A Spartan’s Spirit: Joe De Sena

The Spartan Race founder reflects on the hustle he absorbed growing up in a neighborhood run by gangsters and his path from pool boy to CEO of a global company on this week’s episode of “Out of Office.”

Click here to listen to the full episode.

Joe De Sena had a different kind of childhood.

“If you saw Goodfellas, my family lived in ground zero for that movie. Right in Howard Beach. … Everybody in the neighborhood was was either coming out of jail, going into jail, mixing cement, or making pizza. … The common thread amongst all of them was that they all hustled. Men, women, they woke up [and] they just got it done.

“If you weren’t hustling you were left behind.”

That hustler’s spirit imprinted on the kid from Queens. On this week’s episode of Boardroom’s “Out of Office” podcast with Rich Kleiman, De Sena looks back on his winding journey from starting his first business at the age of 12 to launching a global company.

De Sena’s young life was guided, in part, by the action of his surroundings.

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“I woke up as a young child and went into my garage, and there were boxes of things. And I was like, gee, why do we have a thousand pairs of leather gloves in the garage? … ‘Stuff didn’t make it where it was supposed to go,’ my father used to say. “

His father was among the many men around him who were directly or tangentially involved in “the garbage business.”

When he was a preteen, his neighbor, who was the boss of an organized crime family, promised him $35 to clean some pools, but he had three rules:

  1. On time is late.
  2. If I’m paying you to clean the pool, you gotta go above and beyond.
  3. Never ask me for money. Don’t ask anybody for money. If you do a good job, you get paid.

The young De Sena took those to heart, developing the work ethic that has served as the cornerstone of his success ever since.

For De Sena, work became a point of consistency amidst a bit of chaos in his surroundings. It afforded him control that he struggled to find elsewhere. After his grandmother’s illness brought his own mom to one of New York’s only health food stores, she had a chance encounter that led her to become a devout vegan and yogi. Soon after, his parents’ marriage unraveled, and she moved to Ithaca.

Although he spent the bulk of his time upstate, De Sena returned to Queens each weekend to keep his business intact. And it wasn’t until it was nearly too late that he realized that despite his massive success in the pool cleaning business, he wanted to try out something a little more traditional.

“I had no interest in going to college. It wasn’t on the road map,” he recalls.

This proved true until a friend of his promised that his dad, a professor at the prestigious Cornell University, could get them in even in spite of their poor grades and worse SAT scores. Although the back door plan didn’t work out for De Sena, his sights were set on a new goal, and the fact that he was told that he couldn’t go was all he needed to ensure that he did.

His hustler’s mentality led him to take a roundabout route to his degree, but after a few years of auditing classes and making up for some lost time in the classroom, De Sena was accepted. However, he continued to keep his business bustling back in Queens.

A chance encounter led him to his next career move. De Sena had evolved his business from pools to bigger jobs. One day, he was retrieving a hefty payment from a local pharmacist, when he inquired about a stock tip. In minutes, his client orchestrated a purchase of some shares, and 24 hours later, De Sena was up $100,000.

He sold his pool business to the only two people who ever matched his work ethic: two Polish guys from the neighborhood, who continue to maintain the booming business to this day.

De Sena took his talents to Wall Street, where he leaned on the same skills that had driven his success. However, he was soon disenchanted by the greed that surrounded him. Kids were grinding and making stacks of cash, but their hunger for material wealth was voracious and could never be fully fed.

“Plus, I was getting chubby,” he recalls. A lifelong fitness fanatic, De Sena began to yearn for something different.

After selling his second venture, he moved to Vermont and started Spartan Race.

By 2019, the company was firing on all cylinders. He had just purchased his primary competitor, built out a huge business in Eastern Europe, and was ready to coast after years of tireless effort.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, his races had 400,000 registrants in 45 countries clamoring for their money back.

Since then, he’s been climbing his way back out and envisioning what’s next for the Spartan Race.

These days, De Sena can be seen on CNBC’s No Retreat Business Bootcamp, where he counsels entrepreneurs on the key skills for success. Recently, he traveled to the Ukraine border to transport resources to those suffering amidst the war.

While the last few years have bruised his Spartan spirit, De Sena is clear on one thing: it can never be broken.

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