Iconic Tour

The founder of CrossFit credits his success to one simple secret

Crossfit founder and CEO Greg Glassman (R)
Linda Davidson | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Greg Glassman is the founder and CEO of a rapidly growing fitness company with millions of fanatical customers. To hear him tell it, though, he is merely the caretaker of one of the great wonders of the world.

He compares CrossFit, his business, to the "natural process" that created the Grand Canyon. His contribution? "We didn't f--- it up."

As he told CNBC at the Iconic conference in Boston, "We are the stewards of something fairly spontaneous."

Crossfit CEO on creating a world fitness trend
Crossfit CEO on creating a world fitness trend

Glassman isn't just a businessman. In his mind, he's delivering "a profound metabolic truth" about diet and exercise to a fat, sedentary, disease-ridden population.

The 60-year old former gymnast started training individuals throughout the 1970s, and in 1995, he opened his first gym. Less than two decades later, there are 13,546 active affiliates in 144 different countries operating their own franchise gyms, called "boxes." There are around four million CrossFit athletes, as best as Glassman can guess.

Headquartered in Santa Cruz, California, CrossFit champions as a panacea an intense regimen of physical training combined with a high protein, low carb diet. Lifting monster truck tires overhead and cutting out sugar could, to hear Glassman tell it, all but cure the human race.

Greg Glassman, Crossfit Founder & CEO, at the iConic:Seattle conference on April 5, 2016.
David A. Grogan | CNBC

His evangelical approach to fitness and dieting has earned its fair share of critics. But Glassman is unfazed. He didn't invent weightlifting or what has been popularized as the Paleo diet; rather, Glassman says, in packaging and selling them together as CrossFit, he is a Moses figure, attracting and shepherding those who were lost.

If Glassman can take any credit for the rapid growth of the CrossFit empire, he says, it's that he has largely avoided making mistakes out of greed.

"I had amazing success as an entrepreneur showing restraint against the opportunities that appear, not that are real, but that appear around this movement," says Glassman. CrossFit has avoided putting its name on related consumer products, even when the product would potentially be attractive to CrossFit athletes.

For example, Glassman sees wearable technology as largely a fad that will land products in the infamous kitchen "junk drawer."

"I don't want that. I am not looking for temporary relationships, ephemeral relationships. I am careful about brand dilution," he says. "Listen, you put your name behind something, everyone who has one, it will end up in a junk drawer, there are people that will associate your name with the s--- in the junk drawer."

CrossFit did partner with Reebok to make a specially designed sneaker to fund the CrossFit Games, a national fitness competition. Glassman says he needed a corporate partner to both attract a TV sponsorship, which he got with ESPN, and to make the competition financially viable.

You put your name behind something, everyone who has one will end up in a junk drawer, there are people that will associate your name with the s--- in the junk drawer.
Greg Glassman
Founder and CEO, CrossFit

Otherwise, Glassman resists offers to put the CrossFit label on merchandise and associated gear.

He has certainly sacrificed opportunities by maintaining his resistance to brand partnerships. But the 60-year old fitness nut and entrepreneur seems to believe he is called by a higher power, compelled to save fat, unhealthy people from themselves. Too many associations with other brands would dilute the gospel.

"The value lies in what comes to mind when they hear the name," says Glassman. "When I do things like build equipment and put my name on it and it sells only because my name is on it not because the equipment is any good, if I do that for supplements, when we do that for apparel, I am trading on that good will."

"[CrossFit's success] happened without a business plan, without any marketing," says Glassman. CrossFit is valuable, as Glassman sees it, because he isn't getting in the way.