Exceptional magazine: Americas edition, July 2013

The Herjavec Group

Robert Herjavec started life in North America as an immigrant child who struggled to fit in. Now he’s speeding toward cybersecurity domination.

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When Robert Herjavec was 12 years old, he came home to tell his mother about a particularly miserable day at school.

A Croatian immigrant who struggled with the transition to his new home in Canada, Herjavec had been picked on by the other kids and was feeling sorry for himself.

“It’s one of my most vivid memories,” says Herjavec. “I was sitting there and complaining to my mother in this tiny little kitchen. At the time, my dad used to walk to work because he wanted to save the money from the bus fare. He came home and stood there as I was talking, then he looked at me and said, ‘Never complain.’”

That instruction would become a guiding principle in Herjavec’s life.

“It really, really stuck with me. You’ve got to just keep going,” he says, recalling a seminal moment that sparked his immense drive and extraordinary path to success.

The serial entrepreneur and cybersecurity mogul is the mind behind The Herjavec Group (THG), Canada’s largest IT security company, with annual sales of US$155m. He’s the best-selling author of Driven and the recently launched The Will to Win. And he finds time to act as one of the ”sharks” on the popular US TV show Shark Tank, where entrepreneurial hopefuls attempt to persuade accomplished millionaires to invest in their companies.

Last year, he was named EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® in the Ontario, Canada regional technology category.

It’s a long way from his humble beginnings, as an 8-year-old fleeing communist Yugoslavia with his parents, who only had a suitcase and US$20 between them.

“The biggest influence on me was probably my dad, who was a really, really tough guy,” says Herjavec. “Starting your own business is really hard, … [but] whenever I feel down on myself I always think, ‘This is nothing.’ My dad was in jail [for speaking out against Marshal Josef Tito’s regime], left the country at 37, came to a country where he knew no one and swept floors. I mean, that’s hard.”

Herjavec didn’t head straight toward entrepreneurship. He graduated from university with a degree in English literature and political science and worked in an eclectic array of jobs (waiter, retail salesman, TV field producer, collection agent) to pay the bills.

When he found himself under-qualified for a job selling computer components, he offered to work for free to gain experience and, at night, waited tables at an upscale restaurant. Sensing the burgeoning tech industry could be his path to wealth, Herjavec soaked up all the knowledge he could. In 1990, he launched his first company, BRAK Systems, on a shoestring out of his basement.

Over the next 10 years, he grew the business into Canada’s biggest internet security software provider. “I was always absolutely, blindly driven,” he says.
Herjavec went on to sell that company for a reported US$100m to AT&T and a second company to Nokia for US$250m. He then briefly retired, spending three years with his wife, Diane, and three young children in their sprawling mansion in Toronto’s exclusive Bridle Path neighborhood.

But two successful ventures did not quell Herjavec’s famous drive, and he founded THG in 2003.

THG’s office in North Toronto speaks of its founder’s bold spirit. Two of the four walls are floor-to-ceiling glass, with a spectacular view of the city below, and Herjavec’s large office is filled with the toys and trappings of a successful tech tycoon. A motorcycle is perched in one corner of the room near a custom-made Fender guitar emblazoned with the Shark Tank logo. On one wall is a bookcase full of trophies and awards, while another is dominated by a huge painting of a shark suspended in a glass tank.

There’s also the smashed-up hood of a Ferrari that Herjavec crashed while motor racing. With his passion for racing taking him to tracks around the world, Herjavec was recently named the Ferrari Challenge Series’ “Rookie of the Year.” He says it’s yet another way he pushes himself to succeed. “As life gets easier for me in many ways, I try to continue to make it hard.
Car racing is the ability to control your emotions in the middle of a hurricane.

“Every time we start a race, there’s always a part of me that says, ‘What am I doing?’” he continues. “People think courage is the absence of fear, but I think courage is the ability to work through the fear.”

“Value comes in the nooks and crannies of your business that aren’t sexy, that aren’t exciting, that are really mundane. That’s where the opportunity is.”

One fear Herjavec faces with THG is being able to stay ahead of the curve in the ever-challenged field of security technology. THG provides secure content management solutions for large companies, from email security to intrusion prevention to database security. In an era where security breaches can affect millions of consumers, anticipating the next hack is essential.

“This is the only technology that, the minute it’s invented, someone in the world wants to break it,” he says. “When someone invents a new phone system, nobody goes out and tries to break it — they try to make it better.

“But as soon as someone invents a better way to do online banking, someone’s trying to hack it. So that fundamental challenge never goes away. You’ve got to be on top of this stuff all the time.”

Providing value for customers
Customer service is also a cornerstone of THG’s success. Herjavec says building a thriving business isn’t necessarily about coming up with bigger, better, newer products all the time; rather, it’s knowing how to provide value for your customers.

“People misunderstand value,” he explains. “People want big, bold ideas and it’s very rare that you’ll invent a better mousetrap and make a million dollars. When we started out, we were selling the same product you could buy from 20 different people, but we were still different. We would answer the phone on the second ring. Every one of our competitors had automated voicemail. We always answered it live.

“Value comes in the nooks and crannies of your business that aren’t sexy, that aren’t exciting, that are really mundane. That’s where the opportunity is.”

When it comes to how he motivates his staff, Herjavec says being a visible presence in his offices is of huge importance.

“A long time ago, I read a saying, ‘You can never see the CEO too much,’” he says. But as an “action-driven guy,” THG’s leader says he can sometimes create crises where they don’t exist.

“When our business is doing well, … I feel there should always be something I need to fix,” he says. “So what I do now is try to step away from the business during these periods. Sometimes you need to know when to let go of the steering wheel.”

THG continues to expand its reach through acquisition and by moving aggressively into infrastructure, servers and storage. Herjavec sees the company growing to US$250-US$500m in revenue in Canada, “but we have to go to the States; the market’s just so big,” he says.

No matter how far the business goes, Herjavec can never forget where he came from.

“I say to my wife, ‘If I had told you 10 years ago that we would be here now, would you have believed it?’ and she says, ‘Not in a million years,’” Herjavec reflects. “And we always think about the future and wonder: ‘What would be extraordinary 10 years from now?’”