A few years ago, I attended a gala award ceremony. The guest speaker was Robert Herjavec. You may know Robert from CBC’s Dragons’ Den, ABC’s Shark Tank or his toe tapping moves on Season 20 of Dancing with the Stars.
I don’t recall Robert’s exact words from the talk he gave that evening, but I do remember how it made me feel. The event was the gala awards ceremony for the Canadian-Croatian Chamber of Commerce. I was moved by Robert’s authenticity, humbleness and vulnerability as he described his story of coming to Canada as an 8 year old boy. His father Vladimir Herjavec passed away the day before the event, and Robert bravely pushed through a very emotional time to deliver the speech, in honour of his father.
Now, almost ten years later as I walk down the corridor of Herjavec Group’s global headquarters in Toronto, hanging along the wall are framed testaments of Robert’s many business achievements: Profit 500 Canada’ s Fastest Growing Companies, Inc Magazine, Success Magazine, Profit 100. This Canadian immigrant boy grew up to achieve business success as CEO of a one of the world’s largest privately held cyber security firms.
As I drew closer towards the open door of a large office, a brilliant flash of gold caught my eye. I walked in and was greeted by four absolutely, stunning golden statues; Emmy Awards from Robert’s work on ABC’s Shark Tank. I had no idea how truly magnificent they would be up close! Great… one more thing I now have to add to my bucket list.
“ I DIDN’T KNOW WE WERE POOR”
As my production assistant was setting up the microphones for this interview, I was getting my notes ready. Robert was on the phone checking his texts and emails. He suddenly looked up and called for his assistant, asking her if they had baby wipes in the office. He was quite persistent, and I remember thinking that was a little odd… why the sudden need for baby wipes?
The answer was soon revealed. In 2015, Robert appeared on Season 20 of Dancing with the Stars, with Kym Johnson as his dancing partner. A love connection evolved and the following year, Kym became his wife. The two are blessed with one year old twins. Mom and babies were coming to meet Robert at the office right after my interview. Ahhh, yes, probably a text request from his wife. I finally understood the need for baby wet wipes!
From a little immigrant boy doing his best to navigate life, to one of Canada’s great success stories, the words below are edited excerpts from my interview with fellow Canadian-Croatian Robert Herjavec.
Do you have any memories of your childhood in Croatia?
I have great memories of my childhood in Croatia. Canada has come a long way in accepting immigrants from all religions, race, colour, but at the time, it was really difficult. I grew up in a village back home and we had dirt floors, pigs running around, no phone or paved streets… but I didn’t know we were poor. I thought everybody lived like this and I thought it was great. Then I come to Canada, and the other kids tell me I’m poor. I realized we were different. We had to wear the same clothes every day because we had no money. My mom would wash them every day. People made fun of me. That was a really shaping moment for me. I think my experiences at nine made me who I am today. When you have something that’s challenging, it either breaks you or makes you. It definitely broke me for a while, but then I just got to a point where I didn’t want to be that person anymore.
Your mother was a receptionist and your dad worked in a factory. Your dad was a tough guy; a brave man who spoke out against communism. What are some of the greatest lessons you learned from your father?
Never complain, work really hard, and I think the biggest lesson I’ve always taken away is to respect anybody in the pursuit of taking care of their family. My dad never looked down at a janitor or a waitress. And the greatest lessons I learned about my dad, I learned too late in life. When you’re growing up, you are embarrassed by your parents. The greatest guilt I feel at times is that I was embarrassed of my dad. He was such a great guy, and he was so honourable. He had various faults like every human being, but that man gave up his life for me, and I was embarrassed by him. But you only learn that in hindsight and all those lessons just become part of who you are.
“ WE HAD TO WEAR THE SAME CLOTHES EVERY DAY BECAUSE WE HAD NO MONEY”
At what point did you get the vision of being an entrepreneur?
I never wanted to be an entrepreneur. I just wanted to get a good job. I only became an entrepreneur because I got fired, and I needed to pay my mortgage. I remember the day I told my mom, “I’m
going to start a business.” She looked at me, with worry in her face and said, “Don’t worry you’ll get another job one day.” I started my business and I got a job. And I did both for the first three months and then one day, I literally couldn’t do both. So I quit the job.
And ten years later you sold that company for just over $30 million?
I did. I sold it to AT & T.
At the moment when you sold it, what were you thinking would happen for the next ten years of your life?
At the moment all I remember thinking was – I hope their cheque clears the bank because I had never seen so much money. There is a great piece of advice I always give to entrepreneurs, they say, “When do you know it’s time to sell your business?” I always say, in two situations: one, when the money can change your life, and two, when you don’t have the heart to do it anymore. That money, $30 million changed my life forever, so it was time to sell. The $30 million was so unbelievably more than I could fathom, that I didn’t have the ability to dream any bigger. It took a long time for me to think I can do more.
There was a time in your personal life, when you were in a really dark place. You decided to spend a few weeks helping out at a homeless shelter in Seattle. What led you to do that?
It was one of those dark days that so many people have when you actually don’t think there’s going to be a tomorrow. You’re in that depth of despair. I called a good friend of mine, John McAuley who is a priest. And he kind of talked me off the ledge, if you will.
He said to go to this place in Seattle and it will lift your soul. I was devoid of hope, and without hope, there is no life. I think he just wanted to show me how grateful I should be for what I have. I showed up, and even though they had less and their lives were worse, they had more hope, more positivity and their souls were fuller than mine. And I’m thinking, “How can that be? They have nothing!” I realized it all comes down to you.
“ WAS DEVOID OF HOPE, AND WITHOUT HOPE, THERE IS NO LIFE”
The last book you wrote is titled “You Don’t Have to Be a Shark: Creating Your Own Success.” What’s the meaning behind the title?
People that are shy or introverted like I was, often times think that they have to change who they are in order to get ahead in life. So they think they have to be mean or they have to be a shark. I think that’s what we were trying to say in the title, you don’t have to be a jerk to get ahead. But you do have to believe in yourself. You can’t be a wallflower. You can’t let people push you around, but that doesn’t mean you have to push other people around.
You have, like many people in business, experienced betrayal; having money stolen and other negative things happen. How have you chosen to see those situations now?
I remember the first time somebody did something bad tome. I couldn’t believe it. I thought the world was going to end.
I felt my soul leave my body. I think I cried. Today I don’t remember what they did. The difference between people who do great things and others, is how long they allow themselves to feel sorry for themselves. Today I have shitty things that happen to me and I feel really bad about it for a couple minutes then I realize I’ve just got to move on. Back then, I would wallow in misery for days. That’s the difference.
“ YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A JERK TO GET AHEAD, BUT YOU DO HAVE TO BELIEVE IN YOURSELF”
You have commented on the importance of being able to take a loss. How important do you think it is for business success?
It’s everything. If you think about it, in your lifetime, how many true successes are you going to have? I sold my first company; I think I made $60,000. I sold the next one, and I made $30 million. One day we will take the Herjavec Group public, or we will sell. And I’ll probably do another one after this, so maybe I’ve failed 20,000 times in the course of those four successes. People only remember the success. Nobody sees the failure. You will fail in life way more then you’ll succeed. If you can’t take the failure, you won’t get the success.