It was the summer of 1997 and Randy Hetrick, a Us Navy SEAL Troop commander, was deployed in Asia with the mission on hold. “The challenge is maintaining conditioning when you have no access to training facilities,” he says. So he started experimenting. Digging through his backpack, he discovered a jujitsu belt. By tying a knot at one end and throwing it over a door, he could use it to do a variation of a single-arm row. But he wanted more versatility, so he found some nylon webbing used for repairing parachute harnesses and stitched a more elaborate training strap. It had a Y shape with handles that doubled as stirrups. Now Hetrick could do pull-ups, curls, core exercises, leg work – a seemingly endless array of moves.
The SEAL team loved the contraption and dubbed it “the gizmo”. Still, nobody thought the gizmo, “a true invention of necessity”, would be of much interest to civilians. Now, 17 years later, that gizmo is called TRX (Total-Body Resistance Exercise), and it’s a fitness phenomenon. But Hetrick wasn’t just lucky. His rise from amateur inventor to fitness entrepreneur proves that a good idea is only half the battle.
1. Dive in Deep
After leaving the military in 2001, Hetrick enrolled in business school at California’s Stanford University. He was 36 and married, with a baby on the way. “I anchored the bottom of the first 20 exams,” he says. But he realised the gizmo might be a means to pull himself up. He unveiled it in class and brought his prototype to the university’s sports training centre. “Pretty soon, guys asked to try it .” The keys: believing in his product and getting it into the hands of his target user.
2. Test and Tweak
If at first you don’t succeed… well, you’re like everyone else. Hetrick tweaked his design at least 50 times. His SEAL buddies and some elite athletes pitched in. “No matter how smart you think you are, you need river guides to help you navigate the rapids,” he says. Hetrick’s first 49 tries weren’t mistakes. “We tend to see success as good and failure as bad,” says psychologist Professor Bill Crawford. “But failure can provide good information about what doesn’t work.”
3. Find Shortcuts
Hetrick made his TRX prototypes with a R400 sewing machine. But he gained ground on his competitors, who had sleeker equipment but were less versatile. “Many creative people spend thousands on prototypes,” says Bob De Matteis, author of From Patent to Profit. But big innovations don’t always happen in big labs. De Matteis helped invent the self-opening shopping bag with a R40 investment: a craft knife, plywood and coat hangers. It’s a R16-billion business today.
4. Create a Movement
Soon after earning his MBA in 2003, Hetrick launched Fitness Anywhere in San Francisco. “I netted a grand or so a month, but it seemed like a fortune.” He kept at it, selling the TRX first to pro athletes and trainers and then to gyms. Eventually he branched out, bundling the TRX with workout DVDs and creating a certification for TRX instructors. The movement gained momentum as people began to design and share their own TRX exercises and circuits.
5. Hone Your Message
Sure, suspension training has been around for a long time, says Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the National Academy of Sports Medicine. What set TRX apart was its slogan: “Make Your Body Your Machine.” Hetrick marketed it as “a gym in your backpack”, as handy for workouts as the iPod is for music. “Portability and convenience in exercise is booming,” says Comana. “TRX satisfied the customers’ needs – perhaps even their unrecognised needs.”
6. Keep Innovating
Today TRX has 110 employees and annual revenues of over R600-million. But Hetrick knows TRX needs to keep evolving. “Every few years we’ll come out with another true innovation,” he says. The latest, the TRX Rip Trainer, is a bar joined to a resistance cord that’s especially good for high-speed, low-load rotational training and core work. It’s too early to say if the new tool will be a hit, but Hetrick notes that it’s on a significantly faster growth track than his original gizmo was.
By Eric Spitznagel