State of GORUCK – 2018
A Real Kind of Perfect
GORUCK is 10, I’m almost 40, the community has grown from nothing to a lot more than that, and my time with you all was, is, and will always be the best part of my job. Not GR1 or push-ups or boots or financials, it always comes back to the people — who we are, what we do together. Our way of life.
The best moments are always shared and Emily is my rock and my best friend throughout all of this and I have a story to share before we dig in.
Iceland is that place to visit these days, just ask the Like counters and the bloggers of beauty. Rent a big tough Land Rover and drive around and take tons of pictures of an exotic land that will make your friends jealous because you’re rough and rugged and they’re missing out. More practically for us, we had a stopover after a wedding in London and no kids and thought, why not — it does look pretty cool and we’ve never been.
So, 36 hours in Iceland and we got all the promised shots and then some. Scrolling through them now, I’m even nostalgic for that trip, somehow. My favorite perfect picture from there is above and it’s an all time favorite memory but let me tell you a little more before you start booking your flights.
From the airplane, the capital Reykjavik looked like a settlement on a wet moon and if I were a climatologist I’d investigate a new species of wind and rain, working name genus Icelandic. Somehow the laws of water are different there and it can rain at any temperature below freezing if the Viking Gods so desire. And they do. Dinner in town was $200 and we left hungry and sober — though it was delicious, so there’s that. Beers at any bar started at $15 but at some point, you’re only there for 36 hours so whatever. We went back to the hotel and I looped Sigur Ros’ Icelandic chant music off my phone and beds are warmer with two than one, especially when they’re European small, so there’s that, too. But the city wasn’t Icelandic enough so we headed out of town on the Golden Circle drive in the morning. There are three main attractions, you drive to each and you park and you head for the gift shop to look at $60 T-shirts and $500 Icelandic sweaters while you warm up. Then you buy a $10 hot chocolate because you’re still freezing and pretty soon you have to venture back outside and speed walk toward the Falls, that postcard full of smiles and rugged warmth that lured you into this whole trip.
So then we’re there and we finally look around and my first thought was OK we’ve seen it now let’s go back to the car. But it is beautiful and rugged and people will get a kick out of seeing us there, so why not. I took my right glove off and felt frostbite smiling all around so let’s make it quick. It’s impossible to have any kind of conversation through the genus Icelandic so I pull em in tight and we assume the selfie position. And then the Viking Gods smile on us and good for them they almost blew us over. I dropped my phone out of my extended hand and my body began a descent but I caught my fall with my other hand so I’m in the modified bear crawl position with my phone in the dirt way over wherever. Genus Icelandic continued its swirl and em and I lunged toward each other and we linked arms and I looked at her and she looked right back and me and we started laughing as hard as humans can, doubled over in hysteria. I picked up my phone real quick with both hands and it’s not broken so there’s that, too. We’re no quitters so I squeezed her even tighter and we squatted together just a little deeper and leaned into the genus Icelandic and I gripped my phone with all I could muster from my first hand that I can’t feel anymore and we’re still dying laughing at how miserable this is, a vacation we thought. The joke’s on us so we might as well laugh till we cry about it. The tears are freezing in our eyes and I snap a few shots with the love of my life, the girl I fell in love with at age fifteen and we’re in love in this miserable genus Icelandic all these decades later and it can be zero and raining and it doesn’t matter, not one bit. It’s one of my favorite memories, ever, a real kind of perfect.
If you can smile through misery then look around and know that the people sharing those moments with you are the people you love most in this life. Count your blessings and never let them go and plan more adventures with them, come what may. We have to earn the best moments in life and then we have to keep earning them — it took me a long time to learn that. And it took em and I a lifetime to get to that real kind of perfect moment. To be in love, to share misery with frozen tears in genus Icelandic wind, and to come back to sunshiney Florida all the stronger for it, together. Life’s a tough place, you can’t practice easy and hope you’re ready. You have to practice hard, and the more of that you share with someone else, the stronger you’ll be for the rest of your lives.
That’s the life we choose, and it’s that way of life that GORUCK and our community represent. Push a little harder, do a little more, and embrace the suck because you might as well love the only life you have instead of searching for someone else’s perfectly perfect life that doesn’t and will never exist.
And then we’re back to the real part of reality and the man still needs his rent check, and pictures of your perfect life so-called won’t do as payment. So the business part of GORUCK drives on. I’ll start with the numbers and then dive into what’s driving them and where we’re going.
|Year||Participants||# of Events||Total Revenue||Growth|
We got back to a stronger growth curve in 2017 despite events growth basically flatlining (more on that later). We doubled down on rucksacks and rucking and apparel and on community building. And marketing-wise, our story and the way we prove our commitment to the Special Forces way of life differentiates us from any other company out there, so we’ve doubled down on that. Toughness, Excellence, Adaptability are the Special Forces lens we see the world through and if something, or someone, has those characteristics, we’ll pursue it. If it doesn’t, we won’t.
In a world where so many things are possible, focus stands out and we’ve had to fight to get there, to find it for ourselves. If you were pressed to answer, what would you say we’re known for to the people that don’t really know us? (And if you’re reading this, you’re not in that class, best guess). Tough Rucksacks/Backpacks and a crazy Special Forces event, maybe? That would be my guess. I can live with that, by the way, it’s a great foundation.
There has been a lot more planning, a lot more analysis, and a more specific vision for how we’re going to keep growing. We got a $2MM loan through the Small Business Administration in 2017 and poured it into a lot of inventory last year and into this year. It’s no secret that having more stuff helps you sell more stuff, and growth followed. But for other reasons mostly rising costs, 2017 was a ~break even year for us, despite the increase in revenue. With no outside investors, we have to grow on retained earnings, so that was a problem we had to consider into 2018. This year, as of mid September, we’re up about ~30% in sales over 2017, and have corrected some of the problems in terms of earnings, which fuel future growth. Everything we’re doing is an investment in growing our community, and in building out a product lineup that will be integral to GORUCK’s growth till forever.
Our efficiency measures are good and have been good for a while, labor as a % of revenue, stuff like that. Champagne parties aren’t really our thing, but other costs have risen over the years. And I don’t just mean the cost of labor in America, I mean the cost of doing business at a standard called excellence. Here’s how that works. The world goes round and consumers get used to a certain kind of service. Shipping is supposed to be free because Amazon (who doesn’t make money btw, but that’s their business model while they can get the world to fund their growth) has everyone trained. Everyone should be able to track an order 24/7, nothing should ever break, at the prices we charge there should never be any kind of imperfection, and we should have full inventory options, all the time. Customer service should be online 24/7 with response times of under 30 seconds and you get the point. That’s the world we live in, it’s our job to adapt. And that costs money. We have a staff of ~30 and a lot of tradeoffs are between automation (back end software) and people, to determine how to provide the best service at the lowest cost. It’s always a tradeoff. Here’s a mostly complete list of all the systems we utilize internally at GORUCK, just to provide a little perspective:
- Google G Suite – Email/Docs/Drive
- Slack – Office chat
- Basecamp – Project management & to-dos
- Event Manager – Custom event planning (two years of development)
- BigCommerce – Website/shopping cart
- Newgistics – 3PL/fulfillment
- Inventory Management System – BigCommerce meets Newgistics with a custom OMS in between
- Mailchimp – Email
- Zendesk – Customer service & Scars tickets
- WordPress – News blog & Java Forever (The GORUCK Foundation)
- Narvar – order tracking software
- MS Office – Excel/Word/PPT licenses
- Braintree – Payment processor
- ADP – payroll
- Signifyd – fraud prevention
- Paypal – Email payments
- Amazon AWS – Web servers
- Microsoft Visualstudio for development
- Dropbox – Some MS docs & externally shared files
- Survey Monkey/TypeForm – surveys
- CrashPlan Pro/Google Drive – data backups
- BazaarVoice – Ratings, reviews and curated social content
- HotJar – Heatmaps
- Paperform – New Scars form (and other webforms–Custom, Corporate, Ruck Club)
- DocuSign (save the trees)
- Wistia – Video library and hosting
- Ad stuff (FB, Google Adwords/Analytics, DataStudio, AdHawk, Zapier, Quantcast)
- Linkshare/HasOffers – Affiliate tracking
- Social stuff – FB, IG, Twitter, Bit.ly, YouTube, Vimeo
- All the Adobe apps for creative stuff – Photoshop, Premiere, etc.
And I’m pretty sure the list goes on, and will evolve next month or next week or next quarter. Point is, there are a lot of moving parts, none of which is free, all of them are designed to help us serve you better and to free us up to spend resources on growth, which software unto itself doesn’t do. There always has to be someone, and something behind the tools to drive growth.
The biggest new thing for us in 2018 was the emergence of GORUCK footwear, the MACV-1. And that rounds out what we internally refer to as the four wheels on the GORUCK Truck of revenue opportunities: Rucksacks, Apparel, Footwear, and Events.
What is the role of each, why are we in these various categories, why don’t we just focus on one, or maybe two? How costly have new ventures been, have they been the problem in terms of earnings? What will GORUCK look like in five years, or ten? I’ve seen a lot of these questions posted, and they’re worth addressing, so I will, with plenty of other stuff woven in.
Our roots define us and by that I mean that we’re defined out of the gates by GR1 and our other rucksacks, at least on the product front. No matter what Levi’s does, they’re always the 501 brand, Coca-Cola is the Coca-Cola brand no matter how great their distribution or product lineup, Anheuser Busch is Budweiser and the list goes on. That’s OK, and great in fact. Owning the benchmark in any industry is a growth driver, and even as the universe of competitors expands, when you have the benchmark they’re by nature reactionary. This is why we see plenty of competition trying to benchmark themselves off GR1. And internally, which is more important to us, GR1 represents the DNA for our products. They have to work in the universe GR1 has created, for us. If you’re off brand with something new, it won’t sell very well. If it’s too far out in left field, you’ll have to work really hard to convince people that you know what you’re doing, and that there’s a real purpose to it.
More rucks, more colors, more selection. We can definitely make that happen, and limited runs of colors are the easiest part of that, but the incubation period for us on brand new rucks, with a small R&D team, is years. With more cash, we could speed some of that up, but not by much if you want great product. It simply takes time to make sure we still like something a year later.
To be clear, rucksacks are the overwhelming majority of our revenue. The events have been our best marketing effort to date, and same with every other company — getting new people into the fold remains the biggest challenge with the biggest reward. As the events have not kept pace, growth-wise, despite a lot of effort and diversity of the events, it’s put more pressure on new product to help drive growth. The good news is that it has.
To me, a product is something to be used and abused, not stared at behind glass or fawned over for having the right hue in the right season. I get it that we started out with rucksacks, but that’s just where we happened to start. It could have been anywhere else, I think we got lucky all things considered because it was easier to differentiate ourselves in that market than in others. Rucking vs. non-rucking is a pretty big and philosophical divide that I did not consciously have in mind when GR1 was not even a napkin sketch.
But it did come naturally to me given the role of rucking in Special Forces and the type of gear we had there.
So, R&D. We used to have a larger R&D center in Montana, but it was basically only gear related. Apparel was not part of it, footwear was definitely not part of it. We came up with all sorts of products that we liked, but they were not as relevant to the brand (shoulder bags, firearms gear, duffel bags) and they were hard to market or even focus on, so we were spinning our wheels a bit. And that burns a lot of gas. Since that time, Spencer and Jodi in Montana have continued designing gear for us (like GR3 and a few more rucks you’ll see in the coming years) and they’ve helped liaise our quality control systems and processes at the vendor level. Our Scars Workshop in Jax Beach would not exist without them. They trained up our team and continue to duplicate quality control efforts with us, on new and existing products. And when you hear duplicate you might think that’s wasteful. I view it as the kind of security you should not live without.
At the apparel level, we’ve moved to doing all R&D work directly with Joe’s team in Spokane, Washington. Direct apparel R&D costs are zero, it’s just a time issue on our end. When samples are approved, then they go into production and of course Joe makes his margins off of that production. It’s a lot different (and leaner) process than having an entire R&D center. I’ve worked both ways and I’ve found this way to be a lot simpler, and I love that about it.
Footwear was similar. Direct R&D costs were the cost of our travel, twice, to Vietnam. Not free, but we didn’t have to set up any sort of center or really capital intensive anything. We worked directly with the factory, and went back and forth for years until MACV-1 was ready. Paul Litchfield cashed in a lot of favors he’s earned over the course of his career, and that kept our costs at GORUCK really low. Some of the molds cost thousands of dollars, but we’ve amortized them over 30,000 units of footwear, which works well for our cash flow.
The point of all this being, costs have not soared at GORUCK because we’ve gotten into new products. At a macro level, having GR1 is a blessing, but the thing is this. We have no intention of re-designing GR1 every year just so it’s something new. Even though that might sell more of them, I guess. My reference point on that is any other company with a seasonal launch, or a something new every season, just because it’s a new season. I believe da Vinci’s sentiment that great art is never finished, it’s only abandoned. However, I don’t think that’s the sentiment of the machine selling you a new backpack every year. Their top line and their machine depends on churn, the planned obsolescence of OK gear at OK prices, most of which end up in a landfill or the back of your closet, destined to a life of neglect until you die and your kids have to deal with all of your too much stuff. That’s simply not our MO, and I don’t want to be part of that kind of a machine.
Sure, GR1 has new colors and we’ve changed a pattern piece or two here and there over the years, but GR1 is GR1. The goal of any changes has always been that we want to be able to better manufacture, at scale, the highest quality rucksack we possibly can. Claims that the first GR1’s off the line in 2010 were tougher, or better, are patently false. The first factory we ever worked with was the worst factory we ever worked with (though I have lots of that era’s rucks that are still going very strong), and we have never, not once downgraded our quality standards. In fact, the opposite. In that process, we’ve left a lot of various factories for other, better ones. Sure, occasionally shit happens on the sewing line and something doesn’t go perfectly all the time, but that’s why everything comes with our Scars Lifetime Guarantee. It’s a helluva thing to spend four hours on a single GR1 and know that a millimeter or two off at any point can lead to failure. But that’s the business we’re in, and we have nowhere to hide. Every weekend we’re running some of the most stressful events in the world, on gear and person alike, and we offer a lifetime guarantee. Nobody systematically abuses their own gear like we do, and it doesn’t get much more out in the open than that.
Now let’s deal with the Price Increase.
So, GR1 debuted in 2010, after two and a half years of R&D work, at $295. It stayed that same price until September of 2018. We gave over two weeks notice this August to everyone via social media and newsletter, any way we could. Two parts to that: we wanted to stay true to our core value of transparency, and we wanted to pull some of the revenue forward. Both worked. The community reaction was not surprising. People bought a lot of our stuff at the soon to be old price, and a lot of outrage poured in over that anonymizing beast known as social media. The most off base statement made, which I saw with some frequency, was that GORUCK is already printing money and this is a further push toward profits over people. To that I would say GORUCK has never printed money and revenue is a lot different than profit. My goal is to grow, and to do that every dollar possible has been poured back into the company, since forever. My personal salary has averaged ~$45K/year over the last decade, though it’s muddied a little officially because GORUCK’s tax returns are the same thing as my personal tax returns, so I’m talking take home pay, unofficially. Em and I both are personally liable for over $2MM in debt, and I have ~$10K in my so-called savings account and em and I have one car — the GORUCK Truck that I bought in 2010 that I hope to God lives forever. The kids have taken it over, and they love it, too. I bike to work every day, and drop off Ryan along the way, so that’s our other “car.” I’m not sure if that’s what you would expect of a CEO on paper that is running a company that will do ~$20MM this year, but that’s the reality. I have zero regrets about any of that, by the way, and I’ve had to ease into writing company checks for big opportunities because that’s not how I grew up. I’m not afraid to take calculated risks, I’ve just had to learn to accept that sometimes those have dollars and not blood attached. But look, this isn’t some poverty analysis and it’s definitely not some woe is me. The value of GORUCK goes up every year, which some year not now and not close to now might really matter to someone. I bring all this up because I think it’s important to talk about the other side of what it takes to be an entrepreneur, to risk everything of monetary value as the only real monetary value you’re creating lies with the company. America was built on this sort of Western expansion mentality, and our way of life depends on it. I’m fine with the knowledge that this could all go away tomorrow, like anything else in the world. Should that day come, we’ll be just fine. Rebuilding something special is also good for the soul.
It’s OK, you can smile now. 🙂
Point is this. This idea that GORUCK is on a new business model because the price of GR1 went up $100, well, I don’t see it that way. GR1 was always expensive, it’s a little more expensive now because costs have gone up, and we would rather see you than ship to you. Our events remain the biggest steal at GORUCK because they’re the only best way into the community. If GORUCK Events were its own thing, they would cost a lot, lot more. So sure, at some point you’ll probably want to invest in the best rucksack for rucking if you get into it and that’ll be a GORUCK, but one rucksack with a lifetime guarantee that costs $275 like the Rucker or $395 like GR1, well, if you save up you can afford it and it’s worth it as long as you plan on putting it to good use.
With other people, and people remain our focus.
Let’s talk about Apparel
Joe Doohan out in Spokane Washington is one of my all-time favorite people – pictured after his Challenge and after we beat his sons in a game of darts, where you and a teammate toss darts at the other team’s unopened beers on the ground. If you hit theirs, they drink. When they don’t, drink your other beer at your own pace. I look forward to visiting him and his family, to his calls, to working on new product with him and his team, and I really trust his judgment. He’s been at this apparel game his whole life, same as his dad (RIP), and he has a lot of experience our team leans on heavily. I view him and his team as true partners.
Part of the reason we got into apparel was, sure, here’s a growth opportunity and it’s completely different than rucksacks (where we were struggling to find new ideas that made sense) and we can figure it out. But more than all that, we enjoy the full process, behind the scenes, of coming out with product that suits our way of life. Sketching and prototyping and testing and building and proving and then scaling, it’s in our DNA. Less is more, more is lazy — that’s our design philosophy and form equals function. Added benefits of building our own apparel include not having to do photo shoots for our rucksacks with big logos from other companies, and building tougher, simpler apparel that works for us and that we’re proud to build. In terms of numbers, this part of the business will do ~$2MM in revenue in 2018, and we’re really high on the prospects. We’re the only ones out there doing a line of performance apparel in America (that even remotely works for our way of life) and we plan on doubling down on that part of the story.
And here’s a funny anecdote. I don’t actually hate cotton, my bath towels and sheets are both made out of it. But for performance apparel, cotton is rotten and our apparel is all proudly 0% cotton. I’ve gotten more than one note about how some GRT’s work in the cotton industry and would I please stop saying cotton’s rotten. The issue is that cotton is rotten for performance apparel — it takes on water and doesn’t dry, and that’s the opposite of what you want. If you plan on sweating, don’t wear a cotton t-shirt. If you plan on doing work, you want performance apparel period the end, and that’s proudly 0% cotton. It’s a busy world, and focusing on what makes you different and unique works a lot better than being all things to all people. All that said, if you work in the cotton industry, beers on Monster if you show up at Scars. I owe you for helping me sleep really well at night.
This 2018 we finally debuted women’s apparel. I won’t say it was a full launch because we expect to ease into the women’s market. To date, a company founded by an SF guy, with all events led by SF guys, can come across as very masculine. I’m cool with that, but prefer the word ‘Tough’ to masculine, as it applies to a way of life all of us can aspire to lead, a way we all can be. Speaking to women requires more women speaking to women, about things women care about. Emily is poised to play a much larger role on the female side of the house, and I think it would be cool to see her do something akin to this State of GORUCK from her perspective, sometime in the future.
This was the biggest launch for us in 2018. Without Paul Litchfield, this is not a reality and it goes back to that same idea that we have really stringent usage cases for our gear and apparel and now footwear. That’s a designer’s paradise in terms of how to build something instead of just trying to sell something quote-quote cool. So let me explain what we’re not, first. When you go to some big box place looking for a pair of running shoes and they’re all the same but different, and there are 500 of them, and they’re lime green and fuscia and look like someone spray-painted a skunk that got run over and then threw 50 magenta logos on top, here’s how that happens. Marketing departments the world over are separated from the R&D process and they have to validate their own existence so they want things that “pop”, that “stand out”, that “differentiate” their product from the rest. The outcome is what you see on the wall, and it’s horrific. Everything used to be simple, now that’s “classic” or “throwback” but simple never goes out of style, it’s like JFK. What they’re chasing these days is the right haircut in the right season, and that always goes out of style. I think that’s their point, too. In and out of style means you have to buy more stuff. There’s not enough focus on the fundamentals, there’s only focus on how to get noticed to sell more.
GORUCK’s MACV-1 took us over four years to make them as simple as possible, to remove everything not required. The design process reminded me time and time again of what it was like with GR1. And by the end, when Rich said every Special Forces guy should wear these boots, I knew we had a winner. Paul and I are kindred spirits working and designing and testing stuff together, he knows how to scale product, and it’ll be a lot more fun when he’s able to make the leap and start spending a lot more time with our team on new product. Which will also include Rich, who’s moving to Jax Beach full time after the hurricane season in North Carolina comes to an end. Rich and Paul and Joe are all on the GORUCK Board of Advisors, and we’re all united on the product front by a desire to launch fewer, better things and then spend a lot of time explaining why they’re worthy of the GORUCK brand.
Scars Lifetime Guarantee
Last year we consolidated Scars in Jax Beach, and it’s been one of the best decisions to date. We hear the sewing machines all day, it’s a great reminder that we’re in a business that builds real things. And that those real things belong to real people who paid a lot of money to get them. Just like Events are a conversation, an interaction in the real world, Scars has a similar feel. Of course you have to ship your stuff to us, but then it’s a conversation about your gear. We love hearing what you do with it, how you use and abuse it, what your feedback is. Scars is a lot more personal than a review on a product page, though we enjoy those, too. It’s high touch and we like it that way. Doubling down on Scars gives us a lot more opportunity to have these conversations with you, with no distractions or filters. Just us and you. Many other companies out there put lipstick on the pig pretty well but the most common practice is to sell OK gear at OK prices, and in that universe any guarantee is a marketing decision alone. Send back your broken cheap stuff and we’ll send you replacement cheap stuff — that’s not for us. We want to build something right the first time, force ourselves to do that as a matter of policy and by giving ourselves nowhere to hide, and then we want you to hold us to it. Premium gear at premium prices means premium service.
Looking back the past five years, Events are where my heart is and yet, as if Shakespearean, they remain the biggest enigma. Their importance has increased to the brand as their numbers have not maintained any growth, participation wise. This is very much against my wishes, and the expenditure of both my time and our team’s. We really prioritized a few years back keeping the participation numbers in our events up, and growing. Spent a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of bandwidth. We’d advertise events and sell more GR1’s. Talk about events, sell more apparel worn at events. At some point, it is what it is and you have to let it breathe for a minute, which meant we had to focus on how to sell our gear and apparel better. Throughout that process, events has become highly operationally efficient. We scale ~900 events/year all over the world, all of them led by a Special Forces guy, and the team makes it look easy.
Adapt or die and I guess we as a company could just double down on manufacturing and scale down events and make bigger stories out of them (like Selection) to spread the story on media, but that goes against the very spirit of who we are. Our goal is to strengthen local communities, get people more active, build bridges between the military and civilian worlds. Doing that from some tower or some HQ simply doesn’t work how we want it to work. So sure, we can and are prioritizing more media coverage, and Selection is a good example. But we believe in the grassroots model because it’s the Special Forces model of working by, with, and through local partners. That’s in our DNA and we’re following the playbook to a T through events that strengthen local Ruck Clubs, and even help inspire new Ruck Clubs, all over the world.
So what about events moving forward? We’ve done a lot of different kinds of events over the years. The Challenge remains our anchor and represents the majority of events we lead. Call it ~600/year. We’re moving more toward a campaign model for the Challenge in 2019, where the events are themed with something either historical or military, which has worked best in terms of sign-ups. This forces, as a process, events and marketing to sync up, internally. To date, Events has mostly operated on its own island. That’s changing and the campaign model helps. When everything is “just” a standard Tough, it’s less evolution for the Cadre and for the Events as a whole. Note that this is basically the opposite model of GR1, which is intentionally not changing (unless human anatomy all of a sudden changes dramatically, don’t hold your breath) because it doesn’t need to change. GR1 is perfect for carrying weight on a human back. Events operate in the human terrain and just like us, have to evolve. Here’s what we’re looking at for 2019:
2019 GORUCK Challenge Campaigns
Jan/Feb – Battle of the Bulge
March – Operation Anaconda
April – Bataan Memorial
May – Battle of Baghdad, Memorial Day
June – D-Day, Battle of Ramadi
July – Revolutionary War, Operation Red Wings
August – Extortion 17, Vietnam War
September – 9/11, Horse Soldiers
October – Mog Mile, Battle of Fallujah
November – Veterans Day
December – TBD (Iwo Jima?)
There are plenty of other Challenges we’ll continue to run outside of these larger campaigns: Bragg Heavy, Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, FL (our nation’s first city), Battle of the Alamo in San Antonio, JFK in Dallas, and a lot of other historical and memorial events that happen in a specific place.
The next step for us is to revisit how we communicate the value of the events, what makes us different, stuff like that. When 100% of your participants sign up online, it matters greatly. In essence, it’s time for a “new website” for Events, which is basically new words and new pictures with an updated message. To do that well, though, it takes time. Expect to see it early 2019.
The campaign model is an evolution in terms of how the events are run by the Cadre, with more focus on the story, or the theme, and that requires some explanation as well. The first Challenges were guided tours of a city with a lot of physicality and some lessons on teamwork, paid for in pain, who is a great teacher. But they’ve evolved to become a lot more mental and not less physical, with leadership thrown in and some historical context. The challenge (little c) for us is to keep the events balanced between meaningful and physically demanding. Mog Mile is a good example of one that has struck a good balance, as we want to make sure what happened in Somalia, that the sacrifices in 1993 are never forgotten. To do that, you need to remember. And you’ll definitely remember any Mog Mile event you show up for.
Hypothetically, if the Challenge became twice as physically demanding, but also twice as meaningful, I’d be cool with that, though sometimes the two are at odds because you only have so much time. My goal as a Cadre is to push the team as far as possible but never beat them down just to beat them down. Everything has to have a purpose and a takeaway to daily life. The human terrain is the most nuanced of all, and navigating it is not easy. As a Cadre you have to scale up to push the class without breaking it, you have to ensure that a team is built. It’s a process that you can’t always solve with just more push-ups. There has to be a why, sometimes you have to back off a little, then throttle a little more. Then empower the class to fail before it succeeds. This isn’t bootcamp, the participants are paying for this. Mindless walking with no purpose is not the goal, nor is a beatdown to satisfy the pure masochists. Meaning and mentorship and challenging people to be great is the magic sauce. We have the Cadre and the team who are already doing this, who are doing it well, and they’re highly committed to the cause of Building Better Americans, to giving back on the home front lessons learned the hard way. I believe we Cadre can can do it even better more consistently with more support and within a context of the various themed events.
In terms of marketing and pricing, this past year 2018 we reduced the price of the GORUCK Light, and have seen those numbers go up significantly, relative to the rest. I don’t expect to see too much change on pricing this coming year, though discounting seems to be more of a thing to do in the events world, so maybe we’ll run more flash discounts. You can imagine something about 25% off the price but don’t worry your Cadre will make sure you earn the full value of your event — and show a pic of an enormous log or something. Or, maybe that’s too insider, you tell me. Ads aren’t really my thing, I’m more inclined than ever to get back to our roots on that front and just tell people this is really gonna suck and then deliver on that promise. It seems to be the easiest one for us to keep, and that matters.
The other event series we’re looking to scale is the Star Course. This year saw the introduction of the 50 Miler. Next year we’re integrating a 26.2 and a 12 Miler, too. I can already hear someone talking about how we’re watering it down, the Star Course is getting easier mumbo jumbo. Yeah, you’ll be right. And if you complete the 50 Miler your patch will say 50 Miler and if you complete the 12 Miler your patch will say 12 Miler. I loved the 50 Miler in DC, but probably don’t want to do one of those every weekend. A 12 Miler or even a 26.2 and I’ll happily jump in with a team, anywhere anytime if I’m there. Sometimes, some years not everyone wants to make the commitment to train for the all time hardest event in any category, which is why only ~94 people are signed up for GORUCK Selection 2018. Important to us, though, is to offer various options that we want to participate in, that bring active people together. If a 12 Miler serves that purpose, and we can get millions of people to participate (pipe dream at those numbers in 2019 but you get the point), what’s the downside? More people becoming more active in a very sustainable way, called rucking. And we happen to be the company at the front of the rucking revolution, so our job is to empower its growth, one mile or sometimes 12 miles at a time.
The other side is that philosophically, if we can get the Star Course to become the intro to GORUCK Events and to rucking, the intro to the universe and the community of GORUCK, it would serve as a great funnel for people to show up to a Challenge better prepared. After all, the better you are at rucking the better you’ll do at your Challenge, and the harder we can push you as Cadre. I think that’s what you all want, that’s why you sign up, right? To be pushed. Well, that and because the people are great, I get it.
Other events outside the Challenge and the Star Course — and Firearms Training, which continues to see large scale organic growth — are drawing down more from their current state. Expect a few big ones to happen, though, in Jax Beach out of our Scars Workshop. Constellation and the Survival events, etc. — they’re not going away, but won’t be everywhere, either. Expeditions are scaling back, with the goal to run a few big ones in 2020 (Hawaii, Alaska, Colorado) to correspond with some gear that will work well in those environments. Bridging Gear and Events and Marketing with your participation as part of the story is the new frontier for us, and we’re working toward it.
In terms of events not on our website, an important note is that custom events are always an option. Our playbook is really large and we work for you and not the other way around. If you really want to do something, a themed Challenge (or dare I say, no theme just embrace the suck), Constellation, a Heavy crammed into a Tough (Tougher?), just name it. Almost anything is possible and we have a team internally who handles that, and we run about ~100 custom event/year. We can turn your vision into a reality if you can rally the troops.
In terms of revenue and such, Events is not a money maker for us, but we don’t lose money on a per event basis, either. How to assign overhead and such is a question for the accountants, and it is what it is. But make no mistake, the GRT’s and all our participants are the lifeblood of GORUCK because you’re the anchors in the community. We’re impressed to see how many really active Ruck Clubs are out there, and we want to empower more. In terms of not making money on Events, the good news remains that because we take cash today for a future service, it does not hurt cash flow and in fact helps it. If we ever really need cash, an Events sale is one lever we can pull, and it’s a nice lever to have. But cash is not my first goal, participation is. I believe we can do better, and help you attract more of your friends, we just have to really go back to the drawing board on how we’re presenting them for broader consumption — there are more people out there who should be GRT’s, they just don’t know about us, yet. If we had to bet everything on Events in 2019, what would we do? What would it look like on our site, how we advertise, how we get more people to sign up? Because GORUCK has other stuff going on, these questions have not been asked, or answered, for a long time. It’s time to revisit them anew.
Short answer, though, I would expect that we’ll grow the Challenge significantly again and have as high or higher quality scores (4.9/5 isn’t bad, though) on our events feedback, in 2019. The number of events is remaining the same, the focus is getting sharper. And our reach as a brand is extending, every year. It’s a good recipe for growth.
There’s no doubt it’s growing — more adopters, more miles, more Ruck Clubs. Our goal is to support this with more science and more of the how to’s. Rucking is not yet mainstream, even in the military they don’t really teach you how to do it, properly anyway. It’s an art passed down from rucker to rucker, mostly in the Special Forces and Infantry worlds. Behind the scenes, we’re inching away at greater explanations and how to’s that will apply to any and everyone out there, but it’s not going as fast as we’d like to publish what we’ve been doing. I’m over halfway through a book, with stories from Cadre Dan and Rich integrated as to the role of rucking as the foundation of Special Forces training – this is more aspirational, and more of a standalone project. The how to stuff (A Rucking White Paper with photos/videos as explanation) is a little different, and we plan to publish it in ~polished form on our website. We’ve met with doctors to discuss the case for rucking, with verdicts coming in, on record, that it’s the ideal form of fitness that more people need to know about and practice. Back doctors, heart doctors, physiologists, etc. Compiling all of the things they’ve said on record and presenting it on our website is a long, drawn out process. It’s a lot of content. We shelved it until the ~Spring of 2019 to correspond with better weather, again, and a greater appetite for all of us to get outside and exercise with a ruck on our back. This makes it more relevant than when it’s blizzard time in the Northeast. Also because other things that pay the bills a little better have gotten in the way and you can’t prioritize everything. Such is the life of trade-offs with limited resources and so much in life is timing.
So what’s the end state with rucking (and GORUCK)? You hear about those companies, take Niantic for instance, who created Pokémon GO and is now working on Harry Potter, and everyone said after GO launched that they’re an overnight sensation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their team spent their entire professional careers pioneering mapping software and working at Google and their team was the one that decided to put cameras on cars and drive them all over the world. At Niantic, they integrated mapping with gaming on your phone and were always adapting to new technologies and they earned the opportunity to build Pokémon GO after proving the concept with Ingress. And then GO caught on like wildfire. Overnight success does them a huge disservice, as if it was easy, just be in the right place at the right time and this could be you. This is a myth and anyone selling it, don’t buy. To build something special in life, it takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work. The parallel I’m getting at is one where at some point in the future, rucking will have its day. It’ll be that thing tons of people are talking about. It’ll be so-called new (even though humans have been doing it forever), and it will see mass adoption. Then someone will say man GORUCK sure was an overnight success and I’ll just smile and say thanks, yeah, it’s been easy for us. Hah! First off, we’re already beating all the odds, and second off they can call it whatever they want when it happens, they can even call it overnight, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be true.
So, more on rucking in 2019 because it is the foundation of our events, of Special Forces training, and our gear is designed to do it well. It also happens to be how we travel (roll bags suck), and there’s a better way to travel than what I see in airports the world over. Rucking is foundational to that, we just need to explain it so that people actually know what they’re doing, and how to do it better, and what outcomes they can expect if they do more of it.
In terms of our take on training and rucking, I think the world has gotten overly complicated, and costly, in the fitness realm. There’s a lot you can do with a loaded rucksack, some sandbags, and a field. Preferably with friends. We’ll start to weave this simplicity in, and in some places like our product pages you already see it in place. A few of us were in Tokyo a few months back. We linked up with a local Ruck Club, did some PT in a field for half an hour, rucked around town for about an hour, and then hung out in the field for the next couple hours eating sushi and drinking Sapporo. It’s an awesome way to spend a night, and to live a life. That’s what we’re about and you can do it anywhere, and everywhere.
The Story and Marketing It
We’ve done a good job at grassroots growth, plugging along year after year. The question we’ve just started to ask is how to do more with the story on a bigger stage, whatever that is, on our terms. The goal is exposure, same as in the very beginning of GORUCK when a lack of awareness was the existential threat. How do we plan and execute a lot of stories that resonate, and then get them distributed, or shown, or whatever it should be called. GORUCK Selection remains our best example of something the universe wants to watch, and we’re covering it pretty extensively by our standards. But what could we do with it, what should we do with it as a story? (The event would remain the same). More importantly, what does a volume of content look like that we produce? It has to help build the brand and over time, it has to help us grow. We have the stories, but we’re not some big media company. I’m sure we can become a little smarter on this front, and I plan on spending a fair amount of my time on this in the foreseeable future. After all, it’s good to learn new things and see where they lead you. If you have thoughts or suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
There’s a lot going on, Monster is happy, and that’s a good thing. I really enjoy what we’re doing, what we’re building, and how we’re building it. My goal is for us to be truly excellent at everything we do (which requires focus), and to impact as many lives as possible along the way. Occasionally, I get a note from someone about what my financial goals are in life and all those kinds of gateways that typically lead to a so-called opportunity. Frankly, I’m not looking for that. My family is healthy, we’re happy, our lights are on and the beer fridge is stocked at HQ. And GORUCK is going really well with no end in sight. Money stuff can work itself out sometime in the future, it’s just not where my head is. Our team is fighting the good fight and it feels right to focus on the essence of what makes us unique, to double down on community building, and to scale new, high quality product that we really believe in. There are always challenges to the balance sheet and to the checking account, got it. And I’m not ruling out ever taking on outside funding, or inside funding for that matter, but it would have to be about a lot more than just the dollars and it would have to make sense. There is zero rush to grow for its own sake, and it feels like we get to make our own luck. Maybe we’ll be worth a billion dollars someday, maybe growth will flatline, maybe it’ll be slow and steady till forever, maybe we’ll disappear with the next genus Icelandic, who knows.
What we like is that we’re still building the revolution and we’re fighting for the values we hold dear, on our terms, and that’s a lot of fun for us. So we’ll do more of that, come what may, and thank you for being such an important part of the journey. We literally would not exist without you.
One final thing. For a while now I’ve wanted to make this SOG even more interactive but still keep it feeling like it’s grassroots. This year, I gave an advance copy of this to Alex and James, both GORUCK Selection finishers, and told them to ask me anything. The video is embedded here.
If you have questions, thoughts, or suggestions, I’d love to hear them in the comments section.