In 2011, Carla Curiel of Coral Gables was pregnant with twins and thinking about her home country, the Dominican Republic. “I wanted them to respect and love their heritage,” said Curiel, whose husband, Roberto Castro, is Venezuelan-American. “I wanted to raise them as bicultural and bilingual children.”
With 14 nieces and nephews, Curiel said she knew that interest in speaking Spanish as a second language waned at about age 6. So Curiel began to think about how she could connect her babies to her language and culture. Today, she is CEO of Lanugo, a line of products that help Hispanic moms connect their kids with their heritage. Here is how she did it.
The big idea
Lanugo is a line of infant and toddler products geared to Hispanic families who want to teach kids about their heritage and culture. Nine cartoon characters and traditional Hispanic sayings are used on onesies, T-shirts, cups, totes, wall decor and other products to promote culture from a young age. Products range from $9.99 to $14.99.
Never miss a local story.
Curiel comes from a long line of entrepreneurs. Her family owns the largest chain of drug stores in the Dominican Republic. She holds a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship from Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. “I always knew I wanted to have my own business,” she said.
Curiel and her husband own an import/export business, and Castro serves as Lanugo’s chief operating officer.
When Curiel was pregnant, she looked for items that promoted Hispanic culture in both large retailers and small specialty shops. She was disappointed in the limited selection, with basic phrases such as “I love Mama” in Spanish.
Curiel created a focus group of Latina moms in Miami, and a survey for mom friends and family throughout the United States, to gauge their interest in her idea. She asked if they would buy the products, and how much they would pay.
Curiel attended a children’s apparel expo to find fabric suppliers, printers and manufacturers. “I got samples and evaluated quality, and got quotes,” she said. “But you have to find somebody you click with; it’s not only about the lowest price.”
Curiel chose the name “Lanugo” for the company because it’s derived from the Spanish word for the downy hair an infant grows to protect it in the womb. Then she came up with the slogans for her products. She wanted to improve upon trite phrases such as “I love Mama.”
“So I went with traditional sayings from our culture, then I figured out how to make it fun,” Curiel said.
Curiel and a Latino designer friend came up with cartoon animals like pigs, lambs and birds to appeal to kids. Each character has its own personality, and is tied into Hispanic culture in some way.
Curiel created an inventory of onesies and T-shirts, then ordered “blanks” that can be printed as needed. “But I didn’t want to be thought of as just a T-shirt company,” Curiel said. When she launched in April 2013, she had a collection of products ranging from wall decor to drinkware to clothing.
Lanugo launched its eCommerce website and its product line in April 2013 at the Hispanicize trade show in Miami. “We didn’t try to connect with moms right away,” Curiel said. “We wanted to connect with influencers in the community, because this is a big concept. We want to create a children’s world that will expand to apps, books and toys …The Hispanic moms in the U.S. really want that.”
Because the idea was newsy, Lanugo has gotten coverage on Univision, Telemundo, CNN and other outlets without doing a public relations campaign, Curiel said. But she does rely heavily on social media, using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest to build personalities for her cartoon characters and share recipes, traditional songs and Hispanic parenting news.
Lanugo hired an agency to do Facebook advertising to help raise its visibility for a contest Walmart sponsored to get new products on its shelves. A public relations agency has been hired to help raise visibility during Hispanic Heritage Month.
Curiel attends local parenting community events “not so much for the sales, but to keep a connection with the market and get feedback about favorite characters, product ideas and what kids are connecting to,” she said.
Curiel attended a licensing expo in Las Vegas in July because she hopes to one day license her branded merchandise to other manufacturers. In October, she will attend her first trade show geared to retailers.
Initial Capital Outlay
Curiel spent about $30,000 on design, website, initial inventory and the Hispanicize booth. Lanugo sells 50 to 100 pieces a month and is not yet profitable.
“I don’t have a physical presence, which is a challenge, because my products are sold only on my website,” Curiel said. Knowing how to grow strategically also is a challenge.
Lanugo is working on a line of books, where the characters get to tell their stories, for infants to age 6. The books are being written by an early childhood specialist and mom-to-be.
Curiel rises at 7:45 a.m. to help ready 2-year-old twins, Adriana and Emilia, for preschool. She drops off the girls and is in the office at 9 a.m., where she answers emails and starts knocking out her to-do list.
At noon, Curiel picks up the girls and returns home for lunch. The girls nap at 1:30 p.m., and Curiel leaves them with a nanny and returns to the office until 6:30 p.m.
Then it’s back to the house for playtime, dinner and the twins' bedtime at 8:30 p.m. Then Curiel hops back on the computer at home until 1 or 2 a.m.
“It’s really hard. I get overwhelmed and sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t spend enough time with the kids,” she said. “Trying to stay balanced is hard.”
Research it well if you have an idea and want to pursue it, Curiel said. “And don’t think so small,” she said. “Take small steps towards the big idea.”