When Sandra Portal-Andreu went to her mother’s house for a family dinner, she didn’t expect to leave with a business idea. But when the performance artist came across a table of tapas, or appetizers and small bites, she wondered if there was a better way to organize them.
“I thought to myself at that moment because I saw the table, and I was like, this is not appealing at all,” says Portal-Andreu. “I remember telling my mom, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a container that had different levels? You could put the different items in it, and you can even take it to a place, to another family gathering. You can open it up. Voila! Instant centerpiece, like a statement art piece.”
And the idea stuck around. After working on it for five years, Portal-Andreu officially launched Tappas in 2020. Shaped like a wooden sphere, Tappas is a functional container made of three slidable levels used for displaying food or storage.
Q&A with Sandra Portal-Andreu
Hello Alice caught up with Portal-Andreu to discuss finding the right people to develop your product, what the patenting process is like, and why your immediate circle can open doors for your business idea. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What were your first steps after you had the idea for your container?
I started doing a quick Google search just to see if there was something that looked like what I had envisioned in my head — and there was nothing! So I started drawing. I don’t claim myself to be a visual artist, but more of a performance artist. With my very good circles and lines, I was able to conceptualize what this container would look like, and I thought about a sphere because it’s such a dynamic shape. There was really nothing out there like that. That’s kind of where it started.
Through the process of five years, I went through different designers, engineers, mentors until we were able to bring the product to market in the fall of 2020. It’s been a collaborative process where every person that I’ve worked with at whatever point in time left their imprint on this last iteration that you see.
The container is functional, but it also looks like an art piece. How did you get your drawings into a physical, tangible product?
I worked with a couple of designers in the beginning. At first, I actually had it with four plates, rather than just three. It wasn’t until I worked with my third designer that we sat there, and we looked at some CAD files that had already been made. And I said, “You know, I don’t think it will work with all these levels. We need to make it just three. It has to be solid plates.” From there, we were able to figure out that this was going to work because he ended up making a 3D print of it, and it was structurally sound. The balance was there, and that was kind of like the aha moment like, Wow, we got something.
From that point, that’s when I went and filed a patent. When I got the patent approved, I cried. I couldn’t believe that it was even possible. So that was a huge milestone. Every little step was like an aha moment; it was a validation moment. Finally, we were able to say, “Okay, let’s go to an engineer that could help us create a prototype that would be manufacturable.”
It must have been a long process to get your product patented. What was that like?
I wasn’t sure about how this whole world of patents works. I had heard about people filing provisional patents, but I took it in a way where I was like, let me just see what this prototype looks like and if it functions before talking to a patent attorney.
The patent attorney was referred to me by a friend of a friend. Their office is called Complex IP. He was very helpful in the whole process. He told me what I could patent for, what I couldn’t, and it was pretty much that! I signed the papers. I provided drawings. I paid the fees. The patent was filed in January 2018, and I didn’t get the patent approved until November 2019. The good thing is that once you file that patent, if you’re the first person to file that patent, then you’re in the front of the line. Thankfully, I was in front of the line when it came to spheres that are multi-layered containers.
[Hello Alice Guide: Secure a Patent]
Having worked with a few engineers, how did you find the right engineer to build the prototype of your product?
I learned that your immediate network is going to be your biggest source of support. That is what happened to me because my first designer was a friend of the family. Things didn’t work out with him, so I ended up connecting with one of my best friend’s husband’s best friends. He was busy with his work, and things didn’t work out timing-wise. Then my brother connected me to another designer, so it was all the immediate people in my life that had a network of people who they knew.
When I got connected to the engineer, I didn’t know anything about wood production. But it wasn’t until I had a conversation with one of my friends who happens to be my trademark attorney. She was the one that connected me to this one individual who opened the door for me to get connected to my manufacturer. That’s where the whole wooden concept came out. I used to keep this secret. I remember thinking, Oh my god, I can’t show anybody. I can’t tell anybody. But I think the fact that I was able to talk to people — my friends, friends of my friends, my family — everybody seemed to give me that support like, “Hey, this is cool. You should go for it.” It sort of validated the path that I was taking.
[Hello Alice Guide: Secure a Trademark]
Could you share the decision process of using more sustainable materials to create the containers?
We were able to create a plastic product, but I wasn’t 100% sure if that would be the final thing. I am a mother. I am environmentally conscious. I want to leave a sustainable legacy for my children. I always knew that was the backbone of whatever I was going to create. And so, I remember thinking, I don’t really like plastic products, so why am I going to create plastic? After conversations with other people, I realized, Oh, I could make this out of wood. It would raise the quality of the product, and we can work with factories that work with sustainable goods.
[Hello Alice Guide: Define Your Purpose]
You launched the product in 2020. What was the deciding factor in selling the product through retailers versus direct-to-consumer?
Before manufacturing, we were supposed to attend The Inspired Home Show in March 2020. We were going to be featured in the Inventors Corner. At that time, I thought it was going to be the best opportunity because I could show the prototype of the product, talk to people, and see where we could sell this. Well, corona had its plans. But that gave us an opportunity to tweak one last-minute touch to the product.
During that time, I recall having some meetings with people and retailers that were interested in meeting me because they had already known that the product was going to be featured in the Inventors Corner. Amazon LaunchPad was one of those retailers. They reached out to me, and they decided that this would be a great product to launch. So we thought, Let’s start with a small order to test the market and see if there’s interest. We had a small order during the holidays, and that gave us the encouragement to place another order. This year, we really focused on Amazon sales and increasing our presence on Amazon. But one of the things that I’m doing now is creating a Shopify website and learning how to do direct-to-consumer.
Are there any business resources that helped you along the way as an entrepreneur?
One of the things that I’m super excited about is that I’m part of the Babson Win Growth Lab, which is an accelerator program for woman entrepreneurs. That’s a great program for women that are thinking about launching a product or service or have already launched something and are in the beginning stages. It’s been just two weeks in the program, and I’ve learned so much from this accelerator program. They’re really beneficial, and they give you an instant community and network that you can reach out to.
Do you have any advice for anyone who is interested in getting into entrepreneurship?
My father’s Cuban, and my mother’s Colombian. They’re both very business-centric. My mother owned her preschool for over 25 years. My father was in the tech industry and developed nine payment software systems that have been patented by his team. They were the ones that opened that gateway to connecting with other individuals and sharing my idea. So the biggest advice I would give to anybody is to share this idea with your immediate circle. Talk about it, and then see what comes about it. An individual might be able to find that open door just by having a conversation with their family and friends.