Chief spartan in the house
The CEO of the widely popular Spartan Race says that resilience and authenticity are key to attaining success in business and life
For the past year, Joe De Sena, the CEO of Spartan Race, has been carrying a 20-kilogram kettlebell everywhere he goes.
Be it to the airport, to a cafe for a meal or even for a jog, the kettlebell is always with him, and it was no different during his recent business trip to Shanghai to prepare for the upcoming Spartan Race in May.
De Sena said that the act of carrying the kettlebell is a show of support to a 696-pound man who he had encouraged to lose weight. He had initially carried a sandbag around for nearly two years, but the object ended up being confiscated at an airport. He then switched to a kettlebell.
The 48-year-old added that another reason why he carries a kettlebell everywhere is to promote healthy living.
“We are all getting unhealthy. Although I am not a doctor, I can tell you for sure that many of us now live unhealthy lifestyles — the way we eat, the way we drink, the way we live. I want to change that,” said De Sena.
After spending 17 years to develop Spartan Race into the world’s largest obstacle race and endurance brand, De Sena said his ambition now is to make China the company’s largest market by 2020.
The event was first introduced in China last year, with 18,000 participants signing up for the four races held in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei. De Sena said that the race will expand its footprint this year, with more than 200 set to take place across the world, including eight to 10 events in China.
De Sena’s goal of further developing Spartan Race in China comes at a time when an increasing number of Chinese are starting to pay more attention to the importance of fitness. According to China Central Television, China’s State Council projected that sportsrelated consumption would reach 1.5 trillion yuan ($216.86 billion) by 2020.
Statistics from the Shanghai Distance Running Association also showed that more than 900,000 people had taken part in a variety of distance running events across the country in 2014. In addition, more than 200,000 people in Shanghai run regularly.
De Sena said that he is confident that the race will appeal to everyone, regardless of where they come from.
“People have said stuff like ‘this will not work in Spain’ or ‘this will not work in Mexico’ or ‘this will not work in Japan’. In reality, the race works everywhere,” said De Sena.
“The reason it works is because we are all human beings, and human beings are animals, but somehow we forgot that we are animals. Animals are supposed to climb, crawl, jump, swim, breathe. Animals are not supposed to type, sit on the couch and watch TV.“You don’t need much practice for the race. Just 30 days of training is enough. All types of people can take part, be it children or grandparents. You just need to do everything that human beings are supposed to be able to do, such as hang, pull and crawl. These are the common characteristics amongst our species.”
Referring to how Albert Einstein once said that adversity introduces humans to themselves, De Sena said that the Spartan Race does exactly this by putting participants through a grueling workout that spans two to three hours.
In order to develop China into the brand’s largest market, De Sena revealed that he plans to go on a hiring spree. De Sena also said that he is in talks with officials from 50 Chinese cities “who all seem very interested”.
In order to host the event, cities need to have a piece of land that measures about 150 acres. According to De Sena, the average cost of hosting the Spartan Race is between $500,000 to $600,000. The cost of entry will be about $60 per person.
Born in Queens, New York, De Sena first discovered he had a knack for entrepreneurship in 1978 when he was just 8 years old. Back then, he made $700 by selling fireworks and subsequently used the money to buy himself a kids’ motorcycle.
“I grew up in a neighborhood where everybody worked very hard from five in the morning till very late. I wanted to work hard and get ahead, so I started my business at a very young age. I don’t even know how I did it,” said De Sena.
He was later thrown out of school because the sale of fireworks was illegal. De Sena ended up in another school located an hour’s drive away. But the experience did not dampen his desire for doing business. Instead, it spurred him.
De Sena started a pool cleaning business when he was just 12. He then got into the construction industry and became a millionaire by the time he was studying at Cornell University. He said that it was his ethos of always going the extra mile that made him his fortune.
“My construction business had 700 customers. I believe that you should always go above and beyond for each one of them. That means if my customers are expecting me to do this, I would do twice as much for the same price. I never asked for payment — they paid me because they were satisfied, and my business grew very fast. I worked 24 hours a day,” said De Sena, who sold the construction business when he was 25 before starting a Wall Street firm.
De Sena has since 2000 been organizing numerous races around the world but they did not prove to be too popular. Spartan Race, which he founded in 2010, has been the most successful. Authenticity, he said, is one of the keys to success.
“We are not doing this simply as a business. We are doing this because we want to help people, and when you do something because you really believe in it, you have a purpose, and with this you are more likely to be successful,” said De Sena.
“I did not get paid to run this business for the past 16 years. I wanted to quit every year, but I didn’t. I only received my first pay check at the end of last year. It was exciting.”
When you do something because you really believe in it, you have a purpose, and with this you are more likely to be successful.”
Zhang Han in Shanghai contributed to the story.
Spartan Race CEO Joe De Sena made his first million when he was still a student at Cornell University. He is aiming to make China the company’s largest market by 2020.
Staff from Spartan Race demonstrate how to clear obstacles during a recent road show in Shanghai.