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What do being a drug lord and being an incredibly successful entrepreneur have in common? Well, Coss Marte, founder of ConBody, can tell you one similarity: consistency — consistency in delivering a good product, consistency in building trust by being reliable.
How does he know? Because he was the previous ringleader of a multi-million dollar cocaine operation, who developed an entire workout program while serving time in a nine-by-six-foot prison cell.
After physicians told him he could die in prison because of his health issues, Marte committed himself to working out; resulting in him losing 70 pounds in just six months.
Now, he’s a business owner of a gym that’s thriving and expanding — even into shopping malls. The program he designed in solitary confinement can now be found in one of the most prestige stores: Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. Do those two things seem to clash? Not if you understand the real message of ConBody, which is about prison reform and bridging the gap between two communities: young professionals and formerly incarcerated individuals.
CS: How did you find clients after first opening ConBody?
CM: It was all word-of-mouth. I’d just run up to people, or run next to ladies wearing yoga pants, pitching them my story — pitching probably 20 people a day. And I just kept pitching and pitching, and then it happened. Word-of-mouth started spreading, and people started telling their friends. And, I’d even get on a train sometimes, and be like “ladies and gentlemen,” and told my story … No one wanted to hire me, so I had nothing to lose.
CS: I know a lot of people struggle when they start out to get business going, but they say in the back of their mind, they knew they’d be successful. Did you have the same feeling? Were you confident in your idea?
CM: No yeah, I just felt like any business idea is about just showing up and delivering a great product and a great service, and I knew I had something good. The only thing I didn’t have, the only thing holding me back — was time. And, it’s just about consistency. When I was in the streets, I did exactly the same thing … I knew I had a good product when I was selling drugs in the streets.
I didn’t make millions of dollars the first day, but I showed up, and I delivered a good product; and a bunch of people started knowing about it and the word started spreading — so I felt like that was my mindset — it was just to keep showing up and keep delivering a great product and build that trust factor. And then, everything will work out, no matter what.
CS: I see you now are partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue and have pop-up workouts in their store — can you tell me about that?
CM: We’re running three to four classes a day in Saks. This all came about because I was speaking at FounderMade. It’s like a wellness conference type of deal. I was speaking there and I shared my story and a lady came up to me and said “I want to help you.” I didn’t know she worked at Saks, but she wrote via email stating she wanted to do something with us and that she had the opportunity … we connected and got on a call and made things happen. It was like a two month process, and we built the space in like a week and a half.
CS: Are you working to expand more?
CM: Yeah, we’re looking at a spot in Chelsea/Flatiron area. We’re looking to open up around there. The only thing is just rent is insane — some spaces don’t make sense to open up another spot — like, paying $30,000 a month is ridiculous, but we’re working on it.
CS: Do you see ConBody opening up all over in the future, or do you plan on staying local?
CM: Yeah, I want to open up everywhere. After I open up this other spot I want to start looking at the L.A. area, and also expand our online version. We started doing ConBody Live classes where you could workout [with a formerly incarcerated individual] for $5 a month. We launched that a couple months ago and got over 35,000 people signed up, from 22 different countries, so it’s going pretty well; and I really want to expand more on that. We’re actually launching a Kickstarter behind it, building an app around it.
CS: What year did it all start? How long did it take you after getting out to bring it to life?
CM: I came home March 2013, and I launched the company January 2014, so about nine months out of prison. I joined this program called Defy Ventures — it is a program that believes illegal entrepreneurs could become legal entrepreneurs. So, it’s like a MBA program ran by Harvard and Stanford MBA professors. So I took that whole course and won a little bit of money, and lost a company, and it probably took like six months of continuously doing it and training my mom in the park to get more attention and more people. It took a while.
CS: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome as a business owner?
CM: I mean, I think it’s dealing with the demographic of the people I’m hiring. It is a little difficult in terms of technology and helping them catch up with society. A few of the people that work with us [were incarcerated] in the 90s, where they had beepers, and now they’re being smacked in the face with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all this other stuff. And they’re like, “What’s going on.” I’m sending out a Google calendar invite for a meeting, and they just don’t understand or think they never received it. It’s just catching them up with technology and training them on that. It’s gonna take time and more training — it’s like Flintstones meeting the Jetsons, they miss a whole time lapse of time, and there’s no technology inside.
CS: Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs wanting to do something outside of the box?
CM: My advice is to be consistent. Again just show up, and deliver a good product. Test the market. Don’t just say, “I have a great idea” and put it out there. Ask people if they’d want this, ask people if this is a good idea or if they would buy the product, because a lot of people come up with some crazy ideas and they think they have this billion dollar new idea, but no one wants to buy it.
Photos courtesy of ConBody.