When Marlene and I first discussed starting a home and lifestyle brand for the US Hispanic market, I was so enamored with the idea and confident that we would fill a vacuum in the market that we jumped in without thinking it through.
Looking back, our biggest mistakes were that we started without a business plan and underestimated how much money we would need to launch our venture. I initially believed the strength of our concept – combined with my experience in the television market and Marlene’s on-air experience – was all we needed to enlist a primary sponsor and move forward.
That thinking was naïve. It took eight years and several incarnations before our concept developed into Casa Latina and began to take off. When we started, I never could have imagined that being an entrepreneur and launching a venture would be a continuous journey, one that is as exhilarating as it is frustrating.
I am starting the Hispanic Entrepreneurs Series because I believe it is best to learn from those who ‘do’. I will be interviewing accomplished Hispanic entrepreneurs and business people to learn directly from individuals who took their dream to the next level.
If you have a burning, obsessive passion to make your idea/business venture a reality, if there is no other road for you, if everything is about making ‘IT’ happen, then welcome to the club! I wish you all the success in your venture and hope to have the opportunity to interview you once you make your dream a reality.
Interview Conducted and Edited By Nora Diaz Bretherton
Maritza Gutierrez Creator of the Maru and Friends Doll
WHAT IS YOUR CULTURAL AND PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND?
I was born in Cuba and my parents left when I was two years old. We lived in Spain then from Spain I went to the United States.
What I have been doing is advertising and marketing. I own an agency for 25 years in the South Florida area. I am also the current Chair of the Miami Dade Expressway Authority. That is an organization that runs the five major expressways here in South Florida. I also work with two social advocacy groups, one which (Community Partnership for the Homeless) is very dear to me and I have been involved with them since they started. It has been recognized as the model center for the way they work with the homeless.
Dolls have always been my passion. There is (something) so unique and special about dolls. I still remember my first doll and what my mom had to go through to be able to get that doll. We won it in a contest. So for me there is (something) unique about playing with a doll. It allows you to create ideas and fantasy and dream and develop yourself.
Maru is my nickname. So the name comes from the nickname my mom gave me and what I wanted to depict was a Latina girl and I wanted to capture her journey here in the United States. Then I wanted to depict a doll that not only can showcase and elevate the Latinos in this country but at the same time show how we have assimilated in the United States.
WHAT WAS THE PROCESS FROM THE IDEA OF MARU TO GETTING THE DOLL MADE IN TERMS OF RESOURCES AND TIME?
For me what I thought was a challenge or the barrier was the kind of money that I was going to need, not knowing how much a toy would cost. And I know if you were going to do a toy you had to do it right. You had to do it sort of to the max magnificent. Let it be fantastic and beautiful and something really special and unique. So I didn’t know the magnitude of money. So that was the biggest barrier. The idea was the easy part.
I knew what I wanted because for years my husband kept telling me, “Well, open up a doll company.” But I didn’t just want a doll company. I wanted something special. And in creating something special it was, “Let me create a unique doll with her friends. Let me write a book.” So that way it’s not just one book, it’s a series of many books where I can help to elevate the Latino message and at the same time elevate how important friendship is.
YOU HAD YOUR IDEA, YOU FINESSED IT INTO A WAY THAT YOU THOUGHT EXPRESSED THE EXPERIENCE WELL. THEN HOW DID YOU FIND THE FINANCING OR RESOURCES?
I think you start with your family. You’ve got to write the idea down. I wrote what it (Maru) was, what the doll was going to do, what else it would have, why it would be unique and all the different opportunities for it. And I gave a basic idea of how much I thought it was going to cost. I had no idea the investment factor, and yes, I was really off.
WHERE DID YOU START GETTING YOUR SEED MONEY FROM?
To tell you the truth I got my seed money from my husband, and my son also promised to give me money. They both were extremely encouraging. My son wanted me to quit my day job to do this. So he put a caveat to the money. There was never any talk of, “you pay me back.” It was always, “I’ll give you the money.” But my husband said, “I know you can’t quit your day job and this is going to take awhile. We’ll take it out of our earnings.”
AFTER THAT DID YOU PUT TOGETHER A BUSINESS PLAN?
I don’t have a full-fledged business plan. What I do have is a marketing plan, knowing from my point of view where I needed to take this company.
BUT YOU STILL HAD A PLAN?
Yes, I call it a blueprint because to me it was everything that I thought that I needed for the doll: how I would need to promote it, how I would open the (online) store and what elements the store needed to have.
YOU WENT THROUGH ALL THE CHANNELS TO TRADEMARK AND PROTECT YOUR INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS?
That is a journey that’s never ending. That’s something that I probably took just a year in that development because I didn’t go out to talk to anyone until I actually had everything trademarked.
AND DID YOU HAVE TO HAVE A PROTOTYPE?
No prototype. I had illustrations of what I wanted the product to look like and then I went out to trademark everything and copyright. And I obtained one of the leading law firms in the United States to be able to do all this. And I spent a lot of money doing so and I felt that is the first big step. As much as I wanted the product to be fabulous, I needed to do the legal aspect first and I needed to do that right before I went anywhere else.
MANY LATINOS ARE IMMIGRANTS OR WE HAVE IMMIGRANT PARENTS. SO WE SOMETIMES HAVE MORE OF A LEARNING CURVE WITH REGARD TO THE SYSTEM. HISPANICS REALLY NEED TO UNDERSTAND INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY BEFORE THEY EVEN THINK OF JUMPING INTO ANYTHING. WOULD YOU AGREE?
Absolutely, I mean it was extremely important. Once you have a wonderful idea and you think it’s wonderful, and you talk to ten other friends that are extremely successful and they themselves tell you what a wonderful idea you have, before you do anything you must protect your concept. And the only way to do it is to seek the help of a professional. If you don’t, you’re only hurting yourself. All the efforts would have gone to waste. I’ve always thought you have a good lawyer and a good CPA because those are things you just don’t know.
WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE ASPIRING LATINO ENTREPRENEURS WITH AN IDEA AND A DREAM?
It all starts with a dream. And it’s the American dream that you can achieve and the only barrier is the one that you yourself create.
If you tell yourself you can’t, of course you’re not. Why is anyone going to tell you the opposite? If you tell yourself you can, and even if it takes a long time, you need to have discipline and dedication that you want to succeed and you want to get out of the shell and do something different. And I don’t see a barrier.
Everyday there is a challenge but the challenge cannot be greater than you. Your discipline and your belief in what you want has to be greater than that challenge.