Javier: Hey there beverage enthusiasts, my name is Javier Morquecho, and I'm the founder of SpecialtySodas.com, one of the largest craft soda and specialty beverage retailers in the U.S., as well as this Specialty Sodas Podcast, where ambitious entrepreneurs and leaders in the beverage industry come to share their story. My mission is to build a community within the beverage industry so we can all meet and learn from one another and connect for meaningful relationships.
I'm joined today by Mark Rampolla, the co-founder and managing partner of Powerplant Ventures, which invests in emerging growth companies that intend to remake our global food system, to deliver better nutrition in more sustainable and ethical ways. He's also the founder and CEO of ZICO Coconut Water from 2004 to 2013, when it was purchased by the Coca-Cola Company. In less than 10 years, Mark grew his beverage startup from idea to one of the global leaders of an 8-billion new beverage category -- coconut water.
Mark is also the author of "High-Hanging Fruit: Build Something Great by Going Where No One Else Will," published by Portfolio-Penguin. The book is for people who wanna succeed because of, not in spite of their values. It's for people who believe it's their duty to reach higher and build a business driven by passion, purpose and integrity. "High-Hanging Fruit" is a call to arms for a new generation of entrepreneurs who want to disrupt the old model, and do good by doing business. Hi, Mark, thank you for being here.
Mark: Hi, Javier.
Javier: So in today's episode Mark will share his entrepreneurial journey, and together, we'll learn the key insights and wisdom he gained as he discovered what success truly means.
So let's start our story with where you are today as an investor. So after selling ZICO to the Coca-Cola Company 3 years ago, you personally invested in up to 15 companies. So after your entrepreneurial run, what attracted you to invest in the dreams of other entrepreneurs as a personal investor?
Mark: Yeah, that's a good question, Javier. I mean, you know, it kind of... it came about randomly and it was not my initial intention in a way. What happened was, I think in part because of the network I developed and the friends I had in the industry, I did have sort of bird's-eye view of what was happening -- at least in certain categories and segments, and so I started seeing some really interesting opportunities, entrepreneurs that I knew and respected, investors that I respected, employees that had joined these companies, and I would see the traction that they had in the marketplace and just had an opportunity to invest, and fortunately the resources to be able to do it.
So it originally just started out opportunistic. You know, I saw some things that were interesting. Suja, a beverage, is one of the companies, Runa, a young, fast-growing company and few others in food/beverage, all of which had some sort of overall social, or health and wellness or social impact. And I realized that I loved it. I realized that, you know, I thought maybe it would be a placeholder until I decided to start my next business, but I realized I loved identifying and working with and finding these brilliant entrepreneurs that have a passionate commitment to change the marketplace in some way.
And I also frankly realized, I wasn't sure I wanted to compete with a lot of 'em. You know, I realized that they were incredible entrepreneurs and really capable in doing a great job. And so the more I started meeting some of them and investing with some of them I realized, wow, you know, I love this, it's something I think I could do. I think I could make an impact and add some value. And so I began to formalize that, and more recently formed this Powerplant Ventures.
Javier: Yeah, so you cofounded Powerplant Ventures, which invests in businesses and categories that are on-trend or totally breakout. And unlike other investment firms, you want to know that the entrepreneurs have looked beyond their profits and actually looked deeply within themselves. You ask questions like, "Why do you create this business above all others? How do you know you wanna spend your life doing it? How is it gonna make your life better? How is it gonna make the world better?" So why is it important to ask these questions to entrepreneurs? What are you looking to hear from their story?
Mark: Yeah, that's a great question. So look, for me, you know, I'm certainly... I'm a capitalist, I'm interested in making money, I have investors that expect us to generate a return, but I'm also a human and a person and a father and a community member. And so I wanna be a part of making a positive impact on this world and believe, well, all of us in this industry have an obligation to deliver products -- food, beverage products -- that are healthy, that deliver on our promise. And part of that is about making a positive impact.
I believe that the entrepreneurs that are most likely to do that are the ones that are... combine a, you know, ambitious business mindset with an idea about positive impact on the world, and really know themselves. Understand deeply why they are committed to making this change in the world, why the world needs to have this change -- and that's the sort of passion and commitment it takes to succeed in this world. And the irony is, I believe that the entrepreneurs that have that are the ones that are gonna break through.
And I've seen it again and again, that the entrepreneurs that are only about the bottom line, only about making a buck, only about trying to build this billion-dollar brand, don't. It's the ones that are so committed and passionate about their mission, that do in fact succeed. So those are the ones I wanna back, those are the visionaries I wanna work with.
Javier: So you mentioned Runa Energy as well as Suja. Are there any other companies that...?
Mark: Yeah, I'll give you an example of one. It's called Thrive Market. It's an online retailer based here in LA. So they're basically combining a Amazon, Whole Foods, and Amazon... Sorry, sorry, a Costco, Whole Foods, and Amazon model. So, it's a subscription model, you pay, I think it's $65 a year to become a member, you get to buy a curated list of products that you might find in a natural food retailer, like Sprouts or Whole Foods, but at 25% to 50% below prices, delivered to your home like Amazon.
And for every membership they sell, they give one away to a low income family, a military family, or an educator, and these guys that started this are absolutely committed that democratizing access to natural, healthy food. So their premise was, you know, look, Whole Foods is an incredible company, Sprouts is a great company: the whole natural food industry has done a wonderful value in bringing us these healthy, natural products, but the reality is, they're selling to the elite. They're selling to the top 10%, maybe 15% of consumers in our country. Well what about the rest of the country, right?
They need access to these same foods. So Thrive is one of the first companies that figured out how to get this done. And I gotta tell ya', these guys are passionate, committed social advocates, but they're also incredible business people. They are 0 to 100 million run rate in a year -- faster than Snapchat, right? So these guys are really committed and have the ability to build a multibillion-dollar brand on the foundation of a social good, right? It's an incredible, incredible model, and we're honored to be part... to be investors with them.
Javier: All right, great. So yeah, in addition to making investments in entrepreneurs that you believe in, you also created the Mark and Maura Rampolla Foundation that has the goals of philanthropy, voluntarism, grantmaking. Can you tell us what this foundation is and what you're trying to accomplish?
Mark: Sure. You know, it's a very small foundation. Maura and I, in fact with the support of some of our earlier investors, put some equity aside from ZICO into this foundation and eventually that turned into something, and so we're in the process of figuring out exactly how we use that. But our philosophy really is that we wanna invest in businesses. We wanna invest in social entrepreneurs that are making a real impact in the community.
They might not be ones that would fit a traditional investment vehicle like our fund, but it gives us a way to support those sort of impacts. So for example, one organization that we're involved with supporting and getting more involved with is called Homeboy Industries. It's a nonprofit started by a Jesuit priest here in LA that's dedicated to helping keep young men and women out of the gang life, or get them into mainstream life after being in gangs or prisons, and they've got a number of small social enterprises they run.
So we're investing with them and working with them to help them scale those. To sort of build almost a Newman's Own type model where they can have a large, scalable business that creates a steady stream source, a sustainable source of revenue and income, but also jobs for these individuals that might not have access to jobs in other ways.
Javier: All right, so thank you. So now we will be covering what you're doing today. I wanna rewind a little bit and learn what it was like in the early days so we can get to know you a little bit better.
Javier: So, you grew up in a very religious household that valued social activism, spiritual purpose, and social responsibility. So as a kid, what did you wanna be when you grew up, and what values did you learn from your family that you still have today?
Mark: Wow, apologize about the helicopter in the background here, but it'll be gone in a second. Wow, that's a great question. You know, when I was a kid I think the first memory I have of something I wanted to be was an artist. I think, you know, in my family that was as encouraged as any other arena. I think I had a little bit of an inclination for that as a kid and I thought I wanted to be an artist. You know, I think I had no interest or even a clue what a businessperson was. I mean honestly, the only businessperson among our family friends was a dear, dear friend who was a salesperson for Maxwell House coffee, all right.
So that was my complete exposure to the business world prior to going to college. So you know, I grew up in a family that valued education, learning, fun, social activism, but really didn't stress or emphasize find your career, figure out who you wanna be. It was more about figuring out who you wanna be as a person than who you wanna be as a professional.
Javier: So later you attended Marquette University and you were drawn to business after meeting friends who had entrepreneurial parents. But you struggle to reconcile your belief in making a social impact along with your newfound interest in business. You said you wanted to be a young master of the universe: so what does that mean?
Mark: Well, you know, this is the late 80s, early 90s, so this was the era of the "Wall Street," the first movie, and Gordon Gekko, the hero on that, you know, his catchphrase was "Greed is good," right? And so this was an era where people were making millions on Wall Street, and I'm comfortable admitting that I was drawn to that, you know. So I brainstormed with friends about, you know, how we're gonna run big corporations, become traders, drive fancy cars and get all the girls, and all the things that young men dream about.
Javier: So after graduating, you went to the Peace Corps and served as a small business development volunteer, working for local communities in Central America. You absorbed the culture, the people, the communities: you even drank coconut water daily, just like the locals did. So try to think back and remember your Peace Corps days, particularly your plane ride back to the United States after your time ended.
Javier: How did you feel you grew as an individual, and what were you gonna miss when you were leaving?
Mark: Oh wow, well, first of all, it wasn't a plane ride, it was a bus ride.
Javier: Oh, okay.
Mark: And when I finished Costa Rica, I spent three months backpacking through much of Central America and wound up, you know, I think somehow making my way to Durham, where I was enrolled to join Duke in their MBA program, environmental management program. And I'll tell you what, I remember vividly that first day when I landed in Durham and went to the first orientation meeting, I felt like a fish out of water. I didn't have a clue where I was, who I was, how I fit into this world because I had spent, you know, two years living in a rural community in Costa Rica.
And so, you know, honestly it took me a while to integrate those two worlds and to figure out who I was, what that all meant to me, and how it was gonna fit into my life and career -- and I read a lot about that. That's typical, right? And there's been writing for centuries, in fact millennia about what it means for people to go abroad and come back, and you know, the original Viking stories about exploring new worlds. And I think a lot of that is applicable even today in that when people, Peace Corps volunteers, military people, you know, expatriates, others that go abroad -- reporters -- have this struggle of integrating their foreign world and their domestic world, but eventually the two tend to merge, and most people find some synergy between the two.
Javier: Yeah. So you mentioned you went to Duke University, their Fuqua School of Business, you had got your MBA and your master's in environmental management. So you said that you liked all your subjects but you didn't feel drawn to any one of 'em, and you consider yourself a generalist. So thinking back on your time at Duke, how do you feel your studies prepared you for the world, and what do you think you are prepared for most?
Mark: Okay, well I think the advantage and disadvantage of going to a, you know, world-renowned really incredible school like Duke is, they have some brilliant people, right? And I don't consider myself one of them, and was competing with some really, really smart people. And although Duke isn't an obscenely competitive culture, it's one that, you know, rewards, encourages dialogue and debate, and yes, there's classes and grades and so you see how people do. So very quickly I realized while, you know, enjoyed and was confident in a finance class, man, there's 10 guys and 3 women over here that are way better than I am.
And that was true in human resources, in operations, in marketing, and so it was a balance between feeling, frankly, quite insecure. You know, realizing, like, oh my God, I'm gonna compete with these people to get jobs? Nobody's gonna hire me. How am I gonna compete in the real world? And also an insecurity about realizing, I don't really understand how all these pieces fit together, right? What does marketing have to do with operations, and human resources with finance? But that insecurity drove me. It drove me to really try to understand how they all fit together.
And what I came to realize is, as much as this world does and should reward and value specialization, right? We all understand the importance of somebody that really goes deep and understands a field, and that's a wonderful way to build a career, the world also needs generalists. They need people that understand how all those pieces fit together, and at some point I realized that's what I wanted to do. Before I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I wanted to be a general manager. I wanted to be the guy that figured out how all these pieces fit together for any... for a small-sized business, hoping that eventually when I grew to run a large business, that would be a skill set that served me very well.
Javier: Yeah, after you finished grad school, like you mentioned, you wanted to have a chance to actually run a business. So as a interesting side note, one of your first internships was at the Coca-Cola Company...
Mark: That's right.
Javier: ...in their Corporate Environmental Affairs Department, but when you actually decided to work full-time, you chose International Paper or IP in Memphis, Tennessee. So what happened from... or what happened from here, and how did you end up in Central America?
Mark: Yeah, so you know, at the time I was sort of... I was very interested in how to integrate the business and environmental worlds, and at the time, International Paper was the largest landholder in the U.S., so I thought, hey, how interesting to try to understand how a corporation, a major corporation deals with land issues. Land resources, forestry, water -- all of those issues. At the same time, I did understand, you know, began to understand then, I think in part from working in the Corporate Environmental Affairs Department at Coca-Cola that, those functions, as valuable as they are, are only relevant if they feed the core of the business, right?
So I had had some good mentors at the time that said, "Man, you really wanna make an impact in a major corporation or any business, you gotta know where they make money." And so I decided to go to work on, you know, more of the conventional moneymaking side of a business like International Paper, and that just happened to be an opportunity that came up in their packaging business. And so I took a job in a global packaging business based in Memphis, Tennessee, and one of the reasons was, frankly there wasn't a lot of competition for those jobs.
You know, I don't know that I would have gotten a top job at a top-tier investment bank in New York or one of the premier consulting positions, but International Paper was not... brought in a very few number of MBAs per year. It was competitive but not obscenely competitive, but the fact that I had this Peace Corps experience, I spoke Spanish, I had some international experience, it was interesting to them because the thought was, I was on... they wanted people that could be on a path to eventually be general managers in some of their businesses, many of which were in Latin America.
So the idea was, hey, work for us for two years in Memphis, learn the business, contribute: if you show us you're really capable of doing something, maybe we'll give you a chance to go back to Latin America and run a business. And on a personal front, I had met and fell in love with my beautiful wife, Maura, by that time, and you know, she had lived and worked in Central America as well, and I think we were probably two of the few people in the world that were jumping up and down to move to El Salvador to take on an assignment for International Paper. But when they told us that opportunity was there, we jumped at it.
Javier: Yeah, so when you quit... when you went to IP in El Salvador, within two months you did something that helped you excel at the company really fast. So you decided to look at every single thing on the balance sheet, down to the invoice. You actually went to the ground level, look at the inventory where all the points of cash exchanged. So what did this kind of detail and attention to the day-to-day operations teach you about business?
Mark: Yeah, well, look, it's a little funny backstory about that. I can't remember if I even get into this in the book, but the reason I did that was because I almost got fired. You know, not exactly, but close. What happened was, I remember sitting down with a finance person that was working for me at the time, and basically learning and realizing that this guy was, let's just say, smoothing the earnings, okay? So, he had created some balance sheet accounts that allowed him to sorta fudge the accounts and deliver what he believed that the corporation wanted to see every month or every quarter.
Well there's nothing technically illegal about it, but it was absolutely inappropriate and you do not do that in a corporation. So I, as soon as I learned about that, you know, I talked to my boss and talked to some of the finance people, and they came down hard, so I got an official letter in my file saying, hey, there were accounting improprieties that happened on your watch. Better not happen again. So I realized right then, uh-oh, I didn't quite go as deep in my accounting classes as I probably should have, so I realized I need to know that balance sheet inside and out, every single line item. And the reality is, before that I didn't have a clue what that meant, and what I learned in that process is, most business people don't, frankly.
Even good finance people may not be really experts on the accounting side -- and it's critical. You know, a decent business of any size, the balance sheet is really where a business lives or dies, and particularly one that's ongoing. And so that was a tremendous learning opportunity for me to really force me to understand that business: understand where cash comes in, goes out, how does it get tied in, how is it used efficiently or not, and where people can gain businesses and sorta gain the balance sheet and income statements. So, it was hugely valuable in general, it was hugely valuable in that particular business, and it helped me tremendously as I grew and took over other businesses, and it helps to this day to really understand, you know, what/where a business kind of lives or dies.
Javier: Yeah, so you were eventually promoted, and you went from... you got the chance to run entire... all the Latin American operations, and it went from a $20 million division, to a $100 million business. So, what business skills were different from running the $20 million to the $100 million? Which was a significantly larger operation.
Mark: Sure, sure. I mean, you know, the skill set changed mainly at a couple levels. One was, really thinking strategically about the whole region of Latin America versus a few countries in Central America. So, what are the international dynamics? What are the opportunities for synergies across businesses and customers, and other things? The human resource discussion became a lot more important: it was very critical I had confident, strong managers in each of the businesses, and made sure their teams were strong. So that was a skill set that I had cultivated a little bit, but really needed to hone in on.
Also, board of directors: all of the businesses I ran were joint ventures, which meant that International Paper, the parent company, owned anywhere from 51% to 80% of the businesses. But they all had local joint venture partners -- you know, family and business people in each of these countries -- and they expected a dividend check at the end of the year, and they expected their value to grow, and they had seats on the board of directors. So I learned the importance of, you know, engaging with board members, understanding outside investors, understanding how to balance, you know, their needs and the corporate needs, and it was an incredible learning opportunity.
And I'm really thankful and appreciative to International Paper, this stage that they gave me. You know, a young guy, an ex-Peace Corps volunteer fresh out of business school with an opportunity to do that.
Javier: Yeah, so you had great success at IP, you're on track to climbing up the corporate ladder, but something didn't feel right for you -- or for your future. You said, "Sometimes the closer you get to your goals, the more you realize they're not really your goals." So it appeared that you were living the dream and you had a successful career path ahead of you. You had opportunities to maybe even run the tobacco packaging business -- from beverage to tobacco, you know. But then you started questioning why. Why are you doing what you're doing? So what were you feeling in life at this point?
Mark: Wow, deep questions, Javier. You know, I think people go through this at different stages in their life. Perhaps, it was an early midlife crisis and a midlife directions, as my... I've heard people say it, but I think I was in a fortunate position where at a relatively young age I was, you know, a big fish in a small pond. So I was running a decent sized business, I got a chance to, you know, play at a level in a small country of El Salvador where I was dealing with dignitaries and helping to negotiate trade agreements. And I had a sight to imagine where I might be in a few years -- 5 or 10 years in a major corporation -- and that gave me an opportunity to say, "Wow, is that really what I want?"
And I think what so many people don't do, young business people, is really think through what they want. What is your life, it's your life to live. It's not what your parents say, it's not what your friends say, it's not what the press says, and I think so many people go through a career thinking what they want, without really realizing what that means at that level or at that point in their life. And so, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to actually see that and actually spend a lot of time thinking about that, and concluded, I don't want that life. Now the hard thought was, well then, what did I want, right?
But I've always believed that half of strategy and business in life is knowing what you don't wanna do, right? So at least I knew, look, I don't wanna be, you know, a 50-year-old corporate executive. I don't care how much money I'm making, I don't care how big the business is: I want to lead a different life -- and it's my personal choice. It's a combination of how I live my life, the kind of parent I wanna model for my girls: the kind of contribution I wanna try to make to the world is different than that, you know. So that sort of at least set the direction of where I didn't wanna go, and forced me to start to ask the question, well, what do I really want?
Javier: Okay, so now that we know your background a little bit more, I want to get into your ZICO journey.
Javier: So everything down to the gritty detail about your story is covered in the "High-Hanging Fruit" book, so if you wanna learn more about the story, check out the book. But what I wanna talk to you about, though, are the lessons you learned along the way. So here goes: so one day a close friend of yours asked you, "'Have you ever thought about starting your own business?' You said you weren't the idea guy. Then he told you that the only difference was that... the only difference between you and an entrepreneur, is a idea."
But then that conversation seemed to flip a switch in you, and then after that you became an idea machine, seeing opportunities at every corner -- but you saw newfound view of the world. But what I wanna ask is, so what factors in life in general that affected you or maybe other people in general, make them feel like they can't have an idea, that they're not creative?
Javier: Because as a kid, you wanted to be an artist and be creative.
Mark: Yeah, that's right, that's right.
Javier: So what in your life changed?
Mark: You know, I think that life has all sorts of circumstances that drive us in different directions, and I personally believe there's no point in pointing blame or crying over spilled milk and looking, other than to look inside of oneself and really understand, what is your thought process? What are those hidden stories you tell yourself? What are those tapes you run in your head? And a lot of people have coined different terms for 'em, but the one I really like came from Jack Canfield, and it's called "limiting beliefs."
These other things we tell ourselves. If we're conscious and aware of it, we tell ourselves that limit our potential or keep us in our place, and don't allow us to realize our full potential. And so one of the ones that for me I realize, and I have a list of, you know, 50 of 'em that I did over a period of time that really helped me understand thoughts that were limiting them: one of 'em was, you can imagine this coming from my background, I have so much. I'm already so blessed, I'm so fortunate --how could I want any more, right? I must be a really greedy son of a bi**h if I want more than I have, right?
There's something wrong with me. And I realize, I don't blame my parents, or my family, or the Catholic Church, or anyone for that -- that's me, right? But what I realize is, I needed to reprogram myself and think about that differently, and so I started to think, wow, how wonderful is it that I can be... I'm fortunate to be where I am, but I'm gonna be generous. I'm gonna be the kind of person that gives back, I'm gonna be the kind of person that all along the way is grateful, gracious, and so pleased that I am living an abundant life, and I'm gonna share that abundance with others.
You know, and so, I think that we all get into these -- and I'm not a psychologist -- but, you know, there's... we all get into these ways of telling ourselves these stories, whether we realize it or not. And I think it's only through, you know, reflection, through reading, through writing, that one can become aware of those, put them where they are, and decide whether you want those to drive your life or not. So for me, that was an important process.
Javier: Yeah, so it was at this point you started to keep a notebook or a journal. Do you still have that notebook, by the way?
Mark: I do. I have many of them. In fact, I, prompted by some of your earlier questions, in advance I pulled some of 'em out. I do have a couple of 'em around.
Javier: Oh, is it within arm's reach or no?
Mark: You know, one of 'em is. I gotta remember what... let's see, what you wanna be.
Mark: There was one I found... I don't wanna waste a ton of good time. What was it? "...placing the article. I'm more concerned really about our..." There was one here that differently was my first mention of coconut water here. You want to hear a little piece?
Mark: It's a little bit of a prep-prep but, "There is a series of occurrences that made me think I may be at an interesting crossroads, though not the one I expected." And then I go on to talk about some of my IP interactions and some of my interactions with some of the senior executives that made me think, yeah, you know, I'm not sure that I want this career at IP. And at the same time I talk about this meeting I had with this friend, David Andrade, that really got me thinking about, hey, maybe I can come up with an idea. So that's the first time I started to really think about that.
And then at some point, just a couple of months later, my comment is... I think I had an earlier reference to it, but what I referred to it as is just... Ah, I'm talking about different projects that I'm thinking about and beginning to brainstorm, and one of 'em is, "The other project is coconut water. I have a good basic business plan, and I'm about to hire MB," my sister, Mary Beth, "to do branding and design work. After that I need to put together the financials and figure out with whom I want to... to whom I want to pitch it. I'll probably need to seek some advice on how to determine how much share I sell for how much money. There's a lot of complexities around it."
But that's one of about six projects that I'm mentioning in this point in my journal, yeah. And that's a technique that I actually learned from my... My father-in-law is a world-renowned neuroscientist, and at one point, you know, he really challenged me before -- well before this -- asking me how do I really think about my life in business, and he asked me if I journaled. And I said, "Yeah, not really." And he said, "Well you should. You can't be a serious person, in the life or business or any field, if you're not journaling for the exercise." And the more I read about it I realized, throughout history, it's been a technique that, you know, many, many great leaders have used -- thinkers, leaders in business and science and art -- and so I found it incredibly valuable to do that on a regular basis.
Javier: Well, can I just to see what the journal looks like?
Mark: Yeah, sure.
Javier: Oh, just a regular journal, right?
Mark: Regular ol' journal. And actually my daughter saw it, it's a little moldy. I've gotta take the time to clean it every once in a while. And they're always a little different. Some years I had... I actually had one that I think I got from International Paper that had every day in. You can see, I wasn't perfect at it -- I get to the end here, I skipped a few weeks -- and it's been definitely not a perfect habit of mine, but it's been something that's been really, really critical. And I would add to that another technique that I learned that I call "thought time."
You know, Bill Gates is famous for taking two weeks a year to go think about the business and Microsoft and the world, and I found that it was better for me to do it actually on a weekly basis, where I would take a few hours some afternoon. No cell phone, no Internet, no computer -- just a notepad -- in fact, different than this journal, to brainstorm. Think about my life and the business. And some of the best ideas I had for International Paper, many of the ideas and concepts for ZICO, and some of the best ideas for ZICO came out of those thought time sessions.
Javier: Nice. So yeah, you were really excited about all your ideas and you shared 'em with your wife, Maura. When you told her about your ideas about filling in the gaps in the marketplace, what did she tell you?
Mark: She's a tough cookie and very smart, and does not deal with fools well -- and I can be a fool at times -- so she called me on the carpet for some of my ideas and said they were pretty much worthless, you know. One of 'em was I was thinking about consolidating the dairy industry of Central America, and you know, she laughed at that. She's like, "You've hidden your love and passion for cows from me for all these years. You know, we don't even drink milk."
I was thinking about consolidating... building a trucking infrastructure to go from Central America, into Mexico, into the U.S., and her response is, "Are you kidding me? Trucking? Like, I'm a public health official, truckers are the biggest transmitters of sexually transmitted diseases in the region. How possibly could we be associated with this?" So she forced me to think more than just about making money, good business ideas, typical MBA screens, to think about what this really meant to us, to our kids, to the world, and forced me to look deep inside and think about, you know, where we could contribute to the world -- that would be fun and interesting as well.
Javier: Yeah, so what you guys did after that is you just spent two weeks of just reflecting about life, and what you wanted to do with your wife, what you wanted to do in life in general. So what were you guys really doing, and how was it important in your development of your business ideas?
Mark: Sure. Well, what we were physically doing was taking walks. You know, we've had a long history of taking really long walks. If we could pull it off with the kids in some way, two-, three-hour walks or hikes -- and intense ones -- and where we're chatting about life. But we would often have an agenda, right? Let's talk about where we wanna live and why, right? What do you like? What do I like? What kind of cases might we want to live? What are we looking for in a community, or a city, or a place we'd wanna live, you know? What kind of life do we imagine having? You imagine, you know, I would go to an office every day, or we live in an apartment or a house?
Do we see you being close to family or traveling with family? Those little details are things, I think, people forget to focus on, and they're what makes up life. And I found that it incredibly valuable to actually focus on those first, and then start to talk about a business that we would build. So for example, you know, we knew we wanted to move back to the States and raise our kids in the States for at least some of their formative years, our girls, but we also knew we loved Latin America and wanna stay tied to it and have a reason to go back. So it's like, okay, what kind of business would allow us to do that, right?
I love International Paper to death, but you know, many of their corporate offices in the U.S. were in Memphis, Tennessee, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Texarkana, Texas: wonderful places but not places that we wanted to live. We wanted to live and have our work take us to Seattle, and Portland, and Austin, and New York, and San Francisco, and LA, so you know, what kind of business would do that? We were active. We always knew, hey, we wanted to stay... you know, ski, and learn to surf, and run, and bike, so what kind of business might keep us tied to an active, healthy, natural living? So those were criteria that were important to us personally, but wound up becoming nontraditional screens that helped us select a business that became really much more than a business, but became a personal mission for us.
Javier: Yeah, so then you came back to your idea journal and you looked at it through two screens: one is your traditional MBA screen to evaluate if the business is viable, but then you also had a personal screen, and your goal was to pass the Maura test.
Javier: So what did these screens help you with? Particularly the personal one, and you can also talk about the MBA one too.
Mark: Sure, sure. Well, you know, what happened is, Maura and I would take these walks, have the discussion, and we had... we were, at that point, had been married for probably four or five years and been together for five or six, so we knew each other pretty well. So out of those discussions I went back, and you know, my homework assignment was, hey, I'm the one that wanted to go do the business, so I had the homework assignment of putting together in some framework, right? And so what I did was, you know, very... and sort of a parallel to their business screens, is it a BHAG, like Jim Collins says: a Big Hairy Audacious Goal?
Does it have good growth potential or high margins? Can you differentiate it? A various series of brand screens. I developed a series of personal screens, and they were about, you know, how does this fit with our values? Will it allow us to travel to places we wanna travel to? Is it something that's associated with health and wellness? Is this something that we think our girls will think are cool someday? Is it something that will keep us tied to Latin America? So they were very personal to us, but helped us then quickly evaluate ideas that I was generating to say, yeah, you know what?
It sounds great, it's gonna make a lot of money -- maybe -- but it doesn't fit with our personal screens. And one of the reasons that I knew or I kind of believed that this was so important is, the more I read about entrepreneurship, I realized that typically businesses take at least five years to get to a point where they are reasonably stable. Very often 10, right? And I had never done anything in my life more than about two years before that. So what I realized is, man, if I'm gonna commit to something, I assume, look, it's gonna take 5 or 10 years for it to be successful. If I'm going to commit to something for 5 or 10 years, it better damn well be something I love, and it better hit every one of my priorities, because if it's only about making money, then I'm a very likely to lose interest, right?
To get to a point where I say, "Yeah, you know, it's tough on my family, it's tough personally, it's stressful -- maybe I'll go do something else," right? But I realized if I can find something that really hits... you know, fills me at multiple levels physically, mentally, spiritually at the level of my soul, then I'm more likely to be able to stay committed to it for the 10 years it's gonna take for it to be successful.
Javier: Yes, so with the help of your wife, you realized that what you were actually doing was reaching higher. So you're in essence looking to combine entrepreneurship with your deep personal values of personal purpose and mission, and you call this "capitalism 2.0."
Javier: So what's this theory, and what does it mean to reach higher?
Mark: Yeah, so what it means to me is, you know, originally I thought, yeah, this is me and my sort of pursuit, and certainly there's been some wonderful other examples of this: John Mackey at Whole Foods writing about conscious capitalism. There have been a lot of thought out there over the years, but what I think is, that was the beginning of this, what I think is really a movement. What I've learned since going through my own process in ZICO and really seeing just in the last 5, maybe 10 years is thousands of entrepreneurs starting with this same sort of mission, starting with this same sort of objective.
In where, when I was going to college, guys -- men and women and I were talking about ideas. It's about, you know, how are you gonna make a ton of money, right? Where's the biggest opportunity? Where's the gap in the market? Where's the profitability? And that was really true pretty much even through my time at Duke and graduate school. But I'll tell you what, I go back now to college universities, to business schools and talk to young entrepreneurs -- it's a given -- they are... you know, let's say the majority if not the vast majority come are actually committed that there is a different way to do business. That you can make a social impact. And that becomes table stakes.
That is the way they are approaching business today, and so I think that's revolutionary. I think the potential that that has to impact our world when we really have these world-class entrepreneurs, they're not only about... You know they're not missionaries or mercenaries -- they are visionaries, right? They are thinking about, look, yes, we're gonna figure out how to make money, yes, we're gonna impact the world -- but we're gonna do both of 'em at scale. This is not small little social enterprises in a little community, this is not just a little fair trade business that trades with, you know, weavers in Columbia. These are people that are thinking about and are building multibillion-dollar brands that have the chance to disrupt major industries, and they're doing it with a fundamental social mission, right? That's revolutionary.
Javier: Yeah, and so that's interesting because when you were starting ZICO, you saw your competitors who were in the icebox, or in the refrigerator section -- you didn't see them as competitors, you saw them as fellow seekers.
Javier: And they weren't experts when they launched their business, but they had something different, which was compelling. They had an authentic story and a mission. So why is this personal mission and story more important than experience?
Mark: Yeah, so you know, when let me qualify on that, that was a little bit of naivete on my part, right? I quickly realize that. Yeah, these guys may... some of 'em have a mission, some of 'em don't, but they're all competitive, right? And so I learned, you gotta compete, there's no substitute for that. But look, I think, in this day and age, it's sort of a given that an entrepreneur's gotta be smart, you've gotta have a certain level of experience, you gotta have an ability to learn.
But what I find is that again and again, when I look at the entrepreneurs that have been successful -- not all of 'em -- there are some that are purely about the bottom line, but when I look at most of the ones that are successful and most of the ones I think are gonna be successful, they have this deep, personal passion and commitment to change the world in the way that they think it needs to be. And what I believe and have seen is and found personally is, that's what gets you through the tough times, right?
Because there's gonna be ups and downs in businesses, there's gonna be on the verge of bankruptcy, there's gonna be challenges, and if it's only about the money, I think there's a chance that, oh, well I'm gonna go do something else or I'm gonna morph my business to be profitable in the way that it needs to be profitable. That's great, right? I'm not rejecting that idea, but what I'm saying is to people that I want to be associated with and get me excited, are so committed to their mission, they almost don't care whether it's gonna make money or not. And the irony is, it's more likely to because they're gonna do whatever it takes, right?
If that means that they don't have to take a salary for a period of time, they're not gonna take a salary for a period of time, if that means that they need to bring in investors and take a hit on their valuation, they'll take a hit on the valuation, if that means that they need to, you know, run a business at a... or break-even for a period of time or lose money for a period of time, they are gonna do what it takes to achieve their mission. And in this day and age I think that's, first of all, what it takes to really break through, but it's also that passion and commitment that attracts investors, employees, consumers, retailer. Everybody wants to be part of this... of a mission more than just a product or a service.
Javier: Yeah, and you did say that you realize that they were competitors, and in the industry you realize that there's a ton of competitors in the beverage space. But you said, they provided plenty of case studies for you?
Javier: And you said they're the best resource to learn from. So what you did was, you tracked down the founders of other companies like SoBe, Vitaminwater, Fuze, Nantucket Nectars. What did you do when you reached out to them? What were you seeking to learn from them?
Mark: You know, sometimes it was specific, sometimes it was general advice, but what I was clear with all of them was, hey, look, admired what you did, saw you did this -- can I ask you some questions? And usually it was very specific, I was always respectful of their time, you know, tried to be specific with what I was after, but what I wanted was advice, you know. So learning sometimes was about distributors, right? Look, I'm making a decision whether or not to go with this distributor, looking at a contract. Can I pick your brain for five minutes on some watchouts to be aware of, right?
You know, I'm debating about whether or not we expand into all natural food channels or we stay really focused. Can I get your opinion on that? What worked for you? What do you think is happening today, you know? I'm evaluating this broker versus that broker: do you have any experience or... And what I found is that when you're asking somebody for advice, very few are gonna shy away from that, and particularly when you're respectful of their time, specific about what you'd like to ask. And frankly, you know, take that advice in many ways, and listen to it and incorporate it into your business, people more often than not are more than happy to give it.
Javier: Yeah. And so, yeah, going a little bit forward, you started doing the packaging and the design for ZICO -- there are a number of options. But one question came is, are you selling a commodity or an aspiration? And you said that there could be a benefit to one or another, but you chose to choose aspiration. So can you talk about this with your brand?
Mark: Yeah, sure. You know, I think it's important with any brand or product or service for that matter, to really understand your positioning. Fundamentally how are you positioned, what's the value proposition to consumers, and there's many, many ways to look at that, but one simplistic way is, you know, commodity versus real value added, and even beyond value added is sort of an aspiration. And so, you know, what I realize is, hey, there's some businesses that are based on a commodity, right? For many, many years, white fluid milk was a commodity. It was what people in the industry called a loss-leader. Iit's what got people in the stores so they could buy other stuff, right?
And dairies, you know, some of 'em didn't do so well, some did fine on huge volume at low margin, and you can build businesses that way, right? So it's a sort of proven model in certain ways. But at the same time what I realized is, you know, a couple of things: one, if we're gonna build a value-added category and one that has margin that works for brands, but also works for producers, that's not a commodity, right? And I also realized that brands -- yeah, sort of by definition -- a brand is, it's the price at which that product or that brand is worth versus other commodities that are out there.
And so, what I realized is, what other wonderful consumer products and brands in the beverage category -- Vitaminwater was one of 'em, Red Bull was another -- they created an aspiration. Heineken -- they created a mood or an experience that consumers wanted to have, right? You want that Heineken at a certain time of day, you want that Corona experience on a beach, you want that energy that a Red Bull delivers. And ultimately I came to understand, I'm not a marketing whiz, but I came to read enough and understand that we, as consumers, as humans, are motivated by a complex series of emotions, and that aspirations are a very important part of them.
So if we could tap into a healthy, positive aspiration for consumers and help them understand how ZICO Coconut Water in general and ZICO in specific helped to achieve that aspiration, you know, we're at a different game. We're at a game that has significantly more value than a commodity, but also has significantly more scale than a niche brand. And so, that was an important distinguishing choice for us to understand that we really wanted to build this brand. That it was about... it was aspirational.
Javier: Yeah, okay, so I just wanted to side note, you said when you were reaching out to companies you wanted to be respectful of their time, so I want to be respectful of your time.
Javier: Is it okay to continue asking questions or are you...?
Mark: Yes, it is.
Javier: You're still good? Okay.
Javier: All right, so your original mission was to preserve the quality of your family life, and that was really big. But at one point you missed the mark because during dinner time, you had a phone call from your sister, Mary Beth, and you ended up getting up and taking her call. Even though it was only 10 minutes long, your wife said, "It's not gonna be this way." So you learned something that moment, and you had to learn about habits and discipline, and the value of defining boundaries. How to be present in the moment in everything you do.
Javier: So for people who have very busy schedules, how can they balance their life and their business?
Mark: Sure. Well, you know, the first thing I would comment is, look, Maura is a very rational person, right? So it's not like she was just drawing some random line on this. I had been pretty out of control in my work and travel schedule and I think she was making a very clear statement about, you know, where her limits and expectations were, so it was very rational and appropriate. But what it forced me to learn was, you know, and in fact I remember the exact phrase that I said to her, which ultimately led in some ways to the title of the book was, I realized she was setting the bar higher, right?
She was saying, "Look, I understand you wanna go for this, I understand you wanna do it -- I'm gonna support you -- but let's not lose what we have," right? And so what I realized then was, how do I go for what I'm after and build this business and hopefully make an impact on the world, but not lose everything I have? How do I get it all, really in some ways? And I think, you know, the reality is, life is tough, you have to make trade-offs and compromises, so I... it was very important for me to define my win.
And what I realized is, if I built that billion-dollar brand and it was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and it was known throughout history as the king of the coconut water world, and changed the lives of millions of people: but died at 55 of a heart attack, you know, got divorced and had a miserable relationship with Maura, hardly knew my kids, screwed people along the way. That wasn't a win for me, right? So knowing that forced me to start out, okay, I wanna go through this but I have these constraints, right? I wanna see my family, I wanna stay close to my wife, I wanna know my daughters, I wanna stay healthy, but I also realized that my productivity was directly correlated with my ability to do those things.
And this has come out recently. You know, there's been a lot of research on this, but more recently Arianna Huffington wrote a great book called "Thrive" that talks a lot about this. People need sleep. People are more productive with sleep, right? Everyone kind of believes it, but so few people practice it -- I realized that. I realized early in my career, my marginal return on effort went like this when I wasn't taking care of myself. I just couldn't be productive for 12, 14, 15 hours a day. When I was sleeping well, exercising, spent time with my wife and kids, my head was clear: I was able to be present and clearheaded and healthy enough to make good decisions, and work intelligently when I was working.
So I quickly realized it wasn't about the quantity of work, it was about the quality -- and it was also about the quality of my life. And it was always a challenge, it was never easy, but I constantly prioritized, hey, I'm gonna spend time with my kids, I'm gonna have dinner with them every chance I can, I'm gonna be there free on Sundays, I'm gonna take vacation. When I'm working, it's going be intense, but I'm gonna build those priorities in.
Javier: You mentioned sleep: you would go to sleep at 10:00 p.m. and wake up at, like, 4:00 or 4:30 a.m., go for run -- and that was your time. So it was like, six hours was good for you?
Mark: Well, yeah, you know, for some years it was. I now am at a point where I really try to get eight, you know? But I think everybody's a little bit different. What's clear is, for me and for very few people, there's a lot of people that... I used to hear people all the time say, "Oh, I need four hours of sleep. That's all I need. I'm good," and I used to feel like a weakling or ineffective in some ways. And what I realize is, most of 'em are full of crap, right? And most of'em probably are gonna have... suffer later in life, and now that I'm getting into my mid to late 40s and I see some friends and colleagues that have lived that way for a long time, you could see the wear and tear on 'em, right?
But you know, I was... I had a lot to do, ZICO was an intense time, and so usually that five, six-hour sleep was adequate -- catching up for it on the weekends. But when I was good about that -- getting to bed at 10:00 and getting up at 5:00 -- you know, that's seven hours of sleep. That is good for me. I believe in a sleep cycle, so I know my sleep cycle, and you know, eight actually throws me off. Seven and a half, seven or seven and a half is about perfect for me. When I get that, I don't need an alarm, I get up when I wanna get up, and I'm good.
Javier: Okay, so yeah, so we'll fast-forward a little bit. You raised money and you had your first product sourced, and then you went to your first product tradeshow -- the Fancy Food Show in New York. You have the photo of your first tradeshow experience?
Mark: Yeah, I do on my computer. I unfortunately wasn't able to find a print-out of it, I don't know how well this is gonna turn out, but I got a couple here that I think I can show you. We'll see if you could see...
Javier: There is no way... Oh, okay. Oh, yeah, that looks nice.
Mark: That's the original booth.
Mark: Ten-foot by 20-foot booth -- and we spent a lot of money on that. And you know, at times, I thought it was an absurdity to do that much, but it really paid off. Let's move the angle right here. This is not me, but this is some other of our team giving samples away. We literally had people three or four deep at this show, in no small part because the booth was so beautiful. Half the time I didn't know if they thought it was a personal care item or a... you know, and nobody even knew what coconut water was, but it really made a positive impact. And there is...
Javier: Oh, that's you.
Mark: That's me. The first trade show, 2004.
Mark: A little more hair, a little less gray at the time.
Javier: So who was that Mark Rampolla?
Mark: You know, I think he was the same guy. You know, I believe character endures. That fundamentally I haven't changed that much. I was certainly a lot more ignorant about this industry: I look back and think how little I knew about the beverage industry, the food industry, entrepreneurship, but I was fortunately ignorant enough to just jump in. And I think ambitious but also very nervous, very insecure. But you know, one of my favorite quotes is Georgia O'Keeffe said, "That the painter said I've been afraid every day of my life, but I've never let it stop me from doing what I want," right? So I was scared, I didn't have a clue what I was doing, but I was moving forward, and you know, just enjoying life.
Javier: Yeah, so after that trade show you had some initial success, and you eventually signed on an exclusive deal with a distributor, and you received some really hard advice. You said, "You've got to be ready to give until it hurts, and then give some more. Once everybody makes money in it, then maybe -- maybe you'll make some money." So what was that statement?
Mark: Wow, that is the infamous H: Irving Howell Hershkowitz, the founder and owner for many years of Big Geyser in New York, and this guy's a legend in the beverage industry and a character, and really a wonderful, wonderful guy. And he... you know, he spent some time with me, and was in some ways a very tough mentor for me. This guy grew up on the streets of New York and built a business, you know, bottle-by-bottle, case-by-case, and he was tough as nails. And he knows the industry, and his message was, "Man, you think you're going to come in here and make money the first year, the first two years, the first five years, you're wrong," right? "But if you are willing to give and give and give and give, you know, eventually maybe you'll make some money."
And you know, it's great advice. There's a great new book I'm reading right now called... by Adam Grant, "Give and Take," and it's about the giving mindset, right? Now, that is a little bit more on sort of the social front -- this was literally about money, right? And his message was, I've got distributors that are living and dying on what they sell every day. You -- you got a job, you got a family -- you're gonna be fine. These guys need to make money today, not in five years, so figure out how to have them make money today, this month, next year, focus on them. You know, if they need extra cases, give it to 'em, if they need to make some extra margin, give it to them.
Help them win, and then you'll win. And I thought that was hugely valuable advice that serves in many, many businesses, is recognizing, you know, you have to fit into an ecosystem. You've got to figure out how to make others in your ecosystem -- your suppliers, your customers -- make sure you're delivering value for them, right? Ideally you gotta figure out how to make it work for you as well, but that may take time. You know, think about how long Amazon has lost money, right? And people thought Jeff Bezos was crazy, but he showed, look, if you deliver value enough, and sometimes even at a loss, ultimately what did he did? He embedded himself in all of our lives, right? Who lives without Amazon these days? So I think there's many, many examples of this sort of give until it hurts mindset
Javier: So Big H was correct, and you almost went into bankruptcy.
Mark: Oh yeah, yeah.
Javier: So, then you asked yourself the question: is this what it really means to be an entrepreneur? So what does it mean to be an entrepreneur when you're facing almost bankruptcy?
Mark: Well look, I think, you know, there's a lot of definitions of it and I'm not gonna claim I have the most articulate one, but I think ultimately my response to many entrepreneurs, particularly young ones is, look, how much do you wanna... Yeah, you say this is your vision, right? So as much as I do wanna see the passion and the vision, my next question is, okay, what are you willing to do to get it, right? Are you willing to spend your life? Are you willing to spend 20, 30 years of your life, even if you don't make any money, to achieve your vision? Very few people can say that.
But I can tell you somebody that can credibly say that has a much higher chance of success, because the reality sometimes it takes 20, 30 years to... You know, you read the stories about these entrepreneurs that have just been at it again and again and again, and the sure way to fail is to give up, right? Now, that may be one business fails, one iteration fails, one structure fails. You know, I think of a friend of mine, Doug Evans, that started a business now called Juicero. He started a business called Organic Avenue in New York, one of the first fresh pressed juice businesses: built that up to be successful, founded six outlets.
I think it took him about a decade to get it up there. Got kind of screwed by some investors and wound up of losing control of his company, the company eventually went bankrupt. Doug didn't care. His vision from the beginning was, build the best possible fresh juice in the world, right? So he dove back into the business, but built it from the ground up, build it smarter with better investors and more money, raised close to $100 million before he even launched his business, and now he's building a business called Juicero that's gonna be worth $1 billion. He doesn't care: he drives an old Prius, lives in a simple apartment, hardly spends any money. All he cares about is achieving his vision of delivering the freshest, most nutritious juice on the planet, you know. And so he's gonna achieve it.
Javier: Yeah. Also, just letting you know, the lighting -- I think it's sunset over there.
Javier: Is there any way to close the blinds or no?
Javier: Okay, oh, that looks good. Perfect.
Mark: Maybe tweak it a little bit there, yeah.
Javier: Yeah, that looks good. So, when you were at that low point, not knowing if you were gonna make it, you start... you did something different: you started delving into positive psychology, you practice daily thoughts of gratitude. What were you telling yourself during your ritual of daily, positive affirmations?
Mark: Right. So you know, I used to joke at people that talked about this stuff and read this stuff, and I used to think Tony Robbins and these guys were just nut jobs, and only losers really listen to that stuff. Well, you know, when I got... things were tough for me, I started looking for anything I could to help me out, and I started to understand that there is some value. You know, I don't claim to know the data and science behind it, but for me personally, there was tremendous value in this sort of positive thought process. So you know, as corny as it sounds, I would go on my morning runs, and my chants were things like, "All you ever need is inside you now."
Tony Robbins quote: "All you ever need is inside you now." And the mindset is not, oh, I don't need anybody in the world, but the mindset is, I have within me the capability to do what I need to do in this world, right? And you know, it was just I'm thankful. I'm happy to be alive, I'm happy for my health, I'm happy for my kids, and going through those sort of mantras I found put me in a place where I was ready for anything that happened during the day, you know. Maybe it's a little mental trick, maybe it's reprogramming. I don't know how it works, I can't explain to you how it works -- but it worked for me.
And I've found to this day that, you know, there is an importance in putting and keeping myself in a positive mental state, and I have the ability to do that. I can get into, like anybody, these mental ruts. Oh, I'm not good enough. Why did I do that? I'm an idiot. I'm wrong. But I can also remind myself, man, I'm happy to be alive. I feel good, I'm happy with what I'm doing. Yeah, I made some mistakes in the past, but I'm gonna focus on the positive.
Javier: Yeah. And so, yeah, you were going for a turn, you were being positive, but sometimes the market doesn't respond the way you want it to, and it's not because of lack of effort that it doesn't take off. So sometimes things get worse before they get better. In most cases people start their company out of their garage, and then they grow up, and then they go into an office building. In your case, it was the opposite.
Javier: You went from an office building, back to your garage. And then you decided, okay, I just need to put my head down and plow right through it.
Mark: That's right.
Javier: So how do you know that it's important to plow right through versus to pivot and do something else?
Mark: Yeah, great question. So look, I don't think there's any perfect answer on that and I'm certainly not the expert on knowing when that is. What I believe is that, you know, you need to know yourself, right? You need to be very self-aware and understand your own limits, your own situation, and in my case -- you know, in a committed relationship -- that of my partner, of Maura. And so, it was very important that we were having an open dialogue together, and that she felt that I was gonna respect her decisions. I have a pretty high tolerance for risks so... and for pain in some ways, right?
And she had never had really super high expectations about living a crazy high life, but she had reasonable expectations. Hey, I would like to be able to, you know, not worry about our mortgage, right? To be able to pay our credit card bill, to be able to take a modest trip every once in a while. Reasonable things, right? And so that was a debate we had, and I think there were some occasions when, you know, it looked like we might not be able to pay our mortgage next month, we might not be able to pay our bills next month, we might have to sell our house. And it wasn't just one month: I think there was about a three-year period where that was kind of every month or two we had those discussions and debates.
And you know, we had very good communication, it was never perfect, but we were able to say... You know, my question to her was always, "Look, are you done," right? "If this is too much for you, I'll get a job," right? And I think allowing her to know that I was willing to do that was huge, right? And allowing myself to know that I was gonna do that was huge, right? Because there is a point in which pride takes over and can be very dangerous. I've had some friends that, out of pride would never take a job lower than where they should have been or never do work outside of their business, even though their business was tanking or their career was taking a, you know, really bad trip, so much so that they had to sell their house, and take their kids out, and their marriage fell apart, and they became alcoholics, right?
And so, yeah, there's a point at which you gotta understand some limits and let... push pride aside. So I think I was always clear that, look, I want to do this, I believe in it, but I'm not gonna let the pride stand in my way of making rational decision. And fortunately, you know, we always kept reevaluating that every year, every quarter, often every week, to say, "You know what? We're in this again. Ups and downs, we're in this again and we're gonna keep going for it."
Javier: Yeah, and so the good news is, after that, ZICO started taking off and you started growing really fast: doubling, tripling, like, year-over-year, and so what you needed to do is build a team really fast.
Javier: And so what you were doing is building a team in a culture. What culture were you trying to build? Who were you looking for? How did you evaluate potential hires?
Mark: Sure. Well, you know, by that time I understood a lot more about the beverage industry than I did earlier, and I realized that building a beverage brand in the U.S., still to this day -- it really hasn't changed that much in 30 something years -- it takes feet on the street. It takes individuals that... it takes a clear strategy, a great product, a unique offering, but then it takes the ability to execute. And that execution ability is about, you know, a daily fight, it's a daily grind to get your products in to distributors, to make sure it stays on the shelf, to make sure it's executed well, to make sure the promotions are in place, you don't lose your shelf space.
All those little details make or break a brand. And so I learned that and I learned that from Big Geyser and others that had succeeded and failed in New York, and so the first goal I was after was to build that sorta team. Because I got it, but frankly I wasn't the expert at it, I hadn't done it for... you know, as well as some of these other people, so I was looking for... to build a team that had that capability. And so, you know, and what I knew is, I didn't wanna teach somebody that, I wanted somebody that have done it before. So what was I looking for? People that had done it for other brands -- that had done it successfully.
At the time, you know, Vitaminwater was one of the hottest brands on the planet, and so... and they were very successful in New York and in our distributor at Big Geyser, so I looked to pluck a couple of Vitaminwater people. But I didn't want the highest level executives: I wanted people that knew how to get it done in New York. That could join and execute immediately. So I wanted people that loved ZICO, right? I didn't want to have to see them, you know, speaking it at retailers and then decide they hated it. They have to love ZICO, they have to believe in the mission, they had to be very self-aware, they had to know the streets of New York and understand how to execute things, and they had to have a run through walls mentality.
Which to me meant, I'm gonna do whatever it takes to get it done. I didn't wanna hear excuses, "Oh, you know, I couldn't get that display, I couldn't get this account, I couldn't get the distributor." I wanted people that said, "You know what? We're gonna figure it out," right? And so that's the kind of team we built.
Javier: Yeah, so you originally, at IP, had the management philosophy called "Performance Development Roadmap."
Javier: People took an assessment, you identified their weaknesses, and then you stressed, oh, how can we develop your weakness? But why is this not the right thing to do?
Mark: Right. So you know, I think that's a wonderful technique and tool in a corporate setting, where you can afford to develop people over three, four, five years, right? So you bring in a young executive, a college grad, an MBA --somebody -- and you put 'em through a series of rotations and you're trying to round them out to be a good corporate, you know, player and general manager, right? But even in that setting I've come to question it, but absolutely in an entrepreneurship setting, it doesn't make any sense at all.
And what I've come to sort of accept and realize is we all have strengths and weaknesses. And the wonderful thing in life or any organization or relationship is when you can complement each others' strengths and build on each others' strengths. Manage your weaknesses, right? Know where they are. Maybe fill them in, maybe, you know, round them out in some ways -- weaknesses can take us down -- but to mainly play to people's strengths. And so, you know, I started getting... developing the ability to, or at least improving my ability to identify and assess people's own strengths.
I love when people are very self-aware and understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and when people are at their best is when you can put them in their strengths, play to their strengths. When you think about a football team or a basketball team or a soccer team, you know, the best ones really understand each other. Understand who is the passer, who's the scorer, you know, what roles people play, and they can complement each other. And I think it's true in any business as well.
Javier: Yeah, and so at the time, the beverage industry was a very male-dominated industry.
Javier: But you found that hiring women, they were actually able to reach higher -- and this was a good advantage for you. Especially when you're bringing in talent that wasn't being considered by other people. So what have you learned about the females that worked in your business?
Mark: Well look, you know, I think obviously we've had a lot of both incredible men and women, but it was curious to me, as the son of a strong mother, and strong sisters, and strong wife, and two young daughters that I know are going to become strong women, how the beverage industry seemed to be completely male-dominated, and it just surprised me in this day and age. But you know, these industries happen this way and are built this way. I don't think it's intentional on the part of many people -- some it is -- but I think it just sort of happens, right?
But what I realized is, I wanted to create a culture that was a little bit different and I also realize there were some incredible talent out there, and so we had, you know, women at every level of ZICO: from street demos, to salespeople, to marketing people, to finance, to operations, to our... you know, my sort of, at some point, number two in the business as a CFO/COO was a woman, Candace Crawford. I came to believe that first of all, they bring a different perspective, right? So our brand was marketed, probably it wound up being... You know, 60% of our consumers at least were women, so it helps to have women or your team that understand, right?
Retailers: if they're used to seeing all men that come to them every day, sometimes it's delightful to see a woman and have a different energy in the room, and to think differently about their business. It just so happened that, you know, much of our operations team was women. Not that we sought it, they just happened to find some really competent women that were very strong. I remember, you know, one woman in particular, Erica, was... I think some of our vendors feared her, right, because she was tough.
No-nonsense and a tough negotiator, right? So there's advantages to, you know, competent, self-aware women that understand how to be themselves, but yet be confident, strong businesspeople. So there's no doubt that that energy, those abilities that these women brought helped to make ZICO what it was. And also, you know, frankly kept me in line at times, right? And helped me always recognize what was important, and really helped me kind of keep to my values if I was ever losing my way.
Javier: Yeah. So eventually, yeah, you got an initial investment from Coca-Cola, and eventually they bought you out. Two questions: so why is selling to a large company not always selling out? And also how do you grapple with the idea that you just spent all your time and energy into this business, that's now not gonna be yours? It's not gonna be for your kids -- it's not yours anymore.
Mark: Right. Wel,l look, I think these are ultimately very personal decisions that an entrepreneur has to make with his or her team, and you know, investors and partners, and I think ultimately it's about two things: what do you want, right? What is your vision? What do you want for your company, for yourself? And also there's a time and place where market dynamics sort of dictate certain decisions are better to make or not. So for me, from the beginning my vision was to see ZICO become a, you know, billion-dollar global brand that made a massive impact on the world.
And for better or worse, my choice then -- and I held to that choice throughout this journey -- was to see that happen through a major company, and Coca-Cola was my choice, you know. My wife and I used to joke from the beginning, "Could you imagine if we can figure out how to help Coca-Cola make billions selling something healthy like coconut water? How cool is that, right?" So that was our vision. Personally, you know, like I said, I tend to move on to different things, I don't have the best attention span, and so, you know, I had a 10-year goal. My goal was, in 10 years to see this business at a point where somebody else would take it over and/or buy it out, right?
And now, if the circumstances weren't right or necessitated it, I could have run ZICO for the rest of my life and loved it and found it very rewarding, but I also knew there were a lot of other things I wanted to do with my life, and find new things to do, and new ways to contribute, and new things to learn. And so that path, you know, sort of made sense for me -- and all that sort of fit in with the Coca-Cola Company, right? They were not interested in making a minority investment for just a return: their interest is in owning and putting billion-dollar brands with... brands with billion-dollar potential into their portfolio, and so that made sense for them.
I also realized that for ZICO to really achieve its full potential within the Coca-Cola system, they needed to own it, right? They're just not a company that does... has a long history of doing long-term joint ventures, right? So all those things aligned and the timing just seemed to work out about right, that it felt like it was the right thing to do for the brand, for the business, for me personally, for our team. And you know, I felt like, hey, I have two daughters, my wife and I have felt like ZICO was our only son, and we feel like, hey, kid graduated from high school, got into one of the best universities in the world, the Harvard of the business... of the beverage industry, the Coca-Cola Company. If he can't figure it out, and they can't figure it out, it's not our problem, you know.
Javier: So one day you're driving from your office going back home, you get a call from your CFO. You kinda had a feeling what the call was gonna be about, so you ended up pulling over to the side of the road, and she told you the money's being wired into the account.
Javier: So from that moment, you had a moment of silence. What was going on in your head?
Mark: It was all just surreal, you know, and I think through my head was thinking, is this really happening? This was sort of the vision from 10, 12 years ago, you know, 9 years from the time we started it. Is this really happening? And of course through my head is also going, God, I hope this isn't one of those scenarios where, you know, the guy hits the jackpot and gets in a car accident that loses his life or something. So I wanted to take... be cautious and make sure I'm driving very carefully.
And you know, I've learned -- I haven't always done it -- but I've learned the importance of taking a moment of reflection. You know, to just stop, look around and recognize what's happening in one's life, and this was one of those really rare, incredible moments to think that this had pretty much happened and played out pretty much exactly the way we had imagined it 9 or 10 years earlier, so it was just a little surreal.
Javier: Yeah, and in the board meeting with Coca-Cola, you said $3 billion would be a good number. A little bit less than $4 billion.
Mark: Right, that's right.
Javier: You got the $3 billion?
Mark: Nah, nah, no. Nowhere close.
Mark: Nowhere close, nowhere close.
Javier: All right.
Mark: I remember a quote a reporter asked... Oh God, who was it? It was Rockefeller, JD Rockefeller, one time, "How much is enough?" And his response was, "Just a little more," right? And so I've seen this, and you know, I fall into it as much as anyone, but I'm cautious of that and aware of that, right? That it's easier to play this game. And for some people, it's a game: you know, how many points you can put up on the board, how many millions or tens or hundreds or billions you can put in your bank account, or in your stock portfolio, or in your company's IPO or market cap.
And I realized, you know, a long time ago that that's a game that sometimes can suck the life out of one, right? That you can spend your entire life living in the future, working for that just little bit more. And yeah, it's okay if somebody chooses to do that but I recognize I didn't wanna live my life that way, you know, and so this put me in an incredibly fortunate position, better financial position than I ever expected to be. I'm not going to compete with Bill Gates and Melinda on the Gates Foundation, but that's okay. That's their role to play, I've got a different role to play.
This worked out very well for us, very well for our investors, and I'm in a great position and thrilled that, you know, ZICO's still alive and growing and thriving in its environment. I've got a chance to do some fun things, like an interview with you, and you know, figure out what I wanna do with the rest of my life.
Javier: Yeah, going on to that topic, so money is our culture's metric for success. It was rampant in your business school, it was rampant just in the culture in general, but you said it doesn't guarantee a fulfilling life. How can you win and be a success without looking at money as a metric? You said that you can't lose when you've already won. So what does that mean?
Mark: Well to me that means there's some statistics that... some research that has been done, I don't remember the exact number, but I think it's... at least in the U.S., and I think it was actually all developing countries, anything above, I think the number was $70,000 a year in income, there is no correlation of additional happiness. None at all, right? And I think what's understandable is, look, I'm not talking about people that are borderline starvation that are living at the poverty level, all right? That's a massive issue, and I think we as a country have an obligation to really think about those people and how our society helps them survive, because that's not what I'm talking about.
For most people that are probably listening to this podcast, most people that are professionals and at a point where they can start a business, are probably at a point where they can live a pretty comfortable life with many circumstances, right? Above a certain point there's just, I found and believe there's... to assume that you're going to find additional happiness with that is a mistake -- and it's a risk. And it's not a risk I was willing to take.
My personal happiness and satisfaction is way too important to put it at the risk and association to believe that I'm gonna have more of it in the future, tomorrow, with more money, with more people, with you know, a different life. If I can't find fulfillment right here and right now, shame on me, right? And so that realization has been really important for me, and the way I've sort of phrased that is, hey man, I already won, right? And my wife and I have had that saying for each other for a while, "Hey, let's recognize it's, life is good. And we're happy where we are."
That being said, the irony is, to the extent that I've been able to feel that satisfaction, it gives me the base from which to go do... go climb mountains, right? It's the idea of mountain climbers that build a really strong base camp that allows them to achieve those highest peaks, right? So what I found is to the extent that I'm able to, you know, enjoy and be content and be present where I am, allows me to go out and pursue things and try to make an impact in the world, to try to do fun, exciting things -- knowing that I already won. That I can afford to take that risk.
Javier: Yeah, and so one of the most powerful messages in the book, which I actually almost cried when I read it, was a moment you said... or when you came home after hearing the news that the money came in, you came home to your wife, she was making the same meal that she always made -- you had it over 100 times already... Oh, I forgot to say this is a spoiler alert. But yeah, so she made it over 100 times already, one of your daughters doing homework, the other out at gymnastics, you had to go pick her up later.
You said that so many entrepreneurs are not this lucky the day that they cash out. So if you're an ambitious entrepreneur and you have the next great idea that can be a huge success, what does it mean to win? Which is a follow-up of the previous question, but what does it mean, and how do you know you've won?
Mark: Yeah, look, you know, I think that's an individual decision, right? And I'm not passing judgment on anybody that choose to measure it in a different way, right? But I do think that for me I found -- and I am so thankful -- at that moment having a simple dinner and helping my wife, you know, make the dinner, it made me realize how fortunate I was. And to realize, you know, had I made... sold my business for $3 billion, right? But had been sick and been, you know, divorced and not seeing my kids, that would've been a loss to me. And I could imagine that scenario and thinking, I hope I'd be self-aware not to say, "Oh God, I kinda... I didn't win here," right?
But to have that and have the financial windfall was really just an amazing win, but the real priority was on maintaining that family balance. Look, and my hope is to encourage and just to share my perspective and encourage entrepreneurs to not be afraid of valuing those things, right? To recognize and feel appropriate in talking about those things as values, and to celebrate those things as values, because look, we all... we model what we see, right? So I was modeling the Gordon Gekkos of the world, and the stock traders of the world, and I think some people can model the billionaire that then gives it all away, right?
I think those are, in some ways, not realistic models and I personally like to follow and hope to model for my kids, for example, a balance of those things, right? Working towards financial freedom and financial independence is a wonderful thing, but also, you know, keeping your character intact and valuing your relationships, and keeping your humanity, and making a positive impact on the world. Those are values that I hope we can celebrate, admire, encourage in young entrepreneurs, and I think if we do, it has a chance to make a real positive impact on the world.
Javier: Yeah, and so finally, the night you required... Yeah, you celebrated with your wife, you toasted your success, you had a moment of relief, you had a bottle of wine -- but then you had a really important conversation about that after. You had a conversation about regrets. The ones you already had, and the ones you might have in the future. So as a last question, did... Or well, not the last question but there's still a little bit more, did you enjoy the journey? What sacrifices did you make? And what can entrepreneurs and business people all over the world today learn from the important conversation you had with Maura?
Mark: Yeah, so I think the simple answer is, yeah, I really did enjoy the journey, and you know, I wish in many ways I had been more... focused more on enjoyment. For others around me as well, I'm sure I was a pain in the a** to work with sometimes when I was pretty stressed out. So all of you that dealt with me during that time, I'm sorry, I wish I could have been better at that. I certainly was a pain in the ass and pretty stressed out with Maura and my girls a lot of times, and I'm sure my family, so again, I, you know, apologize for that. So I wish I had been in a better place, but you know, I'm human, and I had my issues -- those are some of my regrets.
But I do think that ultimately the... what I can say with confidence, and I know it may be hard for some people to believe this, but if I didn't make a dime on this business, I would not regret the 10 years that I spent. I would not regret it, because I believe I contributed something to the world, I think coconut water's a great thing. It's not solving world peace, it's not gonna solve cancer, but it brings some healthy product to the world, and you know, serious economic development in countries that need it. I learned so much about myself, and I really learned what's important to me in the world, and so I wouldn't trade that for the world. And so, I would encourage, you know, entrepreneurs to, if you really believe in something and you believe that it's true to who you are -- it's sort of your calling, your best and highest use, it's a positive impact you make on the world -- then go for it, right?
And you may win, you may succeed by conventional... you may win or lose by conventional measures, but you will win if you really are committed to that. And I'll finally end with saying, you know, people I think sometimes worry about the future and about strategics and about exits: what I finally say to people is, do good work, and the rest will take care of itself. Do the work that needs to happen today in your business, do the work that needs to happen in your family, in your life, with your employees. Do that good work, and the future will take care of itself.
Javier: Yeah, and so, you did touch upon something important. What would the world have been like without ZICO? Why did it exist? What was the purpose?
Mark: Well, look, I'm pragmatic enough to say that, not that different, right? I think in the scheme of things when you think about a universal scale or a world scale and a world of 7 billion people heading to 8 and 9, did coconut water change the world forever? Probably not. But what I do think is different is a couple things: one, it's a piece of a healthier beverage industry, right? And food industry in general. And so we have a $2 trillion global food system that really is not doing a great job of delivering health and wellness and nutrition in a sustainable or ethical way. Every business, every product that contributes to that makes a positive contribution to the world.
You know, a trillion... sorry, a billion global industry is nothing to sneeze at. That's a material impact to our economy. I haven't measured it specifically but there are no doubt tens of thousands of jobs directly or indirectly that have been created through coconut water. I know for a fact that there has been billions of dollars invested in, you know, dozens of countries that support coconut water, and that much of that money came from within the countries. Local business people that are investing in their own countries. And I hope in some small way it helps to contribute to a larger multi-billion dollar, multi... you know, deca-billions of dollars of impact in sort of health and wellness businesses. So, I hope in some small way it makes an impact -- only time will tell. Visit me in 10 years and we'll talk about it again.
Javier: Yeah, and so all the hard work of building the business is within the entrepreneur themselves, and your wife and your family have been very supportive of you along the way, but you said you're also grateful for the people in the previous generations of beverage entrepreneurs who paved the way for you and they did the hard work of breaking the ground in the industry. So I want to know, who would you like to thank, and who are the people -- the beverage associations, the trade groups -- that you felt were instrumental to your success?
Mark: Boy, there are so many and I think I'm probably gonna miss out on a few, so I'll apologize in advance, but you know, some that come to mind are... I did make a note on this or two. Yeah, a couple I'll mention that might be relevant. These are ones that might be relevant for you as well. You know, one that comes to mind, Seth Goldman, founder of Honest Tea, you know, great guy, I think, built a purpose-driven business that's become very successful in Honest Tea. More recently, Jeff Church, the CEO of Suja Juice, I think, is an incredible manager, and you know, a really, really good person, has built an amazing business. Doug Evans, I mentioned from Juicero.
Previous entrepreneurs: you know, there's Darius Bikoff and Mike Repole from Vitaminwater, Lance Collins from Fuze. Some of the guys... John Kenneally, John Blair from Muscle Milk, you know, the guys from Steaz Soda, Steve and Eric, the Beverage Association people, Gerry Khermouch has been always a super resource, BevNET -- Jeff Klineman and John from BevNET, people from Beverage Insight and "Beverage Industry Magazine." You know, there's so many people that really have been incredibly supportive to me, I think to other entrepreneurs, and I'm... really appreciate everything they've done. And so many more that I wish I could mention, but I think there's a lot of those people that you may wanna get on the show.
Javier: Yeah, so the mission of the Special Sodas Podcast is to share stories of other entrepreneurs, and to teach others what you wanted to know a long time ago: what does entrepreneurship really mean? Particularly in the beverage industry. So yeah, I feel like there's value in learning from the people who've...
Javier: ...done it before you. So yeah, you mentioned a lot of people who you admired, but is there someone else that you know or admire that you would like to see as a future guest on the show?
Mark: I mean all of them that I mentioned more recently I think are interesting. I'd add another one. Let's see, Palo Hawken: that's a cofounder of REBBL at a company that we're invested in, and the CEO Sheryl, are superstars and I think would be interesting. Tyler from Runa, I think would be interesting as well -- and those are a couple of the ones.
Javier: Oh, okay. And so lastly, if anyone wants to reach out to you, buy the book, learn about your current ventures at Powerplant, how can they do that?
Mark: Sure. We're actually shortly going to have a website up and running, the fund will close officially within a couple days, so that will be powerplantvc.com. There is a website that's Rampolla Ventures and High-Hanging Fruit: you can Google that and learn more. You can reach me just at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll say in advance, I'm pretty slammed in supporting the business we're invested in, so not the best at getting back at email, but I'll do my best to respond to people when I can.
Javier: All right, so once again, this is Mark Rampolla. He's the cofounder and managing partner of Powerplant Ventures, he's the founder and CEO of ZICO Coconut Water from 2004 to 2013, he's also the author of "High-Hanging Fruit: Build Something Great Where No One Else Will." Mark has done something truly remarkable, and he wants everyone to reach higher and live life with purpose, passion and integrity, so if you enjoyed this conversation, please feel free to like, subscribe or share the video, and don't hesitate to join the discussion in the comments below. We look forward to hearing from you, so thank you, Mark, for being here.
Mark: You're welcome, Javier.
Javier: And thank you everyone for being part of the Specialty Sodas Podcast.
Mark: All right, thank you.
Javier: See you next time.
Mark: Have a good day.
Javier: All right, thank you.