What Spartan's CEO Learned in the Hardest Year in the History of His Company

What Spartan's CEO Learned in the Hardest Year in the History of His Company

The best lessons are those that are taught outside of the classroom. We learn when we are doing, when we are using our minds and bodies.

This year? This was the test of a lifetime. How do you keep a business afloat during a pandemic? How do you stay focused, and optimistic, when a virus is killing hundreds of thousands of people? How do you navigate social unrest? How do you keep your head and maintain sanity when it feels like panic is the norm?

No one had the right answer. There is no right answer. It was a year of failures, mistakes, and missteps. But with adversity comes opportunity, and that also made it a year of growth and expansion.

I learned many valuable, albeit painful, lessons in 2020. Here are 10 that I'll take with me in 2021 and beyond. 

1. When the Hits Keep on Coming, You Get a Bulletproof Vest — But You NEVER Quit.

By all standards, Spartan could have easily been wiped out this year. We are a company whose model is dependent on social gatherings (social un-distancing, as I like to say).

This year, all of that shut down. A few of my friends reached out at the beginning of the year and even suggested that I close the door on 2020, pull the plug, and take the year as a complete wash, with the hope that we could reboot in 2021. Even though I’ve never been a quitter, if there was ever a time to quit, this would have been it. But that’s not who I am, and it’s not the Spartan way.

We went through multiple rounds of furloughs, massive reductions in employee salaries, hundreds of cancelled races, countless angry emails from customers, and a few rescinded sponsorships. We took the weekly beatings, but we didn’t quit. Because of that, we’ve grown stronger, gained wisdom, and maintained our principle: You never quit, no matter what.

Related: 'F***ing Figure It Out': Our 13 Favorite Joe De Sena Quotes From Unbreakable CEO, Episode 3

2. Your Physical Health Is Your Best Asset.

Certainly, COVID-19 was complex enough to destroy some healthy, athletic bodies, but the common thread among those who were impacted the most was poor health and preexisting conditions.

I’ve always been a believer in taking care of your body, but this year demonstrated the true power of health. Numerous podcast guests on Spartan Up! observed that the best defense against a virus is a strong immune system from a well-nourished body. So if there were ever times in the past when I asked myself, "Am I crazy to do these 5 a.m. workouts?", those thoughts are now officially extinguished. How you treat yourself is essential, and certain decisions are literally life-saving.

3. Hard Conversations Actually Don’t Get Easier.

Having to call members of my Spartan team and inform them that we were going to reduce their salary — or furlough them altogether — absolutely sucked. I knew that for many, I wasn’t just impacting their paycheck. I was also impacting their lives, and the lives of their families.

But there was no way around it. I kept waiting for it to get just a little bit easier, for it to feel less awful — sort of like the way that a cold shower starts off painful, but then ends up feeling OK — but it never did. It’s true that there are some things that get easier the more you do them, but for many things, that rule doesn’t apply. This is one of those examples. You just have to suck it up, tolerate how shitty it feels, and keep going.

4. Discrepancy Is Everywhere, So Source Your Experts.

To say that the last year has had some conflicting recommendations would be an understatement. It’s been FILLED with them. Wear a mask, don’t wear a mask. Take lots of immunity-boosting supplements, but don’t take too many and overload your system. The virus isn’t airborne, yes it is. Kids need school and social interactions, kids will be fine at home and resilient. It’s exhausting to keep up with everything.

Here’s what I took from it: You’ve got to do some of the work and dig into the science yourself. You can’t rely on memes, Facebook posts, or even mainstream media. You need to dive into books and journals and source information directly from the experts themselves. Of course, we don’t all have the time to read the Annals of Emergency Medicine every day, but we must be diligent and reduce the spread of bullshit.

5. It Takes More Than a Village. It Takes a Freakin’ Country.

Many live their lives selfishly. They believe that their choices exist in a vacuum and only impact them. And truth be told, we can ALL fall into that mentality. Who cares what I do, because it only impacts me, right? WRONG.

If we are going to get this country — and our world — back on track, we’ve got to start understanding that what we choose at any given moment can have a massive ripple effect outwards. I am super pumped to get people back to racing and get races back to people, and I can’t wait for life to move forward. But I’ve learned that this can’t happen if we don’t do more to help each other and collectively extinguish the virus. Yes, I'm talking about COVID-19, but I'm also talking about the virus of hate that still exists in this country.

This year has taught me that we're way more intertwined than we think, and we have to start coming together instead of ripping each other apart.

Related: Breaking Down the Value of Teamwork, and How It Helps Get Shit DONE

6. A Date to Look Forward to Can Be Your Best Medicine.

This past summer, when we finally took the painful step to cancel our remaining 2020 race schedule, I was a madman about making sure that we got some dates on the calendar for 2021. Why? Because I knew that our racers needed something to train for, and a reason to keep their heads high.

Physical health was not the only thing that was tested this year. Our mental health also went through quite the challenge. One thing we all learned is that while the future may be uncertain, dates on the calendar can help keep us motivated and committed. When tomorrow or the next day — or the next month — look bleak, a date on the calendar can be the best thing to focus on. We must have things to look forward to and work towards. It's critical. 

7. Pivot When You Need to, but NEVER Forget Your True North.

March is now a blur. When the world shut down, we immediately pivoted. We began cranking out content like never before and Spartan became a whole new machine. We were doing 5 a.m. warrior calls with experts around the world, 6 a.m. workouts, training sessions with SGX coaches and Spartan pros, mindset coaching with Dr. L, and more. It was 24-7.

Overnight, we transitioned from a race company to a virtual vehicle for extreme wellness. But through all of it, I NEVER lost sight of our True North — our why. My mission has always been to rip people off their couches and get them moving. That wasn’t going to change, even if people were being told to stay inside and our delivery system was different. Don’t ever forget what your endgame is. Just get creative when you need to.

8. Your Brain Needs Just As Much Attention As Your Body.

I’ve said it repeatedly over the course of the last 10 months, and I’ll say it again now: People went a little crazy this year. It showed me just how powerful fear can be, and why we can’t just put fitness first. We’ve also got to be dialed into our mental health, and we have to keep our brains in tip-top shape. If fear and anxiety are driving your car down the road of life, you need to pull onto the shoulder and switch drivers.

Related: My Life As a Mental Health Professional During COVID-19 (+ 5 Expert Tips to Remain Calm and Focused)

9. Don’t Play Russian Roulette With Your Routine.

One of the biggest challenges that people faced this year was maintaining some sense of routine. Many were forced to work from home, which brought about a whole new slew of challenges: Alarm clocks could be snoozed, workouts could be postponed, ordering takeout was now encouraged, and pants became optional.

As a result, routines disappeared about as quickly as broccoli sprouts from my plate. But routines are KEY. It’s the consistency that your brain craves and thrives on. Make sure that your routines are ironclad and unwavering, and they'll be resistant to any disruption.

10. You Don’t Always Need a Good Ass-Kicking. But When You DO Get One, Learn From It.

Perhaps the most important lesson that I learned in 2020 is that lessons are everywhere, and if you want to learn you have to open your eyes and your ears, and pay attention.

At the start of 2020, we looked at the year ahead and thought, "This will be the most successful year in the history of the company," We had just acquired Tough Mudder, booked our World Championship in Abu Dhabi, and had an entire schedule of events slated for every corner of the globe.

A kick in the ass wasn’t on the agenda, but we most certainly got one. Life doesn’t always give you what you want, or even what you need. Sometimes it just gives you obstacles because it wants to.

You have two options. You can put your head down, cry about it, and shut out the world. Or, you can rise, look up, and take those obstacles head-on. We did the latter, and it has us positioned and ready for the future. 

Amp up your fitness and wellness routine NOW. Click here to find a Spartan race close to you!