Andrew: Hey everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy, where I do interviews with entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses, and the truth is the first time I had an opportunity to interview today’s guest, his name is Joe De-Sena. He is the founder of Spartan. Spartan is this race that puts people through all kinds of obstacles. The first time I had an opportunity to interview him, I said, “Eh, I’m not so sure.” I thought it was a small business, and to be honest with you guys, as a runner, I thought that this stuff was just novelty. I used to go do long-distance races, and I would see people climbing on obstacles and think “They’re probably not good athletes. They’re looking for something to entertain themselves that’s fun. That’s not real work.”
Okay, I was wrong. I was wrong first of all this is a huge business. I had no idea that Spartan was so big and, number two, I think Spartan race is harder than a marathon. It can really kick your ass. And so I sent a letter of apology, an email of apology to Joe and I said, “Joe, I underestimated so much around Spartan. Can I please have you on here to do an interview?” And he said yes and then I think he was messing with me.
I want to find out about that here in this interview. We’re going to talk about how he built this race into this thing that’s huge, a business and also a movement and find out if he messed with me. And we’re going to do it thanks to two sponsors. The first will help you send out your email right. It’s called ActiveCampaign and the second is a brand new one for me and I’m going to see if Joe, the guy who’s Mr. Health Conscious approves of it. It’s athletic greens. I’ve never talked about them or tried them before. We’ll talk about them. So, Joe, welcome.
Joe: Thanks. Yeah, I’m a big green juice junkie. I got the kids on green juice for the last five or six years.
Andrew: All right. I’m going to bring this up and ask you because I know you have sharp opinions about what people put in their bodies, but let me ask you this. I scheduled this interview. The day of the interview you rescheduled. I scheduled it again. The day before, you canceled. I scheduled again. I think you were fucking with me.
Joe: I was.
Andrew: You were.
Andrew: Talk about that.
Joe: I just needed to know that you were serious. I can’t just be interviewed by just anybody. I’ve got to know that you’re one of these people that no matter what the obstacle is in front of you, you just don’t stop, so I told Susan, who works for me, “When we’ve got to do these interviews or whatever media, just fuck with them. Just cancel.” Michael Phelps’ coach used to break his goggles purposely. He used to screw up his plane tickets. He used to mess with his duffle bag so that when he would get to a competition, he would have to deal with that adversity. So look, you may end up hating me because of all these cancellations or last-minute changes, but it makes you better and my job on earth is to make people better.
Andrew: The reason that I sensed that that’s what was going on is I read your book. I bought the audio book. I heard the book on my way to a triathlon. And one of the most painful things that you talked about in there is in one of your past races, people got to the finish line . . . and you know where I’m going with this, right? Can you talk about that? What shape did they get into in the finish line and then what did you do to them?
Joe: I learned early on in my own racing career that the thing that messes with people the most is moving the finish line. Who moved my cheese? So when you move the finish line on people, you just can’t deal with it because you’ve worked all these hours, all these moments in your head to get to a place where you finally can taste victory, and then it moves and we would do that. I put on a race called the Death Race if that’s the race you’re referring to.
Joe: And we would move the finish line not once, not twice, but over and over and over. But what happened that I didn’t anticipate was over the decade long of putting on this event, participants, almost like bugs that were being treated with antibiotics, got stronger. They started to know what the tactics were that we were going to use to fuck with them. So, when the race was actually over, they didn’t accept it. Literally, we packed up. It’s Sunday afternoon, the race is over. Insurance is done. “Go home. I’m going home and going to sleep.”
They’re not stopping. They’re going to go back out, want to do it again, this last task that they failed on, these eight or nine people and they want their medals. In this case, it was a skull that we were giving away. I was like, “No, you don’t understand. There’s no fucking.” And they were in no shape to even continue anyway. One guy had no shoes. They were torn off. He had duct-taped his feet. These people were broken men and women, and they went anyway. They said, “No, we’re going to hike into the woods. We’re going to do the 18 miles. We’re going to do the swim. We’ll come back. We want our skull.” For the 10th time, I said, “No. You don’t understand. It’s over.” And finally, I said, “You know what? Fuck you. I’m going to bed. I don’t care what you do.”
So I go to bed. My wife sees these people walk off our property and into the woods, and she wakes me up. She’s like “Joe, they’re going out there. We don’t have insurance.” I said, “What do you want me to do? They’re crazy, like they’re unstoppable. They’re like a virus. The antibiotic’s not killing it anymore. I don’t know what to tell you.”
Andrew: Now they’re on their own though.
Joe: They’re on their own. So she wakes me up and we’ve got to go out there and so we jump in a car and I’ve got to drive 40 miles around to get to the other side to where they said they were going. Now, I’ve got to go into the woods. I haven’t slept in three days at this point because I’ve been putting on this race. I run into the woods, I’m looking for them. Well, they stumble upon my wife first in the car, and these are big guys and girls. I mean, they’re tough as nails and there’s a bunch of them. I think there’s eight of them. I don’t know how many there are. There’s quite a few of them, and they’re now getting ready to do the swim. They’re going to redo the swim that they failed on, which is why they didn’t get the finisher’s skulls to begin with. And she says, “The race is over. I told you guys 18 miles ago. Get in the car. It’s over. I don’t have insurance. You’re putting my family at risk.”
One guy says, “Excuse me, ma’am, you know I’m doing this for people with cancer,” and she just rips them a new you know what and they put their heads down and this little—she was probably pregnant at the time—pregnant woman . . .
Andrew: In flip-flops, from what I remember.
Joe: . . . in flip-flops, gets them all in the car and they drive back to the house and go home.
Andrew: But this is because this is what you do to people. By the way, I hear some noise in the background. I’m guessing that’s your computer. Can you mute that thing that’s dinging every time you get an email?
Joe: I would love to mute it. I don’t know how to do that, so I’m going to click on this thing on the top right of this Apple computer here . . . notifications, right?
Andrew: Yeah, let’s do that . . . notifications. My guess is that’s Outlook.
Joe: I don’t know. Oh, do not disturb.
Andrew: All right, let’s do that. That’s the other thing that surprised me, that you’re a guy with this big business and digital is something that you told our producer a while back still makes you uncomfortable.
Joe: I’m very uncomfortable around computers and all this stuff.
Andrew: I just can’t imagine that you would have . . . as a guy who’s so focused you would have that dinging going off all day long. That would fricking drive me nuts. I’d toss the computer out the window.
Joe: You know, I grew up in a neighborhood next to Kennedy Airport, and there are planes flying in and out nonstop. Within a few weeks, you don’t hear the planes anymore because it just becomes part of your environment. And I think I am bombarded by so much noise and phone calls and emails and podcasts and you name it all day, every day. People walk into my kitchen. There were five people in my kitchen a few minutes ago. You called me. It’s just one big blur.
Andrew: All right, let’s understand how you got here and I appreciate you doing this. I know you just got off of a flight and you couldn’t even find your toothbrush. You found a way to clean up so that we could do this. To understand where here is . . . your revenue. This is a part I underestimated. Can you give me a sense of what revenues were, say 2016, last year?
Joe: Yeah. I can’t tell you exactly, but you could do the math. It’s a million participants a year. We average about $100 per participant around the globe and you could also figure that we do a bunch of business in clothing and merchandise and we do a bunch of business in sponsorship and partnerships and a bunch of business in media.
Andrew: So over $100 million?
Joe: [inaudible 00:08:50].
Andrew: How can I do this? For a guy who at one point you had to beg your friends or ask your friends for money, this is amazing. Let’s go back and see how you got here. You were on Wall Street first. What did you do on Wall Street?
Joe: I was selling fireworks.
Andrew: Selling fireworks in New York?
Joe: Fireworks in New York as a kid.
Andrew: Where, like Chinatown or to your friends?
Joe: No, no, I was selling them in Queens, and there was a lot of organized crime where I grew up. And fireworks were one of the things they sold and I was able to get my hands on them in my preteens and I did pretty well with that. And then from there, I started a swimming pool cleaning business, which turned into a construction company, and then I sold that. Then a friend begged me to go to Wall Street because he saw my work ethic, and so I went to Wall Street and I ended up building a trading firm and I sold that. Then I bought a farm. I’m on the farm right now, talking to you from the farm in Vermont. Man, if I have a signal, I should show you this farm. It would blow you away. Anyway, this farm is just epic. It’s 700 acres in the middle of Vermont. And while I was here, I had been participating in races for a long time. It was my way to clear my head. That was my vacation.
Andrew: I’m sorry to interrupt, but before we go into that, let me see if I understand. The pool cleaning business, according to Wikipedia, you sold for half-a-million dollars. Is Wikipedia right?
Joe: Wikipedia is right.
Andrew: Okay but I think they might have your name wrong. They spelled your last name as two different words but on Skype, you’ve got it as one.
Joe: So it should be two different words. That’s my digital incompetency.
Andrew: Okay. All right. And then the thing that you did on Wall Street . . . What’s the brokerage firm? What did you guys trade? You were trading derivatives?
Joe: Derivatives and equities, yeah, for banks and hedge funds.
Andrew: Okay, what kind of derivatives?
Joe: So mostly equity single-stock option derivatives.
Andrew: Okay, so just a right to buy or sell a stock?
Andrew: What made you so different from all the other guys in New York who were doing that?
Joe: I was exactly like all the other guys. There is no reason that Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley or Credit Suisse should have been our customer except I provided tremendous service. I was available 24 hours a day. We outworked everybody else. If we got a bad price in the market, we gave them the good price and we took a loss. I attribute success, if that is what you’re trying to dive into here, I attribute success to that ability to go above and beyond what anybody else will do.
Andrew: What’s an example of something you did back in the Wall Street days? Other than being available 24/7, what else did you do? What’s one time that you stretched?
Joe: For example, on the Russell Rebalance, which was a big rebalancing day of a bunch of securities, we were known to be the biggest player in the market. We could trade 300 million shares of stock on that day. Why this tiny little firm? Because we worked our asses off, right? We had communications into all the banks, all the hedge funds. We had information. There was nothing illegal about it. It was just that we built relationships that were so strong. Those bonds were so tight with all these different players in the market that we gave people an edge, and that edge meant that they were willing to pay us a penny or two pennies a share or a dollar or two dollars a contract, and we had a hell of a business. For me, it was a big deal because I was mixing cement and cleaning swimming pools just five years before that, so to be on Wall Street rubbing elbows with the big boys and big girls, I felt like big man on campus. It was an awesome run.
Andrew: I’ve heard you say that you made a small fortune on Wall Street. What’s the size of a small fortune at that point? We can say it because you lost it all, right? So what’s the amount?
Joe: I did good. I did well.
Joe: Yeah. Yes, I was doing very well.
Andrew: On the personal side, I saw you at a dinner once. You were the center of attention at the whole thing because you tell these fantastic stories and you’ve got this charisma.
Joe: I was probably paying the bill. That’s why I was the center of attention.
Andrew: No, you weren’t. This was Jason Gaignard’s mastermind dinners. That’s another time when I said, “What the fuck did I do? I didn’t have this guy on. He’s such a good storyteller. He has such an interesting life.” Like you were talking about someone was screwing with you, you decided to buy the property out from underneath him. You built a hotel. The thing that I was wondering, though, is you had this money at that age, you had the charisma. Were you dating a lot? Were you like fully in yourself, or were you one of these schlubby guys in New York who had money but didn’t even know how to say hi to the waitress?
Joe: You know, I think I always had a lot of energy. I’m not one to stay out late. I’m not incredibly sloppy. I would entertain a lot, but I would typically disappear, so I’d set up the table, I’d pay for everything and then I’d sneak out because I really wanted to be up early. I’m a very productivity-driven person. I’m a one-woman guy. I had a girlfriend at a very young age for a long time, and then I met my wife.
Andrew: You’re getting things done, so you might bring together people for a dinner, pay for the dinner just so everyone gets to know you and gets to know each other, and then you’re sneaking off so you can get some rest, do your scratchies and burpees and wake up.
Joe: Yeah, I sneak out well before the night gets going. I mean, there were a few nights in there I can remember where I’d stay out late, but typically I’m a 5:00 a.m. person. I like to go get a giant bike ride down a run or Burpees or something.
Andrew: And then, if you’re waking up at 5:00, what time do you go to sleep?
Joe: I’m in bed by 10:00 or 11:00.
Andrew: Okay, so then you start doing these races, I understand. You’re running, you’re doing Iron Man. Is it 12 Iron Men events that you did?
Andrew: Twenty-one. Ultra marathons. You did the Bad-Water Ultra, which is so sick. I love reading about people who do it. And then you say, at some point, “I’ve got to create my own race.” Sometime like 2005, according to my notes. Why did you say “I want to create my own race?” Why not just deal with what was there?
Joe: You know, I’m a serial entrepreneur, right? I built the little firework’s business, then I built the construction business, then I was on Wall Street. I can’t help myself. I actually, on a daily basis, have to tell myself no. “No, we’re not doing that.”
Andrew: What’s an example of a business that you would have jumped on?
Joe: It’s all day, every day, whether I want to write another book or I want to start another business. I could be in a small town. I was in Vancouver yesterday. I told you we just moved to Vancouver and I’m looking around, saying, “Man, I could buy that piece of property.” We’re renting a house. “I could rebuild that house.” “No, I don’t need . . . What am I doing?” Like, it’s an addiction.
Andrew: You have some kind of hotel or something, right?
Joe: I have a couple hotels, small hotels, bed and breakfasts.
Andrew: Why are you running a hotel when you’ve got a $100 million business . . . a hotel in Vermont? Why do you need that agita?
Joe: Because I’m a crazy person.
Andrew: That’s it. It’s just you need to do this. You have this idea, you’re going to build it, you’re going to sell it, you’re going to do the whole thing.
Joe: Well, no. Let’s go back a second. Hang on. So I sell the business on Wall Street and I get to Vermont. And I’m like, “I’ve got to be in a place where there’s no outside stimulus, because I’m going to be married and we’re going to have a lot of kids. And if I’m in New York or I’m anywhere where there’s like business opportunities, I’m going to be working 20 hours a day because I’m a maniac. I’m not going to focus on what’s important. So we’re going to move to the country, I’m going to have a barn, I’m going to chop wood, and I’m going to get myself away from those opportunities and that workaholism because I just can’t help myself.” So I get here and that lasts about three days, and the general store is for sale.
Andrew: [inaudible 00:16:50] they even have a general store, okay?
Joe: Yeah, you’ve got to have a general store. Everybody’s got to have a general store. And then there was the opportunity to start a wedding business, so I started a wedding business. Then, if you have a wedding business and you have a general store, you definitely need a couple of hotels because where are you going to put all the guests? So then that leads to a couple of hotels and then I was like, “Well, we’ve got to get people here, so I’ll start putting on races” because I’m passionate about races, right? So I’ve got weddings, I’ve got events, I’ve got corporate events, so I started putting on races, and then the race business just became the monster, the tiger by the tail.
Andrew: I’m guessing you didn’t expect it to be big any more than I would have if I looked at this back then.
Joe: I thought 50,000 people total were crazy enough to compete . . .
Andrew: In the world, you mean.
Joe: In the world were crazy enough to compete in what I wanted to create, and I’m blown away. I’m going to have 11 million people this year. I’m blown away on the number of people. I think to the first world countries . . . and I really got a taste for it just last night. I flew in on a red eye, I told you. I don’t want to take a swing at the U.S. here because it is my country and I love everybody here, but I lived in Tokyo last year. I lived in Singapore the year before that, and I’m living in Vancouver, Canada right now. And I landed last night in Portland and Portland’s a pretty healthy city. I’ve got to tell you, in five seconds you look around at body sizes and shapes, you know you’re in America and it’s not good. I mean, it was actually very sad because you don’t see that in Vancouver. I don’t see it in Tokyo, and you don’t see it in Singapore. So there’s a lot of people in the first world where we have it a little too easy and couches are too plentiful, and the TV remote controls have 600 channels, and popcorn’s ready for you, right?
We need to get off the couch and we need to run and climb and crawl and swim, and so I guess there’s a lot more than 50,000 people that need this and they’re feeling it. And I’m like a doctor. I’m providing a service here.
Andrew: I read your book, “Spartan Up,” where you give specific stories about people who had never walked really or ran and never exercised, signed up for one of the shorter races and because they signed up, all their friends knew that they signed up, they had to prepare, and because they prepared, they got in shape and then they got the addiction, and I get that. You know what? I want to ask you about the first race, The Death Race, first and the waiver that you had and how you even got insurance for it, but first let me talk about my sponsor.
This is called Athletic Greens. I’ll be honest with you, Joe, the only reason that I’m trying Athletic Greens is because Tim Ferriss is on their site, and I know that guy is not recommending anything that he doesn’t believe in. Since I’m being open with you, I was going to toss this before I got on camera with you. I was a little embarrassed, but I’m down to like two sodas a day, which is way too much. Look at this junk food.
Joe: [inaudible 00:19:50]. You should not be drinking that. Are you crazy?
Andrew: Why not? I felt like I needed energy, so I got my diet soda. I see you’re really pissed. You’re not even putting this on.
Joe: Are you crazy? You can’t drink Diet Coke.
Andrew: The reason I did it is I’m exhausted from having these two kids now. I have two babies.
Joe: There’s no excuse. You should not be drinking Diet . . . You shouldn’t drink any soda.
Andrew: I’m doing back-to-back interviews. You’re right. I used to have a salad in the middle of the day up until the last couple of weeks. I’m not feeding myself right, so I thought, “Let’s try this.” This is Athletic Greens. Why do you give your kids green juice? What is it about this stuff that you like? I’ve never had this before. If I don’t like it, you’re going to see it on my face instantly. I’m going to put some in my cup. Why do you give your kids greens?
Joe: Okay, here’s the deal. We have a farm up here. I’m talking to you from the farm and it’s pretty hard farming, right? Fourteen years we’ve been trying to get stuff to grow. It looks good. It looks like a good consistency there. Mix it with the water. Nice and green.
Andrew: I’m supposed to be using . . . They gave me . . . These are the good kind, the shaker. The next time I do an ad for them I’ll use it, but I’m just going to mix it in using a standard cup that I have here at the office.
Joe: And my children, my oldest is 11, have been drinking the green juice every day and the deal is, soil today is not as nutrient rich as it was 50 years ago or 100 years ago, so even those of us . . . and very few of us eat properly . . . Even those of us that eat properly are not getting all those nutrients, so the idea I had 10, 11 years ago was, “Well, you know what? We’re going to buy the healthiest greens we could get, grind them up, mix them with water just like you just did and the kids are going to drink it every day.” So that’s my theory.
Andrew: Let’s try it right now.
Joe: It’s a lot better than soda. What do you think?
Andrew: Oh, it is good. You know what it tastes like? It tastes like beets, a subtle hint of beets, even though it’s greens. My mouth is actually watering as I’m drinking it. It’s good. Mm, it’s good. Now, I can’t figure out what it’s supposed to do for me. I can see the list of ingredients. They’re very proud of their ingredients. I looked it up on all sorts of websites. People are very happy with the flavor, so I wasn’t shocked. But what is it supposed to do? Is it supposed to make me run faster? I’m looking at their website at the ingredients. I don’t get it. They say there’s prebiotics, probiotics. What is a prebiotic? What is a probiotic?
Joe: Yeah, so listen, you need good, gut flora, right? Inside your stomach, you need all those bugs, the good bugs in there that are sending signals to the brain that are giving you all the things you need to digest foods properly and get everything you can out of food, that are getting your digestive system working properly. It was Hypocrites, right? He said, “Let food be thy medicine, medicine be thy food.” And at the end of the day, if you’re getting sick or you don’t have energy . . . It sounds like I’m doing this commercial with you but I’m really not . . . it means there’s something wrong with your stomach. So most of us are eating too much processed food. I can’t believe you just showed me that can of soda. I’m thinking of jumping on a plane and coming to visit you quickly.
Andrew: You know what? As I said, I was trying to hide that from you and then I looked at your face and I thought, “Maybe he’s going to like through rote, through memory, just say the things that he usually says when he has more energy, but I saw you really get upset. I saw your eyes and then it was this good-nature upset because I’ve got to maintain . . . “I’m a friendly person but what the fuck is this guy doing?”
Joe: I can’t believe you [inaudible 00:23:23]. So you don’t even know I’ve fired people in our office for drinking soda.
Joe: You must have done the research and did that just to taunt me.
Andrew: No, not about that. I did know for sure. That’s why I checked with you. I said, “Look, I’m going to talk about Athletic Greens. I know that you’re very serious about this stuff. Do you hate green juices like this?” So I wanted to check in. Usually, I don’t mind that the guest does not like the product. I like talking about it, but I was a little afraid of your attitude about some of the food, so I’m glad you said it was okay. All right, so no more sodas for me. Here, I’m actually going to make this promise to you right now. I’ve been buying them by the caseload since the last child was born, I swear. It’s delivered in the office, the receptionist puts it in the fridge in just the right spot for me. I’m going to promise right now, no more diet soda delivered in the office.
Andrew: Just because of your face. I am a little scared. You’ve got this face that makes me feel like I’m going to get my ass kicked.
Joe: They say that about me and I try to tell my wife, “Listen, I’m happy all the time. I just don’t have a happy face.”
Andrew: It feels good-natured. You feel like you care, and even though you don’t know me from Adam, I feel like you love me when you’re saying this and care, “But still, what the fuck are you doing?” I got this sense in your eyes, both sides of that.
Joe: I’ve been walking on the street and I’ve pulled sodas out of people’s hands that I don’t know.
Joe: Oh yeah. I’ll take a cigarette out of somebody’s hand. It’s like, “What the fuck are you doing, dude?”
Andrew: Wow. Has anyone ever hit you?
Joe: No, thankfully, knock on wood.
Andrew: All right, so you come up with this Death Race. The three-word waiver is what?
Joe: You may die.
Andrew: Or I may die.
Joe: You may die.
Andrew: You may die. So they sign the thing and you got an insurance company to okay this? I didn’t realize you had insurance.
Joe: We got insurance for it. It’s very, very expensive . . . under the condition that should they die, we bury them in the yard before anybody finds out. No, we got insurance.
Andrew: What do you put them through that you need a waiver that says that they could die?
Joe: We brought them right to the edge of death.
Andrew: What’s an example of something tough that you did?
Joe: Well, just simple things. Here’s a great one, actually. We brought them to a sub-50-degree small lake . . . large pond, small lake. They had to swim a one-mile loop. They were hypothermic in the first few minutes. They were shaking.
Andrew: Really? When you go into hypothermia, what happens to your body?
Joe: You’re shaking, your blood is coming back into your core to try to keep your key organs alive, you’re broken, you’re not coherent. And so they experienced hypothermia right away just swimming. We’ve got boats next to them, keeping an eye on them just to make sure nobody actually dies. When they’re done with that mile loop, they get back on the dock and they’ve got to spin a roulette wheel. The roulette wheel only has one slot that says you’re done swimming. Every other slot says “Get back in the water.”
Andrew: Ah, you give them this hope and your chances are going to take it away.
Joe: Exactly. So if there were 300 people competing, 299 of them had to get back in the water three times, three miles of swimming in this water. One person landed on that slot that said, “Hey, you’re done swimming. Head on your hike.” The amazing thing about that story was there were two 6-foot marines and a woman that finished their third lap, but they were four minutes late. So, in other words, they had to be done with their third lap by 1:00 p.m. in the afternoon. Now, it’s 1:04. Rough, rough numbers. They came up to me and they said, “Okay, sir. We’re ready to continue.”
I said, “What do you mean continue? You’re done. You missed the time cutoff.”
“But it’s only a couple of minutes. It was just . . . ”
“I know. I don’t give a fuck. You missed the time. You’re out.”
“We already invested 72 hours.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re out.”
The two marines, these two big guys hit the ground and start crying in front of me. The woman, she’s an amputee. She unscrews her leg, dumps the water out, screws it back on in front of me and says, “Would you mind if I continue anyway even though it will be unofficial?” as the two marines are on the ground crying.
Andrew: Oh yeah.
Joe: So like amazing stuff, but we only get that kind of reaction and those really inspirational stories if we take people to the edge, and so that’s what we do. Really, that’s why I’m on earth. I’m on earth to drive people like you crazy. It makes you better. If we were looking at a rubber band right here and I stretched the rubber band, my job is to stretch you as far as this rubber band will go and then as soon as you’re about to break, I get a new rubber band and I stretch you even further. That’s my job on earth.
Andrew: That’s it. No one’s ever hit you or done anything outrageous because of this?
Joe: I was almost killed. I had a bunch of guys surround me once year on top of the mountain. I told you we put on weddings here. My wife is holding a really high-end wedding on our property. I’m on top of the mountain putting on this Death Race, and I hit my limit with these guys. They were pissed and they surround me. Actually, when I’m done with this story, I’m going to tell you a really funny story. They surround me and they’re coming at me. And I’m like, “What’s up, guys?”
“We want our skulls. This is bullshit.”
“Guys, what are you talking about? The race is still continuing. People are going down the mountain. They’re getting their body weight of rocks. You’ve still got to do this. You’ve still got to do that. It’s going to be at least another 10 hours.”
“Bull shit. We want them now,” and they’re coming at me. And so, I’m negotiating my way out of the situation. Unbeknownst to me, the participant that’s just ahead of this group that’s about to kill me stumbled down the mountain a good mile and stumbled into this high-end wedding that my wife is putting on. And he’s got twigs hanging out of his head and he goes up to my wife. Literally, like the ceremony is going on. “Excuse me, I’m looking for some rocks. Your husband told me it’s near . . .” My wife says, “I don’t know what [inaudible 00:29:43]. Get back in the woods. We’re in the middle of a wedding.
So as these guys were about to kill me, this guy’s coming back up to the top of the mountain and he literally saved the day for me and says, “Sir, I’m sorry. I was looking for the rocks. I think I found your wife and the wedding going on. I went in the wrong direction.” That calmed the situation down, the guys left me alone never to spoke to me again for a year. I then get an email that says, “Joe, you got in our heads. You broke us. We apologize. We want back in,” and we have become great friends since. That’s happened a few times where I pushed them just over the edge and only to come back later and say they were sorry for losing their cool.
Andrew: You know what? I have a note here to ask you about your wife and how you met. I totally forgot the answer to that. I’m sure I knew it, but that’s the problem with letting these interviews go for so long. I barely thought that you were going to do this interview. I said, “I’m going to have an extra hour. I’ll do some work here and Joe’s got me, but I’ll get him before the end of the year.” How did you and your wife meet?
Joe: So my wife, I met her at a race. A guy had talked me into a funny race. It was not something I was normally doing, and I decided to do the swim of the race, which I was not supposed to do. My team had me carrying a weight on the beach doing a run. When I got done with the weight on the beach, I tagged my teammate who was going to do the swim. He went and did the swim and I sat there and looked at the water.
The one thing I’m afraid of is sharks. It’s a good thing to be fearful of. So I like to face my fears, so I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to swim it.” So even though it didn’t count, I just was going to go swim it anyway. When I got out of the other side of the swim, I had no shoes. Everybody else who was officially doing the swim had their shoes waiting for them on the other side of the swim, so I was running around on these sharp rocks and I was hopping on my feet and I meet this cute, gorgeous girl, my wife. And she says to me, “Hey,” because I look weird. I don’t have shoes on. “What are you going to do? You’re going to hurt your tootsies.” Anyway, fast forward, I [inaudible 00:32:03] this race and it keeps playing in my head. One, she’s gorgeous, but two, that’s a word my mother’s family would have used, tootsies. I’ve got to follow up. So I call the place she said she worked. I only met her for a minute or so and I asked the receptionist. I said, “I met this girl Courtney.”
“We can give you her email.”
So I thought, “I’ve only got one shot with this email. I’m going to shoot an email. I’m going to have to put something in there that gets her to respond. So I wrote this and I’m building this up. “All female adventure racing team and you looked really fit and really like you’d crush it on the team,” and so she responded. And so then, to play along with this elaborate lie I was putting together in order to convince her to date me, I said, “Why don’t we go on a training and spend the day training so I could see if you’d qualify for this team?” So the first date, I was considering it a date, she was considering it a training. It was an 8-hour kayak. And so I figured if I was out in the boat with her for eight hours and there was no food or water, she would get delirious and like me.
So, from there, I convinced her then come to one of the races I was doing over in Europe, which led us through on the way coming out of the race to Monte Carlo and we were driving by a casino. At this point, we knew each other literally a week. We met at the race for a few minutes. We had been on the 8-hour kayak and now we just flew to Europe and we were in a car and I said, “Let’s stop in the casino. We’ll bet on the roulette wheel. There’s a pattern here you’re seeing.
Andrew: I remember this, yes.
Joe: And I said, “If it lands on Red 36, my number, we’re getting married on the spot. If it lands on Black Number 8, you leave and we never see each other again. And it hit Red 36. It hit my number. So she called bullshit, timeout, no way. Do it again. And I said, “Okay, if we do it again and it lands on Green 0, you get a tattoo. If it lands on 00 Green, I get a tattoo.” So it landed on Green 0 and she had to get a tattoo and she started crying as the tattoo artist was about to give her a tattoo, so I took that tattoo for her and we ultimately got married, so it was a good night of gambling.
Andrew: Courtney Lawson, right?
Andrew: Why didn’t she take your last name?
Joe: She did take my last name.
Andrew: This is where the internet is wrong. They had listing he as Courtney Lawson.
Joe: Well, she had a little soccer career when she was younger, so maybe she’s so famous they have her name.
Andrew: Okay, so then you and a few other people, including one guy who came in fourth at the Death Race decide “We’re going to throw this other race. We’re going to do something that’s a little bit less murderous and more inclusive,” and you decide you’re going to call it Spartan. I love in the book, “Spartan Up,” you talk about how you’re thinking about different ideas for names and Spartan really does capture it. So you start the first one. Who puts together all the obstacles? How do you figure out what to do? How do you get people to come to the first one when there’s no history of it?
Joe: It was a complete shit show. It was not easy. I had a bunch of friends helping. A buddy of mine was putting on some races where he would get 100 or so people. Everybody chipped in. It got to a point where we were about a month or so away from the race, and there just weren’t going to be enough people. I was going to lose a ton of money, so I got a couple of college kids to go door to door. One of the college kids still works for us today, but they literally went door to door, knocking on doors, convincing people to consider coming to the race. I think we ended up with 700 or 800 people at that race.
Andrew: Where was this that he was going door to door?
Joe: In Vermont.
Andrew: In Vermont, so people in Vermont were so ready for this race that they didn’t even need months to prepare?
Joe: Yes, they didn’t need months. The people were so excited. They were so enamored by this idea of coming out and getting a little adventure—I think our first event we put on was three miles—that they rolled the dice. They joined some friends and they came out.
Andrew: How did you position it? How did you explain it so that people knew what it was? To call it an obstacle race is silly. What’s the phrase that you used that got people to understand what you were putting them through?
Joe: You know, I think we got really lucky with the name. I think the name Spartan, as you said earlier, really says it all and it was Spartan Race at that time. We hadn’t shortened it to just the name Spartan, so between that and some imagery and some really exciting babble, as you spoke to people and tried to convince them with some salesmanship, they got pumped up. There’s not a lot to do in Vermont, and so the fact that there was an event up here got them out and then from there, we went to New York. From there we went to Massachusetts, went to Montreal, went to the UK, and now it’s 35 countries and 200 events a year.
Andrew: Richard Lee was that fourth-place person who co-founded Spartan with you. I’m seeing an article here in “The Daily Mail” about how he lied that he was a Royal Marine.
Joe: Yeah, you know, Richard wasn’t . . . I don’t really have a negative thing to say about Richard and I’ll explain that to you. When he met me, and let’s back up a little bit. So we’re knocking on doors and I meet this guy—and his name is Richard Lee—who comes walking off the Appalachian Trail because the trail runs a couple miles from our house here in Pittsfield. And he comes into the general store that I told you I own. “What are you doing?” Just like we talk to anybody in Vermont.
“I’m an ex-Royal Marine. I broke my leg during Royal Marine training and we’re just hiking the trail, me and my girlfriend.” The girlfriend was Selica.
I said, “Well, I’m putting on these races. How would you like to help out? We’ve got this race coming in three months. Would you like to jump?” He’s got his English accent and says, “Yeah, I’m all for it.” So he jumps in and he helps out and as we’re getting ready for that event, I’m putting on a Death Race on the farm. He raises his hand and says, “I’m in. I’m going to do the Death Race as well.”
Andrew: Death Race can help you with Spartan.
Joe: He says, “I’m going to help you with Spartan and I’m going to compete in the Death Race.” I said, “Great. I’m going to compete as well in the Death Race.” And we had another 100 competitors or so and one was a U.S. Marine, Tom Worthington, then you had Richard Lee, who told us he just got out of training in the Royal Marines and then you had me and then you had a bunch of other competitors. Well, Tom Worthington, the U.S. Marine, and Richard, the kid we just pulled off the Appalachian Trail both beat me by like an hour, young bastards. So, the news picks it up and the news goes wild around the world. “U.S. Marine, Royal Marine tie at the finish line.” Again, I’ve got nothing bad to say about Richard. I suspect at that moment in time he obviously knew that he wasn’t officially a Royal Marine, but he did go into training. Now, what I understand is if is in the U.S., if you and I joined the Marines, we could call ourselves Marines even if we didn’t finish the basic training.
Andrew: That’s what I understand.
Joe: In the UK, you can’t. In the UK, you’ve got to get to that last step and actually pass the test. My understanding is that even though he put his year in or whatever it was in time, because he didn’t complete that final task, he can’t use that word.
Andrew: He did with you because he was just meeting you and just talking and wasn’t being official. Then the media picked it up and it stuck.
Joe: We’ll never know because I’m not in his head, but my guess is he was just being friendly and it was really no big deal. He was just having a conversation with me. When the news story picked that up and said, “U.S. Marine-Royal Marine,” nobody denied it. You know what I mean? He wasn’t going to say, “Oh, by the way . . .” Fast forward two or three years, he pissed somebody off somewhere in the UK. He was running our UK operation and somebody came after him and said, “Hey, you’re not an official Royal Marine.” Anyway, this thing went on and on and on. We’re very close to the military and ultimately, we spoke to folks in the military over in the UK and they said, “Yeah, he probably should have said something” but boy, the press can really make things a lot sillier than they should be.
Andrew: And so he had to leave because of that?
Joe: Nobody should steal valor, but this was really something that should not have been as big as it was.
Andrew: And so you asked him to leave? He was no longer a part of the organization after that?
Joe: Yeah, we asked him to leave. His girlfriend, who became his wife was just as hardworking as he was, so she stayed on and she ran the operation. Ultimately, they went and did something . . . They actually, funny enough . . . You’re going to laugh. They went off and started a wedding business. They were so enamored with the wedding business that I had going on in Vermont, they started on in the UK.
Andrew: I see photos of him here. I think it’s him and his wife and he’s thin. He’s super thin. He doesn’t look bad ass.
Joe: And don’t even upset me that he beat me. He was a skinny, little, scrawny guy, and I say that in the nicest, thoughtful way but he was just relentless.
Andrew: I do see that he’s always dirty for some reason. I haven’t seen a single photo of him without mud somewhere on his body or more likely on his face.
Andrew: All right, I want to come back and ask you about . . . Was the first website you had spartanrace.com?
Joe: The first website we had was probably spartanrace.com, yep.
Andrew: I’m looking at it. There’s something that just stands out that I’ve got to bring up to you but first, my sponsor is ActiveCampaign. If you guys are out there and you understand that you need to do email marketing . . . And frankly, you should . . . You know what? I should talk to someone on your digital team because I wonder if you guys are on this. You have a huge email list, don’t you?
Joe: We have a big email list.
Andrew: I’m on your email list. Everything comes directly from you. I wonder if I do a race, will you follow up and say, “Hey Andrew, you did this race last year. We’re going to come back again,” or “Hey Andrew, you did a race in this city. We’re going to do another one in another city. I want you to fly out.” The reason I say this is because you write . . . Do you still write the emails yourself?
Joe: Not all of them but yes.
Andrew: They come like very personal. They actually are readable. It doesn’t feel like it’s some corporate newsletter. I think you’ve got that right. What ActiveCampaign will add to your business and other businesses like it is the ability to target, the ability to say here’s a guy who checked out this one race in New York City five times, didn’t sign up, came back again the next month . . . Five times, didn’t sign up. We’re going to target that person and say, “Hey, if you have not signed up for New York, you have an opportunity to right now at 5 percent discount or else I’m going to come to your house and I’m going to kick your butt.” It’s that ability to target based on what people are doing on the web or what they’re doing in email. What they’re doing in general, allows you to not just write personally but target personally. You’re gearing to say something. I can see it, Joe. What were you going to say about it?
Joe: Well, I was just thinking. What I want to do is I want to have a black Spartan man that shows up at their house and just rips them off the couch. So, if they could work with me on that . . . It’s a little old school but I think it would help.
Andrew: You know what? One hundred percent, we could set that up and I bet they’d love it. And you know what? With my researching skills, I bet I could even find their address and get to their house. I’m looking to see if you’re on them. Now, you guys have some software, some of it’s a little bit older on your site. I’m looking to see what you guys use.
Anyway, if you guys are out there and you’re looking for email marketing that is smart, that allows you to target based on what people have done on your site, I urge you to check out ActiveCampaign. I’ve got a special URL for you. I forgot the URL for the last sponsor. I’ll edit it in, I guess but here’s a special URL.
If you’re a Mixergy listener and you want to target your email properly, I want you to check out this URL where they’re going to give you a free trial so you can try it and see the power of doing this. I want you to get this second month free. You’re going to get two free one-on-one consultations with people who are going to show you how to actually integrate this into your business. In the first call with them, you get to learn, you get to understand, you get a plan. The second call with them, you can talk about what worked in the plan, what didn’t, and build on that. So you’re going to get two free consultations and if you signed up with a different email provider before and you want to move over to ActiveCampaign, they’re going to migrate you for free. Here’s a special URL. Activecampaign.com/mixergy and I promise if you guys want a black man to come to your customers, you can set up a tagging system that will allow you to know where the black man should actually go. Go check them out. Activecampaign.com/mixergy.
I see what you guys did. You guys rolled your own. I’m on your site right now. So, you guys have this kind of email system but somebody built it for you internally. Okay, here’s the thing that I saw when I looked at the way-back machine.
Joe: You know more than I do about my email.
Andrew: I’m like restructuring your site as we talk. If you see my eyes dart around, it’s because I’m researching you. I see the older version of your site. What I like about races like yours is people want to volunteer. By the way, why? I would have assumed you guys were nonprofit because of the volunteers. Why does a for-profit business get volunteers?
Joe: First of all, we were the only for-profit that was nonprofit for 15 years.
Andrew: I know. My producer asked you about the revenue at some point and you told her and then you said, “But we’re not profitable.”
Joe: We’re profitable.
Andrew: But because you’re reinvesting in the business. That’s an intelligent business decision but why does a for-profit business get volunteers? Because you can?
Joe: Why would a volunteer want to come?
Andrew: Right. Why would a volunteer work for a for-profit business?
Joe: We give free races away. So if you come and volunteer, you’re going to get a free race with us, you’re going to get a shirt, you’re going to get a meal, plus a lot of people want to check it out and want to see what’s this all about. “Let me go see other people suffer first, get inspired, and then I’ll be part of it, and I’ll get to race for free.” So surprisingly, because I’m just as surprised as you are, there’s a lot of people out there that want to come out and help, and the reality is we couldn’t put on the event without the volunteers. It just wouldn’t happen.
Andrew: I see a couple of things on the early version of the site and it seems like it took you guys a lot to actually put together a website, which is shocking. There are like grammatical mistakes on here, not big ones.
Joe: It’s amazing that we are as big as we are because everything you could do wrong to ruin a brand, we did.
Andrew: Like what?
Joe: We just screwed the whole thing up. In the early days, my assistant said to me . . . by the way, who was only working for $2 grand a month . . . I said the policy when we started was anybody who works for us gets paid $2 grand a month. It doesn’t matter.
Andrew: No matter what?
Joe: It doesn’t matter. Not matter what, $2 grand a month because that’s all we could afford. My assistant might not have even been getting paid the $2,000 a month. I don’t know. She said, “We’ve got to invest in a CRM.” “What’s a CRM?” She went through the whole thing and I said, “There’s only going to be 50,000 people global that even want to do this. I’ve been losing money forever on this. You don’t know this but Spartan and all the races I’ve been putting on since 2001 . . . So, from 2001 to 2015, I lost money. It lost money, right? So there was no way I was going to invest in technology with this continual loss of money. In retrospect, I wish I had listened to her because had I had proper systems in place, like CRM, oh my god, we would be three times or five times what we are today.
Andrew: I see. But you do today. Today you guys do your own email system as I mentioned earlier. You’ve got a proper email list. Let me see. Last count you guys had over 1.5 million subscribers to that email list. Is it 700,000 people who are downloading the workout of the day that you guys put out?
Andrew: And that’s 700,000 each month or over what period of time are we talking about?
Joe: No, so 700,000 people a day get it.
Andrew: Seven hundred thousand people via email?
Joe: Via email, yeah.
Andrew: And what was this period there where you went through your whole savings? What sent you over the edge?
Joe: What sent me over the edge just to hang on or what sent me over the edge why I was losing so much money?
Andrew: Yeah. Why were you losing so much money at that point? Because you’re a Wall Street guy. You know how to anticipate your expenses.
Joe: Yeah. Well, first of all, I’m a fire, ready, aim guy. I’m not an aim, ready, fire guy. I did not have a business plan together. This was really a hobby for me. I was still doing Wall Street business when I started putting on races in 2001, so I wasn’t completely paying attention to it, so for those of you out there that are getting in business or in business, I think you’d do a lot better if you focus on the thing you’re good at and whatever you’re putting money into, you probably should pay attention to. I was not paying enough attention to it. This was like a side project that I was passionate about and as such, it just kept bleeding money.
Well, in 2010, when I launched the word Spartan and we shortened the distance to what I was doing to three miles, eight miles and 13 miles, I realized “Oh my god. We’ve got to do digital advertising. We can’t knock on doors anymore.” So I got this young kid and we went to the Apple store and we bought an Apple computer. He showed me how to do this Facebook advertising thing and we got a Twitter account and we got all these things going. Pinterest, I think was coming around at that time and we started running some ads. I went in the hole. I was spending $300,000 a month.
Andrew: A month or in general?
Joe: Well, 80% digital ads.
Andrew: Wow. Okay.
Joe: Retargeting it, you name it, as well as billboards and other stuff. We were spending a fortune. Now, if I had to do that today, that same amount of advertising would probably cost you $2 million a month because at the time it was a lot less expensive. There were less people bidding for that inventory. But I don’t know how many months in . . . let’s call it 20 months in . . . my bookkeeper sits me down and says “What the fuck are you doing? You are virtually out of money.” And it’s moving so fast I’m not really paying attention because the expenses are getting ahead of when I’m actually paying them.
I remember skiing with my kids that day—it was a winter day—thinking, “Man, I worked my whole life. I crushed it. I saved all this money and I just blew it on this race business.” I called some friends on Wall Street and I said, “Look, I’ve got a business I’m doing, this Spartan thing. You’re not going to understand it. I don’t have a business plan. I said, “I don’t have a valuation but I need money and I need money by Monday or I’m dead.” And they wired a bunch of money and they saved the day. And that lasted me about four months.
And then I was up against the wall again and I realized, “Oh my god. We could just push out payables. So rather than paying in 30 days, we could pay in 180 days and we could correct revenue there.” And so we pushed out payables and we said, “Oh, this is just the policy of the company. We pay in 180 days.” And vendors that were willing to play along with us saved us. And then, what really saved the day was we got a phone call from a company who wanted to be our backend processor and they had been hounding me for a while to be the people that would collect our processing.
Andrew: I’ve got a processor.
Joe: I wasn’t interested in changing who we currently had. I had no time for it and I was up against the wall again financially. And they said, “Look, we’ll pay you $1 million.” And I said, “Really?” It was like a Wednesday. I said, “Well, when would you pay us?” “Oh, we’ll FedEx. You could have it Friday.” So I said, “We’ll do that.” So they literally sent the check overnight, so that bought us some more time and then some private equity guys came in and they bought 20% of the company and the rest is history.
Andrew: So you own it? The private equity guys own 20% of the company, and the people on Wall Street, were they lending you money or did they end up with a share of the business?
Joe: They ended up with a share of the business.
Andrew: A share of the business, wow. And so you finally are able to take money out of the business. Do you remember the first time that you took some cash out of the business after over a decade of building it up without taking anything out?
Joe: Over a decade. I took . . . Don’t quote me. We’re in 2017. I think in 2016 I took my first salary check, so it was 15 years. For those of you out there that are running businesses, hang in there.
Andrew: Why are you traveling so much? You just landed, you’re doing this interview with me, you’re going to travel again. You’re all over the place. You’re doing a podcast of your own. Why aren’t you saying, “You know what? This is a business. I got the CLO early on. I’ve got the CEO.” I guess you at some point decide “I’m going to be the CEO too.” Why are you traveling so much? You’re making a face like I’m disgusting you by saying, “Don’t travel so much and sit still.”
Joe: Yeah, you know, everybody says in some form of life or some meeting I have, “Why don’t you stop and smell the roses?” When I hear the question, my mind says “Who the fuck is going to water the roses, prune the roses, fertilize the roses?” Like, it just doesn’t work that way. Extreme success requires extreme sacrifice. I’d rather be with my kids and my wife right now but like I’ve got to run around. I’m meeting with outside television here in Vermont. We’re doing a segment. I’ve got you calling me to do this podcast. We’ve got a build out in Western Canada. I had to do Tokyo last year. Who’s going to do it? We’ve got to do it. Why are you doing your podcast? Why don’t you hire somebody to do it?
Andrew: I love doing it. I love having these conversations. I think I need to do it because no one can do it better than me but I do wonder why I’m doing the other stuff. Couldn’t somebody else do some of the other stuff? Like, I’m about to go in and edit into your interview that I forgot to do the actual ad for Athletic Greens, so I’m going to record like a 10-second thing and stick it in there. So yeah, that I shouldn’t be doing. But you’re saying all the stuff that you do is critical. You need to do it.
Joe: I mean, listen, if you or I, God forbid, knock on wood, got hit by buses, we’d probably be fine. Somebody would pick up where you left off, somebody would pick up where I left off. We’re all replaceable, but I don’t know. I’m definitely a workaholic. I definitely am addicted.
Andrew: It seems like it.
Joe: You know, I met a guy today. He was like 80 and he’s been running his business for 60 years. I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “If you don’t have purpose in life and you don’t wake up looking to go conquer something, you die. So I just want to keep going and live.” So I said, [inaudible 00:56:15] that same path, so I guess you are too.
Andrew: All right. You were going to show me earlier around but we were worried about the internet connection. Do you feel good about now lifting up whatever device I’m talking to you on? Just like let’s take a look around at where you are.
Joe: Let’s see if this works. There’s a chance.
Andrew: Where are we? So you’re back at home now?
Joe: I’m at home in Vermont. It’s beautiful out here. Hang on.
Andrew: If we lose you I’m going to say goodbye right now. It won’t be rude. I won’t call you back. I’ll give you some time to . . .
Joe: Don’t call me back. If we disconnect, we never talk again. That’s the deal.
Andrew: We’ll talk again at dinner or something. Oh, look at that.
Joe: Do you see that?
Andrew: Yeah. I grew up in Queens too. We didn’t have that in Queens. Ah, very pretty. It’s like a red barn.
Joe: You’re back?
Andrew: Yeah, I think you might need to go back inside. I think the connection’s not very good out here.
Joe: I might be able to get you in here. Let’s see. Check out the fall . . .
Andrew: The video, for anyone who’s listening and not watching just froze on a red barn . . . beautiful lawn. I think I might have just lost you, Joe.
Joe: Can you see me?
Andrew: No, not yet. Do you want to try turning the video off and on again? That could do it.
Joe: Am I with you?
Andrew: Oh, there. Now I can see you. So you’re back in the house?
Joe: Are you there?
Andrew: Are you going downstairs?
Joe: I’m in the barn. I’m trying to show you . . . I can’t really walk out of the house but you’d be blown away if I could show you the mountain.
Andrew: What do you do at the mountain?
Joe: We’ve got our own mountain here. We put in a stone staircase. It’s 1,000 steps. We made the participants of the Death Race put in a . . .
Andrew: You made the participants put in 1,000 steps?
Joe: One year. Yeah, it’s pretty epic, so if you ever come here, you’ll get to run the stairs.
Andrew: I’d love to try it. All right. If I come, I will be coming without soda. I will be drinking green juice from now on. No more soda. Joe, I think we’ve lost the connection here, so if you can hear me I’m going to say thank you for being on here. If you can’t, I’ll find a way to send you a text message saying thank you. For everyone who’s listening, go check out spartan.com to get more info and the two sponsors that I had were activeCampaign.com/mixergy and athleticgreens.com/mixergy. Thanks, everyone. Bye.