How One Entrepreneur Turned His Failing Exercise Business Into A Huge Success

Joe De Sena grew up in the largely Italian-American neighborhood of Howard Beach in Queens, New York in the 1970s. If you’ve ever seen the classic Martin Scorsese mobster flick Goodfellas (which took place there), you’re aware of the importance of processed meats, fried food, and the Catholic Church in that neighborhood. So, when De Sena’s mother became a vegetarian yogi, it was not easy for him. Her transition made him and the rest of his family stick out, and it eventually contributed to his parents’ divorce.

De Sena moved firmly in the other direction. He became a hard-hustling businessman. He turned gigs cleaning neighbors’ pools into a full-fledged company. Then he went on to found a successful investment practice. His lifestyle became one defined by long hours behind a desk, little sleep, and nightly dinners full of rich food and wine.

Eventually, however, his lifestyle caught up with him. His energy faltered. His mood suffered. He felt sluggish and weak. He began to make bad decisions and fall short of his goals.

Many hard-driving people ignore these kinds of signs until they burn out (or have a heart attack). De Sena admits he would have done the same, if not for the way he had grown up. “I would have been just like everybody else,” he said, “We’re all lemmings, and I would have done what everyone else does.”

But unlike the other lemmings in his environment, this one had a mother who had transformed herself by radically shifting her physical and nutritional behaviors. For the first time in his life, he saw the value of what his hippie mom had figured out. Now instead of running from it, he embraced it.

De Sena was soon practicing yoga with the single-minded dedication he had applied to building his businesses. Before long, he was incorporating intense physical activity into every aspect of his life—from running up high rise staircases to embarking on grueling wilderness treks. He put an end to the rich alcohol-fueled dinners and replaced them with raw food. He became obsessed with getting eight hours of sleep each night.

De Sena began persuading employees—and then clients—to embark on this lifestyle with him. Within a few years, spreading the word about this radically healthy way of living had become the most important thing in his world. For this purpose, De Sena started a second business called Peak, while still running his investment practice full time.

As he saw it, the lifestyle he now practiced was so transformative that all he had to do was preach its benefits and the world would follow. He put whatever spare time he had—and spare cash—into the endeavor.

It failed.

A different person might have given up. After all, he had a successful finance business, and the new venture was draining his money and time. But De Sena understood the potential of his message to change lives, and he believed in it deeply. At the same time, he realized he was packaging that message was all wrong.

The Overwhelming Importance of Packaging

In describing the shift that ultimately made his new venture a success, Joe De Sena explains, “I’m a snake oil salesman. I’ve had to deceive people and continue to deceive people. The reason is because human beings’ number one source of motivation comes from avoiding discomfort.” To counteract this ancient wiring, De Sena determined he needed to pinpoint a void that a large enough segment of modern people felt in their lives, and then position what he was selling as the way to fill it.

To this end, De Sena figured out that a considerable number of people in the modern world feel unfulfilled by the overly soft lifestyle enabled by first-world countries. Armed with this knowledge, he developed a hypothesis that if he could give these people a common identity, he could override their reluctance to embark on the uncomfortable path of lifestyle change.

To make this happen, he reinvented Peak as Spartan Race.

Spartan offers a series of physical challenges that emphasize commitment, strength, and stretching the limits of your capabilities. Everything is presented as an extension of the values of ancient Spartan culture—namely those of self-reliance, physical perfection, and toughness.

While at the core, what Joe De Sena sells is an obstacle race, it is the packaging that gives what he offers so much meaning to those who take part in it. It allows participants to see themselves as part of a 3,000-year-old tradition pioneered by a breed of warriors who dedicated their lives to personal betterment through rugged living.

“I think Spartan is really the yogi vegan thing wrapped in a cloak and an ancient Greek helmet.” explains De Sena.

Joe De Sena’s maneuver has paid off. From its start as a single race in Burlington, Vermont in 2010, Spartan now has one million racers participating in 250-plus events in more than 40 countries. There are also bestselling books, media productions, and community gatherings.

Carola Jain, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer, describes it like this: “There are all these people—20,000 people—with Spartan tattoos. It’s like a little cult. They want to go around and tell everybody because they know how positively it’s impacted their life.”

How to Apply These Secrets to Your Own Business

No matter what you’re selling, there’s a lot you can learn from Spartan’s example. It often doesn’t make a difference how useful, well-made, or applicable your stuff is; its packaging is what will make the difference between outstanding success and tremendous failure. And packaging is much more than your colors or font choice. It is about how you use seemingly surface-level details to generate a cause, movement, or tribe in which people can invest their identities.

When you’re deciding on your own package, consider what gap—of meaning or emotion or identity—there is out there among a certain group of people in the world that you can help fill with what you produce. Then create a name, an image, and a message these people can latch onto and use to make themselves feel as if they are part of something vital and monumental. If you can do that, people will follow you anywhere you want to take them.

To get a list of the best books about how to promote yourself, go here.

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I’m the founder of MicroFame Media, a marketing and strategy agency that turns consultants into niche celebrities. I have worked with companies such as The Medici Group,...