What's in a Pitch? Barbara Corcoran Knows All Too Well

What's in a Pitch? Barbara Corcoran Knows All Too Well

To 'Shark Tank' investor and New York real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, grit is a key signal of entrepreneurial prowess.

SourceEddy Chen/Walt Disney Television via Getty

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Because financial success is not about where you begin — it’s about where you’re going. 

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Competition was the name of the game at the Corcoran dinner table. As the second-oldest of 10 children, Barbara Corcoran had plenty of practice at jockeying for position — whether it was getting the best seat or capturing her mother’s attention.

Every child has to perform a function in a large family. The Edgewater, New Jersey, native credits her competitive edge for a smooth transition to the outside world post-college — and a key driver of the business and sales prowess that propelled her rise in the New York real estate world.

On ABC’s Shark Tank, where Corcoran, 70, has sniffed out strong pitches and invested in the companies that catch her eye for nine seasons, she’s an apt source for advice, given that the pitchers resemble her younger self. At the ripe age of 23 she launched a real estate business, the Corcoran-Simonè, with her then boyfriend on his $1,000 loan (about $5,700 today). Corcoran formed the Corcoran Group in 1980 after she and her boyfriend split — and he told her she’d never succeed without him. Challenge accepted.

I don’t invest in rich kids.

Barbara Corcoran

Corcoran has long understood the strategic benefit to being seen. She boosted brand recognition by frequently appearing in the press. She launched the Corcoran Report, a biannual dive into real estate statistics and trends in New York City, in 1981. At the same time, she opted for an old-school advertising approach rather than tapping into the exclusive, ritzier gatherings that helped some of her peers rise. It paid off: She sold her business for $66 million in 2001. Since then, Corcoran has written three books, appeared as an expert on TV shows like Good Morning America and Today, and landed the Shark Tank gig.

The scrappy attitude and ethos of hustle she spots in others are coded into her DNA. She’s talked about how school, where she consistently earned poor grades, made her feel restless and restricted. Corcoran was more at home in the working world, where she could stand on her own two feet. After earning an undergraduate degree in education at St. Thomas Aquinas College, she worked as a waitress at a diner. “Waitressing is one of the best sales positions in life,” Corcoran told Valuetainment last year. After all, servers have to find something about a customer to hook them and keep them coming back, she said.

The skills that set a strong server apart proved to be Corcoran’s superpowers: people management, vivacity and the ability to track the minutiae of a table while feeling out the macro pulse of a room. And the direct feedback tied to serving was the right fuel for her motivation engine. Gunning for a tip was not unlike the sales commission she’d spend her real estate career chasing.

The determination that helped her develop her brand shapes the way she spots talent on Shark Tank. “I don’t invest in rich kids,” she told Valuetainment. “Rich kids … come in with attitudes that disturb me.” They have the right summer jobs and the right contacts to get them there, she argues, while those from low-income families spend their summers waiting tables, getting shouted at and spilling coffee. Her approach isn’t lost on the audience. “Barbara is the only shark who looks at the person and not just the numbers,” says Steve Berg, a Shark Tank fan who works in advertising. She seems to get close to her business partners, he says, “often like a surrogate mom.”

While aspiring entrepreneurs hailing from top business schools have studied markets as observers, Corcoran says she’s more interested in the direct players: those who’ve always contributed to their family earnings and know what it feels like to aspire to a vacation rather than expect one. “I feel like I always get along better with the doorman than the MBAs,” she told The New York Times in 2005.

There’s value in identifying people who know how to struggle — particularly given that obstacles are rites of passage for any would-be entrepreneur. But if Corcoran rejects “rich kids” on the show, she’s nonetheless made tens of millions by selling upscale New York apartments to their parents.

And like any parent who has built financial success well beyond what they knew as children, Corcoran also faces the question of how to foster in her own children the perseverance she so prizes in others. There’s no doubt Corcoran and her family now stand far from where she began: Her net worth has grown to $80 million, and she bought a penthouse apartment for $10 million with her husband, former FBI agent William Higgins, in 2015, according to the New York Post.

She has no intention of fading away. For her 70th birthday in April, she staged a fake funeral in front of 90 friends and family members, then popped out of the coffin wearing a floor-length red gown. Just like a killer pitch or a dinner table scrap, Corcoran is going to do what it takes to grab your attention.

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