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I have vague memories of my father driving expensive cars and somehow had the sense that we had a luxurious lifestyle. I also have some memories of being scared of my dad, that I didn’t like him and that the only emotion I had toward him was fear. I honestly don’t remember feeling anything else about my dad. But I don’t really recall much esle about that time, nothing specific at least. My parents split up when I was very young, probably about 5, I can’t be sure. My mum and I were left with nothing, from one day to the other. We didn’t have any money, dept piled up quickly and things were difficult, at times living from meal to meal.
The real challenge, I now know, wasn’t so much the ‘what’, it wasn’t the fact that we were poor and that my mum was a single mum. It was mainly challenging because we were different. We were different from most other people around us. Back then in Italy it wasn’t common for people to divorce. Where I come from, Valmadrera, a pretty small village near Lecco on Lake Como, everyone around me had more money than we did – that didn’t take much – and everyone I knew had a father and some sort of, at least apparent, stability. I know now that this does not mean they were happier than us; I later understood what real happiness is and I learnt that happiness and normality are not the same thing, and normality certainly doesn’t guarantee happiness. Because of the lack of stability and structured education, as well as not having a role model, I had absolutely no idea as to what I wanted to do with my life when I grew up, no sense of direction or example. I didn’t know what I could even aspire to. My future didn’t look the brightest and this lack of stability and role model meant my confidence was low. In my undeveloped mind, the fact that we were so different meant I had to find different tools to most of my peer. The skills and stories you learn by doing chores for your father as he does DIY, I had to learn somewhere else. The sense of union and family, group dynamics, including negotiating, compromising and co-living, you learn when you have a busy household, I had to learn somewhere else. So I learnt pretty quickly, before the topic of ‘fake it until you make it’ became mainstream, that I had to pick some role models, some examples to follow. The good thing about my father leaving and not being able to find a role model in my family was that I could choose whoever I wanted to be my role model. I had no limits. I just needed to pick someone I liked who I could have close to me. I picked Bruce Lee mainly and a few other characters from movies I liked: Superman, Rocky and various others who I emulated depending on the situation.
I would walk around literally pretending I was them. I’d think what I thought they’d think. I moved the way I thought they’d move if they were me. So I appeared way more confident than I actually was. So I went about it differently, taking on the part of one of my role models, the classic outcast that doesn’t fit in and will one day emerge in victory surprising everyone. I became quite a rebel, and the place it showed the most was of course school.
I remember one day, the last day of the last year in that school – secondary school. All my friends were going to high school after that year. I had a job lined up as we couldn’t afford for me to study. We were in the school gymnasium where all the different last year classes came together for the final goodbyes. Being the very last day of the very last year in that school, everyone was celebrating, playing around and saying their goodbyes to teachers and fellow students. A few where even doing cartwheels and gymnastics moves – I was one of them. Ms Gandini, our English language teacher came over and was very angry about that. She decided to take me, just me, and send me to the Head’s office. During the past year, Ms Gandini had never marked my work but always classified it as ‘“ungradable”, equivalent to a U, apart from one time where I manage to get a “severely insufficient”, the equivalent of an F.
We got to the Head’s office and she was told the Heads was out temporarily for a few hours. Ms Gandini told me to wait there and left. After 20-30 minutes she came back to check if the Heads had returned but he hadn’t. She then looks at me and says: “okay, if you apologise I’ll let you off the hook”. I was a rebel, and I was right in that I contested the fact that I was the only one in trouble when several students were doing the same thing which wasn’t all that inappropriate since we were in a gymnasium. So I refused to apologise, I felt I had nothing to apologies about.
She didn’t like that at all and left storming away leaving me to wait in the Head’s office. Half hour later she returned to find the Head was still not back. She offered the deal again which I rejected again, politely but with an obvious smirk. She lost it. She started screaming at me that she’d make sure I’d never be allowed in any Italian school ever again, that I was going nowhere in life and that I would have been a failure.
“What the fuck do these stories have to do with growing a digital agency, or any business?” I hear you say. They are important. These stories form part of my WHY. Part of who I am. They form some of my deepest values. These stories are the moulds of some of my strongest WHYs and some of my most important goals.
Because of the emotionally charged events with Ms Gandini, not only the one during that last day of school but throughout the year, I was absolutely going to learn English, no way I wasn’t. And I was absolutely going to be a success. Ms Gansini’s words echoed so freakingly loudly in my head for so many years that I couldn’t ignore them. Those experiences touched me so deeply that there was no way I was going to let Ms Gandini be right about me, didn’t she know… I was fucking Bruce Lee, Superman, Night Rider and Rocky, all in the body of one slightly overweight lazy-eyed boy. I was going to make it, one way or another.
The feeling of being ‘less than’, not having a father I could play with and learn from and able to do things other kids were able to, stuck on me like a wetsuit, and shouted in my head that I was never going to be successful, never going to have family. I had two choices then: either I believed and accepted them or I used them and change my story, affect my destiny. They were my WHY for breaking the mould, my WHY for effecting my life in a way I wanted rather than being affected by life. They were my WHY for not being what I was told I was going to be and there was no stopping me, there was no way in hell I was going to quit. Rocky never quits.
Many things happened since then, I have literally transformed myself and managed to craft a life I am proud of. Have I ‘made it’? Hell no! There’s still tons of stuff I want to do. Loads of things I need to improve on and change. Has all that I have achieved been a product of these events? Probably not. There have been many other significant events in my life which positively affected my future. Loads of inspirational events and people came into my life and inspired me to do more, do better and be better, for me and for the world. Including Ms Campagni, my literature teacher who always believed in me, Amos and Omar Bresciani, the owners of the factory I worked at when I was 15, bending, welding and cutting metal for the building trade; they taught me a lot. In the years between then and now, I went from being allergic to studying to be a learning junky. I am now 42 and I have studied for the last 17 years no stop and counting. First to master the English language and then to dive into an enormous amount of subjects, including: many disciplines of Marketing, Psychology, NLP, Body Language, Leadership, Management, Conversion Rate Optimization, Property Investing, Stock Investing and many more. I listen to approximately 100 audiobooks per year and listen to education podcasts weekly not only learning about them but ensuring that I understood them and use their notions.
My journey started when it was all about me, all about changing things I wanted to change, all about not being what I was afraid of becoming, being different from my past and my father. It was very self-centered. Today it’s about others, about touching as many people as possible in a positive way. Today I am focused on ‘us’, the world, collectively more than I have ever been. I am becoming bigger than myself.
So it wasn’t all because of Ms Gandini or my father and childhood circumstances, but these have been a massive driver of that initial spark and, whilst I don’t thank my father or Ms Gandini for it as they had zero idea about the effect they had, I am extremely grateful to the universe, the circumstances that made that happen to me because it gave me a strong WHY like other events and people did in other areas of my life.
I honestly don’t think I’d have achieved much had I not understood the vital importance of giving yourself powerful reasons to do what you want to do, the importance of building strong WHYs. When you have strong WHYs you build much stronger resistance to adversity, you’re more resilient, you take things more at heart, you don’t quit and you become unstoppable. When you have strong WHYs you build strong answers to questions which will form the culture in your business, the ethos, the energy and the stuff that both your key employees and clients will love you for. When you have strong WHYs your mission is clear, unmovable and unshakable because they’d be funded on values which are super important to you. This is true for most things in life and certainly vital when building a business.
If you build strong WHYs then you won’t find yourself torn trying to make important decisions, they’d come easy.
For me, having strong WHYs meant building a very different person to the projected version of my younger self. A me who has strong sense of stability, with my wife of 12 years, our kids, my profession, finances and all the things I wanted but couldn’t feel stable about. The power of WHY is relevant in anything I do.
As a side project, at the end of 2017, I have decided to open a new Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) Academy in Cambridge. Of all the Martial Arts gyms around, only 1% or less manage to turn a healthy profit. And that is 1% of those who managed to stay open past the first year. Safe to say that my WHY was not money. The unit I had found was next door to a Karate School which has been going for 25 years. A few doors down to the right there’s a fitness gym and a few doors down to the left a boxing gym. I have a Black Belt in Karate and Kickboxing and yet, I have decided to open a BJJ academy in which I was a White Belt. A friend, Purple Belt, was going to teach the classes once I set it up and I was going to market the business. Our ambitions was to be a children and beginners academy. I personally love BJJ and feel it’s the most effective and interesting form of Martial Arts. I wanted to train in it and I wanted my children to train in it. The problem was that there was nothing with good enough standards for kids and adults alike to train in a safe, clean and inspiring environment. The nearby children Martial Arts gyms seemed to be motivated primarily by profits and I saw kids kept motivated by the idea of grading and chasing belts. They also charged amounts which only a few families could afford to pay.
I wanted to convince adult people, those at who felt that learning new things was no possible, I wanted them to believe that they could do stuff they thought they couldn’t. I wanted children, irrespective of gender, whether they have both parents or only one, or none, and irrespective of their financial situations, to not only know but truly feel that sense of conviction that they are amazing, that they are worthy of all the good things they want to go after, that they must be confident, kind and resilient.
The purpose of the academy wasn’t to create a business, but rather create a remarkable experience for all who came into contact with it. These elements formed a massively strong WHY and because of my strong WHY, it was always easy to say ‘no’ to ideas which might have given us extra cash in the short term but probably killed our interest long term. Decisions like introducing different disciplines we didn’t love just for the sake of attracting more students, compromise on customer experience (app, website, marketing, payment processing etc) to decrease costs, build an overly easy curriculum to keep people interested and more. Because of my strong WHY it was easier to push through adversity. The cause was bigger than me and it was worth persevering for. When the electrician sent me a quote 5 x larger than expected because he found unexpected problems with the wiring, it was easy to say ‘go ahead’. When the structural engineers too longer than originally planned to come to site, it was easy to find the time to chase. When it came down to order the equipment, it was easy to decide on the absolute best stuff. The end result was the best equipped, the best looking and the best branded academy around.
After a few months we have made contact with two of the best BJJ practitioners in the world, multi-time world champions Black Belts who were relocating from the USA. They eventually became good friends and partners to whom I sold most of the business at cost and after less than one year from the opening day, we have more than 120 students and are one of the most successful and admired academy in the country. Rolling Dojo, check it out if you are ever in Cambridge UK.
At Genie our WHYs are:
- one: to truly revolutionise the digital marketing industry on retail brand at the time
- two: to create the best possible environment one might want to be in. We want to surround ourselves with people who we admire, who inspires us and whom we like spending with with
These are way bigger WHYs than making a profit, way bigger than any of us individually and way bigger than any material success we can think of. These strong WHYs allow us to make decisions prioritising our people and our work before our profits. Don’t get me wrong, profits are important, they enable businesses and people to do the good things they do. Profits are indeed a very important thing, just not good motivators.
Building something remarkable isn’t easy; you will find challenges and obstacles that will set you back, keep you up and night and make you wonder what you’re doing all of that for. That’s when you need a big, strong and powerful WHY. People who win are often not those with the better ideas, not those with more resources and not those with the better talent. Those who win are those who don’t quit, those who keep going when the going gets tough. And the only force that can keep us going when the going gets really fucking tough is having strong reasons to keep going: strong WHYs.
So make sure you have robust WHYs; if you do it just for the money, just for the success or the numbers, you are very likely to fail. It’s way too easy at the first sign of adversity to adjust your expectations and compromise on your materialistic goals. “I don’t need to make a million”, ‘if we are not the biggest in the country it doesn’t matter’ or whatever your goals might be. If you have stronger WHYs which are connected to you at a deep emotional level, connected to your core values, then you are way less likely to back down, the pain of today is justified because your goals are bigger than money, bigger than numbers and bigger than you. When your goals are connected to a strong, deep rooted WHY, then they are worth fighting for. When that happens, you will become a very dangerous competitor for anyone in your space. The Rocky of your industry.
So before you lose yourself in the numbers, before you worry about anything else, worry about figuring out your WHYs, I promise you will not regret it.