Joe De Sena is the Founder and CEO of Spartan, the world’s largest obstacle race and endurance brand with over 200 events annually. Spartan is on a global mission to push you towards your personal best, with over 1.5 million people participating in races every year and more than 325 events held in over 45 countries.
Joe is a New York Times bestselling author of the books Spartan Up!, Spartan Fit!, and The Spartan Way. He is also the host of the Spartan Up Podcast.
Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:
- Joe De Sena’s background and the lessons he learned from his pool cleaning business as a teenager
- How Joe ended up working in Wall Street and what he learned from the experience
- Why Joe started Spartan and the role IP has played in the growth of the brand
- The similarity between business and endurance sports
- How the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Spartan and the new events Joe has created for the brand
- How to get in touch with Joe De Sena
In this episode…
In a bid to help people get off their couches and become more active, Joe De Sena decided to start Spartan, an obstacle race and endurance brand. Having already built and sold many businesses as a successful entrepreneur, Joe knew the strategies he needed to use to grow Spartan to its fullest potential—and yours, too.
Joe went on to make a household brand through Spartan with many locations throughout the world. One of the key ways he was able to do this? Intellectual property (IP) protection. Joe knew the value of IP protection in growing a brand and as a result, invested a lot of money in a bid to protect his business.
In this episode of the Innovations and Breakthroughs Podcast, Rich Goldstein is joined by Joe De Sena, the Founder and CEO of Spartan, to talk about the value of investing in intellectual property (IP) protection. Joe also talks about the lessons he learned from his pool cleaning business, working in Wall Street, and managing a business during a pandemic.
Resources Mentioned in this episode
- Goldstein Patent Law
- Rich Goldstein’s book: The ABA Consumer Guide to Obtaining a Patent
- Joe De Sena on LinkedIn
- Joe De Sena on Instagram
- Joe De Sena’s email: [email protected]
- The Spartan Way: Eat Better. Train Better. Think Better. Be Better by Joe De Sena
- Spartan Up!: A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life by Joe De Sena
- Spartan Fit!: 30 Days. Transform Your Mind. Transform Your Body. Commit to Grit by Joe De Sena and John Durant
- Spartan Up Podcast
Sponsor for this episode…
This episode is brought to you by Goldstein Patent Law, a firm that helps protect inventors’ ideas and products. They have advised and obtained patents for thousands of companies over the past 25 years. So if you’re a company that has a software, product, or design you want protected, you can go to https://goldsteinpatentlaw.com/. They have amazing free resources for learning more about the patent process.
You can email their team at [email protected] to explore if it’s a match to work together. Rich Goldstein has also written a book for the American Bar Association that explains in plain English how patents work, which is called ‘The ABA Consumer Guide to Obtaining a Patent.’
Welcome to innovations and breakthroughs with your host Rich Goldstein, talking about the evolutionary, the revolutionary, the inspiration and the perspiration and those aha moments that change everything. And now here’s your host, Rich Goldstein.,
Rich Goldstein here host of the innovations and breakthroughs podcast, where I feature top leaders and the path they took to create change past guests include Joe Polish, Roland Frasier, and Mitch thrower. This episode is brought to you by my company, Goldstein patent law, where we help you to protect your ideas and products. We’ve advised and obtained patents for thousands of companies over the past 26 years. So if you’re a company that has software product or design, you want protected go to Goldstein patent law.com, where there are amazing free resources for learning about the patent process. And you can email my [email protected] to explore if it’s a match to work together. You could also check out the book I wrote for the American bar association that explains in plain English, how patents work it’s called the ABA consumer guide to obtaining a patent. I have with me here today, Joe DeSena, Joe is the founder of Spartan race, which is the preeminent endurance and obstacle race around the world.
Over 1.5 million people participate in Spartan races annually, and more than 325 events held in more than 45 countries. He is a New York times bestselling author of the book, smarten up the Spartan fit and Spartan way. He’s also host of the Spartan up podcast. I’m very pleased to welcome here today, Joe. DeSena welcome, Joe. Thanks for having me when I heard you say that, it sounds like there’s a lot of Spartans in everything we do here at smart, not Spartan way Spartan fit. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. There’s a lot of Spartan in there for sure. And uh, you know, I’ve had some great conversations with you and, and you’ve got so many great stories to tell. Um, so I guess we can just maybe touch on the piece of your origin story and, and I, I hear it in the Spartan up. It sounds just so like New York city, like, Hey, Hey Joe, Spartan up.
Okay. Like Spartan up, like smart enough. Forget about it, forget about it. So, um, you know, I know like, you know, we talked about your pool cleaning business that you started in Queens as a teenager. So maybe just tell us a little bit about that. Just to give a sense of kind of where you, uh, um, how you got started on your business journey. My parents, my mom found my, I grew up in an Italian neighborhood. If you saw a good fellows, I grew up dead center of Goodfellas. The Barrios lived right across the street. It was, you wanted to succeed. You had to play that game. We were right next to Kennedy airport. Everything that was portrayed in Goodfellas was, was accurate. And I’m a young kid, all my friends and I don’t really know much about what goes on what we see the guys with a nice car as the rules, a hundred dollar bills, as soon as the respect. And so you instinctually, you want to, you want to be that you’re chasing a V that, you know, are you tough enough is a question you ask yourself anyway, my mom doesn’t want to be that finds yoga,
Meditation, health food in the seventies, which was pretty rare, um, happened to randomly walk into a health food store. Probably the only one on the East coast at that time, incense was burning, you know, very hippie-ish and she meets a Yogi and the yoga just flew in from India. And he sits her down and talks to her about being vegan and teaching meditation and yoga and the whole thing. And my mom buys into it different way of life. So my needless to say, my parents get divorced. My mom is preaching this nonstop. I don’t want any part of it. I want to be, I want a nice car and a roll, a hundred dollar bills, and I want to be, you know, respected. And so I want to be around my dad. Um, my neighbor, my father’s neighbor, after my mother moved, they got divorced.
She moved to Ethica New York. My father’s neighbor was ahead of the banana organized crime family. Anyway, you could kind of see what the amount of cars pulling up every day. And, um, the fact that, you know, uh, people were deferring to him as they, as they arrived at his house all day, every day, that there was something, there were really know why I’m 10, 11 years old. And, um, he says to me, Hey, you know, he sees what’s going on with family. Why don’t you come over and clean the pool? They had $35 a week. So obviously trusted me, trusted my family. Um, and the game back then probably was define hard work and get right that are up and comers because you get your hooks into them. And who knows where that leads later. Anyway, um, I start cleaning the pool and he teaches me.
He teaches me three lessons. When I come over his house for the first time, this is my pre my pre-teens. He says, um, you’re going to show up at eight o’clock you show up 15 minutes early on time is late. He says, lesson number two, if you’re going to take care of the pool, you also clean the shed. You clean the lawn furniture, do clean the windows, even though I’m not paying you for that. And number three, never asked for money, money will come. And so, um, those lessons that stay with me my whole life and they’ve helped me, um, it helped me through a business for 40 plus years. So anyway, I, uh, I started cleaning the pool. He introduced me to another customer. And before, you know what, I’ve got 700 customers. I’ve got every boss from every family that people below them, your name and, um, and the business is humming and I’m growing up.
My mom has Paul trying to pull me into yoga and meditation. I’m trying to hang out with these guys. Now, we’re not just cleaning pools. We’re doing brick work, or I bought some heavy equipment. I’ve got backhoes and Bobcats and trucks and cranes. And, um, I ended up going to college, which was another strange, uh, random story. I don’t know how it took me. Four tries to get into college. I ended up getting into Cornell university is able to pay for my own school because I had this business first kid from my family to go to school. So I didn’t really have a path to follow. I was trying to figure the whole thing out. And ultimately it was my mom who got me and my mom taught yoga to one of the professors and, um, got me a meeting. And I had, I had proven I could do the work, even though my sat scores.
Weren’t good. And, um, but I was on the fence. I want her to go run my business, but gee, how could I get into an Ivy league school? So I ended up getting in, but when I was graduating, I wanted to go back and run the business. I didn’t want to go sell towels for some towel company somewhere, or sit behind a, I just, I liked working, especially around these guys and, um, that maybe I could apply some of what I learned in college for this business that I had. So I, I I’m, I’m about to graduate and a friend of mine, who’s still a friend today he’s 82 years old. He said, uh, and met him at Cornell. Very successful guy, managed a billion dollars back then. And he said, what are you doing when you graduated? So I’m gonna go run my bed.
And I said, you’re an idiot. You got to go to wall street. And I didn’t really know much about wall street. I knew the 87 crash had happened a few years earlier. I didn’t think anybody would make money there. Anyway. I thought that was over, whatever, whatever was going on there, it was all over after the crash in my mind. And, um, he guided me to get a job on wall street, sell my business in Queens. So there’s a term if you live in New York or you’re from the area I crossed over the river into the city, which is, uh, the bridge and tunnel crew, right. Actually I left the, I left. I crossed the moat and I, I entered the castle of Manhattan. Right. And, and, um, I was with the big boys and girls now ended up getting a job at wall on wall street, ended up learning the business pretty quickly and, uh, decided to start my own firm.
So, um, I guess, I guess I’m the kind of guy like, I don’t investigate all the little details. Cause if you do, you would, you would have never left Queens. You would have never went to wall street and you certainly wouldn’t have started your own firm. But I did it because I I’m a believer in fire ready, aim, right. Take the plunge and then I’ll figure it out. But now that I’m on the hook, I have no choice, but to figure it out. So I figured it out, build a business and, um, ultimately sold it and I bought a farm. I met my wife and I bought a farm in Vermont during wall street. During those bolts for years, they were pretty tense was it was tough work. You know, you can make and lose a hundred grand in a few minutes. If you screw up a trade network, it wasn’t only that it was the people I had working for us.
The people I was around, they were all upset. If they got a bonus that was $20,000, less than the person next to them. And we were all making more money than we deserve. And, uh, it wasn’t like we were, you know, doing brain surgery. And so I didn’t really like being around that to escape that reality. I would go do these crazy races, Ironman ultra runs, um, eco challenges, the crazier, the race, the more I was into it, because it would take me to a place where I just wanted water, food and shelter. I was so broken out there. So tired, so thirsty that you forget about any headaches you have. And it felt so in love with what I was doing that I said, I wonder if I could turn this into a business. And so, um, the early, the early Spartan, the predecessor, this barn was formed in 2000, 2001, right before September 11th.
Like you mentioned before that you, you had lessons that you learned while you were cleaning pools that you’ve carried with you throughout your life. What about from wall street? Like what did you learn on wall street that you think you brought into the, um, the later business ventures that you’ve been involved in and w and, um, the way that you created and built?
Well, the biggest thing I learned is, um, because it’s a product or service that is sold in a grocery store sold to some way, doesn’t mean it’s okay to eat or drink, or, or you, what I mean by that is, um, our system. I’m not a conspiracy guy. I’m not saying like America is great. Capitalism is great. Democracy is great when you’re a public company and your compensation scheme is based on the stock price. There’s most CEO’s and most management teams, their compensation is based on that. And you’ve got to make quarterly numbers. You might make, um, unnatural decisions. You might buy an, a great Bureau. Food company might buy some ingredients that are less expensive, but not as healthy. You know, if you’re, if you’re a Stanley tool, uh, you might sell all the land you own, where you chop down trees and turn those trees into hammers and things like that, because you’re going to have a better quarter, and you’re going to make more money.
As a management team, go down a list of decisions that are made by management team, because every quarter they want to satisfy wall street and make sure their stock goes up. So a lot of short term thinking, not necessarily long-term thinking many people listening or watching might not remember, but no, in the seventies, maybe even the early eighties, there used to be television. As it said, you know, seven out of 10 doctors recommend smoking Marlboro or cigarettes over other brands, right? There were ads in the fifties and sixties that, you know, would, would tell women that it was barbaric to breastfeed and women instead should be drinking powdered, or the children should be drinking powdered milk. And like, so that’s all based on, you know, doing better as a company. And I guess my thing is like, again, it’s the best system we got. I lived in China for a little while. I live in Singapore, I’ve lived in Tokyo, the best system we got, but boy, if we could somehow teach folks to be a little more long-term thing, like, again, I don’t want to, I might sound like a crazy person. I apologize.
It’d be more conscious basically. It’s like that, what’s, what’s good for profits. Isn’t necessarily going to be good for the customer, but there is a way in which a company can be conscious and like, and do do right and not to wrong by people. And still,
I like that. I like that word. The last one I’m going to, I’m just curious about that. We gotta fix is, um, the phone addiction, the kids are just addicted to phones and I have the fix for it, but, you know, I gotta get, you gotta get Samsung, Apple and Google will play along Bravo. And the kids are more addicted to this summer. I had a bunch of kids on the farm during COVID and I put them through hell. And it was like Navy seals, boot camp, budge training. It was, it was tough on the kids and they didn’t have their phones during the day. And one night, about 10 days in, I imagine 10 days of 15, 16 hour days for these kids. Okay. 10 days in, I decided to give them some ice cream, the end of the day. I don’t know. It’s not against my, um, religion, but I, what I folded and I said, I’m going to take care of the kids. We’d give them some ice cream. At the same time we put their phones out on the table. What do you think the kids went for? The phones or the ice cream? I don’t know, phones more addictive than sure. You know, we got a problem screen melted
And, and, you know, um, so the phones is this present, but, um, you could say the older generation was their couch. And so you had this vision to get a hundred million people off of their couch, and then you created Spartan races. So in order to fill this vision, what made you decide to build Spartan and Spartan racing rather than something else?
Well, I, I mean, I became three over 42 years. I’ve become pretty good at figuring out how to make money. I’ve built and sold some businesses point. You know, you, you chase a purpose in life. I like your word conscious, right? I gotta be able to sleep at night. I gotta feel good about what I do and, um, feel really good about ripping people off the couch and getting them doing really hard and transforming in the process. Now, if this was 200 years ago and the streets were filled with horses and life was really hard, I’d say, Hey, let’s start selling some couches. Let’s make it a little easier on folks, but that’s not the case. Life is way too easy for most of us in the first world. And I’m just, I’m just trying to give back a little bit, I’m trying to help people, you know, lose a little weight, give up some alcohol, give up the junk food, get together with our husband or wife.
And, and though, like in terms of getting people to be fit and getting people into action, why Spartan races like, well, why, why was it that that was the pathway to get people off of their couch, at least initially?
Well, I mean, I just, I did it because I liked it. I liked the word. I liked the idea of the military inspired obstacle, races, obstacles, emulate life’s obstacles, but I couldn’t get it to work. But after doing it for year after year after year and continuing to market and rip people off, it goes physically go convince people to come to the races, start at the work and I’m, Oh my God, we get to own that word, Spartan and that logo. It’s amazing. You see it, you get inspired.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, and so we could just, we can go to that then in terms of the IP. So like what role has IP played in the growth of, of, um, Spartan race and establishing that brand?
I don’t think it would have worked with a different name. You know, I, I need tough moderate, pulled it off, um, and were much more sophisticated. They were a very enviable competitor. You know, it was a tough competitor for us. Um, the kids came out of Harvard. The name is not Spartan. And so now when I travel around the world, I was, um, I was in Virginia yesterday. We, I mean, everywhere we go, like spar, everybody knows Spartan. And I think that name really helped me. And again, I’m in 45 countries, we’re in China, you know, sport. And they started in, like, everybody knows it. So it is, it is, it has played probably the most important role in creating what we created,
Having that brand and establishing IP protection for it. So that, um, so that it’s, um, it created that moat around your brand. Keep other people from coming close has made a big
Problem. Is it costs a fortune as, you know, cost an absolute fortune to try and keep that brand protected. And, uh, you know, 45 countries, 50 countries, um, it’s expensive. You guys have a lot trademarks to proposition.
Um, so then now, um, just by way of comparison, so you did a lot of endurance racing, endurance sports. Um, I often think about, um, businesses being kind of a Durance sport. Um, what, what do you think about that comparison in terms of like, how is business, uh, how in your view is business kind of like your endurance sports
Experience, everything that can go wrong does go wrong business. Certainly you got these great employees and then they leave. You’ve got competitors that pop up across the street. The factory burns down in Indonesia because somebody leaves a light on and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. So you got, my father used to say, you got to have the stomach for it. And, um, you know, I don’t most prefer, I have a choice. I, I prefer an endurance. I don’t, I prefer a a hundred mile run over, running a business. A hundred mile runs easier. I tell my wife all the time. I’m sure the women are gonna shriek. When I say this, like rather give birth and run a business. Like, um, at least you’re designed to give birth or running a business is just getting punched in the face all day, every day and not to be, I’m not playing the world’s smallest violin on it. You gotta have the stomach for it. You got to, you got to want to fight every day. You gotta be tough. Tough. Absolutely. And speaking of being tough.
So, so the pandemic came around and you were in the, the race business. It was like, kind of like in the events business essentially. Um, so how did that shift your business and what, um, you know, what did you try out, um, during the pandemic that worked and what,
Um, it was a disaster. It shut us down in 45 countries, 325 events were shut down. It was a lights out, you know, quickly furlough, hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of people, um, which was awful or anybody who’s done it. They know they know what I’m talking about. It’s cut expenses, not be able to pay bills. It was an absolute nightmare. Like I was getting punched in the face, running the business day-to-day before COVID, but as soon as COVID hit, I got hit by a Mack truck. And, uh, and so we said, look, we’ve got to stay in touch with our customers. We’ve got to get in touch with our customers. We’ve got to do a bunch of content during this time. And we did that seems to have worked.
So in terms of like the content, I mean the original vision is get a hundred million people off their couch. And I know, I think when I had originally met you about two years ago, you were talking about this kind of creating more of the online experience for people and supporting them in their fitness journeys. So it sounds like, um, you’ve through the pandemic, you’ve been able to focus towards something that you’d wanted to do for a while, really do more online focused and online support for people. Is that,
Yeah. Yeah. There’s no doubt about it. We want it to be more digitally savvy. We never had the time for it. We’re putting on events, we’re too busy, we’re putting out fires. And, uh, this gave us a little breather to dig out of a technology deficit,
Like the Spartan plus membership. That’s kind of like the people that are connected with you online, getting those reasons.
Exactly. Try not to kind of motivate them, get them fit and giving them some extra little, uh, whatever it takes to get somebody motivated.
Absolutely. And I think you’ve acquired a couple of other events like that are, you’re kind of gearing up for, as things begin, begin to open up, you’ve created, um, there’s some, some new events that you’ve created, um, like in other countries, I think there’s one in Costa Rica and then there’s a combat, um, combat related program. Do you wanna tell me a bit about that?
Yeah. I mean, basically we want to be the Louis Vuitton. Anybody knows LVMH. We want to be the Louis Vuitton of hard stuff, hard challenges. So you’re looking for something impossible to do. Come to us. We’ve got out, we bought a, a race called love routes down to Costa Rica. We’d bought, um, uh, a couple other events, Patagonia run down in Patagonia. We bought ’em a bunch. We bought tough Mudder right before the pandemic hit our, our main competitor. And, um, and now we’re launching combat, which is I’m wrestling jujitsu as a whole, because, because Sparta, Greece was the original, you know, place where combat was first created as an Olympic sport.
Absolutely. So then like, w like in terms of like the things that you shifted at work, I mean, what, what part of it, um, like what part of, of what you shifted towards is going to stick with you through, and I guess part of that, it seems pretty obvious that the content you’ve created the, the, um, online membership, um, systems that you’ve created are going to choose to stay part of your ecosystem as things open up. But what else, like, what else did you did? And you learned during the pandemic, you think is going to, to stay with your business.
Oh, we’re going to be a lot more technology focused, right? We’ve already started to lean and resource that we build a great team. Um, we’re going to continue to acquire, uh, all these really cool brands from around the world. We’re going to continue to produce an enormous amount of content and engage with our consumers. And hopefully we’re not going to continue to furlough. Hopefully that part it’s going to reverse. And it’s already looking like it’s reversing. I mean, the numbers on COVID are down every single day, which is awesome. Um, all the counties and cities around the U S are calling us and saying, Hey, when, when are we going to get you back? Even in places like California, which is again great, because you’re seeing one thing on the news, but behind the scenes, we’re seeing lots of folks all over the country begging us to come back. That’s good. Yeah.
Um, and, uh, so if people want to learn more about you or get in touch with you, how do they go about doing so,
And just go to, um, at real Joe dissent on Instagram could always shoot me an email, [email protected], um, make it short two or three sentences only. I get a lot of emails every day and, um, check out our books. Like you said earlier, check out our podcast that you should really, you should come, you should come to Sparta, Greece, where we have our world championship in November. Love to see in Sparta, Greece. I mean, who gets to go to Sparta and run through the historic site and experience what it felt like, guess it’s, um, come
Back Victoria to come back on your shield, right. With it or on it. Right. Awesome, Joe. Um, so great to, um, so great to have this conversation with you. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. Thanks so much.
Thanks for listening to innovations and breakthroughs with your host, rich Goldstein. Be sure to click, subscribe, check us out on the [email protected] and we’ll see you next time.