General George Patton famously said “you fight as you train”. On The Jedburgh Podcast we say “how you prepare today determines success tomorrow.”
Sarah Apgar found the gap between the way firefighters trained and the way they fought fires. To fill this gap she created the FitFighter Steel Hose. An All-American Rugby Player turned Iraq War Veteran turned firefighter, Sarah took her idea to Shark Tank where she landed a partnership with Daniel Lubetzsky, the founder of Kind.
Sarah invited host Fran Racioppi to her Long Island studio for a conversation on entrepreneurism, the fitness industry, her two minute uninterrupted pitch to the Sharks, how leadership in the Army set her up for the highs and lows of building her own business and the importance of partnering with Tunnel to Towers to give back to first responders.
Listen to the podcast here:
About Sarah Apgar
Sarah Apgar is the CEO & Founder of FitFighter. She is also an Iraq War Veteran, All-American Athlete, Fitness Professional, Volunteer Firefighter, and mom of two little girls. Sarah promotes and celebrates the power of teams, women leaders, and public service, contributing a portion of sales to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
Prior to launching FitFighter, Sarah’s spent four years in the Army Engineers Corps. Upon leaving the Army, Sarah completed her MBA at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and launched the Alpine Summer Term for teenagers in Lenk, Switzerland. Then she served as Director of New Stores and Facilities for Warby Parker, built her team from the ground up, and oversaw the development and turnover for the company’s first 50 retail locations in 23 US States and Canada. Among many passions, Sarah loves her husband, her two beautiful angels, her rat terrier, powder skiing, hot chocolate, outdoor gear, tinkering in the garage, talking with teams, and smiling (a lot).
FitFighter – Founder & CEO Sarah Apgar
Functional fitness is key to optimal performance. In the Army, we call it to train as you fight. General George Patton famously said, “You fight as you train.” On the show, we say, “How you prepare today determines success tomorrow.” Sarah Apgar found the gap between the way firefighters trained and the way they fought fires. To fill this gap, she created the FitFighter steel hose, a strength and conditioning system made from a real fire hose and steel shot and designed to bring a full-body workout to anyone, looking to improve their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
FitFighter was born during Sarah’s commitment to serve as a volunteer firefighter after leading soldiers in the Army Corps of Engineers. An All-American rugby player turned Iraq War veteran, Sarah took her idea for FitFighter to Shark Tank, where she impressed all the sharks and landed a partnership with Daniel Lubetzky, the Founder of KIND Snacks.
Sarah invited me to her Long Island studio and manufacturing center for a conversation on entrepreneurism, the fitness industry, her two-minute uninterrupted pitch to the sharks and how leadership in the Army set her up for the highs and lows of building her own business. Sarah and I also talk about identity and the need to surround ourselves with groups of people who bring us up and make us better versions of ourselves. She is an impressive athlete, innovator, Founder, CEO, mother and spouse, who once our conversation finished challenged me to grab a steel hose and train as she fights.
Sarah, welcome to The Jedburgh Podcast.
Thanks. It’s awesome to be here.
We are in the FitFighter gym. We’re outside of New York City on Long Island in Port Washington. It is 27 degrees outside and about 40-something degrees inside. I appreciate you having us here. This is exciting. The product is awesome. I told you before we started that I watched the Shark Tank episode. I watched many other videos of you giving the classes. Now to be here in the gym where you originally started creating the product after your garage, it’s awesome to meet you. Thank you for hosting us.
You’re welcome. Thank you for coming all the way down here. It’s special for me to have visitors. It doesn’t happen often especially post-COVID. This is great for me.
This is the first of a series of fitness-related episodes that we’re going to do. I was telling you, we’re doing a partnership with GORUCK, another veteran-owned organization based on fitness. There’s an event in Jacksonville in April 2022 called Sandlot Jackson. We’re running a bunch of fitness-related episodes running up to that. This is the first one but you are inspirational. I watched the videos. I sent it to five people. After I watched the Shark Tank episode, I sent it to my wife and she was like, “That’s amazing. You must be excited.” I am because not only are you the Founder and CEO of FitFighter but you’re an Iraq War vet.
You were a Women’s rugby All-American at Princeton. You have an MBA from Dartmouth. You’re a volunteer firefighter. You’re the spouse of a veteran, mother of two girls. There are many places that we can start this conversation but I figure since we’re in the gym since eventually when we get done with this episode, we’re going to do a workout.
We’re going to put it all over our social media and YouTube. Everyone’s going to watch me get smoked by you. We’re going to start with FitFighter. Talk to me about FitFighter. What is it? Why is it different? You said that it is one of the most, if not the most, versatile and durable fitness products on the market. It’s a free weight and a resistance tool. It’s a complete total body fitness program.
The coolest thing about the FitFighter story is this was never intended to be a major fitness brand. I did never intend to launch a commercial product into the fitness industry. Fast forward to having this incredible mainstream adoption, that started in my garage in a small volunteer firehouse on Long Island. I joined the volunteer firehouse to get back some of the camaraderie that I missed from military days, which I’m sure resonates a lot with you too and a lot of our readers.
I noticed that there was this big chasm between the training that we were doing in the gym or in the truck bays and what was happening out there in the fire ground. I originally designed the steel hose, our signature product, as a way to train hose handling skills, grip strength, understanding of trunk stability and work capacity for firefighters. I never imagined what this could become.
That’s what’s neat about the story. I started over a couple of years time as this garage hobby grew into a training program that we could scale to other Long Island firehouses and ultimately the FDNY Fire Academy. I had coaches and personal trainers. Other fitness professionals come to me and knock on our door and say, “We’ve notic
ed what you’re doing in this tactical setting. It seems like something could benefit our clients and members too from cradle to grave.”I like to say ages 8 to 80, we can make you strong throughout your entire life. It’s snowballed into something that was compelling to me that I thought, “This is now or never.” My youngest daughter was eighteen months when I launched the company. I left my dream job at Warby Parker, which I’m sure we’ll chat about later.
I thought I was compelled by the idea that we had stumbled upon something inspired by service members that were broad and versatile that could have had these incredible applications for people, young, old and in between to keep them strong, to connect them to weightlifting, which is something that’s been quite a niche and is not accessible to most of the population. That’s FitFighter in a nutshell. I sit back and sometimes pinch myself that now I’m living this dream of waking up every day, having a chance and opportunity to live out a vision and have an impact that’s broad-based.
The steel hose itself is about functional fitness. When you identified this gap that you talked about, you said that, “Traditionally, I can imagine that firefighters would train as we trained in the military.” You go to the gym, you lift weights and you do bench press, you do some squats and then you assume that that’s going to translate over into whatever your world is. We call it functional fitness. When Special Operations made the transition from 3 sets of 10 on the bench press and the squat rack to more of a dynamic full-body, what they call the Total Warrior combined with a Total Athlete concept.
You’ve taken this now into firefighting, essentially saying that the hose is the primary tool that has to be used. Once that hose is loaded with the water, it has effects on your body that you have to train. Talk about the construction of the product. As you had to build that first V1, I’m always interested in the version one of the products because as you go through the iteration, it’s always interesting to see how entrepreneurs make it better.
Originally, the first steel hose ever was a piece of a real fire hose. The used hose is actually a new piece of hose but it was taken right off the trucks. I started to fill it with all kinds of different materials, pebbles, dirt, sand, garbage I found in the firehouse. The first thing was clunky. It’s about 20 feet long. We put a hose clamp on the end of it with an eye hook that we can then drag resistance behind it. The entire goal, the first application of this, was literally mimic charged hose, which we didn’t get to handle nearly enough and yet it’s the lifeline of the fire ground.
This is the thing that matters. In fact, there’s an entire movement now called nozzle first, get the hose in the door because ultimately that is what is the lifesaving lifeblood of our work. We’d go to the truck bay and into the back of the firehouse and we would drag these hoses around. We would train and we would start talking about body position, being efficient with our movement. We talk about grip strength, how holding a weight in closer to the body, holding the hose into the body allowed us to use the strongest parts of our body for the movement, rather than using our upper body, which is always the inclination of all of us first.
We think like, “We need to move our arms to move the hose.” That’s, in the fitness industry, strength and conditioning world, not the way we move something efficiently. It’s used the trunk, glutes, your hips, the big muscles. What happened was over time, I started to refine like I’m an inventor. I’m stubbornly curious. I’m someone who, if there’s something that seems good, we need to make it fifteen times better because there must be a way. I have a box of all these filler materials, about twenty filler materials. I found on the steel shot among lots of others, the steel shot is about 1 millimeter perfectly round steel ball.
It’s double recycled from the original sandblasting media. It’s used in construction and it can’t be used again for construction. I thought, “This is interesting because this substance is five times denser than water. It flows like water. It’s twice as dense as sand but it doesn’t kink like sand.” It had the perfect qualities as this filler material. We started to realize this synthetic rubber that lines real fire hose, when you started to compact this material inside of it created this beautiful form factor that is semi-firm and never kinks. It always holds its shape but there’s no hard steel. We started to think like, “This does feel the most like we’ve arrived at yet as charged firehose.” Suddenly, I feel like we had the perfect way to train firefighters for the extraordinary demands of that movement.
As you can see, the modern-day steel hose took that same construction we started with. I have a friend who worked in a canvas shop making sales. He said, “I can pound hydraulic ground-up machine. Let’s pound a grommet in there.” We said, “We got to use this heavy-duty 258 nylon gauge thread and double stitch it so it’d be durable.” That’s the thread that’s used for horse saddles and leather boots.
Our machines are very strong. We put the end caps in the end, mostly decorative. It came up with that proprietary compaction. That’s the modern-day steel hose, still from that real hose, which now with our volume that we have, we do get some of it new. It still maintains the simplicity and beauty that we started with, just refined. Several years of time, people see Shark Tank and they think like, “What an overnight success.”
It’s overnight in terms of a lifetime but the last several years has certainly been a lot of ups and downs. Production has scaled. It started in your garage and moved into this space here on the other side of this wall. Now, you have a partnership with Sorinex, which is one of the leading fitness equipment manufacturers. How has that changed the business?
Launching with Sorinex was a complete gamechanger for two reasons. Number one, I said this on Shark Tank Sorinex to me was always the gold standard, made in the USA, the best strength and conditioning fitness equipment company, arguably in the world and certainly as country. From a standpoint of quality and partnership around innovating in this industry, I couldn’t think of a better partner.
The second thing was the sheer scale and the management of what had become for me. The space we’re sitting in right here used to be my factory. I found myself, all of a sudden, drowning and not only launching a fitness brand but also running a manufacturing facility. You can imagine during COVID 19 especially we had this thing buzzing. We just started.There are lots of elements of the business that you need to figure out such as how to grow and scale and manage and operate. There’s no right answer on how to do that. Click To Tweet
All of a sudden, we had to be socially distanced, pulling in raw materials and everything from the production via accounting around doing that. I was way in over my head. Sorinex became a willing partner through a good friend and partner FitFighter, Jason Walsh, who’s a good friend of Bert Sorin, who’s the President of the company. They introduced us.
For them, it was a great fit too because this is a unique product for them. They have obviously a largely professional clientele, teams, a lot of collegiate facilities, universities, high schools. It’s setting up big rack systems with diverse tools in them as well. The steel hose is something that’s quite different from most of what Sorinex makes. In that way, for them, it seemed like there’s great synergy there.
It’s funny that you brought up an important point about the entrepreneurial path, identifying what you’re good at. We’ve had a lot of these conversations in prior episodes. The one that comes to mind when you were telling that story is Seth Goldman. He is the Founder of Honest Tea. Now he’s the Chairman of the Board of Beyond Meat.
In his book and in the conversation that I had with him, I asked him about when they went and they bought a manufacturing facility. He laughs when I bring it up because he’s like, “We lost millions of dollars because we realized we had no idea how to actually manufacture the product. We were good at sales and design. We knew what we wanted but we had to focus on our strength and we went down this path for too long.”It’s great to hear your story because you’re saying, “We realize early on that we aren’t the manufacturer who will be able to scale this. Let’s bring a partner in.” That point of differentiation is what sets a lot of successful entrepreneurs apart from those who keep hammering and saying, “I can do it,” and then they don’t get there.
We’ve had such a condensed version of growth across a lot of different markets quickly because of the world orders surrounding this company and the general entrepreneurial path and early state in the first couple of years. There’ve been a lot of points at which I’m facing that same question, “What are you?” There’s a question in, “Who you are as a founder, a leader and a CEO?”There’s a question about the business and the company and, “What its value proposition is. What its fundamental core competency is as a company?” For us, that is creating disruptive and game-changing products, equipment, training and education in our industry, not manufacturing. Content creation is something that I think about having, wanting to bring in better partners, new partners as not something intrinsically strong for me.
I 100% agree with you. You might think that’s an easy thing if you found a company. You know your core competency but you can quickly get distracted, not in a bad way but in a way where there are lots of elements of the business that you need to figure out how to grow, scale, manage and operate. There’s no one right answer on how to do that.
Let’s talk about scale. Late 2019, early 2020, you realize, “I got to scale this thing. In order to do that, I need a partner. We’ll talk about teamsmanship and teamability on the show all the time,” but you launched this company with $210,000 of what you call friend and family money, $50,000 of your own money and then you went on Shark Tank. You asked initially when you went on to the beginning of the show, $250,000 for 15%. You valued the business at $1.6 million. Why Shark Tank? What was going on with other potential investment opportunities or conversations that led you to say, “I’m going to apply and try to get on Shark Tank?”
The Shark Tank story is unique to this company in particular because we had launched in 2019, to make sure that everyone knows the timeline, as strictly as a business that intended to grow within the professional sector. My original strategy in launching to the commercial market especially with our tactical routes, was that we were going to work with channel partners, the training of the personal trainers, coaches, gyms and public sector. Also, ensure that the steel hose and the Instability Resistance Training, IRT, which is this well-researched element of what we do best with our equipment is something that is seated at the top of the industry. My long-term vision is to completely reframe the way that we think about lifting weight and bring it to a huge more than 90% of the population that doesn’t.To take a quick diversion, weightlifting in general is the single most important practice for our long-term health, hands down, every day of the week and twice on Sundays. People don’t know that because we’ve brainwashed them into cardio. The point is, as a practice, it’s well-researched and yet 95% of the population doesn’t do it. For me, this is like brushing our teeth.
If 95% of people didn’t brush their teeth, we would all think that we were like in World War III and yet this is the same thing. That’s the quick diversion but pulling it back in. It’s important to me that this not risk being something in our industry, which happens all the time, which is that fad fitness, “You’ve come up with a new product. That’s interesting. You can do a few things with it.”
Whatever the gadget is, it is the next new thing. It’s important to me that this was an enduring and game-changing, long-term shift. When COVID-19 hit and that market all but shut down, the survival of the business depended on being able to understand where we could impact you in the home fitness market and support that world order of fitness that we had. Shark Tank was an outgrowth of that pivot in March of 2020, where at end of May, I got this phone call from the Shark Tank executive producers a few months into our time putting up Instagram lives.
I developed a home gym set to be at a price point that was better for folks at home. We were now focusing on the safety and storage aspects of the product at home. This was a way to, number one, keep the lights on. Let’s be honest, I’m not sugar-coating anything about 2020. That was tough for a lot of people. For us too. We’re in fitness but I had no brand awareness yet. It was me against every other fitness professional and product that had gone online. It was swimming upstream on Instagram. It’s competitive. If you don’t have that brand awareness and the project product education yet, it was tricky.
Fast forward, I get this phone call. I’m thrilled because I knew this would be something that could leverage our strengths. We had something interesting. It’s pretty early on still. I was a little bit concerned about that but they gave me an opportunity to walk out on stage. I felt like when I thought about it, I was like, “What possible loss could we have from this if this is an opportunity to walk out, tell people about something that I believe passionately in is going to change the world and tell five million people on national TV what that is?” You get your two minutes without interruption in the beginning. You know at the very least you’re going to have two minutes.
If you get tomatoed off the stage and was bashed and burned until after that, still it’s like, “I’m going to have those two minutes.” I focused on that and I felt like Shark Tank was perfect for us. It’s great for me as a Founder, tell our story, good for Pillsy veteran-owned businesses, women-owned businesses, parents and moms out there. I thought that this net-net, I hope we’ll walk away as being a good thing and it was.
At the end of the day, you get out there. You get the word out. It was a good thing. We’ll talk a little bit about the episode because it was interesting to watch the different perspectives of the different sharks but bottom-line up front, you got the investment from Daniel Lubetzky, who’s the Founder of KIND health snacks, a small company. He did 25%, $250,000. I appreciated your counter offer. I thought that was awesome. You got to throw it out there. Talk about that decision. We have brought up investment decisions in a few episodes, Jersey Mike’s Founder, Peter Cancro.
His story is one of the most influential when it comes to having a taken investment because he has actually spent his entire career not taking an investment. He always said, “If I have this vision and I believe I don’t need anything to do.” He started with a single shop sandwich shop. You had the opportunity. You saw it when you were standing there and now you have to decide, that’s the moment of truth. This is everything thing to do it. What made you decide to ultimately, “I’m going to bring them in. We’re going to make it happen?”
What’s interesting is that for me, this decision was actually completely agnostic of the capital itself. What I mean by that is I had decided up until that point and still now, FitFighter has been built by bringing great people, advisors, professionals, influential team members around the table and close into my inner circle and helping me to grow this. When you have a military background and early on in your professional career, you’ve had to stare in the face your strengths and your limitations as a leader.You’ve had these experiences at a young age where you learn about what you’re good at, where you’re going to shine. When it comes to being the CEO of a brand-new business and building a business, there are a lot of aspects of business that are not unintuitive for me but don’t have a ton of experience with and don’t necessarily feel as confident with.
Early on, I made a decision that I was going to bring people in whether it was as an advisor or an internal employee, to surround myself with this army of people. It’s going to grow this business together. I’ll be visionary and I’ll stand out in front but this is going to be a company that is grown by great people. Shark Tank provided this opportunity to have any one of those extraordinary people who did have both the business chops but clearly also powerful, strategic positioning and influential folks who could join this business and be partners for me. When I walked in there, I did a lot of research about this specific environment of Shark Tank. $289,000 is the average investment that a Shark Tank ends up closing on Shark Tank.
In the show, I knew that fitness was actually a smaller percent than people probably think of a product.Ten percent of products that are given deals are fitness products. I was armed with quite a bit of research and homework that I’d done ahead of time to position myself in a way that would set me up for success from the deal terms. I decided that no matter what, unless it was egregiously unfair or totally out of the left field and I’m going to buy the company, which has happened if offered an opportunity for a partner from any one of the sharks, I would walk out of there with it. It’s the decision that I made. I made it before I went in. That moment, we had the quick offer and encounter and then he said like, “It was easy for me.”
I had this strong conviction that I had thought it through and at that moment I was cool with it. It’s a terrible way to raise capital. I got to give up a huge portion of my company for this and close the deal. That is a decision I was comfortable with because I had thought that through ahead of time. A lot of people are surprised by that. I get questioned all the time about like, “You’re giving up a portion of your company.” The bottom line is to look at the partner that I brought on board. At the end of the day, a billion-dollar brand, that’s down the road, that’s plenty of the company leftover.We have very specific and unique individualized gifts that are what drive us and make us up as people. Click To Tweet
The mentorship. That’s my next question. For the record, if any of the sharks wanted to invest in the show, I’d made the same decision that you did. I agree with that. I would go into that conversation with this same mentality that, “Unless it’s crazy, I’m in on this stage.” I totally get it. What have you learned about business and entrepreneurism from your partnership with Daniel?
Daniel is a founder first. That’s one of the things I learned early on. That exit happens now, still involved in the chairman. His mentorship, more even than someone who’s been an investor and had a large portfolio of companies has been especially unique for me because he’s constantly referencing his vivid memory of being exactly in my shoes. If you haven’t read his book, a plug for Daniel’s book, his story that he tells in there, it’s as entrepreneurial as it gets. His a Mexican-American immigrant, a completely self-made person, tells great stories about trudging the streets in New York City with granola bars in the early days.
We have a lot in common. With billionaire mentors sometimes that’s challenging when you’re sitting on the other side of this end of the road. I would say that Daniel has shared three things with me as a mentor that have been extremely impactful. The first thing is that we talked a lot about that early entrepreneurial opportunistic stage, where he had actually published a great article about macros and minnows.
We talk about the balance between the strategic direction in a business and focus. Something came up on Shark Tanks. Also, being opportunistic. He’s emphasized the point to me and the support for both of those and the importance of that balance because if you’re not opportunistic, this entire company has been built on opportunism.
If you’re not then you may miss what ends up being a core part of the strategy going forward. That’s probably number one. Number two has been around the self-care and the importance of relationships and mentors and taking care of yourself as a founder. It’s because you’re working hard, taking the time for relationships, taking it slow and not feeling like you need to be some crazy pill-popping eighteen-hour a day, coffee-drinking entrepreneur.
As a parent, I appreciate that. I can’t do that. I have to be with my girls and want to 4, 5 to 6 hours a day. That’s otherwise that maybe if I was 23 and entrepreneur without that, that I wouldn’t. That’s been the second big thing. The third big thing is a lot about he has a perspective on investment and fundraising. That has been powerful for me. He grew KIND to a $13 million company before he took meaningful investment on. I took investment dollars on much earlier because I needed to. Philosophically and practically speaking, we’ve talked a lot about that. I value his continued mentorship in both of those three areas.
I like those three. We’re going to note to create a marketing asset around those three. Those are insightful. Be opportunistic, the self-care, the building of relationships and mentors and then the fundraising aspect. You mentioned what I’d call the two schools of thought that have come up about, let’s say, business in general.
They were highlighted in your conversation with the various sharks but one perspective and certainly this was of Mr. Mark Cuban, was that, “You have to pick one thing.” You have to focus on one thing. I’ve been told that a million times. “Focus on one thing and do it well.” The other side of that is identify the opportunity, seize the opportunity, find a way to make them happen, build a team.
If you have 3 or 4 opportunities then build 3 or 4 teams and you can manage them. Look at somebody like Elon Musk. I use that example all the time. Here’s a guy who’s involved in 10, 15 different things. He’s had 100 that have failed but the ones that have scaled are incredible. He doesn’t go in every day to the Tesla office and say, “I’m building a car today,” or Starling, the Hyperloop or any of these initiatives. That’s the other side of this. When you look at business in general, certainly using FitFighter as an example, where’s the line between being spread too thin but then also being opportunistic?
I’ll like to answer this with a couple of stories because they underscore what my approach has been because this is a constant push pull for me. There are plenty of examples in the industry of the challenge or not necessarily at being the North Star to pick one single core market and go after that especially in the fitness industry because it changes fast. Research moves quickly. Our need to support people in all kinds of different ways changes. I wholeheartedly reject the idea that early on in a company, the only way is to pick that one path and trajectory. Do that well for five years and then pick a new one.
That could work for some companies. For FitFighter, I do not believe that would be a strategy that would have helped us to understand our value proposition, both near-term and long-term. The first story, a simple story is around this pivot into home fitness that was forced, not something that we originally had intended. We accelerated probably 3 to 5 years, my intent to be playing ball at all in the consumer market and handing people hoses in their living rooms. That was not my intent. When we did that, we started to have people write to us and say things like, “I’ve never been able to pick up a freeweight because I was intimidated and it’s hard for my grip. I’m a 55 plus person with arthritis or a veteran with nerve damage or a mom that has toddlers running around.”
We started to learn about how important some of the physical product features of the form factor were for people. I always knew this was a great grip strength tool because of what we’re doing in the firehouse but I had no idea how compelling the safety of the form, the grip of this form factor and the structure of the product itself, how impactful that was going to be on a huge on the consumer home fitness market.
Those 5 million people and then ultimately 10,000 customers overnight that all put hoses in their living rooms after Shark Tank became one of the single biggest pieces of feedback that we got. “Thank you for introducing something that’s simple and impactful and has allowed me to do something for the first time that I know is important to do.”
I never would have had that feedback in that way, the strength of that feedback. Now we’re able to leverage that in the professional environment as well, in the gym environment. Physical therapy and high schools are too total white space for us. In 2022, that’s not my focus but it is my focus 3 to 5-year focus once we seeded this with gyms and coaches and trainers. Those two markets probably would not have emerged early on as being in my windshield on the horizon and thinking that through if I hadn’t had that feedback from the consumer community. That’s one thing. The second story would be in group fitness and team training.
Same thing. There’s an argument to the fact that the group fitness environment, cardio-based Bootcamps. I dabbled a little bit early on in coming up with some fun models for short groups team training. That’s become one of our biggest markets too because we realized you could hand 50 people a hose and have them go out into a parking lot, a lot of the way we did and the firehouse or the fire academy and have them safely and effectively being trained in large volumes.
This has been something that for group fitness instructors, has been impactful. These ways in which constantly testing, iterating, learning, rejecting. You do have to be diligent about reject, “Absorb. Pull that one in. Stay focused.” For sure, shiny objects are tricky as an entrepreneur but it’s been a critical part of our business and deeply understanding our value proposition for something that is truly an innovation.
For the record because I want to make sure that I’m clear, I agreed with you. I’m like, “She’s briefed 5 or 6 different sales verticals. It seems like super squared away. She’s got it figured out,” and then they’re like, “You’re all over the place.” I’m like, “No.” Right decision. I live it every day. I’m with you. I want to talk about you for a little bit. Where do you come from? What’s your background?
We mentioned that you did your undergrad at Princeton. You were an All-American on the Women’s Rugby team. I spend a lot of time with college athletes. I work also as the performance development coach for Boston University Men’s Rowing, the physical and the mental aspect of the sport. Collegiate athletics, for me, at least I believe set the foundation for many things that I’ve done since.
People ask me all the time, “How hard was selection? You were a Green Beret.” I was like, “Every day I was at selection, I was glad I wasn’t rowing,” because that was the hardest thing. That was what set me apart from many others. We had the opportunity in previous episodes to speak with Kristen Holmes, also a Princeton alum on the coaching side. She was 13 years as the Head Field Hockey Coach at Princeton, 12 Ivy League championships and 1 national championship.
Gevvie Stone, another prior episode, winningest ever in the women’s single on the Head of the Charles, Olympic silver medalist from the Rio games. We had her on as well in the fall, Princeton alum. When you look back at your time there, collegiate athletics, how did that prepare you when you would achieve and operate at such a high level in that sport to go on and go into the military? You joined ROTC. Talk to me a little bit about collegiate sports, what you learned and then why you decided to go into ROTC at the back end of that.Those decisions and pivot points are different for everyone depending on what career choices you make and what your skillset is and what those intrinsic qualities are. Click To Tweet
The ROTC decision is something you have to commit at least to the year early on, your senior year in high school.
I’m an OCS guy. I did sports and then I was like, “This Army thinks he’s pretty good. I don’t have to go to Maine and be a journalist. If that’s what you’re saying. I can go make the news. Let’s go do that.”
There’s OCS, ROTC and then the academies for those reading who are non-military. For me, ROTC was you commit for at least that first year of college. That was a decision that was born out of characteristics I learned that I loved in high school sports, for sure. The combination of being in ROTC and considering the notion of military training and leadership and that profession after school was 100% influenced by collegiate athletics. I totally agree with you. I am a huge proponent and supporter of and as soon as I can and spend more time on every kid who’s growing up and every teenager having that opportunity to play team sports, on teams, individual sports, get that foundation.
We’ve got to figure out ways to make sure that we’re not having kids start to drop out because they’re not serious enough and they’re not on a travel team, all this. We can have a whole new another episode on that. I’ll save more of my waxing poetic there. On collegiate athletics, there are two things that strike me as being totally foundational and preparatory for a tactical professional career.
The first one is that sheer, feeling the feeling of what it’s like in the team huddle. You remember before a game, even before a practice or scrimmage, wherever but certainly before a game and at halftime and after a game, if it was a rough one and a victory lap, it was with your team, there’s nothing like that feeling of the team huddle. It’s cold in here anyway. If you could see me that I didn’t already have goosebumps, it’s cold. I’m freezing.
The goosebumps got bigger because for a second I was imagining myself in that team huddle and thinking how great that feels. You run out on the field and you have the sense that everybody’s in it together. That’s the feeling, that mission orientation of the military, for me, it’s something that was a direct outgrowth, feeling like, “This is a profession in which I can have that same sensitivity.” The other thing is reactionary as much more technical.
For me, as a rugby player, learning skills, learning technique, refining technique over and over again, we used to always say that we do a skill in gymnastics. We do skill 500 times before we were willing to be ready to compete in the competition. I always felt that way on the field too, high-speed tackling, catching a ball and kick. You can relive this stuff quickly.
They are not called the glory days for nothing.
It comes back to you and you realize how special that is to be constantly every day in practice, learning, iterating on your skills, perfecting something. I yearn for that every day now in my professional world. In the Army, it was felt that same way that that was a perfect corollary. I carried those two core things. There are many other themes as well but those two core things translate directly, perfect and intimately into that professional career.
You graduated ROTC and go into the Army. You’re 23, you went to Fort Carson. We shared that, we were both there at the exact same time, which is awesome and by far the absolute best post in the US Army. I don’t know if it was for you but I was an Infantry Officer before I went and became a Green Beret. Everyone’s like, “Where do you want to go? You have to go to the 101st through the 82nd.” I’m from Boston. It’s like, “You want me to go to Kentucky or North Carolina? That’s insane. There’s a place in Colorado.” They’re like, “Yes but it’s mechanized imagery.” I’m like, “That sounds great. I live in Colorado. No problem at all.”
Hands down the best post. You were there 23, you go to Iraq in the early days. We were there at the exact same time. We talked about that. What did that experience being an officer in the Army and leading soldiers teach you about number one, I’ll throw out business but leading, having a craft, build and motivate an organization. Also, what did it teach you about perspective? I asked that question because when you’re an entrepreneur, it’s easy to do what we call pouring gasoline on your head.
Play with the match. Run around, the world is on fire, begin to lose perspective of the big picture. What the military does is it puts you in these situations especially as a leader where you’re constantly having to evaluate perspective. What did you take away from your experience there that set you up to be a better leader in the corporate world or the private sector?
I talked on the shark tank episode about the one soldier who was directly in my platoon directly under my command, who lost his life when we were in Iraq, December 16th, 2003. I would say that starting with that pinnacle moment for me and remembering, speaking of the vividness of those moments, starting with that, and then thinking about everything else that surrounds it. Also, when you’re in this environment, working with young soldiers towards ultimately this shared mission, immediately post the combat operations ending in this brand-new theater of war. That was the early days. It was my platoon on the ground but I wasn’t there yet.
I joined my platoon in September of that year. They had been that summer paving route Tampa all the way up from Kuwait City all the way up to Kurdistan. I joined them here. They are the ones that have paved the way. There’s no experience or day in life now that even comes close to the depth of your human experience, your team experience and relationships than those experiences that we have on those kinds of missions in the military. To your point, it gives you this grounding day-to-day that I tried to keep in mind, “No matter what happens, if FitFighter were to go up in a puff of smoke tomorrow, would I still be me? Would I be a happy person? Would I be a proud mom? What is that bigger picture?” It gives me this great sense of peace and confidence when you make mistakes and you screw things up and hits the fan all the time every day. You go through these big roller coasters and you’re problem solving. There’s this layer over top of grounding, peace, love and mission orientation. That’s something I’ve never felt outside of those moments deployed and with your team and when Nathan passed away.
That perspective is extremely important. It drives everything from your approach to your personal leadership and day-to-day posture to your business strategy. I actually think about how you grow a company can be founded on some of those things. “Are you always seeking, faster, better, crazier, whatever and maybe you are at some points and then are you pulling back at other points?” It has this reverberating effect into lots of areas of entrepreneurship and business if you’ve had those foundational experiences.
We talk about it in every episode and nine characteristics used by Special Operations to recruit, assess, select and evaluate talent. It’s some of the foundations of our conversations in our show. You take so much away in the military and also sports. I mentioned Gevvie Stone and she said, “Hard things bond to you much more than easy things.” It was close to the exact quote. The military does that. When you get out of the military and something you’ve been vocal about something we’ve had some conversations about, there is something that you lose that’s much more than your rank and your stature, your position or you lose camaraderie, you lose your team.
I’ve spoken about it before but the hardest day of my life to this day is when I had to look in the rear-view mirror and leave Fort Carson and realize that I’ve handed my ID badge in for the last time. All my friends, everything I know is now in the past. I don’t know what’s ahead of me. You have to now figure out, “Who’s my group?” People call it as a tribe, “Who’s my tribe? Who are going to be the people that I identify with?” because so much is unknown. For you, you found the fire department. What drew you to the fire department? Why did you make that switch quickly?
I could never imagine how hard that was, that transition out of the Army into this deer in the headlights, like, “Here I am, the great big world that feels like it’s lacking that same sense of that lifestyle and mission and team.” You should know what you’re about and what you’re doing every day and why. It was a hard transition. When we moved to Long Island for the first time, which is ultimately for graduate school, I was feeling like it was a move that then thrust me out of any place of comfort in terms of home or a school environment.
I was looking for a job out of Tuck. I wasn’t in a place where I had any community or family, much less the military lifestyle. It was a stark moment for me in feeling like when I was roughly 30 or so, where all of a sudden, I felt I had backtracked my first 5, 6, 7 years out of college had been this incredibly rich experience that very much mirrored the richness of your collegiate experience and what we talked about. I felt like I was staring at a wall. I saw an advertisement for an open house, a sign at the local firehouse on Long Island.
People don’t realize that Long Island is supported 100% by volunteer firefighters. There are eight million people who are serviced by a volunteer population. It’s incredible. There’s no other place in the country that’s like it, this super-dense population outside of New York City. Every single firefighter in the fire department is 100% volunteers. It’s crazy.
I thought, “That’s unique. That feels like something that maybe I could sink my teeth into. I’d love that physical training. It will give me a little bit of that camaraderie and community back.” I was totally right. I wandered into the open house. I chatted with the chief. It’s a totally different dynamic. It’s on its own. Firefighters and public safety, a different world, different animal, different training but that service orientation is ultimately what connects people who choose that path whether it’s volunteer or professional.
I immediately took to it. I loved firefighters and the training. I felt comfortable. It’s a sigh of relief, like, “This is what it’s like to train and learn again.” Those skillsets I was talking about like, “Learn a new skill as an adult.” I found that filled a real void for me and still does. To be clear, I’m on a leave of absence now. I’ve got two little kids and a growing company and a lot of chaos. I’m rarely involved in the volunteer service for a few years but I still feel close to it because of the work that we do with FitFighter and our support for service members.Create moments of curiosity. Click To Tweet
It’s funny, you said that, from the military, “You missed the trash talk and the grind.” I can imagine that going into the fire department gives you a bit of that back. I have some close friends who did that in Boston and even here in the FDNY who came out of the Navy and the Army. They’ve all spoken to getting that back and how that has grounded them as they’ve searched for solace. While we’re sitting here and people don’t see but our Marketing Coordinator, Jenny Duclay, her family started an organization called SailAhead.That’s actually how we met a long time ago. SailAhead is here on Long Island. They’re out on Huntington. That is an organization that teaches veterans how to sail. My path coming to New York, similar to you when you got out was I was searching for that thing that was going to ground and help me. We’re going to do an episode with SailAhead. I found them and was able to find a way to build a team, create something amongst a disparate group of people who had some loose interest in sailing and then be able to go out and find this new band or group. I can identify with a lot of what you’re saying. It’s been great.
You said in an interview that you did, that you were looking forward to writing your book about your entrepreneurial journey because you have a lot of advice. We talked about getting out of the military, going to Dartmouth. You spent some time, you told me, as a ski bum in Switzerland. After my interview with Steven Nyman, who is a three-time World Cup champion and multiple-time Olympian, I am jealous of the ski bum life.
I always wanted to do it. He asked me why I didn’t become a lefty. I’m like, “I don’t know if you insulted me or not but I would love to be a lefty.” You worked at Warby Parker. You were there for four and a half years and then you decided that, “I’m going to take this entrepreneurial journey.” We’ve talked about the company. We’ve gotten to that but you said the ups and downs and you call it a roller coaster.
It’s several years of this and now full-time for the better part of the last few years. When you think about the decision that you had to make, “I’m working for someone. This is a major company. Things are going well.” You told me when we spoke that you left Warby Parker at the worst time, an eighteen-month-old child. Here you are saying, “I’ve got to pursue my vision and my dream.” Can you tell me a bit about that decision and the big differences that you felt between waking up every day and going to work for someone versus waking up every day and pursuing your path because Julia Samersova and I in a previous episode joked that, “Being an entrepreneur is the loneliest place that you can be.”
Among the entrepreneurial topics, that’s a whole topic and it relates to what I try to do every day, which I know is something I’ll talk about. I’m a real believer in the idea that people have specific unique and individualized gifts that drive us and make us up as people that ultimately that there is in people, these unique qualities. For some people more than others, is this dogged curiosity that leads to this intrinsic passion and motivation. I stumbled upon something. It’s funny because someone told me once like, “Don’t say it like that, Sarah. Use the word stumble because then people think it’s random.”I’m like, “That’s fine.” I’m in a polished setting. The bottom line is like, “Everything I do is deliberate in terms of thinking through problems but was a circuitous road towards initially this garage hobby that became something passionate for me.” One of the things, my unique gifts is this curiosity. One of the things that I try to do every day, which is a spoiler alert for later because I know we’ll probably talk about that is actually to have moments of curiosity that almost take to a stubborn and the degree like learning something about something that’s random or ask two follow-up questions when you thought you’re completely out of questions or ideas or whatever it is.
That’s the story of FitFighter because we never would’ve landed on things like this perfect 170 steel shot with this compaction inside this fire hose. We never would have landed on getting to the point where we were talking to the sailing canvas shop about pound and grommets in the end if we weren’t continuing to have this passionate curiosity. I know that about myself. When I was thinking about the opportunity, I felt like that existed for real genuine impact and leveraging that unique skillset you have to do good. That was the thing that felt compelling that I’m being called. It was almost this divine.
I’m not a religious person. I’m a spiritual person. I believe things happen for a reason but I was feeling called to take this chance, this leap of faith to leave something that I was pretty good at and doing well. I helped Warby grow from the ground up, their bricks and mortar portfolio to over $100 million company at retail and 55 stores and this amazing journey. I had a pivot point in my life that is important for us to be deliberately thinking about. I was five years down the road, Warby had grown tremendously. It was now becoming a big corporation, which ultimately on September 29th, 2020 went public.
I was feeling that calling and then also that I was getting less exceptional at the job I was doing at Warby. That was also pretty scary. It was maybe because they’re muscled through to grow into the next level there, which was to be much more of in the corporate side of things now, I was leading this big team and we had this huge budget and all of these stores. What I was good at in the beginning was that passionate curiosity that led me to be great at building teams and helping to refine what the bricks and mortar retail model was at Warby. I even managed designers and problem solved. What made me good there is what I felt also was driving me towards being an entrepreneur and launching my own thing.
Those decision points and pivot points are different for everyone depending on what career choices you make, what your skillset is and what those intrinsic qualities are. I do believe that everybody has those, can create those and have those moments where they elevate the moment and do question if there’s a decision to be made and had. We should do more of that.
As we mentor also now younger folks coming along, veterans coming out of the military, those stories are things I like to share with people, and say like, “What’s your version of that story? Let’s think about those pivot points that can allow you and give you the agency and give yourself the confidence to think about something that could be and give it a try, success or fail.”
The best part about entrepreneurism is a success or fail either way, it’s your fault. You don’t get to hide.
It’s on you.
You talked about giving back. As you look forward to what’s next with FitFighter, a big part of what you’re focused on is a bit of philanthropy. You have a partnership with Tunnel to Towers. Can you talk about that partnership, the importance of giving back to the community of first responders and veterans for the company?
When I was thinking about how I wanted to mirror the mission-driven company that I had learned a lot about at Tuck then at Warby and this idea that we can leverage for-profit business to do good in the world and support great nonprofit initiatives. I was looking for an organization that would be representative of our roots at FitFighter.Tunnel to Towers is hands down the most extraordinary and impactful organization in this country, supporting service members on the public safety side and military veterans. There’s bar none. I’ll stand it up against any other company organization. Not that any of us aren’t doing great work but from the standpoint of having been focused and efficient with great core programs that are simple and straightforward. Ninety-five percent of funds funnel from your hands directly into those programs. It’s the single most efficient foundation in the country doing this kind of work.
It felt like this was a no-brainer. They had a great story to being inspired by Stephen Siller. His brother now, Frank, runs the foundation and his siblings are all in support of him. This outgrowth out of 9/11 and then the work they decided to do both on the public safety side and the military side, I thought, “It’s almost as this organization was built to be my charitable partner.” It’s a perfect fit. We’re still small. Our contribution is still fairly modest to T to T but I’ve structured that so that they’re also important and intimately related partner for me.
We’re putting on a huge event in San Antonio, on March 19th, 2022. The FitFighter’s first-ever event that we’ve sponsored and run ourselves outside of participating in other events. It’s going to be in a military town USA. It’s going to be in benefit of T to T. It’s a perfect fit and alignment. I’d encourage any entrepreneur and founder to think about that alignment, that bigger esoteric mission. Obviously, our market now is no longer just public safety. We’re in the fitness industry. We serve demographics far beyond those routes but in terms of finding something that ultimately is an important part of the brand and the mission of T to T. I couldn’t think of a better fit.
Sarah, as we close out, the Jedburghs had to do three things every day as core foundational tasks to be successful in their world, what I call Be Successful. They had to be able to shoot, move and communicate. If they did these three core tasks with the utmost precision then their energy and focus could actually be on other things, more challenging, complex things that came their way like defeating the Germans. When you think about your day and the drivers of your success, what are the three things that you do as foundational core tasks every day to be successful in your world?
I already mentioned one and then one I’m going to share with the Jedburghs but in my own way and then one will be a follow-on. The first one I already mentioned is to create moments of curiosity. It’s easy for us to go through the day-to-day and not think of each day as being consequential in the big picture. We don’t need to think of each day as needing to be epic. I do think one of the things that can set any day apart is that we create moments of curiosity where we can ask a question about something that we don’t know about, learn something new or surprise someone with an interest in them or something that’s interesting to them. Moments of curiosity is something that is foundational for me.
The second one is the moving point. I also believe and we’re about to do some movement, moving is my North Star for people with FitFighter is that I’m arming them to move better and move at all and to think about movement as something that should be inherently a part of our day like weaving in and out of our day. The movement has become something in fitness that is like this 40-minute squeeze it in stint where then we take a shower and sit down again.
That is societally damaging and dangerous. We’re there. I will share the Jedburgh’s. They probably meant it in a slightly different way but that moving being whether it’s like at a standup desk or checking your posture or having a quick movement session, dancing with your kids, whatever that means to you. Having that be something that’s your North Star. The third thing that I would say is talk with at least one family member and at least one friend in your village. I always talk about a village. You’ve heard me in other settings, probably talk about the village. I believe that people have 12 to 15 people in their life that are truly in their village. Those people who are calling you at 2:00 AM kind of people. They know everything about you. You can lean on them. You always think about them and there’s everybody else. Calling one of those people and a family member is something that I try to do every single day so that we remember what’s important.
Those are three of the best we’ve had. Create moments of curiosity, movement as a part of our day and call and speak with one family member or someone in your village. I love all three of those. We spoke briefly about the nine characteristics of performance as defined by Special Operations Forces, drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, curiosity, teamability, effective intelligence and emotional strength. We say that elite performers demonstrate all nine of these.
It’s never at one time but based on the situation that they’re in, there’s a combination of these. Great organizations can take these nine and they can figure out what balance of which ones they want in their talent. In order to build great teams, great individuals and organizations, all nine have to be present in some way. I say that and then at the end of these, I take one and I give it to the guests. I say, “When I think about our conversation, this is the one that you exemplify.” You spoke a lot about curiosity. I do believe that when I think about you, FitFighter and your journey, it is about curiosity. You called something that I wrote down here because it’s important. I’m going to repeat it. “A dogged curiosity that brings you to intrinsic motivation.” Curiosity ties with drive, the first one on that list. A lot of times, they’re hand in hand because if you’re not curious then you’re not going to get up out of bed to go find a solution.
These things work together. The higher drive you have, as you talked about to find a solution, iterate on the product, be better today than you were yesterday, even in small doses. You said, “Every day doesn’t have to be epic.” I liked that. It’s important and fitting. It ties so much to the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s what’s made this company.
It’s what will continue to define this company. Thank you for hosting us here. It has been such a pleasure to talk with you. I look forward to seeing this company grow. I look forward to a further partnership with you. In any way that we can support your efforts, we’re here to do that. Thanks for joining us.
You’re welcome. Thank you so much. This has been a very special conversation for me too.