High-Hanging Fruit is not a how-to book or a step-by-step instructional manual. It’s a personal reflection of Mark Rampolla (the founder and former CEO of ZICO Beverages) on the journey of attempting to build a business in a sea of competition. It’s about one person’s, one couple’s, one team’s attempt to reach higher.
Great Ideas Are Right Over Your Head
In his autobiography, Mark Twain wrote, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.” What we often think of as new ideas are actually combinations of pre-existing observations or a new connection between ideas that already exist. But at the same time, looking through the shifting colors and mirrored images of a kaleidoscope can make the world become amazing and new.
In Mark’s own words:
The idea of marketing coconut water, I’ll be the first to admit, was not a new one. Although it could already be found in steel cans in the ethnic aisles of some American supermarkets, in 2003 few seemed to see the billion-dollar market potential of importing the product as a mainstream drink for health-thirsty Americans.
That this opportunity escaped the notice of so many is worth pondering for a moment. How many millions of business leaders, executives, entrepreneurs, development workers, and travelers have vacationed in Latin America, the Caribbean, or the South Pacific and sipped out of a freshly cut coconut? How many more lived near the equator, where their jobs were to bring regional products to the North American market? A billion-dollar idea was resting in the palm of their hands or just overhead. Why didn’t they see it?
Learn From Those Who Have Climbed Before
Let’s say you’ve done the hard work of coming up with a big idea, one that both fits with your values and principles and can make the world a better place. You’re excited and energized and ready to dive in, but as you begin to think more about it and talk it over with friends or family, you hit your first major roadblock: a full realization of just how many competitors you’ll face
Once you realize this, your confidence may waver and you may even think about giving up before you’ve really begun.
Whether or not we’d be able to execute as well or better than some of the great beverage brands was a huge unknown. Coconut water might be unfamiliar to many Americans but it wasn’t new to the world. We would do our best to make sure our coconut water was great tasting and nutritious, but we didn’t own a coconut farm and didn’t have a proprietary source or strain of coconut.
The goal was also to keep the product to a single or very few ingredients: coconut water. We knew we’d have competition specially if we were successful, and we would constantly compete with all beverages for the so-called share of stomach.
Entering such a market was daunting. But I looked at all this activity in a more positive way.
Realize that even in the crowded marketplace, you still have so much to learn with tens of thousands of other brands throughout history and thousands more coming up each year. If you do your homework well, you don’t have to make their mistakes.
Finding the Brand Within You
Creating a culturally innovative brand that is driven by your personal values and communicates authenticity to today’s savvy consumers is easier said than done. It’s easy to get off track at every step along the way, to forget your reason for starting, or to drift away from your values and early mission. When finances run low and things get scary, you can easily lose confidence. You begin to think: What’s the easiest way to appeal to the largest consumer market?
This doesn’t mean focusing on such a question might not be the right way to go. And indeed, you may make a lot of money doing so, but you won’t have a unique, impactful, potentially enduring brand that stands out because it represents your singular, personal vision, values, and contribution to the world.
Mission: In twenty years, we wanted to see kids drinking coconut water, regardless of the brand, instead of high-sugar, artificial beverages, as part of leading healthier, more active lives. We hoped to catalyze economic growth in developing countries so tens of thousands of people could benefit from well-paying jobs in a healthy, sustainable, and growing coconut industry.
Our brand would stand for healthy, natural, active living. Everyone involved with our company would have the opportunity to earn, learn, contribute, and grow to their fullest potential. The story we told about the product through the branding needed to honestly match the natural ingredients in the product. It would be a brand designed to have a long-standing and meaningful role in a cultural revolution in health and wellness.
Choosing Your Early Partners
All money may be green, but not all investors are the same. If you don’t already personally know your early investors, spend time with them and vet them carefully before allowing them to invest. They should be aligned with your values and goals and be willing to support the mission of the company beyond just writing a check.
Raise what you can, when you can: Once you are clear on what you need, you feel like you have the right partners, are still in control, and can live with the terms of the deal, raise as much money as possible.
Cash is king, and given the ups and downs of start-ups, it will inevitably run out sooner than expected so you want to have more cash in reserve. This is also a momentum game: once you have some investors interested, others will probably follow. There is no better time to raise money than when you don’t need it.
Advice On Hiring
For early stage, modestly funded companies, my advice is, hire when it hurts. When you or your team can’t possibly work more hours. When you’re stretched to your limit. When it’s painfully clear to you, your organization, your customers, partners, or others that you just need more help. That’s the time to hire.
That being said, you should always look out for great talent, cultivating relationships and getting to know potential hires in your industry. This strategy allows for more effective just-in-time hiring so you have the bench strength on reserve to hire when it hurts but aren’t paying for anyone to sit on the sidelines.
There’s some strong evidence to support what Jim Collins calls getting the right people on the bus and letting them determine the direction. But Mark did not take this approach at Zico.
After letting go of the early team I had, I started rebuilding the team carefully. I wasn’t looking for people who would look good in a boardroom or had fancy degrees from top schools, but rather street hustlers and hands-on doers. I favored young, aggressive, energetic types, willing to do whatever it took from packing out store shelves to packing boxes.
When it comes to more senior hires, the best are the ones who have had enough corporate experience to know what your business can look like at scale but have also been through a start-up experience to help navigate through all the challenges of smaller stages. Don’t be their first fling. Let them learn about start-ups somewhere else and bring that experience to you.
More Advice On Hiring
When I hired women for senior roles in finance, operations, sales, and marketing, I heard whispers from some in the industry that they weren’t going to be tough enough. Those spreading rumors clearly didn’t know these women. Their form of toughness didn’t come from mirroring the testosterone-fueled behavior of men but from a brutal assessment of the facts and a hard-nosed and honest take on what needed to happen for the best of the business, and they kept me in line on more than one occasion.
Mark added, if honesty and adherence to ethical behavior is central to your corporate culture, women should be at the top of your list. Ethical behavior is not just about the big moments that break laws but hundreds of small decisions that occur every day. Women are more likely than men to prioritize those small displays of integrity: coming through on promises, not cutting corners, and showing respect for all parties. And that behavior tends to set the tone for everyone around her.
It’s the Journey, Not the Destination
How about a thought experiment? Let’s say you are at the beginning of starting a business and you suddenly have the power to see the future. What you can see down the road, say, after ten years of hard work, is the business does just ‘okay’, nothing close to the level of success you dreamed of. The question is this: would you still invest your time, talent, and treasure in that business?
The idea that you might answer that question with an enthusiastic “yes!” might puzzle many old-school business thinkers. Certainly, with your magical foreknowledge, you’d place a more promising bet with your time and energy. But what this sort of thinking ignores is the value inherent in the journey—the experiences, personal growth, and happiness that happen along the way. The impact you can make on other people’s lives. If you pick the right product or service that’s aligned with your highest and best use and imbue your business with your personal values, passions, and philosophy, those ten years will represent one of the best decades of your life regardless of the zero or zeros in your bank statement.
The flipside to this thought experiment is: Suppose again that you can see the future of your business and a true pot of gold awaits you ten years down the road. But to get there you learn that you’d have to sacrifice your marriage, give up a meaningful relationship with your children, betray devoted employees, take advantage of impoverished populations, and damage the environment. Very few of us are sociopathic enough to make that sort of deal up front. The sad truth is that in retrospect, this is the bargain that many businesspeople end up making.
Let’s state the obvious. No amount of money is worth decades of losing your soul and happiness.