Interview with Mike Roussell
Dr. Mike Roussell is in pretty much every publication fitness industry folks read offline or online. Most notably through the pages of Men’s Health, at least recently. He consults with everyone from high level professional athletes to leaders in industry to people I’m probably not even allowed to mention. You’ve most likely seen him speaking at various events.
Getting Into the Fitness Industry
All along I’ve kind of had a chip on my shoulder about something. I wanted to do what I wanted to do for a living on my own terms, and so that has really played a strong influence and a strong driving force throughout my story.
I had a personal interest in fitness and was always involved in athletics as a kid, probably like a ton of people in the fitness industry. I was also a super science nerd, into weightlifting and wanted to get into medicine. When I was in college, I got a degree in biochemistry and did organic chemistry research during my summers. What normal person would spend their summers doing organic chemistry? I don’t know, but that’s how I spent several summers when I was in college.
I wanted to go to medical school, applied, got into medical school at the University of Vermont, which was where I’m originally from. I was in medical school there for about a year and a half. My friends that were in medical school joke with me that I was there for the hardest part. I did all the academics, all the lecture study, all that intensive work, gross anatomy and then right as it was transitioning to do more clinical rotations, into your second year of medicine, I had a feeling that medicine was not for me. Part of it was this drive to be able to control my own destiny. The way I viewed medicine is it was a long time of other people telling me where I had to go and the jobs I had to do. Which just kind of wasn’t my path. I loved nutrition, I felt like nutrition wasn’t as big of a part of medicine as I had hoped.
“I just had a feeling that medicine was not for me. Part of it was this drive to be able to control my own destiny.”
I connected with some really amazing mentors at the University of Vermont. A woman named Dr. Paula Tracy. She was just unbelievable for me. She gave me a job managing her bio chemistry lab. I took nutrition courses. I took a leave of absence from medical school. Two months into this leave of absence taking nutrition courses, managing this bio chemistry lab, I knew that I had made the right decision and I wanted to pursue graduate school and get my Ph.D in nutrition instead.
So, I applied for graduate school there. Ended up at Penn State University working with Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton who’s one of the top cardiovascular nutrition researchers in the world, just a phenomenal scientist. A funny story about interviewing with her. I had interviewed with a bunch of people. I didn’t even know how great she was at the time, but I told her I really wanted to work with her. I feel like sometimes you just need to draw a line in the sand. We’re sitting there in her office and she says, “I’d love to have you come join my research group I just don’t know if we have the money for another student,” because she had already taken on students. I was like, “Look, I have a job managing this lab at the University of Vermont. I want to work with you. If you don’t have the money for me now, I’ll go back to my job, I’ll take classes, I’ll work, I’ll wait another year, and then when you have the money to take on a student, I’ll be there waiting.”
It took her back, because who would say that, right? She paused for a second and then was like, “No, no, we’ll find a way. Let me see what we can do.” I think it just let her know how serious I was, and I think sometimes in the interview processes and in negotiations, which I’ve done a lot since, everybody tries to hold their cards really close. I’ve got this great business partner and he sees eye to eye with me on that. If I’m excited, I want you to know that I’m excited. You don’t have to be 100% stoic.
I think that really played into my favor there, letting her know how excited I was to work with her, how serious I was about doing the work that she was doing, and being put in that place in her lab really totally changed my trajectory in nutrition.
I went there and I worked on some clinical trials looking at different things with nutrition and cardiovascular disease, but along the way fitness has always kind of been my passion. As a graduate student, at some level, you work on the studies that are funded and the studies that are there when you’re there, so on the side I started writing and I started doing nutrition counseling and working more. I wrote the code for my first website by hand in the early 2000’s. Since then, I’ve been doing that, I’ve just had a passion for disseminating nutrition information for a long time, and that’s how it really started. I wrote my first book and it’s really rolled since then.
“If I’m excited, I want you to know that I’m excited. You don’t have to be 100% stoic.”
Being a Nutrition Entrepreneur
I’ve done so many different things in nutrition. Oftentimes people ask, “What do you do for a living? What’s your business?” I feel like I give them a lousy answer and it’s partly because my business is always changing, which is part of what I like about it.
The proportions of my business have changed. For a long time, I did a lot of business online. Then for a while I did a large part of my business speaking at conferences and writing articles. Then it became a lot of high level consulting with clients. Now more recently it has been the high level consulting with clients and building businesses. Working on some projects that are going to build into more legitimate businesses. Not that my business is illegitimate, but beyond a one-man entrepreneurial show. Working on building a much bigger business.
All those things have happened. One of the big things when I first started out is I used to write for Bodybuilding.com. This was more than ten years ago when they would pay you $25 in supplement store credit to write an article. Basically, anybody could submit an article and if you get in and they know you then they’ll start publishing your stuff more. I was at that time. T-Nation was just revolutionizing the world of fitness online and it was something that I’d read a lot and I had a lot of ideas. But sometimes people feel like, “Well, it’s all been said. What am I going to say that’s new? It’s all been said.” That holds them back from moving forward. That to me was a huge roadblock with writing for a long time. I’m like, “Well what am I going to say? This person’s already written that or this has already been decided.” I probably spent six months trying to think up the one great idea that I could write about that had never been said before, and that is a totally fruitless journey.
In the end I came up with this idea about tuna fish and mercury and bodybuilders, because as an undergraduate I used to eat four cans of tuna fish a day in the lab because it was cheap and easy and didn’t require refrigeration. I wrote this article about tuna fish and mercury and I did some more interesting calculations about how much mercury you could eat, and things, and I sent it to TC Luoma at T-Nation on like a Sunday. He emailed me back in less than an hour and said, “This looks great. Let’s publish it,” and that totally blew my mind.
I sat there for a while and I’m thinking, “Man I’ve literally sat on this article. I thought about it for four months, I sat on it for another two months, all I had to do was hit send.” Right? They published that article and I kept writing for them, kept coming up with interesting ideas that they wanted to write about and things really grew from there, getting in touch with people in the magazine, going to conferences, meeting people. It’s still going on now like the JP Fitness Summit. I went and spoke there once. I was a first year graduate student and I met Alan Cosgrove and Bill Hartman, Lou Shuler, Chad Waterberry, Charles Staley, Dave Schmitt, and Stan Man. I went there, spoke, all those other guys were speaking, and have stayed in touch with a lot of those guys since. But, you know going to those events and meeting people was such a huge thing early on and it’s something I wish I could do more now but it just doesn’t require it.
At one conference, I met Coach Dos. He was writing his first book on power training. He heard my talk and was like, “Dude, I’m writing a book for Men’s Health, I have a nutrition chapter. I’m scrapping the nutrition chapter if you will write it. I just need it in the next two weeks.” I was like, “Yeah!” I didn’t ask him for money or anything, I was just like, “Yes, scrap your nutrition chapter, I’ll write it.” I wrote that chapter for his book. My life is full of those stories, that I’m in situations, meeting people, saying yes to opportunities. I did a lot of work in New York City for a long time and I used to drive once a month, it was five and a half hours from my house, and I would drive to New York at least once a month, sometimes day trip it, like five and a half hours there, five and a half hours back in the car just to go to meetings that could have turned into business opportunities, or so I could meet some people that I’ve been wanting to build a relationship with.
“When you think about being an entrepreneur, you don’t get paid for most of the work that you do, you don’t work a nine to five, technically.”
When you think about being an entrepreneur, you don’t get paid for most of the work that you do, you don’t work a nine to five, technically. But you have to put in so much of that. I feel like you have to put in so much of that hustle and those sorts of things, people say, “How do you do it? How would you give me advice on doing what you do?”
When I was graduating from graduate school, I knew I didn’t want to get a job in academics. Who would want to just stay in the northeast? I figured I’d been in school since I was almost 30, I should have some sort of say in what I do afterwards. I had a checklist of things that I wanted to do financially and geographically. Being a teacher in what was offered at that moment didn’t meet any of those check marks.
I had launched a couple of products online and did well, so I figured worst case scenario I could probably do that and make the money that we needed for the family. So I called Chris Mohr and Chris had been working for a while as a nutrition consultant and I’m like, “Chris, you’re a nutrition consultant, right?” He’s like, “Yeah.” I was like, “Alright, I want to do what you do.” He was like, “Okay.” I followed it up with, “Well, what do you do?” Then he laughed and we talked about it. I’m like, “Well how do I grow my business?” His answer was networking. I remember thinking, “Man, that is such a bad answer. I cannot act on that at all.” I was looking for a tactical, “Do this,” not like just broad concepts.
I even brought this up to him a year or so ago. I’m like, “Do you remember what you told me when I asked, ‘What should I do?’ and you said, ‘Networking.’ And I was like, ‘what?'” He laughed, he goes, “That’s what I said? Man that’s bad advice.” I’m like, it was but it wasn’t. It wasn’t what I was looking for but it was literally the best advice because you’ve got to get out there and meet and know people. When I go back and talk to graduate students at Penn State, I’m an adjunct faculty member there in nutrition and go back a couple times a year, I’ll have lunch with graduate students, and most of them want to know about writing and writing books and how to do that, and I’m like, “Look, you just have to write. Don’t wait for your great idea. You get so much better in synthesizing your ideas if you’re part of the conversation.”
I remember years ago Alan Cosgrove used to have a blog that was very popular and he blogged very regularly. The reason he started that was because Adam Campbell from Men’s Health said to him, “Well you should just start a blog so you can practice writing.” He started just to practice his writing and it turned into this insanely popular thing. I try to tell that to the graduate students all the time. I’ve probably been down there maybe four times for lunches, and I don’t think one of them has started a blog. I’m like, you have to start sooner than later because this idea of networking, this idea of joining the conversation and trying to become a thought leader in that conversation, you can’t leap frog the time of that process.
Dan Kennedy, the marketing guy, talks about the phenomenon of making more money in 12 months than you ever made in 12 years. That sort of thing is possible, but you can’t fast forward relationship building. You can’t fast forward earning your way into the conversation. It doesn’t have a high ROI early on, but I think it’s the most important thing you could do. I honestly feel like if you don’t have any work and when I first started I had like no work. I’d get up and I’d walk into my office which was like a spare bedroom and I honestly said, “What am I going to do today?” Because I didn’t have the work. When you don’t have the work your time is literally worth nothing. You might as well go out and do stuff. It’s networking, it’s meeting people, and it’s not always doing it with a sales angle, but it’s taking the time just to get to know them and see what they’re up to, and then maybe eventually you could do something together or maybe eventually they’ll introduce you to someone. That’s the most powerful driver of business is that effect. I feel like, I don’t want to say I’ve leveraged it, because there’s not a lot of leverage in that, but I think I’ve used it and I’ve worked at that a lot in my business.
“You can’t fast forward relationship building. You can’t fast forward earning your way into the conversation.”
What Came Next
As it relates to the whole Dan Kennedy thing with the phenomenon of making more money in 12 months, I think seeds I planted years ago or things I’ve worked on over time, finally have taken hold and you see your business grow by multiples. But you have to plant the seeds in the first place. I think a lot of people try to skip that part.
I think one of the things is along the lines of the Ideal Business is that you really need to love what you’re doing. You have to love it. I’ll watch some Gary Vaynerchuck stuff every so often and I get it. Gary talks a lot about passion and you get his passion. One of the things that he really is harping on right now is that he can’t stand people that are complaining, and if you’re complaining about a situation you’re in and you’ve chosen to be in that situation, you have no right to complain.
That articulated such a strong core believe that I have, I think America is amazing and it gives you so much choice to do all kinds of things, and you just need to choose what you really love and work at it like crazy. Networking, yeah it doesn’t have this measurable ROI, but if you love the topics that you’re talking about and you love the stuff that you’re doing, it doesn’t matter. My wife and I, maybe five, seven years ago when fitness boot camps were really big and really starting to get hot, we talked about starting a boot camp. I knew a lot of friends who had had boot camps and they were kind of these cash machines for them.
“I think one of the important things too is that you really need to love what you’re doing. You have to love it.”
I just wasn’t into it. The passion wasn’t there. The money, that we could have done, yes, but the passion for it just wasn’t there. I really think you need to find the stuff that you love, because you never know what’s going to pay off. I’ve been in probably four situations in my life where I said to my wife, “There’s no way this is not going to work,” and every time it has not worked. None of those businesses are functional. They’ve all gone under.
Whenever I say to my wife, “There’s no way this is ever going to fail,” that’s a red flag that we need to find what’s next, because it might fail. But I think of it as if I didn’t love what I’m doing, then I would have probably given up a while ago. If you can be so into a project that you’re like, “There is no way this is ever going to fail.” And that fails. That happens four times? If you don’t love it then you’re definitely going to find something else.
I think that part of entrepreneurship nowadays is sort of this glamour world of you work from coffee shops, you do all this stuff, you don’t work hard and you have all this free time. I do work all the time. Two nights ago my wife was like, “Okay, let’s go to bed.” I’m like, “Alright, I just need to send something,” and it was like 10:45, and then at 12:30 she texts me, “Are you still alive? Are you coming upstairs?” Because I just got caught up with what I was doing just because I love it.
There’s a stoic philosopher named Seneca and he has this great writing called, “On Shortness of Life,” and the gist of it is that if you run around like a chicken with your head cut off, going through the motions in life, not paying attention, life seems very short. You’re like, “Where did life go?” But if you are in it, if you are just loving every day and you are doing what you love, then regardless of what it is, life is long because you’re experiencing it. I think when you’re looking at being an entrepreneur or doing what you love, then all the other stuff about what people think about how the ideal world should be, or how your Ideal Business should run, doesn’t matter. It’s when you try to fit your life into one of those constructs, you start thinking what you’re doing is wrong. As long as you love what you’re doing then it’s not wrong. You’re dead on. That’s kind of something that I’ve explored throughout my career and I’m starting to begin to articulate what that is now. That’s always kind of been a guiding principle for me.
“If you’re complaining about a situation you’re in and you’ve chosen to be in that situation, you have no right to complain.”
How I Created My Own Ideal Business
I had to stop reading the books that’ll tell you, “This is how you’re supposed to do it and this is how a successful life is supposed to be,” because it’s what that person did, and you just can’t fit in that construct. You can’t take their specific tactics and apply it to your life. It never works, so I’ve shifted and I read a lot more philosophy, historical stories and biographies where I can pull more from what was the theme of their life and what they were doing, than the latest Checklist Manifesto. I’m not taking anything away from that book because I actually haven’t read it. It’s that kind of model that I think a lot of people read a business book and they’re like, “This is what I’ve got to do” and you don’t actually have to do that. I think that’s an important and liberating thing when you’re trying to set your course and define your life as successful or not.
When I was up ‘til 12:30 and then I went and I laid in bed for another 45 minutes thinking about whatever I had just been working on. I went to bed at 1:15 and woke up at 6:00. I didn’t wake up upset that I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night. I woke up like, “Let’s roll!” I was ready to go. I think oftentimes when people think Ideal Business or think of the life of the entrepreneur that it’s like this easy life where you don’t really work very much. I think if you love what you’re doing, you’re just after it all the time. I’m always thinking about it.
I had lunch with a friend of mine the other day who’s a lawyer and we were joking about billable hours. I was saying if I could, as a consultant, figure out how to bill clients for when I’m thinking about their projects, I’d be a gazillionaire. He was laughing too, because as a trial lawyer, he’s always thinking about it too. It’s the chess match for him. That’s part of what makes it so much fun.
What He’s Doing Now
Right now I feel like it’s the most exciting time in my life, but if you were to ask me a year ago I would have said that was the most exciting time in my life. I feel like I’m in a good spot because I feel like now is the time, and if you consistently feel like now is the time in your life, that means you’re doing something right.
“I think if you love what you’re doing, you’re just after it all the time. I’m always thinking about it.”
I have a book that is done, getting edited and that Men’s Health is going to publish called “The Meta Shred Diet” and it’s literally the best thing I’ve ever written. I read it the other day because they sent me the proofs and I thought to myself, “I can’t write another book because I have nothing else to say. This is the best I’ve got.” It’s a weight loss book. I’m really excited to share it with people. In my contract I negotiated that they had to give me more free copies because I wanted to give more copies away to people that I know and people that have influenced me. It’s a rapid weight loss diet that uses my concept of modular meal plans where you basically get to pick the meals that you like to eat and just plug them into your day however you want. I’m really excited for that.
I’ve self-published four or five books, maybe, I’ve lost count. I’ve self-published a lot of both physical and digital e-books and different products, but for someone else to say, “We believe your ideas are great and we’re going to double down on you and publish this book,” that was extra special for me.
I also do a lot of work with nutrition consulting for executives, to optimize their nutrition, fitness and stress management on literally a day to day basis for them. I’m managing their meals, like every meal that they eat regardless of where they are on the globe, to optimize their health and energy so that they can perform and do what they’re trying to do on a daily basis with their businesses. This is just so much fun. It’s something that I never imagined possible when I first started in nutrition.
I think that’s another key point. I put together this presentation for this company about what I want to do with them, and then I took a minute and stepped back and looked at it, and I’m like, “Man, if somebody would have said to me, ‘What would be your ideal job?'” What would it be like if they said, I’ll do anything you want, just tell me what we should do, and then I were to map it out in a presentation, it would be that. I’ve always thought to myself, “No one would ever go for that.” But they did! They love it. I’m having so much fun doing that right now, and it has a huge impact on how they’re feeling and their lives and their performance in the company, so that’s really exciting.
This guy named Joe, who was kind of celebrity trainer to the stars and his gym was top in Men’s Health, emailed me, he’d bought one of my books, he wanted to build a fitness app. He asked, “Do you think you could come to New York and meet with me and a friend of mine?” At that point, I’d never met Joe in my life. I said, “Yes. Two days, I’ll be there.” I got in my car and drove five and a half hours from State College, Pennsylvania to New York to meet with him. That meeting and getting to know Joe and everything Joe’s done for me was such a pivotal point. At some level it’s crazy. Who just gets in a car and drives 11 hours in one day to meet someone they’ve never met with no promises? But I feel like those are the things you’ve got to do.
“As long as you keep going there is going to be another deal that is going to be so much better in the future, so be careful what you compromise on.”
Through meeting Joe, years later he was like, “Well hey let’s go to this meeting with these other guys for this food company.” So I went and met a bunch of people there and one of those guys at the meeting was this guy Chris, who I reconnected with years later to start a company together. We have a functional coffee, nutritionally-enhanced coffee called neuro-coffee. Basically we worked on this technology where we took a brain supplement that is an antioxidant complex from coffee fruits, coffee is like a cherry and the pit of the cherry is what gets roasted to make coffee, and then the actual fruit itself is discarded. We work with a company who has this patented technology to dry the fruit in the coffee fields to prevent mold formation and optimize the anti-oxidants.
They had clinical trials on these specific antioxidants showing that it increases this protein called brain derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF, which is the same thing that when you exercise, this protein gets increased, and it helps grow and fix neurons in your brains. As we get older, levels of this protein decrease.
One of the things that I’ve learned over the years in nutrition is that the barrier for people to make a change is the hardest thing about making the change. When I get these awesome bio-actives, I said, well what’s something that people always do, right? They always drink coffee. If you’re a coffee drinker, you never miss your cup of coffee. I miss taking my fish oil and my vitamin D all the time. I never miss my cup of coffee. I usually triple down and have three cups of coffee. I thought what if we can get this into coffee? Then people will always take their brain supplement. So, we had our eight months of R&D on this. It’s a delicious tasting coffee, but it’s basically you get your brain supplement there with it.
Advice for Entrepreneurs
I’m a big believer in mentors. I can tell you some of my mentors and friends and I’ll give you the advice they gave me that I think is powerful. Joe once told me, “Always take the meeting. Even if you don’t think you’re interested, always take the meeting, because you never know what’s going to happen.” I think that’s great advice.
As a college student one of my big influencers in the way I thought about entrepreneurship and money and thinking was Robert Kiyosaki through his “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” books. I remember in an interview with him, he was talking about some interns that he had. They were complaining about having to work extra or whatever. He said, “Look, employees get paid before they work and entrepreneurs get paid after they work. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to be willing to put in the work without getting the money right away.” I think that’s important. I think it’s very important to get your money, but I think it’s also important that sometimes you need to delay that gratification so that you can put in the work to build something greater. That would be the other piece of advice.
The third piece of advice I would give is there’s always another deal. This was another, I can’t name names of where this advice came from, but basically one of my mentors, he was offered this great position, but it wasn’t really what he wanted to do, he wanted to do something else. His advisor, who was actually kind of a great leader in our country, said to him, “Look, if they want you now, imagine how much they’re going to want you in five years or in ten years. If you go and do what you really want to do, get even better at what you do, they’re going to want you even more.”
Sometimes I think it’s really hard to say no to the deal that’s in front of you because you’re like, “Man, that’s just such a great deal,” but know that if you’re really good at what you do and if you’re committed to being the best, there is going to be another deal, there is going to be a better deal. Stay on your course irrespective of the deal that’s in front of you. Delay that gratification because I guarantee you, as long as you keep going there is going to be another deal that is going to be so much better in the future, so be careful what you compromise on just because you are in love with the deal that’s in front of you.