Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur

For Jose Luis Bueno, starting businesses has become second nature, but it’s his knack for whipping up the perfect concept and filling in voids that really has him zooming full speed ahead of the competition — no matter which industry he chooses to add to his arsenal.
Text by Luisana Suegart Photos by Andres Hernandez | July 4, 2018 | People

As a child, Jose Luis Bueno dreamed of being an architect, fascinated by the idea of creating a concept and building it from the ground up. From his early days in Mexico City to the present day, the entrepreneurial mastermind and founder of the brand conglomerate One United Business Ventures has managed to manifest his childhood dream over and over again.
Bueno comes from a close-knit family, where his father — an engineer and self-made man — required that self-sufficiency was a tradition. “Since I was very young, my dad showed me how to make money and not to ask for money,” he says, chuckling as he begins to tell how it all got started.
“When I was 15, I remember asking my dad: ‘When am I going to get my first car? All my friends are already getting theirs.’ He looked at me and said, ‘On Saturday, we’ll go take a look.’ Sure enough, the following Saturday he took me to a car dealer where the manager was his friend. When we parked, I said to him, ‘Oh dad, you’re so fantastic, thank you so much!’”
That’s when his father walked in, went straight over to the human resources manager, exchanged a few words with the guy, turned to his son and said he’d pick him up at 5. “I stood stunned as he left,” says Bueno. “The manager handed me a booklet and instructed me to walk the sales floor that day. We didn’t have cellphones in those days, so during my break I called my dad and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He said, ‘You want a car? Start working’.”
In hindsight, this comical anecdote laid the foundation for Bueno’s work ethic — solid, unrelenting, and based on an ever-evolving passion to innovate and create. Knowing he would never save enough to buy a car working at the dealer, he asked his father for money to invest in his first business, a T-shirt shop he opened with a buddy inspired by the trends of the time. “It was the ‘80s and all of my friends in school were wearing Rolling Stones T-shirts and such,” he says. “I found out where they were made, drove a few hours out to the city, bought a few boxes, and with my dad’s help rented a store in a shopping center. That’s where I was every weekend.”
Realizing there was nothing to eat at the shopping center other than a few fancy restaurants, he and his partner went into the food business, buying two hotdog carts. Needless to say, patrons were pleased. “Specialty dogs were kind of trendy back then,” he says. “Plus, we liked that the business was portable, since it was basically a little kitchen with wheels. On the weekends, after all the stores in the area closed down, we used to offer catered dogs to private events, which was also a novelty at the time.”
Although his amateur businesses were all successful in his youth, Bueno eventually sold them to focus on his studies, at his father’s request. He enrolled at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City, declaring a major in Communications. Two years in, he was hired as an advertising trainee with Procter & Gamble, where he fell in love with branding and marketing. “The pay was nothing compared to when I was working for myself, but I knew there was a lot to learn from a large company like P&G.”
For the next 12 years, Bueno explored the corporate world: He spent four years working with P&G and four more as a brand manager with the Kimberly Clark Corporation, before being recruited by General Electric as Marketing Director. It was the mid-90s, and he was traveling all over Latin America reintroducing the GE brand. “We were acquiring companies so I handled a lot of mergers and acquisitions,” he says. “In short, it was the best schooling I could ask for.”
In 1997, GE asked Bueno to relocate to Caracas, where he met his wife, Karla. The couple lived in Venezuela for two years, giving birth to their first child, Fernanda. After serving more than a decade in the corporate world, Bueno decided it was time to move on. “It was fun to get my check every 15 days, but I was too hyper to stay in that routine,” he says. “I had learned about buying and selling companies and a lot about brand equity and marketing. I got back to dreaming of building a brand of my own to put into the market.”
The first order of business was making himself more marketable. He pursued an MBA at the University of Miami, moving his family to sunny South Florida in the process. Meanwhile, Bueno witnessed the Internet boom beginning to drive the market. “I was seeing teenagers make millions with their Internet companies,” he says, “so I built my own.”
The venture turned into an incubator company that gave business-planning support to entrepreneurs. And for Bueno, that was the perfect next step. “I love meeting self-made people,” he says. “I’m drawn to stories about people who found success after starting with nothing.” Accordingly, he tapped into Latin American universities, scouting promising business plans from graduate students. He gathered more than 80 of them, performed company evaluations and developed effective marketing plans.
In 2001, he sold the company to his business partner, all the while planning his next move. “I started realizing that 50% of the wealth in the planet is from people who have money in real estate,” he says, explaining his decision to acquire the exclusive rights to the Engel & Völkers brand in the Southeast Florida market. Through E&V, Bueno bought and sold condos, started a development company and invested in residential construction. Although he originally started his own brand, United Real Estate, he decided it made more sense for him to partner with an existing brand in the industry rather than venture at it alone. “As a developer, you need international exposure to get your product out fast, and E&V is the largest and most professional premium residential brokerage house in the world — these guys practically invented the European MLS back when the Internet was starting here,” he says. “My cost on being E&V Miami vs. my old brand of United Real State is 7% more. We are getting referrals every day from all over the world to buy Miami and we are very close to signing the representation of a $1 billion building that needs international exposure to be sold. For me, 93% of business of $1 billion is better than 100% of my own local brand.”
Though it seems that every business Bueno touches turns to gold, he has, to his own relief, seen one of his companies fail. In 2002, he and some friends created a money transfer business. The concept and idea made sense at the time, he assures, but it didn’t stop them from going bankrupt. Their savings and investments and those of their shareholders were completely gone. “My dad recently told me he had been worried that I never had an obstacle,” says Bueno. He knew every successful businessman needed to lose everything at one point.”
After that disappointing learning experience, the void to craft his own brand grew wider. Then in 2003, three years after welcoming twin boys Alejandro and Pablo into the world, Bueno once again got the entrepreneurial itch. For a while, he shadowed his wife and her friends as they visited Barnes & Noble, choosing coffee and play dates at the bookstore over the playground and its 95-degree heat. His vision for a comfortable space that parents and children could enjoy together manifested into Cool-de-Sac, a unique family entertainment concept where “smart moms” and their kids gather for family fun and gourmet dining. “Although my basic instincts were telling me that this was a great idea, I did have my fears,” he says, mentioning that by some estimates as little as 1 in 17 restaurants in the U.S. makes it past their 3rd year. “That’s why I knew that the concept had to be not only unique, but also that we guaranteed great food, great service and great entertainment to keep customers coming back again and again,” he says.
The first Cool-de-Sac location opened in May 2008 and has already welcomed more than 120,000 guests. “It’s my baby,” says Bueno. “It’s the brand I always wanted to create.” What’s more, the unique name of the restaurant was inspired by his experience in the real estate biz, whereby many prospective homeowners are always looking for a cul-de-sac property, especially if they have children. “When I asked my clients to tell me what came to mind when they saw the term, ‘exclusive, private, secure, quiet and premium’ kept coming up,” he says. “Those are exactly the adjectives I want people to think about when they come to my restaurant.”
But his story doesn’t end there. In fact, his latest venture, Miami Drive Club, has him mixing business and pleasure on a daily basis — and channeling his brief experience working at that car dealership when he was 15. In a nutshell, Miami Drive Club is the only Car Share & Racetrack Club in the city, offering memberships to car lovers who get access to a luxury fleet of luxury rides — from Ferraris to Bentleys, Lamborghinis and Porsches. “Like jet shares, yacht shares and resort home shares, the smart way is to only pay for what you use, and that’s what we offer,” explains Bueno. “Our members can drive around town in the vehicle of their choice today and race on the track tomorrow, all the while getting immediate access to a global circle of friends who share the same passion.”
The idea for Miami Drive Club came about as Bueno was traveling through Europe when a friend presented the unique business concept of a car club in Barelona. “My friend could easily afford 10 cars on his own, but he explained to me all of the pluses of a car club membership vs. the hassles and headaches of ownership,” explains Bueno. “When I returned to the U.S., I ran a quick feasibility analysis with my friends and business associates and got some great reactions.” One of the greatest reactions he got was from legendary auto racing champion Helio Castroneves. “Two weeks after we sat down for lunch to discuss Miami Drive Club, we were signing a contract. Today, he is a vital part of the brand, as not only a proud spokesperson but a satisfied frequent user.”
So how exactly does a serial entrepreneur get motivated to take his first stab at success? What advice does Bueno have for the next generation of business leaders in The Magic City? “History has shown that tough economic times are the best times to make a name for yourself,” he says. “Believe me, it’s tougher when everything is booming. But don’t try to grow too fast. If you do this, you become irresponsible and lose focus, you don’t concentrate on the value of your product or service, but concentrate on the size and reach of your company, which is very dangerous. Once you learn this valuable rule, you will realize there is no better satisfaction than creating. A good entrepreneur needs to be a little foolish, and a little bit of a dreamer — if your ideas are too in-the-box, your business will be equally mediocre.”
Looking toward the future, Bueno is eager to see all of his companies thrive, and is especially excited about making the Cool-de-Sac brand spread nationally and internationally. Although he doesn’t like to play favorites, Cool-de-Sac has a special place in his heart. “The day before we opened the restaurant, my daughter Fernanda said ‘Daddy what happens if nobody comes?’ I said, ‘Well, at least I built my dream. It’s better than going home saying I never tired’.”