In the summer of 1997, Randy Hetrick was a Navy SEAL troop commander who wanted to train his climbing muscles so as to defeat pirates. He was stationed in a little warehouse in Malaysia, preparing for a mission that, if approved, would require him to climb the side of a freight ship with 80lbs of gear on his back.

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He had no gym equipment at his disposal—or so he believed. Then he found a jujitsu belt stashed away in one of his bags. He suddenly thought: I wonder if I can tie a knot in the end of this belt, throw it over a door, close the door, lean back, and do a one-armed row, to simulate a climbing motion?

He could. Soon, he was cranking out rows, biceps curls, and—after making a few alterations with some old parachute material—back flyes. Within months, a buddy of Hetrick’s—a parachute rigger—was reproducing Hetrick’s creation for other soldiers in exchange for cases of beer.

“It just kind of proliferated as this quintessential invention of necessity,” says Hetrick, who would enroll in Stanford’s business school and develop his device, which he named the TRX (Total-Body Resistance Exercise) suspension trainer.

Twenty years later, you can find TRX straps in more than 25,000 gyms around the world. They’re used by personal trainers, pro athletes, and the general public to improve total-body strength, stability, and cardiovascular health. Based in San Francisco, TRX now has 110 employees, 300 course instructors, a fitness app, a TRX Academy, and annual revenues that top $50 million. When you think of successful fitness entrepreneurs, Hetrick is at the top of the list.

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On The Job

Want to start your own fitness empire? Here’s what you can expect, according to Hetrick (@randyhetrick).

The Daily Grind

“My schedule has evolved over time,” says Hetrick. “I used to be involved in every single detail of the business on every level. Early on, that’s what entrepreneurial life is about. But if you’re successful, you have to quickly pivot to building a great team.

“These days, I travel a lot. But when I’m in town, I try to limit myself to a couple of meetings a day. The rest of the time I go out in the main area of our big loft, where most of the team works, and have one-on-ones.

“We have a staff class every day at the TRX training center downstairs at 1 p.m., so I also try to take that class to make sure I don’t get old and fat, and can still walk the walk. It’s also fun to get in there with my team and get our sweat on. A lot of goodness comes out of having a vibrant company gym.”

Required skills

“First, you gotta know training,” says Hetrick. “And you gotta have a passion for it, because it ain’t the ‘get-rich-quick’ path that all the knockoff guys seem to think it is.

“Secondly, you gotta have some basic business skills or you’re gonna make too many mistakes. Take the time to understand the general principles of PnL [profit and loss], a balance sheet, and inflows versus outflows. That’s pretty important. If you don’t have that, then partner with a business guy or gal to complement your knowledge of training.

“Third, you gotta have the people skills to create a team and inspire them and hold them together through the inevitable bumps in the road. And just as a personality type, you gotta be a foolish optimist. You gotta be able to bring the mojo day after day after day.”

TRX Bands
Myung J. Chun / Getty

Myung J. Chun / Getty Images

Best Part of the Job

“It’s awesome to see the superstar athletes who’ve made TRX a key piece of their routine,” says Hetrick. “But what I get totally pumped by, honestly, is to have regular folks come up to me and launch into a story about how they discovered TRX suspension training, and in one way or other it changed their life. That’s frickin’ awesome.”

Worst Part of the Job

“A growing business can consume every spare waking moment that an entrepreneur has, and you’ve gotta learn over time—and I’m still learning—how to turn that off sometimes,” says Hetrick. “If you can’t create some mental white space where you can enjoy your family, enjoy a vacation, you can find yourself consumed by your business.”

Other Advice

“Choose to spend your time in a venture that you think you’ll love, because life’s short and you’ve only got one of them, so you better really live it.”

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The 411 on being a fitness mogul

1. Suggested education

  • A bachelor’s degree in business (with a minor in exercise science), or even an MBA. Short of that, read books like From Concept to Market and This Business Has Legs (the story of the ThighMaster).

2. Suggested prelim jobs

  • Something in gym management, product design, or marketing. “Take a job for a couple of years in a relevant business,” says Hetrick, “and you’ll probably learn more in those two years than you’ll ever learn in an MBA program.”

3. Salary range

  • Anywhere from nothing to millions of dollars. “Early in a venture, it’s gonna be lean,” says Hetrick, who didn’t take a paycheck for his first four years with TRX. “Unless you have a big chunk of savings or a rich uncle, you better get used to eating ramen for the first few years.”

4. Most important skills

  • Training knowledge, business proficiency, people skills, determination, self-belief, salesmanship, dogged persistence, and foolish optimism.
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