Being an immigrant led Robert Herjavec, 54, to grow up fast. His family moved from Croatia to Canada, and by the time he was 10, they relied on him to read their apartment lease. Later, he talked his way into a tech company before starting his own ventures. His cybersecurity firm, the Herjavec Group, has $130 million in 2015 revenue, and Herjavec has become a TV personage, on Shark Tank and Dancing With the Stars, where he was a recent contestant. His story:
I came from Croatia, where my dad would tell me he was a political prisoner. He’d drink a little too much, say bad things about Communism, and got thrown into jail 22 times for being an anti-Communist. In 1970 he escaped from jail, grabbed my mom and me, and we hightailed it out of there. I was 8 years old.
We planned to emigrate to the U.S., but our papers weren’t accepted. However, Canada opened its arms to us, perhaps because we had family there, so we arrived with one suitcase and $20. We then found a friend of my mom’s and lived in the basement of their house in Toronto for 18 months before moving to a three-room apartment. My parents and I didn’t speak any English. Those years were painful and difficult. My parents depended on me a lot. When we got the apartment, I was 10 and had to read the lease for them. When I was 13, I had to help them get a mortgage to buy a small house. As an immigrant, where you live is a big deal. Only people who come from nothing really appreciate this.
My dad worked in a factory, and I was the poorest kid in my class. I looked different, and people made fun of me. It forced me to mature really fast and gave me an insatiable desire for betterment. The chip on my shoulder never went away.
I went to the University of Toronto and, after graduating, I went to work for a TV station in 1984. They needed someone who spoke [Serbo-Croatian], which I do, to cover the XIV Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, so I became a field producer. I had no idea what I was doing, but I got the job done.
My head got really big, and when I came back, I thought I’d be the next great film director. I ended up getting the third assistant director position for a movie called The Return of Billy Jack and discovered that entertainment is a crazy industry. One day, my best friend at the time complained that he didn’t get this job with a tech company that was going to pay $30,000 a year. In 1985, that was a lot of money, so I decided to interview for it.
The job was selling IBM
mainframe emulation boards for a startup called Logiquest. I didn’t know anything about business or computers, but I [persuaded the founder to hire me]. I became fascinated. I like playing with devices, I like change, and I’m a little hyper, so I did well. I learned complicated concepts and how to sell to people who didn’t have a technical background. I worked my way up to being president of Logiquest in my twenties. I love to run things, and I found the minutiae of running the business fascinating.
I ended up leaving to go into business with a guy, but it didn’t work out, so I started BRAK Systems in 1990. We were integrators, taking other people’s technology and integrating it into companies. We were competing against large companies like Sun and IBM, so the biggest challenge was figuring out how not to be a small business. I had to convince engineers from big companies to come work for me. I understood that people don’t want to work somewhere. They want to be part of something. They don’t want to be managed. They want to be led. So I made work fun, and they came.
As we grew, I had to get a second mortgage and use credit cards to expand. People say you should pay yourself first, but a business is a living entity, so I paid the employees first, and we became profitable.
Back then, Internet companies had massive valuations, and we became a hot commodity. In 2000, AT&T
Canada made me an incredible offer of $30.2 million, so I sold BRAK Systems to them.
My wife at the time wanted to go back to work, so I stayed home with the kids. It was the best experience. But I missed running my own company, so in 2003, I put up $20,000 and started the Herjavec Group with a couple of guys I’d worked with. We tried different things; many of them didn’t work. We tried to sell tech to customers who were already buying a product from someone else. We learned that nobody ever leaves “good enough” for “potentially better.” So we started selling newer tech and were one of the first to get into antispam products.
In 2007 we decided that managed security, as opposed to just selling the products, would become big. We started getting bigger, but all our sales were in Canada. So 2½ years ago we increased our presence in the U.S., bought a company in the U.K., and moved into Australia. Today, 35% of our business is outside Canada.
Data is the modern weapon. Protecting anyone is impossible. The game has changed to response time. We want to know the minute a breach occurs. Our company has worked on things like the data breach of a U.S. company by a foreign government and bringing a hospital back up that had been shut down by ransomware.
My leadership style is inspiring, empowering—and dictatorial when I need to be. I’m a great guy to work with 98% of the time. The other 2%, you’re going to do it my way. In tech, you don’t have time for indecision or to make decisions by committee. It’s always clear where the buck stops.
I have almost 300 employees now, and our culture is about always doing better. That competitive drive is an extension of me as the founder. The passion to better one’s life is not just an American dream. It’s a commonality among all people. I have a tremendous amount of pride in seeing my name on the office door.
How to improve your company’s cybersecurity
Robert Herjavec, CEO and founder of Herjavec Group
Know the state of your network. Most breaches occur over time. Hackers want to get in and poke around for a while to learn the flow of your network. By the time you find out, they’ve already extracted data.
Logs, logs, logs. Every time you hit a keystroke, it creates an electronic fingerprint. With the Internet of things, the amount of data generated is incredible. We monitor far more than 100 billion logs daily. So make sure you have a way to correlate your logs in one place.
Do an external audit every year. Have a process to analyze your data, apply analytics, and have humans involved in it. Don’t just rely on an internal team. Hire an outside firm for objective findings.
A version of this article appears in the December 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Before He Was a Shark.”