Coss Marte is a smart, driven guy.
So driven, in fact, that he evolved from a small-time drug dealer to a minor kingpin (if there is such a thing), until the New York Police Department took down his $2 million operation and he got sent up the river to prison (to Greene Correctional Facility) at the age of 23. When he first got to prison, he was still dealing drugs, this time in the big house.
He had to face reality when a doctor told him his lifestyle was, literally, killing him. Diabetic, 5-foot-8 and 230 pounds, he wouldn't live another six months in prison if he didn't start losing weight. So Marte took all that drive that led him to build a drug business into developing his own fitness regime that has turned into a full-time -- legit -- business on the outside.
Marte, 29, just opened his first physical ConBody location on the Lower East Side. The only equipment in the gym besides the mats are pull-up bars. Every exercise is something he could do in his 6-foot by 9-foot cell. But exercise wasn't the only good habit he developed in prison. He learned a lot about business, and now he's sharing that with you:
Adapt Your Messaging
Being in prison meant Marte had to learn to deal with members of a lot of different gangs - without being a member himself. He had to make friends without angering others. For example, if he was talking to a member of the Bloods, he had to drop the letter "c" from any word he said to them, lest he disrespect their feud with the Crips.
Make sure your messaging is appropriate for your audience.
Figure Out Your ROI
Figuring out the right return on investment was vital in everyday prison life. He'd give a ramen packet to a fellow prisoner for the promise of two packets within the week. He had the packet, someone else needed it, but he needed a return on that investment.
It does you no good to expect too much or too little from your investments.
Interviewing Skills Are Vital
One of the most important things you do as an entrepreneur is hiring people. In prison, and on the street corner, Marte learned quickly how to suss out who was a hard worker and who was full of it.
Don't waste your time on the big talkers - interview people without them even realizing it's an interview.
Don't expect to start at the top
Marte started out selling drugs in baggies on street corners and graduated to running a $2M annual drug empire. When he went to prison, he knew he had to be deferential to the power structure there.
Do the time. Or, as Marte would say, #dothetime.
Branding Is Everything
Selling drugs in prison, you had to mark your stuff in some way that people knew who you were. The guy with the blue bags; the tobacco guy. You became known by how you branded yourself. This extended to when Marte began running in the prison yard. No one else was running, and he was very overweight. After he lost all the weight, people knew him as the guy who used to be fat.
If people look at a product and know it's yours without seeing your name? You've branded well.
Act the Fool and Take Risks
Marte was 231 pounds and stood at five-foot-eight. When he started running in the yard, he was embarrassed, and he was taunted by shouts of "Run, Forrest, run!" Prison taunts can more easily turn into something more than just name-calling than your run-of-the mill mudslinging.
After he started significantly losing weight, others started running with him. Being first to market has its benefits.
Says Marte: "I was embarrassed, but I took the risk."
Find the Right Early Adopters
The first people to run with Marte in prison were those who saw his prison ID and were shocked at the difference. "Yo, I wanna be like that!" they'd say.
These people became his biggest brand ambassadors.
Barter When You Can
In prison, one of the men who began running with Marte (and who eventually lost 110 pounds) was known as the best microwave chef around. In exchange for Marte's tutelage, he'd cook for Marte. It was easier to eat healthy if you had access to a microwave and could buy food in the commissary, so Marte benefitted greatly from that barter.
With Conbody, Marte gave a free membership to an artist who painted the mural on the gym wall. Another membership went to a welder friend who installed pull-up bars and other necessary equipment. If you have something someone else wants, barter can get you both where you want to be.
When you're starting out, you might not be able to afford everything you need. If you have something someone else needs, figure out a way to make it work for you both.
A lesson from both the street and from prison was that you never get anything without asking for it. You might have to give up something to get what you want, but you're not going to find out what that is without asking.
"What's needed to close the deal?" Marte says that's the most important question you can ask.