Business

'Shark Tank' host on how Iowa's small towns, businesses can make a splash

Businessman Robert Herjavec to speak in Coralville on Wednesday

Robert Herjavec
Robert Herjavec
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Through 11 “Shark Tank” TV seasons and counting, Robert Herjavec has listened to numerous entrepreneurial pitches, and invested millions over the years into products such as bedbug detection traps and life-sized synthetic human cadavers.

But when it comes to technology, the businessman and ABC reality TV star believes the Internet of Things — the concept of connecting multiple devices and appliances to a shared system — and 5G could be among the greatest advances within his lifetime.

Herjavec, the founder and CEO of the Herjavec Group, a Toronto-based cybersecurity company, will hold a “fireside chat” to discuss how these technologies stand to benefit Iowa businesses during a local stop on U.S. Cellular’s Business Tech Tour.

The free networking event scheduled from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Coralville. Details can be found at techtour.usccevents.com.

U.S. Cellular announced in October it will deploy 5G service in Iowa, including in parts of Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque and Waterloo, during the first quarter of 2020.

In a phone interview, Herjavec discussed the potential impacts Iowa could see from internet and mobile broadband developments, among other business issues:

Q: What potential do you see for innovations in technology, including but not limited to the Internet of Things and 5G, to enhance or transform operations for Iowa businesses?

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A: I think that we’re entering a phase where the internet is becoming like electricity, meaning everything will be connected. We’ll only notice when things aren’t connected.

I equate the internet today to where electric power and distribution was 100 years ago, and this connectivity will be a rapid expansion of everything.

It’ll be an expansion of appliances, an expansion of e-commerce — look at the sales records that Singles’ Day in China had, or Black Friday here in the States. I feel that there’s more coming.

Q: What classes would you recommend for an aspiring entrepreneur who’s about to begin college, or who’s early in their college career? What sorts of skills should they look to develop during those crucial years?

A: We (the Sharks) have a hard time answering. Our knee-jerk answer is that you should take accounting or business basics, but as we say that, we feel incredibly self-serving because only one of the Sharks has a business degree. I have a degree in classical English literature.

Daymond (John) didn’t go to university. So I think we always feel bad when we tell people that. I think it’s always great to get a basic degree in foundational economics or finance. ... I don’t remember any book I read in university (for my degree), but the six months of accounting I took, I use almost every day.

Q: This spring, the University of Iowa graduated its last class of full-time MBA students. School officials have spoken about how, increasingly, students are turning toward alternate forms of business education. What potential impacts do you see this shift having in Iowa and nationwide?

A: I’m very encouraged by that because I think what people are realizing is that a university degree of any kind is great to have, but what’s more important is real life experience.

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So I think when people take the approach of getting a part-time MBA or an executive MBA, they’re amplifying some of the experience they already have, and as an employer, that’s what I really look for.

Someone who goes straight from a BA to an MBA who isn’t applying that sort of degree to a real world experience isn’t as impressive.

Q: You co-host the “Small Business Revolution” TV series, for which thousands of towns with fewer than 50,000 residents compete for a $500,000 marketing makeover and business revitalization advice. In Iowa, many smaller towns are home to just a few hundred people, if that. What observations have you made about how these communities can remain vital?

A: I always love sitting down with small businesses because I’m fascinated by why does one business succeed over another, why does one town succeed over the next, and I’ve heard a lot of different answers.

I think the most predominant answer and the commonality is aspiring. I’ve never met a great business that’s negative or a town that doesn’t feel it has a future. The wider question is how to instill positivity into a business that’s had a rough quarter or is losing money.

I think it comes down to the entrepreneur. ... As long as there’s hope, there’s vitality. I’ve never met a great business where the owner isn’t full of hope and optimism.

Q: You’ve spoken about how your family immigrated to Nova Scotia from Yugoslavia when you were eight years old. In your observation, do U.S. business leaders and government officials recognize the value of immigrants as a labor pool to the extent that they should?

A: I think immigration is going through a really hard time right now from a perception perspective. I think at our core, the greatest part of this country is built on immigration. Scratch below the surface not very far, and you have someone that came from somewhere.

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These shores have always been the bastion of hope for the world for hundreds of years. My dad really wanted to come to America when we fled the Communist country, but America wouldn’t let him in, and so we went to Canada.

Canada is a great country, but it was always his dream to come to America, where the streets are paved with gold.

I think it’s harder today and the issue is more complex but fundamentally, as a general perception, we need to get back to being that country of hope and holding out that hope for immigrants.

The immigrants are not taking our jobs — it’s things like automation, lack of skill, lack of education, lack of competitiveness that are taking some of our jobs. My view on it is, we just have to stop looking at immigration as a bad thing. I understand the complexity of the issue but I’m very bullish on immigration.

Q: What intrigues you the most for the future of business?

A: The spread of advanced technologies like 5G and the promise of that speed really excites me. I think when connectivity is accelerated and everyone is connected with things like Internet of Things, it allows me to compete with the biggest companies in the world from a place like Iowa without having to be there. That, for me, is super exciting.

The other thing that really excites me is the cost of money. I think the cost of money today in America is so low that if you can borrow money at 2 or 3 or 4 percent (interest) and grow my business by 20 percent, gosh, that’s a bet I’m willing to make all day long.

Q: Alternatively, what issues keep you up at night?

A: Particularly in our field, a lack of talented resources, and are communities investing enough in cyber talent or education? I think that’s easily fixed and that’s where local government can really help, if the government can give tools to highly skilled and qualified workers.

Kevin (O’Leary) on the show and I have this constant argument about the role of government in business, and his view is there is no role.

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I’m the opposite. I think the government, especially at a local level in most cases, is very bullish on entrepreneurs and helping people, putting education dollars to work and giving credits and things along those lines. I think we need more of that focus.

The biggest issue I see with small communities is they’re not doing enough marketing about small communities. How do I know I want to start or build my business in Iowa if I don’t hear about businesses that have had success in Iowa?

The best way to have success is to celebrate businesses that have been successful.

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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