How this important skill helped Barbara Corcoran turn a $1,000 loan into a $66 million empire

Barbara Corcoran
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Before her impressive resume included selling her real estate firm that sold for a reported $66 million and a spot on ABC's "Shark Tank," Barbara Corcoran didn't have a lot of money. What she did have was a lot of was creativity. And that was key in helping her turn a $1,000 loan into the a business empire.

Corcoran's humble beginnings included nine siblings and a cramped apartment in Edgewater, New Jersey, she revealed while sharing her story of success on NPR's podcast "How I Built This" in April. As a child, Corcoran wasn't an ace student, but instead of focusing on her scholarly shortcomings, her mother chose to celebrate her imagination.

"I remember distinctly when the nun from hell, Sister Stella Marie, told me I'd always be stupid. And I was so upset to hear that word 'stupid.' ... And my mother, said 'Oh, don't worry about it, with your imagination you'll learn to fill in all the blanks,'" explains Corcoran, who was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child.

"So I didn't learn to read or write but I thought, 'Oh, good I could fill in the blanks.' And I fell for it, you know? And she's right because I did have a good imagination, or at least maybe I learned to have it because of her."

Years later when she was in her 20s, that knack for imagination gave Corcoran the creative kick she needed to figure out how to navigate a business dilemma. While she was working as a receptionist for the Giffuni Brothers' real estate company in New York City, Corcoran's boyfriend at the time, Ray, fronted her some money and gave her a nudge to explore real estate sales. With a $1,000 loan in-hand, Corcoran and Ray started a firm.

"The only person I knew [in real estate] was Mr. Giffuni. And I asked him if he would just let me rent one of his apartments, the same building where I answer the phone every day. And he gave me a listing to try to rent apartment 3L," Corcoran shares on the podcast.

The situation was less than ideal; Corcoran described the listing as a "dungeon," and was confronted with the challenge of trying to rent out the apartment space for $330 a month. (It was the early 1970s.)

"But when I saw the listing and looked in The New York Times and saw reams and reams of ads that read identically one bedroom, $340; one bedroom, $335; one bedroom — it was all the same. I'm thinking, How do I spend my three-line head wisely? Because remember, I had a thousand dollars," Corcoran says.

Corcoran looked beyond the four walls of that apartment and got creative. She asked Mr. Giffuni if he would build a half-wall to serve as a divider.

"And he said — yeah, he'd build a wall. And I got it [rented] for him because my ad then read 'one bedroom and den' for the same price that everybody else was offering a one bedroom. And I got — that first Sunday, I must have gotten 60 phone calls from prospective tenants," Corcoran says recalls.

Since then, Corcoran has leaned on that creativity. In 1993, for example, when Corcoran started selling real estate online, she would register all the URLs of her competitors who had a brand, the real estate tycoon tells Fortune.

"I didn't charge them for the URL. I just wanted them to call and ask for it so that I'd know when the competition started selling online," Corcoran tells Fortune.

She also cultivated that creative culture at her company, The Corcoran Group, and it served as a critical component when building her real estate empire.

"We had bizarre ... probably today maybe illegal-type parties, I don't even know the way I had people dress for them at all. But we had parties galore. We had spontaneous events. All I did was think of, 'What can we do that's fun?'" Corcoran tells Business Insider.

Why? "[W]hen you get people laughing their asses off and drinking too much and dressing in things that they've never dressed in before, guess what happens? You wind up with a creative company." she says.

It's still important to Corcoran's success today. Recently, she tweeted: "Business is the most creative sport in the world. If you can dream it, you can actually make it happen."

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