Do you ever wonder what it takes to become the person whose success you admire? I do, which is why I spoke with “Shark Tank” entrepreneur Robert Herjavec.

While most of us know Herjavec as the kind and adventurous investor starring on “Shark Tank” (or maybe you’re familiar with him from his stint on “Dancing With The Stars”), he cut his teeth (unintended quasi-shark pun) as entrepreneur and founder of Herjavec Group, a multi-national cybersecurity firm.

In our conversation, Herjavec opens up about the power of the people you know, how to stand out, gracefully moving between industries, the importance of staying curious and open, and thinking bigger.

Darrah Brustein: What’s one piece of advice you’d give your 20-year-old self as it pertains to networks and relationships?

Robert Herjavec: When I was younger, I didn’t understand that people could actually start their own business. I didn’t know how to translate my people skills into a career I would be passionate about. At 22, I just didn’t get it. How was I supposed to network and build relationships if I didn’t know anyone in the field that I wanted to be in?

My dad introduced me to the top business person he knew – it was the head of his union. It was clear that he wasn’t going to be the saving grace that set me on the right path. But it hit me that if it couldn’t be whom I knew that was going to get me ahead, it had to be WHAT I knew. I threw myself into learning a growing field – technology. I developed my knowledge and expertise over time, and eventually grew my personal network as a secondary step.

Brustein: How has your network played a role in the success of your core business: Herjavec Group?

Herjavec: People often say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I think that’s only partly true. I never want to discourage anyone from starting a business just because they don’t know a lot of rich investors or bankers. You can start a business with specialized knowledge but then you need to grow your network and develop your customer base. At the end of the day, for Herjavec Group to continue to thrive, we have to have incredible customer relationships. We need to solve their problems, and their support sustains us. It’s pretty simple – and we’re so fortunate to have the endorsement of the top enterprises globally.

As we have scaled across Canada, the United States and now into the United Kingdom, building connections and developing trust at the business level is imperative. This year alone, Herjavec Group has been ranked #1 on the annual Cybersecurity 500 List and named an IDC Security Services Leader. We don’t earn these recognitions without the support of our greater community – thought leaders, customers, and our amazing team of technical experts.

Herjavec modeling his experience as a mentor. Photography by Lesley Bryce

Brustein: Can you share about your experience with mentorship, both as the mentor and the mentee?

Herjavec: No matter how successful you become, you can always learn more. Whether in your professional life or your personal life, a mentor-mentee relationship is one of the most important relationships you will have.

Finding a mentor can be hard – many people don’t know how to approach someone, what to say and, frankly, many don’t even understand the value of a true mentor-mentee relationship.

Mentorship is about a series of moments with key individuals you’re learning from. At Herjavec Group, we try to encourage mentorship in a variety of ways – from running formal programs to encouraging coffee chats with executives.

Finding someone to learn from doesn’t have to be a formal process. Keep it simple and don’t get sucked in by the myths of mentorship. Ask questions, listen, and recognize that learning opportunities are all around you.

Brustein: Your career hasn’t been linear: you began in film, moved to IT security, and famously now into investing. To what do you credit your ability to move between industries? How has your network played a role?

Herjavec: A lot of people think that investing is my main business, like many of the other sharks but, truthfully, technology and specifically cybersecurity is my passion and my core business. I started Herjavec Group 15 years ago, and, today, we’re one of the world’s largest, independently-held cybersecurity services providers. We operate across the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada and specialize in cyber services like identity, managed security services and incident response for the world’s largest enterprises.

I was able to move between industries because I had a thirst for knowledge and I was willing to work hard. I developed hugely beneficial networks in every area because I also said yes to new opportunities and always reached out as I met new people. It’s important to maintain those networks. Be genuine in your purpose and in your relationships because you never know how those connections can help you or those around you later in life.

Brustein: Whom do you credit as someone who helped you kickstart your career success and why? What did you learn from that experience?

Herjavec: Success has to come from within. I can credit many people with jump-starting my career – my dad, my first boss, my first customer, my employees, my family – but your success is really for you to define and create. It has to come from within.

When I started working in technology I had no qualifications. I worked for free for 6 months as an office assistant, to gain the knowledge to develop into a sales rep. I waited tables on the side and learned the definition of the word HUSTLE. I needed a shot and was willing to volunteer for it. I’m eternally grateful that my first boss was willing to give me a foot in the door, even if it was for free! It paid off in the long run.

Brustein: In your opinion, when is it okay to ask for help from someone in your network?

Herjavec: Of course, it’s ok — that’s why building strong networks and genuine relationships is pivotal. I think the most important thing is knowing WHEN to ask for help. Don’t limit your own learning by just turning to others to solve your problems. Definitely get feedback, seek out opinions and ask those with a specialty or expertise for support. Seeking out guidance is always a good thing and that’s what your network is for:

Remember, this is a two-way street. If someone in your network needs help, you need to be able and willing to deliver that as well.

Brustein: A large part of the success of the Sharks is their ability to open just about any door. For someone earlier in their career, how do you recommend they begin to build this type of dynamic network and influence?

Herjavec: Be curious, ask questions and engage with those in your personal and professional lives. If you have an industry you’re interested in – ask those around you who they know who may be connected to it. Research online or on LinkedIn. Use mentorship & networking tools like Ten Thousand Coffees to connect. Put yourself out there!

You should do the same thing in your workplace. If there’s someone whose work ethic you admire, try to spend time with them. Pick their brains, learn their stories, etc. A mentor won’t just find you – you need to put in the time to set yourself up for success.

Brustein: You employ a lot of people. What’s your number one tip for job applicants to stand out?

Herjavec: I want someone to engage me and make me excited about the time we’re spending together. I’m drawn to people who know their numbers (or the facts of the industry/company) and can teach me something or leave me with an insight. If you’re telling me something I didn’t already know, I’m immediately curious and engaged.

Brustein: In your most recent book You Don’t Have To Be A Shark, you share your philosophy that “great salespeople are made, not born, and no one achieves success in life without knowing how to sell.” Can you elaborate on this?

Herjavec: When it comes to selling, the biggest factor in determining someone’s success isn’t “natural ability.” It’s being coachable. You need to be enthusiastic and open to training. If you have enough desire and energy, and follow the guidance of an effective mentor, you’ll be surprised how well you can position yourself for a career in sales.

Brustein: Much is said about the relationships between the Sharks. What’s the most unexpected benefit you’ve gleaned from those relationships?

Herjavec: We all have different goals, different ways of dealing with people, and different attitudes toward business in general. Despite our differences, we have grown to be more than just co-stars, we are family. We’re competitive with each other and the most unexpected benefit has come from just how open we are about giving each other feedback and business advice. The sharks have encouraged me to think bigger and take more risks in business.

Before my start on Shark Tank, Herjavec Group operated only within Canada. I never thought about expanding outside of Canada, I don’t know why — maybe I didn’t have the confidence or maybe I didn’t believe I could.

But just over five years ago we made the leap. Shortly thereafter we expanded across the United Kingdom as well. Now we are 300 people strong and operating across Canada, US and UK to support some of the largest, most complex businesses in the world. Maybe stepping into the tank was the push I needed to think bigger!

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