Well … you may be wrong. For Jordan Gutierrez, it was the other way around.
Being in the wrong place at the right time with an okay idea gave him a jump start into an entirely new, and profitable business. The key, was being observant and flexible enough to make a change when one idea wasn’t working so well. These canny skills led Jordan spotting a unique gap in the market, and starting up a business at the age of 17, that today is a rapidly growing multi-million dollar company.
Now, still at a tender age of 22, Jordan continues to grow his million dollar business exporting medical books and supplies throughout Mexico, while working a straightforward day job in Canada at a normal new graduate salary as he waits for his final residency documents.
We jumped at the chance to interview Jordan, partly because his business is so unique and fabulous, and partly because he’s such a genuinely nice guy! Full of passion, purpose and drive, Jordan gave us lots laughs along the way. Enjoy the insights from this month’s Fresh Young Millionaire.
Firstly, Jordan, tell us what your business does.
We sell medical textbooks and supplies across Mexico and other parts of Latin America, but mostly Mexico. We are the largest distributor for medical books and medical equipment in Latin America right now.
Wrong place, right time – right place, right time. This common quote really sums up how you got your start in this niche market.
I’m originally from Mexico, but I moved to Canada when I was 15 and finished high school there. I would always go back to Mexico for the holidays. One summer I opened a little coffee kiosk business so I could make money for school. I got a coffee machine and took it to the streets next to the subway. However, in Mexico, it was really hot in the summer time, and no one was buying coffee – especially near the subway.
It was a bad idea. I had two options: quit, or move. I decided to move my coffee business to a place where people were drinking coffee. I found a place where there were a lot of doctors, and they really needed the coffee!
What I noticed was that doctors would come from all over the country, from the small parts of Mexico to get their medical books and equipment and then take them back to their hometowns. In the small towns of Mexico, and probably everywhere in third world countries, it’s hard to get good books or equipment anywhere except in the big cities. That’s where I got the idea to start distributing text books in a better way for the doctors around the country.
What happened next?
There was a lot to learn, but I thought it was a good idea. In 2007, I sold my coffee company, and decided to start to learn how to make websites. It was hard work, I spent a year and a half learning how to create a website, optimise a website, sell, ship, make labels. I found a supplier who would give me books relatively cheap from a family connection, and I learned everything I had to learn.
I started by buying some books and selling them on Mexican eBay. They sold really fast, and I didn’t have to hold any stock. It worked well, but I didn’t like the platform. I wanted to have my own shop. From there, it’s just been learning and doing and learning more.
My first business was when I was five years old. My mom bought sweets for me, and I started selling them as a kid. It was funny because I didn’t understand money or currency, so I would only take 1 peso coins because I couldn’t give change and couldn’t do a deal. I didn’t even know the word ‘customer’. I had some ‘employees’, but I called them ‘patients’ because my mother is a dentist and I always heard her talk about her patients and that’s what I called my friends when they worked for me.
I had my friends sell my sweets and I paid them a commission. I was watching T.V. while my ‘patients’ were selling my goods. It was great for a while, but then my friends formed a union and asked for more money. They went on strike because I wouldn’t give it to them, so I fired all my friends. I was only five years old.
I’ve always tried to make deals. When I was in elementary school, I brought my toys to school, closed off part of the classroom and wouldn’t let anyone play with them until they gave me money. I’m still friends with all of them, we laugh about it now.
How did you know the medical book business would work?
I didn’t at first. It took me three years to know it was working! It was 2007 and it was Mexico. People there don’t trust you and don’t want to give their credit card details. It’s a third world country, so people want to see the shop and know the people involved. It seemed to take a long time to get a good reputation and have new customers trust us. I had lots to learn, but I just kept trying new things. It would be easier for people to do now because there’s so much information out there to help.
How did you deal with the trust issues in Mexico?
We still have to deal with them. Service is the most important thing for us. We have a lot of PR and we have to have perfect customer service because customers refer you, and word-of-mouth is the most important thing. Social media is also really important too because everyone talks about you. It was really hard at first. We are willing to not get a single profit, to lose money, in a first order as long as the customer is happy and they will order from us again and refer us. Reputation is so important, especially in Mexico. Service in Mexico is generally terrible, so we are amazing to take such good care of customers. For us, long term is the key.
How did you discover these processes to make your sales quick and efficient?
It was trial and error. We implemented stuff, it didn’t work, people got upset. We implemented something else, everyone loved it, but it took too long and was too expensive to continue doing. We learned a lot on the way. We had to learn with shipping, bank deposits, everything. We have to strike a balance. Some of the things that took too long or were too expensive, the customers loved, but we had to change them. Small things, small changes. We saw a need and implemented a process to meet it. We made a lot of mistakes too, but we just kept going.
Tell us about how you’ve expanded into so many other products and services.
Right now we’re like Amazon for doctors. We have lots of books and equipment. We also want to help doctors, so we’ve set up a new social selling platform so doctors can talk about what equipment they bought and how it works. They can also share books they are reading or writing. It’s like social learning about medical books. The doctors learn from each other when they write new journals and then share them.
Who helped you? It must have been hard to do it
I do have a partner. I actually went to a supplier and agreed to give him equity (a share in the business) if he would ship the books for me. I had to sell them, and he would send them out. He would give me the books at cost as well. This made it all possible, because I couldn’t have done it if I had to ship the books to Canada, and then back to Mexico. I needed to have someone who was there.
Was this set up as a legal contract?
At first it was just a conversation – that’s how it works in Mexico. Now we have everything in place officially with a contract.
What were your start up costs?
Not much, it was about $1000. It cost about $700 to set up the website but we have a free e commerce shopping cart. It was maybe $5 a month for hosting, and a little bit of advertising. I didn’t have to buy lots of books, because as soon as someone paid for an order, I would have the order shipped to them directly from the supplier. He didn’t take a cut up front, he took equity so I paid him dividends over a period of time. That way I could have time to build something up and no one lost any money. All he had to do was ship the books. I also spent a lot of money on shipping labels.
How did the company change and grow to what it is today?
I first decided to quit selling on eBay because they took a high commission and we couldn’t build up our reputation. But in eBay I was selling really well, so I thought I would do well on my own site too. So I worked really hard and launched a website in 2008, but no one knew about it and we didn’t sell anything for a couple of months! So it took some time to really build things up again. It took about 6-8 months, and then we started selling $100,000 some months. That’s when we saw that we were on the right track and this was the way to go. From there we just hired people we need. We have a few computer programmers and other staff to make sure everything runs smoothly.
Also, it wasn’t hard to give better service than the other web stores in Mexico. They always rip people off and threaten to sue each other. It’s pretty crazy over there. We really grew by having amazine service.
What about the sales?
Well, I don’t want to talk too much about numbers, but at first they were small, a few hundred dollars. But now, August is our highest month because lots of doctors start school in September., Last August we sold close to a million in that month alone. These days we have about 200 orders a day.
How do you manage to live and study in Canada, and run an entire business in Mexico?
That was really hard. It was an asset, but also a liability. Because I live in Canada, I have to have a different view of leadership. I can’t micro manage the staff at all. We have to have really clear processes – almost like a military style because I can’t watch everything. If this happens – do this, if this happens – do that. Also, the customer satisfaction again was really important. We have customer surveys, and if satisfaction drops below 95% I have to go and investigate what’s going on.
There are sacrifices, I lost sleep and didn’t party much. The hours are different, so I would work through the night and catch sleep in between. I finally found a programmer to help me, and we had to work from 10pm to 3 a.m. It wasn’t fun, but that’s what you have to do.
I really didn’t sleep in college. I graduated six months ago with an economics degree from Simon Frasier University in Canada, but it was tough. My GPA isn’t the best – it’s almost a 3.0 (about 75%). Last year, two nights before a big exam that I had to get at least 80% in to get a 3 GPA, I found out that our site was hacked and users were being re-directed to a Turkish pornographic website. I had to spend two days re-programming the entire site and had almost no time to study for the exam. I passed, but it wasn’t great.
How did you know how to set this up and negotiate deals?
I didn’t! I just went and asked people for things, and I would offer a price. In Mexico, you just go and tell people what you want. I wouldn’t take the first price. It’s simpler to do business that way in Mexico.
How many staff do you have now?
I have 17 people, they’re all in Mexico.
What are the current challenges?
Shipping is always the hardest and most expensive thing. We could do it more cheaply with the standard Mexican post, but it’s not reliable, so we don’t. We’re trying to find better ways to ship things quickly to people.
Now that you’ve graduated, are you working on this full time?
No, it’s still not full time. I think it’s kind of funny because from 9-3 I work at an average paying job for a new graduate, and after hours I run a multi million dollar business in my spare time. My employers know about it and think it’s great. I told them from the beginning that I have this business and I sometimes have to be flexible. They know that the business is the most important thing for me right now, and they’re really okay with that.
So, advice for young people today: School or Business?
Both. I did graduate with a pretty good GPA, and I won Student Entrepreneur of the Year for 2011 for my university, British Columbia and Western Canada. I also got the Undergraduate Entrepreneur of the Year for Canada. I was nominated for the global award too, but didn’t win that one. I think you can do both.
What do you think it was that gave you the edge over other nominated entrepreneurs?
I think the fact that I created a multi-million dollar business in a recession while I was studying full time with a business in a third world country – I think that’s pretty cool.
Time line of growth:
May 2007 was the first website, we didn’t sell anything. It was just a small, yellow HTML site.
October 2008 we got the new site, but didn’t sell much. We uploaded products, learned about Adwords, SEO and all the website stuff. May 2009 was when we really started selling. By 2010 we had crossed over the million dollar mark and we are hitting higher sales targets all the time.
What were the biggest challenges along the way?
The distance, getting up and working all night wasn’t fun. I didn’t have a great social life, I went out sometimes but I had to work to make it successful.
The process was really slow. It wasn’t as if you just launch a website and then you start making money right away. I had to be really patient. I didn’t even realise how much I was making for quite some time. I think the main challenge is just to have patience and know that you’ll make mistakes along the way.
What do you do with all the money now?
I re-invest most of it into the company. I’m young. I’m only 22, I don’t have a family and I don’t need much. The salary I pay myself is actually really low – but I would rather invest it in the company than just partying it out. To be honest, I didn’t even notice how much we were making at first because we were just processing all the orders and setting up systems. I didn’t stop to even look and then boom – it was there.
Where do you like to Make a Difference now that you’ve had such success? As you said, $10 is a lot of money in Mexico,
Our mission statement is to supply medical books and equipment to every doctor in the third world country so that they can improve the health care in their community.
We donate money for scholarships. We’ve also created a website where new doctors can study for their final exams for free. We believe in educating doctors as well, and we put a lot of time and money into building up the sharing and education platforms for doctors to use. We had a case recently where one doctor in a village had a patient with a serious rash and they didn’t know what it was. He got the answer from another doctor in another part of the country who had seen something similar.
We want to help build up tools for doctors to use that can make a difference to health care in the third world country. Lots of what we do to make a difference is actually part of the business to begin with. What we do around that is still about health care and learning.
What’s your advice for young entrepreneurs today?
Right now lots of young entrepreneurs think the best thing to do is to start a company, make it grow and then sell it. I think that’s really lame. I think you should build a company based on fixing an issue or a problem. If you focus on that, that’s the first step. The mission statement of your company shouldn’t be ‘being acquired’. I think it should be to fix something that’s broken or improving something, helping your users. If you get acquired, that’s cool, but if not, you’ve built a solid company that means something.
Also, if you find a product that people want, you’ll make some money. If you make a product that people need – you’ll make way more money.
Another thing they should know, is to do it for fun. I did this because I really liked what I was doing.
If you fail, don’t worry. Just keep trying. When I was doing my website, I tried five or six things, that didn’t work, but I learned a lot of stuff. At first I thought I would sell HTML to old people, I tried to have a gaming website, I tried a tourist website… I tried lots of things that didn’t work, but I learned lots of things along the way and I didn’t give up. You learn from failure.
Don’t focus on the money alone. The market was there. I focused on getting more users to enjoy my product. I got a buzz when students would say that they loved the products or the service and thanked us for it. We were making a difference and then the money came too.