Meet the Mastermind Behind One of Your Favorite Pieces of Equipment

Dec 12 / Build Muscle

It was the summer of 1997, and Randy Hetrick, a U.S. Navy Seal troop commander, was deployed in Asia with the mission on hold. "The challenge is maintaining conditioning when you have no access to training facilities," he says. So he started experimenting. Digging through his backpack, he discovered a jujitsu belt. By tying a knot at one end and throwing it over a door, he could use it to do a variation of a single-arm row. But he wanted more versatility, so he found some nylon webbing used for repairing parachute harnesses, and stitched a more elaborate training strap. It had a Y shape wit...

It was the summer of 1997, and Randy Hetrick, a U.S. Navy Seal troop commander, was deployed in Asia with the mission on hold. "The challenge is maintaining conditioning when you have no access to training facilities," he says. So he started experimenting. Digging through his backpack, he discovered a jujitsu belt. By tying a knot at one end and throwing it over a door, he could use it to do a variation of a single-arm row. But he wanted more versatility, so he found some nylon webbing used for repairing parachute harnesses, and stitched a more elaborate training strap. It had a Y shape with handles that doubled as stirrups. Now Hetrick could do pullups, curls, core exercises, leg work—a seemingly endless array of moves.

The SEAL team loved the contraption and dubbed it "the gizmo." Still, nobody, certainly not Hetrick, thought the gizmo, "a true invention of necessity," would be of much interest to civilians. Some 17 years later, that gizmo, now called TRX (Total-Body Resistance Exercise), is a fitness phenomenon. But Hetrick wasn't just lucky. His rise from amateur inventor to fitness entrepreneur proves that a good idea is only half the battle.

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1. Dive in Deep

After leaving the military in 2001, Hetrick enrolled in business school at Stanford. He was 36 and married, with a baby on the way. "I anchored the bottom of the first 20 exams," he says. But he realized the gizmo might be a means to pull himself up. He unveiled it in a class called Formation of New Ventures and brought his prototype to the Cardinal's training center. "Pretty soon, guys asked to try it." The keys: Believing in his product and getting it into the hands of his target user.
 

2. Test and Tweak

If at first you don't succeed. . .well, you're like everyone else. Hetrick rejiggered his design at least 50 times. His SEAL buddies and some elite athletes pitched in. "No matter how smart you think you are, you need river guides to help you navigate the rapids," he says. Hetrick's first 49 tries weren't mistakes. "We tend to see success as good and failure as bad," says Bill Crawford, Ph.D., a Houston-based psychologist. "But failure can provide good information about what doesn't work."
 

3. Find Shortcuts

Hetrick made his TRX prototypes with a $39 sewing machine. But he gained ground on his competitors, who had sleeker equipment but were less versatile. "Many creative people spend thousands on prototypes," says Bob DeMatteis, author of From Patent to Profit. But big innovations don't always happen in big labs. DeMatteis helped invent the self-opening grocery sack with a $2 investment: an X-Acto knife, plywood, and coat hangers. It's a $1.5 billion business today.
 

4. Create a Movement

Soon after earning his Stanford MBA in 2003, Hetrick launched Fitness Anywhere in San Francisco. "I netted a grand or so a month, but it seemed like a fortune." He kept at it, selling the TRX first to pro athletes and trainers and then to gyms. Eventually he branched out, bundling the TRX with workout DVDs and creating a certification for TRX instructors. The movement gained momentum as people began to design and share their own TRX exercises and circuits.
 

5. Hone Your Message

Sure, suspension training has been around for a long time, says Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the National Academy of Sports Medicine. What set TRX apart was its slogan: "Make Your Body Your Machine." Hetrick marketed it as "a gym in your backpack," as handy for workouts as the iPod is for music. "Portability and convenience in exercise is booming," says Comana. "TRX satisfied the customers' needs—perhaps even their unrecognized needs."
 

6. Keep Innovating

Today TRX has 110 employees and annual revenues of over $50 million. But Hetrick knows TRX needs to keep evolving. "Every few years we'll come out with another true innovation," he says. The latest, the TRX Rip Trainer, is a bar joined to a resistance cord that's especially good for high-speed, low-load rotational training and core work. It's too early to say if the new tool will be a hit, but Hetrick notes that it's on a significantly faster growth track than his original gizmo was.