CrossFit’s Eric Roza on Taking Over a Beloved Membership Organization After a Crisis, and Keeping the Magic
CrossFit CEO, Eric Roza, has both an entrepreneurial streak and a love for health. A successful tech executive who sold his company, Datalogix, to Oracle in 2014 for $1.2 billion, and continued at Oracle for another five years, Eric has also been a life-long fitness nut. His enthusiasm for the CrossFit lifestyle eventually led him to open a CrossFit gym, CrossFit Sanitas in Boulder, Colorado where he lives, even as he continued his day job at Datalogix and then Oracle. In mid-2020 about a year after retiring from Oracle, Eric bought CrossFit Inc. from CrossFit Founder and Former CEO, Greg Glassman. The sale was first announced on June 24th, 2020, just a few weeks after Glassman had resigned as CEO amidst a swirl of controversy. Eric took over as CEO at a critical time for a membership organization known for its cult-like following and devoted members. He brings tremendous experience and passion to CrossFit.
I’ve been fascinated by CrossFit since my sister and brother-in-law discovered it in 2010. I wrote about how CrossFit developed super-users, members that are so committed and passionate that they spend their own money and time for the good of the brand, in my first book, The Membership Economy. When I heard that my business school classmate and friend was taking over CrossFit after such a successful career in technology and during such a tumultuous time, I had a million questions. Eric and I talked about how to right a membership culture after a crisis, walking that fine line of rebuilding the organization while not losing what had made it great, and bringing together a broad group of stakeholders around a new forever promise.
The following interview is adapted from my podcast, Subscription Stories: True Tales from the Trenches.
Robbie Baxter: Can you describe your journey to CrossFit? I know you first discovered CrossFit in 2008, but how did you come to be the Owner of CrossFit at large?
Eric Roza: I started doing CrossFit in 2008. If I look back, I probably was doing something that like CrossFit and I couldn’t even tell you what the workout was in about 1978 with some buddies. Once I found CrossFit, I was like, “Where has this been my whole life?” It had many elements of things that I’ve always been drawn towards, whether it was the high intensity, the variety, the community. Not long after discovering it, I got this crazy idea into my head, in fact before we opened CrossFit Sanitas, that if I could do anything for the rest of my life after Datalogix, it would be leading CrossFit someday.
Robbie Baxter: My sister and brother-in-law are devoted members of their CrossFit Palo Alto box. It’s such a huge part of their life. They have great friends there. It’s a big part of their social life. The CrossFit workouts have been core to everything they do, including when we go on vacation. What do you think it is about CrossFit that makes members so committed, passionate, loyal?
Eric Roza: I will answer that, but I’m going to ask you a question first, Robbie. Have they ever tempted you to go in there with them?
Robbie Baxter: It felt very intense. The zeal with which they joined was intimidating to me.
Eric Roza: It’s important for me, and I appreciate you sharing that, to learn about both what attracted people to CrossFit and what actually kept them from trying it. We’re launching, and I’m really excited about it, our first attempt to bridge that gap and reach people like you, who maybe were intrigued and saw some great results and passion with family members, but didn’t feel it was a safe place for you yet or you weren’t ready yet. We’re launching this great new product called the CrossFit On-Ramp that brings CrossFit into people’s living room with no equipment needed to learn how to do it. We think going to the gym is where you really get the power, but this lets you get your legs under you and learn some skills and build the confidence and see if this is something you might like to try. I always found, by the way, for every ten people that I would try to get involved in CrossFit amongst my friends, maybe one of them would do it. In our age and all that, it’s too intense, too extreme, too this, too that. My thought was if we can reach outside of the box, outside the gym and get to one more of those ten people, that’s going to be another one million-plus people a year to try CrossFit. I think more than half of them will find it freaking cool.
Robbie Baxter: One of the things that I wrote about CrossFit and that fascinated me about CrossFit is that it didn’t feel particularly welcoming to everybody. On my work on membership, I think that for a lot of organizations, that’s the secret sauce is to know who you serve well and not make it easy for the wrong people to come in. To say, “This is what we do. This is how we do it. If this seems like a good fit for you and a promise that makes sense and is valuable to you, come in and we know we can knock the ball out of the park. If this isn’t for you, that’s okay too but we don’t want to mislead you.” I think that’s been a real part of CrossFit’s success up to this point. But you are looking at how to loosen that a bit. How do you expand the audience? It isn’t necessarily for everyone. It’s very challenging and they require a big commitment. I wonder as you think about rolling out this new offering, finding that perfect balance between opening things up a little bit, to bring in more people and to make people like me less intimidated, and at the same time, making sure that people know what they’re getting into, that this is going to be life-changing. It’s going to make them incredibly fit. They’re going to find a real community, but they have to be ready to work hard.
Eric Roza: You nailed it. We actually were going through some of our marketing materials and packaging right before this show. The two things we talked about is we are not going to sugarcoat that this is going to feel like high intensity for where you are, not high intensity by the standards of world-class athlete, but when CrossFit meets you where you are and it’s going to play that edge in a way that maybe you haven’t played. That’s where the magic happens. Secondly, you’re going to learn a lot of new skills and you are going to be uncomfortable with some of the movements. Those two things can’t be sugarcoated in our messaging, so I think you’re right on that.
The interesting thing on your first point, and it’s what makes CrossFit fascinating intellectually, is that when we say it’s not for everyone, that’s absolutely true. The highest estimate I would have is ten million people around the world are doing something that is very recognizable as CrossFit, albeit not necessarily in one of our gyms. That’s ten million out of seven point five billion people, so it’s a small group of people relative to the world’s population. What’s interesting is when you break that apart, therein we have gyms in one hundred fifty-five countries, I would bet there might be in two hundred countries that there are people doing CrossFit. There are credentialed CrossFit trainers in one hundred fifty countries because there has to be one everywhere we have a gym.
We’ve done a feature on a 96-year-old who discovered CrossFit at ninety-four. There are five-year-olds doing CrossFit. You can find plenty of TikTok and Instagram videos of that. There are people who are three hundred pounds overweight doing CrossFit. There are people without limbs doing CrossFit. The interesting thing is it’s a relatively small subset of the world, but it’s hard to stereotype exactly what that subset is. What we’re trying to broaden the understanding of is you don’t have to be fit to do this. You don’t have to feel like you’re fit to do this. You don’t have to get ready to do CrossFit. CrossFit at its best, which we’re not always at, meets you exactly where you are. It doesn’t matter what your level of conditioning is, what your orthopedic issues are, what your state of metabolic health is. When we get it right, we can meet you anywhere. It does take a certain person to be ready to say, “I’m going to push the edge of my intensity and I’m going to have the humility to not try to keep up with the person next to me, if that’s not the right thing to do.”
Our part of this is both a messaging to invite you in, but also then to be at our best more often, so that the actual environment that you’re in is representing what I said. One of the challenges with the model that we have right now, which is well over ten thousand gyms around the world who have largely forged their own path, is that the experience of members can be different in different gyms. What we’re trying to do is walk the line because we really value the autonomy and the independence of the funky, crazy creativity of each individual gym and operator. We also believe that CrossFit as a core stands for being inclusive. It stands for being a place where everyone is welcome.
Robbie Baxter: The journey to membership for different organizations, it’s important to look for where are your challenges and opportunities and strengths. I sometimes liken membership to being like a party. If there’s a party going on at someone’s house, you walk by it all the time at this house, and you don’t even know there’s a party going on inside or at some restaurant or bar, if you don’t even know that there’s a party going on in there, that’s a communications problem, “Who knew there was a party in my neighborhood?” The next thing is, do you think that it’s a party for you? “I looked in the windows and those didn’t look like my people, so I just kept going,” and that could be true and it could not be true. It could be that I just got the wrong idea by looking in the window. Then there are the deeper challenges that a membership has, which is, “I came in and I didn’t feel welcomed. I realized that it wasn’t for me.” That could be true or it could just be a bad onboarding experience. “Once I’m in the party, do I want to stay? Is it fun? Is it what was promised?” It sounds like what you’re talking about is at that looking in the window area.
Eric Roza: I would go further, Robbie, which is if you leave the party for whatever reason, do we have an appropriate way of inviting you back at the right time? In some cases, you left the party for good and other cases, it could have had nothing to do with us. In years, our gyms have been open and this happened with a friend of mine who joined early on. She was really loving it but screwed up her knee playing softball and she effectively never came back. Or someone loses their job or moves away or is going through some marital trauma or whatever, how do you invite people back again? It’s this full life cycle and journey, and let them know that it’s okay if you’re taking a pause, there’s no judgment there, and if you have to come back and step back a little bit. I deal with that myself. I was away for three out of four weeks, and I felt going back into the gym like, “I’m going to be so down on myself for my performance in there.” Then you get to play with your own ego and decide it that it really what this is all about.
Robbie Baxter: That question of win-backs, it’s very popular right now in a lot of memberships is this concept of a pause button and a no judgment pause button. You don’t lose your status. You don’t lose your place. In some cases, you don’t lose your pricing or whatever deal you had, but this idea being that we as an organization recognize that there are a lot of legitimate reasons that might cause you to take a break. Can you describe what CrossFit is and what a typical workout is like?
Eric Roza: The way I would describe a CrossFit workout, Robbie, is you come into the gym and there’s a coach there and you have a class. It’s a group of people. It might be two or three people, and in some places it’s you alone. Sometimes it might be twenty or thirty when we’re outside of COVID. There could even be classes bigger than thirty, that’s about as big as I’ve ever seen. The coach is going to go around and make sure everybody knows each other. There’s a whiteboard and the coach is going to explain what the workout is. What’s really interesting about this is every day, the workout is different.
What you can count on is there’s a little phrase we talk about, which is, ‘Constantly varied movements that are executed at high intensity and are functional.’ What does that mean? Constantly varied, they’re always different and you could have two or three of them thrown together. You want to be at a fairly high intensity. I wouldn’t say we always work at high intensity, but we often do. It tends to be much shorter than a workout that you’re used to if you’re going for an hour long run or something. When we say functional, it’s usually involving the whole body. You won’t see in CrossFit, “Today’s a biceps day or today’s a calf raise day.” We’re trying to do movements that will help you in everyday life like getting off of the floor, reaching up overhead, things like that, that will apply more broadly. The other thing is the term we use is infinitely scalable, meaning that whether you’re the most fit person on the planet or this is your time off the couch in three years, our coaches are trained to be able to meet you exactly where you are, and in partnership with you, play that edge so that the definition of intensity is very much subjective to what you’re feeling, not what somebody else’s opinion is, or not what the person next to you is doing. I love that about CrossFit. When I started doing it, it was a range of people that were in there. A few years ago, my mom died, but she started doing CrossFit at the age of seventy-five. It was the best thing in her life, along with their grandkids in her last two years on the planet. She texted me about three months after joining and said, “I just dead lifted a hundred pounds.” Let’s face it, I didn’t know what a dead lift was when I started CrossFitting. There probably aren’t a lot of women out there, who are grandmas of four, who are being introduced to something at the age of seventy-five and then so excited about it, that they’re bragging to their son to celebrate it. It brought tears to my eyes and it almost does now to think about that. When you say, “What do you do in CrossFit?” The answer is some pretty crazy stuff.
Robbie Baxter: I love that image of your mom — may her memory be a blessing — of her deadlifting 100 pounds…
Eric Roza: One time, I walked into the gym and my mom was working out with my daughter, who was nine at the time. That was another one like, “This is legit. This is crazy like nothing else.”
Robbie Baxter: I want to take a different tack. You own a gym, you’ve been an active CrossFitter yourself, you’ve brought a lot of family members along with you and friends. Then in this past year 2020, you bought CrossFit Inc. That’s a hard thing buying from a founder in a difficult time. Can you tell me the story of how you got Greg Glassman, the Founder and prior CEO, to sell the business to you and to trust you with his baby? I think it’s a great story and I’d love for you to tell it.
Eric Roza: Back in June, I had moved on from Oracle, which was a company that acquired Datalogix. I had spent five years working there with general catalyst and doing boards and so on. I’m at home, working probably about fifty percent of my time and traveling, mostly investing in boards, and pondering every day this question of, “Do I want to be an operator again or am I done?” There was part of me that didn’t need to be an operator anymore. There was part of me that felt I was made to be an operator. All these companies that I’m hearing about from headhunters don’t feel like what I want to be doing. I was increasingly investing and enjoining boards of companies that were focused on my twin themes of health and happiness.
I wrote this personal manifesto when I left Oracle and said, “The more time that I spend with people immersed in trying to make other people healthy and happy, the healthier and happier I get myself.” It was such an obvious equation to me, and that I was wired for it. I was sitting there and I was highly receptive to something bigger, moving me in a certain direction. I was way down there buried with this idea that, “If I could do anything from ten years earlier, it would be to lead CrossFit.” Then the FLOYD-19 tweet comes out from Greg Glassman.
Greg Glassman, the Founder of CrossFit, sent out a tweet that launched all this possibility to reinvent CrossFit, that traumatized the community and it inadvertently said, “FLOYD-19.” It was a conflation of everything that was going around George Floyd. We were right in this period in June with George Floyd’s death, and all the circumstances around it, the upheaval in society and how a lot of us were feeling about that, also the COVID-19 quarantine. I still to this day don’t know what FLOYD-19 meant, but Greg tweeted that out and immediately people were offended by that notion. A lot of people didn’t want to be part of CrossFit anymore. Within a few days, half of the top professional athletes in CrossFit were boycotting the games, which is our global competition to crown the fittest man and woman on Earth. You had hundreds of gyms saying they didn’t want to be affiliated any more.
Then was I started to hear from some friends who knew that this was a lifelong dream of mine and are associated with CrossFit. Three or four of them pinged me on text or LinkedIn and said, “I keep thinking I’m going to open up my News Feed and see that you bought CrossFit,” or “Now’s the time, hahaha.” In the first year, I laughed too. By the time the third one hit me, I thought, “What are you waiting for? You’re sitting and looking for more meaning in your life. You think you want to operate, but it doesn’t look like an enterprise software company. Your focus is health and happiness, go for it.” This is the moment of, “What would you do if you’re not afraid?” I was like, “The answer is try to buy CrossFit and try to lead it into the future.”
That’s the backstory in how it happened. I was very fortunate to get introduced to Greg and get a chance to meet with him. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. He and I spent about twelve hours together in about a 24-hour period. By the time we left, we didn’t have a handshake yet but I was like, “This is possible.” By the time I got home that night, I had written up basically a proposal that I had already pitched him on verbally. The next morning, we had a verbal handshake to get it all done. This was within about a week of the FLOYD-19 tweet and the upheaval around the company. It happened very quickly after a ten-year lag.
Robbie Baxter: The universe was listening and dropped it in your lap.
Eric Roza: I was so fortunate. I’ve talked about it with the community as if I were ever someone who didn’t believe in metaphysical things and magic or fate or destiny, it’s hard to argue that I found some real magic inside myself that allowed me to make the pitch of a lifetime to Greg. It couldn’t have been more heartfelt about why I was the right guy to entrust this to, even though I knew there were reservations, and I knew that he probably wouldn’t be happy with a lot of the ways that I led the business, and I told him that. Knowing that my intent here was pure, it was really important. The external magic of all these things conspiring to support this, it was unbelievable. It was hard not to make you feel a little more metaphysical about the way the world works and all that.
Robbie Baxter: Being open to it, telling the universe what you want to do and what you think you can do, and what your highest and best purpose is, and then being brave enough to grab it when it comes by. I give you a lot of credit. I’m so impressed.
Eric Roza: I call it magic, not with false humility. It was pretty magical the whole thing.
Robbie Baxter: Take me back to that moment. You and Greg had this meeting of the minds, there was a lot of trust there. Then you came forward and said, “Hey, community, that has been so passionate and connected and has been doing things a certain way for a long time. I’m here at the helm.” How did you think about that? I think it’s very hard to take over a membership organization or a very strong community, especially in the circumstances that you did. What was your thinking and how did you think about taking over and protecting the integrity of the community even as you were moving in a new direction?
Eric Roza: The first thing that was so clear was that we needed to listen and learn to a tremendous number of constituencies. There’s so much passion around CrossFit. We know that passion can swing wildly from one side to the other. I think there was so much disappointment and fear and uncertainty. Fear was the predominant emotion. This is an interesting statistic, but over one hundred thousand people around the world make their living with CrossFit, and almost none of them work for us. There are thousands of different businesses in the CrossFit ecosystem. Software companies, apparel companies, supplement companies, medical practices, food companies, equipment companies, the list goes on and on all over the world.
All these people were fearful about what was going to happen next, and they all had very different points of view. I needed to listen to as many of them as possible and appreciate the complexity and the nature of this ecosystem. I went full on crazy talking to people. I can’t tell you how many one-on-one conversations. We immediately set up an email box, Eric@CrossFit.com, and I had to hire three people to help manage it. We set this up two months before the deal closed. We said, “Tell us what you think. We want to hear from you.” Every one of those emails was read. It was overwhelming, then of course there are all the social media posts. It was listening and learning and piecing together somewhat of the mosaic.
I tried to be somewhat visible. We did the first community town hall, where I would get on a video conference and have it open to the press to everything, and talk about what was going on and talk with different stakeholders. We also convened a summit, which was really hard during COVID to do this in a safe way but we did. We had twenty-five people come in July in Boulder, in this ballroom that held five hundred people. We went very deep on issues around diversity, equity and inclusion, and the future of the gym business in the age of COVID, and how would the training business evolve and all these different areas.
We tried to have people know we were listening and then follow up with actions and summaries. I think you’re right, there was tremendous risk of organ rejection if somebody is coming into a founder-led business that people are so passionate about and feel so much ownership. To me, it was a testament of the resilience of the community that they were willing to give me a shot. Part of what was helpful here was the fact that I had owned a gym for eight years and actually opened up four different gyms. In that way, I was an insider. I wasn’t part of the company, I didn’t know anything about the way all that worked, but I had my own little microcosm. It was clear to people when they met me, that my passion was bringing more health and happiness to people that I came into contact with. I didn’t have to fake that or say, “What are my talking points today?” I’ve been living this. This is all I want to do.
Robbie Baxter: You’ve talked about growing globally and also investing in diversity, equity and inclusion. How are you managing in keeping the historical secret sauce, the things that brought people to CrossFit and that is familiar to them, with you having this newer vision? How are you balancing those? I think in a membership organization, it’s even a little different than other founder-led transitions because all of these people have been brought along, not just the employees when you talk about a founder-led business changing, but also all of the members. How are you balancing the old school way things have always been with this new age, new approach that you bring with your joining?
Eric Roza: You have to peel back and say, “What do we believe at our core?” I was fortunate to that perspective of a long-time owner of a gym, as well as having gyms at work. I understood to my core, and it’s what drew me in the first place, what CrossFit was at its best. You have your North Star there. I had no interest in changing what CrossFit is at its best. We’ve got that figured out. I want to be there more often. That’s a very different model when you think about transformation of a culture or company. It’s one thing to say, “This isn’t good enough. We’ve got to change X, Y, Z, or this market is not big enough or the world’s changed,” but there’s none of that. I know exactly what CrossFit is at its best. It’s just how do we get there more often? How do we deliver that brand promise more often?
Robbie Baxter: You talk about being an operator, and the way you described the challenge you face is very much of an operational challenge. It’s about execution, not about vision, not about brand.
Eric Roza: The core vision and the core methodology are very sound. We need to get them to more people and be at our best more often.
Robbie Baxter: Peeling back on this question about operations. You’re a great operator. You’ve won all these awards for running Datalogix and for running your CrossFit gym. We met at Stanford Business School, we’re business people. What do you think you bring from the business side that is useful in your CrossFit role? What do you think is different if anything?
Eric Roza: I think a lot about stakeholders who invested in this and how can we make them successful? I don’t want to get into business speak around this, “stakeholder” already sounds like business speak, and I’m already throwing up saying it. I do think while I do rely a lot on intuition as well, I try to be pretty rigorous in my thinking about who are the stakeholders we care the most about and what matters the most to them. This is a model that I use for myself that I taught in classes when I’ve taught at University of Colorado. It’s the Model of Stakeholder Success and really understanding that by talking to people and then holding yourself accountable and being invested in the success of your stakeholders. Then magic happens because like you said, when people are part of this Membership Economy, they’re going to line up behind you with their time and resources and money to help because they’re invested in it, but you reciprocate. If I had to pick one thing, that’s the big one.
Robbie Baxter: What advice would you have for others who are taking over founder-led businesses, especially those that are coming in at a challenging time or at a moment of great intensity?
Eric Roza: I’m people-forward and I’m thinking about these one-to-one connections. I’ve met in small groups now, obviously via Zoom given the time, with all of CrossFit’s employees, as well as hundreds and hundreds of folks who don’t work for us and work in other parts of the ecosystem. I think there’s no substitute for getting the individual stories.
Robbie Baxter: It’s a great advice to really focus on the stakeholders, the people that have a stake in the success of your business.
Eric Roza: I don’t want to lose is this one-to-one thing. I’m all about market research and all about like cohorts and NPS scores and all the rest of it. I believe in that stuff. The focus group has been discredited over time, but I will tell you that there’s no substitute for that one-on-one connection from the top leader to everyone in the organization. If you really want to send a message and you have to feel as authentically that you actually care, there’s just no substitute. You can’t have a surrogate.
Robbie Baxter: What you talked about earlier with CrossFit in general, it seems like it’s also true for you about the key things, with the coaching, the connections, community and that hard work. There’s no substitute of going out one-on-one. That’s a lot of hard work.
Eric Roza: What you said there, Robbie, is right on, which is I try to align this way to be really authentic and transparent. I will give you one quick example here. We put forward CrossFit’s mission is to be the world’s leading platform for health, happiness and performance. I then told the team that works for CrossFit, that we need to also be that within our company, and we’re not that right now. We need to be focused on our own health, happiness, the performance of the visits, our individual performance. My assistant reminded me, “Eric, how are you doing on your own health, happiness and performance?” I said, “To be honest, I’ve been a little stressed and overworked since taking this job.” She’s doing this amazing thing with me now, which she initiated, which is awesome. Every day, I have to focus on my own health, happiness and performance. I have an accountability to her every day to tell her at the end of the day how it went and how my energy was and how much sleep I got. I think if you can live that and model that authentically up and down the line, then you’re totally in alignment with what you’re trying to do.
Robbie Baxter: What’s the best thing about working with you? What would people say?
Eric Roza: Passion and caring.
Robbie Baxter: What’s the worst thing about working with you?
Eric Roza: Intensity, drive, getting excited about a lot of new things.
Robbie Baxter: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in the last week?
Eric Roza: It’s actually from a professor on stoicism named Bill Irvine. He talks about the fact that you shouldn’t want to make somebody else feel bad for you, and you shouldn’t want to make somebody else worry about you. Anyone who would do that, you’re just increasing misery in the world. This notion that you can help people without feeling their pain, and you shouldn’t want that from other people that they should be sad or upset because of how you feel. It’s really powerful stuff. It keeps getting to me as I think more about that model.
Robbie Baxter: I love that power of stoicism as a model. First subscription you ever had?
Eric Roza: Rolling Stone Magazine.
Robbie Baxter: Your favorite subscription now besides CrossFit?
Eric Roza: My new medical service, awesome Wild Health.