By Joe De Sena, CEO, Spartan Race
My father once told me that if I wanted to get rich I should invent things that make life easier for people. It’s all about comfort and convenience, he’d say. It made enough sense at the time, but it wasn’t until I discovered a love for endurance racing that I understood the flaw with our climate-controlled culture. We’d gone soft as a species.
My mother had a different take: “Forget about being rich. Focus on doing great things and changing lives.”
Both philosophies forged my future.
In the late 90s, after building several successful businesses, it was time to build a family. I sold the institutional equity firm I had started in New York and left for the quiet life in Vermont. Actually I ran there. My mom had died of cancer years earlier and I never did anything for Hospicare, which was wonderful to her, so I decided to run the full 276 miles to my new home, raising $30,000 for the charity in the process.
My wife and I had a plan for Pittsfield, VT. She would run a bed and breakfast on our farm that would also host weddings. I would pursue my passion for extreme endurance events via a company I started many years earlier called Peak.com. It was really just something to keep me busy and connected to the likeminded lunatics I raced with. And hey, if it generated some passive income, all the better. In many ways this turned out to be a terrible idea. I specifically moved to Vermont to wind down and raise a family, and as I was quickly finding out over the past few years, the event business is a brutal, bottomless pit.
While I had mixed success trying to put together adventure races in far-flung locales, the homegrown events were different. They were insanely intense, but the interest they generated made me think that normal, “sane” people might want a taste. What if I could create a new event with a new event company that was more accessible? Something military-inspired that would push regular folks far past their comfort zone, and change their frame of reference. My buddy Heathe had been pressuring me for years as we trained to do something like this. I just have to admit it didn’t seem logical. Who would want to do this?
I met some friends in a coffee shop in Connecticut for an impromptu meeting. We jotted notes on a napkin. That napkin was our de facto business plan, and my life would never be the same. Spartan Race was born.
Everyone around me was excited by the idea, but I couldn’t convince anyone to pony up. So I was going to do what I always did: invest a limited amount of money and once I got paid back, see how to scale it up. That didn’t happen. Though I promised my wife I’d only invest $50K in this, I had no choice but to dig deeper.
In May 2010, we hosted our first event in Vermont. Around 700 + people showed up. It was encouraging, but we had a long way to go. If the concept had a fighting chance, we need to go full steam ahead. We’d need to announce several events, sink a ton of money into production, marketing and promotion, and… hope. I had heard how Subway sandwich shop did it. They just kept opening shops until it worked. I figured that’s what we should do. And so I just kept putting on races, and adding more and more until it worked.
When the first $325,000 Amex bill arrived—a blink later—my bookkeeper asked if I was on drugs. At this point, I was so over-leveraged, I couldn’t bring myself to turn back. It’s probably for the best. After all, just four years later we’re hosting 100 plus events in 17 countries, have four million Facebook fans, a title sponsor in Reebok, a TV deal with NBC Sports and more. This spark of an idea has spread into a wildfire. But the truth isn’t so cut and dry, for when I crunch different data points, I think I’m nucking futs for sticking with it.
Consider this, since starting Spartan Race I’ve spent, on average, 84 days per year at home with my family, sent well over 125k emails, invested 90% of my life savings, and sit, all day, every day. Often on planes. I’ve been on over 100 flights this year alone. So much for “winding down” and “spending time with my family.” Ironically enough, a business built on the idea of shaking the masses into shape has made me sedentary.
Starting a business is the ultimate endurance test. I have started so many of them and they never get easier. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, at the worst possible time. You run out of money when you need it, your best employees leave you when you depend on them, competitors take your ideas once you’re done developing them, and somehow turning a profit is as elusive as landing a space shuttle.
And it takes a toll. Earlier this summer, I noticed that the constant travel and meetings were chipping away at my resolve. Doubt started creeping into my head: “Why the hell am I doing this?”
That’s when Mike Mills called.
Mike Mills was hit by a drunk driver when he was 16 years old, losing the use of his legs. While that might put some people down for the depressive count, Mills races in dozens of events around the country each year. And with booming bravado he challenged me to “SPARTAN THE F*CK UP!” and race alongside him at our Ohio Spartan Race.
There was a catch: I needed to do the whole thing in a wheelchair.
Admittedly, I didn’t think it’d be too bad. 11.5 miles in a rugged wheelchair? No problem! And this is the part of the story where I’m deeply humbled. It was unimaginably difficult. And frustrating. And I found myself cursing whoever came up with this race. But it was also breathtaking in the very best way. Watching how our support team rallied to lift us over walls, and help us navigate some of the obstacles was awe-inspiring. The race changed my frame of reference. Sure, I wish I was spending more time with my family. And of course I wish I had more time to run. But how can I complain about sitting when people like Mike Mills don’t have any other option?
And herein lies the takeaway. Business may be a nightmare. I’m definitely in way over my head. But I know this business is changing countless lives. So I should probably just Spartan up and soldier on. Oh and next time you find yourself complaining about something in life that isn’t going right or wasn’t planned- well jump in someone else’s shoes that would give anything to be where you are- it might just make you appreciate things.
Learn more on how to Spartan Up! your business and life by subscribing to the Spartan Up! Podcast at iTunes.com/SpartanUp.
About the Author
Joe De Sena is the founder and CEO of Spartan Race and New York Times bestselling author of SPARTAN UP! A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life. Joe inspires millions of people all over the world to get off the couch and take on any obstacle, on an off the course.