GUY RAZ, HOST:
Hey, it's Guy here. So today's story isn't just about TRX straps, which you'll learn a lot about in just a minute, but also about how to deal with knockoffs and people who try to rip off your idea. And what started out as a personal workout for Randy Hetrick ended up becoming one of the hottest brands in fitness today. This story originally ran in June of last year, and I hope you enjoy it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
RANDY HETRICK: The manufacturer that I had started with didn't have a depth of manufacturing experience in the kind of product that I was bringing, which is this product that has to be very durable. And so one of the very early large lots of inventory we ordered arrived. And, you know, we had sold out of everything, so of course we were out of stock by the time it arrived and desperate to ship. Well, we hooked up the first suspension trainer, leaned back and the handles just cracked like potato chips.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: From NPR it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today how a former Navy SEAL turned an old jujitsu belt into a new fitness phenomenon called TRX, then nearly lost it all when copycats ripped off his idea. It's unlikely you'll find a gym in America or, for that matter, in most parts of the world without TRX straps. And if you're not familiar with them, they're these heavy-duty nylon straps that hang from an anchor in the ceiling with these foam rubber grips at the ends. And with these simple straps you can do rows or lunges or pushups or pullups. You can slip your feet into these loops at the bottom and work on your core or your legs. TRX is like a full-body workout machine. And yes, it is just two straps hanging from an anchor in the ceiling. The company says that today more than 25,000 gyms have them, and something like 95 percent of all professional sports teams in the U.S. use them. And what's amazing about the concept is that the inventor and founder of the company, Randy Hetrick, literally needed something to help him stay fit during long deployments as a Navy SEAL. This was back in 1997. And at the time, Randy and his SEAL team were on a mission to find pirates in Southeast Asia.
HETRICK: We were in a little warehouse kind of waiting to see, you know, what was going to happen. And a day turned into a week, turned into a couple weeks. And you don't really have a good way to train other than the stuff that the Romans did in the way back - you know, pushups and squats and situps. And none of that gets you really prepared to climb the side of a freighter with, you know, 80 pounds of gear on your back. And I had accidentally deployed with my jujitsu belt stuffed into my bag. I had scooped it up off my cage, you know, with a flight suit and thrown it into a bag without realizing I had it. And as I was sitting there on this cot, listening to guys gripe about not being able to work out, I just got this idea that, hey, I wonder if I went and tied a knot in the end of this silly belt that I deployed here with, threw it over the top of that door over there - I wonder if I could lean back and then pull my body up? And I just kind of created this movement that looked a lot like climbing a ladder and then figured out how to use my body weight to load it up. And that was - you know, that was the spark of inspiration.
RAZ: And you just found, like, some doors in this warehouse to connect it to?
HETRICK: The first one was actually a bathroom door. And yeah, I just tied a knot in the end of it, threw it over the top of the door, closed the door and then leaned back and started to lift my body weight against gravity, which turns out to be pretty effective and pretty versatile.
RAZ: So you were, like, grabbing the ends of this, like, jujitsu belt and just doing pullups and things like that?
HETRICK: Yeah. Imagine that you had something that looks like an upside-down Y - right? - an anchor end that goes up over the top of the door and then kind of two arms that come off of that 'cause I stitched the two pieces together with this handle that we would use to repair rubber boats with. And, you know, I just leaned back and grabbed each side and started figuring out, hey, wait a minute. I can do rows. I can do curls. I can do, you know, shoulder flys. If I turn around and lean away from the door I can work the whole front side of my body. I can do chest presses and chest flys and, you know, standing planks for my core and then use it as a balance point to do squats and single-leg squats and lunges. And it just kind of became like a flower that continued to open up and expose new petals, you know, the more that I worked with it.
RAZ: So when you started to, like, do these exercises in this warehouse waiting for a mission to begin, what did the other members of the SEAL team think about it?
HETRICK: Well, I mean, you got to realize it's a group of - it's a pack of alpha males. So the first thing they do is come over and mock you - right? - and say, what the heck's going on over here? And then - but then very quickly - you know, SEALs are innovative cats. And when it comes to, you know, exercise, everybody's sort of interested. And so literally, you know, guys started going, hey, wait a minute. Let me try that. Let me see - you know, let me - could we do this and could we do this? And, you know, over the course of the next maybe three, six months I just kept tweaking it. And, you know, guys would have ideas on hey, maybe we should put loops in the end of it. And it advanced at some level, but then it kind of froze at the level that I thought it needed to be because I never viewed this - I wasn't thinking about business. I just thought it was kind of cool that I had created this nifty tool that guys, you know, liked and wanted. And so I had a friend who was a parachute rigger out in the paraloft who started making them for guys in exchange for a case of beer. And he'd call me and say, you know, hey, boss, you know, Jones wants me to make one of your gizmos. Is that OK? And I'd say, yeah, go for it. And over the course of a couple of years it just kind of proliferated within that unit.
RAZ: So when did you start to think, hey, maybe - you know, maybe I can do something with this?
HETRICK: Well, I was promoted out of the field. And at that point, you know, my wife was sort of done with the superhero, gone-all-the-time lifestyle and had a promotion out to the West Coast in her career. And so we kind of cut a deal that I would apply to business school at Stanford. And if I got in, then I would resign my commission and, you know, move out there. And I thought that was, at that point, the safest bet on earth 'cause I hadn't had math in 25 years. And I wasn't very good at it even back then. But to my astonishment, they took me in spite of my scores.
RAZ: And this is around 2001?
HETRICK: Yeah. And I went out there. And while I was at Stanford, I was able to go out and train in the athlete training center. And I would show up with my straps and hook them up, you know, in this world-class training facility. And over the course of six or eight months, I mean, darn near every one of the coaches that would be in there with their teams came over and sort of looked and said, hey, tell me about this thing. You know, and 10 minutes later they'd be selling me on what a great idea it would be for their - every one of their athletes from 90-pound female tennis players to their 300-pound linemen. And that was when I started to think, I wonder.
RAZ: I wonder if I could do something with this?
HETRICK: Yep. And I ended up deciding to take the summer between my first and second year. And instead of going off and doing some cushy, you know, paying internship with McKinsey, I bought a $50 40-year-old sewing machine off of Geary Street, some little old sewing shop, and sat down in my garage. You know, I knew how to sew because as a young SEAL officer you had to go out and, you know, buy a case of beer for the rigger and have him teach you how to sew so you could customize your gear. And so I had some rudimentary sewing skills. And I just, you know, started creating some different versions of the prototypes and optimizing the design.
RAZ: And what were you making it out of at that time?
HETRICK: Nylon. You know, Cordura nylon that - I would buy bits of hardware that I needed and, you know, put the thing together.
RAZ: And so that summer you were just basically sewing up a bunch of different versions of it? Or you were just making the same thing over and over and over again.
HETRICK: No, I probably did 50 different versions. And it seems funny - right? - when you think, well, the thing's just a darn strap. But there's a lot of different ways you can make a strap, it turns out. And, you know, I'd make it and I'd try it out, and then I'd think, well, all right, that's a little better. But that caused some unintended consequence that I don't like, so I'd work around that. And I didn't have any money, so, you know, I probably spent, I don't know, a third as much time with a razor blade in my hand stripping the pieces back apart so that I didn't have to, you know, reorder them as I did sewing them together. But over time, you know, you sort of work out the kinks. And by the time that I got to my second year in business school I had a stabilized prototype. And I also - during that summer I had gone over and found a guy over in Hong Kong, a manufacturing rep who would make a short lot for me of alpha prototypes.
RAZ: So you get through that summer and you get back to school in the fall. And what did you do? Did you, like, bring it to classmates at business school and say, hey, try this out? Or - how were you then testing it?
HETRICK: I became, you know, a bit of a fanatic with my idea. And, I mean, anybody who was at Stanford Business School between 2001 and, you know, 2004 will tell you, oh, yeah, I remember that cat, you know, because I snookered everybody in on - every class project that got assigned I turned into an incubator, if you will, for what would become TRX. And, you know, we had events sometimes on Fridays to blow off steam. They were called liquidity preference functions, which basically meant tapping a keg and hanging out together. And I would, you know, bring out my straps and get people on them. And it was this great incubator where I learned all kinds of stuff. And it was one extended focus group that taught me a lot about, you know, what people liked and didn't like about this contraption that I was proposing to sell.
RAZ: So you graduate from Stanford. And - what? - do you just - you decide I'm going to launch this thing?
HETRICK: Yeah. By that point I had - you know, I had my mind set that I was going to take a run at this. And I was a little old to be, you know, a recent graduate of a business school program. I was the granddaddy of my class by about, I don't know, four or six years.
RAZ: 'Cause you were - what? - 36.
HETRICK: Thirty-six. Yeah, 36. And so I figured I had one opportunity to try and fail before I had to get serious about, you know, a paying job. You know, my mentors at Stanford at the time were trying to convince me to do something more sensible. And...
RAZ: They thought this was just a stupid idea?
HETRICK: Well, I mean, at the time Garth Saloner was one of my - he ended up becoming the dean there - he was one of my professors. And he said, you know, Randy, I can get you any number of great paying jobs in Silicon Valley...
HETRICK: ...With your background. You know, don't do this. And - but I sort of - I had my head set on it. And so I got out and kind of went after it.
RAZ: So how did you even have the money to start to manufacture these and to build a company?
HETRICK: Well, I didn't have any money because, you know, my career as a government servant hadn't produced the giant pile of wealth that you would have hoped.
HETRICK: But I did have - I had about 50 grand in savings. And I put it all into kind of the first steps, the initial prototypes, and then pursuing a little bit of key intellectual property, which - thank goodness became really important even recently.
RAZ: What did you do? Did you just file a bunch of patents for this thing, for TRX?
HETRICK: There were some unique characteristics in those designs that I had created that I thought were really special and would fundamentally differentiate this product from what, if I was successful, I expected to be, you know, a herd of copycats. And so I went and patented those unique features. And then I filed some trademarks on kind of the key terminology that I was going to try to build our brand around. And branding was one of the concepts that I really learned at Stanford.
RAZ: So in 2005, when you launched the company, tell me how you started to get the word out about this system because this was not - I mean, this - there wasn't anything really like it out there. So how did you get people to take you seriously?
HETRICK: Well, I think a lot of people didn't take me seriously initially. But I did it in sort of the - you know, the least sexy way possible. I drove around - initially around Northern California in my car with my wing man Blueberry, my dog, in the passenger seat and a backpack full of straps. And I went gym to gym to gym to gym doing these little presentations to their staff of trainers. And I would usually have to, you know, beg the fitness manager to give me a half hour of their weekly in-service with their staff. And then I would leave a couple of straps behind. I mean, I'll bet you that I did - in the first couple of years after business school, I probably did between 300 and 500 presentations around the country. And you would get the skeptics for sure. A lot of the big dudes that, you know, were used to throwing around a lot of weight, they would sort of look at me like, hey, you know, what is this little girly machine that you've got here? But I would quickly disabuse them of the belief that it wasn't for them. And then after that - right? - people would sort of be interested. And I would leave a couple behind. And it was just, you know, one gym at a time, one trainer at a time, started to make a little progress.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And were you getting a lot of orders in that first year or first two years?
HETRICK: Well, I mean, a lot's a relative thing, right?
HETRICK: From zero, 10 is a lot. And so yeah, I started to get what I viewed as a lot. It was signs of life. And I was fulfilling them out of this really kind of pathetic little - almost a shed that I was renting out in the western edge of the Sunset District in San Francisco. And I would - you know, I was everything. I would fulfill them. I had a little inkjet printer and was running the, you know, quote, unquote, "the enterprise software" out of a desktop at my feet. And then - you know, then I met a gal who was a waitress by night but would help me with office stuff by day. And we just started to plug away and ship out of - everything happened out of that little 1,500-square-foot shop out in the Sunset.
RAZ: What was the turning point? When did you start to feel like this thing is really - is taking off? What happened?
HETRICK: Well, it's funny, you hear people talking about tipping points. My experience is a little different. I think it's kind of a series of tipping points that, you know, they get relatively bigger if you're fortunate over time. But one of the early ones was I went down to a trade show down in San Diego called the IDEA World Fitness convention. And I set up a 10-by-10 booth down there. And I had this kind of fake door that I had put together and - to anchor it. And we ended up selling out of everything we had.
HETRICK: And I had to have my assistant overnight me, you know, what we had left in the shop there. So the second day of the show - it was a three-day show - the second day I was basically selling paper futures. And then thank goodness the product arrived on the third day and the people could come and exchange their paper for straps. And that was a big moment because I realized, all right, these trainers are a skeptical lot, but if they think this is really a great thing, all right, now I'm cookin with some gas, you know? And so that was kind of tipping point one. And then shortly thereafter I started to get exposed to some athletes and ended up connecting with a cat that probably most of your listeners have heard of named Drew Brees very early in his career.
RAZ: So before he became the Super Bowl champion quarterback for the Saints.
HETRICK: Before he became the Drew Brees that we all know today. I mean, he was the same guy then, but you just didn't know about him. And he had just torn his rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder, which for quarterbacks tends to be a career ender. And he had just been released from the Chargers and was doing rehab. And he fell in love with the suspension trainer.
HETRICK: Thank goodness.
RAZ: And so did that - was that what started to get a lot of attention for the system?
HETRICK: Well, he ended up - when he went to New Orleans, he ended up saying to me, you know, hey, Randy, give me, you know, a half dozen of these and I'll take them with me and, you know, I'll see if I can get the Saints to start training on them. And he had an opportunity with Sports Illustrated early on to do a story about his comeback. And he was very kind and, you know, just to sort of scratch my back made sure that the picture that they featured was him training on the suspension train. And all of a sudden all the strength and conditioning coaches and athletes that read Sports Illustrated got their eyes on this crazy strap and thought, well, maybe we ought to have a couple of those. You know, the big challenge for somebody who's starting a venture - and particularly if you've got a product for which there isn't precedent - the big challenge is obscurity. And trying to get out of obscurity and get up on the radar when you don't have much money is very challenging. And at first you think that's - you know, boy, once we break out it'll just all be duck soup from that point forward. You know, and I was envisioning, you know, napping on piles of hundred-dollar bills. But it didn't quite work out that way because as soon as you start to hit scale then a whole other host of challenges begins to avail themselves. And you have to wrangle each one one at a time.
RAZ: Like what, for example?
HETRICK: Well, one of the specific challenges that I faced early was the manufacturer that I had started with, who was a good guy but didn't have a depth of manufacturing experience in the kind of product that I was bringing, which is this product that has to be very durable. And so one of the very early large lots of inventory we ordered arrived. And, you know, we had sold out of everything, so of course we were out of stock by the time it arrived and desperate to ship. Well, we hooked up the first suspension trainer, leaned back and the handles just cracked like potato chips. And it turns out that this manufacturer had gone to a submanufacturer and found somebody who would do the subcomponents more cheaply and hadn't mentioned this. And we didn't have time to send this stuff back. And so we ended up having to manually strip these things apart, set up an - basically an assembly line, you know, with a bandsaw. I went and got a bunch of plumbing pipe from Home Depot and literally had to set up this little, you know, manufacturing plant, if you will, in our little office there. And that was inefficient to say the least. But we managed to work our way through and survived it. But I had several product problems like that that came from a manufacturer trying to improve his margins. And, you know, this is something that in the manufacturing world people call quality fade. And it's a big problem when you manufacture through China.
RAZ: So you have this product out in the world. And I would think that once you started to become successful there would be knockoffs. I mean, there would be other companies that thought, oh, well, this - we can just crush this guy because we could just make a similar thing and make it cheaper or whatever.
HETRICK: Yeah, that is the single biggest problem that I have faced in my career as an entrepreneur. And frankly, it's a problem that is bedeviling, you know, the entire consumer product space these days. It started with us literally about six or seven years into our evolution. I had somebody call me and say, hey, I think I just saw a counterfeit TRX. And I said that's impossible. That's impossible, right? And it turned out that, in fact, the rise of the Internet was changing everything. And it was creating an environment in which these little manufacturers over in, you know, rural China suddenly had visibility over products that seemed to be hot. So if you have a one-size-fits-all - say, for instance, a Gucci bag or a Louis Vuitton bag - that has a high sale price but the perception of a low cost of goods, you end up being a perfect target. And we had an explosion of counterfeiting that just rolled across the market and really threatened to cause us to fail.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Coming up, how the legal battle against copycats buried Randy in bills and almost sank the company. You're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. Stay with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So it's around 2010, and TRX is catching on with professional athletes and spreading to gyms across the country. The problem is the exercise straps are also popular with counterfeiters. And the knockoffs are eating into the company's bottom line, so Randy decides to hire an investigator to figure out just how many counterfeiters are out there.
HETRICK: And they found about 20 different factories scattered around China that were all creating fake, counterfeit TRX suspension trainers.
HETRICK: And - yeah, it was really - it was a shock. And it put huge pressure on the entire business model - right? - 'cause if you have distributors, they're trying to sell the authentic product at full price. But then they've got these kind of shadowy operators that pop up all around them. And the Internet, you know, enables this in a way that past generations of entrepreneurs never had to deal with. And so pretty soon, you know, it's - they're everywhere. And figuring out how to wrangle that was job number one.
RAZ: So how did - what did you do? How did you quash these guys who were eating into your business?
HETRICK: They were devouring my business. You know, there are - the stories are legend of companies that, you know, had great, promising futures that basically went out of business because of counterfeiting. I think that I was fortunate in that it was the early stages where people were starting - on the enforcement side were starting to get a sense that, hey, this counterfeiting business is bad and we're going to have to do something about it. So customs was starting to ramp up its efforts. And fortunately, counterfeiting, you know, is a felony. So when you identify them, everyone wants to take them down. And so we started this process of seizures in China with the cooperation, at some level, with Chinese police. And then in the states and in Europe, most of the customs agencies would seize the counterfeit goods. So that sort of started to subside. But what replaced it was that the counterfeiters figured out if we don't put this brand's trademark on our product and we just copy the actual design itself but without the trademark, then it's technically not a counterfeit. And so it becomes much harder to enforce against. And that was the next big wave - was the knockoffs that were copying our designs to the T but not calling themselves TRX. And that even became a bigger problem.
RAZ: How? What happened?
HETRICK: Well, Amazon - and the other online marketplaces but particularly Amazon because of its scale - became this hotbed, if you will, an auction site for all of these knockoff vendors who would misappropriate our trademarks, use them in search marketing. And so when you, for instance, Guy, came looking for TRX on Amazon, you would be served up our product alongside a host of...
RAZ: A bunch of others.
HETRICK: ...Others that are a quarter the price - a fifth the price because, of course, they're not having to spend any money to develop the market or get you there.
HETRICK: We really experienced a flattening and actually a negative growth for a couple of years - 2014 and 2015...
HETRICK: ...As this sea of knockoffs confused the market.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: I mean, look, you are an alpha male. You were a SEAL. You're a manly guy. But, I mean, let's be honest. There's no way you didn't experience anxiety or depression or, like, fear.
HETRICK: All of that. All of that.
HETRICK: Maybe even a few tears, Guy. You know, I'm not above admitting that. You know, it's - because, look, there was a period of time when I was thinking, well, I could make these guys go away, right? I have a certain skill set.
HETRICK: But, you know, then you have to look away from the light quickly and say no, no, no, no, no, this is not where your brain should go. You know, I learned some skills as a SEAL about how to manage fear and stress. And it sort of involves a combination of compartmentalization and action. And so that's how I kind of, you know, deal with entrepreneurial fear and stress - is, you know, you put it in a box. You figure out how you can take action on it. And then you move forward to your next task at hand and hope that, you know, that fix works.
RAZ: So at that point, did you - like, what did you do?
HETRICK: Ultimately, we decided that we had to take the dreaded step of our first litigation action. And we picked one of these knockoffs to go after with a federal patent and trademark infringement suit because we knew that if we won, it was unlikely that we would be able to collect any significant damages 'cause these knockoff companies don't tend to, you know, maintain a bunch of cash on hand. But we knew that, as a legal precedent, it could be what we needed to clean up the marketplace. And so we filed a federal patent suit and trademark suit against one of the largest infringers.
RAZ: So that's a big pain 'cause that requires lawyers and paying lawyers for their hourly billing rates. I mean, that's super expensive. I mean, that must have been stressful just to do that.
HETRICK: It was really painful and quite scary, you know?
HETRICK: It was - I mean just to frame it up, you know, the rule of thumb is that it takes about 50,000 bucks to file a patent, right? But the absolute minimum that one should expect when you try to enforce it is half a million.
HETRICK: I mean, that's on the - that's if you settle - right? - before court. We ended up - in our action - ended up spending about 2 and a half million bucks, and it took about three years.
RAZ: Wow. It's so interesting because I suspect a lot of counterfeiters, or cheaters, they know that an entrepreneur - especially one who is not - who may be doing well but not, you know, a billionaire is going to be disincentivized to fight them because the cost of a - the legal battle is so expensive. I mean, the lawyers fees are so high, and it takes so long that probably a lot of people - a lot of entrepreneurs just - they just deal with it. They just live with all these cheaters.
HETRICK: That is exactly what happens. And, you know, a lot of times it ends up being the death knell for the innovator because it sucks. You know, I talk a lot - when I talk to entrepreneur groups, I talk a lot about the - one of the most important things that an entrepreneur could bring to the table is his or her mojo, right? And, you know, Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, defines mojo as magical powers. I think it's a little more than that. It's that kind of belief in the mission and that appreciation for the possibilities that lie just around the next corner, right? That is, like, the stuff of entrepreneurship. And one of the things that happens is, you know, these cheaters come in, and they create competition before you can really manage competition or afford it. And then they create legal fees. And all of that stuff is like cuts in that bag of mojo, and it just starts to leak out, right? And a lot of times, it just causes an entrepreneur, ultimately, to say, heck with it. I'm just worn down, you know? And they walk away.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: What happened with that lawsuit? I mean, you filed the lawsuit - and three years, and what happened?
HETRICK: So three years - I mean, it was relatively recently that we got the final verdict. But we got a unanimous verdict, had a jury award of 6.8 million in damages, which...
HETRICK: ...Which is quite something. You know, it implies - I don't know - something like 20 to 22 to 25 million in lost sales. And what it created was the precedent that validated all of our trademarks and our key patents. And the jury verdict ended up also allowing Amazon to take action on all of these infringers. And so, you know, it's a very happy outcome.
HETRICK: Our business almost immediately leapt up by 40 percent...
HETRICK: ...Year over year and seems to be growing rapidly.
RAZ: I mean, I know you are still a - you're still a privately-held company. And I've seen reports of revenues exceeding $50 million, maybe higher now. Am I right? Is it higher now, or about that?
HETRICK: Yeah, we'll - we'll be a little north of that this year.
RAZ: But I'm wondering about your revenue streams. I mean, do you - is it mainly from the TRX products? Or do you also - is there a revenue stream from training? I mean, for example, if you train a personal trainer on TRX, and then that trainer uses that, you guys aren't getting any revenue from that trainer's work for the rest of his or her career, right?
HETRICK: Well, we're not getting revenue from that individual trainer's work, but we are monetizing the training. So, you know, it used to be - I mean, in the way back - we were 100 percent gear, right?
RAZ: Yeah, yeah.
HETRICK: The revenue was - came from 100 percent gear sales. It's - now it's maybe 70/30. And I think, pretty quickly, we'll be 60/40 - 60 being gear still and 40 being in the soft goods in the form of education revenues and then digital content. So we've become a digital content company.
RAZ: You mean you can download videos or buy videos or things like that online?
HETRICK: Correct, yeah, through apps, in-app purchases, et cetera.
RAZ: So OK, here's my big question about TRX, which is - I've used them. They're really, really cool. It's a very simple idea and concept and very effective. But, I mean, this is still a field where trends come and go, right? Like there was a time where Pilates was really big and barre3 and yoga. I mean, things stay. And things come. And things go - and Jazzercise. I mean, it's all - aerobics - all kinds of things. I mean, what's - you know, what's the guarantee that people are going to want to use TRX in five or 10 years?
HETRICK: You know, I think that - I mean, first of all, if we're a trend, we're a fairly long-lived trend at this point, right?
HETRICK: We've been around now for 12, 13 years and are, you know, growing strongly. But I think that one of the things that has been unique about the company that my team has built is that we created both in our hero product - right? - the TRX suspension trainer - we became Switzerland. And by that I mean whatever else it is that you do for your exercise, we want to be a part of that. And we've been very successful at embedding ourselves - I mean, just about every one of the activities that you mentioned a minute ago, TRX has become part of.
RAZ: Randy, I read - I've read a lot about you. And I've read what some of the people who worked with you have said about you. And most all of them have just, like, talked about your charisma and your drive and your passion. And I'm going to read a quote that somebody said about you. It's a - I think it's a positive quote - it's critical, but it's positive. I'm curious to hear your reaction to it. And this is what one of your former employees said - he said - or she said, "the company's initial success was driven by Randy's charisma and ego in a good way. People would live and die for him. But the same charisma and ego that allowed the company to grow from his garage to a high-rise in downtown San Francisco is what has gotten him into trouble. It became hubristic. And it's literally killing the company." That quote came out a few years ago. But you've seen that quote, I'm sure. What did you think when you saw that? Did it hurt your feelings? Did you think there was some truth to it? Was it just completely off base?
HETRICK: Well, you know, I think that - I mean, obviously I'm not going to agree with the quote, you know, word for word.
HETRICK: I think that there's probably some truth in it in that, look, when you - when you're an entrepreneur and you're trying to build something from scratch, you've got to have a ton of faith in your idea. And you have to be headstrong because if you're not, you won't survive. And as you start to scale, there's a lot of things that happen to a business. And one of the things that I realized is that communication becomes really the hardest challenge to to conquer. You know, your team grows large. You have people scattered around various geographies. And I think that, you know, there are different levels of understanding within the team sometimes about what's affecting a business. And so, yeah, there was a period of time where I think we - you know, we got a little big for our britches. And as the leader of the organization, I certainly own that. But there is - I wouldn't call it ego. I would call it more, I guess, strength of will, right? You have a level of conviction that there's some significant amount of hope behind. And that's how you sort of keep, you know, the team focused on the realm of the possible and the opportunity that's just around the next corner.
RAZ: When you think about where this company's headed and where - and your role in it, I mean, what do you think? Is this going to be your life's work? Is this what you want to do for the rest of your life? 'Cause you're not - I mean, you're not an old guy. I mean, you can do something else if you wanted to. You can create something entirely new.
HETRICK: Well, I suppose old is a relative - it's in the eye of the beholder, right? I mean, I - it's funny, being 51, I remember as a young SEAL pup looking at the admirals and thinking, God, those guys are old as dirt. And, you know, one of my best friends is Admiral Tim Szymanski, who now heads the - heads the organization down there. And he doesn't seem old to me at all now.
HETRICK: But, you know, I really love starting things. I love that entrepreneurial energy of putting a team together and tackling big problems and seeing the progress and surmounting the challenges. I love that. And we still have plenty of that going on at TRX. I mean, we aim to become the world's first great multi-domain training brand. And nobody's ever done it. And so I think that - you know, I don't - I don't have any plans to go anywhere other than keep growing, keep doing what we're doing.
RAZ: Are you at a place now where you can kind of take a breath and say, OK, we're good, we're - we've made it, and we're going to be just fine?
HETRICK: Not yet, but I think I can see it from where I stand.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Randy Hetrick, founder of TRX. By the way, if you always wanted to have a gym in your hotel room complete with TRX straps, well, your wishes may have been answered. Last year, Hilton Hotels rolled out new hotel rooms that double as gyms, equipped with free weights, yoga mats, stationary bikes and, of course, TRX straps hanging from the ceiling.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And please do stick around because in just a moment, we're going to hear from you about the things you're building.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Hey, thanks so much for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And today we're going to update a story we ran last year. But the story actually begins about six years ago when Matt Wallace was just standing in his kitchen in Washington, D.C.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MATT WALLACE: We had a bag of cherries in the fridge. And we needed to use them before they went bad.
RAZ: Anyway, he and his girlfriend, Kori, happened to be making turkey burgers at the time. And they were short on ketchup.
M. WALLACE: But I like to mess around in the kitchen, so that's where my creative energy kind of comes out.
KORI WALLACE: And knowing you, you probably wanted to make tomato ketchup. But we didn't have tomatoes, so you said, I'm going to make cherry ketchup.
RAZ: So Matt looked online, found a recipe and then cooked the cherries with vinegar and sugar and spices. And boom - he had fresh cherry ketchup. It was kind of sweet and kind of smoky.
M. WALLACE: It was definitely a novel thing. And we both really liked it. Yeah, it...
K. WALLACE: Yeah, I loved it.
RAZ: And the story could have ended there, except a few months later, Matt was sitting at his office - he works in the energy business - and he started to think. But he wasn't thinking about energy.
M. WALLACE: You know, I kept thinking about the ketchup. I just had this moment of realizing, you know, there's literally one kind of ketchup on the market. And there's this huge gap that no one knows about.
RAZ: Matt couldn't stop thinking about the tyranny of the tomato and a gap in the ketchup market that could be filled not just with cherries but with all kinds of fruit. So that day, he emailed Kori about starting a business.
M. WALLACE: It was probably 30 emails back and forth.
K. WALLACE: Yeah.
M. WALLACE: And I felt like I had the idea kind of downloaded into my head, fully formed.
K. WALLACE: Well, and he also knew right away that he wanted to call it 'Chups because his best friend growing up referred to ketchup as chup (ph) - like, pass the chup.
RAZ: So Kori and Matt started to experiment. They took celery and onion, garlic and vinegar, and they'd mix those ingredients with blueberries, mangoes, peaches, plums and of course cherries. And what they came up with were five different types of ketchup.
M. WALLACE: They work really well with a lot of foods that you wouldn't normally pair your Heinz with - pork tenderloin. Fried rice is really nice.
RAZ: Matt and Kori started doing taste tests with their friends.
K. WALLACE: Great as a base for a vinaigrette.
M. WALLACE: Yeah.
K. WALLACE: Put them out with their cheese plates.
RAZ: And they even got a thumbs-up from celebrity chef Jose Andres, who actually featured the ketchups in one of his restaurants.
M. WALLACE: That was really the impetus for me, that this guy knows what he's talking about. If we have his sort of unofficial endorsement that this is a good product, you know, we've got to go for it. We've got to make this thing official.
RAZ: So Matt and Kori raised $22,000 on Kickstarter and moved 'Chups out of their kitchen and into a shared commercial space in D.C. Somewhere along the line, they also got married. And they started selling 'Chups on their website and at a few independent markets in the D.C. area.
M. WALLACE: We wanted to do something meaningful. We wanted to do something together.
K. WALLACE: Yeah. We're learning the art of the hustle and all of those things. And we get better at it every week.
M. WALLACE: Yeah. Despite the fact that it's not killing it, flying off the grocery store shelves, we put everything into it. I mean, we - it's all sweat equity at this point.
RAZ: Since we last spoke to Matt and Kori Wallace, they've changed their business strategy a bit. They're now focusing less on retail and more on selling wholesale to restaurants. They're also looking for a distributor while keeping their day jobs and doing 'Chups kind of on the side. Oh, and their other major side hustle - they just had a baby. His name is Harrison (ph).
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: If you want to find out more about 'Chups or hear previous episodes, head to our podcast page howibuiltthis.npr.org. And of course if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. And thanks so much for listening to our show this week. You can subscribe to it at Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, please do give us a review. You can also write directly to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you want to send a tweet, it's @HowIBuiltThis.
Our show was produced this week by Rund Abdelfatah with original music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to Nour Coudsi, Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is J.C. Howard. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.