While perhaps best known for his role as an investor on the hit show Shark Tank, Robert Herjavec doesn’t always, well, swim with sharks. VentureBeat caught up with him at the Google Garage in Silicon Valley, where he mixed it up with a room full of schoolkids eagerly pitching him their inventions. Instead of seeking investment from sharks like Barbara Corcoran and Mark Cuban, the kids were participating in Frito-Lay’s Dreamvention contest.
Born in Croatia, the 54-year old Herjavec immigrated to Canada with his parents at a young age. His taste for business came from delivering newspapers and went on to include selling IBM mainframes. In 1990, he founded his first company, BRAK Systems, and sold it 10 years later to AT&T for $30.2 million. After a three-year hiatus, Herjavec founded Internet security firm Herjavec Group in 2003. Before joining the cast of Shark Tank eight years ago, Herjavec had been a regular on Dragon’s Den, a Canadian version of the program.
VentureBeat sat down with Herjavec in an exclusive interview to discuss his partnership with Frito-Lay, Shark Tank, cybersecurity, and more. (This interview was conducted on February 27, 2017 and has been edited for clarity and length.)
VentureBeat: How did you get involved with the Dreamvention contest?
Robert Herjavec: I was in a store trying to buy some chips and this lady from Frito-Lay said “You don’t have to buy those, we’ll give them to you for free!” (laughs). This is something that’s very near and dear to my heart. It’s a great program to be involved with because it inspires entrepreneurship. Without a dream, you can’t create anything. You can’t create a better life, you can’t create a business, none of that.
VB: Do you enjoy interacting with kids?
Herjavec: I love working with kids, it’s one of the great things with Shark Tank. I don’t know if you know this but we’re the number one show on network television for families, which none of us saw coming! We thought it would be for young people aged 18 to 35.
VB: Would you want to see a Shark Tank just for kids?
Herjavec: We haven’t had an all-kids show, but we do see a lot of kids on the show. We’re seeing a real trend of kids believing they can start businesses. After eight years, we’re inspiring a whole new generation!
VB: Are they comfortable pitching in front of the Sharks?
Herjavec: You know, that’s a great question. We’ve never had a kid be nervous. We’ve had lots of adults be nervous and parents sweating like crazy! But the kids are very comfortable.
VB: So kids are less self-aware?
Herjavec: I think fear is a learned response. One of the things that holds a lot of people back is that they’re very self-conscious as they get older. Kids don’t have that.
VB: How were you as a kid? Were you already entrepreneurial then?
Herjavec: No, I was the complete opposite. I was scared of my own shadow. It took a lot of time for me to become comfortable. (Looks around the room). I mean look at these kids, they’re all so well-spoken. I actually don’t think these are children. I think Frito-Lay took 35 year olds and disguised them as children! (laughs).
VB: What about your children — are they entrepreneurial?
Herjavec: Well, I have three kids, and my youngest is 19. I like to think I was a great influence on them because they’re all in business!
VB: Let’s talk a bit about cybersecurity. There are a lot of different attacks today triggered by hackers but also some that are government-sponsored. It seems like it’s always shifting. So how can you prevent them?
Herjavec: I think we’ve moved away from stealing data for profit. It still happens as people take your credit card and identity, but the big trend now is data as ransom. Nation states doing it for political gain. I mean it’s a Cold War today with people getting caught for espionage. And so the best way to prevent that is to be able to monitor it through constant vigilance. So we’ve seen the industry move towards a managed service where you’re constantly monitoring your environment.
VB: So there isn’t one unified solution to counter cyberattacks?
Herjavec: No, and that’s the crazy thing about our industry. There are 1,600 new security products every year, but there are also thousands of new attacks.
VB: What about the Internet of Things (IoT)? These connected devices must be extremely vulnerable to cyberattacks.
Herjavec: You know, I just did a speech at Himss, which is the largest health care conference in the world, and somebody asked me a question about the Internet. I took out my phone and said “Do you know what this is?” The person said “A phone.” I said “No, it’s a weapon.” Everything that’s connected to the Internet is another way into your network. And what we’re seeing now with the Internet of Things is that non-traditional, non-computer technologies are being put onto the network. Things like heart machines. Do you know that doctors can now monitor heart pacers from an internet-connected device?
VB: Is the Herjavec Group addressing the IoT sector as well?
Herjavec: Yes, we monitor all those things by running large, secure data centers. We have one in Toronto, Ottawa, Los Angeles, London…
VB: I’m curious about your immigrant background. You moved from Croatia to Canada as a kid, and you’re now a well-known, successful entrepreneur. Today we see amazing entrepreneurs in emerging markets like Eastern Europe and I wonder: Would you advise them to move to the U.S. today in light of everything that’s happening? Or would you tell them to stay in their home country and build their business there?
Herjavec: You know, I built a hundred million-dollar company in Canada from zero. My team and I realized that you should start locally but expand globally. We expanded to the U.S. market three years ago and then in Europe and it’s massive. I mean, with the internet today you can start anywhere, but eventually, you have to be in the States. It’s the biggest market in the world.
VB: Especially to fundraise?
Herjavec: Yes to fundraise, but it’s more than fundraising. It’s innovation. And it’s not that there aren’t smart, innovative people around the world, but nobody rewards innovation like America. This really is the land of the dreamers. What other country encourages people to dream, to innovate, and to create? I mean look at the kids here. You know, where I grew up in Eastern Europe, if you created something, you weren’t considered as valuable as a traditional doctor or an engineer.
VB: And how’s the startup ecosystem in Croatia today? Do you keep track?
Herjavec: I do. It’s tough. Eastern Europe is tough, inflation is really high, unemployment is high…
VB: Do you go back sometimes?
Herjavec: I go back all the time!
VB: What was the best idea you heard today from the kids?
Herjavec: I wasn’t really listening to the kids because I was too busy eating chips! (laughs). No seriously, I love the idea of the helium backpack. Basically creating a lighter backpack by filling it with helium so that it actually rises up on your back. And the most fun idea was the snowball gun. You put water in it and it becomes a snowball. I can just see people on the Google campus shooting each other with snowballs!
VB: And is the idea behind this contest to turn these kids into entrepreneurs?
Herjavec: I think once a mind has expanded, it can never go back to its original size. So I think the idea is to really let them expand their minds to show them anything’s possible. And I have no doubt that some of these kids will achieve something great one of these days.
VB: They may come and pitch to you on Shark Tank one day!
At this moment, one of the kids gently interrupts us to ask Herjavec a question.
Kid: When I say “Airpack,” what do you think of in your head?
Herjavec: I think of a really cool backpack that allows you to glide above the ground at incredible speeds. I like the name!
VB: So do we. Thanks for your time!