Moscow Times: Q&A: Sharapova's First Business
Aims for the Sweet Spot
For her first truly independent venture outside of a tennis
court, Maria Sharapova is relying on familiar tools: high heels,
her cover-girl lips, and neon green tennis balls.
But she's not starting a designer-shoe or lipstick brand, nor is
she opening a tennis school. Instead, the budding entrepreneur and
four-time Grand Slam winner has turned these parts of her golden
image into shapes for a line of premium, bite-sized chewy
For someone known for her punishing ground strokes on the tennis
court and elegant style on the red carpet, candy was not an obvious
choice for a first foray into business. But all the pieces came
"When I moved to the United States, I was about 7 years old, and I
went to a movie theater and found a huge collection of gummy
candies," Sharapova said in a phone interview, speaking from Los
Angeles on Saturday, a day after her 26th birthday. "I'd never seen
anything like it in Russia. I was fascinated by the idea, and the
first thing I thought was: 'I can't wait for my friends to see
something like this!'"
"When the name Sugarpova came about in a meeting a few years ago, I
felt like it was fun and young," she said. "Then I put candy and
that together, and that's kind of how it started."
Colorful packages of the sweets, which come in 12 varieties
including Flirty (pieces shaped like sets of full, pursed lips),
Chic (gummy handbags and high-heeled shoes), and Spooky Sour
(sugar-coated spiders) first went on sale in the U.S. last year and
have since entered stores in five other countries, including
Britain and Japan. Sharapova arrives in Moscow on Monday for an
event at the high-end Lotte Plaza shopping mall to mark the start
of sales in Russia.
Born in the Siberian town of Nyagan, Sharapova spent her early
childhood in Sochi, which she described as "the most beautiful
place in the world." She has relatives who still live in Russia and
said the local market was on her radar for Sugarpova from the
"I think Russians appreciate quality very much," Sharapova said.
"We all know that they like brands and they like names, but at the
end of the day, I think they're very good at differentiating what's
a good product and what's not a good product."
Sharapova spoke in English with the faintest of Russian accents but
with the openness and geniality Americans are known for.
Being a Sochi native and a Russian Olympian - at the 2012 Summer
Games in London, she became the first female flag-bearer for the
Russian squad and won the silver medal in women's singles - she is
particularly excited about the 2014 Winter Games, and not just
because she's proud that they'll be in her hometown.
"I remember coming here [to the U.S.] and people would ask me where
I'm from, and I'd say, 'I'm from Sochi,'" she said. "No one had a
clue in the world where that was, and I would say, 'Oh my gosh, you
haven't heard of Sochi?'"
"You have the Black Sea and the mountains, and I was talking about
this for so long. When we got the Olympics, that was the first
thing I thought of: I'm so happy because I will no longer have to
tell people what that city is all about. They'll have a chance to
see it soon themselves."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why did you choose candy for your first business?
A: Over the course of many years, I've been really fortunate to
work with and be a part of many collaborations, whether it's
creating a collection for Nike or working with Cole Haan on shoes
and bags or working on marketing ideas with TAG Heuer. So I've
played a very small part in brands' overall performance.
But I realized that I wanted to own something where, in the end, I
was the one making the decisions that came with a little pressure,
or, not a little, but a lot! And I really wanted to own something
that was financially mine as well.
It took over two years to work on and create, which is maybe a
little bit longer than other brands, but I wanted to make sure that
everything was done right in terms of what our products stood
Q: I've heard that you have a sweet tooth. What kinds of sugary
treats are your favorite?
A: As a professional athlete, I've always had to find the right
time for sweets. But those were the little rewards I would give
myself. When I was younger, at the end of a practice, I would
always ask my parents to buy me a little something sweet, like a
lollipop back in Russia.
Q: Are you able to harness your grit and determination from the
tennis court in the business world?
A: There are very different kinds of businesses, and the one
similarity between the candy company and tennis is the
competitiveness. I want this to be the best gummy brand in the
world. When I thought about the idea, I did a lot of Internet
research on candies, and I asked my friends: "What's your favorite
gummy candy?" They would never mention a brand name. They would
only name, for instance, the shape, like "Oh, that round one" or
"bears" or "little worms." I thought that was really interesting,
because not one person told me a specific brand of candy, and I
felt like there was a huge opportunity there.
Q: What advice would you give to someone wanting to do business in
A: We first launched Sugarpova in the States, but Russia was a big
target of mine. I think Russians appreciate quality very much. We
all know that they like brands and they like names, but at the end
of the day, I think they're very good at differentiating what's a
good product and what's not a good product. Maybe they'll buy it
once when it's not a good product, but they realize it, and they're
not going to be repeat customers.
So it was important that we didn't go out and try to push our candy
into the country. It was the market from Russia that came to us and
wanted our product because of how they saw it. We launched in the
States and Australia, and then Russia asked for it.
Q: What advice would you give to young Russians interested in
starting a business?
A: For me, it was important to create a story that was mine about
my brand and what I wanted it to stand for, the qualities it
represented. I think that's really important, because when you have
an idea and you bring it into the world, you get many people's
opinions on it, and it can represent different things in their
eyes. But I think you have to carry your vision no matter what,
through the good and the bad, especially when you're young and
I'm successful in what I do as a tennis player, but am I a candy
connoisseur? Absolutely not. I had to learn through the process of
creating the brand. I had to gain knowledge and experience to get
myself to the position where I am now, where stores around the
world want to carry my candy.
I had no idea that it would do so well in the beginning; I
thought it would take a lot more time. But I think we were really
helped by the fact that I knew what this brand represented: I
wanted it to be a premium candy brand, from the quality of the
products to the packaging and the way it's represented. It was
special, and I wouldn't let anyone tell me otherwise.
Q: Being a prominent Russian and playing for the national team, do
you feel pressure to help improve Russia's image abroad?
A: I've never really felt pressure, because I was born there and
I'm very proud of where I come from. I still have a lot of family
there, and I represent my country on a daily basis. I love so many
different aspects of Russia, from the culture to the strength of
the people and how they get through difficult situations; I think
that's a really unique quality.
I'm surrounded by foreign people and Americans because I'm based in
the U.S., because of my tennis. But when I'm home and I'm around my
parents and when I speak to my grandparents, I still feel like
Russia plays a very big part in my life and in my heart. And do I
feel a responsibility to play for my country? Absolutely, even
though I left at a very young age.
Q: Do you have any ideas for how the U.S. and Russia could improve
A: I think that's so beyond what I do. I'm such a small part of
that, and honestly, whatever I say doesn't matter at the end of the
day for the millions of people who live in both countries.
Q: So I'm guessing that means you're not interested in getting into
politics like your compatriot Marat Safin has in Russia?
A: Yeah, I stay out of that, too! I don't see that in my future.
I'm much more in the creative design area than I am in
Q: Who are your role models?
A: That's a tough one. I never really grew up having many role
models, in or out of sport. When a little girl comes up to me and
says, "I want to be just like you," I think, "Oh, that's great, but
I think you should want to be better than me!" I admire people's
strengths, and I admire people's actions that I believe are good or
right, but I don't think one person is good at everything.
Q: Can you describe a challenge or problem you've faced in your
life and how you solved it?
A: In my tennis career, my biggest challenge was a shoulder injury
I went through when I was 21 years old. It is quite rare for a
tennis player to have that type of injury and to have that surgery
on the shoulder when you're that young. I was out of the game for
nine months. That was a big challenge, because I had already won a
few Grand Slams, and I could've quit the sport.
But I wanted it back. I wanted those great moments of winning a
Grand Slam final. I wanted to experience that again. That really
kept me going and made me realize what was important to me.