Even if you’re not into fitness, you’ve heard of Spartan Race. Spartan events feature natural and manmade obstacles specifically designed to test your fitness — and your determination and willpower. You know that running, climbing, lifting, crawling, carrying, balancing, throwing, jumping are involved — as well as plenty of obstacles like mud, random acts of barbed wire, the occasional fire pit …
But what you may not know is that Spartan Race is the brainchild of one guy: Joe De Sena, an endurance event competitor and serial entrepreneur. Starting with one race in Burlington, Vermont, he’s built Spartan into the world’s biggest obstacle race and endurance brand. More than one million annual participants compete in 200-plus events held in 30 countries around the world.
And he’s just launched the new SpartanX Leadership Forum, a series of events designed to help leaders and teams learn to better handle unforeseen obstacles, solve problems, and maintain focus amid uncertainty and chaos.
How did he pull that off? Good question — so I asked him. (And while we spoke, he did rope pulls and his breathing never changed. Joe has not only built a lifestyle brand, he lives that lifestyle.)
For many entrepreneurs, the origin of their companies can be traced back to childhood. That’s definitely true for you.
Looking back, I was really lucky. I was born in 1969 and grew up in Queens. One random day in 1972 my mother walks into a health food store, probably the only one in all of NYC at the time. There’s a 70-something-year-old Indian guru inside who just happened to have arrived from JFK (airport). She starts talking to him, and that conversation makes her completely change her ways.
She immediately buys into the idea of yoga, meditation, eating vegan. She comes home that day, and instead of carrying sausages and peppers she walks in with a whole bunch of wheat germ and this paper bag. (Laughs.)
Later, she moved us to Ithaca, New York, a college town. She had monks in the living room, people doing yoga classes. I rejected it big time. It was embarrassing. I couldn’t bring friends over.
I’m guessing you didn’t reject it forever.
I didn’t get it at all, but it did introduce me to new ideas.
And people kept whispering to my sister and me about how she had changed their lives. That struck a chord. So over time I started wanting to be healthy and fit.
Of course, I applied my rough Queens edit to it all. I was just going to take people to the gym and throw weights around. (Laughs.)
But I also added a flexibility component. My mom always said, “You can get strong, but you also have to be flexible and mobile, because otherwise injuries will stop you from doing what you want to do.” I listened, because unlike meditating, that seemed like a practical approach. (Laughs.)
So I started converting all my friends back in Queens.
It sounds like fitness was important to you, but so was getting other people involved.
Yep, that’s always been important to me. But I wasn’t always so great at finding the right way to get other people involved.
For example, in 1990 I created what I called a “prison workout.” But no one wanted to do it with me except some guys who had just gotten out of prison. (Laughs.)
I couldn’t really blame them. The workout was 120 sets of weights, including mobility and flexibility. It only took an hour, because we did it with zero rest. But it was brutal. It was insane.
For example, we did four sets of legs, 25 reps each set: squats, leg extensions, leg curls, calf raises. That’s 100 reps for each exercise. You did one exercise, went right to the next, to the next …
Then you’d do shoulders: four sets, 25 reps of overhead presses, lateral raises, front raises, bent-over reverse flies, and in between body parts we’d do flexibility and mobility.
You had to be done in an hour, and when you were done, you wanted to commit suicide. It was awesome. (Laughs.)
And people stuck with it?
Yes — and I heard the same things I had heard about my mom. It was the same narrative –what I was doing was transforming people. And I loved that.
Fast-forward a few years and I’m on Wall Street. I’m doing well financially, but I feel unhealthy.
So I start practicing yoga. I’m a little older, not worried about what people would say about me going to yoga class, and I’d walk out of class feeling brand new. If human beings were built in a factory, it was like I had just come off the factory floor. I absolutely fell in love with yoga.
Which is embarrassing, because 20 years earlier my mother had begged me to do it every day.
Then I stumbled across adventure racing — and soon any days off, weekends off, vacations, etc., I was doing adventure races.
Which makes sense, since you clearly knew how to push yourself, how to keep grinding.
True, but I also loved the events: paddling, climbing, biking — I felt unstoppable.
But, yes, I did know how to train. I had all this stuff in my toolbox from all those years. And I understood that I could finish a 500-mile race as long as I didn’t get injured. I had to pay really close attention to my body.
And I had to pay close attention to my mind. It’s a silly example, but if I was on the eighth day of a race and I was exhausted, rather than go to a checkpoint where it was easy to take a nap, and then probably give up, I took a nap in the rain and cold so there was no way to quit when I woke up. Then I could just push through when I got to the checkpoint.
I do that with cycling. If I want to make sure I ride, say, 80 miles, I’ll ride 40 miles away from home in one direction; that means I can’t bail on the rest of the ride. If I want to get home, I have to do the remaining 40.
Yep. Same principle.
I learned all these things about being really in tune with my body and my mind. I learned how to get through seemingly impossible events.
That made me even better in business. That made me a better friend to people. You become more humble. You don’t sweat the small stuff. Nothing gets you upset, because while something might seem bad, at least you’re not literally starving. (Laughs.)
Since I’m an entrepreneur at heart, I realized I could start a business doing this. If I’m good at anything, it’s transforming people. I really like changing lives.
I can get the most unlikely people running, doing burpees, doing stairs. Put me anywhere in the world and I can get people moving.
Just because you want to build a business out of something you love, having that level of passion still doesn’t mean it’s easy.
You’re right. I put on crazy races. I put on extremely grueling events. And hardly anyone showed up.
I had to convince people they were going to a barbecue, and then they found themselves on the starting line. That was how I got people to a race. (Laughs.)
Even though I lost money, I loved it. But it was too hard. The events were too crazy. You have to meet people where they are.
Just like my mother’s not being able to get me to do yoga when I was young. You have to meet people where they are.
We’re successful now not because it’s easy — Spartan races are really tough — but they are doable. If you’re willing to train, and then work hard and persevere and push through, both physically and mentally, you can become a Spartan.
That raises an interesting point. Where did “Spartan” come from in terms of brand?
That’s a component we got really lucky with. First, the word Spartan is powerful. Having our competitors be able to define themselves with that word really helps us. You have to earn Spartan. Your friends get it when you tell them why you’re training. They respect you. They encourage you.
I know you’re a cyclist, and I respect that, but it’s hard to get people to want to bike 100 miles.
It’s a lot easier to get people to crawl under barbed wire, jump over walls, jump through fire … It’s like being a SEAL or a Ranger for a day. It’s not that linear eight hours of just doing a ride.
The human body is meant to jump, crawl, to do things we were designed to do. We weren’t meant to sit on a bike for eight hours and wind up with a sore butt. (Laughs.)
You struggled for a long time to get the business going. When did you know you really had something?
We were working in this little office in Vermont, burning through cash like coal in a furnace. One of the guys on our team of five or six people would sleep in the office on a mattress.
He came to me and said, “Oh, my god, we just had an enormous number of sign-ups.”
I said, “You must be wrong. There must be a problem in the system.” He looked again and said, “Nope, it happened.”
That was the moment. That was the turning point.
But the things that led to that moment … It just took a while for the world to connect to what Spartan really was. Having a race in one place made a little bit of noise, but once we had 10 or 12 of them in different locations, with people so connected on the internet, that made enough noise.
Looking back, I wish I could have found a few MIT geniuses to figure out how we were going to be successful, but we didn’t. We just kept going until it worked.
Did you almost give up?
Any intelligent person would have told me to pull the plug. I was close to pulling the plug many times.
One time, I was skiing with my children, and I remember thinking, “It’s great to be on this ski lift, but I’m about to go out of business.”
So I called a friend and said, “Look: I don’t have a business plan, but I need a million dollars by Monday.” He rounded up a few people, and they sent it.
Asking people for money is one of the toughest phone calls you can make.
I’m a big believer in the network. In the neighborhood where I grew up, even if you didn’t have money, you still paid for dinner. You took care of people.
And you didn’t worry about getting it back. You always put money in the bank, so to speak. Do that with 100 people, and 99 times you might never get anything back, but still, over the course of your lifetime, it comes back 20-fold.
To be able to pick up the phone and get a million dollars when I really needed it, that’s a testament to that approach.
Many people are short-term thinkers. I’m a long-game kind of guy.
Ultimately, isn’t staying the course really how Spartan became successful?
Oh, absolutely. Nothing I did was textbook. Nothing I did was smart. I did just about everything wrong.
Sheer resilience — that’s how we became successful.
That’s true for many businesses. Businesses require you to push beyond places where most people would quit.
For a long time, almost nothing went right for us. The timing was bad; people weren’t ready for what we were doing. The only luck we had was that I just wouldn’t quit.
It was partly because I truly felt we had something, but also because I became so invested and so upside down financially that success really was the only option. I had to get to the light at the end of the tunnel or I would get buried in the tunnel. (Laughs.)
Spartan is extremely successful, both as a company and as a brand. Where do you go next?
Simple: My goal is to change 100 million lives. That means I have 95 million to go.
The only way to do that is to really grow Spartan into a lifestyle brand. I want to get it to a place where someone might not ever do a race, but they’ll do a bunch of pushups. Or they’ll do 30 burpees a day. Or they’ll commit to going to yoga.
We want people to do what they normally do, but do it in a Spartan way. Maybe that’s fasting one day a week. Or giving up dessert for a day. Or tackling a challenge you’ve always wanted to take on.
But there is a key component to “lifestyle brand.” Ralph Lauren is a lifestyle brand, but how many people live on farms and jump on horses?
We want to be a brand you actually live.
That seems to be the driver behind your podcast, Spartan Up! (Which is great, even though you’ve never had me on.) The discussions go well beyond endurance racing.
Another thing that’s always driven me crazy is how many business people are economically successful but completely screw up their health. They work until they’re 60-something and retire and die.
The goal of the podcast is to interview people like, say, Richard Branson, and find out what they’re doing to be successful. What can we learn from them?
Or take Jorge Lemann, one of the founders of 3G Capital. They own Burger King, Heinz, etc. I spent a day with him. He’s managed to stay healthy, stay fit, and also become one of the wealthiest people in the world.
He’s a great example of what I want the brand to be.
And that’s the best part of building the Spartan brand. I just love what I get to do.
I get to help transform lives. It doesn’t get any better than that.
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