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.

You May Also Be Interested In