Thursday, August 23, 2012

Martha De La Torre >

Martha De La Torre, Founder & CEO, El Clasificado

What do you need to be an entrepreneur?
You need to love and understand your business, your employees, your customers, vendors and business supporters thoroughly.  You also need to be able to take risks, be a multi-tasker, be visionary, be flexible, be ready to work extremely hard, make sacrifices and be able to focus on the Plan.  The Plan is the business and marketing plan, that without, a business cannot succeed.  You also need to have the support of your family and their willingness to also make sacrifices and work hard as a team to balance the goals of the business with the need for a healthy family life. 

What did inspire you to start your business?
I was inspired with the growing Hispanic community in the 1980s that I observed as an audit manager while at Arthur Young and then as CFO of La Opinion. I started to see interesting acquisitions of Spanish language media by major general media companies. At La Opinion I learned that the major revenue source for the newspaper was the classifieds, mostly for employment ads. I was fascinated with the Pennysaver model and thought someone should launch a free classified paper in Spanish full of job and service ads but not be just a shopper. It should have short “how-to” editorials such as how to get your kids in college, how to get low cost medical services and how to become a US citizen, the types of editorials that would have made life easier for my parents when they first arrived from Ecuador in the 1950’s. My idea was to offer something free and easy to read to help Latinos learn to help themselves.

How did you finance it?
My husband, then fianc├ę at the time, and I funded El Clasificado from personal resources and raised additional capital from friends, family and a few investors.  We estimated that we needed about $600,000, but raised only about $350,000. We plunged ahead anyway (to my husband’s dismay) and launched the undercapitalized company in 1988; we paid dearly for this mistake.  My husband had to work two jobs to keep us afloat for about 10 years before we finally started generating positive cash flow.  Neither of us took a salary for the first 10 years.

Being Hispanic… Does it have any influence on your business?
I was born in Los Angeles and grew up singing Home on the Range, eating apple pie and reading about the pilgrims and the wild west as a child.  I went to Europe before my first visit to Ecuador when I was 15.  Although I definitely considered myself American and barely spoke Spanish, I definitely considered myself Hispanic and bicultural. My parents became bilingual very quickly after arriving from Ecuador and wanted us to be good students, good U.S. citizens and speak English well. We ate Ecuadorean food during the week and Sizzler, Mexican or Chinese food on weekends. At family gatherings we listened to Latin music, danced cumbias, tangos and merengues but I listened to the Doors, Monkees and the Beatles on my transistor.  I was definitely American but had a strong Latin culture. First I had never planned on being an entrepreneur let alone starting a business catering to the Hispanic community.  Spanish speaking Hispanics were not a significant demographic group in my world until the 1980’s.  I saw the boom and thought I could provide a needed service to this growing immigrant community. I thought it was a good idea to take successful products that serve the general market and tweak it for the Latino market, like the Pennysaver.  I felt that my business and bicultural background was good training to launch a Spanish language version of this successful publication and that was the inspiration for El Clasificado.

In the face of adversity, how do you decide to keep going?
For me failure is not an option and commitments must be met.  I could have gone bankrupt and gone back to the corporate world.  But I could not face the vendors and investors, many family and friends, if I just gave up and walked away from my obligations. My parents, my education especially at LMU and my training at Arthur Young all were based on a foundation of strong core values an ethics.  There was a time when I never thought I would see the light at the end of the tunnel, that El Clasificado would never become a viable company and that I would have to work for the rest of my life to pay off my debts.  There is not a day that goes by that I take our success for granted.  Now I have even more of a responsibility to succeed.  We have 170 employees. These employees and their families depend on our success.

What is the biggest challenge your business has faced?
Our biggest challenge is reinventing ourselves from being a “free Spanish language weekly shopper in Los Angeles” to becoming the largest Spanish language media company serving local marketplaces.  Right now we meet that definition in most of California but we have a good chance of becoming this vision in all of the U.S. and Latin America.  Now the biggest challenge is do we have the talent to take us there.

What was your childhood ambition?
I never wanted to be an entrepreneur. I just wanted to go to college, get a good job, have a family and be happy.  These were simple but precious goals.  I have to admit that I did want to do something significant.  I just thought that whatever career I chose I would make a point to excel.

For business meetings: breakfast, lunch, or dinner?
Definitely lunch. It is a more convenient time to meet during the day. An early lunch appointment allows you and your guests to complete a full morning’s work and be ready for a more relaxed meal. It is the perfect time to talk, get to know a client, learn more about their business, understand their needs, and find better ways to help them achieve their goals.  I get up early and like to take care of my personal activities in the morning like a stimulating hike at 6 AM.  Consequently, I go to bed very early and prefer not to go to dinners for business matters.  I am not as alert.

What sacrifices on your personal life did you have to make in order to become a business success?
During the first ten years, my husband, Joe Badame, and I were constantly on the brink of giving up. We faced a severely undercapitalized business and the recession of the 1990s. At first we did everything: I was out selling and was also in charge of the accounting while Joe, who still maintained his consulting firm on the side, distributed magazines, designed ads in the morning and night. This he did while still servicing his clients from prestigious law firms throughout the country as a certified fraud auditor. We almost went bankrupt and did not take a salary for 10 years. We sold our car and home, and temporarily moved in with my father. Everything paid off at the end and we are happy to see a company that soon will exceed $20 million in revenues.

Biggest mistake made?
Sticking too long to our original business plan that said we were going to be home delivered just like the Pennysaver and that we were going to reach 90,000 circulation by 1989.  Now I am very nimble in my leadership and management style.  I think it is a key to our success.

Do you consider yourself an innovator? Why?
Definitely. I am always looking at what’s not working right in the company and looking for new solutions, especially outside the box, low cost solutions. We listen to our customer’s needs and desires and we embed it into our corporate culture to constantly improve our products and processes to find more efficiencies in order to provide better low cost media solutions to our market. We listen and watch trends but we follow our audience and give them what they want when they want it. That’s why we’ve created innovative digital and mobile products, grassroots events, special publications and niche websites to help our clients expand their reach to their target audiences.

If you could change one thing about your business, what would it be?
I wish we were located in a more business friendly state and that public transportation was more readily available. I feel that being in California limits our ability to hire more talented employees, especially young employees that we can mentor. Labor laws are so restrictive now that it is difficult to take risks on inexperienced people that show promise but have no proven record.

Tell us about three entrepreneurs that you admire?
Steve Jobs – without Apple Computers we could not have launched a weekly publication with only $350,000 and we could not have turned this publication into a 46 zone 500,000 weekly generating close to $20 million today.
Scott Cook - without Quicken for $35 a year, we could not have managed our cash deficit company to success.  With Quicken I always knew our cash position and worked with vendors in a transparent and honest manner to build trust and faith by making small but reliable installment payments on accounts. 
Arthur Blank and Bernard Marcus - I love gardening and home decorating.  I practically lived at Home Depot when we bought our first homes and could not yet afford a gardener or other help.  I learned a lot about plants and am quite proud of my garden today influenced by my years spend in the Home Depot nursery.

What is your favorite quote?
Carpa Diem, Seize the Day!!
I also love the Serenity Prayer.  My grandmother embroidered this prayer and framed it for me.  I live by this.  (No grudges, no regrets, don’t waste time on spilled milk just look forward and make things better when you can).

Is it difficult to be unconventional?
No, it is difficult to be conventional. 

About the company 
El Clasificado is a multi-media publication and advertising solutions company with advertising platforms in print, online and grassroots events. More than 1.5 million readers utilize the free Spanish-language publication every week. El Clasificado, a verified publication, is distributed in over 290 cities throughout Southern California and the Central Valley, and has a weekly circulation of 500,000.
The company’s flagship website,, has become the largest classified website for Latinos in the U.S., ranking 8,600 with Quantcast, having 600,000 unique visitors per month and 9.5 monthly million page views.
Today, the company has been rebranded as EC Hispanic Media and generates revenues close to $20 million per year and has about 170 employees. EC Hispanic Media’s events division produces “Quincea├▒era Expo” which attracts 10,000 attendees annually, and the “Su Socio de Negocios” small business workshop series.

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