Fitness is an industry of innovators and entrepreneurs. Some of the most recognized companies in fitness come from humble beginnings, started with nothing more than an idea and a drive to become successful.
Tommy Saunders is one of those innovators. Like so many entrepreneurs, he started his company at a time when his life was at a crossroads. Undecided between pursuing an NFL career, playing professional rugby or jumping into the coaching ranks, Saunders, a former wide receiver for the University of Missouri, founded ROCK 360.
Someday, he hopes ROCK 360 takes its place among fitness’ big names. But for now, his company is still in its infancy. In this regular blog, Saunders will give AB readers first-hand insight into the triumphs and failures of growing a business. This is his story. This is his journey.
Blog Entry 9: July 2, 2014
Going Way Behind the Scenes
Although the purpose of this blog has been to give you a behind-the-scenes look at what the journey has been for our team as we try to build our company, there are always a few stories that get left out. Some are insignificant and some are just too crazy to explain. But, there are a few humbling and entertaining stories we wanted to share that further illustrate that starting a business is not always glamorous. Here are some stories from our archives...
1. Testing the Prototype
The very first ROCK 360 prototype cost me $8,000. That’s a lot of money at any time, but at that particular point in the company it was astronomical to me. I cashed in the bonds my grandma saved for me and I used all of the money from the job I was working to get the prototype made. The night I received it I was showing it to my dad, who was very impressed. So much so that a light went off in his head… “You know what?” he said lifting it in front of him to demonstrate a front raise, “you could even use it as a weight.” Just as he finished his sentence, the prototype broke apart and fell to the floor. $8,000 gone in an instant. Try to imagine someone setting fire to the cash from your last four paychecks and you’ll get close to how I felt at that moment. Thankfully, the designer agreed to replace it and my dad ended up contributing another great use for the ROCK 360.
2. The Mistake on the Lake
After a very long day of driving, then setting up our booth at the Cleveland Marathon Expo, we decided to relax and have dinner at a local spot. We found a place that looked nice and enjoyed our dinner while watching the last quarter of the Browns’ game that was on that night. We finished dinner and it was time to call it a night and go to the hotel. So we headed for the truck, which was parked across the street from the restaurant. Or so we thought. We walked outside and to our surprise the truck and trailer with all the ROCK 360s and all of our luggage was missing. We were towed! Some of the streets downtown were closing for the marathon and we decided to park on one that was. So, four hours and $650 later we learned a very valuable lesson... Never travel to Cleveland.
3. Rocky Mountain Horror
When you do an extensive amount of driving, you always want to find the shortest path to where you’re going. Even if it means a little inconvenience. So, when we were driving home to Kansas City from Los Angeles after an expo, we decided to drive a straight line through the Rocky Mountains. It was January and the forecast said we were headed right into snow, but we didn’t want to spend an extra minute in the truck if we didn’t have to. It was possibly the worst decision we could have made. Not only was there snow, there was construction, which brought the already narrow and winding lanes through the mountains down to one slippery, icy death trap. It took us four hours to travel 75 miles. We were lucky enough to get through it without anything happening, but we won’t make that mistake again.
4. Culture Shock
Having a product that is manufactured in China requires an occasional visit to the factory where it’s made. I really love to travel, so when the time came to make the first trip, I was more than excited. China was this mysterious place on the other side of the world that I had romanticized in my mind. However, I was not prepared for the culture shock I would experience when I got off the plane. First, let me just say I’m not an adventurous eater. I like chicken, steak and the occasional seafood. I have to verify that you’ve washed your hands and followed the proper kitchen sanitation rules before I will try food prepared by someone other than me. Imagine my surprise when as I’m walking down the street, I see food vendors who aren’t selling hot dogs or tacos or even roasted peanuts, but rats! Barbequed rats! Now, I’m from Kansas City, so I love barbecue. But I had to draw the line at the rats. Don’t get me wrong I have a deep respect for Chinese culture, but I just wasn’t daring enough to try some of the cuisine. I spent the week eating Pizza Hut and mangos. The rat would have probably been better for me.
5. The New Guy in the Gym
About two years ago I spent a lot of time in Columbia, Mo. at Mizzou, my alma mater, working on the ROCK 360 and helping out with the football team. Around that time, a new strength coach joined the staff. I was working out with the ROCK one night when he came up and asked me what I was using. I gave him a quick demo and I could see excitement on his face as I moved through the exercises. He then explained that he’d be interested in investing and investing BIG. $100,000 big. $100,000 could change the trajectory of the company. But I had a lot of experience with people saying they’d invest and not following through, so I tried not to get my hopes up too high. He brought his fiancé in the next day who approved of the deal and they did invest. Their investment allowed me to have 2,000 ROCK 360s manufactured and form a solid foundation for the company. ROCK 360 took a giant leap forward after that chance encounter. I now know that opportunities come in ways you don’t always expect, so you have to capitalize on everything if you want to be successful.
Blog Entry 8: May 30, 2014
Right On Target
May 13th: Through some major networking, we managed to get a meeting with the buyers for Target.com. I drove up from Kansas City to Minneapolis, a six hour drive, to the Target headquarters. I realized long ago not to factor in driving time in the overall value of any trip we go on.
May 14th: In the hours leading up to our meeting with Target.com, I prepared heavily. I had several conversations and meetings with my sales representative, David, who would also be in the meeting. We discussed every detail, we ironed out our approach and we rehearsed questions. No stone was left unturned. Thankfully, David is a veteran in the business. He knew a lot of what they would ask before we even got into the meeting.
I’ve worked very hard to get the company to the position where I could stand in front of retailers and confidently sell ROCK 360. So, when I woke up that morning, I was ready to meet my opportunity. I felt I was prepared for any question they asked.
As I got ready to walk in to the room where the meeting would be held, I recalled my football days. Just before a game, I had to mentally prepare myself. I knew what the plan was. I had practiced, I knew the plays, but the game was the one shot I had to make it all worthwhile. Just like this meeting. I had to go in and sell my product, the thing I believed in as much as I believed in myself. So that’s what I did. I delivered. And thanks to all my preparation and David’s help the 25-minute meeting went very well.
Although I went into the meeting prepared and gave it everything I had, there are still intangibles I couldn’t control, just like in football. All I could do was prepare and perform. Now I just to trust my preparation and let God do the rest.
Blog Entry 7: May 9, 2014
Laughing All the Way to the Bank?
When I started this journey, I grossly underestimated the amount of money it would take to get the product off the ground. The first money I ever received came from my grandma and my first investor was one of my football coaches from Mizzou. I remember when he wrote the check I thought we were half way there. Now, three years and more than a dozen checks later we still haven’t secured the capital we need to make the product a success.
In search of our next investment, I had to get on the road again. First a cross-country trip from Kansas City to Los Angeles to pick up a new product shipment and for a meeting that had to be face to face. After that, I drove to Fort Worth, Texas for another business meeting before heading back to KC.
The trip took me six days with only one day of rest out of the truck. Making this drive by myself gave me time to think. I downloaded several audiobooks including The 4 Hour Work Week and Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Listening to books that give me insight on business, money and strategy help me become a better boss and decision maker. I’m learning everything as I go, so I don’t take any tip or piece of advice for granted.
For the past year, we’ve been traveling from convention to convention for an inlet to the commercial audience and we’ve made some great headway. And thanks to Dunham’s Sports ROCK 360 is officially in its first retail store. Although we have learned so much from the insights of successful people in the industry, the key to FEWDM Fitness’ success, we now know, lies in the consumer market. Right now, we use social media mostly to reach the consumer. It allows us to be creative and malleable with our approach. If a post or a video doesn’t work, we can change it up the next time. It’s the most cost effective and immediate way to reach our customer base.
With everything we do on social media our goal is to demonstrate what ROCK 360 can do. But sometimes we like to use comedy to reach people and get them engaged in our content. One of our recent videos called Big Weight: Hula Hoop Edition received more than 4,000 shares on Facebook. From that video, we realized that the most effective content has to be well rounded. It has to be more than just product related; we have to provide entertainment or useful information and build a relationship before people are willing to trust us enough to make a purchase.
As in life, business is a series of adjustments. You have to examine and learn from your mistakes and successes in order to continue to thrive. The road to success was never meant to be perfect; I just know it will be worth it.
Blog Entry 6: March 31, 2014
A Big Break
Picking up where we left off after our last blog post, it was soon time to hit the road again. A few days after my 1 Million Cups presentation, we packed up the truck and trailer and headed to the West coast for the IHRSA convention in San Diego.
Driving cross-country is normal for us now. For any entrepreneurs out there, it’s always important to weigh your options and see where you can save money. Every time we have a show we look at the cost of travel. We look at flights versus driving, shipping our products versus picking them up from our fulfillment center and every time it’s most cost effective to drive. So we’ve learned how to make the road our home away from home. Running my daily mile in truck stop parking lots and eating Chipotle for every meal can be a great story to tell but, a 26-hour drive is a 26-hour drive no matter how many times you do it.
Sitting in the office behind a computer following up with connections from previous conferences, processing orders, and handling social media sometimes get very repetitive, so it’s always great to get on the road and demo our products with our customers. Our drive was a little more pleasant than usual thanks to the good news we received along the way: An image of me presenting at 1MC would be on the front page of the Small Business section of the New York Times, ROCK 360 in hand and the retail box in plain view. Obviously, the honor meant huge exposure for us. The pages of the New York Times are some of the most coveted spaces for anyone looking to tell their story, so just having myself and the product on the cover page seemed like a coup for us. And we did it without any public relations efforts or anything. We were just fortunate that the photographer happened to be there while I was presenting. Sometimes you need a little luck.
Speaking of coups… The same week we got the exciting news about the NYT, we finalized an agreement to have the ROCK 360 in all 203 Dunham’s Sports stores. Not only is Dunham’s our first actual brick and mortar retail location, but they also grant us great leverage when we approach other major retailers. We’ve worked really hard to get to this point, so when the purchase order came through and the deal was official, we all took a sigh of relief. That purchase order means that we are not only headed in the right direction but, for at least the time being, we are in a good position. This is a major sign that all those hours behind the computer, all the road trips and all the trade shows are starting to pay off.
After two days at IHRSA demoing the ROCK 360 for eight hours to anyone who passed by our booth and some beach volleyball with friends we’ve met at other conferences, it was back on the road and back to the cold of Kansas City. But now, with a little more clout behind us, thanks to Dunham’s Sports and the New York Times.
Blog Entry 5: March 11, 2014
Earning Our Respect
In early February, a shipment of 2,000 updated ROCK 360s reached the port in California. These new models have several new features designed to improve functionality. I get so excited thinking about the opportunities that could come from these 2,000 units. The people we’ll meet, the relationships we’ll build, the growth we’ll achieve. But, I never get excited for the shipping costs; $5,000 a pop and there are two more containers coming right behind the first one. It definitely costs to be the boss.
The end of February and the first days of March were pretty exciting. We drove to Columbus, Ohio for the Arnold Classic, an expo for all athletes in all sports, named after Arnold Schwarzenegger. It turned out to be one of the biggest shows we’ve been to yet (and if you read our earlier entries, you know we’ve been to a lot of shows.)
We really had to fight for the attention of passersby because we had a beef jerky booth right next to us passing out free samples. How can you compete with free food? Especially when what we’re giving out is a free ab workout. But, regardless, we got a great response from the Arnold Show. On a personal level, the show was fun for me as I got to meet a few popular fitness names such as Massy the woman behind the wildly popular Instagram page, Manko Fit, the infamous CT Fletcher and the “HULK”. I also saw Arnold Schwarzenegger walk by amidst a frenzy of people and ran into several other people I’d met at previous shows, whom I’d now call friends.
After the Arnold, I started to feel like I was slowly but surely leaving the position of an outsider in the fitness industry. My peers are beginning to recognize me and it feels like the company and the product are gaining more respect.
I’ve been an underdog my whole life. People always doubted that I would achieve the goals that I set for myself; that’s why I came up with the acronym FEWDM, which stands for: Forgive Everybody Who Doubts Me. I named my company this as a constant reminder that people can reach their goals no matter who doubts them as long as they believe that that’s only thing that matters.
On March 5th, I was fortunate enough to present at the 1 Million Cups meeting in Kansas City, Mo. 1 Million Cups is a platform that gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to present their business ideas in front of an audience of advisers, peers and other entrepreneurs in order to expedite growth and help solve problems. It was an extraordinary experience, truly a meeting of the minds. They asked tough questions and played devil’s advocate, but all for the ultimate goal of progress. As any entrepreneur knows, it's important to have people ask you the tough questions.
You can see my presentation for yourself in the video below. Feel free to comment and let me know how you think I did.
As we tour the country, we’ve presented the ROCK 360 to a lot of people, but it was nice to be able to discuss the company with an objective audience who genuinely wants to help you achieve your business goals. I work hard everyday to make ROCK 360 a success, but I realize that I can’t do it alone. It takes a collective effort to achieve something great, and I’m thankful for all the help I can get.
Blog Entry 4: February 6, 2014
7,000 Miles, 85 ROCK 360's and an Introduction to Randy Hetrick
The road has truly become my second home. I’ve been living out of hotel rooms and eating Chipotle and Panera for the past three weeks. No length of driving time or mileage can deter me from taking a trip if it means I can get closer to my goal of making the ROCK 360 successful.
When I started the ROCK 360 tour in early January, our goal to go to as many conferences as possible to create buzz around the ROCK 360 and get it in as many hands of people as possible. Indianapolis was the first stop on the trip but somehow that stop turned into a seven-city cross-country tour. Still, I didn’t bat an eye because we were working toward our goals and making the most out of every opportunity that came our way.
We sold 50 units in Indianapolis at the NSCA and AFCA conferences and during that trip we made contact with Legends Fitness and reconnected with Power Systems. So, instead of driving back to Kansas City and then to the Houston Marathon we decided to leave from Indianapolis and meet with both Legends and Power Systems face to face in Knoxville and then head straight to Houston.
At the Marathon expo in Houston we sold out. That motivated and excited us to get to the LA Fit Expo. There’s an old sales adage that says after you finish a sale, the next thing you do is turn around and go for another because you’re never hotter than right after you make a sale. That’s how we felt. We were energized and eager to get the ROCK 360 in more hands. So, it was back on the road for the 26-hour drive to LA.
We set up a time to pick up 200 Rock 360s from our fulfillment center in Van Nuys and loaded them in the trailer for the LA Fit Expo. We got to LA 4 days before the event, so we spent each day driving to gyms giving samples and demos to any gym that would listen. We left cards, took cards and did the best we could to leave our mark on every city we visited.
As the LA fit Expo concluded, it seemed that that old adage was right, at least this time, because we sold all 85 units we brought into the show. The LA Expo was different from other shows because I had two opportunities over the weekend to give a live demo on stage, once on Saturday and Sunday. I took 15 people through a ROCK 360 workout while the EXPO crowd looked on. It was my first time on a real stage in front of that many people doing a workout with the ROCK 360, and it felt like I was where I was supposed to be.
When the workout was over, several people came up and wanted to take pictures with me. From playing football in college, I remember what it felt like for someone to look up to you for being good at playing a sport or doing something athletic in a game, but this felt different. People wanted to take pictures with me not because of my athletic ability but because of something I created.
After the show in LA, Randy Hetrick, the inventor of the popular TRX training system, invited me up to their headquarters in San Francisco to give his team a workout with the ROCK 360. This invitation indicated that we are starting to make traction in the fitness industry. I couldn’t wait to show the TRX crew the versatility of our product.
So from LA we drove straight to San Francisco. It was a 6-hour drive, and it just so happened to be my 28th birthday. It bothered my fiancé that we didn’t really stop or take the day off to celebrate, but I was so focused on getting to San Francisco and getting prepared for the TRX workout the next day that I viewed it as another day at work. I didn’t mind spending this birthday working, for the chance that someday I might never have to work another birthday again.
During the workout at the TRX headquarters, I could tell that I had surprised most of the people with everything the ROCK can do. I took them through a series of rolling and stabilization exercises like rolling push-ups, 360-degree burpees, and rolling Russian twists. Afterward, I talked to Randy about the challenges of building a business. His story is not unlike mine. He traveled from convention to convention all over the country demonstrating his product and he grew the company from there. I hope to mimic TRX’s success. Going to the headquarters gave me an idea of the type of success ROCK 360 could have. I work hard everyday so that I can get the company to the place that a company like TRX is. I’ve always had a vision of what the future holds, and the trip to TRX gave me more insight on what that vision could really look like and what it’s going to take to get there.
35 hours later and a total of 7,000 miles driven over the past 3 weeks we are back in Kansas City ready to continue the work of growing ROCK 360, but this time we’re stationary.
Blog Entry 3: January 23, 2014
The Long Road to Success
We’re back on the road for the first time since November. We have 4 conferences this month, so we jumped back in to tour life with a vengeance.
The first two conferences NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) and AFCA (American Football Coaches Association) are in Indianapolis. These conferences are huge for us. When we’re there we get to do what we love: get the ROCK 360 in front of people and watch them react. We love it when see the reactions of amazement at everything the ROCK 360 can do.
When we got to Indianapolis it was obvious that we were smack in the middle of winter. It had snowed more than a foot there before we arrived and the roads were only just plowed clean before we made it. But, despite the mounds of snow and less than ideal temperatures, we adjust and perform; life as an entrepreneur.
We commence a 6-day, back-to-back conference run. When it was time for the second conference, the AFCA, I kept running into people I knew. Since I played football for the University of Missouri for four years and then for a short while in the NFL, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of great coaches and players. One after another, I would see someone I knew and someone that had meant a great deal to me at one point in my life. It reminded me that not too long ago I had another passionate love: football.
I poured everything I had into playing football and in the end it wasn’t my destiny. I was meant for something else. I was supposed to invent the ROCK 360 and now I’m pouring my everything into it. It was truly a weird feeling for these two worlds to collide: my old passion with my new. But it gave me great pride to run into the coaches and players and show them that all the hard work I put into football got recycled and redirected into the ROCK 360. I was proud of where I was and what I had done.
From Indianapolis, we drove four hours out of the way to Knoxville, TN for a 15-minute meeting with Power Systems. These are the little things we have to do to be successful. Four hours in the car for 15-minute presentation may sound nuts, but we want to present our product any time we can.
Next we were on to Houston, TX for the Houston Marathon Exhibit where we promptly sold out of every ROCK 360 we brought. Now, we headed to Los Angeles for the LA Fit Expo. Hopefully, we have the same good fortune as we did in Houston. In total, we’ve traveled 4,000 miles in less than two weeks, and we have no plans of slowing down. The ROCK 360 tour 2014 is just getting started.
Blog Entry 2: January 9, 2014
I think I had the same misconception that many entrepreneurs/inventors have. I thought that as soon as the product was ready to sell it was just going to take off. Overnight I would be a millionaire. That might be the farthest thing from the truth. It takes a ridiculous amount of work to get a product off the ground.
I rest assured because I know we have what is in my opinion, the best core trainer on the market. However, that doesn’t do much good if no one knows about it. So during the holiday season my team and I spent the weeks researching marketing company after marketing company.
What I found out from our research is that I don’t know a lot about marketing but what I do know is the ROCK 360. I know it inside and out. I know how I want it to be viewed and the message I want to portray; I know the features and benefits for every single market and the way to sell to each of them. However, I don’t know how to access the markets and the way to portray a message to each demographic that works best for them.
With that said, it’s been really hard to settle on a marketing company. In the month of December, I probably spoke to 15 or so different marketing firms and consultants. Everyone has their own vision and tactics for marketing the ROCK 360, but at the end of the day not knowing for sure what they’ll deliver and if it will work makes it a really tough decision. This decision is more than just picking a marketing company but the future of the company is riding on this decision.
We don’t have the time or the money to make the wrong decision. Sometimes it feels like the problems I deal with now are the difficult ones, the ones that could make or break the company. I guess that means we’re closer to making it than we ever were.
I took a trip to Palm Springs right before New Year to meet with IIDA , a sales rep to discuss the distribution of ROCK 360. My manufacturer, Steve, who has helped several successful products come to life, and I both went down and spent the day with the president and CEO. As we walked to the meeting room we waked through what looked like a retail store but it was just a room in their office with all the products that they have gotten into the doors of major retailers. We talked about business and how to move the product forward. It was a successful meeting and I felt good about what we’d discussed, but I still couldn’t relax. With all the work that still needs to be done, how could I?
After we get back from having dinner, I worked for a while and then headed down to the hotel gym to workout. As I was walked through the hotel lobby I glanced into the hotel’s bar and noticed Steve there having a drink. He was an accomplished man who had attained a certain level of success and with that came a certain level of comfort, an earned relaxation. I stopped and visited with him to discuss the meeting in more detail. Soon, he left to go to his room and I headed to the gym. On my way to there, I passed the pool area and it was so beautiful and looked so relaxing I had to take a picture. I thought to myself as I continued walking toward the gym, one day I’ll feel that same sense of earned relaxation that Steve did and get to sit by the pool and just relax. But Today is not the day. Time to work.
Blog Entry 1: December 7, 2014
Like a lot of people I've met in the fitness industry, my work/life balance is never perfect. I always feel like there’s more work to be done. I started my Saturday writing workouts for the ROCK 360 group class. I took a break from the workouts to watch Mizzou play in the SEC Championship game with friends and family. But in between the plays, laughs and cheers, I still find myself thinking about how to scale the ROCK 360. Those thoughts never go away. I feel the pressure even more when I am around my loved ones because they are the reason I work so hard.
I’m watching the game and enjoying my family with my computer still in my lap, so that I can review a marketing plan at every break. Every minute of my day counts. After the loss, I’m not anxious to leave my family but I’m scheduled to speak at a football camp at Missouri Western University. I drive an hour in the snow to talk about core strength for about 10 minutes.
When I get home, the house is quiet. My fiancé is asleep. I stay up and finish the group class workouts around 2:30 a.m. That’s an early bedtime for me, but I know I have to get up the next morning at 6:30 a.m. to get to the football camp’s expo.
Four hours later, I’m awake, it’s 10 degrees and there are two inches of snow on the ground. I still have to drive to my grandma’s house to pick up our trailer filled with the product and hitch it.
After driving an hour to get there, I unload the trailer and roll my dolly of ROCK 360s through the snow. After several trips, I finally get the booth organized and people start to drift in. It’s time to start demos. As I get down to start, I quickly realize the turf is wet and dirty from all the snow being dragged in. This doesn’t faze me, because I have to do whatever it takes… I do the light work, the heavy work, the busy work and the dirty work.
Giving demos on dirty, wet turf may not seem like an indicator of what’s to come for ROCK 360, but I only demoed the product to about 25 people that day, and 11 of them purchased — not a bad conversion rate. At this stage, even the small victories are huge.
Every experience of people loving the product gives me a boost of confidence that ROCK 360 is on the right path. We will be successful, but I live for those experiences until it all comes into existence.
Continue to check back as the ROCK 360 journey continues.