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Molly Robbins saw an opportunity in Mexico beyond maquiladora manufacturing plants. Instead of concentrating on cheap labor, Robbins, 42, mined the largely unexplored riches of Mexican intellectual property. The result is LicenZing, her $1 million lifestyle brand marketing and licensing agency in San Rafael, California.
The World Bank ranks Mexico 44 in the world in terms of ease of doing business, putting it in the top third. Matt Harrup, founder of Mexico City-based information portal Mexperience.com, says that the Mexican economy offers good prospects for foreign firms that can find a niche. The market is especially favorable for companies that can provide "First World know-how," especially as it relates to energy, food production, technology and banking. Not to mention, Mexico has had minimal inflation and lays claim to one of the highest per capita incomes in Latin America, even though it's only about $12,500. And of course, Mexico's link to the United States was strengthened in 1994 with the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Even though Robbins was born in Mexico, speaks Spanish and knows the culture, she still ran into issues that any Mexico-bound entrepreneur would face. One of the biggest seems to be a challenge left over from decades ago: Many of her contacts can't make long-distance calls, so she must call them again and again to make a connection. And when describing the odyssey she went through to get logos, Robbins says, "I've had to recreate a lot of the artwork that's been provided for me because it's not really in a format that's usable--which is surprising because these are multimillion-dollar companies."
Such challenges are part of a familiar pattern in Mexico, so be prepared to work around inevitable delays. Mexicans tend to follow a more languid time standard, so beyond bringing something to read when waiting for an appointment, expect a lack of urgency when it comes to finalizing a contract. In fact, says Robbins, Mexicans aren't loco about legalese in general. "Business is still done in the majority of the country the old-fashioned way: with a handshake," Robbins says. There's also a strong current of machismo; men are most comfortable dealing with a woman who dresses traditionally--in a skirt.
Regardless of whether you're wearing trousers or a dress, it's crucial to understand who wears the pants in the Mexican company you're dealing with. "Always start at the top," says Robbins, who flew down to Mexico to meet with a vice president of Bimbo--a multibillion-dollar Mexican brand and the world's third largest bakery corporation, which also happens to have a cheeky, salable name to emblazon on T-shirts--who then secured her a meeting with the president of Bimbo. Harrup adds that Mexican companies will expect a deal to be finalized in person by the two parties' owners, not by surrogates.
When meeting with your Mexican partner--often over breakfast or lunch--don't rush to get down to business. Mexicans place a lot of importance on family, so asking about the kids and showing true interest will go a long way in forging business ties. With the small talk finished, Harrup advises tossing out your step-by-step agenda because Mexicans prefer less-structured meetings that can seem haphazard by American standards.
"There is still tremendous opportunity in Mexico," says Harrup, who sees great close-to-home potential for American entrepreneurs as the economies of the United States, Canada and Mexico become more harmonized.