In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena wrote The Business Guide to Being Ready for Anything. In the book, Joe reflects on his extremely challenging personal experience to drive home the point that no matter what's going on in the world, there is ALWAYS opportunity. This will help you not only survive any critical situation, but thrive. Below is an exclusive excerpt of the book. To get the full edition, including Joe's 8 principles to stay alive, click here.
It was early January and I was on top of the world. The opportunities in front of Spartan had never felt so ripe with possibility. We just acquired our biggest competitor, Tough Mudder; launched a new event product, DEKA — which would give an entry point to a whole new segment of customers — and we had reached a benchmark in our company’s history, employing just over 500 people. We were finally hitting a smooth stride in the business.
In the distance, there were rumblings that a new form of coronavirus was making its way through Wuhan and other provinces in China, but it felt far away and distant. And even when the rumblings got louder, my “We’ll survive” attitude disallowed the concerns to truly seep in. Even a disconcerting phone call in late January from a best friend who manages one of the largest hedge funds in the world — his prediction was that the world would be completely shut down from the virus until early May — fell on somewhat deaf ears. Call it avoidance, call it optimism, call it what you will: I referenced back to my days on Wall Street and assumed that everyone was just overconsuming the news and developing a new sense of paranoia. Looking back on it now, of course I should’ve listened, but I didn’t.
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Fast forward a few weeks after that phone call and I’m at a fancy dinner event in Sparta, Greece with black ties everywhere, crystal glasses, and tiny food served on enormous plates. Some of the attendees included Gerard Butler, Billy Zane, the producer of 300, and then me, sticking out like a sore thumb in my black Spartan hoodie. The mayor of Sparta hosted the dinner to celebrate the 2,500-year anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae, and there would be a parade the following day with a celebratory lighting of the Olympic torch, carried by us.
It was an amazing honor and I was, of course, excited for it. But a nagging concern in the back of my head was growing. Our races in China and Italy had been cancelled because of the virus and though we had 43 other countries to count on, the worry was mounting.
Then the shit hit the fan and it all became real. I woke up on the second morning in Sparta to dozens of texts. President Donald Trump had announced that the borders were closing. I jumped on the phone with our finance team and learned that revenue had dropped to zero, and we needed a plan and needed one fast.
I rushed to the airport, knowing that I needed to get out of Sparta immediately in order to get home before the borders closed. And while I sat in Heathrow Airport waiting for my flight to Boston, I drafted a plan to ensure that Spartan would survive whatever was coming.
1. Protect Cash Flow: Cash is king. Keep it that way.
2. Protect the Employees: We leave no one behind. We are family.
3. Engage With the Community: Connect with our customers however we can to ensure their needs are met.
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Let me break those down. First, if there’s one thing I’ve learned as an entrepreneur for four decades, it’s that cash is king. It’s a commonly known phrase, but it always proves to be true. There’s a reason that Warren Buffett and Apple hold onto mountains of cash: When shit hits the fan, you can not only survive, but also thrive because everything around you is on a fire sale.
Secondly, you’ve got to take care of your team and figure out a way to stay together. I wish I could say that this meant that I didn’t furlough staff members, but I can’t. We ended up furloughing 75 percent of our staff, and this was perhaps one of the hardest steps we took right from the start. That’s 400 employees. And the rest? We had to cut their pay substantially. But I made it clear that I wanted us all to bleed together and hold hands wherever and whenever we could.
And finally, I had to think of a way to stay connected and relevant to our community. Think about it: Our business is about bringing people together, and the world was saying, “Everyone stay away from each other!” It was a head-scratcher. If race ticket sales were down to zero, that would mean that we would bring down our digital ad budget to basically nothing. But I wanted to stay in front of our customers and keep them connected to the brand. We needed to talk to our community daily and provide free content to make sure that our message and mission weren’t being lost — get off the couch, keep yourself healthy, keep your mind elevated, and push onward.
So with that we launched Unbreakable TV, which offered a variety of free training, mental resilience, and original programming daily, all delivered digitally. We pivoted quickly and effectively. We didn’t ask ourselves “Will this work?” I always believe in Fire. Ready. Aim. Don’t think. Just DO. Change what doesn’t work and keep doing more of what does. And that’s exactly what we did. If an organization is to meet the challenges of a changing world, it must be prepared to change everything about itself — except its basic beliefs — as it moves through corporate life. Like the great Bruce Lee said, “You have to be like water.”