by Patricia Sellers
A lot of companies–including Coca-Cola
, Walt Disney
, and a parade of automakers–have a vested interest in a lot of people watching this Sunday’s Super Bowl. A record-breaking 100 million viewers is the target audience advertisers dream about.
One entrepreneur I talked with this week doesn’t have the big bucks (close to $3 million) to buy a 30-second spot on Super Bowl XLIV. But Randy Hetrick, the founder of a hot little company called Fitness Anywhere, has a vested interest in the New Orleans Saints beating the Indianapolis Colts. That’s because Saints quarterback Drew Brees is an investor in Fitness Anywhere. And the company’s product, a suspension-strap strength-training system called TRX, had something to do with Brees’ stunning comeback from serious injury a few years ago.
First, a bit about TRX’s odd origin. Hetrick, who is now 44, was a Navy SEAL–one of those elite special-ops military agents who conducts clandestine warfare. A lifetime super-jock, he got really frustrated inside ships and submarines and other tight quarters where he was unable to exercise. So he concocted a harness system—initially out of parachute webbing stitched together by boat repair tools–so he could use his own body weight as resistance against gravity.
Hetrick’s fellow SEALs took to using the harness system, and they invented a dozen exercises for it. But it wasn’t until Hetrick quit the SEALs, after 14 years, and went on to Stanford Business School that it dawned on him that his training gizmo could lead to his next career. Working out at the gym at Stanford, he realized that the exercise system was a hit with the strength trainers and other fitness fanatics too. “That’s when I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s a business in this,” he says.
Hetrick left Stanford, MBA in tow, in 2003 and spent the next couple of years lining up investors (he’s raised $6 million in debt and equity) and manufacturers and customers for the product he called TRX–for total resistance exercise. His biggest misstep early on, he says, was trying to sell mainly into specialty retail stores. “The retail channel is brutal on the little guy,” he explains. “They’re not interested in untested product. And they’re utterly savage in terms of margin.”
So he scratched that strategy and decided to target what he calls “pro-sumers.” These are coaches and pro athletes and other influential folks in athletic world who will spread the word about his product and help get TRX distributed in colleges and pro teams and health clubs.
Enter Drew Brees in 2006. Brees started using the TRX trainer after he had surgery to repair a torn labrum and partially torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, his throwing arm. “I’m addicted,” Brees told
about the TRX trainer. To Hetrick and Fitness Anywhere, that endorsement was as valuable as any ad on the Super Bowl.
Since then, a slew of pro teams have adopted the TRX system for training: the San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers in football, the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics in basketball, and the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies in baseball. Golfer Phil Mickelson and swimmers Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin are TRX users, according to Fitness Anywhere. And TRX is big in mixed martial arts, used by the champs of the UFC, Ultimate Fighting.
Another user is Bob Damon, the North American president of search firm Korn Ferry International
, who introduced me to Hetrick. Damon is what Hetrick calls a “fitnatic”–a lifetime super-jock who takes on fitness as a sport and seriously competes against himself. Damon, who travels plenty, packs the TRX Suspension Training Pro Pack, weighing 1.5 pounds, in his suitcase and attaches it to hotel-room doors to work out on the road. Damon invested in Fitness Anywhere two years ago.
Brees invested last year. Hetrick says that Brees, is the unusual sports superstar who takes executive education classes in the off-season. Last summer, Hetrick ran into Brees at Stanford and Brees asked him, “Is it too late? Can I invest?”
Hetrick accepted Brees’ money, gladly, and says that’s the end of fund-raising for Firness Anywhere for the foreseeable future. The San Francisco-based company did about $15 million in revenues last year, and CEO Hetrick expects to more than double that in 2010. Right now, he’s awaiting some big orders from the Department of Defense, already a major customer. “Profitability is liberating,” Hetrick says, noting that his start-up made a profit for the first time last year. He’s feeling a lot less body-resistance, business-wise at least, than he used to.