. She has clearly mastered the art of image, and it has served her well, both in selling herself and in moving real estate during her 23 years at the top of her New York City brokerage, Corcoran Group. Her uncanny instincts, killer work ethic, megawatt personality, audacious risk tolerance, enormous capacity for self-promotion, and collection of signature red suits rounded out her tool kit. It helped her build Corcoran Group into the biggest residential real estate firm in New York before she sold it for $66 million in 2001.
Her backstory is well known: the second of 10 kids raised in the gritty, blue-collar town of Edgewater, New Jersey. With four brothers and five sisters, Corcoran was the sibling in charge of fun--she staged rainy-day plays in the basement, drew chalk sidewalk games, and set up a "rock store" in the side yard. At 23, she met an older, handsome guy, Ramone Simone, while waitressing in a diner. They fell in love. In 1973, he lent her $1,000 and she started a real estate business, Corcoran-Simone, giving him an equity stake. In 1978, he dumped her--and married her assistant--pausing on his way out the door to inform her that "you'll never succeed without me," she says.
Corcoran vowed that he would never see her fail, and over the next two decades, she built an empire. She sold Corcoran Group just a few days before 9/11, wrote a best-selling book, and joined Shark Tank's panel in 2008. Fame and more fortune followed.
Today, Corcoran is happily married to her second husband, Bill Higgins, and has two children, Tom, a 22-year-old graduate of Columbia University, whom Corcoran had after seven years of in vitro attempts; and Katie, 11, whom she adopted after an exhaustive search, using the skills she honed writing ad copy for dream homes. "Attracting moms who wanted to give you their baby was exactly the same as writing a good real estate ad," says Corcoran. "You needed a great top line, and my top line I used in every Pennysaver in the Catholic states was 'I want your child to ski in the winter and spend summers at the beach.' Sort of like the baby version of 'views and lots of light,' " she says, laughing. "It's all sales. I think I had 27 moms who wanted me to take their babies--and it's not easy getting a baby in America."
Ultimately, though, Katie's adoption was not a transaction but a reaction. Corcoran's adoption attorney called her one day and said she had found a birth mother who wanted to put her infant girl up for adoption--and needed an answer immediately. Corcoran said yes on the spot. "In the end, it was a relief to let it go. To let fate take charge," she says. And this from a woman with a take-charge personality.
Today, Corcoran longs to spend more time at home--but she is busier than she's ever been, appearing regularly on national TV, charging $70,000 for speaking gigs, owning pieces of dozens of companies, and traveling for speaking, media, and guest appearances on behalf of Shark Tank.
It all sounds so happily-ever-after, except that there's a darker version of the story. In Corcoran's view, what she became--a fiercely competitive entrepreneur--owes very much to a childhood that could be described as difficult. It was not without love; it was certainly without much money and even included an erratic father who talked down to her mother. Corcoran wrapped those disappointments--not to mention every slight she encountered in business--around her like so much armor. The vibrant personality you see on Shark Tank is entrepreneur-as-survivor, and it informs every business decision she makes today.
Poverty Can Make You Rich
Corcoran's mother, Florence, is the first person she credits with her success. She clearly worships her--Florence Corcoran died in 2012--and it is from her that Corcoran inherited her indefatigable work ethic. "She had 10 kids. I never saw her sleep, I never saw her lay down. I didn't even know when she slept," she says. Florence was the person who showed Corcoran the true meaning of efficiency. She carted 10 kids around in a Blue Chevy station wagon by "putting all the seats down and using it like a flatbed truck," Corcoran says and laughs. Her mom saw the good in everyone, and she always pointed out those positive qualities so that Corcoran and her siblings would see them too. Today, Corcoran says she can immediately spot someone's special gift, a skill that has helped her hire, place, and, more important, retain employees. "You give someone a sincere compliment about what their great gift is and they will always measure up," she says.
Her mom is also the reason she won't suffer complainers--the only type of employee Corcoran will warn just once before firing. She would keep an employee who had lied to her (and admitted it) before she would keep a whiner. "Complainers see life through a negative lens," says Corcoran. "They don't fix anything."
Corcoran doesn't talk as much about her father, Edwin W. Corcoran Jr., who died in 2011. Yet his impact was equally profound, if in a different way. He was the neighborhood "fun dad" whom all the kids loved. But he also never held a job for very long. Corcoran remembers this as humorous for her and her siblings, who loved hearing Dad return home early from yet another short-lived gig and announce at dinner that he told the boss man "to take this job and shove it where the sun don't shine." Watching her father struggle with a variety of bosses made her never want to work for anyone: He was the reason she became an entrepreneur. But the irregular employment of the sole breadwinner in the household threw the family's fragile finances into frequent turmoil. Thankfully, a friendly grocer (Corcoran suspects he was in love with her mother) would deliver free food until the family could pay."Poor kids have nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up."
Growing up poor--though it's unlikely that any of the Corcoran kids, including Barbara, would say they did--was another ingredient in the secret sauce of her success. Poverty is a status she favors in the entrepreneurs on Shark Tank.
Corcoran believes that "poor kids have nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up," she says. "They have no parental pressure to be a somebody when they grow up. They don't have to succeed, but they have in spades the wonderful trait of being needy. They need to succeed. That's the magic bottom-line juice I'm looking for, and it's very hard to have that innately if you've grown up with privilege and a high degree of education. It truthfully is. You're better off being poor."
When it comes to entrepreneurs, the only thing that beats growing up poor, in Corcoran's opinion, is growing up damaged. "A bad childhood? Yes! I love it like an insurance policy," she says, describing her ideal Shark Tank investment. "An abusive father? Fabulous! Never had a father? Better! My most successful entrepreneurs didn't all have miserable childhoods, but somebody said they couldn't, and they are still pissed."
If such adversity is the breeding ground for success, then Corcoran lucked out: Her semi-employed father occasionally drank too much--although Corcoran never labels him an alcoholic. "When he was socially drinking," says Corcoran, "you didn't know which dad you were going to have. You never knew what was going to happen. It does make you nervous your whole life in a way, doesn't it?"
Corcoran turned this into a life lesson, too. Never knowing which dad was going to arrive home, and having to respond quickly to either version, gave her a finely tuned radar for trouble. It's the very definition of a double-edged sword, but rather than be cut by it, as so many are, Corcoran took the experience and turned it into money. "You see the enemies coming long before they arrive, and you start to get pretty street smart on how you duck and weave, so that you can survive and do what you have to do," she says.
That instinct has also served as a guide through a lifetime of business decisions, a voice in her gut that, for most of her professional life, has been the only one she's listened to. (Ironically, though, she names Simone as one of the most important influences she's ever had, despite their personal train wreck. "He was a man of the world," she says, "and he really showed me the way. So is that a mentor? Probably.")
Feeding the Fury: Playing Hardball With the Boys
In New York's no-holds-barred residential real estate market, women dominated sales, but the companies were owned and managed by men. This gender difference was even more magnified in real estate development, law, and finance. But again, her tough upbringing gave her the skill to deflect decades of gender bias in the industry. It was another gift courtesy of her father. "When he drank, he would show my mother disrespect verbally. My mother accepted it. And even as a little kid, I said to myself I would never, ever, let a man speak to me like that. It lit a fuse inside of me." When Simone exited her life and their company and told her she was doomed without him, he was effectively adding fuel to that fire.
The resulting fury was invaluable on her path to entrepreneurship. "It became my best friend running my business," she says. "The minute a man talked down to me, I was my best self. I was going to get from that person what I wanted, come hell or high water. Even by the time I got it, sometimes I didn't want it anymore, but I grabbed it because I had to show him that he was not smarter than me. He was not going to dismiss me. I would not tolerate it. I would say quietly to myself, 'Fuck you.' "
On the outside, however, Corcoran was smiling and hiking her red skirt a little higher, saying, "That's brilliant! I never would have thought of that! How do you think such thoughts?" she says. Or she'd tell him how handsome he was. She'd lull her victim into a false sense of security and once his defenses were dissolved into complacency by a soft, girly, vulnerable illusion, Corcoran would go in for the kill, a red widow spider of real estate. "I spoke louder and stood up straighter," she says. "I prepared better. I'd have everything ready. I would do whatever I had to do to prove that he had no right to think I was less than him."
Corcoran didn't just lean in; she mowed down. "You do what you gotta do," says Corcoran. "It's called sales."
Swimming Lessons From the Shark Tank
On the wall of Corcoran's office are 27 framed photos of the entrepreneurs she's invested in during her seven seasons on Shark Tank. Photos of the ones who are out of business have been removed. Some pictures are right-side up, some are upside down. The upside-down ones are outfits that Corcoran concedes "are not going to build a big business." The right-side-ups are alive and well and making money, and Corcoran is still actively involved. Not surprisingly, those in each group share a few traits, but here, too, appearances are deceiving.
The upside-down ones, says Corcoran, viewed her as a business guru. "The worst partners I have had hung on my every word," she says. "I didn't know that during year one [of Shark Tank]. I was like, 'Hey, they're really paying attention!' " But they had an inability to take a hit and keep moving forward. "They have a hard time bouncing back up and not feeling sorry for themselves," she explains.
Her experience was quite different with her first big investment hit, a company called Cousins Maine Lobster. "They asked me all sorts of questions," she says. "I thought, 'Gee, I really helped them today.' " She did, in a way. The owners listened carefully to what she had to say--and then did their own thing. "They went and did what they wanted to do," she says. "And you know what? That's how I was. I'm a great mentor, but good [founders] don't listen to me. It's almost like I started out thinking I'd be a good business partner and a mentor, and now I've concluded that all I really am is a shrink who asks, 'What do you think?' "
The right-side-up group has many things in common with Corcoran, and perhaps that's one reason she picked them. "They're sickly competitive," she says. "The more sickly competitive someone is without reason, like me, the better." She realizes that such a personality trait is "harmful in almost every situation, but it makes you a great entrepreneur," she says. "You know why? Because even if you're aiming at the wrong stuff, you're running hard. So you run hard at everything. Some of it hits, some of it doesn't."
Even more surprising is this: When it came time to sign contracts with her right-side-up companies, the negotiations were tough. "Those deals are hard to do, because the entrepreneur has total confidence they're going to succeed. They sometimes don't know how, but they know they're going to. They're very reluctant to give up the stock they promised on Shark Tank. The less capable entrepreneurs chase you like crazy to try to get the money and sell their stock.""I would do whatever I had to do to prove that he had no right to think I was less than him."
Another difference between the right-side-ups and the upside-downs is that, after all the posturing, contracts, lawyers, and back and forth, the former take her money and sit on it. "They keep it in reserve for a rainy day," says Corcoran. "All the ones on their heads in there, they spent my money first. The best way to fund any company is bootstrapping. You spend your money smartly, because you don't have enough. Every dime I had, I had to think about best use. It's real money. It's hard-earned money. It is born out of enormous hard work. That's the kind of money you don't lose so fast."
This is why, after seven years (soon to be eight), Corcoran, an original Shark, is troubled by what the show has done to startup culture. "Shark Tank's made everybody believe that if they have one good idea, they can get rich overnight," says Corcoran. "It's made people believe that the pitch is the business. All the pitch is is the first date. It is the building of the business that is the marriage. Also, it's made people believe that the right way to fund any business is through investors, by giving away equity, which makes absolutely no sense to 99 percent of the businesses out there."
Corcoran misses the unpolished and unhinged inventors the show's producers dredged up for the first few seasons. "The engineer who asked for $1 million to build a water tank in the ocean to turn seawater to gold," says Corcoran. "That's great TV. The guy with the Bluetooth device that you put in your ear and had to have surgically removed when the battery ran out. Great TV. The dentist who said you brush your teeth with my toothpaste and it puts you to sleep at night. Great TV."
These days, the show's producers recruit entrepreneurs whose businesses have advanced past the concept stage. They're more polished. More TV-ready. She misses the ones who were "wet behind the ears. I can make a bigger difference," she says. "They don't have ridiculous valuations. They're not cocky."
Shark Tank has changed Corcoran, too. She's more famous and successful than ever. "I can get a seat anywhere with a phone call. The opinions I've had for 20 years are suddenly brilliant--when they are still just mediocre," she says with a laugh. She's doing endorsement deals left and right. She has a portfolio of successful investments. Still, it rankles her. "I'm exactly the same person I was eight years ago, before Shark Tank," she says. "Yet the whole world treats me as if I'm somebody new. It's a joke. It's false fame."
She thought the very local fame she got in New York for Corcoran Group was "the perfect amount." She's heading out to Culver City, California, in the morning for the Shark Tank taping. "What you do [for Shark Tank] is, you show up and do the best you can. With the Corcoran Group, I didn't just show up. I killed myself. It seems right that I would've been really famous for the Corcoran Group and just a little famous for having gotten the seat I got."