It was just a matter of time before bilingual Internet companies began courting Monterey County's Latino population.
Thursday, June 29, 2000
Spencer French was out to sell ads for the Spanish language TV station, Univision, not to sell computers. But in his door-to-door sales work with small Latino businesses in Salinas, French was overwhelmed with questions about computer problems and requests for help.
"In my dealing with Latino clients and small businesses, I saw a real need for a helping hand in office networking and computer technology in Spanish," says French. So last July he launched Frontera Computers in Salinas to do just that--use his computer and language skills to go to local mom-and-pop businesses and offer a helping hand in setting up their computer systems and accessing the Web. French, a Spanish literature major in college, says the language barrier is the real hurdle in getting Latinos online.
Already 32 million strong, Latinos represent the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S. and boast a largely untapped buying power estimated at $425 billion. While the e-commerce industry was initially slow to target Latino markets, the trend has reversed, and Monterey County start-ups are getting in on the bilingual Internet action.
The first step in tapping the expanding Latino market is to close the "digital divide"--the gap that separates the online capacity of wealthy elite communities from that of lower income and minority groups. According to a recent study conducted by the e-commerce research firm Jupiter Communications, the gap is narrowing, with 41 percent of Latinos, 54 percent of whites, and 69 percent of Asian-Americans now plugged into the Web. For Monterey County, that means the estimated 149,000 Latinos residents--over a third of the total population--represent an increasingly powerful market force online.
Frontera Computers'' distribution of Spanish language software and bilingual computer assistance to Latino-owned businesses drew a great response, so much so that French invited college friend Bryce Gartrell down from Washington state last October hoping to use his experience in bilingual Website design to create a bilingual storefront for Latino businesses in the area. In the best college tradition, Gartrell spent three months sleeping on French''s couch in Salinas and working to generate a business plan and secure venture capital funding. The three months of discomfort paid off, and last spring Frontera Communications was born.
Frontera Communications gobbled up the activities of Frontera Computers and set to work to launch its Website, called Zocaloco.com, after the Aztec word for marketplace, zocálo. Intended to replicate the historic Mexican marketplace, Zocaloco.com will offer e-commerce opportunities with the goods and services of local businesses from the tri-county area, as well as local news and events, all in one bilingual forum. A staff of 10 is now working feverishly to get the Website up by early July.
Local companies, Latino and non-Latino alike, will pay Frontera Communications for the space on Zocaloco.com. Frontera Communications takes care of the advertising and maintains the site, but the client business goes directly to the individual stores.
Gartrell says the company hopes that getting locals online to buy won''t be a struggle, thanks to Zocaloco.com''s community information and free e-mail service. He has high hopes of drawing an extensive customer base from the estimated 290,000 Latinos as well as the general population in the tri-county area encompassing Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties.
In terms of getting local businesses ready to take the cyberspace plunge, the sales team reaches out repeatedly and offers guidance. "Our whole concept is to help close the digital divide," says Miguel Martinez, account manager for Frontera Communications. "A lot of markets are run by the father in the family, but the kids are doing a lot of the work. They have to convince their parents to go online. When they see their business online, it becomes relevant."
A similar idea brought Latino-market entrepreneur Edwin Culp to the area. After 20 years of business experience in Mexico, including pioneering UNIX training centers and six start-up companies, Culp relocated to Silicon Valley last year to get the Valley "stamp of approval" that he says is necessary for a company to expand. While developing his latest entrepreneurial ventures, EnContacto.Net and CafeMania.Net, Culp helped start the International Angel Investors group and traveled to the Peninsula to open a Monterey Bay chapter.
He didn''t have to look any further to decide where to base his home and business. The combination of the high quality of life and the availability of highly trained, multilingual and diverse students from the Monterey Institute of International Studies convinced Culp to leave Silicon Valley and head south. "After 30 years in Mexico, Silicon Valley was a real culture shock," he explains. "The people are cold there, they don''t create relationships. It''s just not a nice place to live." And so Culp moved his family into Pacific Grove and his business into an office on Foam in Monterey.
EnContacto.Net, scheduled to launch in July, aims to create Internet infrastructure to foster virtual and physical community in Latino communities throughout the Americas, encourage cottage industry, and create a future Latin market for their financial services to both consumers and investors, which include micro-credit, attraction of foreign investment, and exploration of new models for online advertising.
But according to Culp, you have to create a market before you can tap it. That explains the socially conscious, nonprofit side of EnContacto, a future network of "community centers" throughout Latin America where people can learn Internet skills. "You''ve got to look at the individual first," he says. "Latinos want community, they want to bring people together. The first thing is to communicate with family far away with e-mail, get photos up online, then gradually you can work into business and see how Latinos can take advantage of the Internet."
An interesting realization has led Culp''s local team of 20 to launch a similar training program for locals. While enthusiastic about the talent, skills, and diversity of MIIS business school students, Culp was dismayed by the lack of real hands-on training the students had received. "Business school seems to stifle student creativity, and all the paradigms block their instincts and views," he explains. "The students needed to get their hands wet and the Internet needs people as guides."
And so CafeMania.Net was born to provide MIIS students with hands-on practice in Internet training through a Monterey computer center where locals and tourists alike drop in to rent hardware like digital cameras and laptops and get some expert advice. CafeMania''s multi-lingual staff will serve the whole community while targeting Latinos and other second-language speakers at their centers soon to open in Salinas, Watsonville and Marina. "We''re very interested in the community being successful. Businesses need to give back to the community. Our success depends on that," says Culp.
While there may be some overlap down the road between dot-coms vying for the Latino market, all sides feel there is still plenty of room for healthy competition. The greater question is how ready the region is for cyber-development. Last week at the Old Monterey Marketplace, Culp couldn''t find a high-speed DSL Internet line in downtown Monterey for his interactive display.
Meanwhile, in its office on Main Street in Oldtown Salinas, Frontera Communications is struggling to get approval from the Salinas Redevelopment Agency for the Zocaloco sign to grace the building. "Oldtown is struggling for its identity," muses Gartrell. "More than just this sign, it''s a question of where Salinas is going. Some people are really excited about young techies moving in. Salinas knows it''s going to look different, but it doesn''t know how."