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Six Tips To Startup Success From TV’s Kevin O’Leary

Six Tips To Startup Success From TV’s Kevin O’Leary

He’s opinionated and ruthless, and he hungers for big deals. Yet he made millions helping children learn how to read. Nothing if not a polarizing force on television and at the podium, Kevin O’Leary pulls no punches when it comes to the good, the bad, and the ugly as it pertains to markets and economic opportunities. Kevin is co-host of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange; a former panelist on the wildly popular program Dragons’ Den and a current judge on Shark Tank; and author of the bestselling book Cold Hard Truth: On Business, Money, and Life. Fast Company magazine recently caught up with Kevin to mine his mind for his six tips to start-up success:

As I sit across the table from Kevin O’Leary–aka Mr. Wonderful on ABC’s hit show Shark Tank–I see a man with intense focus. We chat together in a small green room at a news station, O’Leary in between multiple TV appearances, discussing his success. A prolific startup entrepreneur who sold one of his ventures for $3.8 billion, he exudes a combination of confidence and brutal honesty–he is a man with nothing to hide.

During the course of our interview, O’Leary describes himself as “a right-wing capitalist pig, a little right of Attila the Hun.” He enthusiastically claims that the world needs a lot more Kevin O’Learys. And he takes pride in his no-nonsense attitude, saying, “I’m consistent. I don’t flip-flop my positions. I’m going to be a capitalist ’til the day I die.”

Whether you love or hate O’Leary’s wisecracking turn as the tough guy on Shark Tank, you certainly can’t fault the man for being inconsistent. “I never have to remember what I said,” he tells me, “because I only speak truth. The truth was the truth yesterday, it’s the truth today, and it will be the truth in 100 years.”

And even though many people say he’s the meanest investor on Shark Tank, O’Leary sees things differently. “I’m actually the nicest shark, because I’m the only one that tells the truth all the time,” he explains.

Throughout the hour that I spend with him, O’Leary shares outstanding advice for entrepreneurs looking to follow in his footsteps. Here are six great nuggets of advice from the shark himself:

1. Forget the 9 to 5

If you’re hoping that you can just give entrepreneurship a little bit of effort in order to achieve great success, think again. O’Leary explains:

There is a discipline required as an entrepreneur about working to optimize the business. There is no balance in life as an entrepreneur. You can’t expect to work 9 to 5; that’s never going to happen. You have to expect that it’s going to consume your life for a period of time. That’s the downside, but the upside is that you buy yourself freedom in perpetuity.

2. Be willing to fire people

Sometimes employees or partners simply aren’t a fit. It’s the job of the entrepreneur to know when a business relationship should end. “You need to be willing to fire someone once they lose their direction with the business,” O’Leary says. “There is no debate on this one–you have to fire them. The first moment you think about firing someone, you should do it.”

On the other hand, O’Leary explains that entrepreneurs can’t let their businesses become wholly dependent on just one person. When someone tells him an employee is irreplaceable, O’Leary says he immediately fires that person. “I know that sounds cold, but it isn’t. It’s part of the Darwinian nature of business.”

3. Get your head out of the clouds

Entrepreneurs often set unrealistic financial goals for themselves, and this terrible habit can get them into serious trouble. Mr. Wonderful cautions entrepreneurs to be conservative about the targets they set and to only set targets they are totally committed to hitting. “There should be a consequence for not hitting the targets because poo-poo happens all the time–unforeseen events, changes in the market.”

4. Let’s be clear: You’re here to make money

Entrepreneurs can get sidetracked by feel-good missions with emotional benefits that go beyond profit. O’Leary warns that this can be the undoing of many great companies:

Get clear on what our goal is: I don’t invest to make friends. I invest to make money. If you want a friend, buy a dog. I want the people that work with me to become wealthy and successful. I’m not a kumbaya guy. I don’t need group hugs, I need performance.

O’Leary says to leave the emotional aspect out of business. “When the day is over, I go home to my friends and family and enjoy what they have to bring to the table.”

5. Your idea is either good or bad

Many entrepreneurs fight to keep a bad idea from dying. This is a tremendous waste, according to Mr. Wonderful, and he cites his fellow investor on the show, Barbara Corcoran, as an example. “She’s always encouraging bad ideas because she’s worried about someone’s feelings. That’s horrible, that is the worst thing you could do, and I chastise her all the time for that,” he says.

O’Leary posits that there are no gray areas–only black and white. He believes that ideas are either good or bad, “And when it’s a bad idea, I’m going to tell you.”

6. Do what you love to do

In a moment of total candor, O’Leary shares, “The whole reason to have gone through the journey I’ve gone [through] is that you want to get to a place in your life where you wake up in the morning and if you don’t want to answer the phone, you don’t have to; if you don’t want to do anything, you don’t have to.”

O’Leary says he wants to do things now that really interest him, and helping entrepreneurs get to where he is today is one of those interests.

The beauty about O’Leary’s advice is that it comes from a place of having been there. He truly walks the talk.

“To be a successful venture capitalist, you have to have started a business in the past,” he says. “You need to have gone through the utter terror of getting started. I try to get my entrepreneurs to not make the mistakes that I’ve made in the past.”

By Marc Wayshak/Fast Company/July, 2014