Chris Cooper (00:00):
Hey, friends. Today I wanna introduce you to an entrepreneurial hero of mine. This is Joe De Sena, and some of you have heard of him before. He’s the founder of Spartan Race. But we’re gonna get into a lot of topics that I haven’t heard in other interviews with Joe, and I’m gonna tell you why he’s a hero of mine. But first, I’m Chris Cooper. This is “Run a Profitable Gym,” and I’m gonna show you some interesting stuff that’s available to Two-Brain Business clients, but we’ve also got a ton of free resources. If you want, you can just join our free public Facebook group. Go to Gymownersunited.com, and it’ll zip you right there. I put free stuff in this group all the time. We do a free webinar every month. Some of my mentors volunteer in there to answer questions for free.
Chris Cooper (00:41):
And it’s just such a valuable place where you can talk about Joe and this podcast and the Spartan partnership and everything else that I’m gonna reveal as we go. If you haven’t heard of Joe De Sena, then here’s what you need to know. In college, he started a multi-million-dollar construction business. Then he started a Wall Street trading firm, and then he hung it all up and moved to Vermont, where he bought this little farm, and he set up this general store and a bed and breakfast for hikers. And while that business was gaining ground, he started doing adventure races. And so he would travel around and he would do these crazy races that involved, you know, every sport you can think of, climbing and canoeing and, like, you’d have to find your way with a compass. And they were pretty extreme. There were even TV shows about this back in the day.
Chris Cooper (01:24):
And then he said, “I wanna make this accessible to the masses because it’s exciting. People train for it and it could introduce them to fitness.” And so years later, the Spartan and DEKA empire now serves like a million people worldwide every single year. They run like 270 events in 40 different countries. And they’ve had more than 7 million participants from little kids to elite athletes to 90-year-olds since it was founded only 12 years ago. He still does a lot of ultra racing stuff, but what’s really interesting to me is how he organizes his business. Most of us can only be a good CEO to one company at a time. Joe has several. They’ve gobbled up a lot of their competitors, like Tough Mudder—they’ve just bought them out. They still offer Tough Mudder under its own brand, which is interesting.
Chris Cooper (02:14):
He started DEKA, which could be an entirely different company, and he appointed a CEO from within—Yancy Culp, who’s gonna be at the Two-Brain Summit to build up that program. DEKA is like an obstacle-course race and training program for gyms, and we have an amazing partnership with both DEKA and Spartan that Two-Brain gyms are really gonna benefit from. I’m so excited about it. There’s a lot of stuff—we’re gonna dive in here today. I think that no matter where you are on your entrepreneurial journey, you’re going to learn a lot just from being around Joe. He’s one of these people who you just like wanna immerse yourself in. You wanna follow him around all day and just soak it up. But without further ado, I hope you’re gonna get a lot from this episode. I sure did. And just the perspective of a CEO at this level is really important to insert into your brain at least every month. Enjoy. All right, Joe De Sena, welcome to the show.
Joe De Sena (03:07):
Thanks for having me.
Chris Cooper (03:08):
Oh, it’s a great honor. And I just explained to our audience exactly who you are, so it’s such a huge deal to have you here. But today we’re mostly talking about the connection between Spartan and gyms. And I’d love to hear, you know, starting with the history of Spartan, when did you start seeing gyms get involved? Was there a connection with CrossFit or any other brand?
Joe De Sena (03:30):
It was a crazy. It was a crazy thing that happened when we started this brand, God, 22 years ago. And its first incarnation, and I would say about 12 years in, so like, let’s call it 2012, it became obvious that the number one question everybody asked from any walk of life anywhere in the world, big, small, wide, narrow: “How do I get in shape for that?” Right? “I wanna do it, but how do I get in shape?” And so it became obvious that we were a feeder for gyms, right? Gym memberships would go up whenever we announced a race in a particular market. So very early on we noticed that it became a natural partner partnership opportunity with gyms all over the world. And in reverse as well, right? Because then those gyms needed a way to keep the members retained. And one of the ways gyms did that all over the world was to say, “Hey, we’re gonna train for this thing together for five months and go do this Spartan Race, and we’re gonna build a bond amongst our members and our trainers that’s unbreakable.” And that’s what would happen.
Chris Cooper (04:51):
Yeah, I literally saw that happen at my gym, too, where, you know, a dozen people drove about eight hours to do a Spartan Race. And, you know, they’re all still at my gym. It’s amazing. Do you formally try to attract gyms then now?
Joe De Sena (05:05):
You know, the only formal thing we ever did was, well, we did lots of little tactical things, right? We’ve had folks like Ben, who’s on the call here, run around and visit 50 gyms a day in our markets and knock on doors and hand out cards and just say, “Hey, just so you know, we’re coming to town. Big opportunity for you to retain customers and get new customers.” We’ve certainly had partnerships with the big gym brands all over the world. But during the pandemic, I think we were most formal where we said, “Listen, gyms are suffering as much as we are. Why don’t we give race entries to all the gyms? Have them use these race entries as a way to kind of reinvigorate their customer base.” So I don’t know how many millions of dollars of tickets we gave away, but it was good for them and it was good for us.
Chris Cooper (05:55):
So, Ben, the early days, I’ll let you feel this one then. You’re knocking on doors. What kind of gyms are you looking for that are most likely to participate in Spartan?
Benjamin Killary (06:03):
Yeah, we were we were heavily focused on CrossFit. We tried to partner with them any which way we could on the HQ side. And they were certainly, you know, very focused on their own mission, and obviously they’re as big as they are globally. But to Joe’s point, I was knocking on a lot of doors of—really any door in the market, heavily focused on gyms but really honed in on CrossFit gyms. And I’d hit CrossFit specifically. I’d hit maybe, you know, anywhere from five to 10 a day. And it doesn’t necessarily show right now, but I’d hit a workout at the end of the day with ’em, and I’d sweat with ’em and work out with them. And that really helped to form, I think, the bond between us and the gyms. And Joe, if you remember that summit you did in Pittsfield, you flew a bunch of gym owners in there, mainly CrossFit gym owners, and a lot of ’em were like, “Yeah, this kid, he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he came in and he sweated with us. He seemed to care about the brand.” And I think that that helped forge a lot of those relationships. And it’s something that that we try to continue to get done today.
Joe De Sena (07:15):
I do remember that. I apologize: my dog just showed up. This little terror, this is Ernest Shackleton, and he does not need a gym. He is, this is the fittest dog on Earth, this crazy little dog. But anyway, I remember inviting all those CrossFitters up to the farm. I also remember one of our Death Races, we had a bunch of those CrossFit gym owners come back, and you know, it was early days for CrossFit. It was early days for us. And I remember torturing 300-plus people, including these CrossFit gym owners, by lifting. I thought it was humorous, you know, that CrossFit just like lifted weights, lifted weight. And I thought, “There’s just no way to get in the long-distance-endurance shape doing that.” Certainly you’ll get in great shape, but the stuff we were doing was much, you know, had longer duration. And so I tortured them by having them lift a rock. “Pick a rock at a certain percentage of your weight, lift the rock off the ground, put it over your head, put it back down.” Lift the rock, put it over your head, put it back down for six and a half hours. Up, down. “You guys wanna lift weights? We’re gonna lift weights.” It was awesome.
Chris Cooper (08:40):
I remember that. It was great. I could see how that would appeal, you know, to a lot of them—especially the earliest CrossFitters would’ve just thought that was amazing.
Joe De Sena (08:49):
Yeah, yeah. These were the, these were definitely the first movers. You know, early, early CrossFit that we had there. And you know, the funny thing is now years later, Dave Castro and the new CEO we just spent some time with, we’re formalizing a partnership with them. And it’s great. It’s really great because their footprint, their global footprint is as big as ours, if not bigger. So it’s just a great fit.
Chris Cooper (09:17):
Yeah, I think so, too. That’s great.
Benjamin Killary (09:20):
We’ve been trying to get that done for 12 years now. I’ve killed myself trying to get it done, and Joe and Jeff Connor got it done in a couple hours out on a course in San Francisco. It frustrates me to no end. Trust me, I was on a list early on where their head of their general counsel was sending me some emails saying, “Hey, you better knock off what you’re doing.” So I’ve seen I’ve seen a lot of it. So it’s exciting. I was telling Dan McDonald, a guy that works for us, it’s just really exciting to see it finally come to fruition after just so many attempts to get it done, so many back-channeled ways to try to get in and just get ’em to the table.
Chris Cooper (10:03):
Yeah, that’s really amazing to hear, Joe. You said that sometimes people would look for a gym, and then they would figure out, “How do I train for Spartan?” and that’s what would lead them to the gym in the first place. And that’s interesting because usually I think of using Spartan as a retention tool in the gym. Do you have any examples of, like, in the early days, people seeing Spartan and having that inspire them to start their fitness journey?
Joe De Sena (10:30):
No doubt about it. I mean, we’ve had 10 million people do one of our races somewhere in the world. And when you talk to folks, like I said, the number one question is, you know, “How do I train for this?” But most of them are just off the couch. This is their introduction to let’s call it “the wilderness,” right? Like just getting outside and doing something wild. And it is that pivotal moment. I don’t think life can change for an individual without going through a really tough, challenging, heated, you know, moment. And that’s what we provide. And all of a sudden you start hearing, “Hey, I lost 60 pounds. I’m back with my husband, I’m back with my wife. I gave up drinking. I gave up alcohol. I didn’t kill myself. I literally had a gun to my head but remembered I had the race with my team, held off doing it, and now I’m just doing these races.” Right? So like, it’s unbelievable, really. I mean, every day I send an email out that comes inbound. The other day was a young 18-year-old girl that was dealing with cancer, found Spartan. Just—it’s just unbelievable.
Chris Cooper (11:39):
Yeah, it’s really inspiring. Really. Early on though, I don’t know if maybe this was because the gym community just wasn’t embracing Spartan the way they should have, but you started a Spartan coaching certification. What was the intent there?
Joe De Sena (11:53):
You know, because of that question: “How do I train? How do I train? How do I train?” It became apparent in the early days that folks on the fence—whether or not they were, you know, deciding whether or not to sign up—wanted to speak to somebody that knew Spartan rather than walk into a random gym. They wanted to know “can you teach me, you know, how to do this race specifically?” So we said, “We’ve gotta come up with a certification so that for folks that are unwilling at this moment to cross the line and actually sign up for an event in their neighborhood, this is somebody that’s, you know, done does tons of races, understands fitness, can speak to them in a language that gives ’em confidence.” So that was the idea behind the SGX certification.
Chris Cooper (12:39):
What does an SGX certification look like? Like what’s the process?
Joe De Sena (12:43):
Well, we took a Dr. Jay who had completed a few death races, and I said, “I want you to make it the toughest certification on the planet.” The first iteration of it, no one passed the test. No one. We couldn’t get anybody certified. But he finally figured it out. He’s got a couple of thousand now certs out there. It’s, you know, two-, three-day cert. Lots of paperwork—or a textbook, I should say. Lots of physical, in-person stuff. And the folks that do it are incredibly passionate about not just the brand but the lifestyle of being a Spartan.
Chris Cooper (13:28):
Mark Divine’s new book actually talks about that first group and how nobody passed.
Joe De Sena (13:32):
Nobody passed. Yeah.
Benjamin Killary (13:34):
That’s a common thing in Pittsfield. Anything that happens in Pittsfield is not easy.
Joe De Sena (13:40):
Chris Cooper (13:42):
That’s great. So why should a fitness coach—be it the CrossFitter something else—why should they take the Spartan coach certification then?
Joe De Sena (13:51):
Well, I think, really, I mean, if you’re a good coach and you’ve been doing it for a while, you probably have most of the knowledge, right? But by having this badge, it gives this giant Spartan audience—and a Tough Mudder audience globally—confidence. Not everybody, you know—folks have figured out how to train for these races themselves. They feel comfortable just walking in gyms, but there’s a percentage of folks, and it’s a big number, that wanna talk to somebody and be coached by someone that’s certified in this language—an expert.
Benjamin Killary (14:25):
It’s from a business perspective. When I talk to gyms, the value proposition is installing a Spartan expert in your facility to handle all the questions that people are gonna have. Customer service. “How do I do this? What do I do?” It’s very powerful from that standpoint. And then it also does provide continuing-education credits for NASM and ACSM and some of these global powerhouse certification platforms. There’s just benefit there that they get—that they have to do anyways. And it opens their eyes up to something new, something relatively young, if you look at the fitness industry, right? And that’s the value proposition that I try to put across when I’m trying to get people to partner up with us and come along in the journey.
Chris Cooper (15:22):
That’s great. I think that having a Spartan Race on the calendar can definitely make the gym money, too, and we can come back to that a little bit later. But I wanted to ask that question before I asked about DEKA because it’s very easy to kind of confuse the two programs, right? So maybe, Joe, can you start with what is DEKA? Where did that come from, and who does it? And then we can come back to the Spartan certification.
Joe De Sena (15:49):
Yeah. You know, what happened with DEKA was I was in the woods in upstate New York. I was running a race, and there was a team of about 12 women running through the woods. And since it was single track, I had the opportunity to listen to their conversation. It was at a Spartan Race, and the conversation went something like this: “Can’t believe we ended up here. We had done the Spartan Citi Field, which is a little more sterile, right? It’s clean, it’s up and down stairs inside Citi Field. And somehow they got motivated to come out and do this race in the woods, and they were questioning their sanity. And I thought, “Gee, we do need an on-ramp, right?” We need something that’s hard because everything we do is hard and challenging but is a little closer to home. We’ll meet the customer where they are, maybe with the obstacles or equipment they’re used to. And so DEKA was born: 10 fitness challenges, 10 pieces of equipment, three different distances. And I have to say it’s hard as hell, but you’re not gonna see mud, you’re not gonna see water. It’s indoors. All times are kept from all around the world. So you can see actually how you do versus everybody else. It’s exactly the same. It’s a little more difficult to make a Spartan or a Tough Mudder exactly the same ‘cause of different terrain. And it’s epic. First one I did, I didn’t have shoes on, I was just kind of … . It was during COVID. I was checking it out. I got sucked into competing. I almost vomited at the finish. And I thought, “Gee, this is like, this is a short distance.” But again, it goes back to that CrossFit-style workout where it’s incredible intensity for a short period of time, and it hurts.
Chris Cooper (17:32):
Hey, Ben, maybe you can paint a picture for me of what is a DEKA Challenge? You know, I sign up for it, I show up, I have no idea what it is. What am I seeing when I walk in?
Benjamin Killary (17:40):
Yeah, I mean, we set these things up inside of conference centers, and we just ran our world championship in Atlantic City at the convention center down there. And the stations, it’s almost—I liken it to—when the elites are going off and everybody else is there watching it—it’s kind of like Tiger when Tiger was coming up and people were just flooded at one hole and following it from one through 18. And we’ve just got 10 different stations. It’s the same station every time. I don’t have ’em all memorized unfortunately. I should as a sales guy who should know every product. So Joe will probably tell me that after this. But the SkiErg’s out there, the rowing machine, the Assault bikes. We’ve got this thing called a “tank” that literally looks like a tank that you push and pull and push and pull. And they’re the same every single time. It doesn’t change. You do an exercise, you run, you do an exercise, you run, you do an exercise, you run. The running totals a 5K in the DEKA Fit product. In the Mile product, the running totals a mile, and in DEKA Strong, you don’t run at all. It’s just how quickly can you motor from Station 1 through Station 10. But it’s just a very linear progression from one to two to three to four, all the way through 10. Epic finishing experience. The energy inside is amazing. We’ve got a world-class emcee that’s been with us for a long time named Jeff Barton. And he just brings so much energy inside, and with the music pumping and everything going at once, the four walls and the roof really help it. Spartan Race, the sound tends to dissipate everywhere, right? This is just super high energy. It’s built for TV. You could run this thing on ESPN with 500 people in the building just because, like I said, the nature of “the Tiger effect” from one place to the other. It’s just super high energy.
Chris Cooper (19:52):
So what is the difference between the DEKA Challenge and the DEKA Mile? Joe, maybe you wanna field that one.
Joe De Sena (19:59):
Well, so DEKA Strong, not DEKA Challenge, DEKA Strong is just no running at all. DEKA Mile you’re running in between each one of those stations. So that’s the difference. If you could envision a running track around the outside and on the inside these 10 stations. Every time you complete a station, you go run one or two loops, come back in, complete the second station, run one or two loops, come back in. So you wanna basically vomit the entire time, which is awesome.
Chris Cooper (20:34):
You know, it’s great. So just an hour before we hopped on here, literally our clients are gym owners worldwide, and they were sharing their annual plans, and one of them shared their picture of their annual plan, and they’ve got DEKA Mile, and they were calling it DEKA Challenge. And there’s a different DEKA Strong, but they’re doing one of these at least every second month, if not every month—in a lot of months, I think. Well, how often?
Joe De Sena (21:01):
Yeah, I think we’re a host. Don’t quote me. I think we might have 600 of them taking place next year. 600 of these competitions and growing.
Benjamin Killary (21:11):
That’s without new clients coming on, right? Like we’re continually going after new affiliates to take a hold of this thing.
Joe De Sena (21:19):
But it is—look, at the end of the day, I think let’s go up a hundred thousand feet. Businesses, parents, kids—none of us drive towards our maximum potential unless we have something on the calendar. So we could go in the gym each and every day and go through the motions. I went through the motions this morning. I can’t say I gave it a thousand percent ‘cause I went off into a corner and was doing it by myself. But if I know I’ve got something coming up, it changes the game, right? The way an Olympian trains for the Olympics versus the way an Olympian train just because, you know, four years from now he’s got something or she’s got something—like two different things.
Chris Cooper (22:01):
It’s interesting to me that something as challenging even from the outside as Spartan is so inspiring that it would make people sign up, go to a gym, start training so that they can do Spartan. What happens to them when the race is over?
Joe De Sena (22:15):
They’re depressed. Really, they’re looking for something new, and they’re signing up for the next race. We purposely designed our medals in such a way where they’re chopped in thirds and it’s magnetic, so you’re quickly looking for the other third. And the reason we did that was I raced for so many years—my mother introduced me to these crazy races back in the late ‘70s. I raced for so many years, and I found that during the race you wanted to take up ping pong and never do this again. And it was terrible. And as soon as you crossed the finish line, you were looking for the next event. And the science behind that is the brain releases just enough chemicals at that finish line so that it’s got another couple of drips of chemicals before you go to the next start line. It gives you a little taste before you get to the next start, right? So they call it “future memory.” It’s not only do you get it at the finish line, but you get it before the next start line. So you become addicted to this torture. And I say it in a funny way, right? But the reality is we need that good addiction. We are designed, our species is designed, to avoid discomfort, right? We are, we pay for gym memberships, and we don’t show up. And the reason is because our brains require so much energy to operate. Our brains subversively subconsciously are telling us, “Don’t do that. Don’t go to the gym. Don’t work. Don’t do anything hard.” Right? We don’t wanna push our boundaries. But when you do, when you have a date on the calendar, you have no choice.
Chris Cooper (24:00):
I saw that John Ratey was on your podcast a couple of weeks ago, and he once said something to me that as humans we need collaborative competition. How important is it to show up with a group and do Spartan versus just training and doing it on your own?
Joe De Sena (24:16):
It’s just like I described this morning, right? Like if you’re with two people, three people, four, whatever, it makes the experience so much better. It builds relationships that are unbreakable, but it also inspires you to go 15% harder than you would’ve went on your own. And if you don’t believe me, tomorrow morning, whoever’s listening to this, do a workout by yourself, time yourself and do your heart rate. And then the next day do it with two or three people, and watch what happens. Do the same workout. You don’t even have to mention anything to your friends. Everybody goes a little harder.
Chris Cooper (24:50):
That’s really interesting. So from single to group now, Ben, I think you mentioned affiliation with DEKA. How does that work for the gym?
Benjamin Killary (24:59):
The gym? Yeah, I mean there’s a whole program around taking the concept of DEKA and certainly in monetizing it you unlock the ability to host events at the grassroots level and license the name DEKA Fit and all the branding and things that come along with that. And you really attach yourself to a global fitness powerhouse in that respect. And so there’s a little bit of marketing support and several other key benefits that that small business really is able to attach itself to. Normally, I think you would, you know, pay a lot of money for that. And so there’s certainly, you know, equipment that is involved, like, because these things don’t change. Like I said, you can’t just put 10 random exercises out there. You know, the DEKA product is the same 10 exercises every single time. And a lot of gyms have this stuff, but there’s also, you know, certain things that are required from a purchase standpoint. They certainly pay for themselves, but the ability to host events and take that ticket revenue and anchor yourself onto a brand like Spartan I think is the big sell right there. We do put on our own events like the DEKA Fit—we do a world championship. There’s certainly in competitive fields with age group and elite and so on and so forth. But the majority of what’s going on, those 600 events Joe talked about earlier, you know, 595 of ’em are happening at the grassroots level. We don’t put on, you know, a full … .
Joe De Sena (26:47):
Think about why that is, right? If the three of us own a gym, we’ve gotta figure out a way to get new customers and fresh blood in every single day. How do we do that? This is a tool that does it. Up the street from us is a big place. I think it’s the largest techno gym in the world. The performance center in Lake Nona here in Florida. They have, I think they have 10,000 members, which I can’t even believe that now. It’s unbelievable. But they felt they needed DEKA as another way to bring people in to make noise. And it works.
Benjamin Killary (27:24):
I think it would. I think it would be—at this point, it’s pretty evident that if Yancy was in my place, that the whole world would know every last detail of DEKA right now because that guy lives and breathe it. And his energy is unbelievable. And I think, you know, in the future it might be worth it just to have him on just to talk about it for a full episode of DEKA.
Chris Cooper (27:49):
So is this a more deliberate evolution of what you saw in the early days, where Spartan was bringing people to gyms. And now this is more like the next evolution?
Joe De Sena (28:00):
Definitely the next evolution. This is definitely more of a targeted approach. But any one of our events does it. They’re big group events. It’s not uncommon to see 50 or 60 people at a Spartan Race or a DEKA together—a bunch of friends and extended friends. Or a Tough Mudder. And don’t forget those people post photos. They make noise on social media if they’re going to a specific gym. It kind of creates virality in that community. So every product we have is a gym driver. DEKA is a much more targeted approach.
Chris Cooper (28:38):
Okay. So Joe the big picture question here is like, where’s this all going? You know, what’s the impact that you’re trying to have and what are the next steps?
Joe De Sena (28:49):
Well, the big one is I wanna change a hundred million lives. I wanna get more people fit, happy, married you name it—off drugs not killing themselves, right? Like, get ’em through those tough challenges. They might be facing cancer, whatever it may be, God forbid. That’s the overarching mission of the company. From a business perspective, I want us to be all things hard the same way Louis Vuitton sells all things expensive. I want us to sell all things hard and challenging—the kind of stuff that you’ve gotta scratch your head and say, “I really wanna sign up for that.” Because it’s only the hard and challenging things in life that you talk about, that you remember, that become those stories that get passed on. We’re never gonna sit around two years from now talking about that time we sat on the couch and ate a bunch of popcorn and watched that show, right? We are gonna talk about that time we were in the rain, our car got stuck in the parking lot, we somehow barely finished that race. Those are the great stories. And I know this because I’ve been doing it. I’ve been doing it for 43 years.
Chris Cooper (30:01):
Well, I can’t think of a better place to leave it than that. So Joe, Ben, thanks so much for coming on and sharing the vision of Spartan and how it aligns with microgyms. We created the Gym Owners United Facebook group to help you run a profitable gym. Thousands of gym owners just like you have already joined in the group. We share sound advice about the business of fitness. Every day, I answer questions, I run free webinars, and I give away all kinds of great resources to help you grow your gym. I’d love to have you in the group. It’s Gym Owners United on Facebook, or go to Gymownersunited.com to join. Do it today!