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Mex-Biz 101: so real, it’s surreal…

20 March 2005

It’s a little hard sometimes to explain what I do for a living… I thought I was selling fruit. It’s a long story, but to sell fruit, you need to buy fruit. And that takes money. Not having any when we started, and unable to borrow what we needed (not surprising: Mexico has weird banking laws – or rather the lending requirements seem to have been written for the U.S. In a country where 1000 dollars is a huge amount of money, nobody who has the collateral to get a loan needs one. It’s no wonder that only a quarter of Mexicans even use the banks) – we set out to earn it.English teachers are a peso a dozen in Mexico City, as are “language institutes.” We started with a couple of standard-issue foreign and Mexican adult English teachers, after looking at what other skills we had. What we ended up with was a “scalable business solution to English training needs”. That’s not just a slogan (ok, my slogan… I considered putting “Propaganda Minister” on my business cards). We aren’t academics… we’re selling a business tool. And, have been successful… in the Mexican way.

Start-up businesses are always weird, and Mexico has its own kind of weirdness… which makes the whole thing much more fun. For a short time we had posh offices, courtesy of our then one client. And a secretary who used to work for Fidel Castro (and you thought your old boss was a tyrant!). She seemed to think her job was to flirt with potential clients and run up huge lunch tabs. Which she did when she wasn’t running around getting visas to travel to exotic ports of call (we didn’t have any hopes for the Cuban connection, but she sold us her ties to Air Canada… her boyfriend – who charged her rent for the pleasure of living with him – worked for the perfidious Canucks). Unfortunately for all concerned, she was also an investor. And a fuck-up: besides making “Spanish” translations that make no sense in any known Romance Language, she forged a few time cards, which cost us our one client.

This creates more than just a personnel problem, or a management one. Mexico doesn’t have corporations, just partnerships. The partnership had to be dissolved, which meant the company no longer existed. People have to be paid by some entity that can collect withholding taxes … enter the doctors. Or, rather the doctora. For a few months, I provided personal services to a doctor, and was paid though her clinic. Perfectly legal and what exact personal services I provided never needed to be specified. Mostly it was coming up with something that would pay her back: scalable solutions to English training.

Losing Comrade Fidel’s girl Friday, and our posh office wasn’t such a bad thing. Our main investor (and the doctora’s almost-ex-husband) rented a garage apartment from our prestanombre (the Mexican citizen whose investment gives a company a Mexican ownership). So, we operated off a laptop computer on a kitchen table. It also meant almost no overhead. And an interesting psychological edge when it came to finding customers.

Mexican businesses only take foreigners seriously if they have a Mexican “secretary.” So, we just never mentioned that the Mexican woman who telephoned was OUR boss – or that a portable telephone was our major capital investment at the time… we needed a phone that we could carry up to the main house when people needed to make appointments.

We’ve grown enough that I don’t do any teaching… which is fine by me. However, I’ve got to ride herd on the foreigners, and am more or less the human resources guy by default. We offer those scalable solutions –meaning we have “trainers”, not “teachers”. Heck, even when I was teaching, I suspected that foreign teachers were flakes. Now I’m sure of it!

And not just foreigners. One of our early assets was one of those nice lady teachers that you’d still remember her fondly – if she taught you in kindergarten,. If you were an executive needing English for negotiating your budget for the next year, you’d want to strangle her. The kind of exec that posts signs in English reading “Free sarcasm given daily” doesn’t want to deal with the kind of person who needle-points the phonic alphabet and talks about Jesus. Ok, so sending the schoolmarm wasn’t the brightest idea… we couldn’t be so picky back then.

Our nice teacher’s son worked for those oh-so-nice people at the sleaziest corporation in the Americas — which shafted us for a 30,000 peso translation. She signed a contract agreeing to be paid when we were paid. Which will be when Hell freezes over. Even so, we finally decided to write off the bad debt and pay her out. Instead she threatened to sue us.

Lesson #2 of Mexican business. Unlike the U.S., you just don’t sue. If you really, really, really want to get back at a business rival, you might blacken their name, or file criminal charges against them (something we still might do with the sleazebags who run Abbott Laboratories here in Mexico) or maybe hire a thug to break the offender’s windshield on their new car (or their legs), but you just don’t sue. Lawyers are inefficient and YOU pay up front. So, let her threaten to sue. The money we WOULD have paid out was enough to remodel two more garage rooms into a real office and print some better literature… and feed us all for a while. We’re talking about less than 3000 dollars… a windfall in Mexico. (Just by way of explaination… I received an unexpected 1500 US dollars from a forgotten insurance policy that was found in my father’s safety deposit box. With the money, I paid the deposit and rent for an apartment in the part of town I wanted to live in, bought kitchen appliances and had enough left over to indulge in a washing machine).

So, more groups, more complications. About this time, we realized we couldn’t use the old model teachers, and started looking around. One guy who seemed perfect, despite his Nuyark accent (a Mexican raised in Brooklyn) just disappeared for a while, with some story about a matador uncle losing a round with a toro… and needing to give blood in Tijuana. It turned out to be true… Lesson #3 in Mexican business… the totally bizarre is normal.

Then… the American graduate student, beloved by his students, also disappeared on us. This was a guy I’d been paid by a California job recruiter to find work and housing for in Mexico City. Which I did. An excellent TEACHER, but unable to grasp the concept of little things like following the program the client bought, and recording information the client needs… and showing up when the client scheduled training sessions. He just went to the U.S: for a week, not bothering to tell us. That was the first time in my almost half-century I’ve ever had to decide someone should be fired. Lesson #4 — even in Mexico, nice guys have to be assholes in business.

And, we have the other younger gringo… my former housemate by the by… who we’ve also had to “let go.” NO… corporate trainers should not show up in computer company offices wearing a nose ring. And, NO… you’re paid to hold conversations, not to tell the fascinating details of your love-life. And, NO… we do not appreciate being told you are changing your schedule and dropping a group because you don’t like one guy… who incidentally is in charge of the people who write the check that pays your wages. Lesson #5… stick to old farts.

My human resource strategy by default is to get Mexican grad students to teach basic groups and geezers for the upper levels. This goes against the conventional wisdom of the English Language Institutes, who hire the young, naïve teachers on the theory that they’ve had ESL classes… and will work for peanuts. So will us geezers. And those who are here know that Mexican payment schedules are like second marriages… hope triumphing over experience.

Our pierced ex-“teacher”, after being given a loan at the beginning of the month, is DEMANDING we pay her now. It’s only the 18th. Yeah, payments to EMPLOYEES in Mexico are made on the 15th and last of the month. But hourly foreign workers (even those on proper papers) are usually what are called “ASOCIADOS” – they get paid all right (I’ve run out of food, or gas, or had my phone shut off because they’ve been paid ahead of me or there was only the cash to pay them), but not necessarily on the 15th.

I don’t like to use the word TEACHER. Teachers work at schools. And schools are in the business of providing teachers. We’re a business service, providing training and other products. The people who service the product are not the product itself. Another thing I like about Mexico… businesses don’t pretend “we’re in the people business”. Nah… we’re in the training business.

Which leads to Lesson #6: in any start-up, money and credit is ALWAYS a problem. In Mexico, there are uniquely Mexican problems. Monday is Benito Juarez’ birthday and the banks will be closed. Next Friday is Good Friday… not so much a religious holiday, as a Good Friday to head for Acapulco. Every EMPLOYEE in Mexico takes a few extra days when there’s a Monday, or Tuesday (or Wednesday, or Thursday, or Friday) holiday… and with two in one week, you can’t expect anything to really have been done since last Wednesday – including minor things like having paid invoices to small contractors (like those providing “scalable solutions…”). So, with one client having misplaced an invoice for a week, and another having had a huge company party on Tuesday (talk about synergy. The company misplacing the invoice sells tequila. The accountants at the second company consumed massive quantities of the same… and just didn’t show up for work Wednesday), we were in an “interesting condition”. Pregnant with outstanding invoices, but without a centavo to our names.Hey, it’s Mexico, no worries… Ms. Piercing will scream and yell, and we’ll say “manaña” and she’ll get paid her regular time. The National Pawnshop is holding some of our Mexican jefa’s jewelry and our New Zealander’s watch over the weekend, and I got one of this blog’s readers to pre-pay the pesos he’ll need for his 10 day trip to Mexico with a Western Union wire and… we’re doing ok. Actually, we’re doing extremely well… With is the final lesson – we may be a “Hispanic” business, but forget the “panic.” Banks are inconvenient, and holidays always screw up payment schedules, but we’re expanding and actually starting to show a profit.

So… anyone want a few tons of mangos?

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