In recent weeks, news about Puerto Rico and its deepening economic crisis have occupied the attention of major U.S. publications: in sum, things are so bad everyone seems to be leaving the Island. I am one those Puerto Ricans who left (over a decade ago) but am also striving to find the silver lining. This is why when I heard the interview of Alan Taveras on the local podcast Empresarios I had to find out more about his initiative to promote Puerto Rican businesses.
Instead of planning their escape from the Puerto Rico, Alan and his brother Nestor Guarien Taveras not only stayed but also saw an opportunity to target the disapora while promoting local products through Brands of Puerto Rico. This virtual marketplace or as Alan calls it “the Amazon of Puerto Rican products” started a year ago.
The Taveras brothers, who have MBAs and attended the Founder Institute, were already building success with their Très Epic agency, a programming firm which provides services to advertising agencies in Puerto Rico. These agencies though, were big international brands.
Based on their own experience abroad (Guarien studied at Boston University while Alan went to Argentina’s University of Palermo), they saw there were consumers eager to get products from home and decided to launch the start up which has gained traction through the combination of traditional and digital marketing.
During a visit to their offices in Puerto Rico, I spoke with Alan about the importance of branding and advertising. We started the conversation talking about the origins of Brands of Puerto Rico.
Note: The interview has been edited for space.
… It was early March or the last days of February of 2014, it was the first time the bonds of Puerto Rico were downgraded to junk and the diaspora groups and every newspaper were talking about how (messed up) we were or how many people left Puerto Rico… (My brother and I) used to take one Friday each month to just throw ideas on the board like what type of startup we can do, because Très Epic was made for us to have capital to live and to invest in our ideas. That was the mission from the start… (One day) My brother was reading out loud an article… It said like monthly roughly 3,000 Puerto Ricans were leaving on those days to the states, mainly Florida as always. A lot of people were alarmed on this, it was like a crisis, my Facebook newsfeed was depressing to say the least.
(…) We started to look at that as an opportunity because since we were little, everyone would tell us Puerto Rico is a small market, entrepreneurs will never make it here and that’s why the big companies here are the distributors, because there is no space to create something new. So we started looking at that, (and also) we came across the fact that almost 5 million of people from Puerto Rico were living in the states. Suddenly it is an appealing market that nobody was thinking about. Everyone was focusing on how bad it was, but for us it was a good sign.
We started to research on local brands. There are a lot of people doing cool things in Puerto Rico, no one knows about them and they don’t have online presence. It was like connecting the dots… (We decided to) make a marketplace for local entrepreneurs to sell to that diaspora.
In terms of your marketing mindset, did you acquire that thanks to the Founder institute?
Founder Institute is really really tough on first, build the market. For example, with Brands of Puerto Rico we did not write a line of code until we had like a thousand followers on Facebook. So first, build that market and if it gets traction, build the product. That helped us create this fast and at really low cost.
How did you reach out to the people in the diaspora?
I don’t know if its something that is happening right now or if our idea had the prefect timing but suddenly the idea got a great response. (Local TV channel) WAPA featured us, we got an interview with CNN en español… It’s mostly organic, we have not an invested in marketing, I have to be honest on that… We have a saying here ‘try until you get it’ so every day we called the newspapers, every TV channel, ‘interview us, interview us’ until they said yes. Now what we do is invest a little bit and it is really targeted; we do digital marketing which is our forte, our knowledge. For example, I target campaigns to people in Orlando, I target campaigns to people in Brooklyn, New York and I can maximize the performance of my dollar to get to those people.
Also our biggest, biggest, biggest marketing weapon is word of mouth. If your cousin bought it in New York and he told all of his friends, it spreads.
In term of the overall idea, during the interview with the podcast you were wondering why it did not occurred to anyone before.
It’s a pretty simple concept. A lot of people tell me, ‘you are doing such innovative stuff’ but I don’t find that we are this breakthrough technology; its e-commerce. E-commerce has been here for decades. For me it’s a pretty simple idea to sell Puerto Rican brands to people from Puerto Rico outside of Puerto Rico.
Perhaps is the mentality that when it comes to producing something in the Island, people think just about the local market and they don’t really think in terms of outside markets.
Maybe it was that. Maybe it was the influence my brother and I had studying abroad that we see the world as a marketplace and not just Puerto Rico.
In term of finding the products locally and developing those relationships with local vendors, how do you do that?
In the first days it was almost impossible: imagine some kid coming to you telling that he is going to build a platform, it’s not even built, going to let you sell stuff for free and only charge you in transactions. We had a database of 300 brands and only 30 brands on our launch on July 11 (of 2014). Now because of the hype of the PR (public relations) people come to us, but in the first months we took a lot of nos: ‘Are you crazy?’, ‘You are going to sell on the Internet?.’
It’s been real fun because we have a lot of people that work on agriculture, that don’t have technology knowledge and we even sit down with them and open a Paypal account. I opened Paypal accounts for Antojitos de Mango, (the owner) is like 80 years old but for me he is the one of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever known. He has so much knowledge, always with a smile in his face… Not everyone has this opportunity to learn a lot from the people who have been doing this their whole lives.
In regards of what you are doing now, is there some sort of model that you look up to in other countries that’s doing this as well?
Right now it’s a cool moment for us as a company. Brands of Puerto Rico is one year old and thanks to everything that has happened and the trust that these brands have put in us, we are starting to grow, not only to grow on the amount of companies we have in Puerto Rico, but we as a company are starting to expand to other markets.
We are about to launch Brands of Argentina, and Brands of Nicaragua. From my connections in Argentina, we are in conversation with some venture capitalists who are interested in putting money on the company for us to start building franchises on every market…We are going to implement what we learned here in this whole year.
What are your particular goals for Brands of Puerto Rico?
For Brands of Puerto RIco and for Brands of -I am starting to think as the Brands of concept and not just Brands of Puerto Rico,- is to create the biggest quality oriented catalogs of brands and products of Latin America, and supply to that diaspora in the United States… Basically show the world that not everything is big brands in multinational companies, that good things are made by people who work in modest ways and they do deserve a chance. I think Brands of and our platform is a tool to give them the chance, that equal plane level field. For example, if you want a t-shirt you can buy Sotomayor which is local entrepreneur instead of going to Pac Sun in a mall.
How many brands do you have?
I have 80, I counted 2 weeks ago… but we have a pipeline. Let me tell you the process: you (as company) learn from us and we learn about you. We have a formal phone call or email and you come here to our offices with the product. We do the screening to see if it’s good quality, if it’s local brand, if that person is registered in the government, that is really important. We do a photo shoot free of cost for that brand and those photos, once they are properly edited, are uploaded to our e-commerce platform. We do a blog post, we do a social media post… Our business model is transaction based, we make 20% of each transaction.
If they are not registered, do you help them?
We help them with everything… We’ve done logos for people… A lot of people tell me ‘you are not supposed to that.’ If they don’t have a standard they are not going to sell, so it’s really important for me personally and for the company to make these entrepreneurs think and act upon their brand. A product is a product until you build a brand around it.
Is that something often people forget, to market their brand?
I’ve talked to so many entrepreneurs in the last year, I learned that different to how we think, people out there think the product is the star. For me, because I studied Advertising and then in Business I concentrated in Marketing, for me what is the star is the brand. You can sell this pen, anything, if you have a brand around it, if your communication is good, if your look is good. I think like that. But I learned most entrepreneurs here in Puerto Rico don’t give a (crap) about it… We are trying to teach people that the brand is really important and how you communicate, how you do advertising, is as important as a product.
Would you recommend people to study advertising?
I will recommend studying advertising not necessarily to work on advertising. It helps you communicate better. You can be an accountant, you can be a lawyer, you can be anything, but advertising helps you sell and communicate better and have a presence that is appealing to the market… If you are looking for a date, if you are trying to sell something, if you are trying to get out of trouble, if you communicate good, Is effective.
I think it’s important the way you communicate things.
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