Why I left Wall Street for...EXTREME racing

The New High: Extreme Sports - No Wusses Allowed in This Race
No Wusses Allowed in This Race   

Joe De Sena grew up in Howard Beach, Queens, the famous territory of mafia boss John Gotti. An entrepreneur from a young age, De Sena sold fireworks at age 8, T-shirts in high school and had a multimillion-dollar pool business in college. Naturally, he capped that off starting his own Wall Street trading firm. After doing IronMan and dozens of other ultra-events (100 miles or more), he and a few friends decided to create a 24-hour race they called "The Death Race." (The race waiver included the acknowledgement, "I may die.") After a few years, they wanted to create something more accessible for the masses. And thus, his obstacle-racing empire, Spartan Race, was born. Spartan Races are known as some of the most grueling, with obstacles including mud, barbed wire, walls, rope and fire. Here, De Sena talks about making that big leap that's so hard for so many on Wall Street — leaving — and if it was worth it.

It's been 10 years since I left Wall Street to start a whole new business venture, Spartan Race. 10 years seems like more than enough time to reflect on my time after Wall Street.

Looking back, I realize I was stupid back then, and for that, I'm fortunate. Sometimes people spend so much time over-analyzing a decision that they end up paralyzed – and even talk themselves out of doing something new.

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People let the "what if's" cripple their progress. They fear failure and obsess over it. But sometimes you have to just act. Had I laid out a well-defined plan and modeled out the finances, I certainly would not have left a lucrative job for a start-up. The change would have looked too bleak.

Once I finally decided to get out, I realized just how difficult the road ahead would be. I've worked harder than I ever have in my life — endless hours. Time and again, I've stared failure in the eye — and failure has stared right back. That's just what happens when you leave something familiar for the unknown.

At the time, Spartan Race was not a "good" investment. Or rather, it was not a safe one. As in most businesses, there was no guaranteed return on investment (ROI), plus life doesn't pay us back for the one commodity we can't get back – time. Starting a business is not an easy task. There's a vision. Passion. Hope. Excitement.

Joe De Sena, founder and CEO, Spartan Race
Source: Spartan Race
Joe De Sena, founder and CEO, Spartan Race

Then, there's a glimpse of failure. Momentum slows. The initial flame is tested. Having an idea is an amazing thing, but it's about 1 percent of what you need to start something big. It takes perseverance.

Can you imagine me trying to explain the Spartan Race idea to people I've encountered? "It's an extreme sport in which you will run for miles through mud, under barbed wire and over fire… so are you in or out?" Investors weren't lining up.

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The first few years were challenging and any profit we made was reinvested in the business. Fast-forward to today and my decision is paying off. Spartan Race is now a global event with over 120 races this year around the world. Close to a million people will lace up and run our races in over 20 countries, including more than 50 races in the U.S. alone.

So, how did Spartan Race become a success?

I found that right balance I was looking for: just the right amount of adversity, branding, and race style, without losing the grit. Most importantly, at the heart of the sport was a big idea, an undeniable truth.

All humans have an undiscovered toolbox inside of them that gives them the ability to thrive in physically challenging circumstances. But some of us have lost the connection with nature, the ability to handle discomfort and drive to overcome physical roadblocks. We have become soft. I was becoming soft – mentally and physically.

Spartan brings out the best in humans – it brings out the primal version of us. People want that feeling of invincibility that many have not had since running through the schoolyard with their friends in elementary school. Spartan gives people that opportunity to go up against the odds, push to the brink, get dirty and define themselves.

Feeling the heat - TyAnn Clark, Spartan Race, Atlanta 2014
Source: Spartan Race
Feeling the heat - TyAnn Clark, Spartan Race, Atlanta 2014

That means it appeals to Wall Street brokers and stay-at-home parents, the best athletes on the planet and couch potatoes, kids, adults and special athletes. The list goes on. Endurance events may be niche, but Spartan has managed to tap into this universal desire.

That's why, even as the business struggled early, I would not accept failure. If you believe in your idea, you laugh at the people who laugh at you. Because you realize they don't get it. Even today I realize the business is not quite where we need it to be but it's growing nicely. More than that, the fans are the most passionate in the world and they're making positive changes in their lives and communities.

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I often find myself asking what the future holds. I know I'll always be hungry for more. I would like to be more profitable, to be able to give even more revenue to charity, to touch and influence more people and to expand the worldwide presence. But I know that the business is exactly where it needs to be. It's never been forced and I think that is important.

When I left Wall Street at 36, I was young and naïve. Decisions we make in life tend to come down to emotional and rational; so often the two are misaligned. My decision to leave the Street was based on a dream and raw hunger. I dreamed of the best and prepared for the worst. If you make an emotional decision, you better be ready for all the emotions that come with it, not just the good ones. And, like overcoming a Spartan course, you must be gritty and resilient.

If you consider leaving Wall Street, or a steady job for that matter, don't go telling everyone that I recommended it. It's not for everyone. But I will say this, if you make a decision, don't look back. It's not productive. Questioning yourself wastes energy, and you'll need every bit of energy during the good times and bad.

Go forward with everything you have and be ready for the course ahead.

Commentary by Joseph De Sena, founder and CEO of Spartan Race. He is a former equities and derivatives trader and the author of the memoir, "Spartan Up!"

From flying off a mountaintop in a wingsuit to nailing a triple back motorcycle flip or kiteboarding 40 feet in the air, Americans are pushing themselves to new limits. Tune in to CNBC Thursday, June 18 at 10 pm ET/PT for the documentary, "The New High: Extreme Sports."