One of the most inspiring stories in the fitness industry today is that of Coss Marte, the founder, and CEO of Conbody. In his former life, he was a drug kingpin in New York, overseeing a million-dollar criminal enterprise. However, the law soon caught up with him, and he spent the next period of his life in prison. With his health and fitness in a bad place, he decided to use his time in prison to get himself in shape and soon was running fitness classes for the other inmates.
Upon his release, he decided that fitness was his calling, and so began the journey to setting up Conbody, a boutique fitness studio that delivers no-frills, prison-style workouts. He has been featured in The New York Times, Men’s Health, and other publications around the world, so we were delighted he could join us to share his story.
Coss:Yeah, so check the box and say that you have a criminal history when you fill out a job application and once that’s filled out then they pretty much discriminate against you and those doors are closed, you know. It’s very difficult to readapt and the best people that I knew, the best trainers and the most loyal people that I knew was people that I was locked up with, people that I knew that’s been in the system. And so I wanted to create a different community.
Kevin:How’s it going everyone? Welcome to the Fitness Founders Podcast. I’m Kevin Mannion, VP marketing here at Glofox. This week I chat with Coss Marte, founder and CEO of ConBody, a boutique fitness studio based in New York City with an exercise regime based on a prison workout. Coss tells us about his time in prison for drug dealing, how fitness turned his life around, and how he created one of the most uniquely branded boutique studios in New York and London. He’s an interesting guy so let’s get started.
Coss Marte, welcome to the show.
Coss:Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
Kevin:Yeah, thanks for coming on. So maybe let’s just jump straight in. You got a pretty unique and interesting back story. Tell me a little bit about that.
Coss:Yes, so I’m the CEO and founder of ConBody. ConBody is a prison style boot camp where we hire people coming out of the prison system to teach fitness classes. So this is all based from my personal experiences. I went into prison for running one of the largest drug delivery services in New York City, and by the age 19, I was making over $2 million a year. At 23, everything went down and federal agents caught up to me. But when I went inside, that’s when I found out that I have a lot of health issues. I was pretty overweight, my cholesterol levels went through the roof and I started working out of myself. That’s what doctors recommended while I was incarcerated. They said, try to get some exercise and try to eat correctly. I was in prison; you don’t get the best food, so I was just working out excessively and then I eventually loss seventy pounds in six months and then helped over twenty inmates whose over thousand pounds combined. I took that same workout routine, same method that I created while I was in solitary confinement. I came home and started doing it. I started doing it in local parks. From parks, I started renting out ballet studios. From renting out studios, I opened up my first location and then moved in to a bigger location and just re-growing organically and today we’ve trained over 25,000 people.
Kevin:Hey, wow. That’s some story. And maybe let’s take a small step back. What was it that I suppose motivated you? You know, obviously you transformed your own body while you were in prison. Did you see this initially as a kind of a business opportunity or what got you training those first groups of people while you’re in there?
Coss:I didn’t see any business opportunity. I didn’t think I was come out with a business in a fitness space. What motivated me was nothing. Necessarily, I was motivating myself. I was just really concerned about myself and then an inmate came out to me and said he wanted to run with me and then he started running with me; twelve of his friends started running with us, and then eventually we were a whole group running around the prison yard and doing a whole calisthenic workout all together. That’s how it went down. It went down pretty organically. I didn’t think about coming home and start a business behind it. It was not on so that end of my incarceration where I got into [unclear – 03:32] with an officer that led me into solitary confinement. So solitary confinement is, I was in a 24-hour cell, I couldn’t speak to anybody. They feed you through a hole. You had two showers a week. So all I could do is think. So I just kept thinking and writing and I had a paper pen and I started just drawing all my stuff there. That’s what happened.
Kevin:You came out of there and you said it’s something you want to do in terms of fitness when you get out as a career.
Kevin:Hmm, cool. Okay. So your whole studio now it’s built around the concept of I suppose like prison style concept. Was that when you started off in the park in New York? Was that how you got going or was is more general things?
Coss:No, that’s how it started happening. I went out to the park, I was just marketing some people that I knew because I went back to the same neighbourhood and then eventually started seeing like a whole bunch of females running around with yoga pants and I was like, you know, this might be a thing. I mean I came out with a mindset to do it, and then I just saw like a huge opportunity and I was like I’m going after it.
Kevin:Wow, okay. Okay so, you know really the main topic of this is how you carved out a niche for yourself in a really competitive location like New York City. You got going in the park, what were some of the maybe unique challenges you faced getting to an initial kind of scale of business.
Coss:I mean, it was a lot of challenges, especially somebody with a record. You know, there are a lot of barriers in terms of like getting insurance. Being educated in the system, I had no idea you know what I was doing. When I started it, I just knew I was going to do something. I was literally running the business with an iPhone4 and I was not educated in technology at all because I went in pre smart phone and then came out and everything, you know, it was like Instagram, Facebook and all the stuff, all the technology you know. So I was pretty much like Flintstones met Jetsons and it was like a whole new world. I was playing catch up. I was taking it one step at a time and I would not frustrate myself. Thank God for like Google and I discovered YouTube and I started YouTubing every single thing that I needed to know. And then I joined an entrepreneur program and I came home and created my business plan and just kept moving from there.
Kevin:Had you started some of this say self-education of business education while you’re at still in prison or was this after you maybe got the boot camp going?
Coss:Yeah, this was after I came home. I was not ready but I knew what I wanted. I knew how to hustle. Basically used the same techniques that I used from selling drugs you know running illegal business. The only difference was paying taxes. Yeah, I started managing people out of that, and people out of you know come out with a great product and that’s exactly what I did.
Kevin:Like I understand you may be getting going from word of mouth to getting going in the park, how did you get to the next level?
Coss:It was I think couple of press articles started coming out. There was one lady that basically I saw on the street running and I started running next to her, started a conversation. Next thing you know she was like a blogger for this fitness thing, and then from there, I just started asking why, other people starting finding out and there were more interviews coming out. We originally didn’t start the company and we didn’t call it ConBody, its name is Coss Athletics and that’s how it started.
Kevin:Gosh, okay. So PR drove it initially and in terms then of putting in more marketing and Facebook and all this stuff, did you learn that yourself or you’re at a stage where you could hire to do that?
Coss:So we haven’t done a lot of it.
Coss:We’ve been very lucky to just have word of mouth take us in so far, and I think that’s the best marketing tool is that we created a great product is not easy. And a lot of people feel a connection with us, and so that’s how it went down. It was just keep it really simple and effective.
Kevin:Okay, so I think you’re probably a great example then of just really nailing the products and positioning of the products so that it’s something that captures people’s imagination rather than having the perfect Facebook marketing strategy.
Coss:Yeah. A lot of people and I’ve ran [unclear – 7:38] they do work. A lot of people rely on that you know and I don’t think we could solely just rely on technologies to take us so far. I think we really need to get that initial clientele, get those friends, get everybody around you talking about it, pushing it out there. You know spreading the message and that’s exactly what I did. I mean, I was just going on the subway carts and saying ladies and gentlemen I have an announcement; I don’t want to take your money. I started as a prison style boot camp, here’s a flyer and just started handing out flyers, started putting up flyers in train stations, and I was getting a couple calls you know, and that’s how I started.
Kevin:Okay. It’s good to see that as suppose the maybe old school tactics still works if you do them right.
Coss:Yeah that’s all I know, so I use what I know.
Kevin:And before we moved on. Like how big are you now? How big is your studio right now?
Coss:We have one studio in New York, we have one studio in London, and we also have an online component. We also do videos on Snapchat as well. We got investment with Snapchat early on this year. I went through accelerator program so that was good.
Kevin:Hmm, interesting. Cool. Okay, and maybe one last question on that front. You’ve got your own premises in New York now. You’re out of the park.
Coss:Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re out of the park and the studio it’s about 200-300sq/ft. It’s very small if you compare that to any spot around anywhere else in New York City, you know, you have to work with small spaces because there is not a lot of opportunity and rent is insanely high. So the whole concept is about doing it in small constraint spaces just like I did in my prison cell and that was very effective and just using a simple fitness formula. I believe working with what you got is what you need, so just using all body weight stuff; empty room. We built the studio to look like a prison. You go into a prison gate, take a mug shot, your 5-minute showers, just the whole nine and that’s how we did it you know.
Kevin:Alright, okay, cool cool. Next question is hiring people who were also previously in prison seems to be a big part of your strategy. How integral is that to your business?
Coss:Yeah, I mean that’s our social mission. That’s the mission that we have and our business plan is hire as many people coming out of the prison system as possible. Giving people a second chance that was one thing that I was struggling with when I came home. Nobody wanted to hire me. It was very difficult to find anything, any viable on job. I was doing stuff off the books in America, you know. I don’t know how it is in the UK as much but yeah it’s check the box and say that you have a criminal history when you fill out a job application. And once that’s filled out then they pretty much discriminate against you and those doors are closed, you know. It’s very difficult to readapt and the best people that I knew, the best trainers and the most loyal people that I knew was people that I was locked up with, people that I knew that’s been in the system. And so I wanted to create a different community.
Kevin:Yeah, that’s as very interesting and very unique. Here’s a side question about you got a social mission behind you. You’ve got a format that I suppose people can thinks is cool let’s say, and obviously then you’re also kind of accountable for you know fitness results you get for your members. Which of those is most important to you? Which of those are you most passionate about?
Coss:I don’t know. I would tell you like equally above. I think everything is important. You know get to see the members got fit, people get employed, people readapting. I think our whole, and one big thing is that, you know we want to break down those stereotypes. We want to really change how people that has been incarcerated of youth. We want to really just change their whole perspective because media has not done a great job of showing people that’s been incarcerated as killers, and locked up cage animals type of face and that’s something that I really want to change because the majority of people are not like that when they’re incarcerated. Most people just want to do their time and just got home to their families and then when they come home, it’s hard. And then we do an amazing job with getting our clients results. That’s why I think we have, one of the highest retention rates of any other studio so it’s going good.
Kevin:Yeah and you know just out of interest, what advice would you give any business in terms of hiring people who’ve been in prison obviously that personal relationship of people that you knew and trusted but is there like certain pitfalls or what advice would you give if somebody said, “I’m going to hire somebody who was in prison.”
Coss:I didn’t see any down falls, there was like few barriers that I was trying to help people with. You know, just some people that handle where to go, handle where to live. You know, because if you have a criminal history you mostly can’t get an apartment because that’s another discriminatory factor. That’s why people that came out of prison end up homeless or they end up in the shelter home and that’s what happen. So you know there was issues, there were times where I basically had to house people on the studio. You know people had to sleep on the floor with air mattresses and so. Now, thank God we have a place where people could stay at and live up in The Bronx that we provide has been employed here. But yeah things like that. I think everything is learnable. You know I think you just want to decides if it’s somebody’s incarcerated or not. Everything is learnable, it just takes time some people more than others, and so I feel like people that’s been incarcerated are more loyal once you give them an opportunity to re-adapt and give them that chance the to connect.
Kevin:Okay cool, very interesting. Alright, well I think probably the third main question here, it’s something I think most impressive is you know, you’re in the middle of New York City there. You’re probably competing with, your customers have the option to go in Barry’s Bootcamp, SoulCycle, Orange Theory, all this stuff. How do you compete in that market?
Coss:I think what we’ve done is very special. I think what we’ve competed at is that we have lower price point, not only lower price point but more boutique, more personal in a different community. And today, millennials usually putting their money on the right places. You know, they really caring about, am I spending my money to make the richer, richer or creating an impact and putting my money into a local businesses. So I think Barry’s, SoulCycle all those huge ones have done a great job for years. [unclear – 14:08] But I think what we do is different. We have a different community. We’ve breakdown a lot of stereotypes. We have different events. So it’s totally different and I think that’s what sets us apart.
Kevin:Got it. What kind of events and other activities have you got that sets you apart?
Coss:We do a lot of events about like criminal justice reforms and letting our clients know how could they get involved. You know volunteer their time and money and energy. We talked about, you know how they could be activist in the systems, how they could re overturned, you know policies and things so that nature going back inside with us in the prison system and doing a prison visit volunteering and helping the guys inside, you know, whether they want to start their business or help them becoming a trainer and getting them a type of resources. And then we do like fun events where we all just like get together, get to know each other, having a few drinks. We also have like 5K races that we do all the time and that’s a little bit more like outdoor competitive like and stuff so. Yeah, things of that nature.
Kevin:Cool, so you kind of have I suppose general community angle and you’ve got the whole idea of appealing to people who’ve got a certain amount of social conscience and are looking probably of someway in their lives to make a difference and this is a way for them to do that.
Kevin:Cool, nice. Okay, I think that’s a lot of it. Maybe let’s touch a little bit on London. So you’ve recently expanded across the seas into London. Maybe just very quickly, why did you pick London and you know what have you’ve learned so far as part of that journey?
Coss:Yeah, so London was great opportunity there for my lap. About 2 and a half years ago, I got to speak at a hotel conference in Miami and after that hotel conference, I was basically telling a lot of these hotels and boutique hotel owners that their gyms are being underutilized in their hotels, they are not generating any revenue off of it so why not have me coming there and like you know, bring my trainers and generate some type of attraction. And so that was basically taking that space that was not generating any money and generating money. And so that’s my pitch to all these hotel owners and I had about a dozen hotel owners have, yeah and they’re like they give me their card and then it’s on me you know go to Dubai, and India, and Scandinavia. And they like shot me all these emails and I’m like I don’t know but I met this guy Harry who owns this Strafford hotel in London that he’s opening out and we’ve continued our conversation for a little while and we’re talking about the idea of bringing ConBody into Stratford, London. And when we start making it happen, London really was a good fit for myself because I was travelling to London all the time. My sister lives out there, I have my brother-in-law, I have a niece out there. So I go out there, I was really going over there thrice a year, so every time I was going over there I was meeting with Harry and his team and we’re discussing how is going to this venture and when that opportunity arose you know I’ve jumped on it. That was it.
Kevin:Cool, and how is it going so far?
Coss:It’s good. I mean this is two months in now. We probably trained over 200 people. Slow traction but we’re getting the word out there. We’re putting a lot of press. But the people are coming in and we have a great reviews already, high retention rate and the trainers that I’ve hired from over there have been amazing. I take my hat off to them because they’ve done a great job having. I haven’t like I have to super oversee them you know I have a general manager over there that was running stuff but he’s always giving me great feedback.
Kevin:Cool, so I think obviously there’s lots of empty hotel gyms everywhere, so I think the lesson from this is that there’s an opportunity everywhere if you keep your eye open.
Kevin:Okay, Coss, so this was all very interesting. We have one last question that we ask anyone before we finish up which is, tell me about the biggest mistake that you’ve made in business and what have you’ve learned from it.
Coss:So the biggest mistake. I didn’t know in the beginning. I didn’t know you know about life insurance, and taxes, and all of these other stuffs. So a lot of these stuff I didn’t file starting off the business and as I started being more educated I started learning that I had to go get all this stuff in order, book keeping, and tracking every transaction, and paying sales tax and all this stuff. So I think that was a big mistake of mine that I had no idea and so I dove into the business that I had to learn. We have it the hard way, we have to pay a couple penalty fees and all that stuff. But I think that was a pretty big mistake. Thank God that everything is in order now and I have a great accountant, I have a great partner, and things are moving.
Kevin:Cool, so I think the lesson there is no matter what your background was unless you’re coming from a business background that getting all this boring stuff in place is pretty important.
Kevin:Alright okay. Well, okay Coss, thank you very much and before we go…
Coss:No, thank you.
Kevin:Tell us where your businesses are and how people can get in touch.
Coss:Yeah. So people can get in touch through our Instagram. We’re really active on our direct messaging, The ConBody, instagram, C-O-N-B-O-D-Y, like convict and body. You can hit us up on [email protected] conbody.com, Facebook, everywhere all across the board and you could come train with us in the lower side of New York City in Manhattan or in the East London location in Stratford, we’re located inside a hotel, The Strafford Hotel and we’re in based in twenty international way over there. So if you want to hit us up you know check me out, DM me, I’m very responsive so we’ll make something happen.
Kevin:Okay Coss, well hopefully I make it in there someday myself.
Kevin:Thank you very much for coming on the show.
Coss:Yeah, I appreciate it.
This podcast is brought to you by Glofox, a boutique fitness management software company. If you want to accelerate growth, work efficiently and deliver a well branded boutique customer experience then find us at Glofox.com.