How Building a Company is Like Learning a Language

Mark Rampolla — October 5, 2022


I’m spend­ing part of the fall vaca­tion­ing and work­ing in Italy and decid­ed it’s time to learn Ital­ian.

It’s been a long time since I tack­led a new lan­guage. I learned Span­ish 30 years ago as a Peace Corps vol­un­teer in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca. I was 22 then and the Peace Corps has a renowned lan­guage learn­ing pro­gram. With­in three months I was strong­ly con­ver­sant and after nine to twelve, flu­ent. Things are a lit­tle dif­fer­ent for me now doing it on my own (and at this age!). But one thing remains the same: learn­ing a new lan­guage is a tough, frus­trat­ing, hum­bling, exhil­a­rat­ing nev­er end­ing process, full of ups and downs and very reward­ing if you stick with it.

Some days, I feel like a genius. Every­thing falls into place, I under­stand some­thing some­one says per­fect­ly or speak a beau­ti­ful lit­tle phrase. In those moments, I can pic­ture myself hang­ing out with the table of beau­ti­ful Ital­ians across the restau­rant laugh­ing and jok­ing with my new friends flu­ent­ly in their lan­guage and them say­ing to me, “Wow Mar­co! Par­li molto bene l’i­tal­iano!”  The next day I butch­er ask­ing for a cof­fee and the wait­er looks at me con­fused and responds, “I’m sor­ry Sir, what would you like?” Often, it’s minute to minute: some­one thinks I’m from a dif­fer­ent part of Italy and I’m on top of the world. Next I’m in a com­plete brain fog and can’t remem­ber a word even in Eng­lish and feel like my head is going to explode.

This process reminds me of what I still con­sid­er to be the tough­est, most intense and reward­ing learn­ing expe­ri­ence of my life: build­ing ZICO. Overnight I was ful­ly immersed, try­ing to learn every­thing I could about the bev­er­age indus­try. I knew niente. What’s DSD? Trade Spend? How do prod­ucts get on shelf? What does a bro­ker do? Why are we get­ting charged back so much from dis­trib­u­tors? What’s a pro­mo­tion­al plan? It was a lot, and it was all at once. Some days I thought I fig­ured it all out and was a genius. Oth­er days I felt like an idiot (and was told many times I was one). Even after years, I still had so much to learn.

Look­ing back on that time, there were four lessons I learned along the way that helped me grow as an entre­pre­neur and CEO and they’re help­ing me with Ital­iano.

Get curi­ous: Want to learn. Ask ques­tions. Keep dig­ging. If you don’t have the desire to learn, don’t both­er. The most com­mon thing I say in Ital­ian is “Come se diche?” How do you say…? It may be fol­lowed by some real­ly poor attempts in Ital­ian, some Span­ish, lots of hand ges­tures or Eng­lish. But I’m always ask­ing: peo­ple, teach­ers, Google Trans­late, Siri.

It’s the same when build­ing a busi­ness. Ask ques­tions. Keep dig­ging. How have oth­ers done it? Why does it work that way? What are the “rules?” Which ones can you break? Be curi­ous. Ask ques­tions. Always Be Learn­ing.

Know how you learn. I know myself well enough to know that I’m not a great book learn­er. I need mul­ti­ple stim­uli when I’m learn­ing some­thing new to rein­force what I’m try­ing to pick up and so I don’t get bored or fried. What I’ve found works best is inte­grat­ing it into my life as much as pos­si­ble. Liv­ing it.

Before I left for my trip, I start­ed lis­ten­ing to a pod­cast called News in Slow Ital­ian that streams, yes, the news in Ital­ian that’s designed to be easy for begin­ners to fol­low. A cou­ple times a week I would lis­ten to that dur­ing my morn­ing runs or when I was in the car. I lis­ten to Mane­skin. I also down­loaded the Duolin­go app, which I absolute­ly love and try to do even 10 min­utes a day. I watched a few movies in Ital­ian with Ital­ian sub­ti­tles. I had an on-line tutor and found one in per­son for a few days here. I asked every­one at the hotel in Sar­dinia to only speak to me in Ital­ian. I go up to order at the bar. I stop in a shop to buy a bot­tle of water. The point is, I try a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways to put myself out there and force myself to have inter­ac­tions in the lan­guage.

Same with build­ing a com­pa­ny. Know your­self. What works for you? How do you learn? How are you lever­ag­ing mul­ti­ple strate­gies? Arti­cles. Pod­casts. Trade Shows. Experts. Get­ting out on the “streets,” what­ev­er that means in your indus­try. Inte­grat­ing it into your life. The way oth­ers have learned is only help­ful if you know how to apply it to YOU.

Make mis­takes. I just assume I’m prob­a­bly mak­ing 3–10 mis­takes every time I open my mouth to speak Ital­ian. So what? Of course I get embar­rassed and want to improve but I know the best way is to just keep try­ing. I know that these mis­takes are part of the learn­ing process. I am not try­ing to remem­ber every­thing. I’m not tak­ing note of all my mis­takes. I’m just let­ting it hap­pen and trust­ing that lit­tle by lit­tle my brain will sort it out.

The same in build­ing a com­pa­ny. Take some risks. Don’t be afraid to fail. Fail small. Fail often. Fail fast. Learn from it and do it again and again. If you feel like a genius every day, you’re not push­ing your­self.

The same could be said about lan­guage and busi­ness that Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge said about advice:  “Advice is like snow — the soft­er it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deep­er it sinks into the mind.”

Keep show­ing up. Every day at some point, I want to quit. I think, what’s the point? What am I try­ing to prove? I’m nev­er going to mas­ter this. This is good enough. Some­times I do quit; and just switch to Eng­lish, call it a day or just take a long break. It is exhaust­ing to learn a lan­guage. But lat­er in the day or the next day, I try again. I’ll go back to the same wait­er or bar­tender and try again. I pre­pare for 10 min­utes for one lit­tle inter­ac­tion or just wing it. I keep show­ing up.

At ZICO, there were so many days the last thing in the world I want­ed to do was get up at 4:30 and dri­ve to Long Island to be there when the dis­trib­u­tors left on their morn­ing routes. But I did it. I kept show­ing up. Not for days. Not weeks. Not months. For years. Whether they cared to see me or not. Whether I want­ed to be there or not. I sim­ply showed up and lit­tle by lit­tle I start­ed to break through. I did it because that’s what need­ed to be done. And, whether the chal­lenge is entre­pre­neur­ship or lan­guage, just show­ing up — but real­ly show­ing up, ful­ly con­scious, ful­ly present — is half the bat­tle.

I may nev­er be con­fused with a native Ital­ian speak­er but div­ing into learn­ing Ital­ian, I am already hav­ing a much more rich, engag­ing expe­ri­ence and know it will only get bet­ter from here. I’m also learn­ing so much more about Ital­ians and Ital­ian cul­ture by learn­ing a lit­tle of the lan­guage. One of my favorite new phras­es which speaks vol­umes about Ital­ian cul­ture is Dolce far niente — the sweet­ness of doing noth­ing. Talk about a for­eign con­cept to a mod­ern Amer­i­can busi­ness per­son! That one’s eas­i­er to say than to do…but I’m learn­ing.

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