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Kevin O’Leary shares entrepreneurial lessons from Shark Tank

Nov 10, 2014

Kevin O'Leary

Kevin O’Leary, MBA ’80, spoke to HBA students at the Ivey Leaders Forum on November 6.

As a shrewd investor known for ruthlessly grilling entrepreneurs on television, Kevin O’Leary, MBA ’80, knows a thing or two about what makes a successful deal.

The venture capitalist, entrepreneur, author, and television personality drew from his experience as a judge on ABC’s Shark Tank, a reality TV show featuring aspiring entrepreneurs making business presentations to a panel of potential investors, to share with Ivey students the ingredients of a winning pitch.

O’Leary was a keynote speaker at the Ivey Leaders Forum on November 6, a two-day conference organized by HBA students featuring top Canadian business leaders with unconventional career paths. 

Drawing from metrics from Shark Tank, and its British and Canadian counterparts, Dragons’ Den U.K. and Dragons’ Den Canada, O’Leary outlined the three factors for success:

  1. Being able to articulate the business opportunity with clarity in 90 seconds or less;
  2. Proving you’re the right person to execute the business plan; and
  3. Knowing the numbers inside and out for every line of the income or balance sheet.

“The one thing you should spend your time on – at least 10 or 15 per cent of your effort – is in learning how to present your ideas to people. Some people are born with it and others have to learn it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re an engineer or a marketing person, or a CFO or CEO, you are always presenting your ideas every day and you need to be able to communicate them successfully.”

O’Leary also gave advice on managing employees, creating first-class customer service, and winning the war of business:

Employees are your greatest assets

“One of your roles as a manger, CEO, or entrepreneur is to set the culture. It turns out that 40 to 50 per cent of the success of employees is based on the belief that they are in the right place at the right time in the right culture,” he said. “The phenomenal success of tech startups is a great example of this. You find people at tech startups that are willing to work 24 hours a day because they believe they are wanted, needed, and a part of something really special.”

Customers come first

“Service trumps price. You could charge up to 15 per cent more for a product or service that is associated with being No. 1 in customer support,” he said. “People want the path of least resistance when buying a good or service. They won’t switch if they think they are getting the right support.” 

The boss doesn’t always make the most money

“When I go to look at companies, I don’t take the CEO out to dinner, I take out the head of sales. Salespeople know more about the business than anybody else because they are in the front lines,” he said. “Without sales, you have no business. You can tinker with margins and you can always cut costs, but you can’t do anything in terms of growth if you can’t increase the top line.”

Everybody is replaceable

“Everybody could be better and there is always someone who can replace you,” he said. “Figure out how to make yourself as irreplaceable as possible. There’s so little tolerance for lack of performance today.”

Business is war

“The DNA of a business is to make money for its shareholders. I’m not against providing money to social causes after the money has been distributed in the form of dividends or profits, but your job is to make your investors money,” he said. “Business is war. You are the general and your employees are your soldiers. You have to go out and kill the enemy by stealing their share.”

The Ivey Leaders Forum also featured presentations by more than a dozen business leaders including Alfredo Tan, Group Director of Marketing Solutions at Facebook; Fab Dolan, HBA '08, Head Of Large Advertiser & Agency Marketing at Google Canada; and Michael Copeland, MBA ’99, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Canadian Football League. 

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