Guys in the military used to call the hand-sewn straps “the gizmo.” It did look a little wacky, hanging from a door frame. That’s until they snagged the Jerry-rigged handles and learned how to crush a workout, usually in remote, dangerous locales far away from dumbbell racks.
Almost two decades later, celebrities and professional athletes use TRX. Weekend warriors use TRX. Your trainer probably uses TRX. Your CrossFit-snob buddy definitely uses TRX. The pair of hand-sewn straps that got Navy SEALs ripped in the middle of the desert in the 90s has turned into a fitness empire. Behind it all is SEAL veteran, entrepreneur, and workout buff Randy Hetrick. We spoke with Hetrick on how he came up with the idea, and where TRX is headed next now that it’s taken over your gym and your home.
Men’s Fitness: How did you come up with the original idea?
Randy Hetrick: I was a Navy SEAL for 14 years and you have to maintain the physical readiness of a professional athlete. When you’re back stateside you have world-class gyms built into your compound, but when you deploy all of that disappears. In the middle of the 90s we were doing a lot of work in a variety of different places where you can’t just go out for a run.
I happened to be deployed over in Southeast Asia and we were preparing for a ship-boarding counter-piracy mission. I had accidentally deployed with my jujitsu blue belt in my bag. We were sitting there in this warehouse. The mission involves climbing up 40 feet or so on the side of a freighter with 80 to 100 pounds of gear on your back. You are highly motivated to try and keep the climbing muscles in shape. I thought, you know if I tied a knot at the end of this belt I could throw this over one of the doors and just literally pick myself off the ground and use my bodyweight to do some cool exercises.
MF: When did it click that you could turn this into a business?
RH: It wasn’t until my first year of business school at Stanford. The big kicker was that one of my buddies was a stud football player at Stanford and he got us permission to train in the athlete-training center. So I would go out to this killer workout facility, I would hook up my straps and just crush myself. I was in really good shape and just about every single one of the coaches came up to me and their line of questioning was always the same. “Hey, why are you so old and what the hell is this thing?” Within like 20 minutes they’d be on the straps and they’d be telling me why this was the greatest thing ever for everyone from their 300-pound lineman to their 100-pound female tennis players. That was when the switch flipped. I took the summer between my first and second years there and I literally bought a $39 sewing machine, hunkered down in my garage, and worked through 50 types of prototypes.
MF: How did you get people to buy into the system?
RH: I was trying to sell these things out of the trunk of my car to these little specialty fitness stores. Then I decided to go down to this trainer convention. I had this pathetic little 10 by 10 booth and I rigged up this goofy freestanding door that you could stand up and hang the thing. I sold out of every single strap I had. At the end of that show I did not have a single unit of inventory to my name.
MF: Now you have celebrities and athletes of all kinds using TRX. When do you think your first big breakthrough happened?
RH: Early on one of the big endorsements came from this cat whom I didn’t even know anything about. One of the trainers that I had become close to trained this guy. He was the quarterback for the Chargers but had just been released because he had torn the labrum in his throwing shoulder. This friend of mine said “Hey, would you send a couple of units for one of the guys I work with? He’s a great guy, really promising but he’s got this injury.” I sent them down a few as a favor.
It turns out this guy is Drew Brees. He signed with the Saints and right when he signed he had an opportunity to do a story with Sports Illustrated, where he gave us a killer plug.
MF: What’s next for TRX?
RH: We aren’t just a gear company, we are a gear and education company. And one day I woke up and went, “Wait a minute, we are a gear, education, and programming company.” That’s the perfect definition of a complete training solution. There’s now this big opportunity to create the world’s greatest training brand.
Our most recent product is a fully deployable shipping container loaded with functional training gear and we sell it into the military and first responder communities. It’s a fully deployable world-class gym in a box. So now we are in fact much broader than the straps, although the straps are what we became famous for.
MF: What’s your measure of success?
RH: A significant amount of our success is the results we give and get to share with our customers. The second part of the answer is obviously financial. You need to generate sales and to be able to have a profitable business off of that. The final one is personal; if I can create a great place to go to work every day for my team and for myself and provide a great lifestyle for my family doing something I enjoy, then to me that’s a pretty high and fortunate place to be.