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'Shark Tank' Judge Herjavec on Living the American Dream

David Mielach, BusinessNewsDaily Staff Writer

While Robert Herjavec may be best known as one of the sharks on ABC’s hit show "Shark Tank," first and foremost, he is an entrepreneur. 

"When I was younger, I didn’t know that people could start a business, and I always say now that if I knew what I know now, I would have dreamed bigger," said Herjavec, CEO of Canadian-based information technology company The Herjavec Group, his most recent venture. "I don’t have an MBA, or a business degree, and I wasn’t very good at accounting. I remember when I wanted to start a business; everybody said to me, 'you can't do it.' Fundamentally, I owe my success in business to the fact that I really love what I do."

That passion helped Herjavec lead two multimillion-dollar technology companies. The Herjavec Group has grown from three employees and $400,000 in sales to nearly 200 employees and $125 million in sales in just nine years.

"When people ask me what I do, I say I am in a very complicated technology business, which is incredibly boring to anybody that isn’t in it, but I love it," said Herjavec.  "Give me a free afternoon and I’d rather go to work than race cars, play golf or do anything else."

A guy off the boat

What makes this story even more remarkable, though, is how it all started.

"I am not even a first-generation immigrant, I am a guy off the boat," said Herjavec, who was born in Zbjeg, Croatia. "My dad escaped from jail in a communist country and grabbed my mom and me and we came to Halifax when I was 8 years old.  We landed with literally one suitcase. My mom remembered she knew somebody in Toronto, we took a train there, and lived in their basement for 18 months. It all started from there."

The transition proved difficult for Herjavec, who found motivation in the struggle he had adapting to a new country as a child. Herjavec also had a hard time coming to grips with the new way of life in North America, where for the first time he experienced a difference in economic classes.

"It was really interesting because, where I came from, we lived on a farm and my grandmother raised me and everybody lived like us," said Herjavec. "Then, we came to North America and it was my first impression of not being well off. I realized that compared to everybody else, we were really poor."

 To make a living, Herjavec began working as a newspaper deliveryman and waiter in the early 1990s.  Besides paying the bills, those experiences were crucial for Herjavec later in his business career. 

"The most important relationship in business is the one between you and your customers. All my experience is customer-related. When I was delivering newspapers, you used to have to collect the money," Herjavec said. "When I was a waiter, it was all about maximizing a tip and ensuring enough turnover. All these odd jobs are always related in different ways to customers." 

At that time, Herjavec also got his start in a technology company that was just starting, after he was able to convince the founder to let him work for free. Herjavec turned that experience into the foundation for his first technology company BRAK Systems, which he later sold to AT&T. The company is currently valued at $100 million. From there, Herjavec helped to negotiate the sale of another IT company to Nokia for $225 million.  Herjavec followed that with a short retirement. 

"The reason I started The Herjavec Group was that I was at home for three years," said Herjavec. "I was a stay-at-home dad because my kids were home then, but they went back to school. I turned 40, my wife stopped working and I said, 'man, I have to get out of the house.' That was really it. The idea of being retired was wonderful for one year, but after three, I was just too young to stay retired."

After starting the Herjavec Group, Robert's business prowess led him to television where he starred on the hit Canadian show, "Dragons' Den," which is now in its seventh season.  Three years ago, Herjavec joined the American version of the show, "Shark Tank." Recently, Herjavec added best-selling author to his resume with the publication of the book "Driven" (Harper Collins, 2010).

Love what you do

While Herjavec has achieved a level of success that most people dream of, he credits the passion he has in business as the reason for that success.

"The best advice I would give to somebody is, don’t ever start a business that you are not incredibly and deeply passionate about," said Herjavec. "It is hell, and you will spend more hours with your business than you will with your family and friends. You will have horrible days that will make you want to quit and question everything you have ever learned. Along that journey, if you don’t absolutely love what you do there is no way you will survive."

"The biggest mistake I see people do is they start a business to make money," said Herjavec. "The problem with that is on those cold days, money doesn’t keep you warm at night. For me, it is impossible to expend the effort required to start a great business because you want to make more money."

Aside from passion, Herjavec also believes that those looking to start a business must be just as comfortable with failures as they are with successes.

"People ask me if there is a quality or characteristic for entrepreneurs, are they born or made?" said Herjavec. "The one characteristic that I find in most people who start a business is, they are very comfortable and adaptable to change. I always say my greatest skill is if you throw me in the middle of the forest, I'll figure out the game."

While adaptability may be a crucial factor in the ultimate success of a business, Herjavec also credits his success to being able to work in a field in which he is very knowledgeable.   

"The other thing I notice is that lots of other entrepreneurs make the mistake of changing fields all the time and start businesses where their knowledge level isn’t very high," said Herjavec. "I always say to my kids, become an expert at something and become such an expert at it that you can walk into a room and people will pay you for your knowledge."