In February of 2010 I met with Will and Guy, the founders of Tough Mudder, at their offices in Brooklyn. Their first event was still months away and they were billing it as the ‘TOUGHEST event on the planet.’ I knew GORUCK gear could match that tagline and I had a bunch of buddies who could come and prove it. Tough Mudder was one of about a dozen companies (but the only events one) I tried to work with back in those early days. I didn’t know anything about how to build a brand via Google Adwords, Facebook, or traditional advertising. Nor did I really want to. The culture of the Green Berets is to force multiply. Meaning that though Green Berets are extremely qualified to do all sorts of things unilaterally, life is easier if you build someone else’s Army up and get them to help. Will, Tough Mudder’s CEO, liked the story of Special Forces guys running his event with rucks stuffed with bricks. So it happened fast, as it usually does in start-up mode, and he put us up on their site as the ‘Team to Beat.’ I had no idea where it would lead, but I committed to getting a bunch of my old Green Beret buddies to come do Tough Mudder with me. To jump to the crux of this post, eventually the Challenge was born and I wasted no time misunderstanding what exactly it was – people have an amazing ability to rationalize what they already have decided sometimes. My thought was that the Challenge would promote the gear. And GORUCK was a gear company, right? – so that made perfect sense. But before almost immediately, I knew I was wrong.
May 2, 2010: Tough Mudder’s first ever event. To back up a few hundred thousand participants, this is before Tough Mudder was Tough Mudder. At this point they were far from established and they were dead set on overtaking both Warrior Dash and Spartan Race in the marketplace. I was happy to meet them and to work with them, and Will committed to us in a way I’ll always be grateful for. Without Tough Mudder, the Challenge would not have been born. If there was a Class 000 to the Challenge, it’s pictured above. My buddies and I ran the event together, as a team, and had a blast. For us it was kind of like a reunion.
And life is short and a gift so never forget to Carpe Diem. We camped out on the course and raised hell the whole night prior. I’ll offer a big smile and say that those details belong to the guys who were there and the security guards that chased us in golf carts around the mountain. Unsuccessfully, I might add, but I say that with a chuckle not a sneer. Those guys would have had fun at our bonfire just like everyone else did. That was one of the main takeaways of the weekend. People wanted to be on our team. Our drinking team, our rucking team, any team we were a part of, they wanted in. My initial reaction, which I kept to myself, was – yeah, that’s easy. Go earn your Green Beret and we’ll see ya in a few years. Obviously my thinking evolved.
Oh yeah, our gear. It’s great shit and that’s a plug. I spent roughly 2 years of my life on GR1 and it functions really well. Doing Tough Mudder and getting some pics was meant to showcase the fact that we had the ‘toughest rucksack on the planet.’ And we do, but we just don’t say it ourselves like that anymore. We’d prefer to let you say it for us because nobody will ever trust a company like they trust a friend.
Oh yeah, and we had a tent set-up at Tough Mudder, too. We sold next to nothing and everyone told us our stuff cost too much or, even worse, they told us nothing at all. Silence is the most frustrating critic and if you’ve started a business or you’re doing anything and the world is silent, you better change something.
Tough Mudder was great for awareness but never resulted in gear sales for us, and GORUCK needed revenue. We had no events at that time and I was still convinced we were a gear company. Jack and I rejected 90% of our first shipment of rucksacks for quality reasons. Meaning, they were not to our standard. The good news is nobody wanted to buy them anyway, the bad news was that we had a manufacturing nightmare on our hands for the next couple years. It’s a much more refined power struggle now between us and our vendors (based in the USA of course) where we smile and say thank you but this isn’t good enough and it has to get better or we’ll keep rejecting bags. This is a true art to pull off without being completely hated – after all, humans are involved and in no way is building rucks as simple as just finding a contract sew shop and giving them your money. If you do that, you will fail. Manufacturing is a process of difficult and tedious work. Process of course meaning it’s a never ending journey with no destination. Building gear is difficult because it’s done by humans and has to last a lifetime. Events are easier in that we are 100% engaged while they’re going on, but once they’re over, they’re over. There’s no lifetime guarantee for events, even though they might change your life like they did mine. But I’ll let our GORUCK Tough community speak more to that – it’ll mean more that way.
Ah yes my Java. So after Tough Mudder it was kinda like the music stopped because the stage disappeared. This didn’t phase Java one bit, I might add. So we set out to travel the country. Don’t ask me why unless you want some rambling discourse about getting out there and being who you are is where it’s at. You can find that trip on this blog as the ‘Summer 2010‘ posts. The pics aren’t that good and there’s no real story to anything, but there was a lot of adventure. I’ve been passionate about the idea of co-branding since founding GORUCK. Again, it’s my roots in force multiplication. Getting larger companies to work with you before you’re established is not for the faint of heart. But I saw bigger, better brands out there to co-brand with. Such as America and the Unites States Special Forces. So our association with them became the story of GORUCK that we put center stage. Then there are brands that I liked who could help, such as Tough Mudder. The first step in building your own brand is to have a brand worth building. Before anyone knows about you, you’re still your brand whether you know it or not. So you might as well just accept it. You are what you do kind of thing. Every decision I made was meant to strengthen GORUCK and raise awareness for what we had and where we wanted to go. My goal was to become the very best in American manufacturing. And so we were going to prove the gear at venues like Tough Mudder and I was going to tour around the country with Java and a few other folks and co-brand with America and adventure and my story in Special Forces. And it was not just that easy.
Before the trip my grandmother gave me my grandfather’s old money clip. I’m always partial to a story I feel I’m a part of – who isn’t? The world is full of things you can buy, but those things don’t really interest me. My grandfathers, on the other hand, will interest me till the day I die.
I really didn’t know what I was doing when I started GORUCK. I think this was a blessing because I didn’t even know the rules I was supposed to know. All I really knew was that I didn’t want to be that ‘Special Forces guy’ who whored out his past to make a buck. Of all the things I hope to succeed with, not being that guy is right up there with having GORUCK live up to my grandfathers’ expectations for what a company should stand for. Anyway, with ‘Something Big’ in the works – that was the plan at least – Java and I traveled around. City after city, state after state. We met people, we got into adventures. Like Caine in Kung Fu. Except remember, there was no Challenge, there was no ‘GORUCK’ yet. There was a GORUCK Truck full of inventory and no buyers.
Of all the pics from that summer of 2010, the one above of me and jav at the finish of the Chicago Half-Marathon is my favorite. It takes me back to that moment and how it felt, the same way that You Could Be Mine by Guns ‘N Roses is inseparable from that chase scene in Terminator 2. Total classic by the way. GORUCK had no money, the road was a grind, and the present was tough enough to figure out, let alone the future. But this moment was magic. I was just a guy running with my dog. And we had a blast. I’ve heard from older, wiser people than I that I’ll look back with a wistful eye at the days when GORUCK had nothing. This picture is that moment. And it didn’t feel like we had nothing, it felt like we had everything.
But manufacturing was something I could not escape. At this time (still Summer 2010) I was GORUCK’s only employee, if you can call it that. We had one vendor to make our rucks, and I learned a lot about manufacturing from that process. Namely, I learned how it could be easier if a machine could just spit our rucks out. But that machine doesn’t exist. I think sewing and manufacturing are honorable trades, done by people who know how to build things with their hands. The value in GORUCK gear comes because it’s not easy to make, it’s not easy to consistently control quality, and it’s not easy to consistently accept the costs associated with our liberal approach to making the customer happy at every turn. Old fashioned values mean more because fewer companies have them. It it were easy, everyone would do it I guess.
But people gravitate toward what they’re good at in life. And I’m not an operations guy. So I hit the road and turned to promoting the brand. Somehow in that process I learned how to take a decent pic and started dabbling in story telling. So maybe it wasn’t for naught. But the summer adventure cost more money than we had, and it took a tole on everyone involved in any way. If I had it to do over again, I guess I wouldn’t travel to all 48 continuous states with no real purpose. But I’m glad I don’t have it to do over again. We have a beautiful country with great people and it’s a good thing to experience first hand. Just please don’t forget about the good folks out there next time you want to throw your TV out the window because some talking head says we’re in decline.
I had a couple phone calls with Will that summer but Tough Mudder was not a big part of what I was doing and we weren’t a big part of what they were doing. It was more of a let’s see where this goes type deal. But response to GORUCK had been great on his site and it seemed that Tough Mudders wanted more of what we were offering at GORUCK. Will and I put our heads together and came up with a concept whereby I would create training sessions for each Tough Mudder event that we would call Tough Mudder GORUCK Challenges. Will’s word choice was that he wanted me to establish ‘Fight Clubs’ around the country before each Tough Mudder. So I always find it funny when people nowadays compare the GORUCK community to Fight Club since that was literally what it was supposed to be.
The shot above from Class 001 in San Fran was something I was leery of publicizing on Tough Mudder’s site. I did not want the Challenge, even in its infancy, to appear to be just a beat-down and I hated looking like a drill sergeant. The you-suck-do-more-push-ups events have failed since the beginning of time because they have no soul. Anybody can make someone fail, but it takes a little more heart to show people how to succeed. Beat downs work in the military because there is already a higher purpose – serving America and the guy next to you – and you need to instill discipline to work together for that higher purpose. But a civilian version of boot-camp? It’ll never work because it’s not sustainable for the people getting beat down. I got over it, though, and the picture worked and people wanted to see what GORUCK was all about. A lot of people were probably turned off by the utter secrecy of some event they had never heard of that was led by some Green Beret. Am I gonna die type deal? As for the secrecy, I came by it honestly. It was pretty hard to tell people about the Challenge since I didn’t have a true format in my head. The beauty of how it developed is that it was interactive. I saw what worked for people on the spot and gravitated toward that. This approach made it impossible to google and totally unpredictable. But in a magical kind of way.
But back to the whole beat down thing. While it may have looked like a beat down based on how we portrayed it on Tough Mudder’s site, the Challenge itself did have a soul from the very beginning. There was a higher purpose and the higher purpose was your team. And if you lost your beer in the ocean and had a successful recovery operation, life got better for everyone. Of course there was no policy of not drinking during the Challenge back then. It didn’t even occur to me that people would want to drink during this kind of a thing. I mean, it was supposed to be really serious stuff, hard stuff. Right? Yeah, that’s where Beaux and Zach set the standard, spiritually anyway, for what the Challenge would become. Aka welcome to Good Livin’.
Oh yeah, the gear. The shot above of Zach with his GR2 was exactly what I wanted to get out of the Challenge. Pictures of our gear in use to prove the value so people would buy the gear. Home run, right? It makes me smile now to think how small I was thinking. Sure, ultimately our events promote our gear. But even better than that, they promote GORUCK. And GORUCK is about a lot more than just gear. And I was close to understanding that.
People smile and good things happen. Remember that one if you’re in any kind of business. Or if you’re alive in a world with other people.
Oh yeah, the original turned vintage Tough Patch. The flames in the background were from Tough Mudder’s logo. It just kinda made sense to me that we would give people a patch that would never be for sale. After all, that’s exactly what had happened to me when I graduated the Special Forces Qualification Course and earned the Special Forces Tab. On a side note, you can actually buy the SF tab on base for around $1, you just sure as hell can’t wear it unless you’ve earned it. No, this doesn’t mean we’ll be selling the GORUCK Tough patch ever. If there’s one thing that would destroy GORUCK, that’s it. People wear it with pride and so do I.
Behind the scenes, this was a tough time for me in my life, so busy was a blessing. I was out of the military, I was in business school in DC, I was going through a divorce, and I was pounding my knees into the ground to promote GORUCK. Something about how many miles do you have to do to get there? As many as it takes is the only right answer. The people I met kept me going – Kit and Hal and Dan and Harvey and Rod and Tom and so many more were the other, more important (to me) reason the Challenge exists. They told their friends about it, they worked to promote GORUCK and they didn’t ask for anything in return except to be a part of the experience. People will do a lot for something they really believe in.
So the early days were a grind and I wouldn’t change them for anything. And I was expecting a deepening of our relationship with Tough Mudder, but it was not meant to be. Right as I was about to graduate business school in the Spring of 2011, Tough Mudder said good-bye. This cost us a lot awareness but it gave us complete control over the GORUCK brand with a running start behind us. By this time, my misunderstanding of the Challenge had come full circle. And the rest, the really good stuff, has yet to happen. So stay tuned.