Colorful Culture

Aug 24, 2010 No Comments

Unique, eccentric, original, out-of-the-box… these are all words you’d use to describe Christine Martinez, her idea and her company. LAMA is the well thought out cultural gem of an idea created by the talented interior designer who longed for more than what she was receiving in the corporate world. Christine saw an opportunity in the lama-designmarket and instead of pondering aimlessly on it; she took hold of the moment and started an online store fully enabling her love of the Latin culture and its unseen artists alike. and the blog attached hold extraordinary exhibits of South American artists, along with quirky and cute pieces every homeowner should invest in.
How would you describe your company?

CM: LAMA is a fun, friendly and COLORFUL online shop that sells home decor and gift items from incredibly creative independent Latino designers. Currently, LAMA represents artists and designers from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico as well as local designers here in the US. I hope to be able to work with up and coming designers from several more Latin American countries in the near future. I would describe LAMA, which stands for Latin America in the Modern Age, as the only place of it’s kind to find the best of what modern Latin American design has to offer. It’s a showcase of what decades of incredible artistry and craftsmanship has evolved into. It’s where Latin American design is at NOW.

What were you doing for a living before opening up Lama Designs?

CM: Before I opened LAMA, I was working as an interior design consultant at the San Francisco Design Center. It was my first “career job” out of art school. After a year, I realized I had other dreams to fulfill so I packed my bags (and my dog) and moved into my brother’s apartment in Berlin, Germany. One of my many dreams was to live abroad so I took advantage of the fact that my brother was in Berlin. It was the perfect environment to clear my head, and focus on another dream I had to start my own company. I spent that year conceptualizing the kind of company I wanted to open, writing a business plan, and traveling around South America searching for great merchandise and interesting designers to work with.

Tell us the story on how Lama Designs came about.

CM: LAMA came about in one of those great moments that, if you’re lucky, you will have at least once in your life. I was jogging around Lake Merritt in Oakland with my dog Miles when out of nowhere; I decided I wanted to go into business for myself. A half mile later, I decided I wanted to design a line of textile goods (pillows, throws, rugs) and have them manufactured in Ecuador (where my mother grew up and where I still have extended family members). I thought this would be a perfect utilization of the gorgeous materials they have there as well as the skilled craftsmen I had long admired. I spent months designing a small line of products before heading down to Ecuador to start the manufacturing process. Unfortunately, I had major manufacturing issues primarily around materials needed that were not available. After my heartbreaking realization that LAMA was not going to be what I planned, I decided to take a day trip down Cuenca, the largest city in the Southern Andes of Ecuador before the Peruvian border. I thought it would be a great way to get my mind off of everything. Known for it’s artists, Cuenca proved to be the most inspiring trip. There I happened to meet a very famous Ecuadorian artist after accidentally stumbling into his studio. I couldn’t believe he had such little representation for his work in the US! It made me wonder how many other incredible artists were going unseen in the US because of this lack of representation. After that trip, I decided to change the entire concept of LAMA. It took several trips to great cities all over South America, but LAMA finally became what it is today; a collection of work from talented and underrepresented Latino artists and designers.

How did you make your store unique?

CM: I made my store unique by making sure that the majority of the merchandise I carried could not be found anywhere else. In fact, many of the designers I have represented have never sold their goods in the US before. For that reason alone, LAMA has become quite a unique spot on the web. Aside from that, I want my customers and everyone who visits the site to know and understand that LAMA is a creative venture for myself and for the designers involved. It’s important for my visitors to be able to read my story as well as the stories of the designers I work with. I do a lot of this “storytelling” through the LAMA blog. Along with interviews I do with the designers I work with, I also like to share information about Latin design and culture around the world as well as share anecdotes about my own experiences being a shopkeeper. With all of the large companies and automated systems out there, I want my customers to know that there are real individuals behind everything they see on the site. Good and bad, I share it all. Just as I like to get a glimpse inside the inner workings of companies I like, I enjoy giving my visitors a little glimpse into mine. It’s nice to create a personal experience as best as you can on the web.

Tell us about your marketing strategies for promoting Lama Designs.

CM: While I was conceptualizing LAMA, I was constantly searching for the places on the web (mostly design related blogs) where LAMA would fit in. I researched and bookmarked hundreds of blogs that might be interested in the work I was doing at LAMA, and once I was ready to launch, I decided to shoot them all an email. It wasn’t the most sophisticated approach but it worked. Today, I continue the same type of searching for those unique blogs and magazines where LAMA is relevant, and I’ll often shoot them a sincere message. I think sincerity is the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re marketing your business. If I were to try to promote LAMA to a magazine that would have no business writing about LAMA, it would obviously be an insincere move to make. These type of un-researched, mass email attempts of marketing rarely work and aren’t a positive reflection of your company. I stay away from them. More recently, twitter has become a fun and favorite way for me to market LAMA. It’s incredible how many great relationships I have developed through 140 character blurbs on twitter.

Why did you decide to call it Lama Designs?

CM: Originally, when LAMA was set to be a company of my own textile work produced in Ecuador, I thought LAMA would be a very fitting name given the llama and alpaca wool that was to be utilized in the design work as well as Ecuador’s relationship with this beautiful animal. Already creating the logo in my head at that point, I decided to drop one of the L’s in llama to give the company a more contemporary feel. I liked the way the letters L-A-M-A told the story of both the inspiration and the location. To me, the peaks of the A-M-A looked like a mountain range… like the peaks of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador where these gorgeous llamas are found and where much of this work is produced. Once the concept of the company changed, I decided to keep the name I had become quite attached to and evolve it into something else. That’s when I came up with the idea that LAMA would be an acronym for Latin America in the Modern Age… exactly what the company is and represents.

If you had to teach someone to start an online shop, what are the necessary steps they would need to know.

CM: Wow! That’s a big question! I think I’ll bullet point this one:
– Be passionate and knowledgeable about the business idea you come up with. If you’re not completely excited and passionate about it from the very beginning, you’re enthusiasm will most certainly wear off as the road to building a business gets bumpy.

– Do your research. I can’t emphasize this point enough! Research, research, research, and then research some more. There is always going to be so much you don’t know so the more information and knowledge you can gain on your own, the more equipped you’re going to be to keep pushing forward.

– Write a cohesive business plan. You may or may not follow this plan, but it’s important to have a firm foundation, a well thought out concept, a reasonable timeline to work with, and a strong frame for the years to come. A lot of times, through the process of writing out a plan, you can start to see what is and what’s isn’t going to work. If the numbers aren’t telling you what you need to be seeing or if things aren’t lining up quite right, you know what you have to work out. Get it worked out before you move ahead.

– As far as building the site, find a designer whose aesthetic is in line with your own and who has a good understanding of what you need your brand to convey. Personality is also very important. You’re going to be working with this person or persons quite a bit so you want to make sure that you communicate well with each other. I highly recommend going through a referral process when trying to find the right person. If someone you know and trust has has a good experience working with that individual before, the chances of you having a positive experience as well is in your favor. Also, write a contract!

– Choosing merchandise is an incredibly challenging thing to do. You never really know what’s going to take off and what’s going to flop. I recommend being as unique as possible with your selection process while staying within the concept you have laid out. If you’re carrying the same merchandise a lot of your competitors are carrying, it’s going to be that much harder to move merchandise and distinguish your shop from others. Trust your instincts when making these decisions. Again, make sure you have a strong concept and look for your brand. This will help you quite often in your purchasing decisions.

– Market, market, market! No one is going to know you’re there unless you tell them. You really can’t wait for press and customers to find you. This is one of many areas where strong research comes into play. If you know who your target audience is, you’ll know who to introduce to your store.

– Always be kind and attentive to your customers. You’ll want them to come back! This sounds easier than it actually is sometimes. There are always going to be people that are impossible to please. No matter what, maintain a professional attitude. Most problems can actually be solved easier than you think.

– LOVE YOUR BUSINESS. Not just at the beginning, but always. It will always get tough. You’re going to get tired. Sometimes, you’re going to wonder why you decided to go into business at all. It happens to us all. The best way to get through it is to stay passionate about it. The second you stop caring, it will start to show. If that happens, take some time to remind yourself why you fell in love with your work in the first place. Like any other relationship, your relationship with your business is going to have it’s up and downs but, if there is true love and passion, you’ll get through the rough patches.

What was the biggest challenge you went through to open up your company and how did you overcome it?

CM: The biggest challenge I had was finding the designers I wanted to work with, trying to get into touch with them, and then convincing them to work with me. It was extremely challenging to create these relationships with designers in other countries, many of which had not sold in the US before. Eventually, I realized the best thing would be to hop on a plane and head down to some of the larger South American cities where many of my designers were based. If it’s possible, it’s always best to build relationships in person.

What do you know now that you wish you knew before you started your company?

CM: Honestly, I’m glad I went into this not knowing a whole lot about what was to come. I often wonder if I would have had the courage to start this business had I known how challenging it was going to be. Some things are best left unanticipated.

What person has motivated you the most throughout this journey. Please describe this person and what they possess that’s so special.

CM: My fiancé! That’s the first time I’ve ever written that. We just got engaged! He has been incredibly supportive of this journey I had to take. He has never questioned me, or my ideas. He’s the most patient person I know. Every time I freak out and panic, he’s there to calm me down. During the holiday season when I’m up all night packaging orders, he’s right there with me. He gets me through every obstacle and over every hurdle. I couldn’t do it without his faith and support.

What’s your definition of success?

CM: I used to be trapped in the idea that my own success could only be quantified in dollars. I think a lot of us fall into that. Now, I define my success through my level of happiness. I realize now it’s the most important thing. If I’m happy, doing work that I love, and making a contribution to others in a positive way, than I am successful.

How do you mentally overcome negativity, whether it’s a person or anything else that may bring you down from time to time?

CM: For me, the best thing to do is to temporarily step away from the situation for a day or so. Often times, my first reaction to a situation isn’t the reaction I would have had 24 hours later. Most emails/phone calls don’t need an immediate response, so it’s best to hold off until you’ve had enough time to process a situation. Also, doing a lot of yoga helps as well!

What do you look for in vendors and how do you go about to find them?

CM: First and foremost, I look for quality and originality. If it’s something I know I would buy, I feel good about selling it. I also like to take the time to get to know a vendor a bit before placing an order. It’s important to be able to rely on your vendors. I also like to know their own story (what inspires them, what do they do when they’re not creating beautiful objects, etc.) Not only do I find it fascinating, but also I love to be able to pass that information along to my customers. I think it makes a product just that much more unique. At this point, most of my new vendors are able to find me through the LAMA website. I highly encourage portfolio submissions. I also find a lot of great designers through blogs and sites like flickr. Referral and worth of mouth is also a great way to find new talent.

As a business owner, what valuable information do you know now about owning a company that you would like to share.

CM: I think it’s incredibly important to be patient. Patience is certainly a virtue when starting a business. Almost everything you can possibly think of will take much longer than expected. So long as you keep that in mind and remember not to beat yourself up when things are moving slowly, you’ll get through challenging times. Patience, patience, patience! I can’t emphasize that enough.

What is the most time consuming part about owning your company?

CM: Like most small businesses, I am incredibly understaffed. There are very few things that I don’t do completely on my own. Because of that, everything can be extremely time consuming. Marketing, web maintenance, processing and shipping orders, answering emails, product research, photography, copy writing, it’s all very time consuming.

What are you currently trying to improve on (as a business owner)?

CM: Staying focused. With so many tasks to tackle, I tend to be all over the place. My mind wanders a lot. I think sometimes when you have too many ides, it’s challenging to execute even one of them! Keeping myself on a schedule is something I’m always trying to improve on.

What’s your hottest selling item, please describe it, the value and why you think it’s so popular?

CM: My hottest selling item has been the Toile Print Mexican Oilcloth Laptop case. Made from nearly indestructible, waterproof, and easy to clean Mexican oilcloth, it’s an adorable and perfect laptop case. I’ve had one of my own for years. Lucky Magazine featured this case in 2008 and it has been a hot item ever since. The completely affordable price point ($28-$32) keeps this item flying off the shelf.

What’s in the works for your company?

CM: I’m going to be giving the website a great new makeover soon along with pulling in some great new products. I’m also planning to focus a lot more attention on the very cool and interesting designers I work with. Lately, I’ve been working hard to maintain the LAMA blog with daily posts about Latin American art and design as well as little anecdotes about my life as a shopkeeper. It’s been a lot of fun for me to pass along fun information. There are so many projects that are just waiting to be tackled!

Any great deals with Lama Designs we should know about?

CM: I’m planning a big sale soon! I don’t have the date set yet (it’s tbd), but I’m getting ready to make way for new products and a new LAMA look!

Tell us what a typical day in your shoes is like.

CM: Typically, I’m in front of my computer (with a huge cup of coffee) by 8am. After writing and publishing my daily blog post, I spend some time surfing the net, reading blogs and the NY Times, basically just taking in some daily inspiration. From there, I spend the next hour or so checking and answering emails. Once that’s complete, if it’s a shipping day, I prepare shipments to go out and deliver them to the post office. After a quick lunch break, I spend the rest of the day working on any and all new or existing projects. It really varies. It may not sound like much but sometimes I’m surprised by how late it is by the time I step away from my computer and close up my office for the day.

What do you LOVE the most about having your own company?

CM: I love the freedom I have to schedule my days the way I want to. I love that I can leave my office in the middle of the day to go to yoga. I love that my fiancé and I get to have lunch together almost every day, and I love that my dog Miles sits under my desk at all times. More than anything else, I love that I get to do something very meaningful to me.

Edited by: Bridgette


Cities, Los Angeles, Novelty
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