The Bronx Entrepreneurs Series: Perspectives on Creative Industry
11 years ago Mainland Media LLC's co-founders, Anthony Ramirez II and John Martin, rented a helicopter to take aerial photos of the South Bronx. That was the precursor to FromtheBronx.com, the company’s online shop featuring Bronx-themed memorabilia and products. The helicopter tour reinforced what Ramirez and Martin believed about their borough: The Bronx was bigger than their immediate neighborhoods. And it was a source of pride and place of untapped potential – even if many residents and most outsiders didn’t share the sentiment.
The company began putting down roots in 2006, just two years before the Recession of 2008. As banks tightened their loan policies, the years that followed proved to be a challenging time for many companies. A DePaul University study commissioned by the Small Business Administration found that within two years after the recession there was a $116 billion drop in lending to small businesses.
At the start, the founders combined their own money to drive the business forward. Four years ago, a donation from an angel investor helped launch the Bronx Beer Hall. Now, the parent company of FromtheBronx.com and the Bronx Beer Hall is putting its Bronx expertise to work in the marketing and consulting area. The central pillar of Mainland Media’s business model is establishing partnerships and working with clients who are serious about the Bronx winning.
But the beer hall, the “new kid on the block” in the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, has been met with a mix of uneasiness and praise from long-standing merchants in the market, patrons and in the comment section of press coverage on the startup.
Paul Ramirez, head of Mainland Media’s public relations, says it’s an inherently communal space and a prime venue to display the lesser-known side of the Bronx. “Our real goal is to further the image of the borough. Having these businesses gives us a platform to do that,” Ramirez said during our recent interview.
Armed with a vision to showcase the best of the Bronx and overflowing rolodexes inherited from retired Bronx movers and shakers, Mainland Media is positioning to be a proponent of self-gentrification – making sustainable socio-economic improvements from within the borough.
I spoke with Paul Ramirez about Mainland Media’s journey and business forecast.
What was the idea behind taking aerial photos of the South Bronx?
There were just no positive images of the Bronx. We’re talking about 11 years ago, [around] 2005, 2006. What are you going to find? You’re going to find Yankee Stadium, Rumble in the Bronx posters. You were finding Bronx Zoo stuff very easily. But nothing that was an accurate representation of the borough...The idea was [to capture] aerial images of landscapes. What does the Bronx mean to you? First you have to understand what the Bronx looks like. It turned into just instilling a sense of pride and confidence in people who weren’t proud of where they’re from.
What motivates Mainland Media’s initiatives?
The growth of the borough overall. We are fortunate enough to have people coming up who realize the value of staying within our borough and owning the identity of our borough. In the past four years we’ve seen such a growth in Bronx specific business. That’s our main motivation. We are actually influencing and hopefully setting a stage so that somebody can take the reins one day and just keep running with it. And there will be continuity as opposed to us dropping the ball and moving on to just focusing on beer.
Why did Mainland Media go the LLC route?
Everybody thought the best idea for this was to be a non-profit organization. And being a non-profit meant that we could do more community-based events and we could do a lot of things with money that we didn’t have to necessarily generate as much as we could bid for. We could put in a proposal, get a grant and then put our stuff to work. But we were working for non-profits at the time. We know how the money works. One of our [partners] was a grant writer for SoBro. My brother, [Anthony Ramirez II], was director of youth development at SoBro. I was the deputy director of Wildcat Service Corporation in Hunts Point. The non-profit game is a shady, sticky game.
In what way is the non-profit industry shady?
The models always have the best intentions written into their mission statements. But who’s running that? Is it a board of 12 gentlemen? Gentlemen. Definitely. No women on these boards. Are these 12 guys from the borough? Do they realize the needs within our community? Or do they realize what kinds of benefits and tax breaks they can get by creating a non-profit organization…in a space that [focuses on] at risk youth? As opposed to going the non-profit route, we realized that this was potentially a profitable business and we were inspired enough and we knew that we could get other businesses on board without writing proposals and fighting for grants. And it did work out that way for us. There are a lot of like-minded people, people who were born and raised here who realized how valuable what we were doing was and they were willing to help us out.
What does it take to start an LLC?
Everybody thinks it’s a hard thing. If you’re smart you own the website first and the website’s going to cost you 30 bucks, 40 bucks for the year. Obtain the URL; now nobody can take your business name. And you can start building content from there. And when you have enough money or you have an actual following and you see it’s going to be profitable turn it into an LLC. It’s an easy thing. It’s an online application. You pay via credit card. In a matter of days or weeks you have a business.
On laying the groundwork before officially launching a business?
I’d recommend entrepreneurs try to gauge who their audience is. It’s great to have an idea and to start a business, but if that business doesn’t have a core audience and you don’t know who your target is then what are you supposed to do? It’s trial by numbers and it’s not worth it. The foundation has to be there before you say ‘alright this is worth me investing, owning a website, creating content and servicing others.’ Think about how many people go into business with this great idea and they don’t make any money and they represent a brand that might resonate with people because they see it online. Unfortunately, people still think that “Likes” translate into dollars…You can like things all day. But it’s really about making sure you have an engaged audience.
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Is it tough to convert online support into actual engagement?
Initially it felt like it was. When we first started, Mainland Media didn’t resonate with anybody. Mainland resonates with people in Hawaii. It resonates with people in China, but for Mainland Media in New York City people didn’t acknowledge the fact that all the other boroughs are islands and the Bronx is the only one attached to the continental U.S. So while we thought this was smart and clever, it didn’t have an audience because the audience didn’t get what Mainland Media means. So we started FromtheBronx.com only because we felt the need –this was before Facebook – to have our own social media platform. And then Facebook took off. We realized that From the Bronx exists, but there’s a lot of backend stuff to do when hosting a social media site that we were going to be falling behind on or we were going to be competing with Facebook. Why compete with Facebook? We would be shooting ourselves in the foot. So we transitioned all the From the Bronx content to Facebook. [In the process] we realized that From the Bronx is so much easier for people to click with.
On From The Bronx:
FromtheBronx.com doesn’t just sell stuff that From the Bronx makes. Mainland Media doesn’t make all the content on FromtheBronx.com. We made it as a platform for Bronxites to get Bronx art in their hands. We try to be “the purveyor.”
Are you working with Bronx Artists to produce merchandise for the online store?
Right now we’re working on a collaboration with Bronx Native. [If] anybody wants to sell something via our website, approach us. It’s only going to make sure more people see your stuff. We worked with Project Bronx last year. And their t-shirts sold out. We’re more than open to work with anybody who has a positive outlook on the borough.
How important is it to have a physical space like the Bronx Beer Hall?
Press for the beer hall is leaps and bounds beyond what we expected; it’s really what’s helped us garner more clients for Mainland Media. We always said we wanted it, and the fact that it happened so organically was like ‘this was meant to be.’ We were meant to have this platform. While we’ve obviously had obstacles being in a neighborhood that we’re not from, our mission does resonate well enough that our neighbors see the power of a younger mindset, a stricter concept and the ability to pull people in. Do you know how many friends I’ve made here just off the strength of having this public space? Arthur Avenue is the number two tourist destination in the borough. The venue lends a lot to improving the overall image [of the Bronx]. If we’re packed you better know that you’re going to end up engaging people you wouldn’t otherwise sit with. It [starts] a whole conversation about the negative perceptions…and now their point of view has been changed, and not by me. [But] by somebody who’s in my space because my space exists.
On marketing and consulting:
We’ve put our clients in interesting situations sometimes. There are nonprofits that are kind of getting funding from wherever they can. But when we explain to them why they shouldn’t be accepting this sort of funding because they’re on the same wavelength they’re willing to go against it. As a consultant I can tell you anything. You don’t have to do it. You’re paying me for my advice. But if you accept a $10,000 grant from [someone] you’ve just legitimized [them]. We try not to put our stamp on [something] if we don’t believe in it.
On supporting initiatives that are aimed at improving the Bronx:
We do so many events. I sit on the junior board for WHEDco. We do large events for them. We do large events for the Parks Department. All the things that we personally think the borough needs to have more of a push behind we get behind. We did the launch for Bronx Exchange, which is essentially an online white pages. So something like that it’s serving the benefit of the community at large. Why wouldn’t we host them? Why would I charge you for using my space? Come in. We’ll figure out everything else after that. That’s the way I work and it surprises a lot of people. We’re not only thinking about the money. We’re thinking about the growth overall, but the growth overall is going to lead to economic growth for everybody involved. That’s how we see it. And that’s why we don’t make our own food [at the beer hall]. What would I look like walking in here trying to make a meatball? Why wouldn’t I want to showcase everything that the neighborhood has to offer?
How do you balance maintaining business relationships and making a profit?
Sometimes you have to sacrifice the profit for the relationship. Sometimes you have to sacrifice the relationship for the profit. If you understand that there are relationships that are one-sided and completely self-serving for another party…and if they’re not benefiting me in any way that’s when the sacrifice comes in. We’ve worked with plenty of Bronx businesses that still owe us. And it’s better to walk away than for me to sit and harp about “what I did for you.” Meanwhile, they still come to the Bronx Beer Hall. They’re still trying to engage with people we engage with. But we’re still here. I’m doing this because I love doing this. People have to understand that we’re approachable. We’re not making boatloads of money. We’re doing good work for the community. In doing those things it becomes that there’s a certain air about [us], but we’re still just two brothers born and raised in the Bronx. All of our business partners were born and raised in the Bronx. Guys with full scholarships to Horace Mann [School]. One’s from Woodlawn. One’s from Bainbridge. [My brother and I] are from West Farms/Parkchester. It’s about the borough…We’re still here to make sure that we’re entrenched in everything that goes on in the borough.
What are your thoughts on fundraising?
I think it’s really about finding your industry and identifying within your industry how most people go about it. Everything for Mainland Media was funded ground up out of our own pockets. Whatever little money we had got pooled together and then everybody got their money back, nothing extra on top and now the business runs. Obtaining funding is very industry specific. Crowdsourcing is amazing, but you have to make sure you have the audience before you can go out there. It’s about marketing yourself. And the advent of Facebook and other social media sites have really allowed people to see the power within themselves; they don’t have to be backed by a brand. But it’s about building that network. There are a lot of older Bronxites when we started 11 years ago who are now retired and they are no longer in the position they once held, but since they realized the work that we were doing they’ve made sure to connect us with people.
What’s the hardest part of the job?
Staying awake. I sleep about three hours a day. We’re spread thin, but we do good work. The work that we do is beyond us. It’s not just about us. That’s what drives me. But time is the hardest part.
What’s the vision for long term expansion?
We just really want to see the face of the business change in the borough. I want to see the quality of the politicians change in the borough. There are a lot of things that has to come from within and we only set the stage for those coming behind us. If I can inspire some [young Bronxite] to say ‘I want to do better for my community,’ If I can do that it doesn’t matter where my business goes. We know we’re going to flourish. We know we’re going to do better. We know there’s always going to be an interest in the borough going forward. We just have to be selective. And the work that we do speaks for itself.
What advice would you give to up and coming entrepreneurs?
Do your best. Don’t second guess yourself. Know your own limits. Understand when you don’t know something be outright and say that because you can land yourself in a serious hole if you pretend to be bigger than what you are. [Go to] networking events. You can’t be scared to approach somebody. Treat everybody exactly the same. I don’t care how much money you have in your bank account. I don’t care if that’s a black card on my bar. It doesn’t matter. It’s about your integrity. Be fair and be willing to talk anybody. We’re in a day and age where everybody’s accessible: via a tweet, a DM, via an email, via a mention. The possibilities are endless. Don’t be scared. Everybody got their start somewhere.