The Business of Fitness
Backstories behind 15 Austin-based health and fitness companies that are experiencing all-time success in their industries
Aubrey Marcus of Onnit
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons
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A one-two punch of captivation and curiosity hits you when you make eye contact with him. When he speaks, you listen. When he laughs, you laugh. When he takes a sip from his Swole Banana smoothie—a combination of hemp protein, MCT oil, dolce whey protein, grass-fed butter, and cacao nibs—you start to crave one.
Just like his 3-year-old company, Onnit, Aubrey Marcus has a way of effortlessly replacing whatever thoughts once stood at the forefront of your attention.
Raised in Austin, he attended the University of Richmond, where he majored in civilization and philosophy. After graduation, he worked in the marketing and investment industry. On paper, there seems to be no similarities shared between his chosen study and career fields, but Marcus said they both taught him one very important thing: how to think.
“Everything is just a puzzle and philosophy is about solving the biggest puzzles in the world. Marketing and investing are just more puzzles,” he said. “That’s what life is. Identifying the puzzle and trying to solve it.”
So how, in just three years time, did he get to be the founder and owner of a successful, nationally known supplement company?
The story starts when Marcus was 2 years old. Now 34, Marcus recalls how he would sit on his grandmother’s lap and tell her stories about how he was going to be a knight in shining armor when he grew up.
“I’ve always felt that I’m here to inspire people and to lead, so that’s what I wanted to be,” Marcus said. “I didn’t know if that was going to be in sports or nutrition, but somehow I managed to create something that combines everything I love—from MMA to nutrition to athletics. I’m really living the dream. This is the win, you know?”
That something, that dream, that win is Onnit.
Onnit started in July 2011 with the release of Alpha BRAIN—a natural, plant-based supplement designed to be used as a performance enhancer for athletes as well as a focus enhancer for those clocking long work hours.
Interestingly enough, Marcus had started creating supplements for people looking to recover from hangovers. “I’ve always created Onnit stuff for what I wanted the most, and at that point in my life I was partying a lot. So that supplement line made a lot of sense to me,” he said.
But Marcus marks the true start of Onnit with Alpha BRAIN.
“I think the very first [memorable moment] was when we launched Alpha BRAIN and sold out within 24 hours. That was kind of like this ‘awesome, but oh crap’ moment. We didn’t have any of the infrastructure set up yet.”
Now, Onnit hears stories of professional athletes like MMA fighter Tim Kennedy taking the supplement and it helping him knock somebody out or it helping Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith play hockey. “In the MMA world, regardless of the supplement brand that’s labeled on their shorts, Onnit is the one putting supplements in their bodies,” Marcus said.
“But really, it’s about everyday individuals making improvements in their own lives. That’s the most important stuff. This is a product for everybody.”
For a company that—just a few years ago—was operating out of a 300 square foot attic on the eastside of Austin, near Ceaser Chavez and Chicon Street, the move to their current office space in Southeast Austin two years ago was a big step up.
Outfitted with an in-house volleyball court and basketball court (Marcus was an All-Star basketball player in high school), and pool table, in addition to weekly massage therapy visits and meals stocked by a private chef (the company covers 60 percent of the cost, employees cover the other 40 percent), the Onnit headquarters are equipped to keep employees motivated.
“We want people to be happy,” Marcus said about his team. “Happy people are more productive. If they’re passionate and they love Onnit, they’re going to do a better job.”
A lot of that happiness should be credited to Marcus’ unconventional approach to the office place. “I’ve been in a lot of corporate situations where people were not happy and I never wanted to be a part of any of that again. I wanted to create a situation where people could thrive, be proud, and be fired up.”
Marcus’ unconventional approach extends to his other office, the Onnit Academy Gym, where specialized trainers work with amateur and professional athletes alike to incorporate unique pieces of equipment—from kettlebells and maces to clubs, sandbells, and battle ropes—into their training methods.
Onnit Academy Gym stands out from other Austin-area gyms by differentiating between exercise and training, Marcus said. “You can get exercise at any gym, but our gym is focused on training. We have the widest array of tools to help people achieve their goals. Nobody else has as many different options or as much expertise to be able to dial into [giving you] exactly what you need.”
Marcus first became aware of unconventional training methods simply out of curiosity.
“I started to hear things like how George Foreman would train for his fights by taking an axe and going out into the woods and chopping trees, or how MMA fighters like Roger Huerta were training with ropes and kettlebells,” he said. “Ideas of people doing things in a different way stuck in my head, and that’s when the unconventional training method all clicked.”
“I wanted to see what other [unconventional training] methods there were, so I started doing research on what the old warrior traditions would train with. That’s how I found the clubs and the maces.”
Onnit Academy’s unconventional training method is all about harnessing and strengthening one’s functional movements—those primal movement types that are most important to us in the real world.
“If everybody is lifting with dumbells, barbells, and pulleys, they’re missing out,” Marcus said.
One piece of equipment the Onnit Academy Gym is renowned for is their kettlebells.
“It started with the monkeys,” Marcus said. “[The kettlebells are] a celebration of both the animal and the spiritual side of humans, and living the optimized life is a celebration of both.” The gym molds and casts three product lines of the kettlebells—monkeys and zombies (aka the “primal bells”), and legend bells.
The Sasquatch is the biggest of the primal bells, weighing in at 90 pounds.
The Howler is the smallest, weighing in at 18 pounds.
The Onnit Academy Gym currently has 120 members, an impressive client base when you consider the gym just opened last November—the same month they acquired Black Swan Yoga.
For Onnit, ushering in Black Swan further supports and advances their mission to focus on total human optimization.
“Yoga is one of the best ways to get that,” Marcus said. “[The practice] provides lessons in stillness, surrendering, and pushing through adversity,” Marcus said.
Even MMA fighters can understand the importance of incorporating an activity like yoga into their training.
“You talk with some of the best [fighters] and they fight from a place of stillness and a place of peace. That’s what you see from champions—they surrender to the present moment,” he said.
But Black Swan wasn’t the only business to find a new home under Onnit’s ever-expanding roof.
Joe DeFranco, a name heralded in the training world as one of the best to work with WWE fighters and NFL players, moved his training gym from New Jersey to Austin last fall to join the Onnit Academy. The partnership was (and is) a testament to the pedestal Onnit has been placed on by those in the competitive sports world.
“Joe is one of those guys that wants to provide the best for his athletes,” Marcus said of DeFranco. “He found us because he identified us as having the best supplements out there, and we recognized him as having some of the best training methods for preparing high power athletes to perform. Having his expertise in more traditional athletic preparation is invaluable [to us].”
Another established partnership Marcus has cultivated is with his friend and podcast host, Joe Rogan. He first met the comedian-slash-sports commentator at a lunch to discuss the business matter of advertising Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. “What was supposed to be a 30 minute lunch turned into a 3 hour dinner,” Marcus confesses. “We were talking about aliens and super volcanoes and psychedelics; everything [Rogan] likes to talk about.”
The two hit it off so well that now, about once every quarter, they host a 3-hour podcast—together—in a way, re-creating that dinner—to discuss anything and everything; “normally unplanned talking topics,” Marcus said.
One topic that Marcus gets questioned on quite a bit is fortunately one he is more than happy to discuss.
The medicinal meditation retreats have taken him from the remote mountains of Mexico to the lush, tropical forests of Costa Rica and Peru. “Ayahuasca provides an opportunity to go out and find truth. Part of that is a spiritual component, and part of the ayahuasca is seeing things from a different perspective,” Marcus said of the shaman-led experience.
Marcus credits the retreats for helping him to see where he was making mistakes—in business, in life—and realign his goals.
“Everything that is happening now I envisioned when I was down in Peru,” he said.
“Meditation is a way to stop the momentum of your mind; to get things still for a second; to quiet down and give you a little space for your consciousness to breathe. In one way or another, you have to find a way to get to stillness. That could be spending time in nature; it could be floatation tanks; it could be yoga. Whatever it is, you have to find a way to get still. It’s the most crucial thing in life,” Marcus said.
The Onnit headquarters aren’t the only place you’ll find Marcus indulging his unconventional, human optimization side this summer. He plans to return to the Amazonian jungle for his third ayahuasca retreat.
When he returns from his travels, his team and gym members know where to find him.
“I come straight back, and my first stop is the Onnit Café,” he said.
Marcus, who jokingly refers to himself as “the shake master,” created all the recipes for the drinks you see at the Onnit Café. All the shakes, he said, were born out of “experiments with the most delicious, healthy things” he could find.
“When I travel,” Marcus said, pivoting the straw in his Swole Banana smoothie, in search of one last sip, “these shakes are what I miss the most.”
Well, the shakes and his staff.
“I love coming into the office. I get to see all of these people who are all happy and enjoying what they do. I also love meeting the people who our products are benefitting. There are a lot of cool moments here. Every time I walk into the office is another cool moment,” he said.
Out of the 60 employees that work at Onnit, Marcus said they have nobody that’s counting hours.
“If you’re that employee that wants to show up and complain about your job,” Marcus said hesitantly, “We’ve had a couple of those and they quit. They were like, ‘I can’t handle this.
Everybody’s too happy.’ Some people aren’t ready for us yet.”
There’s no average day in the life of Aubrey Marcus, but generally it starts with:
- A high protein lunch for breakfast. “I’m not a big eggs guy,” Marcus said.
- In the office, ordering one of his blended coffees. “I try not to have coffee until after breakfast.”
- Getting into the workflow of the day.
- Lunch at Thai Fresh.
- Winding down the workday around 4:35 p.m. “Then it’s time for me to have some fun in the gym.”
“You know how some people have smoke breaks? I take a walk through the gym and it refreshes me. I get to engage with people and talk with them,” Marcus said. “Things are simple in the gym. I mean, things can get complicated in the office. There’s a lot of planning.”
Marcus strives to live an optimal life, and talks a lot about being truthful and authentic as a person. To him, being the CEO of Onnit means being one with his employees and members.
“People will drive up to Onnit and they’ll see me doing something in the gym, and say ‘Oh, you’re here?’ and I’m like ‘Of course I’m here. This is where I work,’” Marcus said, contorting his face to imitate their look of confusion.
“Why would I [workout anywhere else]?” Marcus asked rhetorically. “This is what I’ve hand created to be the best experience for me. There’s not a single thing I designed knowing I wouldn’t benefit from it personally. Everything we have is something I stand by 100 percent.”
Asked about the future growth he sees for the company, Marcus smiled, squinting his eyes. “There’s always something in the works,” he said.
Onnit most recently released a personal care line that includes a Zen Spice body wash, cedar and lavender scented organic deodorant, a healing body salve, and a lip balm called Lip Food.
The inspiration behind the product line came from the realization that skin absorption rates can reach as high as 80 percent on different areas of your body—especially your armpits.
“People don’t realize that what you put on your skin gets in your body. They’re putting all these chemicals on [their skin] that they wouldn’t dare eat. Nobody is going to take a bite of their RightGuard or Speed Stick,” Marcus said, uncapping a bar of Onnit deodorant to prove his point.
“Nobody would dare do that with their regular deodorant, but yet they’ll put it on their skin,” he said.
The possibility of a future DogOnnit pet line is one Marcus won’t denounce. “They need optimization too,” he said with a laugh.
While Onnit supplements are available anywhere in reach of a strong Internet connection, expansion of the Austin-based Onnit Academy Gym is still in the works.
“We just want to make sure we have master trainers that can provide the same level of quality training that we have here. I want people who go to an Onnit gym to have the full Onnit experience. As soon as we’re able to do that, we’ll start franchising,” Marcus said.
The chances of him starting another company, one unrelated to Onnit, is as likely as seeing the CEO successfully pull off Side Crow (an advanced-level yoga pose). Which, he would agree to say, is not any time soon.
“It was funny, I had somebody mention something to me the other day about being a serial entrepreneur—which I’m really not,” Marcus said. “I’ve just been trying to figure out how to get to here, until I got to here.”
“But I was curious about that concept. Like, why would you want to be a serial entrepreneur? For me, [Onnit] is my dream. This is absolutely everything I’ve ever wanted to build and be a part of, so why would I want to do this again? What weird compulsion would that be. To be like, ‘Oh yeah, that was fun. Let’s sell that and move on.’”
“It’s not about the money. That’s not how I’m keeping score here. I’m keeping score by how much I love this. And [right now], I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
How did the name “Onnit” come about?
Onnit is something that Marcus and his friend, and Olympic skier, Bode Miller would say to each other. “If he skied a good race, I would say, ‘Man that was on it.’ If I did something good, he would say, ‘That was on it.’ It could be used in the gym or in competition.” So that’s what Marcus decided to call the company. “Throw an extra ‘n’ in there and make it a brand,” he said.
As a self-proclaimed “warrior poet,” Marcus has many favorite quotes. His top three?
“No man steps in the same river twice, because it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
“We choose only once. To be warriors or to be ordinary.” – Carlos Castaneda
“Do not wait to strike until the iron is hot. Instead, make the iron hot by striking.” – W.B. Yeats
As a leader, is there anyone you follow?
“I follow everybody. The leader is a good follower and the master is a good student,” Marcus said. “I learn from my employees, and from people in the gym. I’m always learning. The minute you stop learning, you’re done.”
Top pet peeve?
When people are too busy in their own mind and aren’t listening to what you’re saying. I’d rather sit in silence with them than sit in chatter.
If you could workout with 4 people, living or dead, who would they be?
Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD), Lao Tzu, Jesus, and The Rock (Dwayne Johnson).
Top 3 books:
“Island” by Aldous Huxley
“Mastery of Love” by Don Miguel Ruiz
“You Are the Placebo” by Joe Dispenza
You’re stranded on a desert island and can request three things. What would they be?
A beautiful philosopher queen, a satellite phone, and a good spear.