Kevin Harrington is best known as one of the original sharks from the Emmy winning TV show “Shark Tank” and has been a successful entrepreneur over the last 40 years.
Kevin has launched over 20 businesses that have grown to over $100 million in sales each. Kevin has been involved in more than a dozen public companies, and has launched over 500 products generating more than $5 billion in sales worldwide. As the inventor of the Infomercial, he created the most powerful Info marketing company called: As Seen On TV and his products are in big box stores all over the world.
Kevin Harrington Inventing the Infomercial and Shark Tank
I have a very, very special guest. He’s a gentleman who I’ve had some experience with over the years helping build businesses, but you know him already. His name is Kevin Harrington. If you don’t know him, that means you never watch Shark Tank and that means you never bought a product from As Seen on TV, because that’s his company. He started that company and he took that company and parlayed it into a half-billion dollar organization. Kevin’s bio is about seventeen pages long but suffice to say that this guy is the picture of success. On top of that, he didn’t get there easy. He got there hard just like you and I have. I have him here on this episode to tell us the story, a little bit about how he got there but also about some of the things that didn’t quite work out. Welcome to the show, Kevin.
Great to be here. Thanks, Mitch.
Take us to the point when you were just starting out and basically think of everybody who’s thinking, “I could never be like that.” Take us back to the point when you were just like the rest of us getting started.
There are two starts. My first start was when I was fifteen being an entrepreneur during the summer months. I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. I’ll talk about my background pre-infomercials, then I’ll talk about the infomercial start. I think it’s important to understand that I had a father who was an entrepreneur. He had restaurants, he had Harrington’s Irish Pub, he had a steak house, he had a catering hall and different food establishments. When I was eleven, I started working for him and he stressed that he wanted me to be entrepreneurial. Not necessarily in the restaurant business, but he opened my mind to opportunities. A lot of people today, they have a closed mind. I say that you have to want it. The same two people can walk into a trade show and one with an open mind, one with a closed mind, and the open-minded person is going to find all the opportunities there, the close-minded person is going to say, “That was a terrible show. I didn’t see anything.” The first thing my father taught me is, “Be very curious, be very open, look for opportunities, and don’t keep all your eggs in one basket.” I started a business when I was in high school. Then I started a business when I was in college. In college, it took off. I had 25 employees, $1 million a year. This was back in the ‘70s. On today’s times, that’s $3 million or $4 million in sales if you think of 25 people while you’re going to class. That was the early days but I was lucky. I had a mentor. I had a coach. His name was Charlie Harrington, my father.
Many people don’t have that luxury. I’ve had some tough times. I’ve had some grind-out situations over the years but the good news is I was fortunate enough to have the good advice. I got into this As Seen on TV business because I was keeping an open mind. So many folks would look and say, “Kevin’s gotten billions of dollars in sales and hundreds of products.” I was at the bottom of the barrel at one time because we had no products, we had nothing. I would go to trade shows, and it’s all in how you approach people. One day, I ran into this guy, Arnold Morris, and he’s cutting through a Coca-Cola can and a hammerhead and a muffler with a knife in his hand. It was the Ginsu knife. I said, “Arnold, that is an amazing pitch.” To this day, I still do about 30 trade shows a year. I always recommend that if you sit at home and say, “Nothing ever comes to me and I never find any good opportunities,” shame on you. Get out there. Go beat the streets, beat the bushes, go to the shows, speak, network, join organizations, etc. Then I said to Arnold, “I’m going to film that and put it up on TV.” The rest is history. I met him at a trade show that I just happened to be going to a bunch of. I did five trade shows in January from consumer electronics show to another electronics. There were shows with a lot of consumer electronic things and video shows in the early days, but now there’s the Housewares Show in Chicago and the hardware show and the fitness show and the beauty show, and the golf PGA show and the Toy Fair, and etc. You’ve got to keep your eyes open. I was lucky to get a good start, but if you don’t have a father that can teach you, get a good mentor. That’s one of the best points.
The point I wanted to make here is that you were open. You walked into that trade show with the attitude of, “I’m here to find something that I can build a business around or find a way to make money with.” Right there is probably the primary lesson about business and life, it’s basically you get what you believe. If you don’t believe something good is going to happen, then it’s not. Same as the opposite. Kevin, it’s hard for us to pinpoint your first 1,000 clients because, truthfully, you probably aired one TV commercial and you got 1,000 clients. Ultimately, the build-up of your company came with experimentation. You tried things. I know Arnold did his shtick exactly like he did it on the floor of a trade show on TV, and you didn’t have him change a single thing. What about the some of the ones that didn’t? What did you learn as you were coming up in this business?
Let’s not talk about 1,000 customers. I got a 1,000 customers real fast with Arnold, but how did I go find 1,000 Arnolds? That’s where I duplicated that success. There are a couple of things. I met Arnold at the Philadelphia Home Show. We got talking and I said, “Arnold, there are probably some other guys that do what you do. You sell knives.” He said, “Kevin, there’s Billy Mays who sells automotive stuff. There’s Sandy Mason who sells kitchen stuff. There’s John Parkin who sells gadgets. How would you like to meet all of five people? On one condition, I want a commission if I bring them to the table.” Instead of me saying, “No way,” which some people have that closed mind, like “I’ll go meet them myself.” In literally one week, Arnold started making dozens and dozens of major introductions. All of a sudden, I’m shooting shows with all these people. Talk about the first 1,000 clients, I went from Arnold, to Billy, to Sandy, to Tony Little, to George Foreman, to Jack LaLanne, to all these people, and it was because I was networking and marketing myself. I was getting publicity that I was getting out there and getting placed as the new marketing guy to take your business or product to an unbelievable level with this new concept called infomercial. Then we took them international. When I opened in London, I started getting calls from Anthony Sullivan, the guy that is now the OxiClean guy. Anthony Sullivan walked into my office, he was a 24-year-old kid, and said, “I’m watching all these American pitchmen all across England, pitching on your TV channel. I can pitch. Let me do it.” We started to network and we got Japanese pitchmen, we got South American pitchmen, we got European pitchmen, Germans and Italians and Frenchmen and Englishmen and Swedish pitchmen. Now we went to the 1,000 because we were doing this on a global basis. It’s all about duplicating your efforts in a strategic fashion.
As you know, it doesn’t always work the first time or the same way. I’ve got to bet that there are going to be people that you had a good feeling about and said, “This guy is going to be amazing,” and then it’s a total bomb. You probably had invested several hundred thousand dollars just to get that show filmed and on the air.
We got tied up at one point. We started in a very effective manner, low-budget TV. I’d spend $2,000, $3,000, $5,000, $10,000, $20,000. I’d shoot a full 30-minute infomercial. When we shot the first hour of Shark Tank, it was a $1 million budget for one show. When I was shooting my shows, I’m shooting them for under $20,000, but at a point, we started seeing celebrities like George Foreman, Jack LaLanne, and Tony Little. It was starting to pop, so we started getting into the whole celebrity world. This is where it got dangerous and we started making some mistakes. We gave Joan Collins $50,000 for a beauty product. She was terrible. She didn’t even believe in the product. She didn’t like the product. We didn’t find this out until the day of the shoot. She was like, “I’m not going to endorse this,” after she cashed our $50,000 check. She said, “I’m only going to host this show. The $50,000 is for my hosting fee. It’s not for my endorsement fee.” That cost me $250,000 on top of the $50,000 and it just went down the toilet. I got caught up with Chubby Checker who bought me a fitness product. He swore that he was going to lose a bunch of weight before the shoot, and he still came in a little bit chubby. I was like, “I should have never put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a fitness product with a guy named Chubby.” I’ve made all the mistakes in the world. I hired too many people. I built too much infrastructure. All of a sudden, I felt like I need to own my own fulfillment, my own studio, my own customer service center, my own media company. I had 500 employees. It was ridiculous. It was stupid. We were losing money in some of these divisions that could have been profitable. The bottom line is we also got caught up in the celebrity world and made a lot of mistakes. We always had to go back to the core strength of selling the product. You’ve got to sell the product. We were masters of that. Every time we went back to that, it always worked.
It’s interesting because I think what you’re saying is a fundamental truth. What you’re basically saying is sell first, build later. When you get those two reversed or backwards, then the thing blows up because you never get the chance to find what truly will sell well if you’ve invested too much in infrastructure. I was with you, we were filming at your studio for that course that we did together and I was blown away by the size of that place. That’s your studio and I felt like it’s just sitting there.
I’ve since sold it. That was 35,000 square feet. I bought it at the right price. The guy that built it put $15 million into it. I bought it for $2.3 million, but everything that he had put in there was outdated. He had cameras, he had edit suites, but it all had to be upgraded to digital. The $2.3 million was basically buying the shell, the building. We needed another $2 million to go into equipment and stuff. As we got about halfway through that, I realized, “I’m not in the business of production. I’m in the business of selling.” If you want to be a producer, go to Hollywood. If you want to be a seller, come to St. Pete, Florida. That’s what HSN does and that’s what I do. I said to myself, “We’re spending all our time hiring people that can produce shows for publics and for this and for that, and all these different companies.” We’d spend 60 days to get the deal and 60 days to shoot everything, and then 60 days to edit it. It’s a six-month process for $50,000. Even if it was $100,000, who cares? I could spend $10,000 on an infomercial and go do $100 million in sales.
As you discovered, you don’t actually need to own the physical landscape in order to do it. When you bought that property and you knew that you got it for a good price, did you also know that you had another several million to invest in infrastructure to get it up to date?
When we first bough it, it was adequate to shoot shows. This digital thing happened about a year after we bought it. When we first bought it, everything was fine. All studios were on the same level. This is the thing about production. If you stick around for a week, a year, there’s always a new editing system. There’s always a new camera. What happened here was the whole world went digital and HD. The first word came back about a year in that the biggest PBS station in town, the one that does all those telethons for money, they got all the money because it’s public broadcasting. They converted their entire studio, a $4 million retrofit of all the wiring, all the cameras, all the edit suites, and they were now getting all the projects because they were the only digital studio HD in the city. Every other studio was like, “We’re going to be out of business if we don’t switch.”
I was still able to shoot infomercials on the old analog systems, but they said, “You’ve got eighteen months and TV stations aren’t going to take analog anymore. They all have to be HD.” That’s when I said, “I’ve got eighteen months to sell this place.” Right when we were shooting was when this transition was happening. There were a couple of guys working with me there. They wanted to own their own place. They figured out a way to do it. They knew they were going to have to invest, but they were worker types, had to barter and this and that, and do the wiring themselves. They bought it, it’s called Bluewater Media. They’re doing unbelievable now. It’s a great transition for me because I had 25 or so employees inside that big studio, we were losing money every month, and it was a big headache. One day, the roof would fall in and we’d have leaks all over the place. The less headaches, the better for me as a business man. We shut down over time. I shut down my fulfillment center and contracted that out. I sold my studio and contracted that out. We did the same thing with our customer service center or our phone centers. Anything that we didn’t need to control which is more the creative side, we contracted out. In fact, Virgin Airlines, as a business, they’re contracting out everything that isn’t customer facing, because they don’t want to have the headaches, the overhead, and the trouble of having employees, unless it’s dealing with customer-face type situations. That’s my mentality also.
The lesson here is focus on what you do best. What you do best, Kevin, is you find great products and you get them on the air and you make money for everybody. That’s your primary focus. What’s nice about having this discussion with you Kevin, it’s obvious that you didn’t get to that immediately. It took you a while to figure it out. Luckily, you had enough success along the way to absorb some of the downside. This is the value of having some wisdom behind you when you start. If you get this upfront, then you won’t make these mistakes.
I agree totally, because I think I’ve gone down paths, down this one, down this one and made huge mistakes by spending time on deals that I shouldn’t have. That’s what I bring to the table when I mentor or consult with people who are coming to me. I say, “I’ve been there, done it made the mistakes in almost every industry that you can think of.” I pride myself on being able to have this little crystal ball of “What’s the best way to go with this particular venture?” I hit my 60th birthday. I’m an old entrepreneur. I spent my first 30 years of life trying to figure out, “What I do want to do?” Then I got into the infomercial business. Then I spent the next 30 years building massive businesses and having a lot of success. That takes me to today. I’m spending my next 30 years counseling, mentoring, coaching entrepreneurs and then partnering where it makes sense to have a little fun along the way. I don’t need it, I don’t have to do it, I’m happy where I am. I’m doing what I want to do and that’s to focus with the people who can really build something special. Having dealt with the Joan Collins and Chubby Checkers and Chubby is a great guy but that particular deal wasn’t the one that was going to work between us. I’m not talking bad about anybody. I’m just saying that there are mistakes I’ve made that I’ve learned from. Now, I’m able to help other people as we go forward, learning from my mistakes.
I’m in the same place as you, we’re about the same age and I am evolved to the point where this is even why I’m doing this. I’m doing this to give back. I know there are entrepreneurs out there who started a business and get a little stuck and don’t know how to take it to the point of success. How could they possibly have access to someone like you? That’s why this show exists and I’m so glad that you’re here with me on this show. You talked a little bit about your mistakes, which was fun to hear, and you talked about your success which was amazing. If you were sitting in front of somebody and they had 300 or 400 clients and they’re two years into their business and they’re slogging through it, not sure what the next thing would be, and it doesn’t even have to be any kind of business, what idea or mindset would you communicate? How would your counsel this individual?
There are a couple of ways to go with that. Sometimes quantity doesn’t make happiness. I’ll give you a good example from my own learning curve. I started a speaking business about five years ago. It started taking off more here in the last two to three years. Quantity of speeches doesn’t necessarily make for a great business. It’s the quality and it’s the groups that you’re talking to, etc. I know people that used to have 300 clients, and they were driving themselves crazy because it’s like a one-armed paper hanger and their head is spinning all day long. When they back it down to about 20 or 30 high-quality clients and then upped the level of support and also upped the amount of money that they charge, their business and their life became a lot simpler and more fulfilling. That’s one of the things that I would say. You do need the 1,000-client base to gain all the information so you can be a good consultant or a coach or a mentor, but at the same time, you don’t want to be coaching and mentoring 1,000 on a daily or weekly basis because you’re going to drive yourself crazy. I used to shoot 50 infomercials a year. That’s one a week. I had the studio. I had this engine that I had to feed. I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of infomercials. I’d say over 500, but really it’s now over 1,000, so I got the 1,000 clients. I had learned quite a bit. Why feed an engine over and over and over just because you have to? I now say, “I don’t care about doing about one a week. I focus on the core winners. I focus on the ones that I want to.” Last year, I probably did about eight to ten and they’re higher-quality, they’re more focused, they’re with more thought and planning. I’d rather hit three or four out of eight or ten than hit six out of 50, because all the time and effort you spend on those 44 that didn’t work, drives you crazy.
I run maybe twelve, thirteen clients a year, so I’m in total agreement with you. What I heard, which is interesting for me to point out here, is that you basically had an ascension plan to the way you built your life and your business and your career. You may have started with one a week and you ended with ten a year, but now, the ones you do are worth far more money to you, and at the same time are higher-quality. I bet you enjoy them a whole lot more as well. Am I right?
Yeah. Just getting back to the speaking, I’m focused more on maybe eight or ten key relationships now. Probably five to eight key relationships are 90% of what I do now, instead of literally dozens and dozens of people and places. There’s a little bit of a learning curve in the world of speaking and coaching and getting out there,, so you’ve got to get out there and do some things. You also have to be careful how you do it, and the brand is important. I was up at Providence, Rhode Island, at Bryant University where we had Harvard students, Yale students, Bryant University. There were eight colleges that came together for an event that I did. That is a special kind of event that I love doing. If we’re going to make an event up there, let’s bring not just one college, let’s get eight colleges. I said, “Let’s open this thing up to others.” They’ve done this on a regular basis. In the past, they’d have about 100 people show up for their event, and this time it was almost 500 people that came and it was an amazing event. It’s about quality and not quantity.
When you do something, you sure do it right. I’d like to know what you’re passionate about today. What can you share with us about what you’re doing, what is driving you today, and how can others find out more about that or be involved?
There’s a digital disruption happening in the world. It’s no secret. When radio and TV launched, it took 30-plus years for radio to get to 50 million listeners and TV took thirteen years. When Facebook hit, they got the 50 million people in a couple of years. Pokémon GO app got the 50 million downloads in fifteen days. It’s digital. The world has changed. How many IPOs by 26-year-olds came out at $30 billion, like Snapchat did recently, ten years ago? How many 26-year-old billionaires do we have out there now? Quite a few. I was doing driveway, ceiling, and heating and air-conditioning. These billionaires today are doing it digitally. This provides opportunity for all of us. TV viewership is dropping while digital and mobile is going like this, so I’ve shifted gears. Five years ago, 80% of my business was TV, 20% was digital. Now, 80% of my business is digital, 20% is TV. It’s a complete shift. We’re launching products on Facebook, on Pinterest, on Instagram Stories, on Facebook Live, doing amazing things. Anybody that’s out there that has any product or service, we’re generating leads for big companies. We’re selling products for big companies, small companies, small-time entrepreneurs, investors and there’s a great opportunity. We’ve launched a new company called Quantum Media, and it’s taken off in a very successful fashion. Keep your eyes and ears open for us. Quantum is going to be a force to be reckoned with.
If people wanted to present to you a product that they are trying to market, are you open to that? Is that what you’re looking for?
We’re not doing the 50 a year anymore. In the old days, we did 50 a year. Now, we’re more selective. We’re somewhere in that neighborhood. Now that we’re expanding a little bit, we’re probably going to be stepping it up to about fifteen to twenty new projects that we’re going to be taking on. We’re very selective. If somebody’s got a great idea, product, service or business, we’re interested in hearing from them. We invest money if it’s needed, we’ll raise money if it’s needed, all different kinds of options.
How would someone get a hold of you or connect to the people that do the evaluation with you and for you?
It’s special to you and I when I give this email. It’s Kevin@KevinHarrington.TV. My website is KevinHarrington.TV. You can go to the website and you can fill out a form there also. If you go direct to the email, Kevin@KevinHarrington.TV, you’ll get directly through to me and my top people, my son and I, who evaluate the first level of opportunities.
I know that everyone is probably scrambling to write that down. Kevin, we end every interview with one simple question. This is what I call the ‘change the world’ question. What are you doing or would like to do, if you were to take it ten years into the future that would literally change the world in the next decade?
I’m the entrepreneur’s entrepreneur, if I could call myself that. The earlier on that we can educate our kids on how to think openly, creatively, to think about solving some of the world’s problems, I’m not going to tell you that I have the idea to change the world. Let me go empower a million kids to be thinking about how to change the world. By the time we get ten years down the road, those kids are in either their teens or their twenties and now they’re changing the world. That’s what I would do. I would teach the youth of America how to think creatively and interestingly enough. I hope this ideation on transformation thinking experiences, and they’re Shark Tank style. I did it in Auburn University with the kids. I took pitches. We called it ‘come into the tiger cage, on the shark cage.’ What are your ideas? Let’s empower the kids. I’m doing it in high schools, I’m doing it in grade schools, I’m doing it in colleges. I just did one in Philadelphia at Sanofi Pharmaceuticals, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, a $100 billion company. Empowering the youth of America to come up with ideas that will change the world, instead of feeding them the fish, it’s teaching them how to fish. That’s the goal that I’ve got because I’m working with a lot of the youth now. I’m doing a lot more things at those younger levels. I’m involved with the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization. It’s called CEO. It’s housed at the University of Tampa, and we’re in over 400 colleges around the United States, empowering collegiate entrepreneurs to do exactly what you just said. That’s my passion, that’s my focus and that’s me giving back. This is a non-profit organization. I don’t own equity in it. I just counsel, work with, teach, and help the young college entrepreneurs of America. I’ve done a few high schools and a few grade schools, but formally, I’m involved in the CEO doing amazing things on a monthly basis with them.
This is really what entrepreneurism is about. It’s about lifting your own spirits and then bringing everybody else with you. That’s what makes a better world. Kevin, you are the picture of the most perfect and professional entrepreneur that I can imagine. It’s been such a pleasure chatting with you. I just can’t believe how wonderful the things you’re doing are and how much you’re going to be enriching everybody who hears you speak. Thank you, Kevin, for attending and being with me. I really enjoyed your company.
Mitch, great to be here. Good luck to you. Our paths keep crossing all the time and it’s great always to see you. Thanks for having me.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode: