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From T-Shirt Salesman to TV Icon As he prepares to put small business in the spotlight, reality TV titan Mark Burnett reflects on his own entrepreneurial journey.

By Jennifer Wang

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Mark Burnett is living the American Dream. The 49-year-old Emmy-award winning producer has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the first given to a reality TV producer), and unless you live under a rock, chances are you know his work: "Survivor," "The Apprentice," "The Contender" and "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" are a few of the most popular examples.

But the road to success was a bumpy one, and Burnett is the first to admit it. In 1982, he arrived in Los Angeles from the UK sans green card--or greenbacks--and put in his time for a decade (his first job title: nanny) before scraping together enough cash for his first show, "Eco-Challenge," which aired in 1995. "I know the American Dream," he says. "I've been here 28 years as an entrepreneur doing everything from selling t-shirts on the beach to starting my reality show company."

Burnett even recalls some important lessons from his t-shirts-selling days. "I learned the value of how to deal with customers and, you know, weird people, and also the ability to understand what makes a good product and how to sell and market it," he says. And while he picked up most of his entrepreneurial education on the job, he also gives credit to self-help guru Tony Robbins, known for seminars that encourage people to overcome their fears and "Unleash the Power Within."

It's no wonder then, that Burnett claims a soft spot for "Shark Tank," his latest show debuting Aug. 9, which puts the spotlight on entrepreneurs. Hopeful contestants will pitch their business ideas to a panel of five wealthy investors who are ready to make their dreams reality--or tear them apart. On national TV, of course.

Ironically, Burnett doubts he would have stood a chance in front of the judges. "What I was selling was who I was and my idea. At the start, I asked a number of times for people to give me money, but I was unsuccessful--and sort of naìve as well," he says. "I never got any investment and did it all bootstrapping without any loans."

Rejection, however, didn't deter him, and Burnett chose to gamble his money anyway on the U.S. broadcast rights to a European television show called Survivor. "I do trace my success to that decision, and it paid off for me," he says, adding that risking it all came down to passion and belief--and fear. "The fear of not doing it was greater than the fear of failure."

This seems to be his general approach. "I always doubt myself," he admits. "But the thing is, not everything works out, and you can't sit and dwell. You have to realize you did your best and you have to move forward. There's no other option."

Perhaps more illuminating are Burnett's thoughts on success and failure, which he draws, surprisingly, from poetry. "Both my philosophies have come from poems I've read that stuck with me." Success, he says, isn't about buying things with money you make, but rather, providing yourself with the "glorious privilege" of being independent--an idea culled from the work of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Failure, on the other hand, is an "imposter," per Rudyard Kipling, who implied it was an event that would eventually result in success .

Another simple element that's contributed to his success is sticking to what works, a lesson he picked up during his childhood. "If something's working, don't change it," he says. "I remember my dad, back in the '60s--he'd hear a noise in the car engine and he'd start tinkering with it. It was actually working fine, but the more he kept at it, the worse it got!"

With "Survivor" on season 20 and "The Apprentice" still going strong, Burnett certainly appears to have found a winning strategy. But what's next for the reality TV king? Well, "The Audrina Show" (starring Audrina Patridge of "The Hills" fame) is slated for next year. "I'm just going to have fun with it. I think she's a good character, a good person, and it's going to be something fresh for me. We always need fresh things, so I'm looking forward to it," he says. "And I'm always looking for the next fifth grader."

Meet the Sharks
Putting the "Shark" in "Shark Tank," these five self-made millionaires are using their own money as bait for cash-strapped entrepreneurs. To get a glimpse of their own successes, asked the judges to finish the sentence "I knew I made it when." Here's what they said

Barbara Corcoran, founder of The Corcoran Group: "I knew I made it when I bought my father a brand-new Lincoln Continental and my mother a convertible all in one year. The year before that I had moved into a rent-controlled apartment trying to meet my rent."

Kevin Harrington, CEO of "I knew I made it when our first year out of the box with our infomercials, we did $55 million in sales."

Robert Herjavec co-founder and CEO of The Herjavec Group: "Well, I don't think I've made it yet. Success has no finish line. I don't think there is such a thing in business or personal success as equilibrium--I think you are always growing or dying."

Daymond John, founder and CEO of FUBU: "I knew I made it when I realized I would be my own boss for the rest of my life, no matter what I did."

Kevin O'Leary, chairman of O'Leary Funds: "I knew I made it when I didn't have to return anybody's phone call."

Check out more coverage of Mark Burnett and Shark Tank on's Daily Dose.

Jennifer Wang

Writer and Content Strategist

Jennifer Wang is a Los Angeles-based journalist and content strategist who works at a startup and writes about people in startups. Find her at

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