Listen to Jason tell the State Of GORUCK on the Glorious Professionals Podcast here.
State of GORUCK 2020: Chaos is Opportunity
Time flies by, they say. A reminder to live in the moment, to cherish what we have, to live our best lives — and a warning not to waste the hours or the days or the weeks — because you can’t buy more, and you can’t rewind the clock.
And yet, sometimes all you want to do is speed things up.
Basic Training in a cold Georgia winter, the end of SERE school, and the winter of 2008-09 which was the low point in my life all come to mind, for me. Talking to the Big Guy upstairs, I was perfectly fine to speed those times up. Let’s just be done with it and get to whatever’s next.
But sometimes it’s the most miserable times that best prepare us for the rest of life, even if against our wishes. Chaos is opportunity.
I’ll take SERE school to explain what I mean. It’s Survival Evasion Resistance Escape, widely regarded as the best and most professional school in the Army. I agree with that sentiment. At the end of three weeks, you experience as closely as they can approximate what it’s like to be a POW. They capture you and put you in a camp and, pardon my French, beat the shit out of you. Mind games are every second of the day, of circumstance and of infliction, and you’re applying some of the resistance techniques they’ve taught you prior, all of which have everything to do with your mind. How to keep morale high for yourself and others, how to create small victories anywhere you can. How to resist the beatings. Not by avoiding them, because that’s not possible, but by resisting them, in your mind. If you give up, your body will follow. If you don’t, your body will follow. Techniques help you keep it a choice, and the choice is yours.
To call it a miserable and humbling experience is a great understatement, especially when you understand that the techniques taught were learned first not in the schoolhouse, but over months and years in places like the Hanoi Hilton by people who endured and sacrificed so much in defense of the values we hold dear.
At SERE School, in the Resistance Training Laboratory (RTL aka POW Camp) everyone had a sense for when the end should be — we’re fortunate in that there was definitely a clock ticking down. We just didn’t know exactly how much longer there was to go. I was in the med shed pretending to need treatment for something, whispering with Derek, who had been on my evasion team. I remember saying, I literally can’t believe they do this to us in the United States Army. I want to meet the guy who authorized this when we get out of here, and he nodded at me and then we almost smiled at each other. Our lips curled up just a little bit, it was all we could muster, but our eyes did the real smiling, with a nod. It was so bad all around us, the yelling and the beating, and seeing each other and almost smiling about how miserable this was upped our morale because at least we were in it together.
Time very much did not fly by. Any of us would have happily traded that time in our life that we’d never get back, just to be done. Thank you very much Cadre, that was great, nice job, we learned a lot, see ya later. But that was not a choice we got, nobody asked us a damn thing. The world spun around at the same pace, we just had to deal with more beatings. So we did. Much of the time, we learned to deal with them well.
The ending did not come anytime soon. But fifteen years ago this Fall, it did eventually come to an end. And when it did, there wasn’t a dry eye standing out there in that gravel laden mock concentration camp. Mostly naked grown ass men and one female — we were all crying our eyes out, staring at the American flag, hugging each other. Grateful to be where we were, with the people we were with, including our “captors” at that exact time and place. We wouldn’t have traded that moment for anything, and everything all of a sudden made sense. All the beatings, all the lessons to prepare us for the beatings, all the knowledge we had gained. Most important was the humility to understand that every single person, you and me and all of us, can be broken. The end of that school was by far the most memorable moment of my training, and my enduring sentiment is one of gratitude. Goosebumps never lie.
2020 has been chaotic, disruptive, and a lot of good people have been forced to endure a lot. Too many people have died, fingers are pointing blame in every direction, at others. There are mass riots across the country, civil discourse is basically non-existent, politics is nuclear level toxic, it’s either-or across the board. Empathy doesn’t sell so it’s not for sale, you have to do that on your own time and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of time for that on the big stages bearing down.
What I’m seeing, though, is that when you rip yourself away from the algorithms in your phone and focus a little closer to the home and the heart, there is a silver lining to what we’re going through. Even if we don’t yet know what it is. The beatings might continue, but we’re enduring them together. Gone are the days of apathy, gone are the days that blindly and boringly run into each other. These are the times when things can change, soul searching can actually lead to fulfilling actions not just hopes. For us, for our loved ones, for our country and the world. Not just in Washington, but in our daily lives.
History is happening all around us, and it’s going to be OK.
I’ve seen a lot more activity at the community level. People introducing themselves to neighbors they’ve lived next to for years but never knew. There’s more time outside, there’s less travel for travel’s sake, or because we feel obligated. More introspection on the kinds of lives we’re leading, the values we hold dear, and how we hold them dear. What we do in this world, not just what we say. This is a good thing, but it will inevitably fade so the time to seize the day is now.
Moments in time that bring our passions to the forefront are always an opportunity, and it’s up to us to decide what we do with that opportunity. I don’t believe we’ll completely reenact the end of SERE school at the so-called end of this global pandemic, but this too shall pass and no matter what, we’ll be a more resilient nation when it’s over. That doesn’t make now any easier, and perhaps that’s the wrong mindset. Hoping for an easier life, hoping that this will end so we can get back to our old lives, or for our future lives to be like the comfortable parts of our old lives is the same as hoping for time to disappear. Escapism has its place, but not much. To lead is to serve and the higher calling is to lead from the front, to remember that it’s not about you, and to remind everyone that we’re in this together.
So let’s make the best of it, now and always.
To explain GORUCK’s evolution from 2019 to 2020 through COVID to the present with an eye toward the future is the task at hand. Before we dig into the details, I’ll summarize so you have some context, as there is more chaos than usual.
- 2019 proved to be our worst year on record. We significantly missed our growth goals, contracted on the revenue side for the first time, and lost money on the net income side. On the positive side, Ruck Clubs grew significantly, manufacturing diversification proved to be vital to our operations during COVID, and we donated more money than ever to our non-profit partners.
- 2020 started off with a round of layoffs, which was very painful and reminded me of 2013. Then, when COVID first hit, we instituted a series of furloughs to preempt uncertainty. All in all, currently (Fall 2020) we have about two-thirds of our staff that we had on hand a year ago.
- Since COVID, we have seen enormous growth on the training side of our business, and we pivoted to support that growth with resources of inventory, time, and media. Sandbags, Ruckers, Ruck Plates and other training gear are up 300-400% year over year.
- We are bringing GR1 and GR2 back to be built exclusively in the USA. This will begin in 2021, as we have some inventory to work through (on closeout) at the moment.
- We launched GORUCK Media, which consists of a new book, a full length documentary on GORUCK Selection, Glorious Professionals Podcast, and daily Sandbag & Ruck Training (SRT) content.
- The biggest reason I am so excited about what the future holds is that we have spent the last ten years building and strengthening our community, of which we’re proud members. 2019 was a speed bump, these things happen when you’re pushing hard. Neither luck nor misfortune endure, but communities do and we’re making strides to further double down on ours, and to grow it in new ways — to that end, there are some implications on the gear, events, media and technology sides of our business that I’ll preview.
Bad news doesn’t get better with time, so let’s deal with the revenue dip in 2019. There were a lot of factors, it’ll be a connect-the-dots sort of explanation.
- Rucksack sales. The USA built rucks did not sell nearly as well as the rucks built overseas. That means we decreased the average cost to us, and price to you of many of the rucksacks we sell. So, per rucksack sold there was less revenue, and for the overseas built rucksacks, greater profit as a % of the total price. But remember, the price was lower and the laws of economics will not do perfect forecasting for you, that’s where you have to estimate. We expected to see a greater uptick in unit sales with some lower prices, and we did see an uptick, but not what we expected. So on a per unit basis there was less revenue, and a little more margin, but not that much more. Not enough to overcome the lack of volume sales. In sum, though overall unit sales were up, we didn’t sell as many as we expected so revenue was down and profit was down, too.
- New People and Marketing efforts. This is the challenge for any business: how to get new people. What we’ve seen over time is a decrease in the ability for GORUCK Events (registrations) to bring in new people. Something about how we’ve found all the crazies out there (I disagree) and our Events are really hard (always yes relative to staring at your phone). Regardless, the numbers have shown a plateau and now a decrease of Events participants, and the numbers certainly have not kept pace with overall company growth. There are, of course, a lot of other ways to grow: partnerships, advertising, new products. Let’s take advertising because it was a new focus for us in 2019 — we had plenty of inventory so wanted to see if we could advertise more to create greater website traffic, some % of which leads to conversions (sales). Facebook, for example, has a lot of tools to help (imagine that). In essence, here’s how it works. They take known fans of your brand that already know you (so, not new) and they clone that community based upon similar activities. So, if people who like your brand also like obstacle course racing and CrossFit (for example), they go out and create another group of people that you can advertise to who also like those things, or things the algorithm says are similar. You serve them ads that, if they click on the ad, take them to your website and you monitor what % of those people actually buy over time. You need a target $$ amount that you’re willing to spend on acquisition, then you advertise up to that, on average. As certain communities do better, you reward success with more $$ and try to clone more like that one until you’ve exhausted it and you have to try new community combos. The further you stretch the cloning, the more expensive it typically gets. The attribution model is, of course, a total mess. Meaning, if you advertise to someone new on Facebook, then they click on an ad to go to your site, then they bounce off your site, then they go to Google twenty days later and see a retargeting ad and maybe they click on that — then they buy something. Guess who takes credit for the conversion on your site? Yup, they both do. Google and Facebook. Mind you, the overwhelming number of people take no action. They see an ad and they tune it out (that’s my personal go to move). But in this example where someone does click and eventually buys, FB says, “hey this is working great, here are the numbers, let’s do more.” They don’t factor in any costs for other advertising, they have their own algorithm. And Google has theirs. So then Google says, “hey, retargeting is working great, do that for sure and you should also try some keyword advertising.” Keyword advertising is where you pick a word (backpack, rucksack, etc — backpack is VERY expensive by the way, as the price is determined auction style where the highest bidders always win). Anyway, retargeting does work because the most expensive work has been done prior — raising brand awareness from zero to more than zero. Meaning, if someone already knows your brand (however they know it) and you serve up ads to remind them what they saw, those are effective and I recommend them. It’s the way in which businesses spend money getting new people that is interesting to me, and we certainly don’t have the magic figured out yet. In terms of the attribution model of new people, the data is imperfect but it didn’t need to be perfect to come to the conclusion that it was money not well spent. If new customer acquisition is $50, on average, to buy a rucksack, that sucks. There are better ways to deploy that cash, in aggregate, though that work is harder and not as immediate, and the attribution models are even harder to understand. Things like community building and partnerships, which also happen to feel a lot better than just pouring more $$ into the self-licking lollipop department of online advertising. Diversification is vital.
- Community & Events. We made a conscious effort to double down on empowering the Ruck Clubs (we currently have 365 all over the country and world) in 2019 and moving forward. This is a long term strategy that will not yield immediate results. I see it more of an integration with our Events because they’re both people centric and activity based, and a longer term strategy. With Events, either you sign up or you don’t. Easy to measure. If you do, great. If you don’t, what else are you doing? The way of life we promote and live and support is that you get together in small groups in your community in the real world and that you stay active. Ruck up and Embrace the Suck together, it’s that simple. Sure, we’ll work hard to build a business and grow the number of people who want to live like this with us, but ultimately people meeting people in the real world is our northern star. Focus on getting people more active, together. So, if the Ruck Club Leaders are holding 1-3 meet-ups/week and people are showing up, doing the work, and socializing the whole time, this is a win for us even if there are zero $$ transactions that take place. We have no way to measure the activity in aggregate, it has to be built on trust that this works, that people over time will bring more of their friends because they enjoy it. The good news is that it’s worked for millennia, it’s the playbook for how Green Berets build communities, and it is working at GORUCK in terms of Ruck Club growth, anyway. Event participation was down year over year, even more so in revenue which is a problem because the cost side was very similar from running a similar number of events — and is not going up at all in 2020 because of COVID. It’s possible Ruck Clubs are cannibalizing official Events, but it’s more sustainable and we need to work harder to determine what kinds of events, when and where, people want to do.
- New Gear. The glaring weakness in 2019 was a lack of new gear. Changing pricing and costing of existing gear is not the same thing. Our footwear sales more than doubled over 2018, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a decrease in gear sales. In a small company, the same people do lots of different things. For instance, I do my best to support our mission when I’m focused on messaging and new products. In 2019, there was a lot of bandwidth by all of us spent on manufacturing and operations. You can squeeze an extra hour out of a long week here and there for growth drivers, but you can’t do it forever, and you really can’t do it for your entire team. Focus works wonders, and we were not focused on new product development in 2019. In 2020, that has come roaring back and the numbers are showing that quality new products, introduced more often, is a winning strategy.
- Warehousing and distribution. We had massive problems in 2019 with no ability to fix them, and warehousing costs (the costs of storing inventory) were very expensive. Our partner 3PL (3rd Party Logistics) had cutting edge technology, tons of automation, but when that stuff doesn’t work, when the software has glitches, only they can fix it inside the machine. There is no manual fix, you can’t throw people at the problem. And when they can’t figure out the software or it’s not their priority, it’s a big problem. We moved our distro center in 2020 home to Jacksonville, Florida, and it’s been a massive win for us. Better service at lower costs, and when there are busy times we can surge to the problem and fix it in a hands-on way. If you’re out looking for a 3PL distribution partner, automation isn’t always the full, best answer because when that part fails, there is no backup plan.
So, 2019. It already feels like a million years ago because 2020 was right on its heels. The risk is that we write it off or discard the playbook entirely. Neither one is the way to go. Advertising will work, we just have to do it better. Grassroots community building does work, but we need to do it more effectively and integrate it more with Events, and even gear. Because of poor financial performance, we had to do a round of layoffs in January. Then came COVID.
For about a month in March, which already feels like it was years ago, it was chaos of a new, mutant form. I saw a lot of different responses to the virus and all of the havoc and uncertainty it wrought. As a company, we were still reeling a little bit from 2019. We knew we could fix the cost side of the business, but who knew what was going to happen on the demand side? The short answer is nobody. Here’s how we approached it:
- Control costs aggressively. Travel was gone, so that was a natural cost cutting measure. We gave up the lease on part of our office and almost all of our team worked from home. All gear Purchase Orders of any kind were approved by our COO, who tightened the reins a lot. Cash is king so ultimately we were protecting our balance sheet against greater uncertainty.
- Focus on core drivers – reward them with resources and starve everything else. What we saw pretty quickly was a significant uptick in only a few core items: Rucker, Sandbags, and Ruck Plates. We had plenty of Ruckers on hand, not enough Sandbags, and we started looking at Ruck Plate sales daily. We were not advertising them, they were simply in demand. At one point, we were placing a new PO every week instead of one much larger PO every month. Sandbags were one of the items that we moved over to Vietnam last year. This proved to be a fortuitous decision, as nearly all factories including ours had plenty of capacity. We placed an order for 10,000 units and had them in stock 90 days later. We ran out of many of those, and we currently have orders in for 35,000 units as we head into Q4.
- Do more for others. We raised money to donate thousands of masks to frontline healthcare workers, we donated thousands of boots to Law Enforcement Officers, we raised funds for an inner city (and predominantly Black) fitness group with a One Team, One Fight message, and we, very broadly, tried to serve as a voice of calm amidst the chaos: (here’s how to work out in your garage, here’s an interview with Dr. Angel who had COVID and self-treated). Nothing fancy, just the basics as the business was evolving around the chaos around us. Personally, I’m fortunate my grandmother is still alive, but it’s been very strange to have her quarantined in isolation in a room for seven straight months, leaving once a month for a doctor’s visit. But she’s loved seeing the pictures of her grandchildren, she’s read every book she can get her hands on and told me recently, in a highly motivated state, that she’s not going to die without visiting Paris one more time. As bad as some of us think we have it, it could always be worse. Do what you have to do to stay motivated and live in the moment as much as possible. None of this is easy.
When COVID-19 led to the quarantining, many domestic factories (especially on the West Coast) were not legally allowed to stay open unless they were building mission critical items like medical PPE. As you might imagine, factories are also in the business of survival, so they pivoted aggressively toward medical equipment. They ramped up production lines to that end, and even as restrictions were loosened, medical production continued to increase. Fighting for capacity, where there is already very little (in the US), against medical equipment is not that great of a proposition on any front.
In Vietnam, there was a lot of capacity because big companies cancelled big orders (balance sheet/cash protection) and there was no pivoting to PPE (which happened elsewhere) at our factories, where we’re a smaller brand and they’re large and modern, accustomed to a lot of volume. We were good on Ruckers but had other training gear, like Sandbags, that we needed a lot of. So, for example, we placed a PO for 10,000 units and had them in 90 days. No corners cut, no decrease in quality. It’s straightforward and without this manufacturing diversification, we would have been out of sandbags very early on, and we’d still be out. Scaling up to that many units in the USA would have been prohibitive as well, and would have taken let’s say 2-3X as long under normal circumstances. These are not normal circumstances, so in reality we would still be waiting.
I want to take a step back to discuss US manufacturing and overseas manufacturing, where we are and where we’re going. It was a big topic of last year, and we’ve had another year to compare and to better understand strengths and weaknesses not just in planning but in reality. In the US, we do craftsmanship really well. By that I mean smaller runs, less automation, with more customization or deviations possible. Adaptability is a strength, and we can do it faster. Think: greater variety of small runs of different rucksack colors. Minimum order quantities (MOQ’s) are lower at 80 units per SKU. Overseas it’s 1,000. So when something is new or unproven, even if it costs less it’s not that great to overorder so significantly. There is plenty of room for US manufacturing in our equation — more on that in a minute.
Overseas manufacturing is built to scale. The good factories have invested so much in capital investments to automate the process (big, very expensive machines) and they have so many highly skilled sewers with a line a mile long for people who want to learn (you don’t find that here at home). There are a lot of factories in Asia, some great, some terrible. To call all of them the same (“overseas manufacturing”) is similar to equating Russian toilet paper in a gas station bathroom that hasn’t been cleaned since the end of last summer with a nice roll of Charmin on the throne of your choice. So, it still will always turn back to the brand managing the factory, and that factory’s standards. We’re in good stead on that front.
Let’s look out 20 or 50 or 100 years — the world that I see coming, like it or not, will have robots that do almost all of the work, sewing apparel and gear. Compare how much of automotive manufacturing happens by robots now vs. the Model T. There are simply greater economics in the automotive industry, so there’s more motivation to solve those problems first. But they’ll be solved for soft goods, too. Point is, if our nostalgia is hoping that rows and rows of sewers are going to come back and these jobs are going to be American jobs, I have news for you: that’s not going to happen at any real scale, even if we could find more people to take those jobs, and train them up, which is a challenge. The labor in our American factories is, I dare say, composed of almost exclusively immigrants — to me it’s the American Dream alive and well. It’s absolutely an honest day’s work, and they’re able to provide for their family, send some money back home and raise a family here, in America. And they’re grateful — that’s the story I’ve heard a hundred times, and we’re proud to be a part of that journey for them, and for our country. I want to support this even more than we were able to in 2020, and we will. First, more lay of the land, then a concrete solution.
Manufacturing right now is a messy situation. Capital resources and scalability are highly skewed toward Asia. The cost of labor there is a lot less, Americans don’t want to do these jobs by and large, and so overseas factories invest more in their operations which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of quality at scale. They invest to scale with millions of dollars of equipment and machines, America invests a lot less to scale. But there is a role here in the USA, and it’s a vital one. America has to focus on craftsmanship, first and foremost. To stay closer to the R&D process. We cannot compete here with scale unless the government wanted to subsidize everything like they do through the Berry Amendment, but even that’s not enough; the machines aren’t ready to do more of the work and the labor force here is smaller, and not trained, and a lot more expensive, which raises the price on everything, for everyone. Not a little, a lot. To me, this is not America’s decline, this is an opportunity. Scale work, the same thing over and over, is not our strength. So let’s focus on what is our strength, and continue to drive the world forward with new solutions.
Imagination and problem solving are vital to create new things that are worthy to scale, and that’s our sweet spot. It’s all hard work and we’ve had plenty of all of that since our nation’s founding. In manufacturing, Americans are craftsmen and the craftsman’s eye will never lose value. The machines work for us and not the other way around. The overseas shops that scale, and there are a ton of them, are not inventors, they’re in operations. We still have to create things of value to people. And a strong brand will, I believe, have even greater strength the more that the world moves to commodities, where everyone just wants to put their logo on something and call it theirs because that’s easier. That’s not craftsmanship at all — that’s lazy, and a path to strip-mall homogenization of everything. Real brands have to fight against that, and therein lies the opportunity to differentiate through the harder path.
But what tools do we want to provide to the craftsman? They’re increasing, and over time the craftsman will be able to transfer the build packet to a robot that will sew up what he or she dreamed up. The robot will be an extension of the craftsman to speed the creation process up. For now, a sharper knife works better than a duller one. Programmable bartacks, requiring a special machine, work better to reinforce stress points. You can’t do that by hand. Better machines, better products. And the brand has to be committed to the story of quality and craftsmanship. It’s a difficult promise to keep, and it can seem at odds with scale manufacturing overseas. I get that, and a year later it makes a lot of sense to me. People accepted our move to diversify manufacturing, but especially our longest standing fans wanted to see something a little more concrete. We did more in America this year than in our first five years combined, but it didn’t feel like enough to you, and it didn’t turn out to be enough for us, either.
So here’s a split in our inventory that we’ve seen. The training gear — the Rucker and the Sandbags and the Ruck Plate Carriers — we build those overseas and they are where they need to be. Scaling at quality is not a problem, and it’s a very price competitive industry: training and fitness.
With GR1, that’s a brand unto itself that we built up. It’s synonymous with Special Forces quality rucksacks, built over the last decade at the GORUCK Challenge, and it’s still synonymous with the best of American Manufacturing. So we’re bringing it back and will build it exclusively here in America. This goes for GR2 and GR3 as well. This will come fully to fruition in 2021, we still have some overseas versions we need to get through this year, all of which also come with our Scars Lifetime Guarantee. You can expect those to be on closeout, and you can also expect the price of the Built in the USA GR1 to increase to $325. Of note, GR1 cost $295 for almost nine years and in that time we saw a 38% increase in our direct costs. We do not see costs decreasing (they’re already even higher), but we also don’t want to (and can’t, based on sales data) charge $395. But to build those rucks here, and do that exclusively, the price has to come up a little bit. It’s less “efficient” but it feels right. This is us doubling back down on American Manufacturing.
To provide some context, GR1 is our all-time bestseller, it’s our #1 product in 2020, even with a greater push toward training and the purpose built Rucker. So this is a big move for us. And it feels pretty good because it’s a concrete thing, no nuance. GR1 is Built in the USA.
GORUCK FOUNDATION (JAVA FOREVER)
GORUCK has had a long standing relationship with several non-profits, and our support of the Green Beret Foundation (where I’m a Board member) pre-dates the GORUCK Challenge (2010). Some years ago when Java died, I wanted us to focus even more on institutionalizing and measuring our donations in an attempt to inspire more. So we started our own non-profit called Java Forever (doing business as The GORUCK Foundation) — not to manage a staff (GORUCK absorbs the costs and time) — but to give us greater fundraising flexibility and to keep track of our donations over time. Prior to this, we forced some fundraisers for event participants and we encouraged others, but we had no idea of the total dollar impact.
We did a lot of fundraisers in 2019; our relationship with the Travis Manion Foundation is an easy one to highlight. Travis died in Iraq in 2007 and his family set up the non-profit to honor his legacy and to inspire others to serve something greater than themselves. It’s been an easy partnership for us. I say that in a positive way, where not everything worthwhile has to be hard. They have a large and growing Spartan community built by empowering Veterans to lead and give back in their local communities (sound familiar?). They produce a 9/11 Heroes Run / Ruck and we’ve helped grow the rucking numbers significantly.
Receiving the Travis Manion Foundation “If Not Me Then Who…” Award was a highlight of my 2019. “If Not Me Then Who…” those were the words Travis spoke prior to going back to Iraq, and they have become a rallying call of personal responsibility in service to something greater than yourself, even though it might cost you everything. These past several years, we’ve become good friends and solid supporters of TMF and the Manion family. And I suppose it could come across as self-serving to mention that I received this honor from them — I came back to write this section of the State of GORUCK once everything else was complete. My point in sharing this is two-fold:
- TMF is a great organization to support. Learn more about them and join the cause.
- I don’t look to very many people in this world for validation. Meaning, I have a northern star and I follow it to the best of my ability. The rucksack is heavy, keep moving. Yes, I take in feedback and the course adjusts, yes I believe in and need my teammates, but the ability to persevere through adversity requires armor of all different kinds. Mine is that I’m not easily persuaded or discouraged by much of anything as we’re charting our course. These are the kinds of qualities you’ll find in every Green Beret or anyone in Special Operations. I’m not special or unique in this. Emily, of course, holds enormous sway over me and my life (and always has), along with Rich and the Special Forces community, as do what I believe my grandfathers would think about my path and my decisions. Colonel Manion and Ryan Manion are up there in that crowd for me. So it’s a real honor when they support us, and our mission, and it’s an honor to partner with them.
Here are the videos of Colonel Manion’s introduction of me and GORUCK, and my speech, which centers on why we owe those who we’ve lost, and how that fuels us both at TMF and at GORUCK.
It’s important to me to remember that we all owe something, and we can always give more. The award itself, which is badass, sits next to my desk. I’m staring at it as I type this right now, and it’s a daily reminder to give back more. For that reason alone, I’m grateful to have it. We all have choices about how we spend our time. I hope you’ll find a mission you support and fight for the way forward you believe in. Money is one way, time is another. The world needs both from more of us.
In response to COVID, we crammed two years worth of procrastinating into a month’s worth of decisions with an action plan to, simply put, get more content, more editorial way of life stories out the door. Podcasts, Books, Training Content, and even a Documentary. It’s long been my goal to grow more organically, to tell more stories and keep that engine roaring, which is the only way for it to really work. To create things of value that people enjoy enough to share with their friends, and to keep doing this over and over and over. Sure, there are things we can do to make the sharing easier, to amplify the message, but at its most basic level we have to have something of real value. How do you make something go viral? You don’t, and you can’t. But you can keep putting good stuff out there and not wasting your time hoping something goes viral. That’s a good plan.
We’ve never had a problem with a big thing here or there, call it Selection to pick an example — it’s the systems that have eluded us to create lots of stuff consistently. If the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago, the second best time to plant a tree is right now. So it was time to get started.
- Glorious Professionals Podcast. Dr. Angel, a Special Forces medic who became a PhD that also got COVID shared a story on his Facebook page for how to best treat COVID at home so that he wouldn’t over-burden our frontline healthcare workers. I saw it, got in touch (we were real world friends already) and knew that people out there, all of you, would get a lot of value out of his story. He wrote a blog for us and once his voice was recovered enough to chat, we had him on the podcast and that became the launch of Glorious Professionals. Combined with the blog post he wrote for our site, this was good for a million views and listens. Once up and running, the podcast has become an opportunity for us to touch base with people we respect. We do not have some crazy monetization plan, it’s more of a brand extension and a labor of love. Glorious Professionals is about leadership, service, and the relentless pursuit of excellence. If something more comes out of it than us loving to chat with our guests and friends, cool.
- How Not To Start A Backpack Company. I made the rounds to the publishers in New York last fall. You meet in their office, they tell you this and that and what other books you need to copy to sell a few more copies of yours. It’s almost like you’re expected to just put your name on something someone else already wrote the outline for, then kind of fill it in with some of your words. You have no leverage because you’ve never sold a book. In my case, I told them about GORUCK and our community. They shrugged it off. And by it I mean all of us. They spoke in some more riddles and then it was time to go to the next one. The barriers to entry in the publishing world are basically zero right now. Just like with this story, this State of GORUCK, it’s possible to just go direct to you. So that’s what we decided to do. I worked with an old friend, Alex John Beck, and we came up with a new format for a book that combined the best way to tell GORUCK’s origins story in words, and pictures. It’s an aesthetic of his design that we adopted for the book, and that aesthetic is also what Glorious Professionals has taken on. Black and white pictures with hand written notes to personalize the meaning. In the industry, most of the authors I’ve ever met get just enough money from their last book to write another. Upside is minimal, like with actors, unless you’re one of ten people everyone has heard of. For us, the goal was to create a calling card. Let’s get the story out there, see what people think, and send it to podcast hosts and other forms of press, maybe they’ll be interested in covering our story. This is not as direct as buying an ad online and seeing how it does, but it does get your name out there, and other people help you do that by introducing you to their audience. It’s a slower build, so be it — it’s on our terms. Next Steps. We have several more books in the works. Rich and I sat down and recorded a lot of stories he has from serving in MACV-SOG in Vietnam, and we started on a Leadership book that also involves Emily’s perspective from the CIA. We have an entire draft book on Rucking that has been sitting idly for two years now. For some of these, we need to find some additional help in editing (it’s hard, time-consuming work). My goal is that we have one new book a year.
- Sandbag and Rucksack Training. Personally, I felt like a caged, cooped up animal in the early days of COVID. Then came the quarantine, then they shut our beach down (seems really crazy now) and it was even more so. The thing is, I’ve lived this life before on deployment. Your freedoms are curtailed but you need to continue to workout, to stay in shape. A healthy mind and a healthy body are connected. You can’t have one without the other and physical fitness is a vital part of that. So Emily and I did a little remodeling in the garage. We added a table so we could work in there and we filled up a lot more sandbags and then we just allocated the time to working out. It wasn’t complicated at all. Pick three movements, do ten reps per movement. Do that for 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 songs. When it’s done, you feel a lot better. Ultimately, I was motivated to do this and wanted to help others so we just put the videos out on Instagram. The point was not hey look at me, the point was that anyone can do this. Our garage is a mess, our kids are crawling all over us, our life is not perfect but we’re getting through it, here’s how. Embrace the Suck. In terms of fitness, I’m okay at motivating others and even entertaining others, but I’m not a certified trainer, I don’t have that background. To scale up our team’s ability to do this indefinitely, we needed to bring on a pro who understands our brand and community. Cadre DS was an obvious choice. So he’s doing our programming, called Sandbag Rucksack Training (SRT). It requires no additional equipment, and it’s completely scalable. Meaning, if all you have is a ruck, cool. If you have a sandbag, cool. Scale the weight up, scale the weight down, cool. Do it slick (just your body), cool. Ultimately we care a lot about motivating and empowering people to be more active together than anything. Once that is your reality, and it’s a good one because it works — as opposed to caging yourself inside of some fitness cubicle like Peloton after you’re on your screens at work all day. Once you’ve seen the literal light outside with friends, you’re looking for ways to get stronger and healthier, to train for greater challenges. That’s where our daily training comes in. And with respect to the virus, and to other mortal threats, being stronger and healthier is better. And for that to happen, you have to do the work.
- Documentary – The Standard – It’s about GORUCK Selection, the toughest endurance event on the planet. This was an accidental documentary. Phil Wall, an excellent storyteller who was covering the event for us, who has covered a lot of events for us over the years, was supposed to come out with a video that would be a few minutes long, and a few gear videos. In the editing process that began a few years ago, it was obvious that there was an additional opportunity. Andy Nelson, a partner at GORUCK, took point internally and worked with Phil to turn it into what you see now. That year’s Selection was pure magic, and we had a little luck thrown in, too. Blayne and I covered the live stream almost on a whim. Hey should we just do round the clock coverage? Why not was the answer — that’s kind of how it went between us. So we rotated between the two of us for 48+ hours and it caught on like wildfire on Facebook Live, with over a million views. Everyone was really proud to be a part of this event. We got lucky, then we did something with that luck. I would love for us to consider doing more projects like this. We have to see how this one does and then see if we can plan something as well as we can get lucky and then plan around that luck.
GORUCK Media: concluding thoughts. The future of this, the scalability, will be determined by your support. Listen to the podcast, read the book, train up harder, and watch the documentary. Leave reviews and tell your friends. I believe in this way to grow, if for no other reason than it’s a lot more fun and rewarding. I don’t love the idea of doubling down on Instagram ads to ferret out mercenary shoppers to come buy gear, or to clone one more “community” on Facebook. There are never enough mercenaries and you’re chasing them forever. The thing is, this plan we’re going with is built on trust and a belief that it will work. We’ll be able to measure that over time, and we’re committed to it. Your part, should you choose to accept it, is to support and share, and we’re grateful.
EVENTS & COMMUNITY & RUCK CLUBS
Lest we forget, GORUCK was built as a company and as a brand by the GORUCK Challenge. We developed GR1 and the rucks in the shadows, then people came for an experience that was life changing for them, and for me and for us. We’ve seen friendships, proposals, big annual parties, backyard BBQ’s — we’ve seen like-minded people meet people all over the world. And that like-mindedness has crossed all sorts of boundaries — race, religion, creed and political affiliation. We have built bridges from the military to the civilian worlds, and we keep building them. By we, I mean the community, not just Monster pulling strings at HQ. Ruck Club leaders are doing that hard, rewarding work close to their home, within their communities. To me, that’s winning because it endures and it’s sustainable.
I even get the occasional note about how GORUCK has saved a life. Here’s one, shared with permission.
When the business side has me down, when the numbers suck, when the community building gets harder than usual (people are the hardest and most rewarding part of life), I think of the people we haven’t reached, yet. I think of the friends we’ve made, I think of the fun we’ve had, and are having. I think of the sacrifices made by those who came before us, and how we owe the next generation. I think of the 700+ Ruck Club Leaders all over the world who are leading workouts and group rucks. I think of the people like me who get a lot of value out of being together outside, trying to get a little better today than we were yesterday, and having fun doing it. I believe in the real world a lot more than I believe in the blitzkrieg on my phone.
So, Events. Yes, the Events world is a mess right now because of COVID. But we were already in the midst of a mindset shift on the Events. We’ve gotten comfortable running 800-1,000 events a year, thanks to some solid leaders past and present, and solid Cadre bought onto the mission of Building Better Americans. It’s an honor of a lifetime to spend time with these people, and I can’t imagine a world without Special Forces Cadre-led GORUCK Events.
So how do we integrate Events into the business? Here’s how I think about the measurement side.
- Events – we measure these in registrations.
- Ruck Clubs – we measure in the number that exist (365), each of which has a requirement/strong suggestion to meet weekly.
- Virtual Events – we measure in terms of how many people sign up to do them wherever they are.
- That which we cannot measure – don’t sweat it, just do the right thing and trust your gut based on the energy you sense.
The goal is for people to ruck up, find some friends, and embrace the suck. Some of that we can measure, some we can’t. As Events will be less than 5% of our total revenue in 2020, there is some freedom to say that we want people to show up for our Events, but that we need to do a better job of building and supporting the community, even at the short term expense of the Event registrations.
So, the punch line is that your participation and activity, even the activity we cannot measure, are a lot more important to us than just the number of people who sign up for an event. That said, even when we can’t measure perfectly, we do look for dots to connect. How does an increase in activity lead to product sales and company growth? In the first half of 2020, we sold double the number of Ruck Plates that we sold all of 2019. That indicates at a minimum an intent that people have to ruck more. Does a post COVID world lead to more time outside? Does an end to the quarantine, once the weather turns in the Spring of 2021, mean more people will want to train up for a real Challenge? I don’t know, we’ll see. And we’re ready for whatever comes. But still, even more important to us will be to build and strengthen the community of active ruckers. To empower you all to meet up and embrace the suck together. The easy life is not for us, but we do want to make it easier for you all to find each other and then do the work together.
To that end, GORUCK is investing in a technology solution that will enable people and communities to find each other and to work out together, in the real world.
I’ve personally partnered with BJ Naedele, the former COO of Nike+, and GORUCK is the first investor in a new technology company that aims to unify the fitness community, grounded in the real world experience.
Of course there are a million new fitness apps out there, especially since COVID. Peloton, Playbook, Apple Fitness, just to name a few in a very crowded space. They’re all entirely behind the glass, in your phone. They speak of community in a way that is not reality to me. Or to you. Or to anyone. There is no such thing as a community that is exclusively online. Those are forums. Communities are made up of friends, loved ones, and like-minded people. And you do things together, in the real world, which is great for your body and your mind. The two are linked, you have to take care of both. Go outside, do something hard, spend time with friends — none of that has to cost you anything, and you’ll get a lot more out of it than just a gym membership or a digital subscription you will come to resent. Working out alone is not fun. Working out with others is fun. Both require time, and life is short.
Zoom calls all day at work and then working out in a fitness cubicle staring at a screen will turn fitness into something you don’t look forward to. When I call/text/message my buddies to come over every Saturday at 330pm and we workout together in my driveway, then we raid the beer fridge and just talk about the world, about nothing and everything, it’s great and I always look forward to it. Sometimes the workouts really suck, and the driveway beers taste that much better. You have to earn things in life, still and always. The best moments are not for sale because they don’t cost you a dime. Just time and commitment. Our way of life just needs to reach more people, to make it easier for more people to experience this — because it is hard to meet people these days, moreso as everything moves behind the glass. We have a plan that has taken our entire professional careers to develop, and to meet the people who can play big roles on that front.
In the end, this technology play has the broadest appeal, and it’s solving a direct problem we see at the Ruck Club level. Rucking will be one of the categories, so will Sandbag Training. So will running, so will cycling. We believe people will appreciate access to a diversity of people doing a lot of different kinds of activities, close to home. As always, time will tell how right we are. We’ll be launching a Stealth (Beta) version in a few cities here in a month or so, and this will roll out more fully in the Spring as the weather turns. There are no silver bullets in life, there are only causes you believe in fighting for, or not. This is one of those causes that is exactly in line with GORUCK’s mission and I will fight for this way of life till my dying breath. In military speak, this is the hill worth dying on, come what may.
Tactical is not just guns, it’s a mindset. The inspiration for GORUCK came in West Africa when I built a “go-bag” for Emily. We didn’t have a gun at her house (we weren’t authorized to), it was more about a mindset. What to do in a time of crisis. It’s the mindset that can transcend any crisis, anywhere. In some situations, you have a firearm, in others you don’t. It’s such a divisive and touchy topic whenever guns are involved, and I’d like to introduce absolutely none of that into our discussion. I believe if you own a firearm of any kind that you have a duty and a responsibility to learn how to use it safely and confidently. Without confidence, you will not operate it safely, I’ll add.
We are separating this brand out simply because it speaks to a different audience. And we’re happy to speak to both. Our goal is to make GORUCK Tactical synonymous with the most mentally and physically challenging firearms instruction and way of life that exists outside of Special Operations. And to leverage our team of Special Forces Cadre to validate our approach. Take Rich, for instance. He’s never sought any spotlight his entire life, and it’s a minor miracle that he’s here, and willing to share his stories and experience through GORUCK. (His main motivation is that he feels he can be of service in mentoring the next generation of Americans). In terms of his background, he is up there with the most experienced and elite warfighters our nation has ever produced. MACV-SOG (Recon) and Special Forces in Vietnam to Charter Member, Delta Force with 30 years in Special Operations between Vietnam and Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down) — including a lot of stints as an Instructor and developing various Selection courses. The resume is not the point, the wisdom he has is the point, and his desire to continue to serve by giving back to the next generation through mentorship is really the point, now. There is a mindset that you have to grow and develop, he is the northern star in my life of that mindset and he didn’t get there by hoping the latest best gear would be a silver bullet — you still have to work your ass off no matter your equipment — and he didn’t get there by bragging to anyone about how great he was. Oddly perhaps, what I’ve seen is that the more you’ve done, the more humble you become. He got to where he is by mastering the fundamentals, reinventing and adapting himself throughout his life, and sharpening a mind that wouldn’t quit. So, just like Rich, we’re about the warrior mindset, passed down from generation to generation since the beginning of antiquity. The muscle memory of tactics is not enough, you also need to push yourself in your life, to become more confident and adaptable by attempting hard things, by failing until you succeed, and by doing it in support of a why that you believe in. Service to America, being a sheepdog, protecting your family — there is no one why that works. We all have to find that ourselves, and then serve it.
Here’s our plan on GORUCK Tactical:
- We are launching an event in the August/September 2021 time frame in Texas. It will be the most mentally and physically challenging firearms test (event) that exists outside of Tier 1 Special Operations. Garret and Rich have worked on this extensively to ensure its standards. Shooters will apply, they’ll personally approve those with appropriate backgrounds and a demonstrated proficiency in the firearms universe. This test will be 48 hours, shooters will live out of their rucksack (yes, they will receive ample sleep), do a fair amount of rucking and PT (physical training) and each shooter will fire over 1,000 rounds. This is a competition, so there will be a winner. But all will leave with sharpened skills as you can only do when you’re put through a significant crucible.
- Gear. We’re going to slowly bring back Firearms gear and rucksacks, beginning in 2021. We’ll show people how to use it, and why covert is better than obvious, why bug out go-bags are important. Why you don’t have to walk around with pants with 150 pockets on them to prove how tactical you are 🙂 Also, and this is an important point we’ve discussed: you can expect GR1 and GR2 to go back to their roots as tactical rucksacks that you can also use for other stuff (travel, training). Our roots are in Special Forces and they have applications there and in the SF way of life, so we’ll show that as opposed to showing them as travel rucks with SF roots. We’ve flipped the equation.
- Firearms and Tactical Events. These will continue en masse, as these have grown with literally zero marketing — it’s been pure word of mouth for all the Firearms and Constellation events. This is a testament to Garret and the Firearms Cadre we have, plain and simple. I get more positive life-changing feedback about Firearms events than any others. And it’s time to reward those successes with additional resources. The larger 48 hour event is the flagship event (similar to GORUCK Selection, in a sense) and will lead to greater media coverage. We’re going to take the high ground we’ve been climbing toward and not give it up.
- Training. We need and want to show people how to train in a way that’s tailored to those looking to gain an edge on the range and, more importantly, the battlefield. Cadre DS will adapt the fundamentals of Sandbag & Rucksack Training for the Tactical community. We have zero interest in being just another firearms gear company, just as we have zero interest in being a backpack company. So we won’t do either of those. Training and mindset are vital parts of that equation that we have to share — not just gear.
THE WAY AHEAD – SUMMARY
The beatings of the world will continue. Use them as an opportunity to reflect on what matters most, what you can endure and what you need to change moving forward. And never forget that we’re in this together, whether it feels like it or not.
- Manufacturing – GR1 and GR2, our two best sellers of all time, will be exclusively Built in the USA. Our manufacturing diversity will allow us to do more iterations of new gear, and scale when and where we need to scale.
- Stories > Mercenaries. We’re shifting our budgets around to focus on sustainable long term growth of our community. GORUCK Media is a labor of love as well as a down payment on the next century of GORUCK’s community growth.
- Training is here to stay. Expect to see us do even more of this, to teach more of what we know on the fitness front and to motivate you and others to keep it simple, stupid (KISS). It doesn’t have to be complicated, and it should be fun. We’ll apply some of the same fundamentals to the tactical side of the house.
- Technology is a tool and we’re going to use it to that end to help empower the community (and the world) to meet each other for fitness. Expect this to launch in 2021.
On the personal front, Emily and I and our family have been really fortunate and are doing well. COVID has brought our family closer together, as weird as that sounds to type, or to hear. We’ve spent even more time together outside, we’ve had dinner together more than ever, we’ve explored a lot of places really close to home, as if far flung adventures. I have so much to learn from my kids, and we’ve let our imaginations run wild, and that has made all the difference. You can get a pretty good sense for our daily life of chaos with kids on her feed, which she promises at one point will turn into a photo book we’ll all cherish someday. She’s right.
I’m grateful for my family, I’m grateful for this community, and I’m grateful for the time I have had in the world, and the time I hope to still have. Whenever it’s my time to go, it won’t have been enough. I’ve known Emily since I was 15, that makes 26 years — it’s not enough. My kids are 8, 5 and 3. It’s not enough time I’ve had with them. I’ve been at GORUCK since 2008 and building the community since 2010 — it’s not enough time, and I don’t believe it ever will be. I continue to count my blessings, and to try to live a life worthy of the sacrifices so many have made before me, and so many will continue to make when I’m long gone. I choose this way of life, and I choose to fight for the values I hold dear regardless of outcomes. I do it because it’s a rewarding and fulfilling way to live this one and only life I have, and because my greatest fear growing up was a boring life. And this is definitely not boring, come what may.
This journey would not be possible without your support, and I’m grateful to you all in this year 2020 and for all the years of my life. Thank you from sunny Jacksonville Beach, Florida.
If you have any questions or comments, please post in the comments section.