In the fitness business, the origin story of TRX Training is the stuff of legend. Using spare nylon webbing, Navy SEAL Randy Hetrick created a system of suspension training when on deployments in locales without the luxury of a gym.
“It was originally designed for just the upper body to work on climbing muscles to help climb up the side of a freighter on a caving ladder with 90 pounds of gear on your back and high motivation to get up quickly,” says Hetrick. “So I came up with this unsophisticated, but highly functional, no-frills harness. That eventually became the TRX suspension trainer.”
Fast forward a few years and Hetrick went to Stanford for an MBA. He didn’t think of his training harness as a potential business until coaches and athletes at the Stanford gym started approaching him, wondering abut the wacky contraption he was training on between classes. A decade later, TRX Training is a $50 million company.
Now Hetrick is helping to find the Next Big Thing in fitness as a judge on Spike TV’s new reality show Sweat Inc., along with former Biggest Loser star Jillian Michaels and celebrity trainer Obi Obadike. The show, which premiered this week, is billed as Shark Tank-meets-American Idol, but neither of those really ever had a judge so recently in the same shoes as the contestants. Hetrick says his strengths as a judge is that the memory of being a boot-straps entrepreneur trying to build a brand is still so fresh.
“When I launched I was exactly like the contestants on this show–I had no money, a little bit of debt to get things started, and not a lot of time to figure things out,” says Hetrick. “My role is to be the business of training guy because I walked their path, with all the excitement, exhilaration and terror. My toughest comments were when they showed up without their A-game, because I would’ve killed to have the opportunity they had on this show. People just respond differently to pressure. Often you have this brief moment in the sun for early stage companies, and when it arrives you need to step up because it may not come back. The times I got most frustrated was when they choked, either being overconfident, or the froze up, or just hadn’t put in the amount of energy and effort required. That was the only time I’d get frustrated, when I felt they were selling themselves short.”
One of the most consistent challenges Sweat Inc. contestants would have is having a plan to make their concept or product into a company and brand. “It’s the classic can’t see the forest for the trees–you’re so close to your concept that all you’re thinking about is how to make it great and effective,” says Hetrick. “Well, say you do that, what happens then? How do you introduce it to a large number of people? That was a very common oversight. It’s also very common in the fitness and training industry, in general.”
Hetrick considers himself a brand geek, saying of all the things he learned at Stanford, far and away the one that sticks out the most in his mind and has been most useful were the concepts around branding, the power of a brand, telling a company’s story, and how a strong brand can be the bullhorn to tell that story. And while branding is obviously important in every market for just about every product, Hetrick says it plays a surprisingly large role in fitness. “Great fitness is great fun as well, and a lot of trainers and training concepts over the years have missed that point,” he says. “People want to have fun and have a certain association with the type of exercise they choose to spend their precious time with, and apply it to their life. So creating a brand experience that people can get excited about, tell their friends about and be motivated to use, is tied to directly to the brand they meet when they first try your product or concept.”
And as he’s on TV evaluating aspiring fitness brands, Hetrick continues to build his own. “Picking and building a brand is not all daisies and sunshine, it also means you have to make some very tough decisions,” he says. “For us, I wanted TRX to stay true to its training roots, never make false claims, or ‘cash in’ in anyway that would compromise that brand. It’s part of the reason that TRX is just now ready, we hope, to go from something the pros use to a more mainstream brand. The supply chain, brand strength, the credibility that got me invited on this TV show, it’s all the foundation for where we’re going next.”