In 2009, workout buddies Justin Quinn and Joe Rakoski were in the entrepreneurship program at Towson University, outside of Baltimore, when they went looking for all-natural alternatives to the popular fitness supplements that then dominated the market. They've since built Natural Force with a product line that includes organic protein powders, oils, and teas. The company grew 1,161 percent from 2014 to 2017 and generated $3.4 million in revenue last year, earning it a rank of No. 431 on the 2018 Inc. 5000 list. --As told to Aleanna Siacon
Justin: I worked at a GNC, and Joe was a trainer at a gym, and I was bringing in all these supplements that we called "bubble bath."
Joe: The "bubble bath" was basically our definition of what the current pre-workout market looked like. It was these bright red or bright blue workout drinks that were supposed to be healthy, but looked like fizzy bubble bath.
Justin: We were like, "Man, this stuff can't be good for you." I remember sitting on the weight bench in the gym, and Joe looked at me and said, "Well, man, we should make it." We called a manufacturer and actually borrowed my parents car and drove there to pick it up from them. They thought it was a joke. The guy actually sat us down in a room and demanded that we give him a check for the product before he would even show us the product.
Joe: I don't blame him. I mean, a 20- and a 22-year-old showed up at their manufacturing facility.
Justin: We brought that product home, carried it up the stairs to our second-floor apartment and got the most basic website you've ever seen. Like, you could pay only with PayPal, but we ended up shipping out.
Joe: Six months later, we reordered, and then we reordered again, and we were like, "We're kind of onto something here," and we started branching off into other products.
Justin: We actually applied to Shark Tank, and I didn't think anything of it when Joe and I submitted the application, but they said, "You're in. It's down to you and one other person. You need a video in to us at our studio by Thursday." So we put the whole plan together, because they wanted to know what you want the money for, and we realized that we didn't need that much. We were like, "We can find that." We told Shark Tank, "No, thank you," and we asked anybody we knew if they would lend us money to do this. We put in $5,000 each in 2009 when we ordered our first batch of product. Recently, we were able to consolidate a lot of those loans with one backed by the Small Business Administration.
Joe: A lot of our friends and family gave us money because they did believe in us, and they did receive interest payments for their money. There was definitely a trust relationship going on as the numbers got larger and larger, and with the SBA loan, we were actually able to pay everybody off. It was an ultimate "thank you."
Justin: About three and a half years ago, we really starting cooking with fire. That's when we started our hiring, when we really got serious about our social media and our marketing. Now we have a team of ... How many is it now, Joe?
Joe: Six, and then counting independent contractors and others, there's probably almost a dozen people working on this business every single day.
Justin: There are people in three different states, different countries, and everyone works remotely. Even Joe and I. Joe is in Maryland and I'm in Florida. We lived near each other in Maryland and we had an office above one of my high-school friend's parent's insurance company, but we got to a point where we both wanted to go different places.
Joe: When we communicate daily, we use tools like Slack and Freedcamp Project Management. We're actually planning our second annual summit right now. We fly everybody to one central location, and we spend some time face-to-face, getting to know everybody better.
Justin: This year, we're going to hike the Appalachian Trail. If you have a distributed team, one of the keys is getting the right people on the bus.
Justin: We hire remotely, and when we do that, one of the first key steps is we'll have them come to Florida to meet with us, to indoctrinate them into our culture. We do some work for a couple days and set some objectives, and then they go back home. We still see each other, but the time that we do see each other is either right when they come on or every year at the summit, and then we go to events throughout the year.
Justin: When we started making this company, Joe and I both knew that we didn't want to have a boss. We wanted to be the boss, build a team, and build something that we were really proud of.