I just finished reading High-Hanging Fruit, the story of how Mark Rampolla started ZICO Coconut Water and turned it into a multi-million dollar company, eventually selling it to Coca-Cola. The part of the story that fascinated me was how Mark and his wife went through a process of reflecting about and clarifying their calling before coming up with this business idea. A move that proved to be foundational in their tumultuous 10-year journey to making millions of dollars.
In 2004 Mark Rampolla was an executive for International Paper (IP), a Fortune 100 company, making $300,000 a year and living in El Salvador. He ran a multinational business within IP with 300 employees and was on the fast track to success. Yet he knew clearly that something was missing. He was seeing the limitations of achieving “success” in business. “Most businesspeople I knew were passionately competitive, but very few I met could give me a compelling answer to why they were playing the game in the first place,” writes Mark in his book.
Mark decided he wanted to start a business and started thinking up business ideas. Sitting with his wife Maura one evening on their patio, he started listing out the business ideas he had come up with over the past few weeks:
- Consolidate the dairy industry across Central America
- Create a world-class trucking company with new technology
- Shopping malls in Honduras
- Clothing manufacturing in Columbia
- Ecotourism in Costa Rica
- Exporting chocolate from Belize
Maura wasn’t impressed with any of the ideas. “I don’t want to squash your excitement for becoming an entrepreneur and I have no doubt if you decided to launch one of these businesses you could succeed. But if we’re going to mortgage our lives to launch a business, it needs to be something we can both be passionate about,” she told Mark. It was then that Mark realized that the ideas were all good money-making ventures, but they were hollow and might lead him back to the same exact unfulfilled spot he found himself in.
Over the next few weeks Mark and Maura took long hikes in some of their favourite spots in San Salvador and discussed their personal lives, histories, and dreams. They talked about the people that influenced them, “successful” people they wanted to emulate, the times they were happiest, their proudest moments, and where they might want to put down roots. They started to ask themselves questions like:
- What problem in the world do we want to address?
- What impact do we want to make?
- What meaningful good or service do we want to contribute?
- What do we have to uniquely offer to the world?
As they had these conversations, Mark and Maura discovered several guiding principals and key shared interests stood out for them:
- A responsibility to others, especially the poor and underserved
- A value for staying healthy
- A concern about health trends at large
- A passion for travel and deep love for and connection to Latin America
Although Mark doesn’t use this word, I would say that the guiding principals and shared interests were their calling in life. Following these weeks of dreaming and reflecting together, Mark went back to the drawing board for business ideas. He decided to evaluate his ideas based on two criteria: personal and business. For his ideas to be good enough to share with Maura, they had to meet both criteria.
The personal criteria included the following ideas:
- Consistent with our values and lifestyle
- Contribute to our personal goals and dreams
- Directly and positively affect lives beyond our own
- Make the world better if we succeeded
- Think the project was worth it even if we failed
- Have a positive (or at least neutral) environmental impact
- Keep us tied to Latin America
- Commit to this for the long term
The business criteria were more MBA-style ways to evaluate the potential and viability of a business:
- A big idea that would capture our hearts and those around us
- Attract top talent and rally employees, investors, and customers
- High gross and profit margins
- Strong growth potential
- Ability to differentiate
- New to the world or at least different from what’s out there today
Eventually after weeks of brainstorming, narrowing down the ideas to a few, researching the short-listed ideas, discussing with family and friends, Mark and Maura decided on coconut water. They decided on this business idea because it aligned with their personal values and calling. Here are a few reasons Mark gives for launching a business selling coconut water:
- It was a natural product that could be positioned around health and wellness
- It would positively affect consumers’ lives by giving them a healthier alternative to the many sugary, high-calorie, artificial beverages available
- Coconut water could have a massive positive economic impact across developing countries (including those in Latin America) because the handling, processing, and packaging would have to be done locally
- It would have minimal impact on the environment. There were millions of hectares of coconuts planted and a multimillion-dollar market for their oil, meat, and fiber, but the coconut water was being discarded as waste, so no additional land would be needed to produce coconut water.
That was the beginning of a 10-year grueling journey to launch and grow ZICO coconut water, from raising money from investors, doing market testing, breaking into the New York market by selling to yoga studios, several experiences of near bankruptcy, fighting off competition, getting celebrity endorsements, and finally selling to Coca-Cola after reaching $40 million of revenue in a year. But that’s another story which is told beautifully in Mark’s book, High-Hanging Fruit: Build Something Great by Going Where No One Else Will.
The lesson in this story is to take time to discern your calling before you decide what business to start so that it will be a more meaningful and successful venture.