Barbara Corcoran: Rethinking Failure at TEDxBarnardCollege (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of American businesswoman Barbara Corcoran’s TEDx Talk presentation: Rethinking Failure at TEDxBarnardCollege conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.

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Barbara Corcoran – American businesswoman

Thank you. Very nice to be here. I’ll start with a story.

I grew up in a small town in New Jersey. It was exactly two blocks wide and one mile long and we had the biggest family in town. My mother took her six girls and put them in the girls room, painted it pink, of course, and then she put her four boys in the boys room, painted it blue. And my parents produced every one of those children from the living room couch that was between the two bedrooms. Lesson in that, by the way, and not on failure.

I first discovered the word ‘failure’ in the classroom. I can distinctly remember being in class and not being able to read or write until I was in third grade, or thereabouts when I started getting the hang of it and being ashamed of myself. But I was kind of OK with it.

I was sent back to the second-grade classroom one day after school. And I knew the moment I walked in that I was in trouble. It was Sister Stella Marie saying that she was a nun from hell. There was also a Ella Maloney that all the kids at school called the retarded girl, and there was Rudy Valentino, not the famous guy but Rudy Valentino, the Italian kid that just came off the boat as we said. And I was asked to have a seat.

When Sister Stella Marie told me if I didn’t learn to pay attention, I would always be stupid. That was the day I first discovered that I had a label, and it was about failure. My idea of hell to this day is being asked to read out loud, to have the shame that you feel reading out loud. And in a situation where education whole system judges a child’s intelligence simply based on how well they could read or write to certain abilities, I learned how to be a loser and I couldn’t wait to get out of that jail house, that everybody loved this school, I couldn’t wait the day I got out of it.

And so when I grew up, I continued to learn a lot about failure, but frankly, I realized that that was the best calling card for the rest of my life, because nothing was going to feel as bad as that for me ever again.

All of my singular phenomenal successes that helped me build my business happened on the heels of failure. I didn’t choose it that way, but somehow it always worked that way. When Ramon Simone who was my first love and business partner left to marry my secretary, I thought I would never walk again, because I was madly in love with him and he had found me at the diner, had taken me out of my home town and he gave me the $1000 to start my business. And so when he left me, I really felt like nothing.

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And when I finally built the courage to leave that business partnership two years later, which was two years, too long on the way out the door, he said to me, “You know, you’ll never succeed without me.” And I felt in my heart through every bone in my body that I would rather die than let him see me not succeed. And it was that insult which really became my insurance policy to continue in business no matter what was happening, because I didn’t want to let that guy see me fail.

When I was asked to give my first speech to a group of 300 city bankers, I was honored but as everybody is scared to death, when I got up there at the podium, even though I had practiced every day for three and a half months, I memorized it, knew everything about it, I got out there and as many people, now I learned I lost my voice, and when the moderator for the second time said, “Thank you” and asked me to sit down, I felt such a public shame I swore I would never speak again.

But the following Monday, I realized I had to get over myself and so I volunteered to teach how to sell real estate, the only subject I knew at the Learning Annex which was part of NYU at that time. And I taught for 12 weeks and as luck would have it, as I always found recovering from a failure, the very first night in class, a short Asian woman walks up to me and she says, “Barbara, you know how much money I make?”

I am like “What?”

“You know how much money I make?

And it was: “Do you know how much money I make?” And she proceeded to tell me she made $250,000 in six months. My best salesperson — I had seven of them at the time — was making $42,000; she made $250,000 in six months. I had walked in and discovered the Orient Express, the woman who would become the number one salesperson in all of New York for the next 25 years and be at the head of the whole way of the Asian population moving into New York, I would have never met Carrie Chiang at that class if I hadn’t gotten over myself.

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I have found that failure and innovation are kissing cousins. You get one, you work on one you automatically get the other and I was able to make The Corcoran Group the innovator in my industry, because we were so good at failure. I decided when I had my first year where I had a profit many years into the business, I had a great idea and I was going to do it and I knew it was the greatest thing. And the great thing was I was going to take all of our apartments and put them on videotape and now customers don’t have to look at apartments, all I have to do is pop in a videotape and they could pick out an apartment from the lazy boy chair. Oh, it was a great idea.

Well, one month later, I’m standing at the basement of one of my shops on right next to Zabar’s, it’s still there, in a wet basement with $77,000 of money I blew stupidly on tapes nobody wanted. And they didn’t want them because I put my salespeople’s faces and phone numbers on, and they didn’t want to hand them to the customer and haven’t called the next salesperson. So that idea was dead on arrival.

And as I was starting to cry in my soup, my husband Bill Higgins who was a Navy captain came home from a war exercise in South Korea where he was blowing up the North Koreans, this is what boys do on weekends, that would pay with our tax money. And he was all excited telling me, ‘Oh my gosh! It was amazing’

And I said, “You do it every year; what’s the big deal?”

And he said, “This time we did in real time on this new thing called the internet.”

And so I took all my videos, I shoved them on the Internet, I put them online, I didn’t even know what online meant then, and boom, boom, within the first week I had two sales out of London. So I immediately registered every one of my competitors’ URL so that they would have to call me and ask for the URL. As they discovered, the thing that was about to change the real estate industry as we knew it then and can you imagine the advantage I had having a two-year heads up and a head start on all of my competitors to horse around and discover what I could do online. I would have never discovered online if I hadn’t failed with the $77,000. And that was my reward.