It’s 9:30 a.m. and Kevin Harrington’s voice is echoing off the raw brick walls of Toronto’s historic Burroughes Building. His dress shoes drum along hardwood floors as he enters the room, pinstriped and punctual. The millionaire-entrepreneur who created the world’s first infomercial is in town to launch his latest venture, Inventors Business Centre Canada. A boisterous introduction prefaces one modest request – a tall glass of water. “I woke up at 3:30 in the morning. I’m really just excited about the day,” says the founder and CEO of TV Goods. His dynamic spirit flows through the airy space.
Known as ‘the product guy,’ most people identify Harrington as one of five venture capitalists who star on ABC’s Shark Tank – a show that sees hopeful entrepreneurs pitch products and ideas to a panel of success-soaked investors. The reality series is heading into its second season this fall, but Harrington’s been a shark for almost 25 years. “I think what he’s done is rather remarkable. He’s figured out that television is a fantastic marketing platform,” says cast mate and venture capitalist Kevin O’Leary.
Since the mid-80s, Harrington has financed over 500 business and product start-ups resulting in sales of over $4 billion – more than 20 of those have had an excess of $100 million in sales individually. “He has enough energy for a small army. He’s the best hustler I know and is quick to size things up and move business along,” says fellow Shark Tankpanelist and real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran.
The 53-year-old Cincinnati, Ohio native has never been foreign to business. A stint selling newspapers on street corners at the age of 10 preceded a job with his dad, a local restaurateur who showed his son what 80-hour workweeks looked like. “He always preached to me, ‘Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket, you’ve got to have some extra income streams,’” says Harrington. The father-and-son tête-à-tête inspired him to pave a path of his own. At 15 he set out to seal driveways. “I would get the first one done in the neighbourhood and I would just walk and show people the before-and-after of the driveway. I would do 20 or 30 of them in a neighbourhood – it was unbelievable.” Not long after that, Harrington spearheaded a million-dollar business in heating and air conditioning. A lack of affinity for the trade eventually forced him to sell, but the entrepreneurial bug had taken a bite that would burn for a lifetime. Some might say that what happened next was either fluke or fate, but if you look at Harrington’s history, it seems almost inevitable.
Harrington’s nouveau riche bought him the time and financial liberty to seek an income producing opportunity that he was ardent about. “Part of being passionate is the ‘not giving up’ mentality, that is very important – stick to a plan. You almost have to have blinders on to reach success.” After months of side jobs and sifting through classified ads, he founded a business brokerage called Franchise America. Sitting at home watching television one day, he noticed that channels 29 and 30 were both running the exact same classified reel. A call to complain exposed the fact that the cable company simply didn’t have enough programming for both channels. “A light bulb went off and I thought, ‘well I run classified ads for businesses, how about if I put businesses on sale for channel 30?’” In one of those Hollywood moments where all stars align, the cable company not only agreed, but also granted him access to a studio with cameras. “I started buying cable time, national cable time, we were taking companies from five locations to hundreds worldwide. Then, people started coming to me with products … and it all turned around from there,” says Harrington, whose storytelling talents could keep the 15-minute attention span of a five-year-old engaged for hours. “It took off like crazy.”
Harrington is one of few in his field whose business card is teeming with personal contact information. “I’ll get a hundred phone calls from people, but I take those calls, and I’ll meet with those people for breakfast. I like to stay in touch with what’s going on in the world, and I also believe that when you give out, things are going to come back in a reverse fashion,” he says. This willingness to unlock all lines of communication is one of the rewarding rarities that make Harrington an industry anomaly. Most of the calls he receives are from impassioned entrepreneurs and inventors who have hopes of becoming the next Billy Mays or Tony Little – two of the famous infomercial faces that have Harrington to thank for their recognition and outrageous royalties.
Before he departs, he sifts through his briefcase and grabs a copy of his book Act Now!: How I Turn Ideas Into Million-Dollar Products. A few scribbles
later, Harrington hands over a hardcopy with his high-reaching character inscribed within: ‘Thanks for your time today – now let’s find a million-dollar product together … make that 10 million! Best regards.’
The sun spills through an oversized window, illuminating a presence that needs little light to shine.
Q&A with Kevin Harrington
Do you believe in fate?
Yes, but I believe it can be tweaked as you go.
What is your favourite quote?
There’s a quote that I live by and it’s an entrepreneurial one. It’s in my book. “Whatever you vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe and enthusiastically act upon must inevitably come to pass.” (Paul Meyer, businessman and author).
Aside from your work, what else are you passionate about?
My wife’s happiness, children’s futures and breaking 85 on the golf course!
Do you have a weakness?
I can see the other person’s side of the table and sometimes feel too much for them.
What does la dolce vita mean to you?
Work hard, play hard, live long and healthy.