Chantal: Randy, welcome along and thank you for joining us.
Randy: Thank you Chantal for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Chantal: Now, TRX is one of the most successful and recognised brands in the fitness industry today. For anyone that doesn’t know the history of the brand, can you start off by telling us how you came about to invent TRX?
Randy: Sure. I thank you for that generous description of our brand. You know, one of the most successful, I don’t know, but we’re doing okay and we certainly are developing some recognition, so I’m happy with where we are.
It’s an unlikely story. I created this crazy harness during my 14 years as a Navy Seal. I came up with this idea to train when we were on the road using body weight, and whereas you could always do pushups, and some of the traditional body weight exercises, it was harder without a pull-up bar to train the climbing muscles. And I had accidentally deployed on an operation with my jiu jitsu belt accidentally stuffed in my bag and I just started experimenting with it by throwing it over a door, leaning back, and lifting my body against gravity to simulate what it was like to climb up a caving ladder up the side of a ship. And today, we call it functional training.
So that just expanded, my teammates started adopting and asking me to make them for them, and then when I left the Seal teams, I thought it was kind of clever that my mates had liked my gizmo, but I found myself at Stanford Business School thinking about business, and discovered that the coaches there thought this was a cool idea, too. And so you’re business school, thinking about business, and you got this crazy idea, why not use that as the test bed and the launch pad, and that’s what I did.
Chantal: You know what, this isn’t one of the questions, but I can just imagine that there’s a lot of fitness professionals out there that are thinking, “Man, I’m inspired by that. That’s a big deal to go from concept to actually creating something.” What advice would you give to anyone that’s in that stage where they’ve got an idea, maybe a fitness product of some sort. How do you go from idea stage to actually holding something tangible in your hands?
Randy: Well, that of course is the $10 million question. One of the pieces of advice that I now understand that I’d be happy to share is that, and I don’t mean this to be discouraging, it’s just good to know, the idea is the easy part. I mean it really is the case. I have lots of people come up to me on a regular basis and say, “Oh I had an idea how to use ropes years ago.” And I tell them, “I’m sure you did. It’s just you didn’t develop the idea.” And that’s because the developing part is really challenging. And I think that that said, yeah, if anybody’s story should inspire others that no idea is too stupid to pursue, it should be me.
Because when I first started this out, it was as my, the dean of Stanford Business School who I asked to do an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the first PR hits we’d ever had, his comment was, “Yeah, I thought he was crazy. It’s a seatbelt with stirrups on the end. And I told him to go do something else.” That is a fact, that made it into the Chronicle with our first PR piece. He wasn’t completely wrong, but he was at least partially wrong.
Chantal: How long was that actual journey from the time that you were in Stanford, that that idea was born, to the time that you actually launched as a business?
Randy: It was the better part of 18 months. It really took me, which was another shocker, right? I thought, “Okay, I’m coming out of Stanford Business School, I’m just going to hit the ground running.” Well, what I learned was business school teaches you 10000 foot view of life, of business. And what you need on the day that you start something as a under-capitalized startup, is you need this very grass-level information that I didn’t get in business school. And so I had to go out, actually, another book that I recommend that I’m reminded of from your question is there’s a book called Concept to Market, and it talks about exactly the kinds of low-level unsexy details that you absolutely have to answer these questions before you can move forward. So I got a lot of my sort of start-up information out of that book.
Chantal: Well, I guess that sounds like the reality of the situation. As you said, you need to be aware of the reality of what it takes to go through what you’ve gone through. Now Randy, a lot of what you do these days of course, is educate and talk on leadership, and that’s one of the big areas that I was hoping we could dive into today because when you were telling the story of how TRX came to be born, essentially, you obviously touched on the fact you were a Navy Seal, so I’m interested to understand through your experience as a Navy Seal, what’s one of the most important leadership lessons that you learnt during that time?
Randy: Well, one of the very most important I think in any context, is that a leader, it sounds trite, but it is absolutely valid in my experience, is a leader’s got to lead by example. You’ve got to be able to walk your talk, because I think the number one thing that a team, any team, will indict its leadership for, is inauthenticity, right? You can make a lot of mistakes, and Lord knows, I have, of all kinds, but as long as the folks that you are hoping will join your effort and follow your leadership, as long as they believe that you are genuine, you are authentic, and you’re not ever going to ask them to do something that you wouldn’t or haven’t done yourself, that goes a long way in building a team.
Then the things that I also learned that you really have to screen for, as you’re building a team, is integrity and accountability. Because with those two qualities, you can build, you’ll notice that deep domain expertise is not in that top two. Because domain expertise is one of those things that for most positions, can be acquired. What’s much harder to fix is a cat that has no integrity or refuses to be accountable. Those are in my view, critical flaws that make it impossible to build a team without.
Chantal: Would you say, Randy, have you had any changes to your strategy as a leader as the TRX team and the brand has grown over years?
Randy: I have, for sure. I think any leader that wants to remain relevant, much less reach some level of success, you have to constantly be observing, learning, and being willing to adapt your style. For instance, I came out of a pretty alpha male, about as alpha male environment as you could ever imagine in the Navy Seal teams. I had a bunch of people who I frankly took for granted their level of commitment, their level of talent, their level of resourcefulness and drive, and they were also very thick-skinned, and you had to be thick-skinned as a leader because there’s a lot of just dogs fighting in a pen to show who is the alpha.
Well, transfer that out into the civilian world, where you’ve got a mixed-gender organisation and people who are not as dedicated as Navy Seals to your mission. They have other lives and other priorities and they’re not going to burn themselves to the ground. Well, having the same style of leadership, trying to apply that in both contexts equally would be doomed to fail quickly. So I had to become a much more, a kinder, gently and frankly I had to become a little more, it sounds terrible, but I think it was part of staying the sane, had to lower my standards of expectation a little bit. So I didn’t grind my teams to bits on the TRX side of my book.
Chantal: That’s so fascinating because I see what you’re saying is that you had to learn based on the people that you were working with in a new environment and you already have touched on a couple of books that have influenced you along the way. Were there any particular, I guess, resources or industry conferences or mentors or people that you reached out to during that phase as you were growing as a leader, as your team was growing? Are there any resources that you went to [inaudible 00:09:15]?
Randy: Well, I’m a voracious observer and I model, I’ve watched, there were some icons that I watched and appreciated. One of the guys that I was a big fan of is Richard Branson. The reason that I like him is that the guy has figured out, first of all, he probably understands the power of a brand more than any other leader that I can think of that has taken the brand and applied it to all these different contexts and figured out how to make it successful and monetize it. But he’s also a guy who obviously was successful in delegating because he spends a lot of time externally facing. He seems to engender a lot of affection from the folks within his organisation. I’ve watched him.
There are others that I’ve watched, not only for good reasons but for bad examples.
Chantal: Learn what not to do.
Randy: Yeah, what not to do. But I also listen a lot, frankly, to my, the leaders in my organisation and I try to keep an open mind. Everybody is, the easiest thing in the world to be a critic. That’s one of the things that I have learned over my life. Really easy to sit and trash talk somebody or gripe about what isn’t. That tends to turn people off and make them turn their ears off sometimes, and I’ve tried to take it on board when critical stuff is in bound and try to figure out, whether or not this person’s right, clearly my style or my communication was not effective. If, as I believe, my job is to field a great team, that is for the most part, happy with what they do, then I got to figure out how to crack that code, or I’m not going to be a good leader.
That’s kind of the loop that I play to myself anytime I’m inclined to tell somebody to buzz off, I step back and I go, “All right, clearly they are not getting my message and it means I must not have been effective in communicating.” I guess it’s a lot of school of hard knocks, would you agree, Chantal?
Chantal: Randy, we’ve touched on these throughout the interview and I know that you’ve mentioned some of those qualities that are important to you as a leader, things like authenticity and accountability and integrity, are there any other qualities that you feel an outstanding leader should possess?
Randy: You have to be resourceful and you got to be tenacious. Those are two, people have asked me, “Hey, what’re you really good at?” It’s a bit of a stumper. Then I got to, well, I am as resourceful as a coyote and as tenacious as a cactus plant. Those probably are my two best qualities as a leader. Those have helped me and trying to be empathetic and … But you got to be resourceful and you got to be driven, otherwise leading is a little bit of a grind. If you don’t like that, then you’re going to struggle.
Chantal: And Randy, I know that you, earlier you mentioned how important that authenticity piece is in relation to earning the respect of your team, essentially. Is it ensuring that your authentic and that you, I think you said that you walk the talk and … Did I get that right? Walk the talk? Yeah, that you-
Randy: Walk the talk.
Chantal: Yeah, that you can do everything that they’ve done. Are there any other pieces of advice you would give us around how a leader can earn the respect of their team?
Randy: I think another thing that I learned in the Seal teams and it’s in every talk that I ever do on leadership is there’s this old idea of letting the troops eat first and it’s actually a fun phrase when you think about it because it really is profound. It’s simple but profound. It really speaks to, “Hey, if you want to be respected as a leader, you have to show the folks that are working for you that you care about them. You care about them as people. You don’t, they’re not just a piece of furniture.” I think that a little bit can go a very long way to show folks that, “Hey, I’m not jumping ahead of the line every time, just because I can.”
I actually probably have done the opposite, maybe to a fault, certainly if you ask my family, they would agree with this, that I was the last guy to get paid when I started the company. I work for almost four years for no pay. Because I couldn’t afford to pay the others that I needed and pay myself. I could have and maybe should have moved earlier to take some of it but I could survive and I did and I think people respected that. Little gestures like that to put your troops first go a very, very long way as a leader.
Chantal: Yeah. You just touched on something which is really, I wasn’t going to cover in this interview but I think it’s really important because so many fitness professionals end up in this industry because they’re passionate about something, because they’re following a dream, and quite often I know that a lot of people don’t last, they don’t have a long career because they don’t, they’re not necessarily successful in the first year or two years, and you just mentioned that there was four years before you actually paid yourself.
I know me, personally, when I transitioned out of [inaudible 00:14:53] into doing these it took me three years before anything started to happen. I think that’s a really important message for people out there and that is that it takes an awful lot of hard work and time and investment to actually get to where you want to go to. Would you agree with that?
Randy: I would. I think it’s a good piece of advice to give folks who are contemplating starting a business is that you really got to make sure that a couple of the conditions are right because I was able to start the business with, my spouse was employed, had a steady job, that could keep a roof over our head. It was just barely making it, but I was able to then externally finance TRX using other people’s money who were incentivized based on a return at some point in the future. Without that, without that minimal safety net, the XO would be more desperate and believe me, you don’t need anything to me [inaudible 00:16:01] start up more desperate. You actually need to have an element of safety net somewhere that if things go wrong, you’re not on the street with a can.
I think that’s one of the things that people should think about before they start is, “What is my safety net? How am I going to float this if things take longer than I expected, cost more than I projected?” Because both of those things will happen. And how do I survive it without becoming desperate and doing things that are not in the best interest of the company that I’m trying to build?
Speaker 3: And now, for this week’s Fitbizperation.
Chantal: So, Randy, to finish off today, can you leave us with three pieces of advice that you’d give a new manager who is looking to improve their leadership skills?
Randy: Well, yes. I would go back to some of the things I said earlier but add to them a bit.
Number one, as a new leader, come in and above all other things, be authentic because you can be forgiven for a lot of errors if people believe that you’re for real. If you’re not, you could be really good and an organisation will spit you out as a fraud. First, be authentic.
Second, I really believe that walking your talk matters a lot to people so lead by example. Show people that you are willing to get your hands dirty, do the work, learn, don’t profess to know everything because none of us do, no matter where we are in an organisation.
And then third piece, I think would be something that I also take from the Seal teams, which an organisation that has leaders who are focused on something bigger than just their own personal interests is a really powerful organisation. As you come into a new position as a leader at any level, probably the best thing that you can do to signal to the other leaders in the organisation is that, “Hey, I’m in here to really contribute to something that is special and that I believe in and I’m not just here to optimise for me. I’m willing to put my troops first. I’m absolutely willing to go whatever extra yard that I need to walk my talk and every time that you come into contact with me, I’m going to be authentic, I’m going to have integrity, and I’m going to display a desire for accountability.” If you can wrap that together, you’re going to be a great leader at whatever level in whichever organisation that you serve.
Chantal: Wow, that is such a great piece of advice, Randy. Thank you so much and I mentioned right at the very beginning of today’s episode that of course you are the keynote of the Athletic Business Show that’s coming up in November this year. I cannot wait because it means that I get to meet you and I get to see you do the keynote.
Do you want to just tell us a little bit about the session that you’re going to be presenting?
Randy: It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’ve spent a long time as it turns out, I don’t know how I got so old so fast, but literally, probably 35 years in leadership positions between competitive athletics, a long Seal career as a Seal team officer and then as an entrepreneur and now CEO of a mid-sized, high-growth company. I learned a lot along those, that path in different contexts and what I’ll be sharing at Athletic Business Conference is some of the lessons that I learned as a Seal that I used every single day as an entrepreneur and a CEO at TRX.
Then I’m going to share a little bit of, some entrepreneurial war stories and hope, a whole bunch of inspiration for anybody who is currently working on a business or might ever think of doing that.
Chantal: Well, I cannot wait for your session and for anyone that hasn’t yet checked out the information around the Athletic Business Show, I’ll make sure that we put details in today’s show notes. We’ll put links for you to register, to come along. It’s happening in New Orleans, in November. I’m really excited about it.
Randy Hedrick, thank you so much, it is been just such a thrill having you on the show. I’m really grateful for your time and thank you so much for joining us all today.
Randy: Thank you for having me and I will look forward to seeing you in New Orleans in November.
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