Barbara Corcoran’s two lessons for life and business in the RE game

Some gems of wisdom and lessons learned from the real estate mogul

(Credit: Jacqueline Zaccor, LinkedIn/Flickr)
(Credit: Jacqueline Zaccor, LinkedIn/Flickr)

Here are some of the key takeaways from when Barbara Corcoran, the founder of the Corcoran Group (selling business to NRT Incorporated for $66 million in 2001), appeared on Business Insider’s podcast “Success! How I did it,” here are some of the best moments you might have missed including Corcoran’s take on Weinstein, how she started her business, complainers and how she landed her current gig on “Shark Tank”:

Interview by Alyson Shontell

Shontell: If I think about starting a thousand-dollar business right now…

Corcoran: That was then.

Shontell: That’s right. So I think with inflation that’s $5,000?

Corcoran: Yup, $5,000.

Shontell: So how do you what did you do with that money? You bought some ads in The New York Times.

Corcoran: Well, I plotted it out. Remember I had an organized mother who made ends meet, and I watch her operate, you know, for Christmas gifts and things like that. What I simply did is I took that thousand dollars. I found out what an ad in The New York Times was. I forget what it was then, but let’s say it was $12 for an ad, a three-line ad — that was the minimum ad. Most people were doing five lines but you could get a three-liner, OK? If he didn’t use bold type on the header, OK?

So then I got started that way placing my first ad. But what I did, because I had so little money, is very carefully placed that first ad. And so I went back to Mr. Giffuni and asked if I could have one of his listings to advertise, and he gave me the one next to 3L, the super’s apartment. Next, J was something where the super was.

And I went into it — it was an L-shaped living room like every other apartment in New York with a small bedroom in a doorman building. And I looked and looked and looked at the New York Times ads and saw there were hundreds and hundreds “One bedroom 320 month,” “One bedroom 330 a month,” “Doorman one bedroom: 340 a month,” and they all looked alike. And so I went back and said, “Could you build a half wall between the L and the living room so I could advertise as “One bedroom and den”? So that Sunday, my ad went in even before the wall was built, “1 BR Plus Den: 340.” It fit on one line, right margin, and I probably got 80 phone calls that next morning.

Because it was a gimmick. Because why would you call on every other ad if you get a one bedroom for $340 when you get a one bedroom and a den for 340? And you know what: Within the first two days I had a check for $340. So I always doled it out and you know even until I sold my business when I had a thousand people strong as sales agents I still use the exact same methodology. I was always running against the clock thinking, “Well, at least I have nine months now, I have 10 months now,” and carefully keep my overhead and spend every dollar like I was poor.

Shontell: What were some of the important steps you took to make sure that he [ex-boyfriend and co-founder of Corcoran’s first real estate company] wasn’t right about you [after he broke up with her for their secretary, Ramone Simone told her “You’ll never survive without me”], that you were going succeed?

Corcoran: Well, to stay in business as the No. 1 charge. I mean, you know, in real-estate brokerage, cycles go up and down. So that was the first thing I learned how to do. How the hell do you stay in business in the bad troughs? And what you have to do is you have to be more creative. I mean, whenever something’s wrong in any marketplace, any business — now I’ve learned with many years on “Shark Tank,” not just real estate — whenever something’s wrong in business, there is some huge opportunity there if only you have the foresight or the intelligence or the need to see it.

And so I remember I got through the closest I got to bankruptcy. I was literally writing the speech and making sure I had everybody’s name to thank everybody, for the Monday meeting, and bingo, as I’m writing and I was thinking of the Ramone’s Simone’s word, and bingo I think: “Wait, I could sell those 88 apartments that an insurance company owns who didn’t want an auction.” It just popped in my head and I went back and I priced them all alike, got the same dollar but I priced one bedrooms, two bedroom, studios, all alike, I sold them for the same price.

And for those 88 sales I went from owing 300 — I remember exactly — $348,000 is what I owed out at that time. And I came in with over $1.2 and commissions within a week. How did that happen? Bad times made it happen. I was desperate. And that’s what popped the idea in my head.

And that always happens. So surviving — the survival instinct of what could you come up with, where you jiggle out to get you through, is such — it’s probably the most important trait if you’re going to build a business. One thing for sure is you’ll have bad times; you can count on that one.

Shontell: It sounds like you built a strong corporate culture. Retention rates are incredibly high. Nobody ever left.

Corcoran: Yeah, we had a happy family is what we have. I did what my mother did. I adored my children. I would do anything for them. I would kill for them. And I nurtured them and I loved them and I tried to give them as much freedom as I could. I pushed them forward, got them to believing they could do a lot more than they were doing. And they did! Because people don’t really know what they’re capable of. And I made them love each other. I knew how to create teams where everybody got along and everybody respected the different attributes that people have and forgive the ones that were bugging them, you know?

I learned how to get rid of complainers. Complain in my company, I couldn’t wait till Friday to get you out, OK? So I felt like they were attacking my young.

And then what I was particularly adept at was what I learned from my dad: how to have fun. My father knew had more fun with our family than anyone in town, even though we had no money to do it. So what I learned in my corporate “culture,” if you want to call it — I wouldn’t call it a culture; it was just a gathering of sorts — is I learned to make sure everybody was having fun. We had bizarre … probably today maybe illegal-type parties, I don’t even know the way I had people dress for them at all. But we had parties galore. We had spontaneous events. All I did was think of, “What can we do that’s fun?”

And when you get people laughing their asses off and drinking too much and dressing in things that they’ve never dressed in before, guess what happens? You wind up with a creative company, so we wound up being in the creative hothouse as well but we never had anybody leave — except, of course, the people who exited quietly on Friday. “But why — I’m selling. Why? My sales are good?” “‘You just don’t fit in here baby — OUT!”

Shontell: Yeah, I think you said it well with the complainers. I mean, if you have someone who’s toxic in your work environment it can infect all the people around it.

Corcoran: One negative person will take the energy out of 15 great people quietly. That’s why I think of complainers as thieves in the night; they don’t work upfront. They quietly are zapping you.

Shontell: So you had to make it in an industry that was traditionally owned by men. Salespeople were often women; the business owners were a lot of men. How did you do that? And I know that you’ve talked about some tactics you’ve used: I think you’ve talked about sometimes playing “the dumb blonde” card.

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Corcoran: Yeah, that’s always useful. Or “the dumb anything” card. People underestimate you.

Shontell: Sometimes, like, even “the sex appeal” card.

Corcoran: Of course! I wore flashy bright-colored suits, short skirts, I had great legs. That was my best asset. I flaunted them, no doubt about it.

Shontell: So do you think that would fly today if you were building a startup? Because like now we’ve got to deal with things like Harvey Weinstein, and Donald Trump even, and there’s this whole focus on women and sexual harassment by powerful men. I mean, do you — would you advise that same sort of strategy today?

Corcoran: Of course you know all that is is marketing, good marketing. What is good marketing on any level, whether it be individual or for a corporate campaign? Marketing is a point of difference. How do you stand apart from the pack? Who wants to be like the rest of the pack? You don’t get noticed. You could spend all the money in the world on it, you won’t get noticed, all right?

So any opportunity you have to stand apart from the pack — which starts with you, if you’re owning the company, you’re the leader of the company, you’re a billboard. As are your managers. So yeah, you have to use whatever you have. And that happens to be what I was particularly adept at: marketing. I knew how to work angles and market.

So sure, I would do the same today. The great advantage I had — and still have, because I travel mostly in a man’s world still — is just by being a woman. I stand apart from the pack. I never saw it as a liability. I saw that as an advantage. Like, “Look, I’m the only girl in the room.” They might not remember my name but they’ll say, “The girl in the room,” where they wouldn’t say, “One of the 50 boys in a room.” Right? So no, I think you just have to play up whatever you can to get positive attention, because attention brings business.

I got very good at creating noise in the press, cause story ideas — from the “What’s happening in the market” to “Teaching dogs how to shake hands in Central Park so we could get them through the co-op board.” Stupid stuff like that. Or smudging an apartment, rang bells, and burned incense — because the apartment couldn’t sell — and getting the New York Post and The New York Times are up watch it. All that nonsense stuff. Why? Because our name was always in the paper.

Shontell: Do you think that you can get ahead just by brains instead of beauty now as a woman?

Corcoran: I don’t think anyone — listen. Think about what a consumer has: They have ears, they have a mouth, they have a nose, and they have eyes. So you’re asking, can you get ahead trying to ignore the eyes of the consumer? No. The eyes of the boss of the colleague? No!

You’re in a visual world. No, you have to use everything. You have to be well-spoken, communicate clearly so people aren’t trying to figure out what the hell you’re saying. You have to look good. You have to look the part. You even have to smell good — you can’t go into work smelling bad — you’re not going to get ahead on that one right. So you’ve got all your barrels going. You know, you just have to use every advantage you can. And lucky for you, you’re good looking. Now I ask you: Do you think that would be an advantage here, that you look exactly like the girl next door?

Shontell: I’ve definitely found myself underestimated because of how I look… So yeah, no, I understand the instinct. But I was curious for your perspective. Thank you.

Shontell: So let’s talk about your “Shark Tank.” You were obviously a hugely successful businesswoman. Now you are a hugely successful investor in tons of startups and nine years of “Shark Tank.” It’s amazing — congrats.

Corcoran: No, it’s great. I can’t believe it’s been nine years; it feels like four. But that’s what happens when you’re having a good time.

Shontell: Exactly. So at first you didn’t get the job, right?

Corcoran: Well, actually, I was offered the job, and I took the job and signed the contract and sent it back without even reading it. That’s how excited I was about getting my first gig, you know? And after all I had never been to Hollywood — “I’m going to Hollywood!”

Shontell: You had never been to Hollywood?

Corcoran: Never! I never been to California, but I think I told everyone I knew I’m going to Hollywood — I’m going to Hollywood!

Egg on my face of course. They call and say they’ve changed their mind; they’ve invited another woman for the one female seat. I just couldn’t believe it. It was like Ramone Simone all over again. It really felt like that, like how could that be? How could that be?!

At least I had the presence to get angry, right? And sit down and write a very potent text to Mark Burnett who owned the studio. And I had the people sense to make his assistant promise me over the phone that if I wrote it she’d print it out and how to walk it over to him. And I think I opened it with — I should have this on my wall in my office because it’s one of my proudest accomplishments — because it made a nine-year difference in my life. Think about it: Just for writing an email that took about eight minutes. OK, but it was really more than that. I was standing up for myself. That’s why I earned it. I feel in hindsight now.

But anyway, the first line I think I said, “Mark, I understand you’ve asked another girl to dance instead of me and I appreciate you keeping me as a fallback.” How insulting! Who wants to be a fullback? But anyway I said, “But all of the best things have happened in my life on the heels of failure starting with Sister Stella Maria who told me I’d always be stupid because I couldn’t learn to read or write. I’m not stupid.”

And I said, “I hope you invite both women to compete for the seat and I expect to be on the plane on Thursday,” and the next day I got the call: “OK, we’ll let you compete for the seat.” Thank God.

But the importance of standing up for yourself. I had learned that over and over again because even if it doesn’t work you feel self-pride. You’d think if you really tried something and you didn’t get it that you would feel embarrassed but I never found that to be the case. I felt self-pride that I tried and then of course so many tries you wind up getting a few yeses along the way and this happened to be one of those yeses.

Shontell: And as you said sending one email that took eight minutes changed nine years of your life.

Corcoran: Yeah, but it was an act of courage, you see, or an act of persistence or obstinance or craziness. Call it what you want, but it was a very little effort, but it was born out of a lot of years of experience of learning to persist and getting back up, you see? Or I probably would have rolled over maybe and cried. But I was near tears honestly because I couldn’t imagine why something I envisioned — I already had bought two new suits and signed autographs. I thought I was going to be like a Hollywood star. I think I got the movies mixed up with reality TV somewhere there.

But I just couldn’t imagine that what I had envisioned wasn’t going to come true because any time I dreamt of anything from the first day of dreaming about being the queen of New York real estate I saw it in my mind as clear as it happened 25 years later. So I saw everything so clearly and I thought, “How could that be? I saw this clearly! How could this be?” And I think it was that disbelief that got me to write down or write that damn e-mail.

[Business Insider]