What is a CEO to do when his customers are unhappy and want answers? Hide behind his screen and employees, or take their questions and concerns head-on? Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena does the latter, as one would expect, in the latest episode of Unbreakable CEO.
Plus, virtual races begin to take off and racing finally returns, while the De Sena Quarantine Crew in the mountains of Pittsfield, VT continues to grow … and grow … and grow.
These are our 10 favorite quotes from Episode 4. Watch the episode in full above, and click on the timestamps to go directly to the quotes.
“We’re gonna try to lobby the government and see if we can get money. If the airlines are asking for $50 billion, and Boeing’s asking for $60 billion, what about the event industry? What about helping all those people that come out and sweat and work hard?” (5:04)
Joe fought not only for Spartan, but for the entire endurance sports, fitness, and events industries. He was ultimately successful in his efforts, leading to the rehiring of many furloughed employees. The Endurance Sports Coalition was also born.
“It’s gonna be gone in a month. The fitness industry will be gone. We’ll be starting over.” (5:30)
In a sobering moment, Joe — usually as optimistic as anyone — made a grim prediction about the future of the fitness industry. Luckily, he seems to have been proved wrong.
“Believe it or not, there were a lot of customers that were purchasing tickets and saying, ‘I don’t even want to race. You changed my life. Your organization changed my life, so I just want to support you guys during this time.'” (6:25)
Many customers were frustrated about Spartan’s no-refund policy — free deferrals are offered, as well as some other options — in the wake of the pandemic, but a surprisingly large number supported the company even in the absence of races. Those gestures had a lasting, meaningful impact on Joe.
“My No. 1 policy in life, and in business, is the customer is always right. Take care of the customer first, and it’s gonna take care of the business.” (6:44)
Joe’s main tenet, both personally and professionally, was put to the test as a result of the pandemic, which is what made this period so excruciatingly difficult for him.
“I actually held Zoom calls with about 200 folks. I said, ‘Lay it on me. Yell at me. Scream at me. I’ll try my best to explain how this works.'” (7:15)
To his credit, Joe didn’t hide behind his social media videos and instead put his money where his mouth is, taking personal calls from frustrated customers. He encouraged them to speak their minds and be blunt with him, and they were happy to oblige.
“My goal here, with this phone call, was to try to explain the predicament that we are in.” (7:42)
Joe took time to explain to customers what goes into each race, from the moment it’s announced to the moment it occurs, in justifying the difficult decision to not issue refunds. His glimpse into what it takes to put on an event was fascinating:
“As a company, if you could just play along with me and envision how this works: We decide, a year ago, that we’re gonna put on an event, let’s say, in New York City. What has to happen is a ton of our employees have to get engaged — hundreds and hundreds of employees we have that are working on all these events. We’ve gotta go out and secure insurance. We’ve gotta go out and secure T-shirts. We’ve gotta go out and secure medals. We’ve gotta go out and secure heavy equipment. We’ve gotta find a venue, we’ve gotta pay for a venue. We’ve gotta do a deal with a hotel.
“We’ve gotta do a deal with an airline because we’ve gotta fly 50, 60 people in. I’ve gotta bring in 1,000 volunteers. I’ve gotta get a bunch of technology there to make sure we have accurate timing … A whole machine goes into process where we start spending all this money.”
“I kind of like when people are mad at me, because if you turn those people, they’re friends for life.” (8:46)
Interesting take here from Joe, who admits that he does derive some satisfaction from these difficult conversations with customers. And don’t just take his word for it. “There’s psychology behind that,” he says. “It’s not just, like, random.”
“Guys, I don’t know what else to tell you. If we don’t have the cash, I don’t know what to tell you.” (9:29)
Not all of those conversations are enjoyable, though. Some, as in this instance, are almost unbearable. A clearly rattled Joe is rendered speechless after customers find fault in his explanation.
“It was the absolute worst moment to acquire another event business.” (10:05)
Joe is of course speaking about Tough Mudder, which Spartan acquired back in February. Needless to say, nobody at that time could have comprehended the unprecedented challenges that were on the horizon.
“I challenged the team, and I said, ‘Find a market where they will let us have an event.'” (13:23)
Unbreakable CEO airs Wednesdays at 11 a.m. on Spartan’s YouTube channel.