Joe De Sena (Mindset course instructor) @ Spartan
If you want to start a business, you sure as hell better be made of the right stuff. Because Joe De Sena is here to tell you that in business, “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”, and you need to be mentally tough enough to handle it.
In this Foundr interview like no other, Nathan Chan speaks with Spartan Race creator, best-selling author, and badass CEO Joe De Sena on why you need manufactured adversity.
De Sena has faced mountains of failure in business and continues to rise, everything from losing someone during the first ever race and finding them marooned on a desert island a week later, to not turning a profit for 15 years. Nevertheless, this machine of a man bounces back and continues to rise.
This interview is just a snapshot of what you can expect in Foundr’s newest course, Mental Toughness. Touted as the ultimate entrepreneurs field guide to building mental toughness, this is not one to be missed.
Find out why the Olympic wrestling teams are sent to De Sena shape up, why billionaires send their children to him to learn discipline, and why active military personnel flock to him to learn grit.
Full Transcript of Podcast with Joe De Sena
Nathan: The first question I ask everyone that comes on is how’d you get your job?
Joe: How did I get my job? My current job, or my jobs throughout life?
Nathan: How did you find yourself doing the work you’re doing today? Like everything you did was Spartan, you acquired, Tough Mudder. How did that start?
Joe: It’s a pretty awesome job, isn’t it? That’s why you’re asking me. A lot of people are jealous. And I get to do what I love so it’s not really a job. And I guess I created it. I manufactured it from nothing. I had a job that I didn’t like as much, sitting on a trading desk. I was making plenty of money. But I wasn’t passionate about it. It was really just an ends to a… A means to an end. I had a picture of a little red barn on my trading desk. And I just wanted to get… I just wanted to be outside. I wanted to be doing cool shit. So I started putting on races. I’m a big believer in fire, ready, aim. So I fired the gun and I lined up to put on my first event just before September 11th, 2001. My first event was a disaster, but I just kept going and going and going. And I really, I created the job that I have right now from scratch.
Nathan: I’m curious, what did that first event look like? How many people were there and what did you charge and how did you get your first customers?
Joe: I think we charged, I think I had about 100 customers at our first event, it was a 350 mile race. Ten miles of swimming, 100 plus miles of kayaking, 100 plus miles of biking. It was insane, insane. And I think we charged, I’m trying to remember, about $1,000, $2,000 per team. So was about $300 or $400 per person, but it wasn’t enough to cover the costs. I was going to make money through sponsorship. But because of September 11th, all the sponsorship went away. And I decided to put the event on anyway. You know the show must go on. You’re not going to let these terrorists stop what our plan was, was our feeling. I was in New York. I was right next to the Trade Towers when they collapsed, and we were going to do it. And my God, it was a tough event to put on.
I actually lost a person. I don’t know if I told you this story. Yeah, I lost a person. The event was about seven days long. At the end of the event, one of the people that worked for us helping put on the event, came up to me and said, “Hey, we lost one of our guys that were setting the rope course.” And I said, “What do you mean you lost him?” “Well, we haven’t seen him in seven or eight days.” And I said, “You’re just telling me now? The last seven or eight days were the worst storms we’ve seen down here in a decade. You’re just…” “Well, he had gotten hurt, he cut himself, and we thought he went back to the main island and we thought he was just going to hang out there until the race was over. But now that we’re back and the race is over, we don’t see him.”
And so obviously my jaw dropped. I was nervous as hell. My dad was down there. My dad said, “We’re in the British Virgin Islands and negligence could be criminal. So you got to be really careful here.” So I ended up hiring Richard Branson’s helicopter and got the Coast Guard involved. And we laid out all the maps. And the Coast Guard triangulated his last position from eight days earlier, seven days earlier. And we went up and did a search and rescue and we found them 150 miles away. He had drifted to a deserted Island and he was still alive.
Nathan: That is crazy.
Joe: Crazy. It was written up in a Sports Illustrated. It was the real survivor. He survived on eating crabs and drinking bottles of water that had drifted to that same Island from the race. Needless to say, any normal person would have given up this business at that point. But I just decided to stick with it. Just kept building the business.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow. That’s crazy. So you’re a stock trader beforehand?
Joe: I built a firm on Wall Street and I basically traded. I had about, at our peak, we had about 100 employees, maybe a little over 100 employees. And we handled equity and derivative trading for the banks. So Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America. They were our customers. And when they wanted to do trades, big, big block trades, they would call us.
Nathan: Got you. So your first race was… Were you still running that business?
Joe: I was running that business. And I don’t know if we talked about it, but if you go way back, way back to when I was preteens, before I was a teenager, in Queens, New York, my mother had introduced me to a running race that only about eight people a year show up to. And it was run by her Indian guru. My mother was into yoga, meditation in the 1970s. And this guru believed that the brain was much more powerful than the body. And if we can get our brains to work at full capacity, we could do amazing things. So he organised a 3,100 mile foot race around a one mile loop and people would run around for 60 days. And my mother got into that. My mother introduced that race to me. And so I had this in the back of my head. Fast-forward, I built a business, I built another business, I ended up on Wall Street, I built a trading firm there.
But in the back of my head, I still had the yoga, the meditation, the foot race. And so I started doing races all over the world. I was doing hot yoga, sometimes two or three times a day. I was a crazy person. I was taking the stair well in our office, sometimes 50 or 60 flights, just to feel good on the trading desk. And then I started going, travelling, because I was making money and I owned the business. So I started travelling around the world racing. And I did some crazy events and I just thought, “Gee, I could do this as a business and I could really love it. This could be my job.” So while I was running that business, I started to build this other business, but it wasn’t working. Whenever you don’t have your full [inaudible 00:10:26] startup, it doesn’t really work. So I had one foot in each area and both businesses were suffering because of that. You got to hand it to Elon Musk. Elon Musk has three businesses. I don’t know how the guy does it, he’s amazing.
Nathan: So your focus was suffering. So what did you decide to do? How’d you work that out?
Joe: Well, I decided, I met my wife at one of these races. She was my girlfriend at the time. September 11th had happened. I was really enjoying putting on these events, even though I was losing money. And I just thought, “You know what? I’m probably going to marry this girl. Let me see if I can convince her to buy a farm up in Vermont, about five hours North of New York City, and sell my business. I’ll sell my business.” I sold my business, lucky enough to sell it. Jumped in a suburban, bought to dog, and bought a farm, got a couple of cows and sheep and chickens and started Spartan. That’s really how it happened.
Nathan: You’ve gone through a lot building this company. Even, right now, this year has been a tough year for you, right?
Joe: I mean, look, it’s not as hard… If you or I were in, let’s say, Quantico, or if we were getting beaten and tortured and being tested in a prisoner of war training camps, right? It’s not that hard. It’s not World War II, it’s not a Great Depression, but, yes, it sucks. 2019 was awesome. We bought our competitor, we’re making lots of money, we’re finally… This whole thing was working. We had to furlough a bunch of people. Now, I was hearing stories about some guys in Vietnam today. They would crawl for three days on the side of their body. So as not to create a trail, that the enemy would see to come after them. Like, it’s not that bad. It’s bad, but it’s not that bad.
Nathan: Yeah. I love how you always seem to put things into perspective. Like it could always be worse. And I was saying offline, one thing that you taught me was, was if you’re experiencing any pain or suffering, if you’re not pissing blood, keep going. It’s not that bad. And keep going.
Joe: Yeah. Pissing blood hurts. When you’re pissing blood, it hurts. Up until then though, it’s all easy. It’s all easy. I have a friend, my friend runs the Cornell University Wrestling Programme. He’s got some of the best wrestlers in the world, very difficult sport. And one of his top athletes came off the mat between periods. And he said, “Hey, coach, I hurt my knee.” And the coach said, “Well, get back in there and win, otherwise, you’re going to hurt a lot more.” So it is perspective, right? My son, my boys are wrestling. I told you at night, every night, and last night, my son was getting pounded, beaten, and he started to tear up. And as a father, I wanted to go over there and hug him and help him. And I just thought, “You know what? He’s not getting shot at. He’s fine. He’ll deal with it.”
Nathan: Oh, crazy, man. So let’s talk about mental toughness because some people would look at you, and even the way you think about things, you’ve got a rock solid mindset. It appears to be the case. Would you say that?
Joe: It’s bizarre to me how many people, little kids come up to me and say, “Sir?” “Yes.” “You were in the military, right?” “No, I wasn’t.” So I definitely give off that image, that persona. I think it’s because, look, I grew up in a neighbourhood that was all organised crime. And the way you earned your bones, the way you earned your badges and your metals in that business was you went to jail, you killed people. And I was around my mom who was an extreme yogi. So meditating and fasting for 30 days. People can’t meditate for 10 minutes, 30 days. No food, just water. So you grow up around that, and I guess it just becomes part of your fabric. And then I built my personality around it. I built the personality around it on Wall Street. And as I’m answering the question, I’m thinking. In the neighbourhood I grew up in, if you get caught by the police, if you’re going to jail, it’s imperative, first of all, that you don’t rat. It’s easy to rat because then you get out. You can cut a deal for yourself. You don’t rat.
And then the other one is you make sure you have a very good smile and outward facing appearance. Because if you give the impression that this is going to be tough, somebody’s probably going to kill you because they’re afraid you’re going to rat. So it’s that ability to maintain your composure and stay stoic when everything around you is falling apart. And that was a good lesson. Like I said, on the wrestling mat last night with my son, it was a very, very tough night. And [inaudible 00:16:09] afterwards I said, “What happened?” He said, “I was completely overwhelmed. The coaches were screaming. You were screaming. I was getting my butt kicked.” And I said, “If you want to be great at something, you got to be able to maintain your composure while all that’s going on.” When I think about resilience, when I think about mental toughness, it’s that ability to focus on what really matters even when your world is crumbling around you.
Nathan: Would you say it’s a muscle as well that needs to be constantly flexed and worked out?
Joe: Absolutely. Well, first of all, we’re all born with it. So whoever you are, you’re listening to this, you’re watching this. The good news is you have this muscle. And I’m sorry to say, if you’re listening from the first world, you probably learned helplessness. The [inaudible 00:17:00] was probably dormant. And the reason that is is our parents coddle us, they bubble wrap us, you take hot showers, you’ve got climate control, you’ve got a handkerchief in your pocket when you need it. Anything you need is right at your fingertips. However, when we were babies, coming out of our mother’s womb, I mean, that’s got to be pretty painful, I would imagine. Just coming out. And then you’re laying in a crib and you’re starving and you can’t move. You’re like a resilient creature. And then all those [inaudible 00:17:33] we got, we got bubble wrapping and there’s handkerchiefs and there’s climate control, and you learn …… business. You don’t even have to flex that muscle.
You just stick your hand out. Your mother gives you some foods, some jelly beans, some ice cream. You got everything you need, right at the snap of your finger. By the way, the ancient Greeks or Romans, they understood that certain philosophers that believed that stoicism, they understood that that would happen to you. And the way to fix it was exactly what you said, which is we got to practise. We got to manufacturer some adversity in our life. We got to do some tough shit, and build that muscle. And some of the philosophers would, some of the wealthy, wealthy, Seneca, wealthy philosopher, he would go outside and live like a bum, even though he’s one of the wealthiest people on the planet at the time. Go outside and look like a bum, sleep outside, do some hard stuff every month, just so that he could level set and build that muscle.
Nathan: So in the context of business, having some form of mental toughness is extremely critical because constantly you will, no matter where you’re at on the journey, whether you’re just starting a business, whether you’re growing it with you’re scaling it, whether you’ve got a big team, you do face adversity. And it’s the ability to keep going and overcome that is what drives you forward. And for many, that adversity is what stops them in their tracks. And I’d love to hear what advice that you have for people where they’re at in their journey, because it’s scary to step into the unknown.
Joe: Well, a couple of things. I think having mental toughness in business is as crucial as having a bank account. If you don’t have a bank account, it’s pretty tough to do business. If you don’t have a laptop, pretty tough to do business. If you don’t have mental toughness, if you don’t have resiliency, stick with a job. Don’t start a business. Because my dad used to say, and he’s so right, you got to have the stomach for this. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. And it’s really going to be up to you and your reaction to those things. You’re not going to change the environment. Bullets are going to be flying stuff’s going to be going wrong, your competitor’s going to take over some of your business, you’re going to steal your best clients, your factory’s going to burn down.
You’re going to run out of money, you’re going to bounce checks. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. And if you don’t react to that the right way, you’re out of business. So yes, you have to develop it. Look, I helped you develop it. You were like a soft cuddly guy when I met you. And what did I do for you? I just gave you one sentence. If you’re not pissing blood, you keep going. And you’re using that. You’re using that to get your workouts a little more aggressive, you’re getting healthy. It’s good. So I like to say, what everybody should do is live… try to below the line every day. A line is comfortable, right? It’s everything going correct that day. The coffee is right, right temperature right when you want it, ……is working.
That’s the line on a daily basis. Go below the line every day and feel some pain. Do 300 burpees, take the cold shower, learn a new language, talk to somebody you don’t know, read a book that’s uncomfortable. Go below the line, because when you get back to the line later that day, that week, that month, you appreciate it. If you don’t go below the line, you’re constantly frustrated because you’re trying to go above the line. “I can’t believe what I find doesn’t work on the aeroplane. I can’t believe that guy has a Ferrari and I don’t. I can’t believe this, I can’t believe that.” Your expectations are never met. And so, by the way, the Great samurai used to, all the ancients used to do ti. The Great samurai, every night, would burn all their possessions in their mind, their family, everything. Burn everything, in their mind, not actually. And when they woke up in the morning and they saw their family and their building was still in existence, it hadn’t burned down, they would appreciate everything.
Because last night it was all gone. And I like to say, those that have everything, appreciate nothing. Those that have nothing appreciate everything. So you go below the line, take some stuff away, feel a little pain, do it on a daily basis. Flex that muscle, practise, manufacture some adversity, and it just makes life easier. I mean, listen, when I can’t make payroll or I have to furlough people, I have to do some tough stuff. I just think back like, “All right, I’m not pissing blood. I’m not in World War II. I’m not getting shot at, it’s not the Great Depression, we’re going to survive. I got a healthy family.” We had a kid last night, it looked like he broke his finger. And I said, “This is great.” And he said, “What?” I said, “You have nine more fingers, it’s no big deal.” You don’t even need that one. I have a friend that cut his finger off to finish a football game. No big deal.” He didn’t really understand because he’s only 13 years old, the kid, but you get the point.
Nathan: So if we even think of the concept of mindset, somebody once told me, super successful business guy here in Melbourne, he said, “Look, Nathan, if you want to build your business into $100 million company, do you believe you can do it?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, that’s 80% of the battle. If you can believe it in your mind, you’re closer than you really think for it to be done.” What is your take with that? And how do you think founders can cultivate a really positive mindset, and unbeatable… You think of Elon Musk, he has conviction even when he talks around how he is going to allow people to live on Mars.
Joe: Yeah. My mother used to say it and I didn’t believe it in the 1970s, be very careful in the words you choose because they become reality. And I remember sitting around as a kid saying, “That’s ridiculous. How could words become reality?” But it’s true. If you say it enough, and you believe it, and science now proves it, it actually will happen. They take basketball players, and they put one set of basketball players. They say you’re going to do free throw shots all day. You’re going to practise. The other set of basketball players, you’re just going to close your eyes and visualise taking free throw shots and getting them in, all day. Guess who outperforms when they actually had [inaudible 00:24:37]? The ones that were just visualising taking the shots. So thinking about it, speaking it, making it real, actually works. It actually happens. So how does a person do it?
The way I do it, is failing’s not an option. We’re getting this done. That’s why I’m very careful about what I write. If I do it, we’re doing it. We’re not stopping until it’s done. We might have to make a left turn, a right turn, go over a wall, go under barbed wire, we’re getting this done. And it really is as simple as saying it over and over and over, and then saying it publicly. Because if I get you on the phone and I get my friends on the phone and I post it on Instagram, now I’m on the hook. I’m going to be embarrassed. I’m going to look like a fraud if I don’t finish it. So you say it, you start to believe it, you create a chant, maybe you write it on post-it notes all around your house. You scream it from the rooftops, you tell everybody, you have now made it. So you have no choice but to complete the project.
Nathan: And I’d love to hear, like you said, it has been tough, but you’re not really… You may have been affected by it in your mind, but you keep going. Can you just give, maybe, the audience context around how Spartan has been affected and to what severity?
Joe: Oh, I lost 90% of my revenues. I closed down 45 [inaudible 00:26:17], I furloughed 75% of my staff. That enough? Or you need more? I had 350,000 customers that I had to give deferral codes to to another race because the races got cancelled, 350,000 pissed off customers sending me emails, 700 vendors that I got to deal with. [inaudible 00:26:39], but my family’s healthy, I do four workouts a day, I get to take cold showers, carry around a kettlebell. I can’t complain.
Nathan: And I know that you will get things back on track. Once this all passes, I didn’t even have to wander. I know you will do it.
Joe: No option. My employees said to me recently, I was shocked, and I wasn’t thinking about this. They said, “Joe, you know why we’re sticking with you?” I said, “No. Why?” They said, “Because you’re the kind of person that will not let it fail.” And I appreciated that. That was a nice thing to say.
Nathan: Yeah. No, that’s incredible, man. Look, I’m really sorry to hear about what’s happened, but I have no doubt that you’ll get it back and it will be bigger than it’s ever been.
Joe: It was too easy. It was too easy without COVID. I needed a little pain.
Nathan: Too easy?
Joe: It’s too easy. Forty-five countries, bought out our competitor, everything was going well. I needed a little pain.
Nathan: You guys were doing nine figures, too, annually.
Joe: Yeah. It was hockey sticking. It was 20 years of work finally coming to fruition. I needed to be knocked down a bit. I needed to be taken down a notch. Feel a little pain. It’s good. Did I tell you? Here’s a mindset. You ready for anybody listening? This is all you need. I’m going to tell you this story. You’re not even going to need any more questions. The Spartan brand has a prayer. We have our own prayer. There’re not many brands out there that have a prayer. And we got this prayer because I found this story of a French paratrooper and World War II who had been shot down on a plane. They found him dead on an airfield. And he had a prayer in his pocket. And they pulled the prayer out and they read it and they looked at it and it basically said, “Look, God.” He’s praying to God like all the boys were, all the men were. In fact, the men and women for this war to end.
He said, “God, everybody’s been praying to you. Everybody’s been asking for the good stuff. They want to get back with their friends, their family, their spouses. They want to get back to a good dinner table and a good meal. They want to sleep in a warm bed.” And he wrote, “I got to imagine, God, you don’t have anything left. Everybody’s asking for the good stuff. So what I want you to give me is left overs. The worst stuff you got. The toil, the torment, the hurricanes, and just promise me you’ll keep it coming.” And so that’s our prayer. Our prayer is we want the tough stuff. We want it. We’re not praying for the easy times. We’re going to running tomorrow outside, we don’t want it to be sunny.
I want 40 mile an hour winds and hail storms. I want to make it interesting. When I take a shower, I want the hot water heater broken. I want cold showers. We’re going to work out, and we thought it was 15 minutes, we want an hour and a half. We want the tough stuff. That’s it. You make that your mantra as a human, as a business person, I promise you, life will be a lot easier.
Nathan: Yeah. I love it, man. Well, look, we’ll work towards wrapping up because I’m super conscious of your time. Two last questions. And thank you for being so honest and transparent and just… You’re amazing, man. One, any final words of wisdom or was that it? And two, where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and Spartan?
Joe: Final words of wisdom. What didn’t I cover? Well, one thing we didn’t cover is your body. Your body, your flesh and bones, it’s mostly water. It’s like a swimming pool. And it has a pump and a couple of filters. And swimming pools are typically like 20,000 gallons of water, the human bodies, I don’t know, depending on how big you are, eight and 13 gallons of water. If you don’t run the pump in the swimming pool, and you don’t clean the filter in the swimming pool, and you drop French fries and soda and coffee and ice cream in the swimming pool, 20,000 gallons, a lot bigger than you, the pool turns green. So you’re asking your body to process all this crap food that we eat. You’re shutting down your pumps by sitting and watching Netflix on the couch, and typing away and looking at a screen all day.
And you’re expecting this little swimming pool of yours to operate at an optimal level. If you want to be resilient, you want to be gritty and you want to run a business, you got to be a clean swimming pool. You got to run the pumps, you got to clean the filter, you got to treat yourself like an Olympian. If you don’t do that and you don’t feel well and you’re not resilient, you got nobody to blame but yourself. All right. How do you find me? They tell me I have an Instagram account @realJoeDeSena. You can also email. Anybody could email me. But if you email me, it’s got to be one or two sentences and you might only get a one word reply. It’s a [email protected]
Nathan: And if people want to sign up to a race, spartan.com.
Joe: Yeah, go to spartan.com. Check it out. I’m happy to hook up your audience with a bunch of races. They don’t really want them, though. They want a Netflix account. [inaudible 00:32:02]. This is the heart. This is for tough people. You guys, you don’t want to do it. I know you. I’ve spoken to 10 million of you around the world. You say you want to do it. You want the metal, but you don’t want to do the work.
Nathan: Well, there you go. Awesome. Well, look, thanks so much, Joe. That was awesome, man. Always a pleasure speaking with you. You’re fantastic. You’re a really good speaker.
Joe: Thank you. You’re awesome.