5 Business Lessons from Barbara Corcoran

With her remarkable rags-to-riches story, her infectious energy, hilarious delivery and a few strategically placed “F-bombs,” Barbara Corcoran, famed real estate mogul and Shark Tank star, wowed the audience at Westchester Community College’s Grow 2.0 conference on Friday.

Corcoran served as the keynote speaker for the all-day conference—which provided a forum for 300 of Westchester’s corporate leaders, small business owners and future entrepreneurs to unite through networking, mentoring, business development and strategy. During her speech, Corcoran shared some of the details of her amazing journey from one of 10 children growing up in a two-bedroom apartment in Edgewater, NJ, to the queen of Manhattan real estate. Since selling her company The Corcoran Group (which she started with a $1,000 loan from a boyfriend), for $66 million in 2001, Corcoran has been busy writing best-selling books, appearing as the real estate expert on Today, and as one of the “sharks” on ABC’s hit reality show.

Through it all, Corcoran said, she learned these five invaluable business lessons:

  1. Perception Creates Reality: “At one point during a recession, when we were in hoc and couldn’t afford to advertise, I decided I needed to create stories to get some publicity,” Corcoran told the crowd. So she took the firm’s 11 sales from the past year, and created her first Corcoran Report, detailing the average sales price of New York City apartments, and mailed it to every writer at The New York Times. “When the report made the front page of The Times’ Real Estate section, I thought, ‘This is that Catholic miracle mom talked about!” Corcoran joked. “From then on, anything I thought we needed, I’d churn out the report first, and then the reality would follow. That’s the formula that built my business and was responsible for more growth than any other thing I could do.”
  2. There Are Only Two Kinds of People at Work—Containers and Expanders: Qualifying herself as the “ultimate expander—I have all the money spent in advance; I say, ‘Let’s see how far we can go’; have another drink; throw it against the wall and see if it can stick,” Corcoran explained that she knew she needed to find a business partner to “do everything in my business that I don’t like to do—manage personnel, set up files, work with the banks, etc.” When legal secretary Esther Kaplan entered her office for an interview with “a purse [as organized as] a mini file cabinet,” Corcoran knew she had found “the ying to my yang.” She then quickly learned to slot employees as expanders or containers and pair them accordingly—and advised the crowd to do the same. “If you get employees working in a similar capacity to their natural gifts, you’ll have happier, more productive employees and your business will pop,” she explained.
  3. You Need a System for Firing People: While most companies worry about marketing and recruiting the right people to grow, they too often forget to get rid of “the dead weight,” Corcoran explained. “I created a system where people were mercifully fired on time. When we hired people, we told them, ‘You have to meet half your overhead in six months, otherwise you can’t stay.’  And any salesperson who fell below the 25% bottom got put on notice that they would be fired in three months if they couldn’t turn around.” Corcoran admitted the plan sounded mean, but, she said, “We had tremendous respect for each other, because every broker knew if someone was there for more than six months, they were good. We never had waste. It really worked for our culture.”
  4. Fun is Good for Business: Creating a culture of fun was key for Corcoran—who used surprise adventures and elaborate theme parties (dress in your underwear, dress like a nun, in 1940s style, pajamas, etc.) to “create experiences that brought people together,” she said. “It was the fun in my business that did the recruiting for me, and helped me have absolutely no turnover – why work for the competitor if you weren’t having fun? Our culture of fun made us the company people wanted to work for.”
  5. You Have to Be Great at Failure: Knowing how to fail well is Corcoran’s “single most powerful trait,” she said, and is the key to finding great people to help grow your business. “When I’m sizing up salespeople and entrepreneurs, I look for people who can take a hit and not feel sorry for themselves,” she said, joking that “it’s almost like they are not smart enough to know they should lay low for a while.” The ability to fail well, she stressed, “is what separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls.” 

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