Joe De Sena founded Spartan Race in 2010 and has since grown the brand to be the world’s leading obstacle racing company with more than 170 events in 25-plus countries, one million-plus global participants, key sponsors including Reebok, two popular TV programmes, and numerous other lifestyle products. Mr De Sena has been a lifelong entrepreneur, from selling fireworks at age eight, to building a multimillion-dollar pool business in college, to founding a Wall Street trading firm. An accomplished athlete, he has competed in every extreme sports adventure he could find, racing more than 50 ultra-distance events in his athletic career.
Yutang: Could you introduce Spartan Race, and give some background to the story of its rapid growth?
Joe De Sena:“So, really Spartan is a 16-year-old start-up, I started in 2000, with this idea to create a social network of extreme athletes, crazy people. I never got that done. I’m not a technological person. In 2009, I got this idea, to scale it down, put on a few events, and a few hundred people showed up. But there was not a large appetite for it. Then I thought of the Spartan name, which is a badass name. It says everything you need to know, in the name. It had military style obstacles. I’d already done a ton of traditional triathlons, eco challenge events and ultra-runs, but I realized the masses are not going to do 300 hundred mile events, they are only going to participate in something that is digestible, doable. I’m excited about transforming lives, so it had to be something people could cope with. I wanted to do this on a large scale.”
“We’ve got a three and half miler, eight-miler and a half-marathon. People can progress through the season, and gain a trifecta medal for achieving all three distances. So what it does is create habits. If you do just one race and then your done, you haven’t really changed your life. But if you do three races in a year, you are going to bed earlier, waking earlier, eating and drinking less. You’re doing good things for longer period of time. I think that is why it is so transformational.
Very soon, Spartan was in Canada, UK, Europe, Eastern Europe, then we rolled out to South America. I just moved my family and myself to Singapore. We wanted to plant ourselves in Asia. I’ve been having my kids only watch TV in Mandarin the last five years, I don’t know if they like it too much. But I read a book years ago, Pumping Iron – by Arnold Schwarznegger, and I remember reading how he learned English. When he was in Europe he was watching television in English. So I thought, why can’t I do it in reverse? But it worked, and now they are on a bilingual programme in Singapore. Soon after we launched in Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, about to launch in Thailand and Indonesia.”
Yutang: How about China?
Joe De Sena:“We’re just about to launch in China. It’s an interesting place, it’s a once in 20 year opportunity in sports right now. The market is so big, it excites people to go there. Lot of people want to go there. But business seems to be done differently there. For me the biggest challenge is how to cope with this possible idea, that it is ok to copy and steal ideas. The other challenge is social media, and adapting to China’s own versions of it. We’ve already got our social media audiences built such as Facebook and Twitter, and now we have to start all over in China, on their Chinese social platforms. Then the geography, flying in and out often, and then the languagebarrier. Then there is the cost of race entry, it may require government subsidies to assist with that. Partnerships are tough too. Television is tough too, normally we get on television.”
Yutang: Social media plays an important role in the enjoyment of Spartan Race, how do you see that as a factor in its success?
Joe De Sena: “We get 8-10,000 people at these events, so they get bragging rights and get to show off their achievements. It’s a powerful element.”
Yutang: How about sponsorship, and what do you look for in a partner, and potentially in China?
Joe De Sena:“I’m a sponsors worst nightmare, because I’m extremely fickle about who I will accept. It’s got to be an authentic brand, stand for something healthy, no junk food or drinks. Most sponsors who want to align, are not at the top of their game. They don’t need you if they are doing well. “
Yutang: Why does it translate so well, into so many different countries do you think?
Joe De Sena: “There’s not a country we go to where it doesn’t translate immediately. Everybody wants to be a Spartan, who doesn’t want to be a Spartan? First female Olympian was a Spartan woman. They walked around naked because they were so beautiful. Women love the Spartan guys, Spartan guys love the Spartan women.”
Yutang: What do you, yourself, love about outdoor events and your events?
Joe De Sena: “I just love being outside in nature, it’s the greatest thing. I love that place you get to, where you just don’t want to take another step. It’s miserable, but a fun place at the same time, to reach that point.”
This article was assisted by Jonathan Powell, contributing writer of Yutang Sports at The Telegraph Business of Sport Conference in London.