Joseph DeSena has been an entrepreneur since the age of 8. He has a passion for life that moves the ball forward against all odds. Born in Queens, NY to a yoga teaching, meditation-practicing mother and an uber-entrepreneurial father, Joe learned simple techniques for forging ahead no matter the odds.
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Worst Entrepreneur moment
- What can go wrong will go wrong, Fire Nation, and Joe lays this out beautifully.
Entrepreneur AH-HA Moment
- Joe’s story involves a rock and a hard place – and Joe won :-)
What has you FIRED up?
- Spartan X. You’ll have to listen to learn more!
Best Business Book
- Spartan Up! by Joe De Sena
- Adrift by Steven Callahan
- Joe’s email (he’ll answer!)
- Spartan Up Podcast
Interviewee: I am. I've gotta tell you, I've done a bunch of interviews. Your voice is the best.
Interviewer: I love it. Joseph has been an entrepreneur since the age of eight. He has a passion for life that moves the ball forward against all laws. Born in Queens, New York to a yoga-teaching, meditation-practicing mother and an Uber entrepreneur father, Joe learned civil techniques for forging ahead no matter the odds. Joe, giving Fire Nation just a little insight, so share more about you personally and expound upon the biz.
Interviewee: Yeah so, like you said, started a long time ago. Had some fire in my belly that I'm trying to transfer to my four young children now, which is really a project I should give to NASA because you've gotta figure out, how do you do that.
Interviewee: But developed some skills. Went from fireworks to swimming pools to construction to Wall Street, graduated Cornell after fighting my way in for four semesters and ultimately landed in Vermont and somehow started up Spartan Race. It's been a hell of a journey and I think I love the journey more than the end product. I think I just love the process.
Interviewer: And that's kinda what I wanna dive into today, Joseph, is the process. I think that's a great theme for our listeners because Fire Nation, they're made up of entrepreneurs, wantapreneurs, cypreneurs, small business owners from all parts of the globe. And, I mean, your entire life has been that journey. And, let's be honest, you've hit a grand slam with the latest venture you've had but you never would've got to this point if you hadn't kept persevering through all those prior ones. And that's just really impactful for so many reasons.
And I wanna get there but I don't wanna start there. I wanna start at what you would consider your worst entrepreneurial moment. So, Joseph, if you could take us to that moment in time and share with our listeners, what is that worst entrepreneurial moment story?
Interviewee: Every day. It's not unique to one story over the last 30 years, every single day. Anybody who's built a business knows there's no tougher thing to do. I've done races all over the world. I've competed athletically. I've been absolutely mentally and physically broken but nothing compares to building a business. My wife and I argue over whether giving birth is more difficult. And I still – although I've never given birth, I've been there with her, I still argue. I know the women on your show are gonna hate me for this but building a business is tougher than giving birth. I mean, women were designed to give birth. Men weren’t -- and women weren't necessarily designed to run businesses.
Interviewer: Well, I'm going to stay out of that comment you just made. I'm not gonna weigh in there so we'll see what Fire Nation has to say about that. But I will vouch for the fact on how incredibly difficult it is to start a business, to grow a business.
Interviewee: Anything that can go wrong does go wrong, right. You can't make payroll at the end of the week. You've gotta eat less. Last you've got people that steal from you, the ones that are closest to you. Your factory burns down. Your customers leave you when you need them. The guy that you trained or the woman that you trained for 12 years as your apprentice starts up right across the street with a competing business. I mean, you've gotta get ready for war and at the same time you've gotta have the right temperament and motivational skills to keep everybody excited, motivated and charging forward.
So, I don't know, there's not something more difficult. With Spartan Race alone, I mean, I can go on for days in this conversation but with Spartan Race alone, we've been out of business three times. But I'm not one to quit and we hung in there. And people came and lent a helping hand right at those critical moments and we have survived.
And I attribute that to the persistence, the perseverance, the fact that all the men and women that are on the team stayed on when we couldn't pay them normal wages They knew times were tough but there was something much bigger we were doing here. We had the real – to use a buzzword, we had the real why, right.
Interviewee: We were changing lives. And it was no different two years ago than it is today. It's a super exciting place to be but I think the reward is so much greater because it was so difficult. I think if it was easy, I think if we had a bunch of funding from the beginning and a perfect business plan that was really well executed, it wouldn't feel as rewarding as it does today.
Interviewer: Joseph, you mentioned a couple things during that, what can go wrong will go wrong. And then you also equated it to war. And to be completely honest with you, I couldn't agree more. And this is actually coming from somebody, me, who was an armor officer in war in Iraq. And we actually had something that we always referred to called Audie Murphy's Law. And that's exactly what Audie Murphy's Law is, who was a tanker of old. It was what can go wrong in war, in battle will go wrong period. And you have to expect it and that's just a reality.
So what can our listeners, Joseph, like what can Fire Nation, people that are building businesses right now and are having these disasters happen to them every day, what's something you wanna share with them?
Interviewee: Well, you've gotta have the stomach for it, right. You've gotta have the ability to look past all the fires that are gonna be going on. And you have more experience than me. I was not – other than the war I'm describing I was not actually in battle. So hats off to you. I really appreciate your service –
Interviewer: Thank you.
Interviewee: -- and are thankful of it. My dad used to say, you've gotta have the stomach for it. And I guess I have this gift and entrepreneur's have this gift of knowing which fires to focus on at that moment. So there's fires going on everywhere but there's one that's about to cross the road and burn down the neighborhood. That's the one we gotta deal with right now. And you've gotta have that ability, a lot of people don't, to shut off all that other noise, all those other fires and just focus on that one today.
And then the other big one is, you're exhausted, and I’m gonna take a leap here and assume this is true for when you were in – when you were overseas in actual battle, but you're exhausted. It's the end of the day. Now you've gotta get ready for tomorrow.
Interviewer: Oh, yeah.
Interviewee: And so I can't tell you how many years I've gotten home at 11:00 at night, finally being done with my work, but unfortunately I'm not gonna spend two hours and prep for tomorrow morning at 5:00 am. Because if I don't I'm gonna fall behind tomorrow and then that just sets this whole domino effect and knocks me off my game and [inaudible][00:07:09] game.
So you've gotta be relentless, be able to make extremely quick decisions and be able to prioritize. And if you can do that, you'll survive this battle.
Interviewer: Fire Nation, which fires to focus on at that moment in time is a critical takeaway that Joseph just said. And also be relentless. I love that. Just be relentless. So Joseph, we're gonna do a shift, my friend. We're gonna talk about another time in your life where we're just gonna talk about a moment that you would consider one of your aha moments, an epiphany that you had. Maybe a first Spartan race, maybe for something else, it's totally your choice. But tell us a story about you having an aha moment. And then even more importantly, walking us through a couple of the steps you took to actually turn that into success.
Interviewee: So it's gonna sound very cliché. It's gonna sound like a story but it's an actual occurrence. My dad, it was the '80s, we were doing a bunch of landscaping work next door to the house. I was young. He asked me to move a bolder. I'd been working for weeks with him and his crew. I was the youngest – I was a kid. And he said, I need you to move that boulder.
And I worked on it for hours and hours and hours. I couldn't move it. And I approached him and all kinds of work was going on around us, Everything was getting done. People were being productive except for me. I could not move this rock. And I said, dad, I can't move it. He said, oh, don't worry about it. I'm gonna get somebody who can.
And a light bulb went off and I said, hang on a second, somebody who can? If somebody else can do it, I can do it. And I went back and I moved the rock. And so something went on in my head that said, there's always a way, right. If Kennedy could put a man on the moon, there is a way for me to move this rock. You can always get the job done. And that moment transformed my entire life.
And it sounds like a children's book you'd read, but it actually happened to me. So if that meant I had to start getting up a little earlier to get the job done, if I had to convince people to work for a little less, if I had to bang on a few more potential customers' doors, whatever I had to do I was gonna get the job done if the job needed to be done. And it transformed my life.
Interviewer: It means a lot that you shared that specific story with us because to me what it really shares is how one mindset shift can truly change the entire direction of your life. It can change how you approach every situation, how you deal with every problem, how you deal with every roadblock that comes in your way from that point forward. I mean, if that hadn't happened to you at that age, if that epiphany, that light bulb hadn't gone on, I mean, who knows what would've happened with Joseph DeSena.
Interviewee: I'd be a different person.
Interviewer: You'd be a different person.
Interviewee: If you have the time I'll tell you where that eventually led is I applied to Cornell University. I had no intention of going to college. I was gonna go back and run my swimming pool and construction company in Queens after high school. And a friend of mine said, let's go to Cornell. My dad's a professor, he can get us in. I said, well, my grades suck. Don't worry, my dad'll get us in. We applied and we had great interviews but they denied both of us.
And he said, well, here's what my dad said, we can go extra mural. We can take three classes when all of our classmates enter college. They're gonna take five classes because they're accepted. We can do three. If we do well we'll just reapply at the end of that first semester. So I said, can you really do that? He said, yeah, they don't really like it but you can do it. You can do it pretty much at any college. So I said, awesome. All right, we'll do that.
I said, so what I'm gonna do is this summer while I'm running my construction and pool business, I'm gonna go to St. John's in Queens and I'll learn how to study because I really haven't studies all through high school. So he said, well, screw that. He goes, I'm gonna go to Vegas. I wanna party all summer because we – well, he said, I mean, he had different logic. He said, if we're gonna buckle down in September, why would I start now?
Interviewee: Right? So it kinda made sense what he was doing but I was on a different path. I wanted to get a head of the game. So I did my summer at St. John's. We both entered in September. We both killed it kind of. He didn't do as well as I did but we did well enough. We reapplied. We both got denied again. And we got denied because the acceptance officer said, look, I can't have kids using this system to get into Cornell University.
So he decided, he made a left turn, he said, screw it, I'm gonna go to UNLV, I like Vegas anyway. I said, I moved that rock years ago. I'm going to Cornell, and I reapplied. And I did it again, I did well and they denied me, and I reapplied again and they denied me. And it took four semesters but I finally got – it was me against them and they finally gave in. And it was because of that rock.
Interviewer: What was it like opening up the acceptance letter? Was it relief, was it joy, was it just like, no biggie. I mean, what was that?
Interviewee: It's funny. It wasn't a letter. It's funny how it finally happened. It was fourth semester. I met with the woman who was running a division of human ecology. Cornell University has many schools, the architecture school, the veterinarian school. There's a human ecology school, they study nutrition, they study textiles, etcetera, economics.
And this woman I was meeting with runs the textile department of human ecology. And she sits down with me and she says, Joseph, how do you like textiles? I said, well, I've sold some T-shirts over the years while I've been running my pool business and construction company. She said, well, we have 92 women in this department. We only have one man. I said, I love textiles.
Interviewer: Yeah, me too, all of a sudden.
Interviewee: So that was my acceptance letter. And she let me in right there on the spot. And, yeah, it was a game changer. It changed my entire life. I'm bragging about it here to you guys that I got to go to an Ivy League school. I'm very involved with Cornell now. We're actually putting a Spartan Race at Cornell University come this spring, I believe. And it changed my life. I mean, the rock changed my life. Every – I just keep moving forward. And I don't know if I'm just extremely lucky or if I make my own luck or what, but it just keeps happening.
Interviewer: Now, I do wanna take a little bit of a left turn here because I'm just really into podcasting, for obvious reasons. I mean, I've been doing it for a long time now. I do a 70-a-week show. I'm really into this medium. And I'm also big time into fitness so I've definitely known of you, Joseph, and what you've been doing for a long time. I've admired it. It really just resonates with my military background too. Just getting in there brings me back to those days. What made you decide to start a podcast? What was that process?
Interviewee: Well, I didn't even know what a podcast was.
Interviewee: And I just didn't realize how big they were as a medium. It just seemed kinda fringe. And I'm not very computer savvy. You know you had to call me on this because I couldn't figure out how to call you. And we did the book. We did Spartan of the book and some people suggested we get on some of these podcasts. So we did a few interviews.
And I was in Canada, I was in an airport and a woman came up to me and said, hey, I know you from such-and-such podcast. And I thought, oh, that's weird. And I was in Slovakia. And I'm at a race or something and two people come up and said, hey, I saw you on such-and-such podcast, a different podcast. I said, I don't even remember that podcast.
So and then I was in London. I'm not making this up.
Interviewer: I believe it.
Interviewee: I'm in a Reebok store and three women wanna take pictures with me and they're like, we saw you on this podcast. And I thought, I've gotta do a podcast. It's unbelievable. I don't – who are these people? And they were all regular people. It wasn't like people that are trapped in their homes and have just computers to use. And so I said to a woman who lives in Pittsville, Vermont with me who's friendly with the family, I said, look, you could probably figure out this podcast thing but if we're gonna do it I wanna ask some amazing people if they'd be on the show –
Interviewee: -- like Richard Branson or the guy that shot Ben Laden or whoever –
Interviewer: Zack Nash.
Interviewee: Zack? Zack's awesome, the best. I love that guy.
Interviewer: So cool.
Interviewee: And everybody said yes. Everybody I called said sure. And so I jumped on a plane and I –
Interviewer: Oh, I just saw Steven Pressfield. What?
Interviewee: Yeah, we did Pressfield [inaudible][00:15:52] –
Interviewer: That's so cool.
Interviewee: -- unbelievable. And so we said, if we're gonna do it I wanna do it on location. I wanna be like air dropped into these places. And I'm a maniac so I said, if we're gonna do it let's buckle down for three months. I wanna do 150 of them in three months, and we did it. And my goal is to have 500 of these things done. I'm not like you. I'm not gonna do every single day.
Interviewer: Yeah, don't try.
Interviewee: That's insane. And it's been a lot of fun.
Interviewer: Yeah, it's been incredibly successful. I mean, you're consistently one of the top ranked podcasts. And I just have a random question, just kind of continuing along these lines. What made you and your team decide to go the business category route instead of the health and fitness route?
Interviewee: I'm gonna sound like an idiot here. I have no idea.
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah.
Interviewee: I don't know what happened. I'm not into those details. I'm just like – I'm just interviewing people. And the questions I'm asking are really about the passion I have for life. I wanna know how you become successful.
Interviewee: I – let me – just bear with me a second here.
Interviewee: When I had that swimming pool business, I had 750 customers. And the only reason I'm bringing this up is it's really a [inaudible][00:17:04] recently when I'm trying to figure out how to take my young children and turn them into super humans., I think about my childhood. Are there components of it that I have to emulate for them to get the good stuff I have and not the bad stuff?
And then it occurred to me, hang on a second, I have these 750 customers that I could go in their house, I could eat in their fridge, I could sleep on their couch. They were like my friends. I was that close with them. And I had them for over a decade. And what happened was I could see that the – I mean, of course every cultural background, black, Chinese, Italian, German, Catholic, Jewish, didn't matter, I had them all.
And there were some that cheated on their wives, some that cheated on their husbands, some that did extremely well financially, some that failed, some that lost their home. And I got to just check off boxes and say, well, when I have a family I'm gonna do that. I'm not doing that. You know what I mean? So I got this great set of information that I think it's unheard of. I don't think many people get that.
Interviewer: Yeah, that's fascinating. And now you're able to get that kind of information and share it with other people in a medium with you being a podcast host and interviewing these amazing entrepreneurs. And –
Interviewee: Yeah, and apply those things I learned to my question/answer – we do 20 minutes on the podcast, and I use all that stuff I learned subconsciously during those years when I was younger in the podcasts. It's just a continuation of that really.
Interviewer: So let me ask you a couple questions that just me personally again, I'm pretty interested about your answers too. You're such a fitness guy, you're disciplines but again at the same time you're busy. I mean, you're all over the place. You're being air dropped into 150 different homes in three months. You're doing some crazy things but ideally, Joseph, what do the first 60 minutes of your day look like?
Interviewee: All right. So when I'm home – I was only home 90 days this year but when I'm home, I was home this morning; I have to get up around 5:15. I go into the kitchen. I'm usually doing warm water, room temperature water with lemon. And people should not do this in their own home what I'm gonna describe right now, but I immediately get on my phone and my computer immediately. And I probably get, at that point, about 30 or 40 emails I've gotta catch up on that came in over the night. I'm checking a couple of things on the internet.
By then my kids are starting to wake up because we've got a 5:45 workout session every morning. So at 5:45, 5:50 we're rolling into the barn and we're working out. They're doing – I gotta say I'm embarrassed – they're doing a workout that I can't even do. I think very few human beings could do what they do. I don't even wanna tell them that they've taken it to a level that's almost bordering on like criminal.
Interviewer: Oh, that's too much.
Interviewee: And I stay on the outside while they're doing their workout and I'm doing my workout. And then 7:00 a.m. we're eating breakfast together. I've got my special green juice I've been testing on them for three years.
Interviewer: Can we get the ingredients to that or at least some of them?
Interviewee: It' all super foods. It's the spirulinas, the grasses, the – I'll get you a complete list in an email but it's –
Interviewer: Would love that.
Interviewee: Yeah, it's a pretty incredible food. The company that makes it for me is Boku B-O-K-U and I know the owners real well. And it's a test. So far the kids are still healthy so it's working. And I do my green juice, we eat breakfast and then they ship off to school. And then I'm in my kitchen the rest of the day getting extremely unhealthy on the computer. And then we do it all over again at 5:45 at night. We hit the gym for another hour and then I'm in bed. I'm in bed, I would say when I'm home, by 9:30, 10:00. And if I'm not home, which is 260 days a year, I'm in a hotel room doing it or down in the hotel gym or going outside for a run or something like that.
Interviewer: So Joseph, you have a lot of things going on right now. What is the one thing that you can share with Fire Nation that has you most fired up?
Interviewee: The thing that I have that's most fired up is I'm working on a secretive project called Spartan X. And I don't know how much I can tell you but the goal –
Interviewer: Well, if it helps, this is gonna go live the first week in April, so we still have a couple months [inaudible][00:21:43] –
Interviewee: Oh, good, good, good. So Spartan X is my attempt at a curriculum that, look, I want everybody to come out and do the race, like crawl under the barbed wire. But not everybody will. We'll reach a million people this year. I've got 7 billion people [inaudible] around the globe.
Interviewee: And the only way for me to do that is it's gotta be curriculum-based. It's gotta be something I can deliver online. So it's the science behind what goes on at the race delivered to, hopefully in that medium, right, on a computer where you could start to do some of the things we described with the rock and running a business. And so I'm most excited about that because I can touch more people faster and get them motivated and get them ripped off their couch. I'm super pumped.
Interviewer: Love that. Well, we will definitely have more information for you, Fire Nation, when Spartan X gets more out into the public eye. And Joseph, we're about to enter the lightning round. But before we do, let's take a minute to thank our sponsors.
Joseph, welcome to the lightning round where you get to share incredible resources and mind-blowing answers. Sound like a plan?
Interviewee: Let's do it.
Interviewer: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Interviewee: Fear, I would say. I would say – but again, I was very young when I started but fear is usually – what can go wrong will go wrong and you fear that.
Interviewer: What's the best advice you've ever received?
Interviewee: Go big or go home.
Interviewer: What's a personal habit that you have that you believe contributes to your success?
Interviewer: Bringing that back. Now do you have an internet resource that you like, like [inaudible][00:23:32] that you can share with our listeners?
Interviewee: I don't even know how to turn my computer on.
Interviewer: What are you doing when you're on your computer all day long?
Interviewee: Answering emails.
Interviewer: Okay. So you like Gmail? Can we say that?
Interviewee: I like – Steve Jobs would be happy about that – I like Apple Mail, whatever that is. My Gmail's connected to my Apple thing and I just like it.
Interviewer: Cool, make it happen. If you could recommend one book for our listeners, Joseph, what would it be and why?
Interviewee: Selfishly "Spartan Up" because I wrote it but aside from that I would say "Adrift" A-D-R-I-F-T. Don't know the author but it was a guy stuck at sea for 72 days. And if you ever dare to complain about anything in life after reading that book, you should rethink that complaint.
Interviewer: "Adrift: "76 Days Lost At Sea," Steve Callahan. Wow, impressive. And, Fire Nation, I know you love audio. You're listening to Entrepreneur on Fire and I'm sure you'll soon, if you're not already, you'll be listening to Joseph DeSena on Spartan Up. And I've also teamed up with Audible so if you haven't already, you can get an amazing audio book for free at EOFireBook.com.
Joseph, this next question's the last of the lightning round, but it's a doozey. Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning in a brand new world identical to earth but you knew no one. You still have all the experience and knowledge you currently have. Your food and shelter is taken care of but all you have is a laptop and $500. What would you do in the next seven days?
Interviewee: I'd probably leave the laptop behind and go for a long run.
Interviewer: Maybe a marathon.
Interviewee: Much – yeah, much longer than that. I'd go running for seven days straight.
Interviewer: Because your food and shelter's taken care of too so you have nothing to worry about.
Interviewee: Yeah, assuming I don't have any kids in this new world, I'm just – I'm going – I might run around the globe.
Interviewer: Do you listen to anything, music, podcasts, audio books when you're running?
Interviewee: Most of the time no, although every time I do go running I wish I did bring music along.
Interviewer: Cool. Joseph, let's end today on fire with you sharing one parting piece of guidance, the best way that we can connect with you, then we'll say goodbye.
Interviewee: Best way to connect with me is Spartan.com. Check out the website. SpartanPodcast.com, check out the podcast. And feel free to send me an email if you've got any questions or insights you wanna share Joe@Spartan.com.
Interviewer: Joe@Spartan.com. And what's that one parting piece of guidance?
Interviewee: I would say wake up early and get something done – sweat, wake up early and sweat. It'll change your life.
Interviewer: Fire Nation, you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with and you have been hanging out with Joseph and JLD today. So keep up the heat and head over to EOFire.com. Just type Joseph in t he search bar. His [inaudible][00:26:41] page will pop right up with all the links that he's been sharing, his book, his website, his podcast site. It's all there for you. And Joe, I just wanna thank you personally for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today. For that we salute you and we'll catch you on the flipside.
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