Interview with John Spencer Ellis
John is the founder and CEO of NESTA, the certifying body and his personal training arm. They’ve got over 55,000 members throughout the world. He also has the Spencer Institute, which is more like the personal development arm of what he does. He’s a best-selling author, a TV star, he’s kind of done it all. Really, in my opinion, John’s really the guy who popularized the whole bootcamp movement.
The Early Days
In the beginning, I can assure you I was clueless, no doubt. What’s funny is after 24 years in this business, every year, I feel like that year preceding I didn’t know either, which is great. Although I’ve had great success, I feel like I still have so much to learn. That’s a good place to be. Going back to the early years, I’ll just ring through some stuff here because it’s kind of bizarre. When I started my business, the internet was so early that the first thing I was taught is you shouldn’t use uppercase in a chat room because that meant you were shouting. There was no Yahoo, no Google, no Bing, no social media, no video. There weren’t even large full resolution jpeg images because they took too long to download. There was no DSL. There was no cable. There was no T1 locally. We used a dial-up modem which sounded like it was dying. Just to get things in perspective.
I started out as a personal trainer. I was training for the Ironman Triathlon and starting my business at the same time. I was completely broke and skinny because I was training so much and I didn’t have enough food to eat. I’m not necessarily proud of this, but the truth is, when I was first starting out in my early 20s, I was so broke and so determined at the same time, I would go to the Sizzler and engorge myself because I had a coupon for the all you can eat buffet for $5. Then I would bring my backpack and put some muffins in it from the soup and salad bar so I had something to eat the next day because I didn’t have any food. That’s what it took.
I would put my car in neutral to coast downhill to save gas. I started with just $2,000. That’s all I had is $2,000. I don’t remember the exact amount, but I spent approximately $1,200 of that $2,000 on a bioelectrical impedance body fat analyzer that had a really cool printout. I would stay in front of the grocery store and offer body fat analysis for all the moms that would come in and go grocery shopping. It was probably very intrusive, and invasive, and yet I got clients and that got me started. That’s what allowed me to finally get off the floor I’d been sleeping on and buy a bed. I didn’t even have a bed for the first six months I started, I slept on the floor.
“It shows the same determination, same passion, same work ethic, same stick-to-itiveness, that’s always a good word, that it takes to see yourself through some tough times.”
The thing is I cherish that now looking back on it. Would I want to repeat it? In a weird way, yes. That’s so creepy and weird, but yes. In some ways, hell no. Man I learned a lot and I realized I had far more determination and motivation than I did skill set when I started. You just gotta keep going man. You just gotta keep going.
I was probably 27, I’m 47 now, but when I was 27 after a few years I got in a really bad place because I thought I had all the answers. I didn’t want to learn. I didn’t want to have a coach. I didn’t want to have a mentor. I thought I had it all figured out. It was stifling and I suffered. I was failing. I was foolish. Then fortunately, thankfully, I got through that phase and was willing to be a student again. Went back and got a lot more formal and informal education, hired coaches, mentors, read more books, and then blossomed from that point, and never looked back. Although, not every day is glorious, I certainly have far more good days now than bad.
From Struggle to Success
Back then, I got chastised, ridiculed, and scorned for it as well. I ignored those people and marched forward. A buddy of mine started his bike shop the same month, or week, or time period that I opened my business and we both got laughed at. Even though we both got chuckled at for doing this, we were both very young, he also thought what I was doing was weird even though he was an entrepreneur too. It all worked out. Now he owns a multi-millionaire dollar group of bike shops throughout Southern California and does exceptionally well and also was one of the top ultra-marathon cyclists in America. He’s raced his bike across America before. That kind of goes to the work ethic. It shows the same determination, same passion, same stick-to-itiveness, that’s always a good word, that it takes to see yourself through some tough times.
There was a time, and this is a true story, it was probably a couple years after I started in ’94. It was going slow. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have the help, or the resources, or all the skillsets necessary at the time to do what I needed to do and I was struggling financially. I was going to the bank to close down the account because I didn’t want to pay the $10 or $15 monthly service fee for having the checking account. I’m like, “Man, I don’t want to pay that $10 a month, or $15.” That was my concern because it was that tight.
I ran into a buddy of mine who is a lifelong serial entrepreneur. Someone who’s guided me and mentored me in the past. That was actually where I opened my eyes to mentorship as well. He says, “Let’s go to lunch. Let’s talk about it. I think you have something here. I believe in you. I think you need to tweak a few things, but this is what I would do.” I listened to his warning, took his advice, did what was necessary, and then steady growth.
Here’s the crazy part. We really took off, all my businesses took off, the week of 9/11. Who would have thought that? It was the antithesis of what was happening in America at that time. There had to be something else at play there. I’m not talking about divine intervention. Although I’ll take it if it comes. I don’t think that’s what it was. I think that all the things that I had done before that date in time just culminated at that moment and it was going to happen anyway because I had done so much before that day, and then it just took off. From that point, it’s been very steady and fortunately predictable, good predictable and I’m grateful.
Launching Adventure Bootcamp
There were people who had done it before me, but they hadn’t systematized it, and licensed it, and made it national or global. Adventure Bootcamp was the first one to do that. Although there are many Adventure Bootcamp’s still doing very well. I actually just talked to one of the ladies who has one two days ago and she’s rocking it. At the peak there was well over 200 locations, but there are still many and the trainers are doing exceptionally well.
What made it really take off, and this is another weird anecdotal, strange, crazy thing, I was training in real life, not just on TV, all the housewives from The Real Housewives of Orange County. They really were in my camp. They really are my friends. I’ve spent Christmas with them. It wasn’t just phony made up stuff, although a lot of the reality show stuff is. They really are my friends, my clients. I saw two of them in the last month.
They said, “Hey, the producers want to film us working out for bootcamp.” We arranged it. I knew what was going to happen because of it. I remember we knew approximately when it was going to air and I got an email confirmation the night before by Jeana Keough and Vicki Gunvalson who are two of the first cast members on the show. They said, “Hey, your first episode is going to air tomorrow.” We went nuts. At that point, it was very early in the social media campaign. I think MySpace still had a breath. There was a lot of stuff happening. It’s so funny. I think it was Facebook too. I can’t remember. We just did everything we could. We did press releases and all kinds of stuff to leverage the heck out of it. The business doubled literally in a month. It was crazy. Obviously, I’m super grateful for that. It grew my personal bootcamp and the licensing and globalization of Adventure Bootcamp. Although it had done very well before that, it just gave us an enormous platform. I went on to do two seasons on that show, so don’t hold that against me.
“Coaching is the psychological, emotional, spiritual, strategic part of getting the person to understand themselves, and to bring out their excellence, and to support them in every way possible.”
Creating His Two Companies
When I was growing up my dad was a bodybuilder, a boxer in the Army, and an entrepreneur. Go figure I do what I do. It’s kind of like I had no choice, right? We used to watch the Olympics and he would explain the physical part, the lifting part. We’d watch the Olympic lifting and the different sports competitions. We’d watch the training when they go behind the scenes and all that stuff. He’d explain more of the psychology, personal development, mental preparation, mental toughness stuff to me as a kid.
Of course, a kid growing up in the ’80s as a teenager, I saw Tony Robbins infomercials on TV all the time. I thought, this man with the large head has some very interesting things to say. I found it all very fascinating. I studied a lot, and I still do every day to some degree, personal development, success strategies, stuff like that.
I needed a different school for coaching because it is different from training even though it’s intertwined. Here’s the difference. When we train someone, we’re telling them what to do because science says so. Four sets of 12 reps, we’re going to do an ascending weight, descending in reps, and we’re going to do a two-to-one work, rest cycle or whatever it is. This is what we’re going to do today for these four or five exercises. You do it because science says so, and the cycle they’re on says, and because of where they’re at with their competition it says so. That’s training.
Coaching is the psychological, emotional, spiritual, strategic part of getting the person to understand themselves, and to bring out their excellence, and to support them in every way possible. That’s really narrowed down, but that’s what it is. Although they work synergistically, they are both independent and interdependent. I decided to separate the two companies. NESTA being for fitness primarily and Spencer Institute for more of the personal development coaching aspect of it.
The other reason we had to do some things differently is because NESTA has the NCCA accreditation for the personal fitness trainer certification. They don’t like to have other courses that aren’t under their guise for NCCA accreditation, like the personal fitness trainer, to have that same certification seal, so we moved things over to the Spencer Institute, a different company, and they do things differently there. Some of it was out of necessity because of accreditation. Some of it was just from a structural perspective.
“Then you’re able to contribute to a great good in the world without compromising your business and you can do some really cool stuff and help people all over. That’s conscious capitalism.”
There are other good certifying agencies in the fitness and coaching industry. Sometimes people use superlatives in a way that says, “Oh, this is the best. It’s the only. The other one’s suck.” That’s just not true. There’s a lot of other organizations who are very good and a lot of them have improved their programs, products, and services and I respect that. There’s something for everyone. Everyone has a little different flavor to it. What I say is NESTA is different on purpose because some of the other ones, although they’re a good organization with good solid education, people are left a little uninspired at times because they’re not told, or given, or shared with the things that truly matter for success.
They might work at a gym, and they might make a decent career, but are they learning the best possible language skills? Are they learning the best sales skills? Do they have the best personal development skills? Interpersonal skills? Effective communication? Are they a good listener? Do they know how to write sales copy? Do they understand fundamentals of SEO? Can they blog? Can they make a video? Do they freak out when they’re on camera? Do they know how to dress properly? Do they know how to ask for the sale? Also, do they know what’s necessary to escalate their career over time?
A lot of people get stuck in that mode and unfortunately a lot of people leave the fitness industry because they feel that there is no room for advancement, which is not true at all, not even close. They’re told that by well intentioned and misdirected people who also don’t know and so they feel stuck, and stifled, and they quit. It’s unfortunate.
We want to do things differently and so we do. We offer business solutions, marketing, coaching, mentoring, masterminds, podcasts, a personal trainer magazine. All the different things we have to help them and the same is true for the coaching people as well and for the people in the martial arts industry. If they look at it, there is a lot of crossover actually and some things are very unique and specific as well.
What gets me excited now is I love real estate. I like real estate investing. I am interested in global economics. I’m interested in conscious capitalism, meaning that you make as much money as possible while helping as many people as possible, do some really cool stuff, without affecting your bottom line. You benefit monetarily. The people who use your program, products, and services have great programs, products, and services at a reasonable price. Then you’re able to contribute to a greater good in the world without compromising your business and you can do some really cool stuff and help people all over. That’s conscious capitalism.
That’s the way to go. At least it is from my perspective. I’ve been focused on that, and growing that, and doing a lot more philanthropic stuff. I help a lot of charities. I’m looking forward to getting wiser with age.
“Lastly, do your best to stay away from negative people who are fun suckers, and energy vampires, and battery drainers.”
Tips to Build the Business You Want
My number one bit of advice is don’t focus on the minutiae or trivial things. Minutiae can also mean finite details and that’s also what can make a difference in things. If you’re focusing on things that truly don’t matter, like think about something you were really upset about maybe last week and you go back and think about it now. Now that you look back you’re thinking, “Man, that really was not a big deal. I shouldn’t have wasted a second of my time on that.”
Believe me, I still do it too. I did it not long ago. I’m thinking, “Why did I spend my time on that? That was foolish. I need to focus on things that really matter.” It doesn’t necessarily go away. You just have to check yourself before you wreck yourself. Don’t focus on foolish things. As soon as you realize you’re focusing, and doing, and spending time, and money, and effort, emotion on foolish things, stop doing it. Just stop.
The people I know who are really good at not getting involved in all that, do better. They’re happier. They have more free time. They have less headaches. They get in less legal battles. That’s a big one. Focus on the big stuff. Focus on the important stuff.
The second is, think about anything you want to do and realize that you can do it bigger. I catch myself doing this all the time so I’m not excluding myself. We, as humans, most often don’t think big enough. It really doesn’t take extra effort, or energy, or calories to think and do things bigger. It just doesn’t. It’s just a different perspective. Often times, done correctly, it can be more cost effective, more energy efficient with a greater benefit and to serve more people.
Focus on going bigger no matter what it is. If you do this one thing, you say, “How can this be bigger? If I help 10 people, how can I help 20? If I can do this in an hour, how can I do this in a half hour with the same result so I can have that extra half hour to be more efficient to grow it even more or to give back?” Whatever. Time efficiency is a portion of that.
Lastly, do your best to stay away from negative people who are fun suckers, and energy vampires, and battery drainers. There’s some crazy, kooky, nutty people out there. I’ve seen them. Unfortunately, today I had to deal with someone like that and it’s not fun. Do your very best to stay away from people like that. You can see it coming.
Also, here’s the thing, if you get a lot of people that keep telling you the same thing about somebody and you say to yourself, “But he or she hasn’t done it to me.” It’s because you haven’t been exposed to them long enough. Just think about it from this perspective, if many people from different cultures, different ethnicities, both genders, different perspectives, age groups, sexual orientation, whoever it is, and they all have the same general thought about someone, guess what? That’s the way that person is. You’re crossing all the barriers that would create bias or at least many of them. If everyone keeps saying the same thing about someone, and you’re still trying to give them a shot, you’re wasting your time. It’s poison. It’s toxic. They’re like cancer. Stay away.
The big thing is, focus on what matters. Let go of what doesn’t. That’s it, and believe in yourself.