Joe De Sena, Founder, Spartan Race and Death Race
Joe De Sena, like many of us, is a fitness fanatic. But his approach to fitness is a bit more…intense than most.
De Sena used to participate in countless obstacle course races, Ironman events, and marathons around the world. But even those weren’t challenging enough for this hardcore athlete. That’s why, after wrapping up a decade-long career on Wall Street, De Sena decided to start his own adventure racing company.
The first race De Sena hosted was on the British Virgin Islands, and it didn’t go very smoothly. That race cost De Sena half a million dollars and resulted in a participant getting lost at sea for several days.
Thankfully, the races have evolved a bit since then—although are no less challenging—and are known today as the Death Race and Spartan Race, which are collectively a $60 million business that has revolutionized the world of obstacle racing.
Check out this interview to learn more about De Sena’s financial, mental, and physical journey to popularizing this global franchise.
- De Sena’s decade-long stint on Wall Street, and how it helped fund his next venture
- Why De Sena decided to start his own adventure racing company
- How the very first race De Sena hosted on the British Virgin Islands went terribly wrong for one participant
- The birth of Death Race and Spartan Race
- Why De Sena never gave up on his company, despite losing $8 million in the process over a span of 15 years
- How the network effect eventually helped the obstacle course races gain traction
- The expansion of Death Race and Spartan Race to 45 countries
- De Sena’s honest thoughts on work-life balance and what it takes to be an entrepreneur
- A sneak peek into his latest book, The Spartan Way
Full Transcript of Podcast with Joe De Sena
Nathan: The first question that I ask everyone that comes on is, how’d you get your job?
Joe: How did I get my job? The job of running a running sport?
Joe: Was by accident. I wanted to start a adventure racing business. I wanted to find 50,000 lunatics around the world that would do crazy things like swim the English channel, climb Everest, row across the Atlantic. I thought maybe there were 50,000 of them out there and that led me on a journey where I spent an enormous amount of money trying to make this business work. When I reflect back as to why it was so hard, it’s because I’m asking people to do uncomfortable things and that’s not natural, right. It’s natural to sell people sugar it’s natural to sell people things that on the surface make them feel good, but it’s not natural to get them to wake up early, go to bed early, do pushups, pull ups, run and so I struggled for a long time at this job and then eventually we got it to work and here I am as CEO but it was really by accident.
Nathan: Yeah. Interesting. You conceived the idea. Yeah. You got … The original race was held on your farm in 2007.
Joe: Original race was held on the farm. God, probably 2002, 2003. This is 20 … As of 2020, it’s 20 years old in the making. The race in ’07 was a Death Race but there were many iterations before that. The first race I ever put on was the Expedition BVI it was called. Expedition British Virgin islands and we literally lost a human being for eight plus days. Thought he was dead, found him with the coast guard’s help 150 miles away. He had drifted and bought them dinner and all was good.
Nathan: Wow. That’s crazy and the first one, did you charge people?
Joe: We charged people but we lost a lot of money. Couldn’t get it to work. I was the one down in the British Virgin islands. We only had a hundred people show up. Lost a half a million dollars on that one.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow and when you started … When you came up with the idea, what sparked it? Where did it all start?
Joe: Basically, I was doing these races all around the world myself and I don’t know … I just thought I could do it better. I think most businesses start simply because you don’t like a product or service. You talked to Richard Branson, right. And he tells you he started an airline because he was unhappy with the service he was getting with the airline he was trying to fly on.
Nathan: Where’d you get the money to do the first one?
Joe: I had a job. I owned a business on Wall Street and so we were making a lot of money and I was able to burn a bunch of money doing it and in retrospect it was irresponsible but I just loved it. I loved that I was passionate about it.
Nathan: And those first hundred people, how did you find them? How’d you get those first hundred customers?
Joe: Those first hundred people I found by lying to them and telling them that we were going to have some fun down in the British Virgin Islands. I roped a lot of people in that didn’t know they were going to actually race. I was lying to people in the early days. I would tell them they were going to a barbecue or they’re going to have some fun down in the Islands but the reality was they were the ones being barbecued.
Nathan: That’s crazy. You charged a hundred people to come to the British Virgin islands and you didn’t sound like a good time and then how’d you force them to go through this crazy winter adventure race?
Joe: Well, I’m pretty motivating person. I’m able. If I have one gift, it’s the ability to convince people to do things they don’t want to do. Once you’re there, then you’d throw them in a kayak and I start paddling and then they’re in and then the competitive spirit takes over but I lost … Yeah, it was crazy because a lot of people didn’t know what they were getting into.
Nathan: Yeah. And that’s when … That was the first Spartan but then you did the Death Race. Why did you do the Death Race as well?
Joe: Well, the Death Race I put on because I was frustrated with Ironman. Ironman had this really badass name. These people were supposed to be tough and I was doing a bunch of them but I was annoyed. People would quit when it was raining or something happened to their bike or their wetsuit and it just seemed like it became very clinical. Here you were supposed to be a tough guy or girl and you were chasing to remove four grammes from your bike seat and that to me wasn’t the ethos it set out to create. Yeah, I wanted to make something that was much, much, much tougher and gruelling and dirty and saving four ounces on your shoes wouldn’t change the game. I don’t know if I answered the question well. I forgot what the question was but it sent me down the road on Ironman. Sorry about that.
Nathan: Yeah, yeah. I guess what … Why’d you start the Death Race? Because you were in Spartan, yeah.
Joe: The Death Race was exactly that. It would punch you in the face. What would happen if you were doing an Ironman and you got out of the swim and your bike seat was missing? That was the Death Race. Everything that could go wrong, would go wrong. It emulated life and it worked. Worked and worked in a big way and the New York Times picked it up and we had a spot in the New York Times and all of a sudden it became this big thing. Everybody around the world wanted to come see if they can handle the Death Race.
Nathan: Yeah. You’ve gone to build up a reputation of creating these incredible challenges that people will really push their limits, physically, mentally, emotionally and this has turned into a really big business. People listening right now, can you give people context? How many people will contribute and how large a scale … How many events across the world. How many participants? Like this year we’ll have gone through all of your events.
Joe: Yeah. 45 countries, 275 events. 1.3 million participants a year. As you say, it’s become a pretty overwhelming operation.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow and you kept going at it, why? You said you wasted a lot of money. For a long time it didn’t work. When did things really kick off? How long did that take?
Joe: Well, I lost money for 15 out of the 20 years. It was a loser and anybody in their right mind would not have continued. I don’t like to quit. I’m a crazy person and I got so buried financially, I had invested so much that I had no choice but to make it work, which I think is a difference between success and failure in many cases. I think … Thomas Edison’s reputation’s on the line. Elon Musk’s reputations on the line. Invested all your money, sold your kids, did everything you had to do to try to make this thing work and you have no choice.
Nathan: At what point did you leave the brokerage firm? You said you made a lot of money on Wall Street and go all in on this.
Joe: Well, so 2001 I start. I sold my firm, my Wall Street firm in 2000, the end of 2004 but I kept a toe in with the new buyer of the company and I continued to make money, thank God because I was basically burning all that money I was making after selling the firm and then in 2010 after 10 years I just pulled the ripcord and completely got out of that business. And the last 10 years has been a hundred percent Spartan, which there are days where I wish I was still making that kind of money.
Joe: Yeah, it was … It’s a lot easier to make money in finance than it is in barbed wire and barbed wire and blood and black and blues.
Nathan: Yeah but events business can be very profitable once you get it dialled in, right.
Joe: Not …finance. On average, we’d only charge a hundred, $125 if you calculated USD and so it’s a big … certainly a big business but for the service we provide, building a bunch of obstacles on the side of a mountain in a rainstorm, it’s pretty inexpensive for the consumer.
Nathan: Interesting. Would you be able to share … You said you burnt a lot of money. You don’t have to give exact numbers but maybe ballpark just for people can understand the scale or … If you feel comfortable.
Joe: Oh yeah.
Nathan: If you don’t, that’s fine.
Joe: I probably blew through $8 million.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow but things are going well now with the business right now, right.
Joe: Oh yeah. No, the business is solid. Sustains itself. Growing. That’s good and I don’t mean to sound negative in any way but I want the listeners to understand the reality of starting a business.
Nathan: Yeah, no.
Joe: Forget about all in. You got to be doubly in.
Nathan: Yeah, no. I love the rawness and the realness because it is so ridiculously hard. I’m curious, you said it took 15 years before things really start to kick in. You see online these Instagram millionaires and all this overnight success rubbish and stuff like that. I’m curious, what was the turning point? What do you think was the click? Was it a switch in the business model? Was it you guys hit market saturation to a point where there was a referral mechanism? What was it?
Joe: The thing that finally got it to work? I think it was just the network effect. I think we finally had reached some level of awareness because we were in so many countries. I was relentless and continuing to announce races, knocking on doors, seeing people that are going over a barbecue. I just left no stone unturned and eventually it created a network effect that worked.
Nathan: Yeah and I’m curious around … You recently launched a book, The Spartan Way. You’ve wrote a couple of books actually, The Spartan Way, Spartan Feared, Spartan Up. Your most recent book, what compelled you to write it?
Joe: I met a Spartan professor, the preeminent professor at Cambridge and we started talking about ancient principles and I’m a student of history and I have sought out monks and samurai and kung fu masters throughout my life and even organised crime bosses were my friends and basically, tough people with their own set of warrior principles. And I built a bunch of businesses and I started to realise that it comes down to about 10 principles if you want to be successful, no matter how you define success. They’re not my principles by any means. They’re just organised but if you can master these 10 principles, you’re going to master life.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow. Are you able to share some of them?
Joe: Yeah. The first principle, the most important and the most difficult, is knowing your true north or your purpose. If you’re a warrior, a religious leader, whatever it is, right. A business person, a mom or dad, you got to really know that that is your thing. And if you love it and it’s your passion, it’s the reason you’re on earth, it’s going to make life so much easier because if you’re doing something that you’re just not supposed to be doing, it does not fit your ethos, you’re miserable every day. It’s like rolling a boulder uphill.
Now, the reality is, most people have to put food on the table. You’ve got to do what you got to do and I’m not suggesting you sit around and wait for a shining star to hit you in the head and tell you, “Oh … ”
Magically, there’s … No, you got to what you have to do but you got to be open minded and looking for and sensing what that thing is or what those things are and it can change throughout your life but super, super important that you find that and you match why you’re here to what you’re doing and I found it. I found it in Spartan.
Nathan: Yeah. Amazing. I’m curious, when it comes to … I guess, you’re in the business of helping people overcome obstacles and and really train their mental toughness and strength and endurance. When it comes to obstacles and peak performance, can you have at all?
Joe: I don’t think anybody gets everything. And I think that’s a fallacy, right. I don’t think you can get everything. What I mean by that is you certainly can be healthy and if you’re running a business, or you’re running a family, you should be treating it like you’re on an Olympic team and taking care of yourself the way an Olympian would but something’s going to give, right. Something is not going to get the attention it should get. Just be aware that if you want something, you’re giving up something. There’s a lot of weddings and funerals I didn’t go to because I was busy building businesses and I’m not saying I’m proud of that or I did the right thing but the reality is, if you want to succeed at something and you’re going to put that kind of focus in it, some stuff is not going to get the attention it needs.
Nathan: Yeah. You have to make sacrifices.
Joe: Got to make sacrifices.
Nathan: And when it comes to fitness, how family, relationships, business … Do you think you can excel and have peak performance in all those areas of life, that is possible?
Joe: Well let’s go through it, right. Family, health and business. Let’s say those are three sides of the triangle. I think if you really lean in on health and wellness, you’re not going to be able to put as much time in the other two areas. If you really lean into business, you’re not going to put … It’s really your choice and it’s ridiculous, right. If any of us don’t put 100% of our time into our health and wellness, like on an aeroplane when they say you take oxygen first before you help anybody else. Health and wellness really has to come first but the reality is, even with me, I probably don’t give it as much attention as I should because family’s taking some and business is taking some. This work life balance I think is almost impossible to achieve.
Now, if you’re a nine to fiver and you’re happy in your job and you just mosey on through it and you’re a part time dad or mom, then you can spend a lot of time on how … It’s really a balance between the three but none of them are probably getting all the attention and achieving all the success they could if you’re 100% focused on that one and I think most of us are probably more out of balance than we should be.
Nathan: Interesting. I find that super interesting coming from … You’re definitely optimising your time man, doing crunches while we’re doing the interview. You’re definitely trying, right. It’s interesting to hear your perspective.
Joe: I’m trying. I’m trying. I didn’t get as many crunches, not as I’d like.
Nathan: Well look, we have to work towards wrapping up because I’m mindful of your time but one thing that I’ve learned and I’m convinced of is, the amount of success that somebody has in life or business … From my perspective, one key component is the ability to handle stress or the ability to be able to handle the amount of things that you have to have on your plate to take things to the next level. What would you say to people experiencing … Yeah, any obstacles in life and want to increase their mental toughness to be able to handle stress and the ability to handle the sheer volume of things that a lot of successful people go through.
Joe: Yeah. No, it’s funny you’re asking because my dad used to say, you’ve got to have the stomach for it to be an entrepreneur and I didn’t really understand what it means … What he meant and there’s no doubt about it. You’ve got to be able to deal with the stress. And I think that is a differentiating factor.
I’m really lucky I have ADD. If I got bad news, which an entrepreneur gets all day, every day, my mind after five or 10 seconds forgets the bad news and I’m onto something else. I have a gift in that respect. I think if you dwell on those things, you’re finished and it makes it exponentially harder. Yeah, I just happen to have a gift that’s more able to deal with the payroll and the rent and the bullshit, right because it’s not if it’ll go wrong, it’s when. Everything goes wrong all day long, every day in business and you got to have a steel trap for a stomach.
Nathan: Yeah. I agree. Well look, last question just around what’s next and what’s exciting for you right now and where can people go to find out more about yourself and your work?
Joe: What’s next? One of my dreams is to make a full featured movie about Sparta. I’m working on that and anybody can email me [email protected] If there’s folks out there listening to you that don’t have the money or whatever, feel free to ask for … They should actually talk to you. Maybe we should get you a hundred entries and you could start a team. The Nathan team. They go do a race together with your audience.
Nathan: Wow man, you scare me dude.
Joe: You got to do it now. You want a team out there and then don’t forget, the mission’s to change 100 million lives and then we got the book. We got the podcast. Check out Spartanup podcast. You’d get a kick out of it. And then every day, even this morning, believe it or not, I try to do videos and put them out on Instagram and just give people a kick in the ass and that’s realjoedesena if you wanted to follow me on Instagram and tell me if that gets you going but basically I haven’t changed in 20 years. I just love getting people motivated and going. Even if I’ve got to lie to them.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Joe De Sena
- Visit the Spartan Race website
- Check out the Spartan Up! podcast
- Get a copy of The Spartan Way
- Follow De Sena on Instagram for daily inspiration