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Updated Oct 26, 2023

Shark Tank Judge Robert Herjavec on Living the American Dream

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Adam Uzialko, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Editor

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Robert Herjavec may be best known as one of the “shark” investors on ABC’s hit show Shark Tank, but 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 information technology company Cyderes. Herjavec didn’t have traditional business skills or accounting knowledge. “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. Cyderes, previously known as The Herjavec Group, has grown from three employees and $400,000 in sales to well over 300 employees and $223 million in revenue over two decades.

“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,” Herjavec explained. “Give me a free afternoon, and I’d rather go to work than race cars, play golf or do anything else.”

But what makes Herjavec’s story even more remarkable is how it all started.

Shark Tank-style investment tips include keeping as much of your business's equity as possible, gaining traction to prove your solution is monetizable and testing your product to create faith in investors.

Robert Herjavec’s origins

“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.”

A new way of life

The transition proved difficult for Herjavec, who found motivation in his struggle to adapt to a new country as a child. Herjavec also had difficulty coming to grips with the new way of life in North America, where he first 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,” Herjavec said. “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.”

Learning about the importance of customer relationships

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 because they helped him learn about managing customer relationships

“The most important relationship in business is the one between you and your customers,” Herjavec said. “All my experience is customer-related. When I was delivering newspapers, you used to have to collect the money. 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.” 

Herjavec’s tech dealings

Herjavec began his tech dealings after convincing a tech startup’s founder to let him work for free. He turned that experience into the foundation of his first technology company, BRAK Systems, which he later sold to AT&T for CA$30.2 million. From there, Herjavec helped negotiate another IT company’s $225 million sale to Nokia. He followed that experience with a short retirement. 

Too young to retire

Eventually, Herjavec grew restless with retirement. “The reason I started The Herjavec Group was that I was at home for three years,” Herjavec said. “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.”

A star is born

After starting Cyderes, Herjavec’s business prowess led him to television, where he starred on the hit Canadian show Dragons’ Den. He later joined the U.S. version of the show, Shark Tank, in its first season in 2009. He remains a panelist to this day. In 2010, Herjavec added “bestselling author” to his resume with the publication of the book Driven.

Did You Know?Did you know
Herjavec emphasized that healthy business relationships, particularly customer relationships, were key in every job he's had.

Robert Herjavec’s advice for entrepreneurs

Herjavec provided several tips to help entrepreneurs realize their dreams. 

1. Passion is crucial for business success. 

While Herjavec has achieved a level of success that most people only dream of, he credits his passion for business for those achievements. He stressed the importance of doing what you love for a living.

“The best advice I would give to somebody is, don’t ever start a business that you are not incredibly and deeply passionate about,” Herjavec said. “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.”

Entrepreneurs often fail when money, not passion, is their motivation. “The biggest mistake I see people do is, they start a business to make money,” Herjavec said. “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.”

2. Get comfortable with failure to succeed as an entrepreneur. 

Aside from passion, Herjavec believes that people looking to start a business must be just as comfortable with failures as they are with successes. He noted that successful entrepreneur characteristics often include the ability to pivot. 

“People ask me if there is a quality or characteristic for entrepreneurs: Are they born or made?” Herjavec said. “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.”

3. Knowledge in your field can bolster entrepreneurial success. 

While adaptability may be essential to success, Herjavec also credited his knowledge in the field.   

“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,” he noted. “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.'”

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Herjavec advised budding entrepreneurs to start a business in a field they love and are knowledgeable about.

Robert Herjavec’s success stories

Here are some of Herjavec’s most inspiring success stories:

BRAK Systems

After being fired from a technology business and selling his share in a business he co-founded with Avis Rent-a-Car’s Warren Avis, Herjavec launched BRAK Systems. He started this internet security company from his basement, and it rapidly became Canada’s largest such company. He sold the group to AT&T in 2000.

The Herjavec Group and Cyderes

Following his time as an employee elsewhere and his years as a stay-at-home dad, Herjavec launched The Herjavec Group. The company remains active under the name Cyderes; the new firm is a merger of The Herjavec Group and Fishtech Group. Both groups were well-known leaders in the Canadian cybersecurity space before their merger. The company operates security centers 24 hours a day and holds offices in the U.S., U.K. and Canada.

Author of three books

Outside his entrepreneurial successes, Herjavec has also found prominence as an author. He published Driven: How to Succeed in Business and Life in 2010, followed by The Will to Win: Leading, Competing, Succeeding in 2013. In 2016, his third book, You Don’t Have to Be a Shark: Creating Your Own Success, was released. All three books have Amazon ratings of at least 4.5 out of 5 stars across hundreds of reviews.

Shark Tank, Dragons’ Den, and other TV appearances

Outside entrepreneurial circles, Herjavec is best known for his appearances as an investor on TV. He was previously on the investors’ panel for the popular Canadian TV show Dragons’ Den. Thereafter, he joined the investors’ panel for the U.S. equivalent, Shark Tank. He has remained on the panel during the show’s entire run. 

Learning from Herjavec’s example

Herjavec’s rags-to-riches story is a reminder that anyone can achieve entrepreneurial success. His sage advice can help you along your entrepreneurial journey, whether you’re still thinking of great business ideas or you’ve already started a company. And if you feel like you could use even more advice from him, his books and Shark Tank episodes are easy to access.

Max Freedman contributed to this article. The interview was conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Adam Uzialko, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Editor
Adam Uzialko, senior editor of Business News Daily, is not just a professional writer and editor — he’s also an entrepreneur who knows firsthand what it’s like building a business from scratch. His experience as co-founder and managing editor of a digital marketing company imbues his work at Business News Daily with a perspective grounded in the realities of running a small business. Since 2015, Adam has reviewed hundreds of small business products and services, including contact center solutions, email marketing software and text message marketing software. Adam uses the products, interviews users and talks directly to the companies that make the products and services he covers. He specializes in digital marketing topics, with a focus on content marketing, editorial strategy and managing a team.
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