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Edwin Rojas of Rojas Talent Group: From Avocation To Vocation; How I Turned My Hobby Into A Career

An Interview With Jason Hartman

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Edwin Rojas.

Edwin Rojas is the president of Rojas Talent Group, a full-service celebrity booking agency. A graduate from Florida International University in Business/Marketing, and a South Florida native, Edwin started working “at sea” during college as a guest entertainer for Norwegian Cruise Line. In the ’90s, he was a cruise director for Holland America Line culminating with the 1998 World Cruise on the new flagship, m.s. Rotterdam and in 2001, he joined Celebrity Cruises as cruise director and ended up in the corporate office managing the fleet’s cruise directors, and finally booking the talent. Rojas Talent Group and Edwin have produced shows for numerous casinos, theatres, hotels and resorts, cruise lines, and many top corporations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I am first generation American born to two wonderful parents who immigrated to the US in 1951 from Cuba. I was born in Miami, FL and was a very shy kid, as many entertainers are. My mom, being wise, saw that a magic shop was opening near our home and went to buy several easy magic tricks for me as a present. I was immediately enamored with them and realized, as I performed them for friends and family, they smiled and enjoyed it. I had a skill. I had a talent and it made me much more self confident and broke me out of my shyness.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

After I started dabbling in magic, being the entrepreneur that I am, I made handwritten flyers (remember this is early ’70s and we didn’t have computers per se) and distributed them to the kids in the neighborhood. I invited them for 10¢ to see a “Magic Show” and we also had lemonade and popcorn for 10¢ each. It was performed in my grandfather’s garage, which was just next door to my childhood home. After the show was over, I remember making around $7–10, and I immediately went to the magic shop to buy more props. I did this several times and finally was good enough to really go out and work for money. Then one day it hit me (this was several years later when I was working 200 shows a year in the Miami market, mainly for children’s birthday parties) I was making more in one show, in one to two hours, then all my friends were making at McDonalds working part time for a week. I was onto something. That was the moment I realized I can do what I love — making people happy — and make money doing it.

There are no shortages of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

Persistence, grit, and determination. I just wanted to stay in a field I loved — performance arts. After college, I worked in the cruise industry for 20+ years. I started as a comedy magician on the ships, progressed to cruise director which is the person in charge of the entertainment department on board, and finally, ended as an executive in the corporate office to a major cruise line. I was in charge of booking all the entertainers for nine vessels — basically nine theaters at sea. I had a one-million-dollar monthly budget, and it was a blast. Then 2008 came, the great near recession, and I was let go. I worked a bit for the major agency for the cruise line industry and loved the owner but thought I could do this for myself and be much happier. So, I did. In 2009, I started Rojas Talent Group and haven’t looked back.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

Do what you know, do what you love, and if you persist long enough, don’t quit. Somewhere along the line, there’ll be a lucky strike and you’re on your way. If you have passion — and that is something that is lacking in a lot of today’s world — people gravitate to your positive energy and success follows.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

If you are knowledgeable about something, if you are an expert in something, if you have passion, the fun never leaves. If you are doing something but you’re not really sure, or are not committed to it — then, “yes,” you may take the fun out, but if you are passionate about it — the fun never leaves. Every day, you wake up and say, “I wonder what new business will come today?” That keeps you going as no two days are ever the same and you never know what project will land on your desk.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

The obvious answer is you work for yourself. No one really tells you what to do, or when to do it. The downside is you run your own business. If you don’t hustle, there is no food on the table for your family. You have to keep the wheels turning and there are no days off when you have to make money. There is no way to overcome it, you have to be determined and when it looks bleak, you keep going and find a solution around the corner. Persistence is king!

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I thought it was going to be easy. I loved what I was doing. I was in the industry I loved, and I had been doing it my whole life since the age of ten. Easy! WRONG! It is the hardest thing I have ever done, but also the most rewarding.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?

No. This is my real job 24/7. There was no “Plan ‘B’” and it had to succeed. You can’t have those thoughts creep into your head. When you have to provide for your family, and failure is not an option, somehow you produce.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the first projects we did, when we started the company, was to produce and represent a great magician who was on NBC’s AMERICA’S GOT TALENT for a show on the Las Vegas strip. He had leased a house in the Vegas suburbs with a pool and brought the main cast members for his show from the East Coast. They were all living in, basically, a frat house. It was a mess. The kitchen had tens of takeaway boxes, the fridge was a mess, dirty dished piled up, etc. I am zen, I love calm and order and cleanliness. So, my client, the magician, looks at my face and asks, “So what do you think, Edwin?” And I immediately shot back, “Savages!” We both howled laughing….and then there was the incident where he put his ducks — who were starring in the show — swimming in the backyard pool. Neighbors loved that. LESSON: don’t get too close to your clients, the warts will be evident quickly and you don’t want to sour your business relationship.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

I admire Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Sarah Blakely and many others — they all took an amazing idea and made it a billion dollar/pound corporation. They had determination and grit and were creative in the pursuit of their ideas.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Our mission statement says it all: “Bringing smiles to audiences worldwide.” To spread joy, to have people smile at a show or personal appearance which we have booked and put that milli-second of joy into their life — that is success. Life is tough, and if we can help people smile and enjoy life, we have done our job and brought joy to the world which gives me the greatest joy.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Hire a professional team ASAP; attorney, CPA, etc. Why? You need these people every month to guide you. You will need their expertise on an ongoing and almost daily basis. The two classes I least liked in business school where “Business Law” and “Accounting,” and I deal with both of those things on a daily basis.

2. Never stop looking for a sale. Why? If you don’t sell, you don’t make money, you don’t eat, you don’t succeed.

3. Appearance is everything. Why? If you are a small firm, a family firm like ours, you are competing with huge, multi-national corporations. They have the size, but we can provide service and friendliness and turn on a dime, but you have to appear professional and ready for the gig. Marketing material, website, phone etiquette, etc. all line up to make you appear like a Fortune® 500 Company.

4. Some months, or quarters, are going to be lean. Why? I am a “type-A” personality, and when the phone doesn’t ring as much, or the emails don’t come in as frequently, I start to get anxious — I need sales. I need revenue, but at year’s end, it’s a wash and it is all good, but the lean times are taxing.

5. Don’t undersell yourself. Why? At the start of your business, you just want business. Sometimes, I undersold our efforts and service just to get the ‘sale,’ but I was selling ourselves too short. Just to get the sale, to make money is really not the long-term solution as you have to establish that you provide a terrific service at a fair price. You get what you pay for and being the cheapest is the surest way to put yourself into extinction.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

It breaks my heart that the US has continuously cut arts education budgets since the 1980’s. I feel so bad for the kids growing up in our school system today. We are all about sports, and I’m an avid sports fan, but a society without arts is a society of savages. Arts soothe the soul and makes us human. We are animals, but art is what differentiates us. If we put money into the arts, it is my honest belief that society would be greater and crime 10–20 years down the line would be less, too. Art makes one empathetic, makes one see things from a different perspective, makes one enjoy the beauty of life. SUPPORT THE ARTS!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My dad always said, “Do what you do best. Farm out the rest!” When I started the business, like most people, I bootstrapped it into existence. I tried to do everything myself, and most things were “OK,” but not stellar. They were not worthy of saying, “Wow, that is excellent,” or “That is the way it is supposed to look,” etc. Saving resources is good, but if someone really can do it much better than you, and if it saves you money, or makes you look more professional, go with the pro. Hire someone to do it. I used to try to do all my tax work, now I have a CPA. I used to Google legal issues and how to solve them, now I hire an attorney. I use to try to design flyers, promotional material and the like, and now I hire a great graphic artist. They all save you time and money, in the long run, and best of all, they solve your headaches.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Dead, would have to be someone I truly love Steve Jobs. I never met him, but his sense of creativity, and his ethos for design — I LOVE. How can one man change so many things that touch us daily with his creativity? The Mac, the iPod, the iPhone, the graphical user interface… the list goes on and on. If someone truly changed the world, it would be Mr. Jobs. A dinner with him would be amazing.

Living, would have to be Richard Branson. I love the way he thinks. I love how he acts and gets things done. My favorite is how he thinks an organization should run. Most companies say: Customers — First, Stockholders/Stakeholders — second and Employees — third. How wrong that is, and I didn’t learn it in business school, I learned it from one of Branson’s books. He says: Employees — first, Customers — Second and Shareholders/Stakeholders — third. Why? No business runs without employees. Put them first. If the Employee is happy, it translates to the joy they bring and exude to the customer. If then the customer is happy, they spend more and the stockholder/stakeholder wins, and they are happy. Such a marketing-centric way of thinking, but it is so, so true! I’d love to have that dinner with him- I’ll bring good wine!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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