Fifteen years ago, I was a skinny, white girl in my late 20s living near the border of south Texas and Mexico. I was also in the final stages of shutting down my (failing) eBay franchise business. In an attempt to put food on my table, I evaluated resources natural to south Texas and Mexico. Saltillo tile was my Ah-Ha moment.
I approached a local distributor of Saltillo tile with an attitude of ambition and a friendly smile. I proposed that he allow me to sell his tile on eBay. My sales blew up rapidly. I sold 2 truckloads of tile within my first two weeks. That local distributor collected his sales revenue and refused to pay any commission to me. Lesson learned. But even so, I still smiled. I knew I had a great idea.
Next, I partnered with my (new) boyfriend, Ray. He owned a successful boat and ATV business. Being originally from Mexico, he suggested that we take a trip to Saltillo, Mexico in search of a manufacturing source. While there, we found our source and paid cash for a truckload of tile. I already had it sold through eBay.
Paying cash upfront was a huge deal to these family producers of an artisan tile. At the time (2005), Americans purchased the tile from the Mexican artisans on credit. The terms included payment upon delivery of tile in the U.S. Sadly, Americans earned the reputation of either not paying or short paying for the supplied tile from Mexico. So, when we paid cash for a truckload of tile, it was a bold statement of “You want to do business with us. We will mutually benefit one another. ” Thus, Rustico Tile & Stone became a business.
That leap of faith paid off in many ways. I married Ray months later and we still are business partners. Now we have 2 kids, pets, and we are pursuing becoming a foster family. I’m still a skinny, white girl who knows more about Mexican tile than nearly anyone. I don’t sell tile on eBay anymore.
Also, fifteen years later, we are the largest producer for handmade Saltillo tile in Mexico. And, we are the largest distributor for Saltillo flooring and other artisans Mexican tile and stone. Today, our headquarters is near Austin, Texas. We ship tile worldwide.
Interestingly, we are not a brick and mortar tile shop. Rustico Tile & Stone is an online business. Everything that we sell is shipped directly to the customer. 99% of our clients are only met via email and phone conversations.
And what about that original man whom we paid cash for our first truckload of tile? In hindsight, it’s easy to see that it was a divinely appointed meeting. I am happy to say that he is our manufacturing manager in Mexico today. Throughout the years, we’ve worked alongside him as he built his business and took on the role of running manufacturing for us. We’ve watched each of our families develop, too.
What makes Saltillo tile so sought after?
Saltillo tile is handmade Mexican terracotta flooring in a variety of Saltillo tile colors. It’s an affordable type of custom flooring. People around the world seek out Saltillo tile for its rustic charm and durability. This flooring is seen in homes, businesses, hotels, and restaurants around the world.
Selling Saltillo tile on eBay was a lightbulb moment. As my sales increased, we gradually grew the business beyond eBay. Once we developed a website and learned a little about SEO, our eBay days were over.
How did you get your first three clients?
eBay - Customers bought tile for just $1.25/square foot.
I had none at all. Marketing was my background. I had an MBA knowledge in International Business. My husband had a track record of successful self-employment.
Neither of us knew anything about Saltillo tile, floor installation, running an online business, building a website, SEO, PPC, or freight shipping. But, we both knew how to sell stuff and provide customer service. We combined our individual skill sets, learned some new ones, and proceeded to take baby steps to strategically become better than anyone else selling and shipping Saltillo tile.
Have you raised any money? How much?
We did not raise any money. Remember my failing eBay franchise business mentioned above? It bankrupted me. We made the decision to avoid debt financing our tile business. During the early months of our business, we reinvested revenue to buy more tile for distribution. We did not spend money on anything that wouldn’t generate revenue. We accounted for every penny and kept our expenses at a minimum. At 10 months of running our business, we took our first paycheck for $200 each. (Today, we take home a bit more than $200/month.)
Who is your target demographic?
Anyone who needs flooring. Primarily, that means adults ages 27-65. We sell directly to end-users (homeowners), trade professionals (builders, interior designers, architects, etc), and flooring distributors. We serve amazing customers worldwide.
How do you attract clients?
Once we built a website, I learned that no one would find us online until SEO did its magic. Being a hands-on learner, I dove deep into researching SEO and affiliated topics. Then, my shift focused on learning anything I could about PPC. Next came social media marketing and content marketing via an industry-related blog. Today, most of our clients find us through
A strong organic presence in the topics of Mexican tile and stone
Social Media outlets (Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, LinkedIn)
Referrals from previous customers or repeat customers
What is the funniest/most strange request you have received from a client/prospective client?
Years ago, we lost a sale of tile because we couldn’t meet a customer’s request to hand-carry 3 pallets of tile (7,500 pounds of tile) up three flights of stairs to his apartment. He said the cargo elevator in the building wasn’t reliable and would only buy tile from us if we’d empty and hand-carry it up the stairs. Can’t win ‘em all.
How did you fund the idea initially?
Cash. We paid cash to buy our first truckload of tile. Aside from a mortgage payment for our warehouse, we’ve never debt-financed our business or taken on investors. We’ve maintained profitability since inception.
Where did you meet your cofounder?
I met Ray in south Texas. He was one of my eBay customers. I sold ATV and boat parts for his business on eBay. We became business partners very shortly after meeting one another. In our early months, he ran his ATV business during the day while I sold tile from my apartment through eBay and our website.
Then, at the end of each workday, we packed thousands of pounds of tile at a rented warehouse location until 1-2 am. The conditions were poor - dirty, laborsome, exhausting, and plenty of arguments between new business partners. But after all of that, we enjoyed 2 am tacos at a 24-hour taco dive. Lastly, we got in a little sleep in preparation for the next long day. Now we reflect on those days with fondness. Those are the times when we solidified our relationship and the direction of our business.
Any tips for finding the first employees?
Interviewing people is tricky. When we have a job opening, I tell everyone I know about it, and post it on my social media outlets. We prefer a personal reference vs an ad on Facebook jobs anytime.
In an interview, it’s tough to get ‘between the lines’ to see someone’s true personality. Our goal is to evaluate how prospective employees will fit into the vibe of Rustico Tile & Stone. So, our approach is wholesome. We directly tell interviewees things that they may not like about our small business and culture. Working for a family business isn’t for everyone. Every role is critical, so every employee’s performance is obvious in day-to-day operations. We put it all out there - the good, bad, and ugly.
My favorite interview question is: What are some characteristics of your least favorite boss? If the interviewee describes Ray or me, the interview ends quickly.
What is the most common product you sell?
Saltillo tile is our bread and butter. Learn more about it with the Ultimate Guide to Saltillo Tile Flooring. And, we also produce and sell decorative Cement tile, Cantera Stone, and painted Talavera tiles. All of our products are handmade in Mexico. We sell the installation materials required for installing our Mexican tile products.
Our product lines evolved strategically over the years. For example, most people who want Saltillo flooring also need complementary painted Talavera tiles for decorative spaces. Even more so, we expanded to selling installation materials because we found that many contractors didn’t have access to proper tile setting materials specific to handmade tile. In the end, we remain niche in Mexican products. We know our lane and we strive to be the best in it.
What motivated you to start your own business?
Hunger. We like to eat. Moreover, we found a concept that generated money so we could eat. Some days were ramen, other days are ribeye. In like manner, we keep running our business because it provides for our employees’ families, 200+ people in Mexico, and a variety of vendors. Now, people rely on our efforts in running good business so they can eat.
What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?
When things go wrong, we learn and change. Any success that we have today stems from mistakes that we made in our early days. In fact, we’re still learning. Early on, we made huge mistakes in shipping our clay tile. We had no idea how to successfully package a 2,500-pound pallet of clay tile and deliver it to a location across the country without suffering damage. Fortunately, our first freight rep was with R&L Carriers. She gave us guidance on packaging our freight and we listened. She’s still our freight rep today and we ship truckloads every week.
Another illustration of a lesson learned involves how we educate our customers. We realized that many people don’t know how to calculate the square footage of tile required for a space. If they don’t know how much they need, they usually don’t order enough tile. That led to unsatisfied customers who ran short of tile for their project. Unfortunately, shipping small quantities of tile adds unexpected costs to a project.
So, we honed our sales and customer skills. We approach sales from an attitude of education. Our staff are uniquely trained to educate customers about the best way to buy tile so they can reap project cost savings. By taking an educational approach to salesmanship, we garner the trust of our customers.
So yes, we’re in business to earn money. But, earning a buck is worthless if it leads to unhappy customers. We genuinely care about creating beautiful spaces for a good value for our customers.
I have a few pieces of advice for someone just starting out.
Learn everything you can about your competitors. Know them better than they know themselves. You’ll be amazed at how this knowledge guides decisions you make about the positioning of your business.
Don’t invest in things that won’t generate revenue. Customized stationery, pens, and cups are cool, but only buy those things when you have discretionary income for branding purposes.
Don’t hire people if (or until) you have to. Once you hire staff, your day-to-day tasks become managing your staff. If you’re not good at managing people, this will be a challenge. When you do hire people, don’t be afraid to fire someone immediately when you’ve determined that he or she is detrimental to your business or company culture. One person can ruin a happy culture quickly.
Value your people - employees, vendors, customers. Treat them well. Serve them well.
Don’t be afraid to make money. Make a lot of it. This enables you to give generously, pay employees well, and serve your community. Therein lies a great deal of happiness and blessing.
If you work with your spouse, clearly divide your roles according to your strengths. Then, stay out of one another’s way until issues arise. Even then, counsel one another. Also, don’t take work-talk home. There’s a fine line between business partnership and marriage. Respect that line. Nurture your marriage. It makes business better (and more fun!)
What is stopping you from being 3x the size you are now?
Time. We operate at max capacity for the production of most of our product lines. Rustico Tile & Stone is very busy.
As a tile and stone distributor in the U.S, it was a natural fit to develop a separate construction business for flooring installations. So, we ran local construction projects which had lucrative income. But, with 2 young kids, marriage, and a thriving Rustico Tile business, we ended our construction business after 2 years of success. Instead, we chose to maintain a healthy margin for family and life vs. continuing to climb the totem pole of success. Quality of life matters, and we recognized that the timing for building a construction business didn’t align with our family goals, yet.
What is your best marketing channel?
Google. Our products serve a niche industry for people who are building or remodeling Spanish, Southwestern, or Rustic style homes. People turn to Google for shopping and information. Since we’re an online business, Google runs our life.
What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?
Zoho Books is our customer database and accounting/finance tool. It’s great for tracking customer requests, sales estimates, invoices, and reporting in one easy-to-use web-based program.
Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. Customers around the world rely on photos posted to our social media outlets. They need to be able to imagine how our products would look in their spaces. Photos tell the real story.
Microsoft Office 365 Email is critical because we’re an online business that generates a lot of emails every day.
Are there any new services you’re working on?
As we look to the future of Rustico Tile & Stone, we continue to hone our skills for more efficiency in manufacturing and logistics. That allows us to offer the best values to our customers.
Also, doing business in Mexico is complicated at times so we also continue to build and nurture relationships there. Without our amazing people in Mexico, Rustico Tile & Stone doesn’t exist.
We will also continue developing custom patterns and designs in our decorative tile and architectural stone product lines.
Would you ever sell the company?
One day, we may sell Rustico Tile & Stone. Everyone needs an exit strategy. But, because so much of our success relies on the relationships we’ve built in Mexico, any future sale must protect the value of those relationships. Our Mexican artisans come from long family lineages of hand-making tile and we want that to transcend into future generations.