Robert Herjavec, businessman and best known as one of the “Sharks” on ABC's Shark Tank, opened his discussion at the USC Annenberg Dean's Open Forum on Feb. 6 with a piece of advice gleaned from his eight years as a television personality:
“The worst thing you can be on TV that cannot be fixed is boring,” said Herjavec. “In business, that's really true. People don't like to deal with boring people.”
And it would appear that Herjavec lives by his own advice, as his lecture on “The Perfect Pitch” at the Geoffrey Cowan Forum drew a full house of captivated USC Annenberg students, faculty and guests, some of whom arrived as early as two hours prior to the event.
Herjavec's visit to USC Annenberg was so highly anticipated that reservations for the event filled up within a matter of hours, and some people were turned away at the door due to the overwhelming number of attendees. The audience included students from Neon Tommy and the Annenberg Innovation Lab, as well as emerging entrepreneurs and others.
“It's a special occasion for us to be here,” said USC Annenberg Dean Ernest J. Wilson, who introduced Herjavec. “Here at the Annenberg school we have four or five programs that support entrepreneurship in the media [including] Media, Economics and Entrepreneurship, which is our fastest growing undergraduate minor, and we encourage all of our students to pay close attention to that.”
Herjavec noted that Shark Tank is the most-watched Friday night program in the 18-49-year-old demographic, and that it holds great appeal for innovative young people such as USC Annenberg entrepreneurs.
“When you're this age, you believe the future is yours,” Herjavec told the students in attendance. “I love talking to students. Students just believe you're going to create the future. It's great to have that level of energy.”
Herjavec, the multi-millionaire president and CEO of the Herjavec Group, a best-selling author and a married father of three, was raised in a working-class immigrant family, which he said taught him a thing or two about perseverance.
“The number one reason I'm successful...is the ability to try through failure [and] objection,” said Herjavec. “I guarantee you in life that you will fail far, far, far more than you will succeed. If you're good, you'll make sure those successes are big.”
Shark Tank is a prime example. In its fifth season, the show is highly rated on ABC and runs in syndication as CNBC's highest rated primetime show in five years, but it wasn't an immediate success. It was almost cancelled after its first season.
“We always knew it would be a huge hit, but that it would take time,” said Herjavec, noting that ABC originally asked the “Sharks” to simplify the business-related lingo they used. The show’s stars fought against this request. “We've raised people's understanding of some of the business terms,” Herjavec said.
Born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, Herjavec moved to Canada when he was eight years old. He still lives in Canada when not filming Shark Tank in California.
Herjavec also appeared on six seasons of the Canadian version of Shark Tank, called Dragons' Den, which was one of the highest-rated and most-watched television shows in Canadian history.
Yet, he said that he's often asked how it feels to be a Canadian promoting the “American Dream” on Shark Tank.
“I'm a huge believer in the American dream,” said Herjavec. “When did the goal to succeed and do better in life become only American? I think the goal of every human being is to do better.”
Growing up without much money, Herjavec originally only wanted to avoid being poor, never mind getting rich.
“Somewhere along the way, a funny thing happens; you make money,” said Herjavec. “But the question then becomes: do I want to do something great, or do I just want to make a little more money?
“No great company was ever built by somebody who wanted to make a buck. Somebody wanted to do something great,” said Herjavec. “Money doesn't keep you warm at night, it doesn't get you up the next day.”
As an immigrant and the first in his family to attend a university, Herjavec said he felt that he owed it to his parents to be successful, a goal that was a far greater drive than money. Herjavec’s father had arrived in Halifax, Canada, with a single suitcase of possessions, finding a job as a factory worker.
“I said to myself, 'If I don't do something with my life, their sacrifice is meaningless',” said Herjavec. “You have to have something that's bigger than you. You have to have a goal that's greater than you.”
Despite Herjavec's perseverance, breaking into the world of business wasn't always easy, and his background initially served as something of a roadblock.
“I wanted to leave school and start a massive business, but everyone said to me, 'to make money, you need to have money',” said Herjervac, “And the other thing I heard in business was, 'it's not what you know, it's who you know.' But I never saw it as a negative...I just said, ‘I've got to go where I want to go from where I've started.'
“It's one of the reasons I started in tech; nobody cares,” Herjavec said. “Nobody cares who your dad is or where you came from. It's the same thing with media; you can come from the wealthiest family, and if you can't perform, you know what? They're going to cancel your show.”
The key to success, said Herjavec, isn't just a matter of one's skills, but also of one's character.
“Negative people have a hard time getting ahead,” Herjavec said. “I've met lots of successful people, but there are two characteristics I've always found that are consistent: they love what they do, and they're interesting in their own way.”
Herjavec's forum concluded with a question-and-answer session and closed with a nod to Herjavec's own humble beginnings and enduring optimism.
“We've all got to start somewhere, but we're all starting from a different point,” said Herjavec. “And if someone is starting ahead of you, it doesn't matter, because life is long.”
Afterward, Herjavec took photos with attendees, met with USC Annenberg Assistant Professor Daren C. Brabham’s class.
Herjavec also tweeted, as did dozens of those in attendance, about the event:
“I want to thank the faculty & students @USCAnnenberg for hosting me,” Herjavec wrote. “Such a great school—kids are so inspiring.”