Small Biz Success Story: Turning Problems Into Profits in Puerto Rico

recession proof small business
recession proof small business

Pablo Tirado, 30, lists his title as "Problem Solver." The thousands of people who have downloaded the iPhone app that he and his brother created, ReceiptLoader, agree.

Ever heard the saying, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans"? That's pretty much how ReceiptLoader came about. Pablo and his brother, Francisco, 28, started a Web design company in 2005 in their native Puerto Rico, taking small local clients and doing Web design and development, mostly for advertising agencies. They enjoyed some early success, working on projects for both local and international brands.

But then the ad industry in Puerto Rico hit rough times, so the brothers changed their focus from advertising and marketing to custom Web-based solutions. They attracted some high-profile clients, including the Puerto Rico Department of Education, and continued to look for ways to expand their reach outside of the island.

A True Trash-to-Treasure Story

ReceiptLoader grew from a mix of need and ability.

The Tirados' accountant made sure they knew to keep all their receipts, which they dutifully did. And at the end of the year, much to their accountant's chagrin, they delivered seven plastic supermarket bags full of mostly unreadable, crumpled, half-erased receipts.

Pablo took a photo of the mess, which he keeps on hand to remind himself why they started the project in the first place.

Fortuitously, the Tirados were doing machine- and human-based recognition work for some of their clients already, so they used that technology to build a solution that would automatically organize all those receipts. It worked pretty well, so they shared the tool with a few clients and colleagues. Then they decided to start offering the service to general users.

A Recession-Proof Business Is Born

That was about a year ago. ReceiptLoader launched in Apple's iTunes Store in July after months of development and beta.

The reception has been fantastic, and users have given ReceiptLoader a rating of four-and-a-half stars (out of five). An Android app quickly followed, and the Tirados are now working on a Windows phone app and getting into Amazon's app store.

Getting to launch meant overcoming lots of challenges, such as figuring out how to charge for the service. "Since we're in Puerto Rico, we have to go through banks included in the credit cards' Caribbean region. The only real option is Banco Popular and there are only about three people within the bank who know how to set it up," Pablo said, "so tracking down one of them was quite an ordeal."

Perhaps most surprising is that the recession was never really a factor. As Pablo put it, "Puerto Rico was in a recession since 2005, so we've only ever done business in a bad economy. I guess our assumptions have always taken a bad economy into account."

Brotherly Business Roles

So how did two brothers decide to ignore that bad economy and start a business in their early 20s? "It had always been clear that the traditional career path wasn't for us," Pablo said, "and in 2005 it just seemed about time we started a company, so we did -- with about as much naivete as that last sentence seems to imply."

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Francisco focuses on development and project management, while Pablo takes care of clients and the business side. As Pablo puts it, "I sell what he makes and he makes what I sell."

These roles were set early in life. Just a year and half apart, the boys were practically raised as twins, and grew up complementing each other in many ways. "In hindsight, I was always the talker and Francisco was always the maker." Their only employee is Jose Padilla, a developer they hired straight out of high school two years ago.

When asked what advice they'd offer to budding entrepreneurs, Pablo replies: "There's a lot of boilerplate advice -- 'just start,' 'fail cheaply' -- it's really good advice, but I think the best is to not fall in love with every idea right off the bat. Killing bad ideas is as much part of the process as having good ones."

Motley Fool contributor Robyn Gearey owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple and and creating a bull call spread position on Apple.