Noah Kagan hits the gym with a handful of his employees three times a week. Together they pump iron, burn off steam and “shoot the shit” -- and he says it’s really working out.
The chiseled, taco-devouring AppSumo founder and “chief sumo” (he rejects the term CEO) says working out with your “teammates” (he also abhors the word “employee”) builds a lot more than muscle. It also builds trust, forges strong bonds and brings colleagues together, better than any crusty company retreat or traditional team-building exercise can. And, frankly, it shows him what his employees are made of.
“Going to the gym together is like a thermometer,” he says. “You really see how people behave. They can’t lie there and it shows you a lot about their work ethic. It’s parallel to their business life.”
Before single-handedly bootstrapping AppSumo five years ago from the basement of an apartment in San Francisco’s trippy Haight-Ashbury district, the 33-year-old entrepreneur was a self-described “cubicle monkey” at Intel, employee number 30 at Facebook (he was fired) and employee number four at Mint (he quit). The fitness buff describes his now Austin, Texas-based company’s flagship product, called SumoMe, as “the Groupon for entrepreneurs.” It’s a daily deals website that promotes free and paid apps and tools to help entrepreneurs improve their websites, boost social shares and grow their email marketing lists.
When he isn’t busy working at AppSumo’s offices, Kagan gets his heart thumping running, lifting weights, doing Bikram yoga, playing disc golf and paddle boarding. Because that’s apparently not enough activity, five days a week he jogs and sprints on a treadmill in the morning, then hits the local Gold’s Gym at night.
Kagan didn’t always crosstrain like crazy. He started working out a few years ago, after his girlfriend abruptly dumped him because he was “too fat and too hungover” to keep up with her on a bike ride. Now he does it for his own health and to bond with employees and friends. He’s even seriously considering recruiting talent at the gym.
He says working out with employees, current or prospective, reveals:
1. How disciplined they are.
Observing how hard and how consistently often a person exercises can be a window into how disciplined they are, personally and professionally, Kagan claims. “What you’re really looking for is consistency,” he says. “Are they doing the bare minimum when they exercise? Do they have a plan for the gym? Or are they just floundering?”
If someone goes to the gym often, yet their body continually looks the same, he questions whether they possess the discipline to push themselves to their full potential. If they lack the drive and commitment to reach their fitness goals, Kagan wonders if they might be equally lackadaisical on the job.
“At the gym, you’re going through suffering and pain and you can’t do any more and you still come back,” he says. “You have to be willing to sacrifice and do the same for your company.”
2. How well they set and stick to goals.
Working out without a plan is like launching a business without a mission. It’s a recipe for idleness and failure, he says. Without a clearly defined set of measurable fitness goals, whether around weight loss, increased stamina or benching weights, you’ll likely stagnate and eventually plateau.
It’s the same in business, Kagan says. “You’ll be much more successful if you have a goal and you regularly follow and track it.”
To gauge his progress, Kagan meticulously logs his every workout, along with every bite he eats via MyFitnessPal, a free app. On Sundays, he evaluates how his body looks against his goal, which, at the moment, is, in part, to have well-defined six-pack abs. So far he estimates he’s up to a “four-and-a-half pack,” and he’s amping up his workout routine accordingly. This is the level of devotion to upholding goals he’s looking for in his own team. “It shows that a person is metrics-focused and they fight hard to attain those metrics.”
On the flipside, if someone doesn’t reach their goals at the gym, how they react can also be telling. Do they sweat harder and rebound stronger or do they wallow in failure and throw in the towel?
3. How well they rise to a challenge.
When faced with a difficult proposition, at the gym or at work, does the employee push through difficulties and rise to the occasion or do barely enough to get the job done? Kagan draws a parallel here involving deadlifting, which is lifting a loaded barbell to the hips from a standing position. “What I really like is someone who’s like, ‘Hey, I want to eventually deadlift 300 pounds,’ and they go for it, as opposed to doing it half-assed with the lightest weight because it’s easier. They might be scared to push their limits, but they try hard and do it.” That’s the kind of person you want working on your team, he says. Someone who thrives grinding hard on the job and at the gym, “has their shit together” and crushes challenges right when they arise.
4. How healthy of a self-esteem they have.
“Your body is a public resume about what you say about yourself,” Kagan says. “If you take care of it, by eating well and exercising regularly, you’re probably that much more likely to take care of your work equally conscientiously.”
While about half of the 14 employees at AppSumo work out, Kagan says most are “active in their own way.” And, to him, this shows that they’re diligent about keeping up their appearances and overall state of being. Their active, engaged self-care spills over into how happy they are with themselves overall, he says. “They’re energy is up and they feel happier about their life, and you can feel it, even at work, and it’s a really good thing.”