Early in Joe De Sena's career, when he was working long hours on Wall Street, his lifestyle was decidedly urban. Living in Manhattan's Flatiron District, he would wake before sunup, run from his apartment to Central Park and back — roughly 10 miles — and then head downtown to his trading desk in the financial capital of the world. But though you wouldn't know it from looking at his day-to-day life, the dream of uprooting from the noisy streets of The Big Apple to an idyllic, remote farm was never far from De Sena's mind.
When Spartan's future founder and CEO was a kid in working-class Howard Beach, Queens, he cleaned the swimming pools of 700 families. In addition to his pool-cleaning duties, he paid close attention to how those families operated as a unit. He viewed it like he would a business. What were the parents doing right? What were they doing wrong? Why were some families organized? Why were others a complete mess? As he observed the inner workings of these home lives day after day, month after month, year after year, he made some non-negotiable vows to himself.
Number one: He was never going to go to an office and sit at a desk all day.
Number two: He would never live a sloppy, unstructured lifestyle. Unlike many of the people he worked for, he wasn't going to go to bed late, stay out drinking with his buddies into the wee hours of the morning, and wake up late the next day exhausted and miserable.
Number three: He was never going to live in the suburbs. In De Sena's mind, the suburbs created soft people. Suburban life, he reasoned, was too easy. No, he was going to do something more challenging, yet more rewarding. Joe decided that he was going to live on a farm someday, and that farm would have a red barn. It would be a more wholesome environment for his family, and his children would become more rugged, and more capable, than their suburban counterparts.
"I started to visualize what I wanted my life to be," the No Retreat: Business Bootcamp star remembers thinking. "A lot of it was centered around this idea of creating an environment where it was more likely to be successful individually, and as a family."
When Joe ended up on Wall Street, it seemed as if the farm life wasn't in the cards — at least not any time soon. To ensure that he never lost sight of that dream, and as something of an antidote to the traffic and sirens blaring outside his office window, De Sena kept a picture of a red barn on his trading desk. Someday, he thought. One day.
When Joe Met Courtney
Joe De Sena met his wife, Courtney Lawson, at a race. (Would you expect them to meet anyplace else?) De Sena's leg of the race was carrying a sandbag on the beach, which he much preferred to one of the other legs: a swim in Nantucket Sound. Joe is deathly afraid of sharks, and the thought of what bloodsucking predators might be lurking in that water scared the living hell out of him. But as soon as the fear crept in, De Sena knew he didn't have a choice in the matter. He had to do what scared him. He had to get in that water.
"F*** it," he said to himself. "I've gotta do the things I don’t want to do. I gotta swim across this bay.”
He powered through and finished the swim, and thank goodness he did. When he returned to land he met Courtney, who was also racing the triathlon. An epic first date followed, and no, we're not talking dinner and a movie. De Sena and Lawson — who captained Penn State's soccer team to its first-ever final four appearance in 1999 — embarked on an eight-hour kayak ride on the Long Island Sound and got to know each other.
Early in their relationship, Courtney coincidentally purchased a coffee-table book that showcased gorgeous American barns. The first photo in the book? The exact barn that Joe had a picture of on his Wall Street trading desk. Joe believes more in hard work than he does in fate, but it was hard to argue with that sign.
The Search for the Perfect Farm
As the prospect of marriage and children became more and more likely, De Sena and Lawson set out on an adventure to find their farm. Not really knowing where to look, they traveled west, to Idaho and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Prices were extravagant, and they weren't too enthused about moving thousands of miles away from their hometowns and families.
That's when fate stepped in again.
While on a flight, Joe picked up a magazine and stumbled onto an advertisement for a farm in rural Vermont. He was instantly intrigued. It was a fraction of the price of the other farms he'd looked at, and had a covered bridge and a mountain. It was in the middle of nowhere, but less than a 15-minute drive from Killington, where Joe remembered having one of the best ski weekends of his life as a kid.
And, of course, it had a red barn.
De Sena and Lawson purchased Riverside Farm in Pittsfield, Vermont in 2001. In addition to living there and hosting some of the hardest endurance races on Earth — including the Death Race and the Snow Devil Snowshoe Race — De Sena and Lawson own and operate an organic farm, a bed and breakfast, a general store for hikers, and an exclusive wedding venue. It's also the setting of the CNBC show No Retreat: Business Bootcamp, where De Sena challenges and pushes businesses to improve their efficiency and communication.
Ever since purchasing the farm, De Sena has invited individuals and teams to his home for a hearty dose of tough love. He gets approached nearly every day by those wanting to improve their lives, and he almost never says no. He's had everyone on the farm, from an Army Ranger suffering with PTSD to Fortune 500 companies. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Nike, Reebok, and Google have all sent employees to the farm. But Joe doesn't discriminate or play favorites based on brand recognition. Whether you're an average Joe or one of the top corporations on Earth, it doesn't much matter.
All that matters is you have a goal, and are willing to put the work in to achieve it.
“They come to the farm because they want to challenge themselves," De Sena says. "They want to find out what they’re made of. They want to get back to their roots. The No. 1 email I get is, ‘Joe, how do I stay motivated?’ People have started this ‘What would Joe do?’ thing, because as much as I’m a dick and I’m in their face and I’m yelling, they want that kick in the ass.”
It's Hard. It's Going to Suck. And That's the POINT.
Joe doesn't sugarcoat it. A week on the farm sucks. It's hard. You will feel uncomfortable. You will hate Joe. You will want to leave.
But that's the whole point. When you've finished, when you've gone through hell and back and survived, you realize why you went to the farm in the first place. You went to transform your life and come out the other side a different person. And time and time again, those who have visited the farm tell Joe that their Riverside experience was truly life-changing. That it was all worth it.
“I gotta imagine people hate burpees," De Sena says. "When you walk into a gym, you hate certain pieces of equipment because they’re hard. You probably hated certain professors that made you work. I’m a combination of a burpee, a piece of fitness equipment, and a professor. I'm trying to get you to go way outside your comfort zone and be the best you can be.”
De Sena's dream has become a reality. He has his farm and his red barn. And, just as he imagined it would, farm life has made his entire family tougher, grittier, and ready for anything.
But he never could have imagined that the toughness of the farm, and everything it represents, would extend far beyond his inner circle, inspiring millions of people all over the globe to test themselves and become better humans. Long gone are the sirens, the subways, and the convenience stories on every block. They've been replaced by endless woods, mountains, cows, sheep, and chickens.
Joe wouldn't have it any other way.