A Navy SEAL's search for the perfect pushup leads to an entrepreneurial medal of honor
Alden Mills, founder of Perfect Fitness, has an M.B.A. from Carnegie Mellon, but he learned his most valuable business lessons serving in the Navy SEALs. For one thing, Mills says, SEALs are trained in unconventional warfare, perhaps the requisite mindset for company building. And SEALs never venture out without a "swim buddy," a practice that persuaded Mills to take on a business partner. Mills also considers Perfect Fitness a volunteer force: As with the SEALs, people can leave if they don't like the leadership. Finally, Mills describes SEALs as demanding the ultimate in perseverance. "They'd say, 'OK, it's a four-mile timed run," he says. "I'd run so hard, I'd throw up at the finish line. Then they'd say, 'Now it's a 10-mile timed run. Keep running.' You don't know when that race is over, so you can never give up." Ditto: business.
I grew up in Southbridge, Massachusetts. My first business was selling blue crabs on the Cape, where we had a little summer house. I'd catch crabs in the morning; as people came down to the beach, they'd put in their orders, and when they left, they'd pick up freshly cooked crabs. I also had a business mowing lawns. Afterward, I would take the grass clippings and pine needles and create mulch, which I sold. Double dipping worked well.
I was a pretty uncoordinated and sickly kid. When I was 12, a pulmonary specialist told me I had asthma. He advised me to be less active and to take up chess. I remember my mother squeezing my arm and telling me, "You're not going to let anyone define you." I went to a boarding school in Connecticut, and there I learned to row. It didn't require a lot of coordination, and I found I could sit down and pull on something and suffer for long periods of time. That got me invited to the Naval Academy in 1987.
Senior year, I was one of 19 kids chosen from around 100 to train for the Navy SEALs. After three years, I got my Trident and became mission commander on an SDV, which is a kind of miniature submarine that launches off the back of a nuclear sub. Then I commanded a platoon that was training to go to Bosnia. At that time, the Navy was trying to figure out why there was such a high disability rate among 20-year veterans, and they'd traced the problem to physical training. By chance, they picked my platoon to study. These physical trainers came in and taught us about muscle imbalances and functional exercise. They wanted us to work out with the actual movements we would use in activities during the day -- things like close-quarter combat or moving, armed, through a kill house. Instead of just doing biceps curls and bench presses, they had us doing bigger, multijoint movements. That's where things started to percolate for me.
I left the SEALs in '98 to go to business school at Carnegie Mellon, where I majored in entrepreneurship. My first civilian job, while I was still a student, was at a Web conferencing company called Sneakerlabs. It got bought by a competitor, and I was like, Wow. This is happening. I'd better get involved in another of these companies.
I married the sister of my best friend from my SEAL team, and in 2000, we moved to San Francisco to be near the water. A Carnegie Mellon alum who was working on a start-up was looking for someone to mentor, and he hired me. I followed this guy around, basically carrying his bag. He taught me a lot about software. My mentor left the company, and I became director of business development. We were selling software to energy traders, but then Enron cratered, and the rest of the industry went with it. I quit.
I spent the summer of 2002 working out every day and trying to figure out what to do next. After six weeks, my wife said, "Why don't you do something with fitness?" That really put me on a mission.
I created a rotational weight system called BodyRev that provides a full-body workout while engaging your muscles through functional movement. Then I went out and found a business partner -- Mark Friedman. Mark knew a recently retired industrial designer who he thought might take our call, but the designer wanted no part of it. He acquiesced, though, when he found out I'd been in the Navy -- apparently the Navy had changed his life -- and agreed to build a prototype for just the cost of materials. Then I raised $1.5 million from 37 friends and family members.
Industry experts advised us to do an infomercial. We were dead set against it, but they convinced us infomercials weren't as hokey as we thought. I moved down to Orange County for five months in 2004. We recruited 35 women, and I trained them personally, 11 times a week. We hired the 1982 Miss USA to be our hostess -- she did the fitness program as well. The show was called BodyRev for Women, and we tried it out on different channels, different times of day and night. I appeared as the inventor and expert. But there was a big disconnect: Here's a Navy SEAL doing a workout show just for women. It didn't work. And the costs were monumental. After about a year and a half, we had burned through almost all our money.
I used our last $25,000 to develop and launch a second product -- Perfect Pushup. People already knew about pushup stands: a set of stationary U-shaped bars that let you go deeper into the movement and get your hands off the floor. Perfect Pushup added rotation to the mix to provide a more natural movement, engage more muscles, and take it easy on the joints. We took a completely different approach to marketing this product: targeting men through print instead of women through television. I took my credit cards and bought tombstone ads in the marketplace sections of Outside, Men's Journal, and Men's Fitness.
Our first print ads dropped November 9, 2006; from those, we sold $100,000 worth of product in November. In December, we sold $125,000. Now we had enough money for a one-minute television spot, and this time we went directly to the sports channels. By February 2007, we were profitable. We did small media buys at first and kept ramping up. We took orders from the TV spots through a call center and over the Web. Then we really went after store shelves. We went from zero retail doors to 24,000 in a year.
In the office, everyone has a Perfect Pushup by their desks, and we keep two Perfect Pullups on one side of the room along with other fitness products we're working on. I encourage people to work out there. We have an antique Navy bell, and when someone is excited about something -- it doesn't have to be about business -- they'll ring the bell. And a lot of times they'll say, "I want everyone to drop down and do some pushups with me!" Sometimes, in the middle of a meeting, we'll do pushups.
I'm a firm believer that if you keep the door open, people will fly out and come back after they've had what time they need. So we don't have a vacation policy, and employees can work from wherever they want. I want them thinking about this when they're in the shower in the morning and when they get up to go pee in the middle of the night.
We went through several name changes. We started as PT Metrics, then we went to BodyRev, then Perfect Pushup, and we happily settled on Perfect Fitness. The intent is to be a much larger brand with a nutritional and motivational component as well as the exercise products. Our motto is "Take control of your body. Take control of your life." We want to help people feel better about themselves. We want to own the word perfect.