3 min read
In a recent Walker Webcast, I had the pleasure of speaking with Marc Hodulich and Jesse Itzler, cofounders of 29029, The Everest Challenge. In addition to cofounding 29029 with Marc, Jesse has cofounded other successful ventures, like Marquis Jet, which was sold to NetJets, and Zico Coconut Water, which was sold to Coca-Cola. He is also part owner of the Atlanta Hawks and the author of a NYT bestselling book, Living with a SEAL. Over the past two decades, Marc has been an entrepreneur, management consultant, and endurance athlete.
While many would love the opportunity to climb Mount Everest, most will never be able to do so. For those who are unable to travel to Everest to make the summit, 29029 brings Everest to them. Each year, 29029 hosts several events where the company rents out private mountains for participants to climb as many times as they can over the course of 36 hours until they have scaled a total of 29029 feet, the height of Mount Everest.
However, 29029 is not just an endurance sport. If participants wanted to do an endurance race, they would go do a marathon or a triathlon. What sets 29029 apart from endurance races is that it presents an excellent opportunity to challenge yourself with the strain of climbing a mountain like Everest in an unknown, yet safe, environment.
“When should I sell my company?” Almost every successful entrepreneur faces the same question at some point throughout their career. Jesse’s a veteran in answering this question successfully, having sold several companies throughout his life. He also watched his wife, Sara Blakely, recently sell her company, SPANX, to Blackstone. Jesse shared that the right time to sell your company is when you have checked all the boxes that you wanted to check throughout your time running the company, whether they be philanthropic, financial, or political. Selling your company represents the closing of a chapter, which enables you to begin the next chapter.
At the end of the day, having the right business partner is key to running a successful business. You could have the best business in the world, but if you have a bad business partner, there’s a pretty good chance the business will fail. Marc and Jesse consider themselves very lucky to have found each other because they are both incredibly driven people who are willing to push past their own perceived limitations, whether that be in an endurance race or in business. This mindset has been what’s allowed them to create such large, successful ventures, both on their own and together.
I regularly have the pleasure of interviewing some of the most influential people of our time, like Marc and Jesse. To hear our entire conversation and view our list of upcoming guests, be sure to check out the Walker Webcast!
Marc Hodulich and Jesse Itzler, Co-Founders of 29029, the Everest Challenge
Willy Walker: Good morning from California to Marc and to Jesse and everyone who's listening this afternoon on the East Coast. Before we begin, as I've done the past two weeks, I want to express our ongoing concern, sympathies and support for the people of Israel as they respond to the Hamas terrorist attacks. I was with a Walker & Dunlop client yesterday who has a nephew in the Israeli army who had just been called up as a reservist. These are scary and sad times. We also must be vigilant in pushing back on any discrimination and anti-Semitism that appears in our companies, communities, and country. There is no place for it in a free society.
With that, let me go to the intros of my two guests today.
Jesse Itzler is an American entrepreneur, author, and rapper. He is the co-founder of Marquis Jet, one of the largest private jet companies in the world, which he sold to NetJets and a partner in Zico Coconut Water, which he sold to Coca-Cola. Jesse is the founder of the 100 Mile Group, 29029 and one of the owners of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. He is a graduate of American University and is married to Spanx founder Sara Blakely. They have four children and Jesse takes family, friends, and fitness very seriously.
Marc Hodulich has been an entrepreneur, management consultant and endurance athlete for the last two decades. He began his career as a strategy consultant and has founded multiple companies spanning health, wellness, natural resources, and event production. Marc and his partners recently sold 29029 to the parent company of NordicTrack, iFIT where Marc continues in the role of CEO. An active fundraiser and philanthropist, Marc raised over $5M for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center while creating and managing a nationwide fundraising series. Marc is an accomplished endurance athlete, having completed multiple 100-mile trail runs, ultra-marathons and Ironmans. He, like Jesse, is serious about friends, fitness, and family, spending lots of time with his wife Stacey, and boys Chase and Dylan.
So before we dive in, Jesse & Marc, I got a lot of shout outs. First, my great friend and one of the most kick ass endurance athletes I know and bankers, Jeff Johnson, who works at PNC Bank did your 29029 event last summer in Sun Valley, Idaho called me afterwards and said, “You got to meet Marc and Jesse.” And so to Jeff for connecting the three of us, I'm deeply thankful.
Second, on the 29029 website, there's a picture of the two of you with mega endurance athlete Colin O'Brady, whose racing RAAM next summer with my great buddy and training partner, Lucas Clarke. Jesse, did you do RAAM last summer?
Jesse Itzler: I rode my bike across the country with ten friends, but we didn't do the official RAAM race.
Willy Walker: How long did that take you?
Jesse Itzler: So we did it in 14 days. We did it kind of in a cool format that allowed us to do it in 14 days. But listen, getting to see the country 15 miles per hour at a time is an incredible experience, man.
Willy Walker: It sounds great. I want to dive into that in a minute. And then finally, I need to thank Barnes & Noble for your book, Jesse “Living with a SEAL,” because as an endurance athlete and a SEAL fan like me, and also someone who tries to fit it all in - when I read your book, I'm not sure it changed my life, but it was one of the most sort of connecting books - not that I've ever done anything close to that. But as I read about you and having a SEAL live with you, it was literally one of the most amazing things I've ever read. So thank you for your book and thanks to Barnes & Noble for that.
And then finally, I was in the gym in San Diego this morning, and Ritesh Chauhan, who's a friend of both of yours from Atlanta, walked up to me and said: “You have Jesse and Marc on the webcast today and you got to give me a shout out.” So anyway, lots of connectivity and it's great to have you both on.
So let's start here. Both of you: friends, family and fitness is super important. Those three things in your bio sound pretty great, but most people have a couple other things competing for their time: work, travel, food, the NFL. Marc, you were a runner at Auburn. How did you create a life commitment to fitness?
Marc Hodulich: It was just discipline early on, I saw my dad every day after work, go out and run 4 to 5 miles. And I saw him run marathons when I was young. And there's this part of my upbringing was working out and being outside and being active. I think as I got into my professional career, which is just one of the things that I prioritized. I don't think I’m right in a day unless I'd worked out in some capacity. And once I had kids, I realized I wasn't right until I got to play with them and I think intertwining those two things together, kind of working out and doing it with family, that's how Jesse and I met, and I swore to myself I'd never have another partner. I think Jesse was at a point in life where he said he would have another partner, too. And, you know, he's just a great person. I think when you're around people that live the kind of life that you're trying to aspire to do, and you see them finding that balance, but also having great success both as a husband, as a father, as an entrepreneur, but also as an athlete. You say, hey, maybe I do want to partner and maybe we can be aligned in pursuing many things at the same time. That's certainly what we found together; I believe.
Willy Walker: Jesse, I've heard you say, “Find the people you love and live life with them.”
Jesse Itzler: Yeah, I think just going back, there's a lot of talk, even early on in this conversation that we're throwing the word around “athlete.” Actually, I feel like it's making me laugh inside because I never thought of myself as an athlete. Marc and I both love endurance sports, and the common theme in endurance sports is it comes down to one thing and that's will, you don't have to be a great runner. You don't have to be super strong. I mean, of the 500 people on this call, everyone could probably be in a 50 yard dash or lift more weights than me. But I'm really good at running for a really long time without stopping. And that comes down to will.
So I love that you are grouping, Marc and I in this category of “athlete,” it makes me feel really good at 55 years old.
Willy Walker: Hahaha! Jesse, on that as I think about your story and as I think about Marc's story and quite honestly, as I think about my story, I think about who said you couldn't do something. Who's that person who said, “Hey, Jesse, you're not good enough, you're not fast enough, you're not smart enough to get that done.” Because as someone who has spent his entire life sort of trying to get that chip off my shoulder, I can sense in both you as well as Marc, that there's this internal fire that is always going to say, “I can do it.” But someone at some point said you couldn't. Is there a specific person who sort of said, Jesse, you can't do that? And for decades you have proven them wrong?
Jesse Itzler: Well, I'm an entrepreneur by heart. Any time you're an entrepreneur and you're introducing a new idea, you're going to get met with resistance, you're going to get met with resistance. And that's always been fuel for me. I wouldn't say there's one specific person, but I definitely like to operate as the underdog. I remember Rocky in Rocky 1 when he’s hitting the meat bags and he's coming up and then Rocky 3 is getting fan down in the gym. I never want to be Rocky 3. I never want to be Rocky 3, so I don't know if it's one person in particular or whatever, but I definitely feel I want to stay in the Rocky 1 mindset for sure.
But, I think everybody pulls from (Marc might feel differently,) but I feel like people say, like, don't hold grudges and it's not healthy – whatever you can channel to reach a big goal because you're going to hit so many obstacles. I had so many obstacles and an entrepreneur, so many obstacles when running a 100 mile race, so many obstacles in my bike ride across America, whatever you can pull from to get through those, whether it's anger, whether it's I want to get the girl or the guy, whether it's the people that doubted you, I think it's important to have some of that in the memory bank, personally.
Can't all be like I'm in a nice air conditioned house and it's tough, so I'm going to quit. So I channel that. I need that, man. I need that in me. And whatever it is, I think it's important to hold on to some of that stuff and pull it out when you need it. What do you think, Marc?
Marc Hodulich: For me, there wasn't any individual. I think I grew up in such a supportive environment. My parents were so supportive, and my coaches were great. I think I realized I left something on the table, like I had more gas in the tank. I was in my twenties, and I wasn't doing endurance events. I was lifting and running every day, but it was just so I could fit in the same size clothes, and I didn't get fat, or I could eat what I wanted, right?
I got in my thirties and just thought, man, I can do a lot more. And now I'm in my forties. And you know, when you're surrounded, like Colin's one of our partners, he's going to ride his bike across the country at 22 miles an hour. With Lucas, they're insane and he has ten world records, and you start to level up and start to think the things you've done maybe aren't that impressive. And it's not for another story to tell or to brag. It's to prove to yourself you can still do it.
I want to always know that I can rise to the occasion and do it and be in the elements and fight through it. So I think a lot of it for me is proving to myself that I still have it and I'm still able to be tough even as we've achieved some success, some comforts in life. Colin always talks about having 1s and 10s, maybe think about 1 as your lowest moment and 10 as your best moment. You don't get to have the 10s without the 1s. And he says, he doesn't want to live his life with 5s and 6s. And like, I realized that you gotta put yourself in these really gritty, hard situations. And while Jesse had a great time riding his bike across the country it is not easy to do for 14 days in a row, to sit in the saddle for six, seven, eight, nine, 10 hours and be uncomfortable. But just think of that 10 when you get to the beach in Florida, right? I think that's where I think a lot about wanting to sign up for things and do things to continue to prove to myself that the past is something I can be proud of. But I'm not going to level off there, right? I can still continue to do good things. And you realize your network and mostly my kids see that I'm still doing that stuff – that's the most important thing to me at this stage in life. My boys are 12 and 13 and I want them to see that you can continually challenge yourself and grow.
Willy Walker: Jesse, I've heard you talk about the difference between two words: “can” and “will,” Will you back up to the advice that Lewis Katz gave you when you were offered to sell a 10% annuity in your jingle business for 10,000 bucks way back when?
Jesse Itzler: Well, actually, it was 10% of all my future earnings. Yeah, between the ages of 19 and 23, I was flip flopping amongst 18 different friends' couches. When I was on couch number 17, someone had offered me -- I was in the jingle business. My business model was going to a studio on my own nickel, write a song for like the New York Yankees. I was doing it for sports teams mostly, cold calling them and trying to get them on the phone to get a meeting and then convince them if I got a meeting that they needed this song that I had and try to sell it to them.
I had no money to go to the studio anymore. So someone had offered me $10,000 for 10% of all my future earnings for the rest of my life. And I'm like, I'll take it. That’s Elon Musk's money!
Willy Walker: That would have been the best deal ever done for that guy in hindsight, ever, ever. He'd be a really rich guy today.
Jesse Itzler: He was turning me into a $10,000 heir. That was amazing for me at the time. But I was living with this girl and her roommate, and she said, “Well, why don't you go talk to my father about it before you make that decision? He's an entrepreneur.” And I went to see this gentleman named Lou Katz, who was incredibly successful, and he just asked me a simple question. He said, “Will you make this company work without getting the $10,000?” And I said, Lou, I know I can make it work. And he erupted. He said, “I didn't ask you that. I know you can be a millionaire. I know you can run a marathon. I know you can start a podcast. I said, will you? Will you make it work?” And I said, I will. And then he said, “Well, then go ahead and do it. Don't take the money.”
There's a big difference between “can” and “will.” Everybody here can do a whole bunch and I can ride my bike across the country. I can start a business, but, you know, will you, do it? And as a 21 year old kid, hearing this guy talk to me about really just the words that I say to myself and the impact that they have on me in my own self-talk had such a big impact on me. And even now with four kids, the words that we speak in our house are so important, and the limitations that we put on ourselves are very often self-imposed, and so important.
Part of the reason why Marc and I started 29029 is to take people that had never participated in endurance sports. They were intimidated, they didn't like obstacle racing or they're not great swimmers or cyclists or runners. They can't do an Ironman. We made the endurance sports available to anybody that had the will to walk and climb for X amount of hours to climb the equivalent of Mount Everest.
One of the reasons why we did it, the “why” behind it is that when people leave our event, we always tell them, man, go home and double your business plan, look at what you just did. Think about what you came here and thought you could do. Maybe you only ran a 5k in your life, it took you 40 minutes. You just went for 28 hours and climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest. Go double your business plan. You know, we were showing people that the limitations that they've been putting on themselves are self-imposed.
My whole life's been like that. I go back to running my first marathon and being like, I can't believe I just did that. And then watching people run, going, and spectating a 100 mile run and expecting to see Superman at the starting line. But seeing people that looked like goat herders and accountants. And I'm like, how were they finishing this? Oh, they're just not quitting. They're not letting the obstacles get in front of them. They are not even stronger than me. They just have incredible will, incredible self-talk. So that little will vs. can dialog had a tremendous impact on my own self-talk and what I thought my limitations were.
Willy Walker: Marc, talk about that as it relates to 29029, there are no winners in the Everesting. There's no podium there, no age group or gender groups. There are no race categories. The only goal is to ascend the mountain as many times as you think is humanly possible. As you think about that from an experiential standpoint, what Jesse was just talking about, it feels like it's more than a race. It feels like it's an experience. It feels like the people who go there are looking for something more than just the endurance of it. Because if it was just the endurance, as Jesse said they'd go to a marathon, or they go to a triathlon. What's unique about Everesting?
Marc Hodulich: Yeah, well, it's a safe place to challenge yourself and be willing to put yourself in an environment where you don't know what the outcome is going to be. I mean, that's entrepreneurship, right? Starting a business, you don't know how it's going to end up. You see how you want it to go, but it's never going to be a linear path.
With 29029, it's an audacious goal, but it gives something someone as Jesse talks about, something to put on their calendar that they're going to remember the year by. And so as we go on sale next week, people are signing up for an epic adventure for 2024. And we really did as we gave people the opportunity to try to do something in a supported environment where they didn't feel like they had a win. They didn't feel like they were going to be embarrassed. They didn't feel like it was a competition. It was really a true test of you versus you. As Jesse always said – it’s will, not skill.
You know, this last weekend in Stratton, the conditions were brutal. It rained for 34 straight hours. It made the course a little muddier and maybe it slowed hike times by 3% or 5%. It just made it mentally a lot harder. You train for this thing for eight months and suddenly you realize the whole time you were going to be wet and cold. I hate that it was like that for people. But man, for everyone that was out there, they got a much better experience. They got to face quitting so many more times and overcome the desire to quit way more times if it had been sunny and 55.
So that's created an environment, I think, for people to be proud of themselves. Look, our average age is 47. I see my kids at 12 and 13 still being proud of themselves, learning something new, right? Learning a trick on a skateboard or hitting their first three in a game. They're excited about those things. We get older, we get jaded. We don't try as many new things. This is an opportunity to be like, Oh, wait, you know, Jesse says, I'm not an athlete. When he talks about that. He is a damn good endurance athlete.
What's been so humbling to me is people say, “I never felt like I fit in. I never feel like I can do a marathon because I couldn't make the finishing time. I never felt like I could do a triathlon because I can't swim.” And yet this is the environment where they say, Hey, I can challenge myself. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are people who are sub three marathoners, sub ten hour Ironman to come out are like this still took me 20 hours, right? There's no shortcut here. It's really hard. And then it's inspiring for everyone to be sharing that mountain together because you're looping the same course and it just creates real community. That's what I'm most proud of: what we built is a really strong community because when you're at the front of a race, you never see the back end. When you're on your back, you don't see the front. In here, you're constantly fighting those same elements together on the same track. I think those who are slower feed off those that are fast and those that are faster -- like I could not believe what people are doing right now. They're saying I'm so much more physically fit than some of the people on this mountain, but yet they're finding a way to get this done. And it's inspiring for all parties that are there.
Willy Walker: Jesse, I know you have gone to the Coach K basketball camp. I think it was 18 straight years. Is it still going on or has he stopped doing that?
Jesse Itzler: Oh, yeah. No, it's still going on.
Willy Walker: It's still going on. So it sounds a little bit from what Marc's talking about that you pulled a bunch out of that in the sense of setting up the Everest experience, the community that builds, and then also, to some degree, the sense that everybody who goes to the Coach K camp, they're not there to make the starting lineup. They're there to have the experience of being there and be with a great coach and leader like Coach K. Anything else on the parallels between those two that I’m missing?
Jesse Itzler: No, I think that you bring up a good point. When you're in an environment of doers, it's so infectious, it's so contagious, it's so inspiring. And, you know, at 29029, you just see people doing things that it just pushes you. You're surrounded by positivity. It also gives you both the K Academy, which is a basketball camp for guys 35 and older that Coach K at Duke puts on. Most of us, as you get older, I'm 55 and we live in routine. It's so hard to create newness, like where does newness come from. You almost have to schedule it. And these experiences are so memorable. They're so different. They take you out of your element. There's so much learning that comes from that.
I think it's really important for everybody here, regardless of your age, to do something once a year that you are really proud of, that you have something to show for it. I always talk about this old Japanese ritual. Maybe you've heard of it Willy, they call the “Misogi,” where the notion is you do one big year defining thing every year. I think that's really important. Like if you're working your butt off and at the end of the year, you can't say to me, like in 2015, I wrote Living with the SEAL, 2017 Marc and I launched this company, 2023, I rode my bike across the country.
If you don't have something to show for all that hard work, you have to look at it, where am I going? Because you don't want to get to the end of the journey and be like, you're 85 years old and be, yes, man. I was a B minus; I was the 80% version of what I could have been. What we're doing with this event is we're giving people an opportunity.
Everybody's here for a different reason. Learn something. Meet Marc. Meet me. But the one thing everybody here has in common is we want to feel accomplished. We want to feel good about ourselves. We want to do stuff that we're super proud of.
Willy Walker: Jesse, take the “Misogi” into the Kevin Rule.
Jesse Itzler: Yeah, I'll do that in a second. But not to get derailed, my wife just sold her company Spanx to Blackstone, the majority, and she had Spanx for 20+ years. The day that she sold the company, it was a huge moment for our family, a huge moment for Sara. And I said, “How do you want to celebrate?” I'm thinking she'd want a trip for a treat. Buy a yacht, you know, what do you want to do? And she said three words to me, she just looked me in the eye, and she said, “I did it.” It had nothing to do with the money. It had nothing to do with the yacht. It was this feeling of accomplishment, and whether that's the K academy, whether that's 29029, whether that's walking an old lady across the street, you want to do things that make you proud of yourself and feel accomplished. Marc, as the CEO, is giving people that platform and that's what people leave feeling – it's important, man.
Willy Walker: Let me go back to that with Sara because that's fascinating. So here's somebody who is one of, if not the most accomplished female entrepreneur in the United States of America and potentially the world. Her success was no surprise in the sense that she'd been on the cover of Forbes magazine, Fortune magazine, first female billionaire, etc. So the concept that the day she sold the company to Blackstone, she said, “I did it.” I would have thought that she would have said I did it two decades ahead. What is that in the sense of, kind of the finality of selling it to Blackstone that all of sudden said to her, I actually did it now, whereas a decade previous, when it's a multi-billion dollar company and doing whatever the personal gratification around that is, hadn't said to her, I've now done it.
Jesse Itzler: I don't want to speak for her, but I think it was the closing of the chapter because throughout the journey she didn't know what the end would look like or what the end game would look like. I think that moment really put some closure on that 20 plus year journey. So I think that that was a defining moment in the change of control. She was recognizing it by saying, when she said, “I did it,” it wasn't even the sale. It was like I took five grand, and I had a mission driven company to help women. I donated a lot of money and I've done all this stuff. She looked back on the journey and she's just like everything I set out to do. I think that's one of the reasons why she sold the majority of the company, because she had checked the boxes that she wanted to achieve. She checked those boxes, so it felt like the right time to do it. That's what I think she meant by “I did it” like I completed all the things that I wanted to complete in this journey, with this company, at this stage of my life.
Willy Walker: So Marc, forgive me for a second. I want to ask Jesse one more thing, which is this. So, Jesse, I remember specifically listening to you talk about selling your jingle business to SFX and what you call getting Musk money, and it was a $4 million check. But at that time, $4 million to you was Musk money. And I love that.
The question I have there is that you did feel at that point, and you were 27 years old, that you did it like you're like, I got Musk money, baby. I'd never seen anything like this. And I got a million and a half out of the $4 million sale. And I have got more than I've ever thought about having. What is it about you? Because you also talk about the stops and starts you had in your entrepreneur career prior to that first success and doing all sorts of stuff, selling stuff door to door. I've listened to you list off all the things that sort of had doors closed in your face.
What was it at that point or what is it about you that then said, I got the next idea, I got the next idea because I've heard you riff on ideas and I actually want to if you have time here, just riff on an idea. But I heard you sit around talking about counter space and five hour energy and about the fact that liquor stores have plenty of space and what you do to fill up that space. I was fascinated to listen to your mind just go you just you've got like this idea drawer that's got like 50 ideas at any given time. I was shaving this morning.
Just one quick thing. I was shaving this morning and I turned the razor over to get the little hair underneath your nose. And I go, that's something Jesse would invent. If you'd been at Gillette, you would have invented that because you just think about things in a little bit different way. Where does that creativity come from?
Jesse Itzler: Well, first of all, thank God I have Marc. Because Marc took an idea, went a mile deep and created the best company, the best culture, the best community I've ever been around. And if I didn't have Marc, I'd probably have 80 companies that 79 would fail. You only hear about the wins. So I'm very fortunate about that.
Willy Walker: But you're quick to understand that you don't like really managing. You don't really like conflict in that you're a great idea person, but you have people like Marc who actually manage stuff. And that's great self-awareness, right?
Jesse Itzler: Marc is humble, but Marc is one of the few people that has two things that are very, very rare in entrepreneurs. He has incredible operational skills as a CEO of the company, and most CEOs are great. That's what they do. But he has insane vision. It's very rare to find people that are creative, have vision, but also are really good operators. I am case in point. I have good ideas and good vision, but I'm not great at operating.
So recognizing that and for anyone listening, if you can partner, bring in someone and hire your weaknesses or partner with your weaknesses. In our case, the partnership works because of the different roles and responsibilities you have a better chance of success. And that's what happened in 29029. So Marc is one of the few people that can wear both of those hats.
For me, I'm one of the people that operate completely differently from my wife. She was a mile deep in Spanx. She would not deviate from the building of that company. She was great at saying, no, I'm horrible at saying no. So she was able to really focus her energies and channel it into one brand and product. I don't work great like that, and Marc knows that, and he's given me the freedom. He recognizes that I need to write a book. I need to have eight different things going on. It's just the way that I work. I'm not saying it's good or bad, and I think everyone is different, but I'm an idea guy and to bottleneck me in that, if anyone bottleneck me in that, my wife included, it would lead to tremendous resentment. You know, I need the flexibility to fail nine times to get a winner.
Willy Walker: Marc, how is it having somebody who has such a strong track record, like an amazing track record of having incredible ideas to say no to I'm assuming just an onslaught of ideas about what you can and should be thinking about?
Marc Hodulich: You have no idea!
Willy Walker: I could only imagine. So the question to Marc is how do you say no? This is a guy who has created billions of dollars of value from his ideas, how do you say no to those ideas?
Marc Hodulich: Yeah, look, Jesse and I are dear friends, hearing him talk about Sara just briefly, I got chills when Sara said, “I did it” right, because he wanted to cheer for people to win. What I've seen about Jesse is cheering for everyone to win, right? The world's very competitive, especially in financial services and things where I know a lot of people are listening, like it's all competition all day long. And I think Jesse brings such positivity and such community and such good feelings to whatever you're doing. I think that's just an amazing partnership to have someone who's that positive. I think I'm a really positive guy. Jesse exudes that.
Starting off of the partnership, I was hesitant, because Jesse had so many ideas and I had a successful event production company which I sold and I'd had some success, but nothing anyone would talk about or have me on a podcast for. Seeing Jesse's success and hearing all of his ideas, I remember a meeting where I said to him, Well, what if we run out of ideas? " And he looked at me seriously, “We will never run out of ideas, ever.” Right. It was like Lou Katz saying 10% was a bad deal. It was like that conviction that we're not going to run out of ideas.
I appreciate him saying I'm a visionary, but a lot of that I've learned through him. I'm saying, look, you gotta think big. You got to challenge yourself. And I can't miss the little details. My job as the CEO and as the operational partner is to deliver on these ideas and figure out which ones will work. You know, in the words of James Clear, what things can we do that won't scale? Like do the things it won't scale, and that will build really trusted customer relationships. And we've done a lot of that at 29. And then what things will scale and what things can we actually make a profitable business?
Because for me, I'm in a position where we've had some success, but this has to work, right? And it has to work for our employees and the customers, and we want to be able to grow. But Jesse's giving me a lot of flexibility and I think there's a lot of trust in the partnership, and I think that's for me to be able to say no to him. There's trust there, and it's in a respectful manner.
Look, there's a lot of things that we did: different joint ventures, different companies we worked on where I didn't say no initially, had to hear him out. Maybe even I told him no, well, we're still going to try it, but we'll try it on a small scale.
I think you also realize with your partners, what brings them fulfillment? What's their measure of success? Jesse and I neither one of us is motivated by money. We want to be successful. Surely you want to have a metric of a profitable business so your employees can grow. You can run a profitable business, that's great. But that's not what drives either one of us. But I think we've had a successful partnership that we realize for him, it's about bringing the ideas together, being mayor for a day, being an entertainer. And I don't mean to speak for him, but Jesse's the best on stage and to have a partner who's one of the best, if not the best keynote and motivational speakers on the planet. I don't mind talking. I'm happy to get on stage, but my partner is better at it. So get to get on stage and do what you do and entertain people.
It gave me the freedom to say, Hey, I can focus on other things because I don't have to compete with my partner for this. So I think it's understanding what the drivers of success and happiness are, the people around you, and then pushing them in that direction. Jesse when I get together, give me all the crazy ideas because I need him to challenge me. So I don't think too much in a container and we don't grow because I'm too focused on the day to day, and I need that from him now. Where in the beginning I had to filter it out, right? Now I need it. And so it's finding that balance, which I think we have done in spades.
Willy Walker: When I think about the distinct sort of skills and management styles between the two of you, I think about your early career, Marc, as a managing consultant and what I'm assuming was basically a life lived by PowerPoint presentations. And Jesse, I believe that PowerPoint was almost the failure on both coconut water as well as Marquis Jet. Jesse, tell the story about going to Columbus, Ohio, and meeting with NetJets to get the planes and what you did as it relates to your PowerPoint and how you got around the PowerPoint? It's so good. It's such a great anecdote.
Jesse Itzler: Well, I'll give you the short version. My partner and I at the time had an idea for a private jet company called Marquis Jet, but we had no airplanes, and it's hard to start a private jet company with no airplanes. There was a company called NetJets, owned by Warren Buffett, with around 650 private jets, the largest private jet fleet in the world. We needed their airplanes to start our company. So we were able to get a meeting with the CEO, Ric Santulli, and we pitched this idea for a 25 hour jet card. Basically, you put down 100 grand for 25 hours, and it works like a debit card. You fly 2 hours; you have 23 hours left.
They threw us out in 12 minutes, literally. I remember the CEO saying, (and it really pissed me off.) He was like, “There's no way I'm giving two kids that didn't break a thousand on their SATs access to my plane.” I got a 980 and was one question away from a thousand!
But anyway, on the way out, the president stopped us and said, “That was amazing.” And we're like, What are you talking about? We got thrown out. He goes, “No, Santulli doesn't give anybody that much time in the meeting. Come back next week and re-pitch this and I want to learn more and bring it to life.”
So we came back a week later. We realized we could never sell Santulli on a PowerPoint. The guy sees 100 a week. We only get one chance at the big meetings, we got to bring this thing to life. We brought in our own focus group, so we had eight people come into the room and we set up a table and one by one they stood up and said that they would never buy a fraction of an airplane like NetJets had. But we have athletes, like Carl Banks of the Giants, Run behind me from Run DMC, and they stood up and said, “We would buy a 25 hour jet card” and something clicked. And the guy said, “You know what? If you raise your own money or put up your own money or raise money, I'll give you a shot.” We got the deal, and we went on to do $5 billion in sales.
Willy Walker: But Jesse, you lay in that story, we got Carl Banks. Okay, so for people of yours and my age and not many people younger, Carl Banks is an incredibly successful football player for the New York Giants.
One of the things as I studied you, you have this incredible gift as it relates to relationships and friendships. Like 50 Cent was a summer intern for you or something way back when and when he found out you owned Marquis, he wrote into his contracts that every time further on he had to fly on a Marquis jet. There was some guy who was interviewing you who said that his brother parked cars in a country club or something, and that he remembers the one guy who gave him a $100 tip in his life, and it was you. Where did you figure out early on how to, to a great degree, pay it forward? Because there's a really incredible generosity of your spirit, but it's not a calculated generosity, it's just a natural way.
But these relationships, like when you were trying to raise money for coconut water and you're sitting there and you and you drop Matt Damon's name in a Coca-Cola meeting to get the Coca-Cola executives saying, Whoa, we got a live one here.
Jesse Itzler: I think at the end of the day, people buy into people, stories, and momentum more than products. And at the end of the day, like you're the business plan, Marc is the business plan. It's not what's on the paper. The amount of soul that he puts into the company doesn't live on a spreadsheet. You can't outsource that. Like what he puts into that, people feel that. Customers feel that. Yes, you're bringing up big names. Not everyone has had access to a Matt Damon or a Carl Banks or Run-DMC. But anybody can care the most. And, you know, I've made my living don't ever underestimate enthusiasm and passion. Don't ever underestimate what that can get you.
The names and the glitz, that's salesmanship. And that's doing whatever it takes. When I was young, there were no consequences. I needed to sink or swim. I needed to get deals done. My dad owned the plumbing supply house, I didn't have a big network of people that could get me into meetings. So I had to figure out how to be really nice to an assistant to get a meeting. I had to get my call passed through. When I went in and sold, I was the worst salesman at Marquis jet. I didn't know the price; I didn't know the configuration of the planes. I didn't know any of that. But if I went in and if you were wearing a running watch or I saw a picture of someone on your wall of fame and your credentials I knew I had a sale after 30 minutes. Because I knew I could connect with people.
Look, I'm the co-founder of this company. If you need time on an airplane, I will do everything I can to take care of you and your family the way I would do it for my kids. I built trust over 29 minutes without even talking about a damn plane and I'm at the top of the chart.
Willy Walker: You were also exceptional, though, of going beyond on customer service. I've heard you talk about the fact that, yeah, the plane had to be on time, the catering had to be there, but at the same time, when someone was going to Cabo, you went out and did research of great restaurants in Cabo and sent them to your client saying, Hey, Marc, when you get to Cabo, here's a great restaurant. I mean, you went above and beyond as it relates to customer service in seeking the almighty word “referral.”
Jesse Itzler: That is the one thing that Marc and I have in common. We might disagree on a lot, but one thing we both know we don't have to talk about is the way that we treat people in our community. I mean, from the minute they come to our events, from a handwritten letter to the personal, to participating in the events, to talking to everybody. And that is not like showboating – that matters to us. You can't fake that. I've always found that business deals can be transactional, but relationships can’t. And I feel like when you get into someone's life, you actually care about them. You listen, you reach out to them when they don't expect it on something that matters to you.
You send them one way information, like, If I knew you loved surfing, I'm sending you surf videos, contests, new products. Just because I know you might like this. When you do that, the floodgates open. They stick with you. When your business has a downtick, they root for you, they give you referrals. I don’t want to speak for Marc, but that's what I'm most proud of with 29029 it's our retention rate, our community. People talk about our ROI on the bottom line. We talk about our ROI on the DMs that we get daily from people that say we changed their lives. Yes, we're capitalists, we want to make money, but nothing would make us feel as good as we feel when we go in our inbox and someone's like, “Man, thank you. My kids are looking at me differently. I feel different. I doubled my business plan because of what I did.” Those are the emails we get every day and there's nothing in the world that we would rather do than get that. It's all because of caring the most. We care the most. I've been to every race, I've done all of the obstacles – there's no one that puts the effort into it, like Marc and the team and it shows.
Willy Walker: Marc, I guess to the extent of how many people are repeat 29029ers. How many people have everested more than once? And then second of all, there's something in the way that it's set up. You know, you go to a triathlon, you go to a marathon, you're really not interacting with a lot of people. You'll meet somebody at the start line that you're not taking their phone number and there's no real cultivation of a community there, if you will, whereas it sounds very much like in 29029, you're purposeful about creating a community and an environment where people can get to know the other people. Am I right on that?
Marc Hodulich: 100%. The first question, a 40% repeat rate since inception, it's only been around six years. So there's a lot of people that will come back next year that haven't come back yet. So super high repeat rate. You know, Jesse talked a lot about caring the most. I just remember we sat down and wrote down a few things when we first started meeting and one of the things was, we said we had a “No Asshole Policy” and we’ll care the most. We made all of our hiring decisions based on that. We made thoughts about expansion. We sold the business. I appreciate the interest, but we bought it back right earlier this year. So we own the company outright again. And I think it was just the opportunity to say, Hey, this is something really special and we want to hold onto it and protect it for a long time. The community that you feel when you come is because we do care and we don't take lightly the fact that a gentleman climbed a mountain last weekend in Vermont and spread his father's ashes on the summit, you know that Tim Grover's quote, “Pressure is a privilege.” The amount of pressure that I feel to deliver a flawless, life changing experience for someone when they're going to honor their father, their best friend in their whole life with our event, we've got to deliver on every aspect for them from the first time they find out about us on the website. To Zoom calls, to registering, to coaching calls to six months of training programing to coming on the mountain. And everything that we've done is setting things up to just create a container whereby people can let their guard down and grow and grow together. And I think that right now, it's great getting all the DMs and emails, it's unbelievably gratifying and that's the biggest part of ROI in our job. But all those DMs and emails, those don't replicate what it's like to be in person together. And I think people are as lonely as they've ever been.
When you get together with people for a common purpose, sharing a common goal and a common place where we're doing it together, that's special. And it's rare. I think that's what people are looking for more and more saying, hey, I want to be around others who have that same approach – kindness. You opened up with the remarks about Israel. My wife's Jewish, Jesse's Jewish we need kindness in this world right now. We need compassion. I think there's so much empathy in 29029 while you're doing something really effing hard. Right? With all the things that Jesse talked about earlier, about his different adventures, people want a story to tell, right? They want something that makes themselves more interesting. 29029 gives you that in a turnkey process. You got to go out and do the work. But you don't have to hire a coach. You don't have to worry about where you're staying. You don't have to worry about dinner reservations at the race. All that's taken care of, just put in the work and know that you're going to be supported. You're gonna have people like Jesse cheering for you. So I'm proud of what we've created because it's really giving people an opportunity to surprise themselves and give themselves a story to tell that they'll never forget.
Willy Walker: Hey, Marc, on the actual race or the Everesting – you do it on a bunch of mountains that all generally speaking, have the same pitch. But I noticed that Whistler is a much steeper mountain. So you only have to climb Whistler, I think, eight times to get to Everest, whereas mountains like Sun Valley, you gotta do it 15. Is there a difference between the people who sign up for those two different ones where because it's that much steeper, you only do it eight times. It's either harder, it's easier. I was just sitting there thinking about it and I'm just curious, do people sit there and say, Well, I want to do eight really steep or I'd rather do 15 a little bit, not quite as steep?
Marc Hodulich: It's a great question. I'll tell you, a lot of people have the misnomer that there's an easier one. There's no easy way to climb up 29,029 feet and take a gondola down. It's just hard, right? But people do kind of self-select. People say, Hey, look, I don't like the heat, so they don't want to go to Utah or Sun Valley because in the summer, right? Or people say, I don't like the cold, so they don't want to do Whistler or Stratton, right? So I think you have some of that selection but also, our event sold out last year in under 8 minutes, all of them. So the first two sold out in less than 18 seconds. So I think you can have a choice and then you can take what's available. And I think what I encourage people to do is say, look at your first choice but sign up and get the experience with whatever you can get. And then once you're an alumni, you get to register early, and you'll have your pick more so once you get in as an alumni. But yeah, I mean, look, the different locations, I think that's part of the storytelling process too, right? We're at Whistler we’re in Sun Valley we’re in Jackson Hole, we're right outside Salt Lake, we’re in Stratton, Vermont we’re in Mont-Tremblant Canada. There's all these beautiful places where you can go and have an experience and you can choose to have your family join you or not. Those create different experiences, right? Some of our locations are sleeping in Safari glamping tents, some are staying out of the Fairmont Hotel. It's a different experience in each place. And I like the different character that we bring. I did all the events this year. I climbed them all. There's no easy one. There's certain ones that are harder, but I think that varieties are interesting and that's why it's such a high repeat rate too. People do it at one location and want to see what it’s like when they try another location.
Willy Walker: Jesse, Marc talked about the different characters we bring, and it makes me think about David Goggins and your book, “Living with the SEAL.” As I was getting ready for this, I had so many people say to me what would that be like? And I’ve obviously read your book. Thousands, millions of people have read your book, and you tell that story that is so amazing. But he’s now a much bigger figure than he was then. You basically sort of, if you will, created him. He didn’t have a brand until then, and now he has a very significant brand. But you’ve hung out with a lot of intense athletes. You’ve done endurance event after endurance event. Is Goggins just at a different level than anyone else you’ve met?
Jesse Itzler: Well, that’s a tough question. First of all, I wouldn’t say that I made him.
Willy Walker: At the time, his name isn’t even in the book, is it?
Jesse Itzler: No, not in the first edition. I’ve had the privilege of meeting so many amazing athletes. And I’ll tell you, I recently got to meet Courtney Dauwalter, an endurance runner who’s dominating the sports of ultrarunning as a female, beating all the men, winning all the races by hours. Not like I beat him to the tape. And what she’s been able to do is fascinating. Now the sport has evolved so much from when David was running really in the beginning in 2007, 2008, when 100 mile races were first coming on to the map. And in a little bit of a bigger way to where it is now, right now, as we speak, real time, there’s an event called Big’s Backyard Ultra race. And as we speak right now, there are six people that have crossed the 400 mile mark. They've been running for four days at 400 miles and they're still going in a race. So, you know, Goggins was definitely a pioneer. But if you look at what's going on now, it is just amazing.
What's important to note for the people listening, I've run several hundred mile races in my life. When I was coming out of college, my goal was to run two miles. If I could run two miles, I was a runner, I'd run for 20 minutes, I'm a runner. I identify as a runner. Nothing in my body has changed. Like I'm still not strong, like I look the same. Same legs. The only thing that changed is what I saw people do and realize that I could do that too. Same thing as being a millionaire, we didn't talk about money in my house. With my parents, there was no discussion. I met my first millionaire like I knew when I was 23 and I'm going to change the name. If Charlie the guy can't find the exit sign, then I can be a millionaire. It's the same with everything. When you see people at 29029 climbing the mountain, like, I can't believe that this person who doesn't even look this strong has lapped me. You start to realize that wow, I am capable of more. I should say to Marc, double our business plan, we're capable of more. Marc, double the business plan, please. 2025. But it's true. So David opened my eyes for the first time like, wow, I'm under indexing in my life. And since then I've looked for people that opened my eyes even wider.
Willy Walker: As I think about over indexing, I think about the fact that your nine year old son just ran a marathon. Talk to me for two seconds about that. First of all, is that healthy, Jesse?
Jesse Itzler: Well for this particular nine year old, it's fine. He's run two half marathons and he signed up for the half marathon at a running event and on his own, I didn't even know until mile 16 that he was continuing on, he chose to do that and finished. And with the very kid-like energy cheering, people on, celebrating, talking, taking turns. So there was zero pressure. He did it on his own. I ran the last two miles with him.
But would I recommend that for other nine year olds? It depends on the kid. I mean, Marc knows my son, Charlie. And he's wired that it was okay for Charlie to do it. But he's been around this his whole life. He's an open water swimmer. He's an athlete and he is locked in.
What I told Charlie, and again, I think this is relevant for everybody here. I said to Charlie, “You're about to do something that you could put on your college resume you could talk about for the rest of your life. No one can take this away from you. What you're about to do, no matter what happens in the rest of your life, you can say, at nine, I ran a marathon. It's documented. It's official. It's chipped time and no one can take it away from you.”
And anybody here, time is undefeated, Willy. It's going to get all of us. No one's beating time. No one's beating time. The only way that you can even compete is if you do stuff that time can't take away. It can't take away his marathon. It can't take away my bike across America. I could go tomorrow, but it can’t be taken away from me. It can't take away what Marc, we and the team built at 29029 – we did it. It can't take away Sara’s sale of Spanx – she did it. I did it. I did it. When you do it, time can't take it away from you. And that's the lesson for my son. It was like he gutted it out and now he has an accomplishment, and he can continue to stack accomplishments on top of that that no one could take away. Could say whatever you want. He's this, he's that. But you can't say he didn't do that.
You can't say Marc didn't do Leadville, you can't say that he didn’t do the races that he did, or he ran a division one track, he did it. It's undeniable. You know, you hear people like, oh, he's a great salesman. Show me the body of work. I hate all this. Show me the body of work. Show me the body of work. Oh, this guy's unbelievable. Show me the body of work.
Willy Walker: So I've had the opportunity, as both of you have to be introduced hundreds, if not thousands of times to either speak or do other things. And my resume has a whole bunch of different things as far as taking the company public and being the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, etc., etc. The only thing on my resume that anyone ever really talks about is the fact that I ran a 2:36 Boston.
Jesse Itzler: Hahaha!
Willy Walker: And it's so funny exactly what you're talking about Charlie. I mean, I ran that in 1995. It's ancient history. I could no more get out and run a 2:36 today than fly to the moon. But the point is, everyone sits there and says, that's a number, that was there. You posted that. And it's funny because, like I at first, it's on my resume literally and I was like, you know you don't put that on your work resume. That's like something you do outside of work. You talk about all this official stuff over here, but I put it there. And the other thing about it is that immediately when anyone goes and does work on me and I walk into a meeting with somebody to exactly what you did Jesse as it relates to identifying with people, if they had a sport watch on or they had a WHOOP on, you knew you were going to engage them.
Every single person who sees that time talks to me about endurance and fitness. And I've run five marathons or I'm trying to train for New York or whatever the case might be, and it gives you that connectivity. And it's so interesting thinking about that.
The other thing that you talked about, Jesse, that I do think and Marc, you've mentioned as well as your momentum comment. Momentum in business, like when you sold that first jingle to the Nets, that you got paid 4,000 bucks for, it cost you 4,800 bucks to make and they're going to be like, well, that's a shitty business deal. You spent 800 bucks more than you would have and you said I would have paid them 10,000 because it gave me momentum. It gave me a brand to then go and work with everybody else. And sure enough, Jesse Itzler went out and sold those damn jingles to everyone in the NBA and everyone in the NFL.
It's just so interesting, those little life lessons as it relates to how business happens, how entrepreneurial ideas which you come up with consistently get turned into real businesses by Marc. I guess the one thing I'd say there, Marc, is like, you work with this guy who's so brilliant. I've already asked you how you sort of say no. What's Jesse's true superpower like? You work with this guy all the time. And I've talked about his relationships with other people. I've talked about the fact that he comes up with great ideas. Is there some other amazing superpower that we don't know about, Jesse, that you get the opportunity to feed off of, if you will, every day?
Marc Hodulich: Well, before I say superpower, I want to say this. The most fired up Jesse got on this call was when he talked about his son running a marathon. People couldn't take it away. That's why he's my partner. Right? You talk about things on your resume. I lead with it. I'm a dad. I'm most proud of being a father because it's me instilling these lessons to my kids are good people, right? And they grow up and do big things. Jesse is inspiring hundreds of thousands of people a year to be better people – be better about health and wellness, be better fathers, be better husbands and challenge themselves.
So I think that's just first off, like I'm proud that he's my friend and that it was easy to partner. There's a quote by Jared Kushner that I heard on a podcast recently, like, “If you have a bad partner in a good business, it won't work. But if you have a good partner in a bad business, you'll find a way to make it work.” I got a great partner, right? It starts with he's a great dad and that's why we became friends.
I think his superpower is the fact that he sees things before they're coming and he's willing to bet on them with action, not talk about it. He's just willing to go and do it. And that's what happened at 29029, I wasn't ready to host our first event. He was like it's happening in October and like, we did it, you know? With that push, let's do it. Let's lead with action and do it. And that's translated into my life to where the first year we had seven guys that had never run a marathon, say, “Hey, we did your event, next year, we're going to run Leadville. And it was a little bit like in the back of my head, what Jesse would say. Yes, so I raised my hand and said, yes, I'll run with you. And five of us finished.
He's willing to bet on himself time and time again by doing things that are unconventional. And if he's wrong, he doesn't care. But when he's right, he's really, really, really right. Those are the big wins that we talk about because he's seen something coming well before anyone else did. I think having that self-confidence to say there's always going to be another idea, people are always going to give you a hard time if you fail. But man, if I'm right, that satisfaction of saying I did it, no one can take that away from me. And if anything, that confidence you just grew in the seven years that we've been partners and the other things that he's doing, he continues to lead with that example, which is super inspiring.
Willy Walker: Quite honestly, it's a great way for us to end because that is both Jesse, that's you Marc, that's your partnership. That's the business you built. And I would just say I have been blessed to have 162 or 163 guests on the Walker Webcast. Every one of them has given me an hour of their time, which I've been greatly thankful for. But I've also watched enough of what the two of you have done to understand how your time is so valuable and that time is the one commodity that you have that as Jesse just said, you're not going to beat the clock. And so the fact that you two gave me an hour and gave our listeners an hour to talk about all this and talk about your business and talk about the way you live your lives and also talk about fitness and the importance of fitness in all of our lives.
The one thing, Jesse, is you do a lot of back of the envelope math as it relates to things like how many quarters do I have left, How many years do I have left, How many summers do I have left, how many this and that? I can just guarantee you the way you're taking care of yourself, you're going to live a lot longer than 80 years, my friend. Like when you and I are 95, we're going to be climbing a mountain together because you're going to live a lot longer than eighty years. I guarantee you that.
Jesse Itzler: This funny sidebar before we go, do you know how Marc and I met? Marc and I met at Flag Football in Atlanta. Marc is one of the coaches, and the reason why we started working together is the way Marc treated the kids from the best kid to the worst kid on the team stood out to me. Like I said, you're the business plan, the way that he handled the parents and the kids and included everybody again worst to best equally stood out. And you are the business plan, like I said. And everything is an audition. Everything you do is an audition. That led me to I trust this guy. I want to work with this guy. I never met him. I pledged to my wife I would never have another partner. I'm 55, I'm not looking for partners. He was the asterisk, he was the exception. Because it's important to keep in mind as we go out and after this call into the world that everything, we do is an audition, and we are the plan.
At the end of the day, people buy into people. Your 2:36 marathon is an indication not of your speed. It has nothing to do Willy, with your speed. It has everything to do with your grit, your resilience, your determination. Like that number that you just said to me, 2:36 gives me ten characteristics and they're all ten characteristics that I want to hire. The consistency, the dedication, the passion, the enthusiasm, the commitment.
Willy Walker: Just like what Ric Santulli saw in you when he was your age.
Jesse Itzler: So if you have a widget company and I see the number 2:36 and we're communicating like this, I'm investing in that widget.
Willy Walker: I might have to write a new business plan to come meet with your family.
The final thing, I'm coming to Atlanta in a couple of weeks. I want to go have coffee with the two of you and Jesse you're bringing the muffins that you stole at the TED conference 20 years ago to get Marquis Jets going. So bring the muffins when we go have breakfast.
Jesse Itzler: Let's go to a Hawks game. Look at the schedule and see if there's a Hawk’s game. That would be more fun.
Willy Walker: Yeah. Thank you both very much. Looking forward to seeing you both in Atlanta as well as on the mountain when I do my first 29029. Thanks, have a great day.
Jesse Itzler: Thank you.
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