August 19

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CrossFit Co-Founder Lauren Jenai Talks Making An Impact

By Mimi MacLean

August 19, 2021


CrossFit Co-Founder Lauren Jenai
CrossFit Co-Founder Lauren Jenai

Lauren Jenai started CrossFit with her husband to make an impact in the Fitness Industry. Lauren discusses how they created a successful business and community over the last two decades. Lauren and Greg founded CrossFit in the late 90s as a revolutionary training style that allowed people to get fit and healthy in a competitive and welcoming environment. After years in the business, Lauren felt the pull to leave CrossFit and create a more personal business that was individualized and impactful on a day-to-day emotional level, now known as the Manifest App.

Lauren Jenai on the Badass CEO Podcast

Episode Contents:

CrossFit & How It Changed Fitness

Lauren Jenai On Creating CrossFit with her then-husband Greg Glassman

Mimi :
Lauren, thank you so much for coming on today. I'm super excited to talk to you. I wanted to start by how you came to be the co-founder of CrossFit.

Lauren:
Well, that story started in 1995, a long time ago. And I was a member of a Gold's Gym in Santa Cruz, California, kind of a fledgling fitness participant, trying to figure out the world of fitness for me, what would work and what wouldn't. And in that process, I met Greg Glassman, who had recently moved from LA to Santa Cruz. And he had a unique approach to health and fitness that he was bringing to the Santa Cruz Sheriff's Department. And they were working out of the Gold's Gym where I belonged. I became a client of Greg's and had phenomenal results. And what was significant is, this is we're talking in the mid-90s, fitness was very much about doing a lot of cardio, isolation exercises. The nutrition fads were all about low fat, high carb feeding. And so Greg had this concept of Hey, what if we combined weightlifting with gymnastics and the cardiovascular exercise and applied a more balanced diet?

We were very much inspired by, or he was inspired by at that time, Dr. Barry Sears' book that had just come out, The Zone, which promoted eating adequate proteins and fats, as well as carbohydrates. But we were freaks in the fitness world then. So I had just great results personally. And I was very motivated, inspired by what Greg was doing. And he was a solo trainer at the time and needed help expanding his business. And he asked me to get involved, and that's how we started developing the brand and the concept to what it's become today. I should be clear; I haven't been involved in CrossFit for about nine years at this point. But up until that point, we had done something pretty special.

Mimi :
Yeah. I mean, it's a household name. Right? And it's hit every town across America for the most part. And so I would love for you to talk about how you make, as co-founder, how you have this idea. And then, all of a sudden, have it become a household name. What do you think was the special sauce? What is it? Is it the community that it created?

Lauren:
There's a lot of things that came together for CrossFit. One of the major things was that Greg and I had an unyielding passion for providing exceptional service to our clientele. And we had an understanding that for us to reach as many people as possible, which was our goal because we wanted to help as many people as possible be healthy and fit, we had to be able to expand past just a normal, traditional, personal training or coaching scenario. And so we always strived to provide better and more for our clientele and take direction from the people interested in CrossFit, so a lot of CrossFit developed organically.

For example, we got a call once from I think it was the Mississippi police department, and they wanted to send some people out to get certified in the CrossFit approach. And we were like, "Well, we don't do that." And they're like, "No, you have to do that because for it to be accredited for the police department, you have to have a certification." And so, we created a certification program.

Mimi :
I like that.

Lauren:
That became the backbone of CrossFit's revenue stream, and it wasn't something that we could foresee. Greg and I were both very malleable as to what the concept would turn into and what it would ultimately look like, but with the core being very consistent, but the application meeting the needs of the people interested in CrossFit. That, on top of, when you talk about special sauce, I mean, we were doing something very, very different. It was a very high-intensity exercise. We posted workouts online for free. And so people would find these workouts and try them. And it was very high intensity, and the types of folks who were finding the workouts and doing them and loving them were police officers, firemen, people whose livelihoods, lives and livelihoods, depended on them being extremely fit.

Around that same time, 9/11 happened, and many militaries went overseas and worked in austere environments. CrossFit was such a great tool for those folks because you could do the workouts in austere locations with minimal equipment. It was the exact kind of fitness that military folks, police officers, firemen, elite athletes, MMA practitioners needed. We got a cult following at first, and it was because we put information out for free.

We put out workouts and opened up a message board where people could talk and share. At that point, we said, "Let's put it an umbrella over all legitimate fitness and nutrition concepts." And so we had high-level Olympic weightlifters, and we had gymnasts. People who studied nutrition and were experts in that field, all collaborating, ultimately became this amazing, tight-knit, strong community. And I think that at the end of the day, that community that we built and how it was built, I see it like this solid tree with such strong roots because it wasn't just Greg or me. And it was never about us as individuals. It was about a community and fulfilling a niche that had not been tapped into or fulfilled previously.

Mimi :
Yeah. I mean, I think of CrossFit, and I think of community. That's kind of why I brought that up in the beginning. But for your business model, when you decided to roll it out and open up other gyms around the country, are those franchised? Or are those just independently owned, and they just come to get certified?

Lauren:
This is another unique story in terms of organic growth and serving the interests and needs of our clientele. We had a couple of folks up and say, "Hey, we want to have an affiliate." I don't even know if we called it an affiliate, but they wanted to do CrossFit North to basically offer the same things in Santa Cruz in the Seattle area. And the concept was born. We decided that we did not want to do a franchise model because Greg and I did not believe we were necessarily experts in how a CrossFit gym should run. We wanted to open it up. It's kind of like open-source software. We wanted to open up the concept to hundreds and then thousands, and then tens of thousands of people to learn best practices, understanding that best practices are different in different communities and environments.

Lauren:
So we definitely didn't … Franchise is very cookie cutter. There was a lot of money involved in franchises. We offered people who wanted to teach the CrossFit methodology to start a business at a meager cost. There was a shallow barrier to entry. And so people who were just kind of hobbyists, or had just retired from the police department, and we're just in love with CrossFit, could afford to. And it was practical for them to open up a CrossFit gym, become certified in the methodology, and teach and share what Greg and I started in their community. So it basically is a licensing agreement. So it's not a franchise; it's a licensing agreement. And again, bringing back the Gold's Gym reference, the Gold's Gym was unique in that it was not a franchise like other gyms at the time. It was a licensed space. And we liked that. We liked Gold's Gyms because they were very individual and it's not very corporate. And so we kind of went off that model of licensing the name and then certifying people in the methodology.

Mimi :
That's great. And then, so I remember I went to a CrossFit gym for a little bit a long time ago. And my trainer was really into it, and she went to competitions. Were those competitions that CrossFit ran, or were those were run something different completely? I felt like many people going to CrossFit and were really into it was competing around the country.

Lauren:
Yeah. So it could have been one or both. At some point, I forget what year this was. Still, Greg and I always had talked about having a fitness festival or something like this, great competition of, where there'd be food vendors and barbecues and people getting together and lifting heavy weights, or lifting odd objects and running through hills, and just doing all kinds of physical tasks in a fun, competitive way. And out of that idea was born the CrossFit Games. The CrossFit Games started in Aromas, California, at one of our trainer's properties.

And the first CrossFit Games, there might've been a couple of hundred people there, maybe not even a hundred. I don't know. Then we very quickly went into at the time; it was The Home Depot Center in Long Beach, California. So the games became a central part of CrossFit.The community started doing competitions, local competitions, affiliates, competitions to raise money for good causes. But it was all inspired by the CrossFit Games, and so most of the competitions that you probably saw, experienced, or your trainer did, was probably local and affiliate run.

Mimi :
Right. I know the person who was my trainer; she actually won the nationals or something. She went really high.

Lauren:
Right, right, right. Yeah.

Mimi :
But that's really neat. And you guys were running the national level.

Lauren:
It's changed over the years, but I believe, at that point, yes.

It Takes A Lot More Work Than You Can Imagine

CrossFit games image
Lauren Jenai and her husband Greg created CrossFit Games.

Mimi :
Okay. And then, so looking back on your whole ride of doing that, it was 20 years. I can't do the math right now. But what would you say was the biggest lesson you learned as a takeaway, as an entrepreneur and co-founder?

Lauren:
The biggest takeaway for me is that it's a hard question because there are many takeaways over a journey. It takes a lot more work than anybody could ever imagine making a successful company grow. And that's a glorious thing. Some people, Oh, God, it's so hard," or whatever. No, if you love what you do and are committed to succeeding at all costs, you will succeed. And that was something that Greg and I did and committed to early on is; we felt like we had something so special.

He put it this way. And I always, it stuck with me. He's like, "Hey if we had the cure to cancer and we could share that with people, wouldn't you do it no matter what?" Even if you didn't make money, we felt so passionate about what we were doing; it was like we had a cure to cancer. We had to share what we knew about fitness and nutrition. And we had an undying commitment to making it grow. And so I guess the biggest takeaway is it takes a lot of passion, hard work, and you have to love what you're doing.

Mimi :
I would say it always takes double. When people show me deals, I'm like, "You double the amount of money and double the time." At any point in the growth of your company, it takes longer. It's kind of like doing construction on your house. Right?

Lauren:
Right. Exactly.

Mimi :
It always takes longer; it takes more money, assumes the worst. Do you know? Okay. So you left and decided to start your own company called Manifest. It's an app, and it's still in the wellness space. I see it's geared towards people with a chronic illness too.

From CrossFit to Creating the Manifest App

The Manifest App – Achieving Wellness

So I left CrossFit, not exactly; it's not something I wanted. It's something that had to happen. And not having that company and not being able to do what I did my entire adult life left me pretty, maybe depressed, is just the right way to say. It's like I went from creating something amazing, being part of this amazing community, to that being gone from my life. I have, of course, four beautiful children to raise. I was swamped. But there was; I felt like something was lacking. And interestingly, because we talked about the CrossFit Games, the CrossFit Games started becoming more popular as I exited the company. And I didn't really think … I wasn't a fan of that. I thought that the games were fun and important, but I didn't think it should be the company's focus because Greg and I really started CrossFit forging elite fitness and really working with common people.

I felt like the games started changing CrossFit in some ways, and not for the better. Some ways for the better, and some ways not for the better. It really became about elite athleticism. It became about the competition. And I think, I don't know, it might've been an interview that Greg did on 60 Minutes or something. I wasn't even watching it. It was in the background or something, and something just hit me. It was like, "This is not what I wanted from CrossFit." I feel like there's this entire population of people in need, who are not involved in health and fitness, people who are intimidated to go to the gym or struggle because of just physical inabilities to, and people who have tried every diet in the world, and nothing has worked for them, type two diabetics who are not getting the proper support that they need from their doctors.

And so I just started creating this concept in my head like, "What if I could tap into this health and fitness for people who are not already in health and fitness?" And that's kind of where Manifest comes from. And particularly, through my experience with CrossFit and working with people and nutrition and exercise, I know I personally can help anybody achieve their health and fitness goals.

But I wanted to create something that wasn't just about me, that could help many people, especially this demographic of people who struggle with diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and lethargy. We basically made it an app-based concept, but I wouldn't say it's an app. This is what's been a unique challenge for Manifest. It works through an app, but it is a tool for the concept, more like a program, a process. The challenge for Manifest is, okay, so we can change your life, yes. And it's through an app, but it's not free, and it doesn't cost $10 a month. It's like you actually get a facilitator, somebody working with you, one on one throughout your process. We provide lab tests.

Mimi :
Oh, wow. Much more personalized than the typical exercise apps that are out there.

Lauren:
Yes, exactly. And that's the thing; it's really to make a change; it's making a change in a person's health and fitness is individual because we're all starting from different places. We have different fears, anxieties, needs, desires, goals. And that's all really tied into not, okay, your performance at the CrossFit Games or something like that, and not the number on a scale, but your actual health. And so what we found is measuring actual health parameters, like your triglyceride levels, HDL levels, LDL levels, fasting glucose; monitoring those parameters overtime proved to be such a great motivator to get people to understand how food and exercise affect their life and health. It's been spectacular. Every time I talk about Manifest, I get terribly excited. And people just glom onto it. It's like, "Oh, yeah. Wait, you don't have to get on a scale?" I'm like, "Nope."

And another significant thing is we really focus on not food shaming. There's like, "Oh, this is good food. This is bad food. This is good. This isn't good. You should feel guilty because you ate that cake at a wedding or whatever." No, what we do is teach. Okay, yeah, you had that cake at the wedding. And how is that affecting you and your health and your goals? And it might be that it's wonderful. Who cares? You're probably not eating cake every day. And if you are eating cake every day, maybe you don't eat it every day. Maybe count it down to five days a week. So it's just you really go into people's lives in terms of where they are, what they're doing currently, where their health is, and incrementally make changes.

Mimi :
Right. And depending on their goals too. Right?

Lauren:
Exactly.

Mimi :
Everyone has different goals.

Lauren:
Because your goals could be completely different than mine.

Mimi :
Once you decided to create this, was it hard to get the name out there and tell people that it existed? How did you go about doing that?

Lauren:
I think we're still kind of in that mode of getting the name out there. On Facebook, I started creating content for the app that was unique. We have informational videos in the form of these videos that are comedy, off-colored sometimes, just quirky. It's not just that sterile medical green and white color website. We really wanted to have a different feel and look and environment for Manifest. I think that has really helped kind of put the Manifest name out there and set us apart, even though not everybody gets the humor at first; the people who do are right for the program.

Trust is Key for Business Partners

Teamwork in a Business

Mimi :
Right. Now the one area I want to, you touched on a little bit, that I just would love to kind of touch on as well is … And I don't think we've been clear in the podcast, is for anybody who's listening, you were married, Greg and you. Were you married when you guys started? No. You started it and then got married.

Lauren:
So I met Greg in 1995. Basically, he was a struggling trainer in a Gold's Gym. We got married in 1998, and CrossFit was very local to Santa Cruz at that point. And we were very much developing the concept, methodology, brand. So we built that together. I met Greg; he had a great concept.

Mimi :
Right. I bring it up because I feel like I love having you talk about this. After all, having partnerships is so hard, and especially having a partner that's also a family member is so hard. And everyone always tells you, "Don't go into business with a family member." Right? And so I just wanted to make sure. You've kind of been touching on it a little bit that you left. But I just wanted to make sure that people realize that that was your ex-husband. And if there's anything like lessons learned to that, for anybody who's on listening. Because I do find partnerships have been tough for me starting, we all have great intentions, and just their style, the direction of what you want with the company, or the style of changes for each other, and you just realize that you're better off kind of separating. So any kind of insights for anybody who's listening to that might be struggling with a partner right now?

Lauren:
I have a lot of thoughts there. The biggest one is coming out of CrossFit and coming out of my marriage; Greg and I were such best friends and worked together every day. I mean, we spent every day together, every working hour together. We were a team, and I became very accustomed to that, and it was pretty magical. I complimented him; he complimented me. We had different roles. It was amazing. It's probably part of why CrossFit's so successful because his and I's relationship was the way it was. For me, looking at other people's relationships, and this is just kind of relationship-wise, not business necessarily, it's hard for me to picture people who are couples, who are married, who have different jobs, just because I grew up from my 20s to 40s, married to my best friend and my business partner, and it was great.

And then it went bad, so there's the other part. It's like, "Oh, shit." Then when it goes bad, it can suck. And people change; situations change. I think my Manifest experience is a bit more like what you're talking about. I've tried to get other people involved, and it just didn't work; not the same vision, not the same fit. And that definitely is a challenge. I think in a perfect world, yeah, you should be able to be in a relationship with somebody, whether it be a marriage, or friendship, or whatever, and be business partners, but that's a huge ask. I think Greg and I were unicorns in that way, that we did do so well together for so long. So yeah, it's a little bit hard for me because there's part of me that's like, "Okay, there's no other way it should be other than that." And then I also know it's kind of not possible.

Mimi :
Yeah. Right. It's hard, just in general. And thank you for being open and transparent because it is a topic that I think many people struggle with because everybody has good intentions. Right? But then it just gets a little more complicated than we hope it to be.

Lauren:
And I think on that note, it's like really; communication is key because I would like to bring on partners or other people to be involved with Manifest. I think that transparency, honesty, clear communication, there has to be away, even if there is a personal relationship, that it can be put on hold for a second while the business relationship's boundaries are in effect.

Lauren’s Advice For Entrepreneurs

Lauren Jenai on Advice for New Business Owners

Mimi: That's a great suggestion. Okay. So is there any other last-minute advice or anything for entrepreneurs out there before we wrap up, or any suggestions you would give them?

Lauren: Never give up. You might encounter, I always picture kind of like, oh, I bumped up against this wall. And some people would see that as a failure. To succeed, you bump up against a wall; if something's not working, maneuver, change. Change directions, be malleable, but never give up. I always am a little bit hairy fairy here. It's like if things are just hard like it feels like you're banging your head against the wall, you're probably not moving in the right direction, but it doesn't mean you're on the wrong path. You can just change things, look at them from a different perspective. But if you want success, you will have it if you commit and are malleable, flexible to the process.

Mimi: I love that. That's great. Well, thank you so much, Lauren. I really appreciate it. And I wish you the best with Manifest.

Lauren: Thank you.

Mimi: And for anybody that wants to check it out, it's bemanifest.com. And her Instagram is. Manifest, and Be Manifest on Facebook. Thank you for joining us on The Badass CEO. To get your copy of The Top 10 Tips, Every entrepreneur Should know, go to thebadassceo.com/tips. Also, please leave a review, as it helps others find us. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I would love to hear them, so email me at Mimi@thebadassceo.com.

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