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Entrepreneur Robert Herjavec lives a rags-to-race car story

The son of Yugoslavian immigrants, Robert Herjavec has waited tables, unloaded trucks at a factory and sold newspapers for money.

But it wasn't until after he sold his Internet security company — started in his basement — to AT&T in 2000, and later another technology company to Nokia, that he earned his $100 million fortune.

At age 49, his extensive resume now includes race car driver and TV star.

On ABC's hit reality show Shark Tank, Herjavec is one of five self-made millionaire entrepreneurs whom contestants try to persuade to invest in their startup companies.

After a few qualifying laps around the racetrack Friday (Herjavec will be racing a Ferrari at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend), he sat down with the Tampa Bay Times to talk about what makes a successful entrepreneur.

You lived a classic rags-to-riches type of story. What do you think was the secret to your own success?

I think it's perseverance. I've never been the smartest guy; I've never been the tallest guy, the best looking guy, the fastest guy. But man, when I get knocked down, I just get up again. I mean, it's the classic Rocky story. You just got to keep going. The difference between success and failure is just getting up one more time.

On the show, all of the sharks are self-made. Do you think that background and that experience is important when judging these other businesses?

The beauty of America is we have the highest percentage of self-made millionaires in the world. I think what the show tells people is if you want to do it and you have the skill to do, you can do it. And you have five people who have done it. We didn't inherit this money; nobody gave it to us. We did it.

How important is salesmanship?

People often ask me what is the one quality a great entrepreneur has to have. Sales. If you can't sell your company, you're doomed to failure.

How important is it for them to sell their company to you?

We're sitting in the studio 12 hours a day, 20 days in a row. Trust me: After a few days, you want to be there, but you don't really want to be there. I would say you've got about 4 seconds to make an impact. If you lose me in that 4 seconds, I'm not even listening. And it's all about sales. You've got to sell me on you and you've got to sell me on the idea. Don't lie, but even worse, don't bore me.

Did you ever hear an idea that you thought wouldn't be very successful, and then later turned out that it was? Or vice versa?

Yeah, and full credit to (Barbara Corcoran, one of the other sharks). There was a lady that came out. Daisy Cakes, I think it was called. She made cakes out of her house. So Barbara invested in her, and they're selling 10,000 cakes a year. It's unbelievable. It goes to prove that it really is about the entrepreneur. A great operator can take a bad idea and turn it around, but a bad operator can ruin even a great product.

How do you think your investment strategies on the show differ from the other sharks?

I think I'm a little more operator oriented because I like to run businesses. We're all in different stages of our lives. One of the guys is a pure investor; he runs a mutual fund. Mark (Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks) has more money than God, and he's got a team of people that do it. I want to deal with people where my operational skill can help them. I'm not a good passive investor.

Has the show turned you into a celebrity? Do people recognize you on the street and try to pitch business ideas to you?

Oh, yeah. People recognize you everywhere. I always take time to talk to people. I always spend time with folks because I remember what it was like on the other side when I was a nobody and nobody would talk to me or spend any time with me. I find the entire process incredibly humbling.

When you were first starting out in your career, did you envision such great success for yourself?

No. I remember the first time I flew on a private plane, many years after I had been in business. I was so amazed that there were people in the world that have their own planes. I couldn't dream big enough. I couldn't dream that you could buy an 18-wheeler and a Ferrari race team. And that's the beauty of life. It never stops. You can always do more. You can always be better. You can always go faster. It's never about the money for me. It's always about constant improvement. But money is good.

You also wrote a book, Driven: How to Succeed in Business and in Life, that offers your business advice. What is the most common piece of advice you give people?

That's why I wrote the book: because people always want the silver bullet. There's no magic. It's a million little things. … It's like racing. To go faster, there isn't one thing. It's constant little things to improve on. That's the problem with business. People want dramatic things. But business is pretty mundane 98 percent of the time and exciting 2 percent of the time. It's the million little things you do every day that aren't sexy, that aren't exciting, that all add up.

Entrepreneur Robert Herjavec lives a rags-to-race car story 03/23/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 23, 2012 10:30pm]

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