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Barbara Corcoran gives “just do it”-style advice

Areas of Study , Event Recaps , Marketing Stories | Apr 16, 2012 |

by Faye Kulik (GSB ’13)

Real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, keynote speaker of the Women in Leadership Summit, took the stage last week in a neon pink suit that matched her signature fiery personality. Ms. Corcoran shared advice for starting a successful business — and told the story of how she did so herself, starting in the 1970s with only $1,000 borrowed from a boyfriend and a five-line real estate advertisement in The New York Times. She developed her humble beginning into a $5 billion enterprise.

Action was the order of the day. Corcoran said her parents wanted her to first take stable jobs and develop a solid résumé, but “had I waited to start this business, I would have missed out. If you have an idea of a business, do it! Because you cannot wait.”

Her advice for entrepreneurs:

1)   Be great at failure: It’s all about how you whether the storm. Of the 5,000 salespeople Ms. Corcoran has hired, the ones who made million-dollar sales were those who spent less time lamenting failed deals and instead moved on to new clients quickly.

2)   Perception creates reality: In the mid-1970s, Ms. Corcoran created a homespun publication about New York real-estate trends called “The Corcoran Report.” She sent it to the media, styling herself as an expert. She became that expert overnight when the Times’s real estate section read her report and quoted it on its front page.

3)   Everybody wants what everybody wants: How do you move 88 same-priced apartment units quickly? Make people feel like they’ve got an inside shot at an in-demand product. Corcoran dreamed up the idea of a “secret sale” for selected customers, creating a buzz that led to excited clients, solid deals and $1.5 million in returns within a week.

4)   Expand before you are ready: Ms. Corcoran always rented more office space than she actually needed. The pressure to fill the empty desks propelled her to build the business faster.

5)   Shoot the dogs early: Using overhead to evaluate her sales team, Ms. Corcoran calculated how much each desk at the firm cost her to operate. If the number were $41,000 per desk, and the employee who sat there produced less than $41,000 in sales, she needed to fire that employee. Meanwhile, she would “spoil the winners” by providing services such as on-site massages, manicures and shoe shines.

6)   It takes all kinds: Ms. Corcoran hired a secretary whose personality was the exact opposite of her own, but this served to her advantage. Management tasks that Ms. Corcoran avoided, such as bookkeeping and organizing, were managed accurately.

7)   Recognition works better than money: When Ms. Corcoran wanted to generate a $1-million sale, she issued a challenge. The first salesperson to make such a sale would get not a monetary bonus, but rather a gold ribbon. Though many employees shrugged off this type of reward, one determined agent went for it and scored. Seeing that recognition was a powerful motivator, Ms. Corcoran continued giving out gold ribbons for 15 years. Employees proudly display them at their desks.

8)   Fun is good for business: Ms. Corcoran’s firm was filled with all types of fun that departed from the typical corporate activity, including costume and cross-dressing parties. She said her company “became an innovator in the industry because of the fun we had; I had all my good ideas when we were out having a ball, not at my desk.”

9)   Bad times are the best times to move ahead: When other firms were lying low, Ms. Corcoran hired away her competitors’ top salespeople, telling them, “Come to my firm, here you’ll be able to …” and letting her imagination and theirs fill in the blank.


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