Born for Business
Zumba Co-founder, Beto Perlman
Published: May 21, 2010
My great-grandfather moved from Jerusalem to Colombia at age 20 because he heard there were business opportunities there. He went from town to town selling textiles on horseback although he didn’t speak a word of Spanish.
When I was about 6, I had a watch that had a game on it. I loaned it to a classmate on weekends, and he gave me money in exchange. One weekend my mom me asked where my watch was. When I told her, she called the boy’s mother to apologize and made me return all the money. My father was proud. He said I invented renting.
It was a dangerous time in Colombia in the 1980s. Every time the government would pursue the drug dealers, they’d retaliate and bomb government buildings and public places. We’d hear the popping sounds at school. My dad owned a factory that made leather goods, and when I was 9 we were glad to live in the United States for six months while he opened a distribution center in Florida.
I moved back to the United States in 1994, and in 1998, I graduated from Babson College in Massachusetts with a B.A. in finance and information systems. Working as a management consultant for a while, I analyzed call centers for a bank to determine the effectiveness of its TV advertising. It was boring, but I learned about direct response marketing, which would come in handy later.
When I went home to Colombia to visit, my mother would rave about a fitness class she was taking with Alberto Perez, whom everyone calls Beto, that involved a dance routine set to Latin and international music.
In 1999, I created a business conference called Latin Venture with a partner, where Latin American entrepreneurs presented their business plans. I got companies like I.B.M. and Telefónica to sponsor it, and I lined up venture capitalists as speakers and panelists. We held the conference in Miami.
Then three partners and I created Spydre Labs, a business incubator for Latin American entrepreneurs with ideas for Internet businesses. We raised several million dollars and invested in the start-ups we created.
Then the tech bubble burst, funding dried up, and I had to let everyone go. I decided to return what remained of the investors’ money because my father always taught me that if you’re honest and respectful, it will come back to you tenfold.
My parents had moved to Miami by then, and I had dinner at their house that night. My mother suggested that I talk to Beto about starting a business related to his fitness routine. He had also moved to Florida and was giving fitness classes here.
He and I met and discovered that neither of us had any money. We decided to start a company anyway, and I asked Alberto Aghion, one of my best friends from childhood, to join us. We wanted to sell home fitness videos directly to consumers, so one night we set up on the beach and had a videographer film a fitness class. We started looking for joint venture partners for producing videos we could market on television.
Along with a TV infomercial, the home videos introduced our concept to the public, and when people called wanting to be trained as instructors, the company took off. Zumba Fitness is now in about 50,000 locations in 75 countries. This year we’re introducing a game for Nintendo Wii, Xbox and PlayStation.
I’ve learned that if you don’t take a risk, that’s a risk in itself. I’ve also learned that your customers are your boss. Our main customers are our instructors, who pay for training. They have their own community on our site, and I listen carefully when they tell me what we need to do in the future.
As told to Patricia R. Olsen. (Appeared in NY Times.com 5/21/2010)