Melanie Ocana – A competitive entrepreneur with a big heart and grit

February 11, 2021

Rustico Logo for Interview at Enterprise League

We sometimes forget that women have superpowers and can make anything work. But then a lady like Melanie Ocana shows up and reminds us.

She runs Rustico Tile & Stone, the largest manufacturing and distribution for Saltillo tile worldwide, all while raising two beautiful children, keeping the spark in her marriage, giving back to the community. And if this isn’t impressive enough, she’s about to become a foster mom as well. 

Mindblown? We are. Melanie is an example and inspiration to all women out there who think they can’t do it all, and have to sacrifice family life for entrepreneurial success or vice versa. 

Feeling under-appreciated as an employee, a nonexistent work-life balance, financial struggles, getting out of bad relationships – these are the most common triggers that push women to become entrepreneurs. Tell us about your trigger?

Discovering a great idea for an underserved market was my trigger for becoming an entrepreneur.  I’d held jobs working for other people since I was in my early teen years babysitting and working a pizza joint. I had great bosses into adulthood with careers that allow me some flexibility and worldwide travel. In fact, before my current company, Rustico Tile & Stone, I’d already failed as an entrepreneur with a new and risky franchise business.   

During the fallout of that failure, I never would have dreamed that it would have everything to do with the success I enjoy today.  It forced me to scramble for a way out and led me to discover handmade Mexican tile. I had a unique sales skillset just waiting for the right product!

Upon discovering that I could pave the way for my own success, there seemed to be no other alternative for my career goals other than another stab at entrepreneurship. Of course, taking steps forward meant taking significant steps back. I started my next entrepreneurship journey at the bottom of an industry with zero knowledge and zero experience. But that posed an exciting adventure that has played out for over the past 15 years and counting! 

Melanie Ocana quote

How did you come up with your business idea?

Over 15 years ago, I was liquidating a failed eBay franchise store. I’d bought into the eBay franchise idea in hopes that selling other people’s stuff on eBay would be the next big thing. It wasn’t. But, my eBay experience helped me to develop an eye for opportunity.  

Living in south Texas at the time, I explored the idea of handmade Mexican Saltillo tile.  This type of terracotta tile is a readily available resource on the border of south Texas and Mexico, but no one at the time was shipping it across the country because it’s difficult to ship. So, I experimented with selling Saltillo tile on eBay by consigning with a local distributor for the product.

And it blew up with success. I quickly learned everything I could about this clay tile and freight shipping. I did not want to sell it for someone else’s business.

At the time, my husband and I were only dating. He ran a different successful business.  We put our heads together, pivoted in life, and pursued developing a business in Mexican tile.  

Today, we run the largest manufacturing and distribution for Saltillo tile, and we distribute other Mexican tiles and stones. We’re an online business with our headquarters just outside Austin, Texas. While we ship our products worldwide, I no longer sell tile on eBay.

Have you had support from someone, even if just encouragement? Who was that and how did it help you?

I’m fortunate to have had support from many people in my career life – parents, mentors, and friends. But interestingly, the most poignant support that I continue to cultivate comes from our customers and competitors. 

Being an online distributor, we don’t meet most of our customers face-to-face. People are much bolder in their communication when it’s done virtually or over the phone vs. in-person. We hear the good, the bad, and the indifferent, whether we ask for it or not! I take it all to heart, both personally and professionally.  

When I get negative feedback about our mistakes, we implement changes from those learned lessons. That makes us better.

When I get positive feedback, we rinse and repeat as often as possible. Success breeds more success.

Also, I study our competitors closely and frequently. Since I’m an extremely competitive person, I’m easily motivated when a competitor makes gains in our market share. This encourages me to seek greater improvement.

But ultimately, at the end of the day, I lean on my husband for the most support. He’s my one constant that I can always fall on for encouragement.

Female entrepreneurs are often underestimated and overlooked. Have you ever felt at a disadvantage?

Yes. I used to experience hurt feelings when our local community would acknowledge my husband as our business owner without regard for my role. In fact, some of our closest friends have referred to me as my husband’s “helper.” I laugh about this now because I’ve come to a place where I don’t need the “glory.” But during our business’s infancy, I couldn’t believe that it would automatically be assumed that I had no leadership role in our business. I often thought “Hey, this Saltillo thing was my idea!”

Today, when big problems arise, I jokingly ask my husband to bear the load since I’m “only the helper.” I’ve figured out how to leverage this to my advantage.  

Also, I am often underestimated being a female in the male-driven construction industry.  This could be a disadvantage to someone who doesn’t hold confidence. I’ve worked very hard to become an expert in my field. I’d like to believe that comes across quickly in a conversation with anyone who unfairly underestimates me.

Lastly, sometimes I feel disadvantaged as a female because I’m the mother of our 2 children. My husband is a very hands-on father, but I don’t think men often feel the same guilt as at-work mothers

Yes, my kids see me as a strong, self-driven woman who works hard to provide for her family.  But there are times they don’t get the best of me after a long day. Sometimes, my kids get the leftovers, and I feel a tremendous amount of guilt, knowing they’re not always getting my best. 

All the while, I also try to protect my marriage from the daily pressures of running a business. It’s easy to fall into the trap of transactional conversation with my husband. We are great teammates and business partners. But, it requires intentionality to cultivate and maintain an enduring romantic relationship outside our business endeavors. Of course, it’s helpful that I absolutely adore my husband. God has blessed us in tremendous ways.

Some say it’s hard work, others say it’s talent and resourcefulness that play a crucial role for success in entrepreneurship? Which traits have been instrumental for your success so far? And why?

God has his fingerprints all over my success. He’s opened doors and put people and challenges in my life throughout my career. I do my best to recognize His provision and pair that with grit, self-motivation, and drive for success.

Also, I’m extremely competitive. I want to be the best at any of my life’s pursuits and develop the skills necessary. In the beginning, I knew nothing about tile, freight shipping, running a website, SEO, or online marketing. I had a graduate-level education but no real experience with developing something from nothing.  

My drive for excellence led me to learn everything I could about our industry, competitors (direct and indirect), the freight industry (we ship 2,500-pound pallets worldwide), and thriving as an online presence.

And what I can’t learn through education and experience, I seek through mentors. I’m a big believer in surrounding oneself with wise people. I believe this wisdom only comes with experience and age. So, I regularly seek relationships with people (older than myself) whom I admire for reasons of business success, parenting, and faith. 

This is my holistic approach to developing a better self – for my family, our employees, and the community. But I’m not just a taker! I also believe in being this type of person for someone more youthful than myself. It’s a humble privilege to help develop others for their own life success.

What excites you the most about being an entrepreneur?

The most exciting thing about being an entrepreneur is effecting change through serving others. This starts at home, of course. I love that I can work alongside my husband every day. While it’s not all unicorns and peaches, we are one another’s most consistent support system. I love that my kids have only seen us as business owners. At 9 & 10 years old, their career goals (right now) are to be business owners (a bakery owner and veterinary clinic owner). They hear conversations about business every single day – the good and the bad. I love the example we’re setting for them. They know that success doesn’t come unearned.

I also love that we can serve our community and other families and friends. Giving feels good, real good. But it’s best when there’s concrete evidence of bettering someone’s life.

Share with us some of the worst business advice you’ve ever received?

People say that a business or a job shouldn’t be about money. I think this is terrible advice. A business (for-profit or non-profit) exists to produce a product or service. If that isn’t pursued under the goal of making money, then it’s all for nothing. It’s great to make money… make a lot of it so it can be given away (after financial obligations are met). 

You’ve got a high stake investment opportunity. Pitch your business in 150 words.

As the world’s largest manufacturer for Saltillo tile and distributor for Mexican tile, Rustico Tile & Stone continues to lead the industry for 15 years running. Year over year, we maintain revenue and market share growth. Not only do we create beautiful spaces with artisan products, but we also have fun and serve our community through financial success. 

Located outside Austin, Texas, our success lies in long-term logistical and supplier relationships throughout Mexico, low overhead, disciplined expenses, efficient warehouse operations, robust organic presence online, and incredible staffing. 

We’re the industry-leading experts in Mexican tile and stone.

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to inspire aspiring entrepreneurs?

The best advice that I give anyone aspiring to be an entrepreneur is to be kind. Work hard, yes, but be kind in the process. Business doesn’t have to be ruthless and cut-throat. Relationships are important. You WANT people to like you and do business with you. The easiest way to achieve that is to be kind. 

Don’t be a doormat, however. Pursue a competitive edge in your industry through work ethic, disciplined spending, strategic planning, and vigor. But be kind to those along that path of excellence. Your kindness will develop your reputation for being someone who others want to be like. And yes, that peripheral attribute helps to protect the bottom line in the process.

What are your goals for the upcoming year?

Professionally, I’m working on developing a new website and rebranding for our company. This will coincide with the development of a new product line and the growth of existing product lines.  

I’ve been working from home during 2020 (Covid) while proctoring at-home school. I’m (desperately) hoping to be able to send our kids back to school. I’ve loved the extra time with them but they need their friends too!

And personally, we’ve recently become a licensed foster family. I’m hoping to offer a loving and secure home to some children placed with us this year.

Any final words to end this interview?

An entrepreneur’s #1 job is sales. If you don’t like sales, find a way to change how you feel about it. If you approach sales as the opportunity to educate your customers, then it can be a lot of fun. It’s fun if you intend to genuinely solve your customers’ problems with the most relevant product or service you offer. And if you don’t have a product or service that will accomplish that goal, be honest with your customer. Don’t sell for the sake of revenue only. Sell because you care about your customers, even if that means sending them to a competitor. You’ll find that breeds a reputation of honesty and trust for you and your business. And that is your best long-term marketing strategy.

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