“My biggest fear is that when I die the person I am meets the person I could have become.”

Author Unknown

Won’t that quote (above) make you think twice about living every minute to the fullest!?

Well, today's guest is a truly extraordinary human and DEFINITELY living to the fullest! And if you’ve got kids of your own or an adventurous spirit you’re going to absolutely love this one.

Bruce Kirkby grew up in Toronto as an engineering physicist by trade, but going through the motions each day left him feeling like there was so much more to life than what he was experiencing.

Despite almost failing English in high school, Bruce became a wilderness writer and adventure photographer, and today he’s visited more than 80 countries and is renowned for connecting wild places with contemporary issues. Some of his most notable accomplishments, of which there are many, include the first modern crossing of Arabia’s Empty Quarter by camel, a descent of Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Gorge by raft, a sea kayak traverse of Borneo’s northern coast, and a coast-to-coast Icelandic trek.

Bruce is the author of three bestselling books, winner of multiple National Magazine Awards, and has been featured in The New York Times. His television show Big Crazy Family Adventure was released by the Travel Channel in 2015 and followed Bruce’s journey with his wife and two young children from their home in Canada to India with one condition – they weren’t able to use an airplane the entire time. That adventure in particular has some truly incredible moments.

In this interview, we’re going to dive into Bruce’s craziest experiences, of which there are many. We’ll also look at:

He’s got an incredible energy, some amazing stories, and I know you’re going to love this episode. Let’s get into it!

James Whittaker:
What was an average day for Bruce Kirkby growing up?

Bruce Kirkby:
I grew up in the suburban wastelands of Toronto at the end of the subway line, so I felt like I was kind of removed from the action. I was a bit of a geek – good at maths and science. I was pretty active too, and loved to ride my bike and explore. Now, I've spent my whole life doing wilderness travel but, even at that age, I remember the joy in poking around construction sites once the workers had left. At the time though, I did not see myself as anything other than a math and science nerd.

In high school, I failed English. It's kind of weird that I ended up writing books and being a columnist for newspapers! But I thought I'd always go into math and science. By the time I got to university, I wanted to be like Michael J. Fox in Family Ties. I'm like, "I'll get an MBA and I'll just study engineering." I thought it would be this killer duo.

When I graduated, I was off to chase the money, until I started guiding rafts and everything else.

You’re an engineering physicist by trade. When did you get the sense that there was much more to your life than that traditional route you were on?

Eng phys is beautiful because you learn why the sky is blue, how electricity works, and all kind of practical things, but it only prepares you for academia and research. I knew already that wasn't for me, so I got a job in a little consulting firm and I loved the excitement. It was six people at the start, and I left four months later was 45 people, so it was growing quickly. It was in IT consulting, and I was in Ottawa, the capital of Canada.

As that was happening, my housemate had rented a cheap house in Ottawa and was starting a bungee jumping company as part of a rafting outfit on the river. I went to a meeting and the head of the rafting company said, "Why don't you guide rafts for us?" And I did. There was just such clarity for me that those two days of the weekend were so much more… not just joyful, but meaningful. They mattered to me more than the other five days of the week, even with the 99.8% cut in pay. I decided that's where I was going to go.

Too many people, especially in fields like investment banking, are living to work?

We put a lot of demands in western culture, and that's not wrong. I'm still a full Type-A guy, and it happened to be that my interests and my joys evolved. People often ask what my strength or superpower was that led me through this. For whatever reason, I had real comfort with uncertainty.

When I quit engineering, I didn't need to know what was going to happen one year later, or five years, or 30 years. But it led me to find the things that mattered to me, which is remote landscapes and threatened indigenous and traditional cultures around the world. So I still brought that full intensity, that full Type-A work ethic, into what I do. I just realized pretty quickly that working in a downtown setting wasn't for me.

Some of the adventures that you've been on are absolutely incredible in your travel to 80+ countries. Let's start with the Arabian desert where you did the first modern crossing of Arabia's empty quarter by camel. For those who don't know much about that region, the climate, the geography and anything else, how brutal was that experience?

Well, so many expeditions are difficult but fun. The empty quarter was the quarter of the world. The Bedouin thought it was uninhabited. They thought there was this huge sand desert in the middle of the peninsula that was empty. So only really three people had crossed it before us and in modern times no one. Wilfred Thesiger was the last fellow in 1938 who had been through that region. So we went back in 1999 and bought 12 camels.

It got hot. I remember our thermometer broke. It was 52.1 Celsius (126 Fahrenheit), so for a Canadian, we call it a toque. I like to have a hat on and my warm boots. Because you can escape the cold, but you cannot escape the heat.

There was no way out. It was hot, but none of it seemed like deprivation. I remember we really tried to go as traditionally as possible. I'd heard about other people who had made attempts and brought plastic water jugs that had just cracked in the heat. Instead, we had sheepskins. You basically take a sheep, cut the head off, empty it out and turn it inside out, and hang it by the legs from the saddle, one on each side. Man, the water that came out was green, and there's like these floating hairs and pieces of other stuff.

You talked about it being brutal. That does sound brutal, but for me, the joys were learning about the Arabic culture and learning about the Bedouin. That feeling of working over a period of time towards our destination… when we saw the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf and rode into Abu Dhabi, it just felt incredible.

It must have been an amazing feeling. What about the Blue Nile Gorge in Ethiopia and Sudan? They’re two countries that are known recently for unfortunately some violent conflicts. Tell us about that experience?

That was a good year in 1999 because right after crossing the Arabian Peninsula, I went down the Blue Nile with the National Geographic team. The Blue Nile is the bigger tributary of the Nile. The White Nile is longer and it's famous for its origins in the mountains. The Blue Nile supplies about 70% of the water to hit the Aswan Dam, and Ethiopia had been through a period since the early '70s called the reign of terror where no expeditions had been in there.

Blashford-Snell in '68 had led an attempt to go down part of the Blue Nile. One of his men was eaten by a crocodile. A lot of stuff went down, so this was the opening of Ethiopia. It was still kind of controlled by the deputized outlaws and brigands in those highlands.

The Blue Nile Gorge is huge. It is three times the size of the Grand Canyon. We traveled about 500 miles on those big, big volume rapids. The white water wasn't crazy difficult, but at the bottom of every rapid there were 20 to 30 crocodiles. I mean, to the crocs, the rafts look like bloated cow carcasses. And you're probably familiar with how aggressive crocodiles are in the Nile.

As an Australian, I'm very familiar with crocodiles!

Exactly! The Salties in Australia. These were Nile crocodiles. On the first day, one of our interpreters and guides picked up all these little rocks and I was like, "What are those?" He's like, "Oh, they're croc rocks." And he put them beside himself on his seat. When a crocodile showed up, he threw it at the croc, and the croc disappeared.

The white water wasn't crazy difficult, but at the bottom of every rapid there were 20 to 30 crocodiles.

I thought, "Wow, that's amazing." Then I realized it was relatively easy to scare these crocs away, until we got to the big ones.

They always say that you can estimate the size of a crocodile: the distance between its eyes in inches is roughly equivalent to the length in feet. So some of these early ones had a whole lot of inches between the eyes, because that's what you see coming at you. We had a monster come at us – we hit it with oars and paddles, even the croc rocks, and they did nothing. The head was the size of an engine block of an F-150!

Where were you even sleeping at that point!? In Australia at least, crocodiles are known for traveling a long distance on land too.

I was sleeping beside the slowest runner on our team! We were on the banks, but definitely we were aware at all times of what was going on.

Did you have any challenges from a government and military perspective at the time?

We had all types of stuff going. In fact, a friend of mine ran the river the next year and he met a herdsman who said, "Oh, I shot at a couple rafts that came down the river last year, but I missed them." Thank goodness!

We got taken hostage at one point. And when I say hostage, I mean basically three kids. The oldest was 18. The other two looked 13, with AK-47s. Fingers on the triggers. They wanted to walk us in the jungle and take us to their leader. And that's a pretty intense moment when we're going through three layers of interpretation from English to Amharic.

Eventually, with some bribery, we walked out of that. People often talk about the scariest and most uncertain times on these expeditions. People with guns scare me more than anything because most other things have a certain level of predictability to them. You know, you can understand a bear's behavior, a crocodile's behavior and whatnot.

People with guns scare me more than anything because most other things have a certain level of predictability to them.

We met some tribes in the lowlands who had zero contact before us. A lot of my writing and a lot of my thinking is about preserving the incredible knowledge that is held within these vessels of indigenous cultures. So I really had some mixed feelings about that. But the interactions… they would ask how we got on our tight white shirts and then we'd say, "That's our skin!" And then they'd be like, "You guys are disgusting. You're see-through. It's horrible!"

What did you use to bribe them with? Did you have any cash on you or did they want something that was more valuable than perhaps a piece of paper with a number on it?

Do you ever go anywhere without some Ben Franklin's in your wallet!? The American hundred-dollar bill is a universal lubricant. We had several of those and I think it's recognized everywhere. I mean, we had lots of other things that we would trade and give away, but I don't think there's anywhere in the world that $100 doesn't speak pretty loudly.

I know you went to Mount Everest as part of Big Crazy Family Adventure, but what were your experiences with Everest like before that?

I went there in 1997, which was one year after the big Into Thin Air tragedy. I went there with a Canadian team and my role was to set up the communications to run radios on the mountain and send satellite stuff back to sponsors.

It was pretty shocking for me. I mean, the Himalaya are beautiful. I love that land and landscape, and the Sherpa people in particular. But it was the start of, and this is going to sound harsh for me to say, but the ego-driven side of Everest – people really going there in a very goal-oriented way without perhaps the respect and understanding of the mountains or perhaps the mentorship they probably should have gone through.

Just paying big money so they could tick the Everest box?

Absolutely. I saw husbands and wives break up with each other over trying to get to this summit. I understand the allure of the summit and I'm a driven guy, but I have to admit overall I was a little disillusioned.

I had a chance to go back to Everest a few years later or go to the Arabian Desert and ride the camels on the empty quarter. I knew immediately which I was going to do largely because I was interested in being away from those crowds and that insanity. I mean, there were showers in base camp and huge satellite receivers and it's only gotten worse. That was '97. Some people don’t mind that, but it wasn't for me.

Crowds certainly dampen your enthusiasm for wilderness adventures. Outside of the Galapagos Islands, Yosemite is the most spectacular place I’ve ever been to. But there were just so many people there that I just can't imagine how amazing it would have been hundreds of years, prior to the crowds.

Totally. And the funny thing in Yosemite and the Galapagos is you can get away from it a little bit. I mean Yosemite, if you're halfway up The Chief or something, you're on your own generally. The other routes can get a little bit busy.

Particularly hard for me was the focus so intently on the summit at Everest that people lost sight of the beauty, they lost sight of the culture, and the land and the history.

A large part of my work is that I think we need to stay connected with wild places and want to get people out to the Canadian parks. We talked about Banff and Glacier and all these places. It can be hard. Particularly hard for me was the focus so intently on the summit at Everest that people lost sight of the beauty, they lost sight of the culture, and the land and the history. They're going to walk all over each other just to get to the top of this pile of rocks.

Yeah, that “I’ll be happy if” mentality. Like my Everest journey will only be a success if I make it to the peak.

Totally. I think people thought it was going to change their life. Consistency and habits change your life. Standing on top of a pile of rocks doesn't change anything.

In 2015 your TV show, Big Crazy Family Adventure, was released by the Travel Channel and our good friend, Wes Dening. It followed the Kirkby family as you traveled from Canada to India, more than 13,000 miles by every mode of transportation without taking any airplanes.

You were on cargo ships, donkeys, canoes, rickshaws – you name it. You traveled with your wife and two children, aged seven and three at the time. How did you prepare for that journey?

That was a big trip. We were going because we wanted to basically live in a Tibetan, Himalayan Buddhist monastery and get away from this crazy amount of distraction and business we were feeling in our lives. I'd been talking to our good buddy Wes over the years about TV shows and ideas for adventure. I called him and said, "Wes, I'm just going to be out of the loop for the next six months because I'm taking my kids to live in Ladakh."

And there's this pause on the phone. He's like, "Hold on, mate. That might be it! The ultimate family relocation."

I went back to Wes and said, "I was thinking about Ewan McGregor and Long Way Round, like just one embedded photographer. Maybe we film it ourselves just really up close and personal and gritty."

There's another pause on the line and Wes said, "Mate, the Travel Channel has a different vision. We got 16 on the crew and budget for eight helicopters."

I'm like, "I better go talk to my wife, man!"

Things escalated quickly! I can imagine your wife would have been thrilled that your family adventure had quickly turned into a global television show with eight helicopters!

It did escalate quickly! There was a lot of great stuff about the trip and people cannot believe that it wasn't intrusive having the TV crew around. Obviously, there are stressful times. You're wearing a mic, your camera is around you for 100 days almost. That said, it was like Teflon to my boys – it just bounced off their backs.

There's a lot of upsides. The one beautiful thing is we have a nine-hour home documentary about our trip that was produced by a crack team in Los Angeles. The boys watch it all the time! I don't go back and watch myself too much. Once the crew left us, we had this incredible experience in the monastery.

There's another pause on the line and Wes said, "Mate, the Travel Channel has a different vision. We got 16 on the crew and budget for eight helicopters."

But it was really neat and we did a lot of things we wouldn't have done with them. But in terms of preparing, we'd already taken the kids out a lot. We have a thing similar to Yosemite in Canada, with some granite spires. At three months of age, we had Bodi in there. We climbed up to high camps with them. At eight months, we'd had him down in Patagonia. We've done a 70-day horse trip in the Republic of Georgia with both boys. Taj was eight months old at the time.

With the boys, one of the particular challenges was that Wes is like, "We're not going to help. You got to do it all on your own." So we had to pack into two duffel bags, everything we would need for a 100-day journey across the North Pacific over the Himalaya, down in the jungles and heat of Nepal. There were a lot of environments that we were going through. Our plan was I would carry those two duffels – one on my back and one in my arms. Christine would have the two boys in her hands, and we could navigate anything: train stations, guest houses, busy roads in Beijing.

Essentially that's how it worked, so we went light. It's easy to think, "Oh, the kids need a lot of shirts. We'll wash them in the sink at night and dry them and they'll be ready for the morning." We had maybe two or three shirts each, and some first aid and some good hiking boots and that was about it.

How did you prep for the first aid side? When you've got two young kids in the mix and different languages and medical facilities that mightn’t be as good as what you're used to. How did you prepare from that perspective?

Our assumption was we couldn't get medical help. Once we were at the monastery, we were at least two days drive away – in the best conditions – from a hospital. Or, if the road was closed, that would be 14 days of walking. It was a long way.

Luckily, I have friends who are doctors. And as a guide, you have lots of wilderness and first aid training. We took pretty robust medical kits. I took sutures. I've had these sutures forever and I'd watched a Sherpa get 79 stitches in his face at Everest when he fell off a bridge, and that had been two decades earlier.

One of the novice monks at the monastery had a rock hit him that opened up a gash, and I put four stitches into his forehead. We actually use those sutures we took and that was a pretty intense moment. I write about it in the book a bit and the bond between me and him, the trust that's required to sew someone's forehead together, it was unreal really. It was a pretty special moment. And the boys still talk about Jigmet probably more than any other of the novices. But we had everything. I had the most buffed-out first aid kits, because you're taking kids, right? You need to be ready for anything. We had three or four EpiPens just in case.

What did that journey teach you about yourself and your family?

I hinted earlier that the genesis of this was the idea of distraction. I was a bit slow adopting to these smartphones. I probably got my first iPhone a few months prior to that trip. I think just like a tractor beam, I got sucked in really quickly. Just staring at streams of Kafka coming across Twitter and Facebook. I had these two beautiful boys and I knew that I want to be paying attention to them, and I started realizing I'm wasting my time on other stuff. I tried to change it.

We're a lot more fluent now with our understanding of distraction and how these devices work. But both Christina and I wanted to go to the Himalaya with our kids, to live in a Buddhist monastery, and this just seemed like the time.

So when you ask what it taught us, it reinforced to me that time away from distractions with your family forms this incredible bond. No matter what happens when you're home, the gutters need the leaves pulled out of them and that something is broken down, the car needs more gas. There's always something to do. But when it's just the four of you in the same tent every night for six months, something really special happens and I've been exposed to that before. This was the longest big trip we've done at that time.

Time away from distractions with your family forms this incredible bond.

And there were other things that I came home with in terms of Buddhism and things I learned from those ancient cultures. What we've kept doing is going on big trips every summer and it's almost like it just resets that plaster that holds us together.

We just spent 21 days in canoes on the Columbia River and that first night we all crawled into the tent and we have our little positions, we lie, and the kids on the outside, me here. Everything has got to be right because my kids are sticklers for a routine. It just felt we're back! Here we are and by the time we got off the river, we were a well-oiled and well-connected family.

I love that. When our daughter was born 17 months ago, our big focus for her was making she was used to travel, noise, and people. Me being from Australia and my wife being from California, we knew there was going to be a lot of travel on our horizon. When she was two weeks old, we’d taken a six-hour drive to Shaver Lake. At six weeks old, she flew to Hawaii with us. At seven months old, we flew to Australia.

From everything I’ve learned in my 37 years on this planet is that getting kids as adaptable as possible is so powerful. Obviously there are elements of routine that are important, and there are unforeseen challenges that can emerge for any parent. But raising her to be constantly out of her comfort zone has been, and continues to be, a big focus for us as parents.

Totally. There's a lot I can say about kids and travel, but kids need love and their parents. If you're providing those, you're everything. I figured that out really quickly. The other amazing thing with children is what a window into the culture they are as you travel. You go to Buenos Aires or Southeast Asia and you're a 20-year-old backpacker and the locals look at you like, "Don't you have to work? What are you doing!?"

You show up with a baby and it's like everyone has that struggle, right? It's a universal part of all our journey in life. They're like, "You can't sit in the sun. You can't wait for the bus here. You need to come to my house!”

When we took Bodi away for the first time, and I'd been traveling non-stop for 20 years, it changed everything. People will also say, "But they aren't going to remember it. He's only 18 months old." But everything we know about early childhood education is those first years, the bonds are the most critical.

Kids need love and their parents. If you're providing those, you're everything.

So I've often posed a question to people. What's more impactful – taking your daughter or son as a 20-year-old or as an 18-month-old to board a ferry and go across Lake Tanganyika in Africa? Who's to say that the fact that they can't remember it doesn't have a bigger cascading effect on their life? We’ve taken our children out right from the start.

On any of your adventures, along or with your children, where you felt that perhaps you had bitten off more than you can chew?

I remember waking up to a gun fight once and it was intense. I was in Ethiopia and some mule thieves had come. I remember the first thought. I was like, "If someone was going to shoot into the tent, should I crawl up like a ball? How am I going to miss these incoming bullets?"

I think the most out there I felt with the kids was on the container ship. We were crossing the North Pacific Ocean on this massive cargo ship. They were just these little boys and this is an industrial setting with wrenches the size of horse legs hanging off the walls! We hit a storm and the ship was heaving side to side, and the captain came to our bedroom and said, "Just sleep perpendicular across the bunks so you don't roll out in the middle of the night."

I'm like, "Oh, god. What does he know that we don't!?" So it was beyond our control at that point, right? We were really at the safety of someone else's hands. So that was a bit intense. But I felt pretty good with the boys.

At one time Taj, my younger son, had what appeared to be an altitude reaction and we were just starting to acclimatize him. We talked to lots of pediatric physicians and we took him down and kept measuring his oxygen saturation in his blood and brought him up a few days later and he was totally fine. In fact, we got our boys almost to 17,600 feet. Pushing 6,000 meters on the passes as we went in and out of Zanskar and they were just absolutely unfazed.

As a dad, what's the biggest fear you have for your children as they get older?

Oh, boy. Well, I mean these days there's a lot of fear. The world seems pretty dynamic I'd say, not knowing what the future will look like. I want my boys to have the courage and freedom to pursue what matters to them in life. I think that's a journey that we all go through. And I don't want to paint with too broad of brush, but within western society, sometimes, we may get deep into life and look back and think, "Why have we made the choices that we've made? Why have we done the things we've done?"

I want my boys to have the courage and freedom to pursue what matters to them in life.

So I don't want them to get to that place. One thing I try to instill in them is just the precious nature of every day. We don't know what's coming. Of course, as a parent, you look at this beautiful child to love something you have to risk loss. Something could happen to your children and what a horrible thing for parents to consider. But that doesn't mean we don't have kids. So I want them to be aware that every day is so precious.

My fear would be nothing catastrophic. It would just be them not taking full advantage of this opportunity of being alive.

That’s such a good point. One of my favorite quotes actually is, "When I die, my biggest fear is that the person I am meets the person I could have become."

Well, of the countries you've traveled to with a young family, and with all your experiences, what environment or what country in particular do you think would be good to raise a young family in 2020 and beyond?

I love that you asked that. There's a bunch of things that come to mind, but so many other countries really worship the child like the child, and the elders are god and king. So when we took Bodi to Buenos Aires, the very first day we were walking down the road and construction workers were coming up to us and saying, "Goo goo ga ga," like pinching his cheeks saying, "Cachete," which means the cheeks. Businessmen would stop on the road. We were going out for coffee. It was 8:00 AM in the morning and they want to hold our child.

Can you imagine walking around downtown LA, Vancouver, or Toronto, and businessmen or construction workers or high school students asking to hold your baby!? No. So again, does the child know that? I think they do because we brought Bodi back and you'd be in a Starbucks and he'd start trying to get people's attention like making these little gurgling sounds and people be like, "Oh my god."

When you get on a plane holding a baby, everyone looks like the devil has just got on the plane, right? They do not sit in my row or within one row on either side. Man, I got on to a plane down in El Calafate with Bodi and there was this lady. She was an old kind of rancher from the pampas. It might have been her first flight. She was sitting in the exit row, which was row 12. We were in row 56 on that plane. She saw me and my wife walked by. She stopped us. She could speak no English, so she had the kid beside her translate for us and say, "You can't go to the back of the plane. You need this seat. Give me your ticket. I'm going to the back." This was an 80-year-old lady.

So all of that to say the amazing thing in other countries and the thing that I'm trying to bring home is that respect and love of the child, the respect and the love of the elder, that sense of community because it truly takes a village to raise a child.

One of our challenges within a busy lifestyle is not to view our children as a burden, but as a gift.

South America would be an incredible place to bring up your child, but I think anywhere where the child is respected and not seen as a burden. I think that's one of our challenges within a busy lifestyle is not to view our children as a burden, but as a gift. The more busy we are, the harder it is to see that gift they are. But they just flourish when they're in that environment.

It says a lot about the character of the human spirit, doesn't it? Across the world, we come from different cultures and backgrounds, we have different political leaders, we follow different sporting teams and have different interests, but at the end of the day we're all human.

Speaking about busy and the world that we're in, a question I wanted to ask you is about the traditional path. For most people, they get to high school and their whole focus is on getting good grades so they can get into the college program they want. And then once they're in college, their whole idea is to get good grades so they can get the job that they want.

Then they finally get that job, they move to a big city. They pay thousands and thousands of dollars a month for a tiny apartment. Then they commute for an hour a day on a bus, train or car – and I feel like sitting in traffic brings out the worst of everyone – myself included! And people are increasingly glued to their phones. Have we lost the sense of what it means to be human and what can we do to start getting away from that daily grind?

You make an excellent point. I remember being in a physics class in grade 11 and the teacher heard one of the students in the class say, "Oh, I can't go to the dance this Friday. I got too much homework." And the teacher stopped the whole class. He's like, "Everyone sit down. Forget the experiment. Sit down."

He's like, "I don't want you to make this mistake. You're going to forsake your fun right now, forsake living the way you're talking about, so you can get into a good university. Then you're going to say, "I'll have fun later once I graduate and get a good job." Then you're going to say, "I'm going to have fun later or live once I get a promotion and then once I retire.' Then you're going to retire and then you're going to die."

This man said this to me at like, I was probably 16 or 17, and that had a very big impact on how I led my life. And I think we have lost that sense. I suspect we're going to see some form of adaptation going on because it's almost reached a cracking point in the insanity of the news cycle right now. So quite a bit of what I wrote about in this new book that's coming out was this idea that development so often goes one way.

We go to an indigenous culture, we bring healthcare and improved education and all types of technology that eases the rigors of life. But it's always a one-way interaction. Nothing comes back. So the Zanskaris, this place I was living, they had all types of skills and abilities, and I'll give an example of one in a second, to help cement the community, to help bring people's attention to the moment. I was like, "We need to bring some of that back." So one thing that Zanskaris had is this idea of the Paspun which is a group of three or four families and every family, in every village, in all of this valley that's deep in the Himalayas is a unique social construct, is a member of a Paspun.

So they share some religious artifacts. They help each other during times of planting and harvest, and they cradle each other through this journey of life like at the times of birth, marriage, sickness, death. They are there for each other. It's a word we have no equivalent for in English, but it was a very powerful concept to how that society operated and as modernity comes into that valley. This will be eroded. I think we'll probably get into some routines and ideas of trying to find peace amongst the chaos.

But community is clearly a part of that. I mean, there's self-care and consistency in our work and time and all that. But I think we're going to find ourselves going a little bit back in time in some of the ways we interact. I guess that the fundamental thing it saved, James, is attention. This whole trip was about attention and our attention is this gift. It's like this hose. It's always on, pouring out. We can pour it into everything. We pour it into our kids, our family. We can pour it into our phone. We can pour it into traffic and frustrations, watching CNN or the news.

So I think the fundamental part is learning to manage our attention and obviously you can do that through mindfulness and different things. You simply do it through awareness of what matters to you and paying attention to it.

It’s a good segue into the next question I was thinking about. You've spent a lot of time in Buddhist monasteries where they talk about one of the tenets of Buddhism being that all life is suffering, and suffering comes when we desire something we do not have. But then in books like Think and Grow Rich, they talk about the starting point of all achievement is desire.

What do you do as part of your daily routine to balance happiness in the present while at the same time focusing on future accomplishments on your own growth?

Boy, that's a tough one. I'm just going to step back a bit come and answer that. Part of what I've done for the last 20 years has been speaking to corporate audiences. At first, it was just telling stories. I'd go and talk about going across the empty quarter. But slowly, you have agents representing you and they're like, "We need business lessons." So I've tried to really think hard about things that adventures taught me that I bring home and apply to my own life and I've talked about change.

A big thing I talk about is the importance of dealing with uncertainty. It’s a huge gift if we can deal with that. Recently, grit and resilience have been quite large. So what you're talking about is really one of these three core things that I talk about when I'm finding resilience or grit within us in the balance of the here and the future. You're going down this mountain ridge, you've got to look at your feet, you've got to look at the summit. How do you balance those two things?

Really the way I boil that down is this idea of purpose, process, and practice. To me, ‘purpose’ is more than winning. Winning is an outcome and purpose is a cause, not an effect. So to me, purpose is like how we can make the world better. What do friends love in us?

I'm sure Wes doesn't love you because you win, Wes loves you because of the things that make James a cool person. Therein lies the start of us finding purpose – how we're going to leave the world a better place. So that's the long-term view, the desire, because I really think people talk about big goals that they're setting for themselves, but really we need to find the thing.

I was guiding the arctic, which is severely threatened landscape. I was in love with that landscape. And on my first trip a senior Alaskan guide with a big mustache like a squirrel's tail said to me, "You know what we're doing here?"

I was like, "No.” I was tired. It's late at night.

He said, "We're creating ambassadors for the wild."

That gave me a purpose to what I was doing,  so that's the long-term view.

Then at your feet is the ‘process’. Those are the daily habits. And the other little piece I have is ‘practice’, which is that we need to get better every day, right? We need to not just play to our strengths, but we need to address our weaknesses.

For those who have spent too much time in the cities and want to take a wilderness adventure so they can start to experience some of the benefits that you've spoken about here, what's the best way that they can go about doing that?

There's all types of opportunities, from day trips to longer ones. One of the things I found early on was the longer the trip – I was going to say the more intense the experience – but the better the chance to actually disengage, and the way I learned that was guiding five-day trips. I was doing a sea kayak run out of Vancouver where I take people for two days on the weekend then the five-day trip over and over and over. And on that five-day trip, on Monday, everything would be new. They'd be getting used to the sea kayak on Tuesday and still be a little uncomfortable. By Wednesday, they were free, and then Thursday they were thinking about the ferry ride home, and Friday was a write-off. So of the five-day trip, they had one day I realized where they were totally free.

Time is so precious, so if they can go a little longer – whether they're sea kayaking or climbing or whatever, it is – even three or four days, it really gives you a chance to enter a new environment. I encourage people to do things that make themselves uncomfortable, just from a philosophical point of view because so much growth comes from that.

Also, guided experiences now are so well regulated and safe. No one should have any concern about taking on something new, whether you’re paddle boarding, sea kayaking or whatever.

Your amazing new book, Blue Sky Kingdom, is getting massive praise all over the world! Tell us about the new book and who it's written for.

I really took my time with this one. It took me six years to write it and to see that some of this early praise come out has been really meaningful. I mean, I do read a lot of Himalayan literature. So guys like Peter Mathias and whatnot have been massively influential to me.

It touches on the Himalaya, but it also touches on family life. My son is on the autism spectrum, so it touches on that. It touches on Buddhism. I really tried to make it accessible to anyone because, really, in a sense it’s a family drama, a family love story playing out in a remote landscape.


Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Bruce does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give her 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀


Final question, what's one thing you do to win the day?

I wake up every morning, I have a big glass of water with a pinch of Himalayan sea salt, and then I get in my ice bath. And that has changed everything for me.

Resources / links mentioned:

📷 Bruce Kirkby on Instagram

Bruce Kirkby website

🌎 Big Crazy Family Adventure on the Travel Channel

📚 Bruce’s brand-new book Blue Sky Kingdom: An Epic Family Journey to the Heart of the Himalaya

💚 Blue Sky Kingdom trailer

🎙️ We Are Podcast: Learn how to make money from your podcast

“Do more of what you love, less of what you tolerate, and none of what you hate.”

– John Assaraf

Today, we’ve got one of the leading mindset and behavior experts on the planet, John Assaraf. You probably know John from blockbuster film The Secret.

Since then, John has built a billion-dollar company, numerous multimillion-dollar companies, written two New York Times bestselling books, and been featured in eight movies, including The Secret and Quest for Success alongside Richard Branson and the Dalai Lama.

But his journey to success was anything but smooth. Growing up with a fixed mindset, John was expecting to follow a similar path to his father who lived paycheck to paycheck as a taxi driver with a bad gambling habit. John left high school after Grade 10 and eventually found work in a warehouse, but he was hanging out with some unsavory people which left him with two career horizons: jail or the morgue.

It was only at 19 years old, through the influence of a successful businessman, that John began taking ownership of his life for the first time. This mentor asked John three simple but profound questions that changed his trajectory forever. And when his mind changed, his world did too.

Today, he is founder and CEO of NeuroGym, a company dedicated to using the most advanced brain training methods to help individuals unleash their fullest potential and maximize their results. In this interview, we talk about everything you can do to reprogram your brain for massive success.

We’ll go through:

There are a ton of value-bombs in this one! I know you're going to love it.

For the video interview, click here.


Resources / links mentioned:

📝 John Assaraf Facebook

📷 John Assaraf Instagram

⚡ NeuroGym

💪 Innercise: The New Science to Unlock Your Brain's Hidden Power by John Assaraf

🧠 John Assaraf website

📙 You2: A High Velocity Formula for Multiplying Your Personal Effectiveness in Quantum Leaps by Price Pritchett

💡 Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

🔥 BRAND NEW! Andrew Carnegie’s Mental Dynamite by Napoleon Hill and James Whittaker

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

– Winston Churchill

In the pursuit of giving you everything you need to take ownership of your financial, physical and mental health, I try to interview and share the stories of a diverse mix of guests. However, I’ve never interviewed someone like who we’ve got today: Coss Marte.

When she was six months pregnant with him, Coss’ mother immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic. Settling in the Lower East Side of New York City during the 1980s, it was a brutal time, with skyrocketing crime statistics that made headlines around the world.

At 11 years old, Coss began using drugs. Just two years later, to make ends meet, he was selling crack on the streets. With a complete lack of positive role models, and an environment riddled with crime, there were few legitimate avenues available to him. Yet, despite seeing people killed and regularly witnessing extreme acts of violence, Coss survived as he inched his way up the food chain.

Eventually, at 19 years old, he was at the helm of one of the largest drug delivery services in New York City. Through a team of more than two dozen couriers, dispatchers, and street soldiers, Coss distributed vast quantities of cocaine and marijuana to all segments of society – from public housing residents to cops, judges, and doctors, but especially Wall Street executives who had the salaries to match their insatiable appetite for his product.

At its peak, the business was earning more than $5 million a year. Coss’ drug venture was so successful that he needed eight mobile phones just to store the sheer number of customer contacts.

Eventually, the law caught up with him, and 23-year-old Coss was sentenced to prison and forced to turnover all proceeds from his criminal enterprise. It was the latest and most severe of a string of arrests that had seen him incarcerated 10 times since he first began dealing drugs as a 13-year-old. Giving up the lavish lifestyle was tough but, since Coss had become a father for the first time, the feelings of abandonment from his baby son – whom he had to watch grow up from behind bars – was the worst.

While in prison, Coss was told that his cholesterol levels were off the charts and he would die if he didn’t start taking care of his health. Six months later, through a rigorous fitness regime from the confines of his cell, Coss lost 70 pounds and helped dozens of other inmates to do the same.

His physical transformation had reignited a flame of ambition, and when released he launched ConBody, a fitness program that would help get people in the best shape of their life, while offering employment for people who had just left prison so they wouldn’t have to face the constant rejection that awaited them.

Since then, through his studios and online programs, Coss has trained 50,000+ people from around the world. He’s an author, a TEDx speaker, and recently launched a crowdfund for a nonprofit that helps equip formerly incarcerated people with the skills to succeed in the digital world so they don’t need to return to a life of crime.

This is a different and more somber style of interview than I’ve done before, and while we cover many of the raw aspects of Coss’ past, none of it is used to glorify the life he used to lead. It’s a wonderful tale of redemption and shows how the right accountability and focus can brighten even the darkest situation.

Note: Prior to the interview, I asked Coss to avoid mentioning anyone or anything from his past life that could jeopardize his or his family’s safety.

For the video interview, click here.


Resources / links mentioned:

💪 ConBody

🎧 Ex-Dealer, Ex-Junkie Podcast

💚 Second Chance Studios

📚 ConBody: The Revolutionary Bodyweight Prison Boot Camp, Born from an Extraordinary Story of Hope

🎤 TEDx Talk

📸 Coss Marte on Instagram

🎙️ We Are Members: create a thriving business from your podcast

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

– Winston Churchill

In the pursuit of giving you everything you need to take ownership of your financial, physical and mental health, I try to interview and share the stories of a diverse mix of guests. However, I’ve never interviewed someone like who we’ve got today: Coss Marte.

When she was six months pregnant with him, Coss’ mother immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic. Settling in the Lower East Side of New York City during the 1980s, it was a brutal time, with skyrocketing crime statistics that made headlines around the world.

At 11 years old, Coss began using drugs. Just two years later, to make ends meet, he was selling crack on the streets. With a complete lack of positive role models, and an environment riddled with crime, there were few legitimate avenues available to him. Yet, despite seeing people killed and regularly witnessing extreme acts of violence, Coss survived as he inched his way up the food chain.

Eventually, at 19 years old, he was at the helm of one of the largest drug delivery services in New York City. Through a team of more than two dozen couriers, dispatchers, and street soldiers, Coss distributed vast quantities of cocaine and marijuana to all segments of society – from public housing residents to cops, judges, and doctors, but especially Wall Street executives who had the salaries to match their insatiable appetite for his product.

At its peak, the business was earning more than $5 million a year. Coss’ drug venture was so successful that he needed eight mobile phones just to store the sheer number of customer contacts.

Eventually, the law caught up with him, and 23-year-old Coss was sentenced to prison and forced to turnover all proceeds from his criminal enterprise. It was the latest and most severe of a string of arrests that had seen him incarcerated 10 times since he first began dealing drugs as a 13-year-old. Giving up the lavish lifestyle was tough but, since Coss had become a father for the first time, the feelings of abandonment from his baby son – whom he had to watch grow up from behind bars – was the worst.

While in prison, Coss was told that his cholesterol levels were off the charts and he would die if he didn’t start taking care of his health. Six months later, through a rigorous fitness regime from the confines of his cell, Coss lost 70 pounds and helped dozens of other inmates to do the same.

His physical transformation had reignited a flame of ambition, and when released he launched ConBody, a fitness program that would help get people in the best shape of their life, while offering employment for people who had just left prison so they wouldn’t have to face the constant rejection that awaited them.

Since then, through his studios and online programs, Coss has trained 50,000+ people from around the world. He’s an author, a TEDx speaker, and recently launched a crowdfund for a nonprofit that helps equip formerly incarcerated people with the skills to succeed in the digital world so they don’t need to return to a life of crime.

This is a different and more somber style of interview than I’ve done before, and while we cover many of the raw aspects of Coss’ past, none of it is used to glorify the life he used to lead. It’s a wonderful tale of redemption and shows how the right accountability and focus can brighten even the darkest situation.

Note: Prior to the interview, I asked Coss to avoid mentioning anyone or anything from his past life that could jeopardize his or his family’s safety.

For the video interview, click here. For the podcast interview, click here. For the written version, read on.

James Whittaker:
Great to see you my friend. Thanks for being on Win the Day.

Coss Marte:
No, thank you so much, James, for the opportunity.

To kick things off, take us into the Lower East Side of New York City during the 1980s, and what it was like as a 13-year-old kid selling crack on the streets?

It was a crazy time. I remember seeing drug lines down the block, and I remember it was a normal thing to see. The community was part of it, and I grew up thinking it was some sort of job. People would say, “Yo, the cops are coming,” and somebody would blow a whistle down the block to warn everyone. Some people would scatter, and sometimes the cops would just turn a blind eye to what they were seeing because there was so much craziness. It was just insane.

I remember seeing buckets filled with drugs coming down from the roof, and people on the street would put their money in the bucket and it would go up and down all day to service everyone in the lines. It was just crazy.

And that was obviously a notoriously crime-ridden part of New York City that made headlines around the world. Were there areas of the city where the police just refused to go into?

You would see the police, but you would not see them doing anything. There was just so much going on that it became normalized – they would walk by prostitutes and just say hi to them, to keep it moving. I felt like they just couldn't control what was happening and they were part of the problem as well. They were doing corrupt stuff. They were taking money under the door or robbing people. I've been robbed by cops before where they take my money and just don't report it.

How did the drug game work as a street-level dealer? Did everyone have their own turf where other crews knew they weren’t supposed to be unless they were trying to take it over?

Yeah, every corner was owned by somebody. But it’s not like the movies where somebody from one corner comes to the next corner and they get shot. Although if you sold drugs on that block, you would have a problem.

I remember having a fight with the guy who sold drugs in my mom's block, and I sold drugs two blocks away. I was walking into the building and saw a common customer, so I served him. Somebody told the other guy, and we got into a fight. He pulled out a knife and started chasing me. It was just things that you would never imagine happening, but it was happening, and there were no cameras around.

Nowadays, people are worried about the cameras watching them. Back then, there were no cellphones with cameras. Everybody had a beeper, and that was it.

Much easier to get away with things before all the surveillance?

Absolutely.

Is there an incident that stands out as particularly brutal that people who haven't lived that life might not have any idea about?

I had a friend/neighbor get shot and killed. He got shot three times in the head, and I was down the block. I was just standing on the corner, and shots rang off. It was over a girl and a cellphone. It was just crazy to see how things could escalate for something so minuscule. Thinking about it now, people would fight for someone stepping on somebody's else’s Jordans [shoes]. “You step on my Jordans, it's an automatic fight,” so it was things of that nature.

I've seen a lot of crazy stuff. There's just so many stories that I could get into, especially with me and my business partner from back in the day. I remember we went to Central Park, and there was a horse and carriage there. We were walking around with our mink coats and joking around with our pimp sticks. And we just had so much money that we were like, “Yo, let's try to bargain with one of these horse carriages and take them back to our neighborhood, so we could sell drugs right from the horse and carriage.” There was a borderline under 42nd Street where they weren’t allowed to go.

So we gave this lady $5,000 to take us to the block, and the kids in the neighborhood started feeding the horses apples and carrots, and we gave everybody money. We were literally going down 5th Avenue having crackheads meet us in a horse and carriage so we could sell them drugs.

We were literally going down 5th Avenue having crackheads meet us in a horse and carriage so we could sell them drugs.

We even took the horse and carriage through a McDonald's drive thru. It was crazy, but we got away with stuff like that.

How would people know that you were the dealer? Or did people recognize you at that point?

At that point I had a delivery service, so I was getting calls all over the city from people who wanted drugs. So while we were riding down 5th Avenue, we were like, “We're about to hit the corner of 14th and 5th. Jump on the horse and carriage, and then jump off.”

And then we were heading to Houston Street: “We're on Houston and Broadway. We're here. Meet us on this corner.” It was like something out of a movie that’s really hard to describe.

It would make for a good movie at some stage in the future! Was there no concern about any of those people wanting to buy drugs possibly being undercover cops? Or was the war on drugs, and the big clean up of the city, done later?

Yeah. Rudy Giuliani [Mayor of New York City] was a man who was against crime. I remember as a kid just being stopped by cops constantly for not doing anything. I've probably been stopped by cops on stop-and-frisk about 200 times just because they knew I was up to no good, but sometimes I was just going to the store or going down the block or just minding my own business.

They stopped me because they said, “You fit the description” or “Somebody said you had a gun on you.” But I never really carried guns at that time. It was crazy.

Eventually you make it from street dealer to head of a crew making more than $5 million dollars a year. How did that transition happen?

We basically changed the way we sold drugs. I remember make little pieces of paper, and writing my number on it, and giving that out to people. In the early 2000s, the neighborhood started getting gentrified, after 9/11.

Nobody wanted to live in the Lower East Side, and I remember landowners offering people like $20,000 just to move out. Then they would fix up the apartments, and rent them out for $3,000 a month, which is crazy. And that’s still happening today.

So gentrification happened quickly. People, mainly white hipsters, started moving in, and they had a lot of money. I remember increasing my price from selling $20 bags to $50 bags, and then $100 per gram, and they just kept escalating like that.

I would buy a kilo for about $20,000 and make $100,000 off of it. And we'd move a kilo in a week.

I did what I could to make sure the person was not a cop. I would hang out with them – meet them in a bar, smoke a blunt with them, and give them my card with a coke sample on it. We would exchange numbers, and that's how it expanded.

But I did get caught through phones, but that's a longer story.

So, at that point, you had this whole business. You got dozens of people on your payroll. You've got drivers, couriers, people working all the different phones as dispatchers. What about the product side – where did that come from, what could you sell it for, and who were you selling it to?

I'm not going to say where the product came from specifically, but everything is derived from South America. It was being delivered directly through mail, people on planes, and that’s how things operated. I would buy a kilo for about $20,000 and make $100,000 off of it. And we'd move a kilo in a week.

You were also dealing to Wall Street executives and other corporate clients. Were they asking for certain drugs that you weren’t currently selling, which you then added to your portfolio?

The only thing that we added to our portfolio was weed. We didn't really have that many categories. When I was younger, I had messed around with hashish, heroin, e-pills, and acid, and all that stuff. But once we started the delivery service, we just straight focused on coke and weed.

Who were the best customers to have?

Those Wall Street people. They had a lot of money. They would move into the city and pay $3,000 a month for a 200 square foot studio apartment. It was crazy to see that. I've never seen people spend money so frivolously.

And there were actually a lot of Australians moving in. I remember them saying back home they paid like $150 a gram for coke. When they came to the city and we told them $100 a gram, they were like, “Wow, can I get 20?”

And it was just like, “Oh shit. This person going all out.”

So you had these people who were moving into New York City, and they were our best customers. They had professional jobs, but they all partied. And then the word got out. Even doctors. I've sold to lawyers, judges, cops. You name it.

At its peak, you were bringing in $5 million a year with more than $2 million in profit. What was your life like at that point – were you happy or were you wanting more?

I was always wanting more, and I was pretty greedy. I had a cold heart. I didn't even care who was hurt by my drugs – I just wanted the money, and I wanted to keep growing. It was crazy. I spent money frivolously and didn't really care what was going on.

I knew the money would keep going and coming, and it was fun. I was not sad at those times! It was a lot of crazy partying and messing around in the streets, and that was just the mentality that I had. I didn't care who I had to step over or hurt to get that money.

That notion of living for the present, rather than trying to set yourself up for the future. Is that why the idea of quitting while you were ahead never entered your mind? Or maybe it did enter your mind?

It did. I definitely wanted to get into some type of real estate. I tried to get my real estate broker license when I was younger, but I had a [criminal] record so that prevented me from entering that business. I was looking into buying foreclosed houses, and buying stuff, and I got caught up with my friend. We spent a lot of money.

When did you realize the whole operation had come undone or was about to become undone, and you were facing some very serious consequences?

It was the day I got caught – it was a total surprise.

We had all our dispatchers setup in condos, with cars and a salary. All they had to do was answer the phone and just tell the people where to go. They had the packages that they handed over to the deliverers. One dispatcher went behind our back, took our business card, and made a new phone number on the card. He then gave those cards away to try and steal our customers. One card ended up with one of my clients who had my personal number.

So this client of mine hits me up, and I used to hang out with this guy. He's like, “Yo, this guy gave me a card. It's a new number now and the product is not the same.” And I'm like, “What are you talking about?” because our product was always grade A. We didn't cut anything. It was straight from the ship to your nose, and that's how we delivered it.

Our product was always grade A. We didn't cut anything. It was straight from the ship to your nose, and that's how we delivered it.

He was like, “Yeah. They're serving green bags.” And I'm like, “That's not my bags. My bags are clear.”

I asked him for the phone number on the card he was given. I called the number and heard a dispatcher that I employed answer that phone, and I was like, “Yo, what the fuck are you doing?” and he quickly hung up. That dispatcher had all the phones in his possession at the time.

I had a connection with T-Mobile, and we only used prepaid phones, so I went and turned off all the phones and started again with new cell phones. But the phone number he had started was being tapped by federal agents. I had taken that phone number and started operating with it because I thought it was all the customers he stole from me.

So that's where the investigation started. They had a year-long investigation on me. They had a bunch of cell phones from all my drivers, but didn't even know that there were six other phones that we were operating with. The reason we had so many phones was because each one only held 1,500 to 2,500 contact numbers. Back then, you couldn't hold tens of thousands of contacts in a phone.

And we just kept pushing it. I remember not trusting anymore dispatchers. I started doing a lot more myself, and that's how we got caught.

I remember going to the stash house to drop off some weed. As I walked upstairs, I was getting a whole bunch of calls from clients. So, I was sending all my drivers out, and one at a time they were getting picked up. I don't know if you remember the Nextel phones with the walkie talkie, but when it didn’t go through it used to go “beep, beep” when they were busy, like someone was on the phone. And it kept doing that, so I kept sending other drivers to different places because we had a list of 50 people waiting for us, but it kept happening.

That night, after my ninth driver was unresponsive, I said, “Fuck that. I don’t know what these guys are doing. I can’t wait, so I'm going to go make these deliveries myself.”

So, I grabbed a whole bunch of packages, but as soon as I got downstairs, I saw this white… I'm in the middle of the Bronx, like a straight black and Hispanic neighborhood. You don't see white people there, but I saw this big white guy, and he was standing outside the house. He pulled out his badge and said, “This is Federal Agent Joseph King. Your whole operation is over.”

And I'm like, “What the fuck?”

He said, “You’re Coss Marte, right?”

And I said, “I don't know what you're talking about.”

I turned to run, but they quickly tackled me. They pulled out their warrant, went upstairs, and knew exactly where everything was stored. One of the drivers had told them where everything was stashed. I just knew that somebody had told because, when they brought me upstairs, they were like, “Don't worry, we know everything.”

They knew exactly.

I had about 500 pairs of Jordans, which I sold to start Conbody. The cops went exactly to the pair of sneakers where all the drugs were at in that box, and they opened it up. Game over.

Wow. So you were arrested and initially faced a life sentence because of the three-strikes-law that imposed a mandatory life sentence if you had two prior convictions. Due to equal parts luck and some changes in government, you ended up with a seven-year sentence with a non-parole period of five years. What was it like in court, just sitting there waiting to see how much of your life was going to be taken from you?

It was nerve-wracking. It was definitely one of the most nerve-wracking situations that I’ve ever faced. I've been in shootouts, I've seen people pass away in front of me, but to be in cuffs and see a judge who decides the future of your life… it’s like they can kill you right there. And once you're away, you're not alive, and that's how I felt.

You're off to prison at that point. It wasn't the first time you'd been to prison, but it was the largest sentence. How was your first night on the inside, knowing that it was going to be a long time before you'd be able to see your son again?

It was sad and it’s what hurt me the most. I remember that day I got arrested, I spent pretty much the whole day with him and my wife ... Well, she was my fiancée at the time, and we got married when I was inside prison, but divorced when we got out. But yeah, it was hard. If anybody has kids, you feel it in your heart.

And then also speaking to him over the phone was tough. I taught him his ABCs over the prison phone. And he would also come to visit me and say, "When are you coming home?" And that broke my heart, to hear him cry and have to tell him, "I can't go home."

What's an average day like in prison?

You try to forget about the real world. You're living in a different planet in there – it’s just a different set of rules. There's a lot of racism going on in US prisons. There's black gangs, Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, and all types of gangs running stuff. Sometimes you end up in a housing unit that's full of mostly Bloods, sometimes you're in a Crip house, sometimes you're in a Latin King house. You just have to be ready to adapt.

I knew how to adapt because I was a kid when I first went to prison. I remember when I was a kid, I had a fight every single day because I was not part of a gang. The adults are a bit more lenient in terms of you not being in a gang, but that meant you still couldn't do things like use certain phones.

In prison, there were three pay phones: a neutral phone, a Spanish phone, and a black gang phone. I was not in a gang, but I was always hanging out with the Spanish gangs, so I was okay to use the Spanish phone. Sometimes other gang members would take away that neutral phone, so if you're not part of that unit, you couldn't make a phone call.

I've seen people extorted for food, have fights over TV. Actually, a lot of fights over the TV – someone might be watching the Spanish channel, whereas someone else might want to watch regular news, so they just go up to the TV and change it. You just have to be ready to fight. It's crazy.

They say, “Pull out your gun.” You don’t have a gun, but it’s what they call knives. Your knife is your gun, and that's what they’d say.

Was it more violent inside or on the streets?

It was definitely more violent inside prison. In the streets, you could be incognito, especially after things changed with cell phones and delivery services. It was not that corner-to-corner type of issue from back in the day.

Were you able to work and earn wages inside prison?

Yes, I was working as a customer service agent for the Department of Motor Vehicles, earning seven cents an hour.

Seven cents an hour?

Yes, that’s an hour. My monthly wage was $40.

That's crazy. How do they justify seven cents an hour?

I have no idea. It's all a robbery. It's a money-making business. The department pays the inmates a certain amount, and the prison take a cut. So they could say like, “Hey, we'll deliver all the customer agents for you for $10 an hour rather than $20 an hour.” And then you get paid whatever they tell you you're going to get paid.

I was working as a customer service agent for the Department of Motor Vehicles, earning seven cents an hour.

You’re stuck because you want to do something while you're inside. You have to do something, just to keep occupied. And if you don't work, you get in trouble too.

There are so many ways you cease being human when you enter the prison system.

Yeah. It's part of the law. Basically, to be incarcerated, you’re subject to being enslaved.

Well, five years in, you're only a couple of months away from being released, but an unwarranted assault from a guard lands you in solitary and stacks more time on your sentence. How that did happen, and how did you keep the faith?

I was devastated when I ended up in solitary confinement. I had two months left before my release, and I remember one of the officers beat me up and threw me in solitary confinement with 24-hour lockdown. I was devastated. I felt hopeless. I thought I couldn't get out of the situation, but then an officer came to my door, opened up the food slot, and passed me a pen, paper, and an envelope. I quickly grabbed them so I could communicate with my family.

So, I wrote a letter to let my family know about the whole situation, and how this officer set me up and beat me up. As I sealed the letter, I realized I had no stamp to send it out and I became even more restless.

I sat on my bed and started banging my head on the wall, just frustrated. Hopeless. It was not until three or four days later when my sister found out I was in solitary. She wrote me a letter and said, “We found out you're in solitary. Everything is going to be all right. All I want you to do is pray.” My sister is super religious, and she told me to pray to Psalm 91.

But I was like, "Fuck that. I don't need god and I don't need religion. I need a lawyer. I need to fight this case. This guy is trying to set me up."

It was not until a couple of days later where I decided to pick up the bible, which was the only thing in the cell. The bible is the only thing that follows you around through your whole prison sentence, and it was this bible that she gave me early in my incarceration in Rikers Island.

To be incarcerated, you’re subject to being enslaved.

And I turned to Psalm 91, which states, “He who dwells in the shelter of the most high will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord. He is my shelter and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” And as soon as I read those words, a stamp fell out of the Psalm pages, and that gave me chills.

I don't know. I was struck by awe, and I kept reading, and something weird happened to me. I was in 100+ degree weather, a super-hot cell, frustrated, but every time I read the bible I felt like I was in cool 70 degree weather, and sitting in the Caribbean. Every time I began reading, I escaped that cell. I got lost in the words, and I read the bible from front to back. I'm not a super religious person, and I'm not trying to convert anyone, but that is what happened to me.

Through reading the bible, I started realizing that what I had been doing was wrong. I felt like drugs were okay to sell. Previously, I had felt like I was not doing anything wrong – that it was the system that was wrong. I thought I was the victim in every situation.

And then I started realizing that I was affecting not only the thousands of people that I sell drugs to, but I started thinking about their families. I started thinking about my family. I started thinking about this web of destruction that I'd created, and I felt so much regret. I said, “I want to get back in some sort of way.”

I came up with the idea of ConBody in that cell. Then, I lost 70 pounds in six months, while helping 20 other inmates lose more than 1,000 pounds combined.

So, I started this whole workout program in the prison yard. I knew then that it’s what I wanted to do when I came home: a prison-style bootcamp. In my cell, I wrote a mini-business plan and a 90-day workout plan. I said to myself that I would do what I wrote, and I did.

About a year later, I came home and put it into action. I started training classes in the park, then rented out studios, then eventually opened up my own studio. It escalated to building an online workout platform where I now train thousands of people all over the world. Today, we've trained more than 50,000 people. But the most beautiful thing is that we've hired over 40 people coming out of the prison system, and none of them have come back into the system.

That's incredible. In New York, aren’t 53% of released prisoners likely to be back inside prison within three years?

Yes, and that's just three years. Within five years, it's 76%. Within eight years, 82% of the people will go back into the system. So more than three out of four people will go back, and I'm a proven statistic. I recidivated, and it a lot has to do with the lack of opportunities that you receive when you get out of the system and come home.

So you were inside and came up with what you thought was a solid business idea, but it was only when you got started that you realized just how good it was. How were you able to spread the word about ConBody? And were there any principles or lessons you had from your former life that were able to help you build it?

Yeah. I remember when I got out of solitary confinement, I had to do this group class for a couple of months called ASAT – the alcohol, substance abuse treatment program. In the middle of the class, full of inmates, they ask us what our plan is when we come home. I remember getting up in front of the class and telling everyone, “Look, I'm going to start a prison-style bootcamp. I'm going to hire people coming out of the system.” And I told them the whole idea of ConBody.

They all laughed and thought I was crazy, but that got me mad. I said, “This shit is going to fucking pop off! I know how to build the business from the ground up.” And that was just my mentality: that nothing was going to stop me. I was determined to make this thing happen.

My mentality was nothing is going to stop me.

Then I came home and used the same marketing and hustling skills that I used when I was selling drugs. I was going up to random people and giving them my business card. Any females wearing yoga pants who were jogging down the block, I would chase after them and pitch them left and right! I just kept doing it, and from there it started escalating.

Did you find people who were currently incarcerated and go into the prisons to train them as personal trainers? Or was it once they were released, you were able to train them as personal trainers and bring them into Conbody?

Yeah, once they were released. At the start, I was doing everything myself – teaching all the classes and running the whole business. I couldn't afford to pay anyone in the beginning stages. It took me a little over a year and a half before I hired my first guy. Then, one of the guys who I was locked up with that saw me lose a lot of weight, he contacted me immediately when he came home because he’d read about me in an article and became my Facebook friend. He hit me up and said, “Hey, yo. Can I be a trainer there?” So I brought him on board, and it kept spreading like that.

I love it. And this year, you started a crowdfunding campaign for Second Chance Studios, which has raised more than $60,000. What's your aim with Second Chance Studios, and why is it such an important project for you?

One of the biggest issues when people are coming out of the prison system is that we have a lot of manual labor jobs, and that's pretty much the only job you can get when you come out. One out of five people unemployed in America are formerly incarcerated people, which is crazy. That's millions and millions of people with criminal histories, and that correlates to people going back. Especially during COVID time, anybody who had a manual labor job pretty much lost their job. So now with the technical skill side of it, we want to launch Second Chance Studios so we can hire and train people to do podcasting work, video production, and audio engineering.

We want to have corporations hire these individuals once they’ve gone through our program and solidified their training. That would also be helpful for me because I want to hire people with those skills for the ConBody side, too.

It's perfect timing with the pandemic and the push to remote work, where people can offer their expertise from the comfort of their own home.

You've been a TEDx speaker, an author, and done all these amazing things. How long ago was it since you were released and able to start doing all these awesome ventures?

It's been a while. March 2013.

I have the utmost respect for the journey that you have been on. It was obviously a very difficult upbringing, but the bigger the setback, the bigger the comeback.

There seems to be a resistance to helping formerly incarcerated individuals develop skills and earn money. It’s like people would rather be afraid of them from a distance, and it remains a taboo subject. Yet, we need that change to happen if we’re to have a meaningful society. If you had one change to make to the prison system, what would it be?

I think we need to believe in redemption. Everyone in this planet has committed some type of mistake, something immoral or something bad. Not everyone's perfect, and we need to realize that we all commit mistakes. If we didn't commit mistakes, we wouldn't learn from our mistakes. But our system in the US is all about punishment. It’s a correction facility, and we need to correct the problem.

To do that, we need to recruit people who care. Instead of bringing in correctional officers who just want to beat you up with batons and turn you more into a criminal, why not have trained correctional officers and staff members who really care? People who want to correct the problem, to train and reform individuals, and who believe in second chances.

Hopefully sharing your story on platforms like this can help initiate that change.


Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Coss does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give her 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀


Final question. What's one thing you do to Win the Day?

Working out is the biggest thing for me. I feel so accomplished when I wake up in the morning and go for a run or workout.

Resources / links mentioned:

💪 ConBody

🎧 Ex-Dealer, Ex-Junkie Podcast

💚 Second Chance Studios

📚 ConBody: The Revolutionary Bodyweight Prison Boot Camp, Born from an Extraordinary Story of Hope

🎤 TEDx Talk

📸 Coss Marte on Instagram

“Success in any field – but especially in business – is about working with people, not against them.”

– Keith Ferrazzi

There’s less than a handful of people on the entire planet currently alive today whose work has continually and significantly impacted my life. Without even knowing them personally, these people have spoken to me through their life-changing books and given me the confidence and tools that really inspired the mission that I’m on now and that I will continue until my dying breath.

Today, I am extremely grateful to have one of those people on the Win the Day show: Keith Ferrazzi. Keith is undoubtedly the global leader in relationships and networking. In fact, he’s often cited as the modern-day Dale Carnegie. (For those who don’t know, Dale Carnegie is author of one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read, How to Win Friends and Influence People.)

As long-time fans of the Win the Day show will recall, relationships have been by far the most important ingredient in literally every success I have enjoyed to this point and I’m sure will be responsible for every opportunity that arrives in the future. I’ve spoken before about my struggles through high school and as a young adult, and that it was really only at the age of 23 when I felt focused and empowered for the first time.

But the journey from then certainly wasn’t a straight line.

In 2012, I moved to Boston on the east coast of the US – about as far away from my hometown of Brisbane, Australia, as you can get. I was 28 at the time and moved there to study an MBA, and early in the university program they mentioned Keith’s book Never Eat Alone so I grabbed a copy.

The #1 New York Times bestselling book showed how being genuinely interested in other people, being of thoughtful service to others, and constantly learning (and practicing) every day are the foundations to making every one of our own dreams come true. This philosophy had a profound impact on my life. Keith’s blueprint to success in relationships – along with Carol Dweck’s growth mindset and Napoleon Hill’s achievement principles – are what have shaped my mindset today and really underpin everything I do.

Yet, more than ever, I see people who want magic bullets to success – and the secret to instant monetization. However, this focus on immediate gratification all but nullifies the opportunity to establish authentic, lifelong connections that can provide enormously transformational experiences for us and the people we meet.

In May this year, during my presentation at our virtual event House Sessions, I even mentioned that my number one tip for monetization is not advertising, which everyone kills themselves to get, it’s relationships. It’s giving without the expectation of anything in return. It’s boldly being of service. And it’s knowing how to leverage the people in your network – the ones who would do anything to help you – to achieve your mission.

You're going to love this episode of Win the Day with Keith Ferrazzi, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of books like Never Eat Alone, Who’s Got Your Back, and the brand new Leading Without Authority. Keith leads executive teams of some of the most well-known companies in the world, including Delta Airlines, General Motors, and Verizon, and is featured regularly in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal.

When he was just a summer intern at Deloitte, one of the biggest accounting firms in the world, Keith used the power of relationships to become the youngest Chief Marketing Officer of a Fortune 500 company and the youngest partner in Deloitte history, all before he turned 30.

In addition to relationships and networking, Keith is recognized as the world’s foremost authority on remote work. At a time when most teams are failing, and the global pandemic has pushed the majority of organizations to remote work, Keith’s mission is more important than ever.

In this episode, we talk about:

At the bottom of this page, you can also check out the 60 best quotes from Keith Ferrazzi.

James Whittaker:
I know we were talking offline, but I wanted to quickly give a public acknowledgement to express my gratitude for all you've done – not just to help me, but how you’ve helped the world through your work. It's had a profound impact on my career and on my life, and I know for millions of other people around the world too. So thank you. It means a lot to me that you're on the show today.

Keith Ferrazzi:
Thank you, James. I'm honored.

Three of the most impactful books I've ever read are: How to Win Friends and Influence People (by Dale Carnegie), Think and Grow Rich (by Napoleon Hill), and your book Never Eat Alone

Those are the three books that had the biggest impact on my life too!

It's a good coincidence then! All those books include themes like: being genuinely interested in other people; the power of the mastermind; how we can all go higher together; and the importance of working on your relationships now rather than when you desperately need them. Those three books have enormously shaped my mindset and created all the opportunities and relationships I have in my life today.

All your work talks about relationships, but I want to know whether you had relationships with any books that played a pivotal role early in your career?

Yes, particularly How to Win Friends and Influence People. My father gave me that book when I was young, and I have to say there's nothing more gratifying to me than when somebody will say to me or introduce me as ‘the modern-day Dale Carnegie.’

Another book you wouldn’t imagine is The Great Gatsby. Growing up, I was a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks, and I got to go to some pretty prestigious schools thanks to my parents' commitment to education. But through that, I also created and absorbed a great deal of insecurity. I didn't feel I deserved to be in the room. I wasn't as good as the rich kids.

And if you know that last chapter of The Great Gatsby, Gatsby – who came from the wrong side of the tracks – had this beautiful desire to be with Daisy Buchanan. He moved to a mansion right across the ocean from her, in the Long Island Sound. He longed for that green light on her deck that someday he could be something. And that actually was his demise and what ultimately led to his death, as you know from the book.

And the name of my company is Ferrazzi Greenlight. It's to always remind me of that deep insecurity I had as a kid and how that insecurity could really be my demise if I didn't watch out for it. So, The Great Gatsby was a warning to me as a young man.

“It's to always remind me of that deep insecurity I had as a kid and how that insecurity could really be my demise if I didn't watch out for it.”

I just finished your awesome new book Leading Without Authority, where you introduce the concept of ‘co-elevation.’ For those who haven't read the book, what is co-elevation and what problems does it solve in this rapidly changing world we're in?

Thanks, James. Co-elevation is a shift of an operating system in the workplace. And in the last four months, we have seen more innovation change the way of work than we have in 20 years. We’ve been talking about the future of work for 20 years. It happened in four months. And I think the question we have to ask ourselves is: how are we as leaders, teams, and organizations in a post-covid world?

You read my book, Never Eat Alone, and it's about networking. Today, we work in networks. Anybody who's listening to this podcast has to understand that your dreams, hopes, and aspirations depend on your capacity to create a team around you that will co-create and fulfill the mission that you have.

But the mission that you have is owned by the team. So when you invite somebody into your mission, you're inviting them into their mission as well. It’s that journey of co-creation … of taking a hill together. And at the same time as you’re going for that shared mission as a team, you're also equally as committed to each other's development.

Co-elevation is a commitment to a shared mission and a commitment to each other. When a team has that, nothing can stop them.

“Co-elevation is a commitment to a shared mission and a commitment to each other. When a team has that, nothing can stop them.”

Another big theme of the book is that maximizing each other's capabilities should be the responsibility of every member of team. I think that's so important, whether it's a sporting team, a business team, or even a family team.

But in the business world, particularly, we have these hierarchies and job titles. People in a junior role might not feel comfortable approaching someone higher, or maybe the person in a senior role might rest on their laurels due to their job title. Is traditional leadership now out of date, and are job titles sabotaging companies from within?

We have to take a step back to recognize the world we live in today. Today, the world demands transformational levels of change from all of us. If you're an entrepreneur, or simply an individual who wants to achieve anything, it requires that you consume radically large volumes of information and continuously adapt to that information to figure out what your plan and strategy is. You also need to keep pivoting because that information changes pretty frequently.

That's unheard of. Previously, we never had that. I coach the transformation of teams and work with companies like General Motors and Delta Airlines. These groups have wake up every day and ask themselves: “What business are we in? How do we deliver?” And so, every one of us has to meet these transformational pressures.

Now, how do you do that? Well, you cannot do that alone. You're only going to be able to do that through unleashing the insights, the wisdom, the warnings of risk, and with the help of a calm networked set of individuals.

So, if you thought your job was to manage your team, meaning the team of people that report to you, and you think that's going to get you there? Bullshit. There's no way you're going to meet the pressures on you by simply managing the resources you have.

Your ability to transform and meet the pressures of the marketplace is dependent on your ability to enlist others into your goals, your mission, and your vision. If you want to be transformational, you've got to work in the network.

I coach executive teams of some of the biggest companies in the world. Covid hits, and no one is spending outside money on new consulting. Even McKinsey, Deloitte, Accenture, they're giving away their consulting because they don't dare ask for cash, which they know these companies aren't giving, but they want to earn loyalty. So, from our perspective, what's the marketplace that we play in now? Well, we've started playing in the middle market where I've coached coaches in our methodology, and they deploy that into smaller companies. We have courses in team transformation that can be taken online, and I had none of that on March 1st.

“We’ve been talking about the future of work for 20 years. It happened in four months.”

So I needed a team to make all that happen. And I found my team in a group of individuals that I didn't even have to pay. Now, the co-creators of my business ended up being individuals that I had admired for years, who I reached out to. Jim Kwik, the memory expert, is a good friend of mine. I reached out to Jim and said that I didn’t know anything about online sales funnels and I needed to sell to small / medium sized businesses and individual business consumers. Jim walked me through the sales funnel process.

All these people came out of the woodwork to help me. Peter Diamandis. Tony Robbins. All of these people joined my team to help me create my business. Opportunities like that have nothing to do with your org chart. Remember that if you’re sitting there at the moment and think you’re stuck.

I had this conversation last night with my 25-year-old [foster] son. I got him at 16 and he's 25 now. He was bemoaning the fact that there's no work out there. And I said, “Kiddo, let's talk about who's on your team to find your work.” I could, obviously, help with that in a moment, but it’s about his ability to co-create a vision for himself. He needs to know what he wants to do, then invite people in to help him and work out what's next in both of their lives, right?

It's amazing how the entire world is open to you through the idea of creating a team where you’re going to help each other be successful. That's the bottom line, and that’s co-elevation.

These days, everyone wants a magic bullet, instant success. For example, I work with a lot of podcasters, and the number one challenge they have is how to monetize. But the only solution they come up with to monetize is to get sponsors on their podcast.

Recently, at We Are Podcast, I spoke about the number one monetization strategy that you can have is investing in relationships. I mean, Keith, look at the relationships that you and I have both been able to build. Then, as you said, you need to be clear on what you want and not be afraid to call in a favor, because other people who you have built up all that goodwill with actually want to help you. That can easily equate to millions, tens of millions, over time, rather than going for a short-term dollar.

One of my favorite quotes from your book is when you said, “I never let a title or a lack of one stop me.” How did you become the youngest Chief Marketing Officer of a Fortune 500 company and the youngest partner in Deloitte history, all by the age of 30?

I'm going to try to answer this in a way that I can coach your listeners and viewers. Imagine yourself working inside of a company. And the CEO says his vision is to really go from eight in the industry to being one of the top consultancies in the world. You're in the audience. What do you do with that information?

Most people say, “Well, that’s nice and I'm glad to be part of the team that's going to go there.”

Well, here’s what I did. I went up to [Deloitte CEO Pat Locanto] the CEO afterward and said, “Sir, what are some of the critical elements that you have in your plan to make us become number one? What are some of the things you're working on?”

He responded by mentioning pieces of brand, marketing, and core competencies. And I said, “Sir, I know you didn't ask me to, but I'll do some research, and if see anything that could help, I'd love to be able to reach out to you and show you what I’ve got.”

He said, “Oh, sure kid” and didn’t think much would come of it.

Well, I went back to school because at the time I was a summer intern. At school, I reached out to a professor of mine and said, “I'd like to do a white paper on professional services marketing. I'd like to do that as a replacement for some of the work that we're doing in our class.”

And he agreed, saying that it sounded like an interesting project. So, I reached out to the top consultancies – their Chief Marketing Officers. I told them that I had spent the summer at Deloitte and was really intrigued by marketing and professional services, but I couldn't find much about it in the industry papers. I mentioned that I was going to do a study on best practices, and I would give them a copy of it when I was done.

So, I was a 100% transparent. And I talked to McKinsey about their vision for thought leadership – how they extracted it from the projects that McKinsey worked on and how they put that out into the marketplace. I talked to Jim Murphy about how he was applying traditional advertising and media, and what that looked like. And then I went to the other folks at the other firms.

I put it all together, sent it to Pat Locanto, and said, “Sir, you don't remember me, but I was the kid that said I'd like to do some research and come back to you. I have now interviewed the Chief Marketing Officers of all the major competitors. Here is the analysis of what a codified marketing strategy would be if we wanted to be rivaling one or two.”

Well, it kind of blew him away. None of his partners had ever done it. He didn't even have a Chief Marketing Officer.

Pat called me, flew me down from Boston (where I was at business school), and took me to dinner. He said, “Kid, this is unimaginable, what you just did. I want you to come and work for the firm, and I want you to come in and work on a project around redefining marketing for the company.”

I said, “I would love to. All I want is one-on-one dinners with you every few months.”

I knew that relationship was more precious than anything else. I did ask for more money; he didn't give it to me!

Then I said, “If I do this job for you, will you make me Chief Marketing Officer??

And he looked at me and laughed. Actually, he said, “No effing way! Get that out of your head. You’re a child, just out of business school, and you would have to be a partner to be the CMO.”

So I said, “Okay then. Make me a partner.”

He said, “You're just lucky you’ve got this opportunity.”

Within three years, I was the youngest partner ever elected at the firm and the Chief Marketing Officer of the company.

So, all I ask for those of you listening to this is don't give me bullshit. In chapter two of Leading Without Authority there's the six deadly excuses of why you are mediocre. And one of them is, is ‘laziness’ because the reality is that path with Deloitte took work. The other one is ‘deference,’ which means, “Oh, it's not my job.” That wasn't my job. There is no excuse for you to remain mediocre. If you want to be extraordinary, you chart your path. Leading Without Authority is really a prescription for that.

“There is no excuse for you to remain mediocre. If you want to be extraordinary, you chart your path.”

Now, the flip side of that is if you are a title individual, holding onto your title is going to also make you mediocre because you'll never have enough resources under your control to really break through. You need to go to Peter Diamandis. You need to go to Jim Kwik. You need to get James Whittaker who knows everything about podcasts to teach you about podcasts, right?

So, you need to expand your view of team, which is chapter one of Leading Without Authority. You need to redefine your view of team. If you don't redefine your view of team, you will remain mediocre with mediocre resources.

Incredible stuff. What I love about the book is how tactical it gets, especially in the second half. I listened to the audiobook, but I think I need to go and get the hard cover because there's just some really amazing stuff in there!

How did the guy on the audiobook do? With covid, I really didn't have the time, even though I wanted to.

He did great! I feel like if you’re an author and you can't do the audio recording, at least find someone who's got a similar voice.

I listened to a bunch of guys and listened to their style. Then I got him on the phone, and I said, “Brother, let me explain this to you. Let me explain to you my passion. I've listened to your books. I don't know who directs you, but I want to tell you, you better be excited as hell about this book. This book is going to change the effing world and how we think about leadership and interdependency in the workplace. It’s going to redefine collaboration. You need to be excited about this. I want you to record your first chapter and send it to me. And if you're not excited enough, I will get someone else.”

By the way, I knew I didn’t need to listen to it. I just needed to throw that gauntlet on the table.

He did great. He's a good substitute for you anytime you can't do it!

You often talk about vulnerability and struggle. Why is that so powerful?

We work in a world where people don't have to do what you want them to do. So, that's what this book is written about. The book is written so that you can lead people who don't have to do what you want them to do. By the way, that's not just people who don't report to you.

I can remember all the jokes about millennials, but the reality is you have to earn your right to lead. People follow you, not out of authority, but out of their own compulsion to do so. So, the basic idea behind all of this was a word I created called opening porosity.

“You have to earn your right to lead.’

This [computer] screen is not porous. You drop water on it, it slides off. Sponges are porous and absorptive. You want people to be a sponge to you. You want people to be a sponge to your ideas. But what opens them to you? Vulnerability. Authenticity.

The reptilian brain, which controls your fight-flight mechanism, is triggered when people are insecure and fearful. A friend of mine, Christine Comaford, talks about people going to critter-state like that. So, many leaders have their people in critter state constantly. But if you’re constantly in critter state, you can't be innovative. You can't be risk-taking. You’ve got to be in flow.

And so, porosity is about us. How do you create ‘us’ with people? And the one human connector of a productive relationship is empathy. You open that door with vulnerability. Think about how I started this conversation when you asked me what books changed my life. I could have stopped at How to Win Friends and Influence People.

But I went to The Great Gatsby. Not only is it an accurate answer, but it’s expressing my vulnerability because what a great opportunity to start this dialogue with people getting a peek into who I am. They open their ears more. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. And I think one of the best things that you have done is stay grounded despite a lot of the people who you rub shoulders with today. I think it's great that your mission is still very much to help everyday people, rather than focusing on coaching the best executive teams in the world. I mean, you are doing that, but you're also doing a lot to help people all over the world because you're aware of the impact that one person with the right knowledge, expertise, and willingness to help can do for others.

Well, it goes back deeper than that. My whole mission… I don't think I've ever told this story in any of the books. My whole mission started at my dad's dinner table when he was unemployed. Unemployment was rampant in Pennsylvania. The bosses and the managers didn’t care about the workers. They weren't unleashing value from the organization.

“The one human connector of a productive relationship is empathy, and you open that door with vulnerability.”

I vowed that I would grow up and make sure that I made an impact on leadership and organizational dynamics, because I felt that we were unemployed because of it. That is an especially important lesson for me, and it is very humbling. I do what I do at General Motors and Verizon and Delta and all these companies because it saves jobs – hundreds of thousands of jobs – and families. That's why I do what I do.

That feeling from when you were young is still so strong within?

So strong. Hopefully I've ironed out a lot of the insecurity, but I’m still working on that.

We’re always a work in progress! What about bureaucratic bottlenecks? Some of my clients are police officers, in Australia and the US, who express their frustration with how hard it is to progress. You can also see that more broadly in any government organization, where people want to move up the ranks, and they don’t want to wait for the tap on the shoulder for it to happen, but they feel like there’s absolutely nowhere for them to go. What can employees of bureaucracies like governments do to move up the ranks quicker?

Well, frankly, the more barriers you have to progress, the more you need to influence the network. I was talking to General Stanley McChrystal who is an amazing business leader and coach. He and I were talking about how the people in the military that really make it to the top understand the network. It’s the grunts down at the front level, the infantry, who are not imagining the network is what's going to get them there. They're just doing what they're told. However, those who do awaken to that are the ones that navigate up through the hierarchy.

“The more barriers you have to progress, the more you need to influence the network.”

But it's true of everything. That’s the only way to move forward if the blockers of large organizations – like silos and bureaucracy – are standing in your way. Deloitte was probably one of the worst organizations at the time. And my whole point was, “Bullshit I’m going to wait for 12 years until I’m a shot at partner.”

I committed to adding so much value, and doing it in the face of the most powerful people that I could find. I didn’t want to play onesy, twoesy around the board. I wanted to go down the slide and win the game.

Rather than being confined by the linear progression, just because of how that worked for others previously?

Exactly.

In March this year, we started really feeling the effects of the pandemic. Now, people are working remotely. There's been a lot of unemployment and a lot of economic issues that I'm sure are still to come in the next few months and years.

Despite that, are there any opportunities or benefits that exist right now, uniquely as a result of what's happened with the pandemic, that people can use for their own personal growth?

Massive. So, that's the third business I just started. In March, everybody was panicked, and I started a business. I had done a lot of research around remote teams and remote work. I did it starting in 2015, and nobody gave a damn back then. I had invested $2 million in research on running remote teams, and I did it with Harvard Business School. I raised the money from Siemens, Cisco, Accenture and a bunch of others.

“I committed to adding so much value, and doing it in the face of the most powerful people that I could find.”

And I believe that remote can be better than co-located. I think a lot of us are finding that it's not as bad as we thought, and with certain adaptation you are going to get better collaboration. So, I opened a website called Virtual Teams Win, which was me finding opportunity in crisis. And through that website, we started courses and a resource center. That point of view gave me access.

For example, Zoom named me their top thought leader in remote teams. Fast Company did the same. Harvard Business Review asked me to do more pieces within a one-month period. I had more PR and more visibility because I read the tea leaves of where people were suffering the most, and I decided to serve that market.

I was talking to a gentleman this morning, Martin Lindstrom, who's just a brilliant market strategist. He was talking to me about how in times like this, you need to step back, look at the tea leaves and say, “How has customer demand changed and in what way? And how do we serve that?”

And it might be that you serve someone you've never served before. Unilever didn't do hand sanitizer, and in 20 days they had hand sanitizer on the shelves in North America. Normally, it would have taken them six months to get a product on the shelf.

And now the hottest item in the world.

Exactly. You need to look at the tea leaves and really understand and decide how you’re going to serve. With Virtual Teams Win we started a whole series of what we call ‘remote reboots.’ How does a team reboot itself in a remote world and make it a better team? But then I started hearing people talking about going back to work, and I thought, “What's that going to look like?” And I started getting scared, because I've seen more innovation in the last four months than I have seen in 20 years.

“I had more PR and more visibility because I read the tea leaves of where people were suffering the most, and I decided to serve that market.”

And I wanted to capture that. So, I started a media site, as opposed to go back to work, it's called Go Forward to Work. And I hired the former managing editor of Forbes, the former editor of Brand Week, and a few writers. And they're collecting the world's largest database of best practices of how work been redefined over the last four months and how marketing and sales have been redefined.

I know one large tech company that used to spend a billion dollars a year in sales travel, but now they've spent no money in sales travel. They've saved over $400 million in sales travel – and their loyalty numbers have gone up. So, what does that say?

One question is, “What have we seen that we like, and we want to hold on to, as we go forward?” Start curating that question with your team.

And the next question is, “What are the things that we're fearful in a remote world will not be performed as well?” And then when you list those things, stay on them and ask, “Well, how can we do them better?”

We believe we've engineered a process where team meetings can actually be better in remote world than they were physically. So, I think there's a lot of opportunity right now.

You speak all over the world and meet tens of thousands of people each year. What system do you have of keeping in touch with all those people that you meet?

I use Salesforce. I know it's a little expensive, and there may be a lot of things out there, but what I like about it is that as my company has grown, it doesn’t just track my network – it tracks campaigns.

The one thing I learned since writing Never Eat Alone is that a network is not about you running a bunch of individual relationships. It’s starting communities. And that's probably a whole conversation by itself, but starting communities is very powerful. When I started Go Forward to Work, part of the intention was to take all of my VIP relationships, pull them into a virtual room and say, “How will we teach each other what the future of work looks like?”

I started a community and then I hired a community manager, a gentleman from Forbes, who's curating that conversation, so when I'm not there, I'm still there. When that group convenes with Bruce, I'm present in that conversation, right? So, your ability to be present in conversations and build your network by building community makes you exponential in terms of your network.

So much of what you talk about comes from that abundance mindset. It's like when you were talking about hosting parties at your house, where you ask everyone to be co-hosting the evening – that they all make sure everyone's got a drink in their hand and that everyone’s invited into a conversation.

Well, the point I'm making is that leaders are great hosts. And part of being a great host is helping other people make other people comfortable. If I’ve got a table of 14, I can handle that. I can make everybody comfortable. But if I've got a party of 150, now I need to turn everybody into hosts. If everybody acts like a host to take care of each other, then everyone's going to be taken care of.

“Part of being a great host is helping other people make other people comfortable.”

It's the same thing with your team. A great team leader is a host of a team that takes care of each other.

In Leading Without Authority you talk about co-elevation in the workplace predominantly, but what about co-elevation in the home? How can it be used to improve a marriage, or a relationship with your children, or even a relationship with someone's parents?

By the way, it is so infrequent that I show up and somebody's done their homework. You've actually read the book and consumed it. It's just amazing! Thank you for that.

The example I use a lot is my son. I could not parent my child the way that my dad parented me, nor would I want to. And I think that's true of a lot of us. But with our spouses, imagine being in a spousal relationship where your commitment is to a shared and aligned set of goals for each other, for the family, for my career and for my spouse's career. And collectively we are going higher together where we are open and interested in each other's challenges, innovations, and critiques. Not critique as in badgering. Critique as in caring enough to correct. And it's received that way and it's given that way.

I'm single now. I've been single for five years and I've made a commitment that my spouse is going to be my co-elevating partner. That's one of the reasons I didn't dive back into a relationship sooner.

I'm hopeful that co-elevation is adopted by governments because we certainly need more cross the aisle collaboration. It's starting to heat up with all the [political] conventions. And unfortunately, we're going to see such divisiveness and lines drawn, when what we need is more co-creation because we need the brilliance on all sides of the aisle to come together and fix these problems.

Absolutely. Focusing on the future rather than pointing fingers or what might've got us here in the first place.

How can someone turn a generic “How can I be of service?” into actually being of service?

Well, listening helps and asking the question is easy. In the case of Pat Locanto, I was in the audience and I heard something and I was like, “Let me double click on that. That sounded important. Let me double click and let me see if I can be of service.”

It’s this idea of serve, share, and care. And the service piece is really understanding what another human values. And typically, there's a checklist: they care about the kids, they care about their own personal development, they care about the careers, they care about being entertained, they care about their intellectual growth, they care about their spirituality.

You have a checklist of things, and if you are curious and ask people questions about things, you can start to say, “Oh, well, I can introduce you to this person.” Or “Maybe I could help you here, or “Could I do some research here for you?”

It's quite easy when you start having a framework that says, “Okay, James. How do I help James? Well, here's the checklist of things that I might be able to do to be helpful.” And you get better at it as you practice.


Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Keith does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give her 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀


Final question. What’s one thing you do to Win the Day?

I workout every day.

__

Connect with Keith Ferrazzi and learn more about the resources/links mentioned in the interview:

💚 Greenlight Giving Foundation

Keith Ferrazzi website

📙 Keith's new book Leading Without Authority

🚀 #1 New York Times bestseller Never Eat Alone

👨‍👨‍👧‍👧 All-time classic How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

🗝️ Bestselling self-help book of all time Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

💻 Go Forward to Work

🌎 Virtual Teams Win

📷 Keith Ferrazzi on Instagram

📝 Keith Ferrazzi on Facebook

That’s all for this episode! Remember, to get out there and win the day – I certainly will after that chat with Keith.

Until next time...

Oonwards and upwards always,
James Whittaker

PS - As a special bonus for making it this far, check out the 60 best quotes from Keith Ferrazzi below...


The 60 best quotes from Keith Ferrazzi:

  1. “We are long overdue for change in the way we work.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  2. “I never let a title, or a lack of one, stop me.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  3. “Position doesn’t define power. Impact defines power. And impact can be made at every level.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  4. “Your team is made up of everyone who is critical to helping you achieve your mission and goals.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  5. “There is no excuse for you to remain mediocre.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  6. “Come to the table looking to disrupt your own thinking.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  7. “Co-elevation creates a bias for action and innovation. It helps people go higher together.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  8. “Build momentum with positive people first.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  9. “No matter what your status within an organization is, the way to be a leader is to start leading. Right now. Do the job before you have the job.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  10. “When people don’t feel connected, they don’t lean in to collaborate.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  11. “Until you try, you will never know if someone will make a good teammate.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  12. “We can’t wait for our team to find us. We need to build it ourselves.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  13. “If a situation scares you, there’s probably something in it calling you to grow.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  14. “You don’t have to wait for others. You just have to get started.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  15. “If what you do matters, you have to give it your all. Your excuses don’t matter.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  16. “Prioritize your mission, rather than needing to be right.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  17. “People don’t want to be told. They want to be a part of something.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  18. “Making a commit to co-elevation means making a commitment to being boldly of service.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  19. “Change is about people. And if people aren’t open to change, there will be no change.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  20. “Give without keeping score.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  21. “Relationship-building is too important to be left to chance.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  22. “Co-elevation is when everyone in the team is committed to the mission and committed to each other.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  23. “True co-creation is anything but consensus.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  24. “Leaders are never done learning.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  25. “Get to know people personally, not just professionally.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  26. “Give feedback with the other person’s best interests at heart.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  27. “Never deliver personal feedback without requesting it in return.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  28. “Feedback is a gift. Once it’s given, it’s up to the other person to consume or discard it as they see fit.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  29. “The strongest leaders are lifelong students.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  30. “Thank people for their feedback, as you would any gift.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  31. “79% of people leave their job because they don’t feel appreciated.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  32. “An ordinary moment can be made heroic and meaningful through authentic praise from a leader.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  33. “What we reward with praise others will try to achieve.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  34. “You have to earn your right to lead.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  35. “Every team member must maximize each other’s capabilities.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  36. “True leaders leave no one behind.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  37. “The burden of responsibility is lighter when the mission is shared.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  38. “Success in any field, but especially in business is about working with people, not against them.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  39. “Business is a human enterprise, driven and determined by people.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  40. “The only way to get people to do anything is to recognize their importance and thereby make them feel important. Every person’s deepest lifelong desire is to be significant and to be recognized.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  41. “Connecting is one of the most important business and life skillsets you’ll ever learn. Why? Because, flat out, people do business with people they know and like. Careers, in every imaginable field, work the same.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  42. “Real networking is about finding ways to make other people more successful.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  43. “By giving your time and expertise and sharing them freely, the pie gets bigger for everyone.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  44. “Poverty, I realized, wasn’t only a lack of financial resources; it was isolation from the kind of people who could help you make more of yourself.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  45. “It’s better to give before you receive. And never keep score. If your interactions are ruled by generosity, your rewards will follow suit.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  46. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the best in the world, as long as you know that doing so also means wanting to be the best for the world.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  47. “A network functions precisely because there’s recognition of mutual need. There’s an implicit understanding that investing time and energy in building personal relationships with the right people will pay dividends. The majority of “one per-centers” are in that top stratum because they understand this dynamic—because, in fact, they themselves used the power of their network of contacts and friends to arrive at their present station.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  48. “Organizations can’t change their culture unless individual employees change their behavior – and changing behavior is hard.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  49. “There is only one place to find real peace, real harmony. That place is within.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  50. “Who you know determines who you are: how you feel, how you act, and what you achieve.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  51. “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  52. “Lifetime corporate employment is dead; we’re all free agents now, managing our own careers across multiple jobs and companies. And because today’s primary currency is information, a wide-reaching network is one of the surest ways to become and remain thought leaders of our respective fields.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  53. “Audacity was often the only thing that separated two equally talented people and their job titles.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  54. “The choice isn’t between success and failure; it’s between choosing risk and striving for greatness, or risking nothing and being certain of mediocrity.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  55. “There is genius, even kindness, in being bold.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  56. “When you help someone through a health issue, positively impact someone’s personal wealth, or take a sincere interest in their children, you engender life-bonding loyalty.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  57. “The problem, as I see it, isn’t what you’re working on, it’s whom you’re working with.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  58. “You can’t feel in love with your life if you hate your work; and more times than not, people don’t love their work because they work with people they don’t like.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  59. “Power, today, comes from sharing information, not withholding it.” – Keith Ferrazzi
  60. “Until you become as willing to ask for help as you are to give it, however, you are only working half the equation.” – Keith Ferrazzi

“Success in any field – but especially in business – is about working with people, not against them.”

– Keith Ferrazzi

In this episode of Win the Day, we’ve got a very special guest!

Keith Ferrazzi is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of books like 'Never Eat Alone,' 'Who’s Got Your Back,' and the brand new 'Leading Without Authority.'

Keith leads executive teams of some of the most well-known companies in the world, including Delta Airlines, General Motors, and Verizon. He’s also been featured regularly in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal, and is often cited as the modern-day Dale Carnegie.

In 2012, I first picked up Keith’s blockbuster hit, ‘Never Eat Alone' which showed how being genuinely interested in other people, being of thoughtful service to others, and constantly learning (and practicing) every day are the foundations to making every one of our own dreams come true.

This philosophy had a profound impact on my life. Keith’s blueprint to success in relationships – along with Carol Dweck’s growth mindset and Napoleon Hill’s achievement principles – are what have shaped my mindset today and really underpin everything I do.

Yet, more than ever, I see people who want magic bullets to success – and the secret to instant monetization. However, this focus on immediate gratification all but nullifies the opportunity to establish authentic, lifelong connections that can provide enormously transformational experiences for us and the people we meet.

Keith has chalked up some massive wins in his acclaimed career. When he was just a summer intern at Deloitte, one of the biggest accounting firms in the world, Keith used the power of relationships to become the youngest Chief Marketing Officer of a Fortune 500 company and the youngest partner in Deloitte history, all before he turned 30.

In addition to relationships and networking, Keith is recognized as the world’s foremost authority on remote work. At a time when most teams are failing, and the global pandemic has pushed the majority of organizations to remote work, Keith’s mission is more important than ever.

In this episode, we talk about:

There’s a ton of value here and I know you’re going to love it!


Resources / links mentioned:

💚 Greenlight Giving Foundation

Keith Ferrazzi website

📙 Keith's new book Leading Without Authority

🚀 #1 New York Times bestseller Never Eat Alone

👨‍👨‍👧‍👧 All-time classic How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

🗝️ Bestselling self-help book of all time Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

💻 Go Forward to Work

🌎 Virtual Teams Win

📷 Keith Ferrazzi on Instagram

📝 Keith Ferrazzi on Facebook

🎙️ We Are Members: create a thriving business from your podcast

🔥 60 best quotes from Keith Ferrazzi

“If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don't have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.”

– Steve Jobs

Eleven years ago, Michael Fox started the world’s first custom women’s shoe company Shoes of Prey that raised USD $25 million and partnered with leading companies like Nordstrom. He was on top of the world.

Then in 2018 — after a DECADE of tireless work — his business, marriage, and life collapsed. He lost it all.

Today, just two years later, he is the founder of a heart-centered business in the alternative meat space, Fable Food Co, with his mission of ending industrial agriculture and transforming fine dining. The business launched in partnership with one of the world’s most acclaimed chefs, Heston Blumenthal, and is absolutely crushing it 🚀

Literally one year after his whole world unraveled, he had the BEST year of his life. "How?" I hear you ask! 

It's a good question, and one we'll get into in this episode! 

We'll also go through:

✔️ How to start a business

✔️ How to raise money

✔️ How to be happy

✔️ How to respond to criticism

✔️ How to dust yourself off from failure

✔️ How to partner with the most accomplished people on the planet

✔️ And a LOT more!

If you need some inspiration and direction in this uncertain time, make THIS episode a priority. 

RESOURCES / LINKS MENTIONED:

📝 Michael Fox blog on Medium

👠 The Shoes of Prey Journey Ends (via Michael's blog)

🍴 Fable Food Co

🐦Michael Fox on Twitter

🎟️ We Are Podcast House Sessions

“If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don't have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.”

– Steve Jobs

I believe we can learn from everyone, and in my line of work, I’m so grateful to have interviewed hundreds of people to learn more about their amazing journeys. If you’ve read my last book Think and Grow Rich: The Legacy, you’ll remember that the inspiration in the book came from REAL stories – so you can get a real blueprint to apply in your own life.

That's why I'm so excited about the first official guest we’ve ever had on the show, Michael Fox. I've known Michael for years. He’s a super-successful, extremely well-connected dude, but what I love most about him is how down to earth and humble he is.

Eleven years ago, Michael and his two partners (one being his wife at the time) recognized that the future of retail was in personalization and customization – where shoppers could create the products they wanted rather than buying the generic ones that everybody else bought.

The niche they found was women who wanted to customize their own shoes. I’ve got a wife, a mum, and a sister, and they all love shoes, so this certainly looked like a phenomenal concept from day one.

In 2009, Michael and his two partners launched Shoes of Prey. For the first time, women around the world were able to order shoes online that they had designed themselves. They were manufactured to their specifications, delivered to them quickly, and at a very competitive price.

In the years after, Shoes of Prey raised more than USD $25 million and had partnered with companies including retail giant Nordstrom. Michael was on top of the world.

Then it all came crashing down.

In this interview, we talk about Michael’s rollercoaster entrepreneurial journey that’s taken him from his home country Australia to Asia, America, and Europe, and what lessons he's learned along the way. We’ll also talk about the impact on his personal relationships and what happened that made 2019 – literally the next year after his business collapsed – the best year of his life.

We then get an exclusive insight into Michael’s new business, Fable Food Co, that’s attracting huge attention around the world with its high-quality meat alternative, including from one of the world's most acclaimed chefs, Heston Blumenthal.

There’s so much in this interview: How to start a business; How to raise money; How to be happy; How to respond to criticism; How to dust yourself off from failure; How to partner with the most accomplished people on the planet, and more!

Enjoy 🙂


James Whittaker:
How are you doing in the COVID-19 world!?

Michael Fox:
We’re based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. It's probably one of the best spots in the world if you're going to be isolated somewhere. We live right near the beach, and beaches here have stayed open. So, on the personal and family front, we’re fine.

On the business front, it's disrupted some parts, but it opened up opportunities too. Actually, overall, we've been growing nicely through this whole period. So yeah, I think we're sort of counting our lucky stars—we have been fortunate.

A lot of aspiring entrepreneurs want to know the best way to come up with a new business idea. Do you have a set formula that you follow? Or is it more of an intuition honed after many years in the entrepreneurial world?

The big learning for me – and I didn't do this early on, but I've done it with my current business – is to find what you’re personally deeply, truly passionate about and pursue that. As an example, my last business Shoes of Prey was custom women's shoes. I loved lots of parts of that business, but I was never deeply passionate about women's shoes. Not at all. I loved building a brand, I loved the manufacturing, I loved the supply chain, I loved establishing partnerships and the sales and the retail. All of that I loved. But the actual product, I just wasn't into.

Whereas with my new business, Fable, I'm deeply passionate about the product, the mission, and what we're working on. It makes such a difference. For example, I wake up on a Saturday morning, when I could be doing something else, and the only thing I want to do is read about what's going on in the industry or listen to podcasts relating to food and relating that to what we're doing.

Contrast that to Shoes of Prey – I didn't read fashion magazines in my spare time. And that difference, I can see it playing out in so many ways, such as my deep understanding of the customer (i.e. the value proposition that they're looking for). So I highly recommend starting something in an area that you're deeply passionate about.

Once you've got a new business idea, how important is research to test that concept? And, how early should you do that research?

Early on, I think the most critical thing to do is customer research and determine your business model. You need to understand the value proposition of who you’re targeting and what they want, coupled with an understanding of what business model is most applicable.

With Fable, we've got a meat alternative to slow-cooked meat. It’s like pulled pork and braised beef, but it's made predominately from mushrooms and other plant-based ingredients. Before kicking off this business, I'd been vegetarian for four and a half years, eating all the Beyond burgers and Impossible burgers, and other products on the market, so I had a good personal understanding of the category. I've also talked to everyone around me trying to encourage them to turn vegetarian and hear the feedback that they're giving on why they find it hard, what they miss about meat, and other feedback around the alternatives.

"Find what you’re personally deeply, truly passionate about and pursue that."

Then, I just spend a lot of time exploring and understanding the market, particularly watching people as they shop the meat alternatives. After they selected or not selected something, I go up and talk to them about their decision. All of that research is hugely valuable to the path that we're going down now.

I see that you've been very proactive about seeking that feedback. Contrast that to a lot of entrepreneurs who simply work on an idea themselves because they’re worried someone is going to steal it … and they're certainly not proactive about obtaining feedback.

If you think you've got certain insights and a really big potential idea, it can be a natural concern that you might want to protect that. But, in my experience anyway, when it comes to building businesses, it’s 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration, as Thomas Edison said.

If you've got an idea, there’s probably 1,000 other people who've had the idea. Your success with that idea will come down to how well you execute on it. Therefore, the pros of getting feedback from people early on far outweigh the risk of someone else stealing your idea. Because even if someone steals your idea, are they going to be good at executing? The reality is that most people aren't going to do that – they're not going to leave their existing job to start a new idea. And even if they do, the reality is that it’s tough to start a business, and most businesses don't succeed.

So yeah, I think the benefits of getting the feedback from people early on far outweighs them taking your idea and beating you at it. And if they beat you at it, you’re probably not the best executor in the first place.

True, and that's the world of business, I guess. What about the Shoes of Prey concept – when did you have a feeling that you were onto a winner?

A lot of interesting learnings came out of that journey, which was also 10 years of my life. Pretty early on, we had an idea that this was a concept with really good potential. And I think that was a function of us talking to everyone around us about the idea and asking them, “Would you want to design your own shoes?”

And the overwhelming feedback was, “Yes, that would be amazing!”

Everyone's got this dream of being creative and having some kind of unique fashion item that they've designed and created for themselves to wear. So the response was kind of overwhelming from people that we spoke to.

"If you've got an idea, there’s probably 1,000 other people who've had the idea. Your success with that idea will come down to how well you execute on it."

And so then we ran a test. We setup a basic supply chain and worked with a manufacturing partner in China (just outside Hong Kong) who could produce shoes. And before we built a website or anything, we just used photographs of the different elements of the shoes. We presented that to our friends and said, “Hey, these are normally going to retail for $250. If we sell for half price and you can design using these images, would you want to do it?”

We emailed that out to 100 of our friends, and about 25 of them paid the money to design the shoes with us. We thought that was a pretty good response rate and an indication to us that it had potential.

What about things like minimum order quantities, if you're ordering through Asia – was that a challenge when you were trying to test whether this was a good idea? I can imagine some of them saying, “Yes, we’ll do it – if you produce 50 million units with us!”

Yeah, we had lots of funny, Lost in Translation conversations on that! We would explain the concept and they’d say, “Oh, yes, we can supply shoes. Minimum order quantity: 10,000.”

And we’re like, “No, we need to order one!

“Oh, you mean 1,000?”

“No, we mean literally one.”

We managed to find some little shoe stores in Hong Kong that did design your own shoes, so our initial manufacturing partner was one of them. It was a small operation, so we were never going to be able to scale with them. But they were happy to partner with us initially and would do one pair at a time. So that's how we started.

The Shoes of Prey journey had a bit of a public ending that was obviously not the outcome that you and your co-founders and the whole team wanted. What were the circumstances when you went from having an amazing business concept to, 10 years later, coming undone?

Basically, we initially did really well in this niche of women who were passionate about designing their own shoes. These were creative women who had a good sense of their own style and design, and they loved the concept. For the first time, they had the ability to design their own shoes. We also did well in some niches like wedding shoes, which is obviously a good market for personalization, as well as small / large and wide / narrow sizes, because we could produce efficiently one at a time; we could service those people who couldn’t normally buy shoes in their size.

"Early on, I think the most critical thing to do is customer research and determine your business model."

So we were doing well in these little niches, and getting really high net promoter scores because in those niches, the customers really, really loved the product. But we were never going to be able to scale in those niches. Then, we went out and did our market research to understand whether the mass market consumer would buy Shoes of Prey shoes.

We could see all these customers coming to our website – we literally had 10,000 customers coming to our website every day, but we had really low conversion rates. And so we started talking to all these customers who were coming and not buying.

What we realized is most of the women coming to our website weren't those niche customers: they were mass market fashion customers. When we talked to them, they said, “Yeah, look, I love the idea of designing my own shoes. That's why I'm coming your website to have a look and spending time on here.”

They told us there were three things that stopped them from buying:

1. “We want a simplified shoe design experience.”

Our initial shoe design experience was targeted to that really creative customer, so it was very freeform. The mass market consumer wanted to be guided through the process and have a simpler process.

2. “We want a shorter turnaround time.”

We had a five-week turnaround time on our shoes, which if you're organizing your wedding shoes, you're doing that more than five weeks in advance. If you’re small / large and wide / narrow sizes, you'll take anything – you don't mind if it's five weeks or more. But if you're a mass market fashion consumer, you're often thinking about a purchase and need delivery within two weeks.

3. “We want cheaper pricing.”

We were charging a 30% premium over the same quality shoes, and the mass market fashion consumer said, “I'm keen to do it, but I don't pay a premium.”

So we looked at those three things and we realized, well, we can execute on those three things – we're just going to need to go out and raise venture capital to do it because we’ll need to build our own shoe factory to get the lead times down and get more efficient to get the unit costs down. At the time we were just working with that little supplier outside of Hong Kong who had two shoe stores, so they weren't scaled up. This was about three years into the journey. And we'd done really well in that time just in those niches. We hadn't raised any venture capital – it was all self-funded, growing out of our own cashflow.

In addition to needing to build our own factory, we also needed to hire more software engineers to simplify the shoe design experience. From all the research we'd done, it revealed this big mass market fashion opportunity, and we needed to cross the chasm from these niche customers over to the mass market.

We spent the next five years executing on building our own shoe factory in China. Manufacturing shoes one at a time is a massive undertaking. So that took us a good five years to open, scale, run efficiently, and we brought the delivery time down from five weeks to, we averaged, 11 days in the last couple of years. And we brought the unit cost down so we could bring our retail prices down. And we built our software engineering team out to about 10 people and simplified the shoe design experience. That whole process took about five years.

The problem for us was we basically built the whole value proposition that the mass market fashion customer had asked for. And we realized it just wasn't resonating. Like, we grew sort of 3-4x over those five years. We grew to maybe $12 million/year in revenue, but we really needed to be at about $30 million/year revenue to breakeven because now we had all the fixed costs associated with the shoe factory and software engineers. So our breakeven point was about $30 million / year.

Based on our customer research, if the mass market customer had responded the way that our research said she would, we should have been at $100 million / year revenue. We were in Nordstrom stores in the US where you could design your own shoes right there, and we were in all the right places for the mass market customer.

Now that we’d built this value proposition, we could watch how our customer behaved on our website and in the Nordstrom stores. What we realized was … we got our research wrong. The mass market customer thinks she wants to customize. So if you ask her, consciously, she thinks she wants to customize shoes. I mean, who wouldn't love the idea of being creative and designing your own shoes? So you ask her, she'll tell you that's what she wants to do, because she thinks she does.

But deep down subconsciously, she doesn't want to do that – she doesn't really have the confidence to do it and she doesn't know if the shoes are going to look any good. Also, she doesn't really have the time to sit there and design the shoes. And so deep down subconsciously, she really just wants a fashion designer brand to tell her what's on trend and what to wear. She wants to see what's popular on Instagram and buy those exact shoes and that brand, which is kind of the antithesis of designing your own shoes.

What she consciously thought she wanted is the opposite to what she actually really wanted. And we had built our whole value proposition and business around the opposite of what she actually really wanted. That's what brought us down.

Was this research that you conducted every few months, or every year? Or was it something that you did comprehensively early on as a one-off and just ran with that assumption?

No, it was constant research. We were running surveys with all these people who were coming to our website and weren't buying. Nordstrom are the biggest retailer of women's shoes in the US, and they invested in the business because their research told them the same thing. We ran focus groups … we did everything. We watched how consumers behaved in different environments.

"What she consciously thought she wanted is the opposite to what she actually really wanted. And we had built our whole value proposition and business around the opposite of what she actually really wanted. That's what brought us down."

We did everything that I think we could have done, except the one thing we didn't do, because we couldn't, was actually watching how female fashion shoppers behave when designing their own shoes. And the reason we couldn't do that is no one had built this before – it didn't exist.

Only once we built the value proposition – and you could go to our website, use the simple design process, order at a good price point, and receive your shoes in 11 days – it was only once we built all of that, we could watch how the customer behaved on the site. And then she wasn't buying. Then we talked to her and delved into why she didn’t buy. That helped us to uncover that the research we’d done and what customers are telling us is actually different to what they really want.

Can you take us into the moment when you realized for the first time that Shoes of Prey and 10 years of your life was irrecoverable – that, no matter what you did, the dream for this particular business was all over?

That's a good, good question. It was probably more like ripping a band-aid off slowly, rather than a single moment, so it's kind of even more painful because of that. Yeah, I mean, it was gradual. As we gradually simplified our shoe design experience, our sales would rise, so the research wasn't completely wrong. But the sales weren't going up anywhere near as much as we'd expected. So we could see that we were making progress, but it just wasn’t the progress we wanted.

We sort of convinced ourselves that it needed all the pieces of the value proposition to work. And I still think that logic made sense – it was just the research was wrong. So even if we simplified the shoe design experience, if our delivery time was still four weeks, yeah, okay, we might get a bit of growth, but we wouldn't get the sort of scaled growth that we were looking for.

Over a few years, we weren’t growing as much as we needed to, but we were growing enough to keep pursuing it and to raise more through venture capital firms. Nordstrom was still on board with us through that.

It was only really when we delivered the whole value proposition and the revenue was less than half of where it needed to be. We were running out of cash in the bank, and we knew it was going to be hard to raise more. So we spoke with our investors and, yeah, it was clear we weren't going to be able to raise more money easily, or even at all in the end. So it wasn't a single moment or conversation, but more like ripping a band-aid off slowly.

Source: Smart Company

I feel like one of the most unsung elements of being an entrepreneur is the mental health battle, the daily roller-coaster that you and I have both seen with various businesses and projects that we've been involved in. How was your mental state at the time when it all started to unravel? Were you feeling down on yourself or on the brink of burnout?

It was definitely tough. I was living in LA. I had some friends over there that I'd made, obviously, but not the kind of friendship groups that you grew up with or family around. I was married, so I had my wife and did have some good friends there, but those kinds of things made it harder.

It was tough. This vision that we'd had … we'd had all this success early on, we'd raised AUD $35 million [USD $25 million] from investors, partnered with Nordstrom. All these exciting things had built up over time and then sort of gradually coming to the realization that this wasn't going to work out. It was hard, you know. There's not even really adjectives to describe it.

What helped me to get through it was reflecting on the fact that we were dealing with women’s shoes and investors’ money. These are important things, but it's not like we're dealing with life and death, you know? It's not like we were a medical company and people were dying because we were failing.

I spent a lot of time reflecting on having my health and my family. My first son was born during this challenging period, which was kind of a revelation that, “Okay, well, Shoes of Prey is going poorly at the moment and my career is in a bit of a shambles, but I've got a healthy son and this is a wonderful life experience.”

Puts it all into perspective?

Yes, exactly. I think that was kind of the big thing that helped me get through. Also, with the benefit of hindsight, I learned that as tough as things can be in the moment, you can get through those things and enjoy yourself on the other side.

Absolutely. And I think a lot of people, myself included, have really enjoyed the posts that you've written, just the reflections on the journey. It's so real. It's so raw. And I think it's really inspiring to people. So, I wanted to quickly bring up a quote that you wrote a year ago [March 2019] when you were reflecting on that Shoes of Prey journey:

“If I ever find myself in a position where I'm attempting to change consumer behavior, I will ensure I've peeled back the layers to truly understand the psychology of my target customer.”

Do you still stand by that? And how can aspiring entrepreneurs’ action that in a practical sense?

Yeah, I definitely still stand by that. And I mean, that just speaks to how we were trying to get consumers to change their behavior by designing shoes rather than ordering preexisting shoes. Our market research failed because we listened to what the customer consciously thought she wanted – and we didn't peel back the layers to understand the deep psychology of what she was thinking and what was driving her to buy shoes. Maybe if we had done that, we might have uncovered that while she said she wanted to design shoes, she didn't really want to. So yeah, I definitely still stand by that learning.

And I think there are two practical ways to deal with that. One is to actually do that deep psychological research if you are trying to change consumer behavior. I would definitely go deeper than we did with Shoes of Prey, if I was doing that again.

The other way to get around that is to not change consumer behavior, and that's the lesson that I've taken with Fable. For example, I've been vegetarian for four and a half years. I've tried to convert everyone around me to being vegetarian. I think I've convinced two people! I caught up with one of them the other day, and they're not vegetarian anymore. So I'm trying to change people to become vegetarian. Either I'm not good at it or it's hard to do. It's probably a bit of both.

I've realized that trying to convince people to eat hemp seed patties, falafel balls, and salad, most people don't want to do that because they still love the taste and texture of meat. The learning for me there is don't try to change their behavior and make them eat hemp seed patties and falafel balls, but give them ‘meat’ – something that has the taste and texture of meat, but just don't make it from animals.

"Our market research failed because we listened to what the customer consciously thought she wanted."

We’re not the only ones doing meat alternatives, and that's the kind of approach that the whole alternative protein industry is taking: don't try to convince people to change their behavior and not eat meat, but to give them meat, and just make it from something different. It means that in all of our product development, our big focus is on making sure that the product has the taste and texture of meat – that's the number one part of the value proposition. And once that's achieved, it means you don't have to change consumer behavior. They can eat the same way, cook the same way; all the dishes they've done before, but just doing it without animals.

With Shoes of Prey, you were out on a limb so much trying to do this yourselves. Do you feel more comfortable being in a massively growing industry? I mean, you’ve got as much research as you could possibly want to help underpin some of the decisions that you're making to remove some of the guesswork. Although it seems like experience has taught you that even when you have the research, there can be a lot more to the picture?

Definitely, I'm finding the experience much, much easier because of that. There's pros and cons, right? So it means there's other people doing meat alternatives, which I love from a mission perspective because I want to end industrial animal agriculture. If it’s Fable, great but if it’s other people, that’s amazing too.

But from a purely business perspective, putting aside the mission, it means we've got competitors in the space and consumers have a choice of different products. So that's the con of operating in a category that other people are operating in, but the pro is just like you described – there's other people doing it too, so we can learn from each other. I can actually go into the supermarket and watch how consumers shop the alternative protein section. Whereas with Shoes of Prey, there was no other website or nowhere else that you could design your own shoes, so I couldn't watch how consumers did it.

On the Shoes of Prey side, just to round off on that incredible chapter in your life, what was the biggest personal cost to you after 10 years – was it time, money, something else?

There was the financial side. I'd worked for 10 years at well below market salary, and put quite a bit of my own money into the business beforehand. So, I sort of ended that 10 years in my late 30s with not much money to my name, whereas if I'd stayed down the corporate path, I’d been in a different place financially, so that was a cost. Not a cost I would directly attribute to Shoes of Prey, but it was definitely a catalyst.

I was married to one of my co-founders, Jodie, in Shoes of Prey when we first started the business. We divorced partway through the Shoes of Prey journey. We stayed really good friends, stayed good business partners, and still to this day we chat nearly weekly. It wasn't because of Shoes of Prey – we just grew apart in our 20s. But Shoes of Prey was definitely a catalyst. Working and living with the person that you're starting a business with puts all sorts of strains and pressures on a relationship, so that was another big personal cost through it all.

I'd say those are probably the big two.

I feel like marriage has enough strain itself. I can't imagine throwing in the added complexities of raising tens of millions of dollars, moving countries, trying to figure out manufacturing, building an international team, second-guessing your market research, and signing deals with some of the biggest department stores in the world – it's a lot for your relationship.

But I guess it says a lot about the character of each of you when you still are able to maintain a very cordial relationship and both respect and support each other, even as your journeys forked.

Thank you. It was definitely a tough period. It was a mutual decision to separate which I think made it easier, because when it’s one-sided it’s so much harder for couples to stay on good terms. We both wanted to stay friends and actively wanted to keep working together because we were both wanting to make Shoes of Prey a success, so we really kind of did a lot of work to make sure that was okay. We said if we're going to separate, let's make sure the friendship remains and the business partnership remains, so I guess we just focused on that and we were able to achieve it.

After that, you went to Denmark for almost half a year of soul searching, and now you're living on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. After the grind that you had living in LA trying to get all this stuff done, ‘lifestyle’ became such a huge focus for you, as well as general health and well-being.

A few months ago, you wrote that 2019 was the best year of your life, which I bet you would not have expected if you had a crystal ball looking forward. What contributed to 2019 being the best year of your life?

Yeah, I totally wouldn't have expected it! I finished up with Shoes of Prey in the middle of 2018, so that first half of 2018 was pretty horrible – laying off 200 people, shutting down a factory, that kind of 10-year dream ending, telling investors that we can't get them their money back, let alone a return. So yeah, I would not have expected that to play out.

As you touched on, my wife's Danish so went over to Denmark for six months. We kind of had to do that because our second child was born. When I left Shoes of Prey, the visa was attached to Shoes of Prey, so I had 60 days to leave the country [the US]. My wife Katrine was about six months pregnant, nearing the point where you can’t fly anymore. Katrine was not Australian so we wouldn't have had health coverage in Australia to have the baby, so Denmark was the only place we could go to actually have the baby without having to fork out all the costs.

A whole new basket of stresses to add to the mix!

And with a one-and-a-half-year-old, as well! We went to Denmark, but it turned out really well. It was really nice to spend some time with Katrine’s family. For me, it was just a great period to have a reset – I didn't have any pressure to find a job or figure out what I was going to do next. I just knew, okay, there's six months, I can focus on being a dad and just do whatever I feel like doing.

I just ended up reading a lot of books. And because I've been vegetarian for four and a half years, I just ended up reading more about industrial animal agriculture. There were other areas that I was really passionate about and started exploring too like community living and some different areas like that. But I just ended up reading all these different areas that I was passionate about.

Then towards the end of the six months, I started thinking, “Well, there's two or three areas I'm deeply passionate about, is there a business model or something that I could do?” Well, actually, I didn't even want to start a new business. I was thinking that maybe I could work for someone else in in the meat alternative space because it’s a space that's been growing really quickly.

That six months allowed me to explore whatever I wanted to, wherever my intellectual curiosity took me. And I think that helped me to narrow in back to your very first question around finding what my passion was and where I might want to do something. As you touched on, we made the kind of lifestyle decisions. We came back to Australia to live on the Sunshine Coast. I grew up in Brisbane, which is where I know you and the rest of your family. And my extended family is all Brisbane / Sunshine Coast-based. So, with two young kids in tow, we wanted to be back near all of them: grandparents and aunties and uncles.

"That six months allowed me to explore whatever I wanted to, wherever my intellectual curiosity took me."

And it's a much cheaper cost of living on the Sunshine Coast than down in Sydney. We initially planned to go back to Sydney. But to rent a house in Sydney, it's like AUD $1,500 - $2,000 / week [or USD $960 - $1,300 / week] to rent a nice three-bedroom house. We sort of took that budget and looked at what we could get on the Sunshine Coast and we've ended up renting a house literally right on the beach. The beach is 100 meters to my left as I sit here – a little private walk track through the bush and we're on the beach. We’ve got a pool and a giant barbecue perfect for cooking plant-based meat.

Just the lifestyle here is amazing. It’s great being back around family, reconnecting with friends that we grew up with. It's a combination of now doing what I'm really deeply passionate about, the living environment, and then also just the family side – I'm just loving being a dad, and you're having the dad experience too. All that for me has just added up to 2019 being genuinely amazing, just deep personal satisfaction.

Yes, parenting is a wonderful journey. I've always wanted to have kids, but I just never understood the amount of meaning that it creates in your life. You just learn so much about the world from your kids.

In the media, you’re getting a lot of wonderful coverage with Fable, but how do you feel when the largest media outlets in the country still describe you as a ‘failed entrepreneur’ and part of a ‘collapsed company.’ Do you just try and ignore that, or does it motivate you to succeed?

Yeah, it's good, good question. I mean, it's a whole combination of feelings. Like it's definitely a hit to your ego and self-belief. And I think that also contributed to my initial thoughts when I came back to Australia to go work for another company because, literally, the thought of starting another business made me feel ill. My self-confidence was down.

I had a good understanding of why Shoes of Prey failed, but still felt like I'd messed some things up. In your head, we'd messed up that market research and didn't get those insights right, and I was like, “Well, okay, I cannot succeed in business so maybe I'm not made up to being an entrepreneur.” So, it's a mix of those feelings.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

On the flip side, spending the time to deeply reflect on the Shoes of Prey experience helped build my confidence again. We had done a lot of things really well, and if our market research had been right, it would be an amazing business today. I think we got close – we made lots of other mistakes too – but I think we got all the other pieces of the business mostly right. It was just that one insight that we didn't get right. So that sort of brought a bit of confidence back.

"Literally, the thought of starting another business made me feel ill."

Kicking off with Fable, I came back to Australia and wanted to work in the alternative protein space, but there were just no jobs. Everyone in the category was a startup, and there were no jobs in the category. So my decision was either going back to the corporate world or, since there are no jobs in what I’m really passionate about, having to start my own business again.

That's what kind of drove me back to starting a business. Initially, yeah, I really genuinely didn't want to do it. But then once I started, it felt good again being in those early stages. I went back and talked to all of the old Shoes of Prey investors. I had been talking to them all the time anyway, but to talk to them about the idea and they were excited about it. Their feedback was, “Michael, we’ll back you again. If you get this to a place where you're raising money and it could work, we'd love to look at it and back you again.”

When we raised funding in November, it was deeply satisfying to have both Blackbird Ventures and Grock Ventures [personal investment fund of Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes] because they were two large investors in Shoes of Prey and had lost all their money in Shoes of Prey. So that helped on the confidence side and I just found myself loving doing it again.

The media has now been supportive too. Media headlines are designed to drive clicks and advertising revenue. So a headline about Shoes of Prey’s collapse, that's a great sounding headline. That's the almost business industry gossip that people want to read, and I find myself drawn to those kinds of articles too. It's just an innate human psychology. That's the reason journalists want to write those kinds of headlines, and it doesn't change the emotional feeling from it, but at least you can have a logical reflection on it.

But you know, that's life, that's what the media is always going to do. There might be some truth to it, but it doesn't mean you have to buy into it. And it doesn't factor in the future as well.

Source: Business Insider

They’re only taking into consideration one aspect of the past and not factoring in all the assets like the investors you mentioned, and other people you know, and all the learnings you bring to the table.  

But at the same time, you've got that carrot of going back to the corporate world. I feel like a thing for people who have a professional Monday to Friday job, they don't realize how lucky they have it when they can just work five days a week, they can switch their phone off on weekends, they can have a six-figure salary without the stress that an entrepreneur faces when there is no off switch. And, like you said, from the moment you activate that new business idea, it is potentially seven days a week for an indeterminable amount of time.

One hundred percent.

Well, you've got Fable now which is just such an incredible story, obviously still very young in the journey. Can you let us know a bit about Fable: the product, the market, and what you're trying to achieve?

Once I had that realization that like, “Okay, if I want to go into this category, I’ve got to start something myself,” I started thinking through how I would want to do it – what kind of product I'd want to develop and how I'd want to enter the category. And I didn't want to compete head to head with the existing players in the market, like Beyond and Impossible who between them have raised nearly a billion US dollars. There’s plenty of good companies in Europe and some good ones in Australia, too. So I wanted to differentiate and find another gap in the market.

Most of those businesses are doing ground beef and burger patties. So, my first thought was, “Okay, there's plenty of other types of meat out there, or I should try to replicate something else?” And then secondly, “I'm a pretty healthy eater. I shop at my local farmers markets, do a lot of my own cooking, and try to eat a healthy, minimally-processed diet. Would it be possible to create a meat alternative that has really natural, healthy, whole food ingredients?”

It was those two insights that sort of led me to researching more in the space. I obviously don't have a food background so I just started talking to anyone in the food industry who would be willing to listen to me and answer my questions. And that kind of led to the thought of using mushrooms as a base ingredient for a meat alternative. So most meat alternatives are made from textured vegetable protein. It's a protein that is stripped out of a soybean or pea and then it's this high heat, high pressure process to turn it into a texture that's like a minced beef. And then you add different flavors and ingredients. And so most meat alternatives are made from textured vegetable protein.

So I was exploring whether you could make a meat alternative out of mushrooms. Mushrooms are really natural, healthy food that we should be eating more of. And they've kind of got a lot of the umami flavors of meat in them. It's just that the textures are not really meat-like for most mushrooms. So that's what led me to researching mushrooms.

I ended up meeting the two guys who are now my co-founders. Jim Fuller grew up in Texas and started his career as a chef. He grew up on all the slow-cooked meats like pork and braised beef. He worked as a chef for 10 years in Texas and wanted to understand the science behind what he was cooking. so he went and studied agricultural science and chemical engineering. And he majored in mycology in his agricultural science degree, which is mushroom science. Then, he's worked as a mushroom scientist in Australia for the last 12 years.

Talk about a niche!

Yeah, he's got this weird skillset of chef and mushroom scientist in one human being! I've never met anyone else with that combo. And then Chris McLoghlin, he's been in farming most of his career. He co-founded Australia's largest organic mushroom farm, and was also Young Farmer of the Year and Organic Farmer of the Year in Australia in 2018. So, Chris and Jim have got this deep technical expertise in mushrooms, whereas I sort of come at it from the business side of things.

Together, we've developed our first product that replicates those slow-cooked meats that Jim grew up on: pulled pork and braised beef. The value proposition that we focused on in developing a product was:

1. Taste and texture:
It's got to have the taste and texture of meat. It's got to cook like meat.

2. Price:
People are willing to pay a bit of a premium for meat alternatives at the moment, but not too much. And ultimately, if we want to end industrial animal agriculture, we want to produce products that taste as good as meat and are cheaper than meat. If you can do that, you can get even the most avid meat-eater buying meat alternatives rather than meat.

3. Plant-based and healthy:
Our product is two-thirds mushrooms, and the other ingredients are all natural, plant-based ingredients – nothing artificial. It's clean, minimally-processed, and has all the health benefits of shiitake mushrooms – which have been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years as a really healthy ingredient reinforced with a whole bunch of Western science speaking to its health benefits.

That’s the product we created. We launched in December last year in partnership with British chef Heston Blumenthal. We launched at Heston’s restaurant in Melbourne, and Heston is also using the product in The Fat Duck [named world’s best restaurant in 2005 and current three-star Michelin] in London and Perfectionists’ Cafe in London.

Wow. Incredible. Obviously, you've got a phenomenal team with your co-founders, but how did you establish your relationship with one of the most renowned chefs in the history of the world to help you launch this whole new business?

It kind of came from two angles. One, we designed the product for chefs to use. I mean, we designed it to be like a slow-cooked meat. Meat doesn't have a lot of base flavor; it’s what you do with it, the spices and sauces that you add, which turn it into a dish. It's like what makes meat go great with barbecue sauce and curries and Italian pastas, bolognese, ragu, lasagna … things like that. So we designed the product to be a good base ingredient for chefs to use.

We're fortunate that co-founder Jim had gotten to know Heston a couple of years ago in the mushroom world. Heston has been getting into the brain-gut connection and getting into all the health benefits of mushrooms. He and Jim had met through a Thai mushroom professor, at this Thai mushroom professor's son's wedding in Thailand. So they met at this wedding, got on like a house on fire because they both live and breathe food.

It was a real thrill for Jim actually, because Heston was the reason that Jim went and studied chemical engineering and agricultural science. Jim had been working as a chef for 10 years. He’d never met Heston, but was just inspired by him and his scientific understanding of cooking. That's what prompted him to go and study chemical engineering and agricultural science to understand the science behind what he was cooking.

And I think it was even that same trip where Heston and Jim went and visited some mushroom farms for a couple of days. Jim sort of took him around the places that he was working with in Thailand at the time. They established this deep personal connection and then once we developed the Fable products, we took it and showed Heston and he absolutely loved it. He couldn't believe it was made from mushrooms and was super keen to work with it. So that was a real thrill for us. And it's been an amazing reference for when we go and talk to other chefs.

You’ve obviously done a fantastic job raising money with Shoes of Prey and now with Fable. When entrepreneurs reach a point where they feel like they need external funding, how should they go about it, and should they be looking beyond just the money?

There's lots of other capital sources, but I can only really speak to raising money from venture capital firms. The thing that those firms are looking for, particularly in the early stages of a startup is that there is a billion-dollar market opportunity with your business. Market size is very important to them. If you're successful and build a big business, is the market big enough for you to reach a billion dollar plus valuation?

Product market fit with a broad segment of consumers is a big one, as well as the founding team and their background skillsets and drive to make this a success. Are there proof points that they're not going to quit so that you know they’re fully committed to this? Are they deeply passionate about it?

That's where the whole, doing something that you're personally deeply passionate about helps through the fundraising process as well. Those are the main things that they're looking for. And if you can present something to them that meets all of those criteria, they're going to be interested enough to invest.

What about these companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat that are attracting massive amounts of attention? How do you feel about them and the other players that are in the industry?

It's actually great for us. Going back to where we've differentiated, we're replicating a different type of meat to them, with our slow-cooked meat. We're complementary rather than directly competitive with those brands. We've just recently launched into Singapore, pre-COVID. We were starting to get into some restaurants in Singapore, and our distributor over there – who also sells Impossible Foods – was very optimistic. I think Singapore is the best market per capita for Impossible, so it represents a good opportunity for us, too.

Our distributor pitches restaurants by saying, “If Impossible is working well for you with the burgers, clearly you've got demand from consumers for a meat alternative. What about your slow-cooked meat dishes? You might want a meat alternative in there, and that is Fable.” So the sell is we're not competing head to head, and the fact that Impossible will already be in a restaurant makes the sell easier for us.

A second point difference is the customers who are looking for minimally processed foods and want a meat alternative, and we fit that bill nicely.

So it's great for us that those companies are succeeding on a business level. It's also great on a mission level, because they're helping the same customer as us to reduce their meat consumption. They've got all this money behind them to help educate those consumers about great meat alternatives and why they should try them.

And going back to that market research piece, they give me the ability to go into a supermarket or a restaurant and watch how consumers are behaving and shopping these products. I can see and learn firsthand and understand more about where Fable can fit in the market.

Every year it seems that there's more and more awareness around what healthy food is and educating consumers on how to read an ingredient list. For example, in the US, there are companies like LaCroix that make sparkling water. Everyone thinks, “Wow, this is amazing, it only contains natural flavors and no other ingredients!” And then you realize that not all-natural flavors are natural.

And I feel like Fables is in a strong position as time progresses and consumers naturally seek cleaner products and don’t want a whole laundry list of ingredients for something that's supposed to be an alternative to ‘100% beef.’

Exactly. We feel like we sit at hopefully what will be the apex of two really big trends. There’s the meat alternative trend, which is clearly very big. And then there's this whole, as you touched on, this health food trend, and mushrooms are an emerging trend because they’re this crazily healthy food.

In Western countries, we eat 2.3 kilograms, about five pounds, of mushrooms per person per year. In Asia, they eat 13.5 kilograms, about 30 pounds, of mushrooms per person per year. We should be eating a lot more mushrooms, so we see Fable as a way to help people reduce their meat consumption and replace that with mushrooms, which overall are much, much better for you.

Fable taco recipe | Source: Fable Food Co

What an incredible business. Well, what happens if heaven forbid, the stars don't align – could you ever go back to the corporate world after the taste of freedom and excitement?

As you touched on before, there are a lot of attractive benefits to working in the corporate world and only work nine to five with a consistent salary. I would never write it off completely.

When I was coming to the end of my time in Denmark, where I realized there were no jobs in Australia, I did a couple of interviews with recruiters who were looking at corporate jobs. And it was kind of a horrible time because I had this sick feeling no matter what I did – I had a sick feeling about starting another business, and a sick feeling talking to these recruiters about going into the corporate world. But the sick feeling was a little bit less on the entrepreneurial side, so that's where I kind of ended up.

I don't know … if this failed again, maybe it would be too much to try and start a third time. And maybe I would go back to the corporate world, but I don't think I'm particularly built for it. I hope if I ever go back into the corporate world, no one ever listens to this!

We’ll wipe all the data online before you start handing your resume out!


Check out the PODCAST or YOUTUBE version where Michael does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give his 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀


Final question. What's one thing you do to Win the Day?

Connecting with talented, interesting people who have good perspectives on the world. These are the people who are motivated, who have big visions, and are doing exciting things. Surrounding myself with people like that is just massive from an inspirational perspective and it helps in all sorts of different ways.

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I hope you found that interview as powerful as I did! There’s so many actionable steps that Michael spoke about and good lessons for all of us, especially in these uncertain times.

Connect with Michael fox on Twitter, Medium, and LinkedIn, and you can also learn more about Fable Food Co via their website and Instagram.

Remember to get out there and win the day!

Onwards and upwards always,
James Whittaker

Ready to win the day, every day? 

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