As applications for the 2012 Inc. 500|5000 arrive, we thought it would be worthwhile to shine a spotlight on some of the companies that are vying to appear on our ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. (For more information and to apply, click here.) One that caught our eye was Norwalk, California-based EC Hispanic Media.
In the late 1980s, after a stint as an Ernst & Young accountant, Martha de la Torre took a job as the CFO of Los Angeles based La Opinión, the largest Spanish language daily newspaper in the United States.
After working for La Opinión for two years, de la Torre saw a growing demand for Spanish-language products, and wanted to create an entertainment publication. The only problem? As a second-generation Ecuadorian, her Spanish wasn’t good enough.
"I really wanted to start an LA Weekly—something more entertainment-oriented—but I couldn't write in Spanish, and I could barely read in Spanish," she says. "I figured I could write a classified ad, and I knew from La Opinión that classifieds were really the revenue drivers."
This was the birth of El Clasificado, a printed booklet of classified ads for the Spanish-speaking community. Today, it's one of six media properties owned by de la Torre's EC Hispanic Media company, which raked in nearly $18 million in revenue last year. El Clasificado, the company's flagship publication, comes out weekly, and serves around 475,000 locals in Southern California.
But the path to success wasn't easy—or quick.
"When I started the company, I had not really planned on being an entrepreneur," the El Clasificado CEO says. “I thought I was going to be the sweat equity investor who could write the business plan and do the backend work. I thought other people would lead, but they didn’t come through.”
In 1988, de la Torre sold her house and car, and moved in with her dad (De la Torre says the living situation “was supposed to be for seven weeks, and I stayed for seven years”). Her co-founder (and now her husband) Joe Badame raised the $350,000 to start El Clasificado.
In the early days, she learned business strategy the hard way. For example, at first, she mailed El Clasificado directly to homes, and realized she was losing money. So as per the suggestion of her parents, de la Torre began dropping copies at grocery markets—a suggestion that worked. The outlet has kept that model ever since.
"I wasn’t taking a salary at that time. I was responsible to the few people who invested, and I couldn’t go bankrupt," she says. "It was against my core values. So I wanted to keep it going until I could pay off the investors and creditors."
Her hard work paid off. Between 2000 and 2010, the five-time Inc. 5000 company grew rapidly. The company went from 40 employees and $2 million in revenue in 2000 to 140 employees and more than $16 million in 2010. During this time, the company expanded its digital platforms, and focused on "print, events, web, mobile and social media channels." Last June, the company became EC Hispanic Media, an umbrella brand that would house El Clasificado as well as its growing number of digital properties.
The company now includes quineanera.com (a website that puts on an expo for the traditional Latino 15th birthday celebration), alborde.com (a Latin entertainment news site) and Salud y Ninos (a newsletter that helps families learn how to care for children’s health).
Emphasizing the importance of community, de la Torre hired local high school students early on, after being inspired by Stand and Deliver. Now, some of those first recruits are managers and directors in her 170-employee company.
"That’s actually, to be honest with you, what kept us going a lot of those bad years because we almost had our debt paid off. But we thought if we close this down right now, where will they go?” de la Torre says. “They won’t have an opportunity to work in an office, work on computers, so we wanted to keep it going just a little bit longer because we didn’t want them to go out on the street, and then they motivated us to get keep it going until it succeeded."