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Feature Story

ZICO Founder and Fuqua Alum Encourages Future Entrepreneurs to Find Their Purpose

Mark Rampolla keynoted the 2013 Duke Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital Conference on February 6th.

February 07, 2013

How can individuals turn their passions and interests into viable entrepreneurial careers? Keynote speakers and panelists delved into this question during the 2013 Duke Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital Conference on February 6th.

Mark Rampolla, founder and CEO of the coconut water drink ZICO and a graduate from Fuqua's 1997 Daytime MBA program, first developed his entrepreneurial passion as a Peace Corps volunteer in Central America. An avid athlete, Mark enjoyed drinking fresh coconut after doing sport. In 2004 he left a fast-track corporate career to pursue his dream of bringing the healthy, natural benefits of coconut water to consumers across the world. He recounted his journey during his keynote address at the conference and answered some questions for a Fuqua Q and A.

Can you tell us about your ZICO story? How did you get started with ZICO coconut water?
I had been living in Latin America for a number of years working for a US multinational as a supplier to the beverage industry. I decided that I wanted to start something on my own. I was very interested in the beverage category, had been familiar with and drank coconut water all the time, and had seen people drinking it as a natural sports drink all throughout Latin America. I looked around the beverage space and noticed a plethora of new, enhanced waters and artificial sports drinks that were entering the market and having great success. So I thought, "Hm. Here's an all-natural product with all the properties of a sports drink, loaded with electrolytes that can meet this need in a natural way. So if we could just find some way to get very high quality coconut water and market it to the right kind of audience, we have a chance to basically develop the first all-natural sports drink for the US market."

So exactly how did you get started? Administratively, how did you start up your company?
There was probably a year of development where I basically used some ex-business contacts, friends and consultants to do some investigative work and market research to study how we would produce, source and brand the drink. I had no employees and took out a little bit of initial funding on my own. This work was on nights and weekends over the course of probably a year. During that time, it became clear about the focus and approach we wanted to take. We learned we could get it produced cost-effectively and there was a market for it.

So we actually did a pilot launch at a tradeshow in New York. That's where we really decided that this was legitimate. The response from retailers, distributors and other people in the industry was very positive. We already knew we had a good, positive consumer response. So at that point, I decided to leave my day job and commit to this full-time. We set up the business as an LLC and started off with one employee. We really just built it up from there. It was very much a grassroots effort.

What sort of lessons learned from your MBA helped you in launching this business?
Well, I'd say everything and more. I've always been kind of a generalist. I've been good at and interested in marketing, finance, operations, human resources, but never really felt drawn to one particular area. I'm so glad I had a chance at Fuqua to develop my skills because I've been stretched and had to put to use every single one of those areas.

Can you talk about your marketing strategy and what you did given that you didn't have a huge marketing budget? How did you get the ZICO name out there?
Typically, when large beverage companies like Coke or Pepsi launch a new product, they might spend a hundred million dollars. We weren't going to have anywhere near that. As we didn't have the resources, I decided from the beginning that advertising was not going to work for us. So what I used as my guide is what many businesses have done in the past, and many authors have written about - "influencer marketing." We basically focused on creating a brand that we believed consumers would identify with and integrate into their lives. So we did a lot of demos and product giveaways.

We got a significant number of individuals - particularly athletes - hooked on ZICO by using it as a post workout recovery drink. The athletes that were previously using an artificial sports drink said: "Hey. I'm active, I'm health-conscious, but I want to live a natural way and I buy other natural foods. This is a natural sports drink for me." We reached some high influential individuals such as personal trainers, yoga instructors and winners in local triathlon events. Many of these people spread the word themselves. So that was one avenue we approached. The other one was PR. We created a story that would be compelling enough for magazines, TV, newspapers and blogs to take an interest in telling without having to pay for it.

Entrepreneurship always is a risky endeavor: no guaranteed salary, no real guarantees of success. Did you feel like the risk reward has paid off and is that something that entered into your mind when you decided to go for this?
My family and I had developed a level of comfort which made this sort of change difficult. But we talked a lot about that and I thought it through, recognizing the long-term pay-off. It was clear at the beginning that I wouldn't be earning what I could in the corporate world. But I believed that long-term there would be a payoff. I believed in what I was doing, which is also rewarding.

How do you balance the full-time demands of running your own company and still maintaining a family life?
That's without a doubt my biggest challenge. Fortunately for me, I had been clear all along from the time I was married that family was my greatest priority. For me, it's about discipline. I need to draw certain lines and recognize that I can't possibly get everything done in a given day, week, month, or year. It's just going to take time.

At 6:30 pm, I'm home for dinner every night. And that is my time with my family, particularly with my daughters. And I'll do a little bit of work later in the evening but really not too much. Sundays are off-limits. I don't do work, I don't pick up the phone, that's time for my family. So I've found that by physically drawing some lines in the sand allows me to have a life for my family that forces me to keep that balance.

And then there's things that I work on in my own time. My time is early morning. Fuqua got me in training to be an early riser. So, I workout and I have my private time from 5:00 until 8:00 a.m. And then the rest of my life is ZICO.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs leaving Fuqua?
What I would say is, find your purpose. For me, it took some time. When I graduated from Fuqua, I didn't have my life's calling to launch a coconut water business. But it was a conscious decision to find a purpose.

Once I found it through ZICO, it's been infinitely easier to have the sort of dedication and focus that I need to make this succeed. I believe an important part of entrepreneurship is to have that goal, dream and purpose. And once you have that, lock onto it and stick to it. It may change, it may morph, but if fundamentally your purpose is good and authentic and true to who you are, I believe that it's possible to see anything through.

Parts of this interview were published on DukeGen.com based on story by Ferol Vernon '09.