Former 'Shark Tank' Judge Kevin Harrington on Launching His First Business at 15 and What It Means to Be an Entrepreneur (Video)
For some students, entrepreneurship is a cool, non-traditional class they can take in high school. For Kevin Harrington, entrepreneurship was his high school experience.
Now the chairman of the As Seen on TV brand and one of the original investing sharks on ABC’s hit reality television show Shark Tank, Harrington started his first business at the ripe old age of 15. “That’s when I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and work for myself,” says Harrington, now 56. His first business, Harrington Driveway Sealing, was sealing driveways in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“I was knocking on doors and selling and meeting people and having fun and making money [and I was] able to buy things at a young age," says Harrington. "I really got the taste of entrepreneurship early on.”
By the time Harrington was a junior in college, he had a 3.85 grade point average and was on the Dean’s list. He also had 25 employees and a business doing over a million dollars in sales each year. Because his pavement sealing business was not a year-round venture (sealing driveways is done primarily during the summer), Harrington decided to get into something more regular. He established a second business called Tri State Heating and Cooling, also based in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Harrington tried going to school in the morning and running his business in the afternoon, but dropped out because it became too much. “I knew I was going to be an entrepreneur. Even though my mom wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, it wasn’t in the cards for me,” says Harrington. “My mother got very upset that I quit school, but I had to do it. And you know, I think it worked out ok for me in the end run, but it was a little disappointing for her at that time, for sure.”
Part of what makes Harrington a successful entrepreneur and the unofficial king of the infomercial is his ability to sell. And what makes him a good seller is his ability to empathize. Harrington says he used to put himself in the shoes of his clients who didn't have air conditioning to think about how they might be spending their time and money.
“What do they have to do when it's hot? Well, they have to go to the malls when it's hot and they are going to have to spend money at the malls,” he says. “So I would show people that they are spending money to get air conditioning, they just don’t have it at home."
As a seller, if you can understand the perspective of the buyer and then explain to the potential buyer why it is actually logical for him or her to buy what you are selling, then you can get the two parties in the middle of the table. Also, another tip up Harrington’s sleeve is that if a buyer has a problem, you find a solution to whatever problem arises. Don’t see an objection as the end of the negotiation, he says.
Being a successful seller is part of what has made Harrington a successful entrepreneur, especially because his company, As Seen on TV, is all about infomercials. But there is more to being an entrepreneur. What being an entrepreneur means to Harrington is having the strength of conviction to follow through on their vision. While countless people have ideas, entrepreneurs act on the ideas they have “really taking it to the next step,” says Harrington.
Part of what makes Harrington tick and what makes him an entrepreneur at heart is that he is never on cruise control. “I always keep my eye open for the next home run. And that’s the other thing – I've always got my blinders on the projects I am working on, but the entrepreneurial side always keeps a little opening here for the next big deal to come along.”
Catherine Clifford is senior entrepreneurship writer at CNBC. She was formerly a senior writer at Entrepreneur.com, the small business reporter at CNNMoney and an assistant in the New York bureau for CNN. Clifford attended Columbia University where she earned a bachelor's degree. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter at @CatClifford.