When Jo Williams joined the U.S. Army, she was out of shape and unclear on where her path was headed. Fifteen years later, Jo is a decorated combat veteran and sits at the head of Inferno Fitness, an exercise brand that spans three states and counting. In this episode, Jessica Jackley goes deep with Jo about the long road she took to shape up her health, life, and career.
Cofounder of Kiva.org, the world’s first crowdfunded microlending website and the author of Clay Water Brick: Finding Inspiration From Entrepreneurs Who Do the Most With the Least.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Welcome to Points of Courage, where we celebrate the big risks behind building a small business. I'm your host, Jessica Jackley. Hiscox and I are working together to share stories of gutsy entrepreneurs, who put a lot on the line to start their own companies. We're back with three new episodes that I can't wait to share with you.
I took my own business risks about a decade when I started Kiva, a peer to peer microlending website that funds entrepreneurs around the world. Today, I teach and speak widely on entrepreneurship, and I also get to talk to incredible thinkers and innovators here, on Points of Courage.
I love having real conversations with entrepreneurs who have built their companies from the ground up, with nothing but their own drive, passion, and courage, and I'm constantly learning new things as I hear each one's unique journey. You should get ready to learn a lot too.
This podcast is brought to you by Hiscox Insurance, America's Number 1, online, small-business insurer. You can learn more about Hiscox at Hiscox.com, that's Hiscox.com. Hiscox, encourage courage.
I have Jo Williams here with me today. After serving in the US Army for over 10 years, she found herself struggling with civilian life, she became homeless, with 12 dollars in her pocket. But eventually she turned those 12 dollars into a thriving fitness company. Somehow we were able to pull her away from her intense routine of running four busy bootcamps to talk about it.
It's such a treat to have you hear. Thanks so much for coming Jo.
JO WILLIAMS: Thank you. It's an an honor to be here.
JESSICA JACKLEY: So let's just start at the beginning.
JO WILLIAMS: Hmmm.
JESSICA JACKLEY: How did this company start?
JO WILLIAMS: Well, this company started with a little insanity on my part. When I decided to join the army, I did not look like anything anybody would ever put in the army, ever. I was almost 400 pounds. And at this time I think I was at a state of desperation, that I needed to change my life. And initially, I was like, you know, this is not for me. Even though I was a military brat: My dad was in the military, everybody in my family was in the military, but I didn't feel like I was cut out for that. Luckily for me, I was one of those people that they were willing to work with. My recruiter took me on, he said, "You know, if you could lose the weight, you'd make an amazing soldier." And that was all the words I needed to hear to restore my hope.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Wow.
JO WILLIAMS: He worked with me everyday, we worked out three or four times a day, six days a week, and within I'd say about six months I'd lost 170 pounds.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Oh my goodness.
JO WILLIAMS: And I was ready to go into boot camp.
JESSICA JACKLEY: What were those first few days and weeks like, what happened then?
JO WILLIAMS: Well the first few days, I definitely wanted to go home. I had questioned my own sanity, like, "What did I get myself into?" I felt like ... I was being personally attacked, by the US Government, how hard they were working me. But, I got through it, I sucked it up, you know, I put the covers over my head at night and just cry it out and in the morning I got stronger and better everyday.
I think in my second week of boot camp is when I really clicked, like, wow, I was born for this. Because I came from obesity. And when you are 387 pounds, you're not thinking about marching 12 miles in boots and full gear and full battle-rattle and your weapon and your kevlar and your helmet on your head and everything else.
You're not active, at 387 pounds. So in my second week of boot camp, it had dawned on me that I had been missing out on this. And it became my lifestyle. Even the drill sergeant, like, get that smile off your face soldier. I'm like, "We're having fun!" [laughing] What do you want me to do? You're torturing me, everyone else is dying but I'm not dying. I love it! Give me more pushups. Give me more. And so by the time I graduated boot camp, I had lost so much weight, my own mother didn't even recognize me. When I walked across the field, I deliberately walked by her 16 times and she had no idea who I was. (laughs)
JESSICA JACKLEY: It sounds like, it's sounds like, there were, you know you served for 10 years, did that enthusiasm and the opportunity to participate in boot camp activities, was that sustained over the ten years.
JO WILLIAMS: Oh yeah, I started doing my own obstacle courses and I started pulling my friends aside and stuff like at Ft. Campbell, and started doing our own workouts, and one thing led to another, and that turned into, you know, "Sargent williams, who is going to Sargent william's PT session today?" I would be standing in front of 400, 500 soldiers at a time, and it was so easy for me, I wasn't shy, I wasn't nervous, it was something I did so naturally. And that was my learning point, really.
IT was just an amazing opportunity to connect with people and give them something new, outside of, our traditional PT. But that's where I got my start! That's where I found my niche.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Well help me understand then, what happened. It sounds like after 10 years of service, you were thriving in your military career. What happened, why did things change?
JESSICA JACKLEY: Coming from military life and civilian life, it was a huge transition on every level, as far as life is concerned. And it took a toll on my finances. I was doing well in the beginning, you know, paying my rent on time and stuff like that, and it became harder and harder, because I didn't have a job right out of the military, right away. I had whatever I had saved up, which is about $2500, when I left, and soon that money ran out and I had no work, and that resulted in collections fees, and now I'm being evicted from my apartment, and now I'm living in my car.
But I made it work, you know? I always had this thing in the back of my mind, is if I can go through Iraq three times, I can spend that amount of time in the military, I can go through all those things and conquer all of these different feats, I can definitely certainly get through this.
JO WILLIAMS: Yeah.
JESSICA JACKLEY: A whole year went by and at that point, my vehicle was towed away for a nonpayment, and now I'm Completely homeless, without any shelter over my head. And I ended up living in, there was a really abandoned mall called Hickory Hock mall in antioch Tennessee, I'll never forget it, and they had this abandoned parking are, where no cars are being parked, so that's where I lived, (laughs) for about four months. And while living in the parking lot, I always noticed that these four ladies were walking around the mall, they were mall walkers. With their dogs, they were friends.
One day I decide to approach them, and I said, "Would you guys like a free training program?" And they were like, "Sure."
JW+: You are unbelievable. So you just walk up to these people you have seen, day after day, and—how much of that was premeditated? Did you have a plan in mind?
JO WILLIAMS: I had no plan in mind.
JESSICA JACKLEY: You just thought, "I had to do something."
JO WILLIAMS: I felt like that was my golden opportunity to see if I actually had a shot at this, if this is something I can do in my civilian career, not just in my military career, it's now or never.
Long story short: The last 12 dollars in my pocket that I had saved, I took that, I got the computer at the library, and bought four mats off of Craigslist, for those four ladies, by the way I still have those four mats to this day. I had them framed in my house. Those four mats changed my entire life, not just my career.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Wow.
JO WILLIAMS: I had nothing left at that point. Four turned into 20.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Now how did that happen, though, four turned into 20 because they were so pleased?
JESSICA JACKLEY: Yes ...
JO WILLIAMS: They invited people, or did you ask them? We you proactive?
JESSICA JACKLEY: No. These ladies, within a month, all of them had lost about 30-35 pounds.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Whoa.
JO WILLIAMS: And so of course, when you're having insane results like that, you're going to spread the word. You're going to tell somebody. And so they're like, hey girl, come on down to Hickory Hill Mall Parking Lot. I had that Parking lot full of women! Within two months I was able to get an apartment, moved into an apartment.
JESSICA JACKLEY: So you start charging?
JO WILLIAMS: Yes, so I started charging. Even then it was only 19 dollars month. I charged them 19 dollars a full month. I had 15 women at that point, that I could no longer hide in the parking lot. So I took a step out on faith, I went into the mall, and I asked them for my own studio space. And they said yes.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Inside the mall where you had been living in the parking lot?
JO WILLIAMS: Yes.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Outside of that—oh my—
JO WILLIAMS: Absolutely.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Wow. Wow. That's incredible.
JO WILLIAMS: So everything happens for a reason.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Were you able to sign up and start paying for that space?
JO WILLIAMS: They gave me my first studio for three months, free, and at three months I was able to do really well for myself.
JESSICA JACKLEY: I, I mean, am, it's my job to ask you these questions, I'm just speechless. My jaw has dropped. I'm in awe of your tenacity and the courage that you had to continue at all moments in this journey to be hopeful.
JO WILLIAMS: Yes.
JESSICA JACKLEY: And to keep pushing forward, and to find or just create those opportunities for yourself.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Yes.
JO WILLIAMS: Had you ever envisioned yourself an entrepreneur?
JO WILLIAMS: Well ... even if you had asked some of my childhood friends, even at the age of three r four, I was as bossy as they come. I've always been extremely bossy. Of course, that's had it's benefits over the years. Now in my adulthood, I am now running four gyms going on five, so ... I've always seen myself here.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Oh wow. Well tell me how you went from that one space, the one studio in the mall, to so so many others.
JO WILLIAMS: Well the space in the mall, I actually grew out twice. I considered myself one of the largest bootcamps really on the east coast. A lot of the bootcamps you go to, you might find 30-50 people in there. Mine had 150 people. It's unheard of in the training world. And at that point, I knew I had to start expanding, because it, you know, it started to get the point where people in you know like, Memphis, other cities were contacting me for Infernal Fitness. And that's what gave me the motivation really and the empowerment to expand into other locations.
JESSICA JACKLEY: How did you find other people to train that could lead classes when you couldn't be in all of these different cities at once?
JO WILLIAMS: For the most part, I'd say 9 out of 10 of my trainers were referred to me by other clients who were like yeah, I've had some experience with this trainer, I think they'd be a good fit for you gym.
SO that was it, that's all it took, is a phone call, just give me a number, and I'd talk to them. I mean, once trainers here about the story of infernal fitness, what we believe in, and what our mission is, and how we look for our clients, and how we treat our clients, they fall in love with that business model. And that's something that they want to be on board with.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Will you tell us, and for those listening, tell us that mission, tell us those values.
JO WILLIAMS: We believe in ... putting capes on people's' backs. We believe in, you know, empowering women in such a way that they literally feel like they can conquer the world after a workout with us. That one hour, we look at that one hour in our gym as a way to liberate people. People need to feel liberated. People need to feel like they have a purpose. Because if we don't have that loved, empowered, inspired, citizens, we don't have those citizens out in the real world, not just in the gym. We're not going to make it as, I think as a people, period. Really our purpose at Infernal Fitness is to change lives, not just bodies.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Building a brick and mortar business is different than other business, but it sounds like you've mastered that too, this element of having, really a strong following on social media for example.
JO WILLIAMS: Yes.
JESSICA JACKLEY: How did you do that?
JO WILLIAMS: MY social media is positioned such in a way to inspire people. That's my whole purpose. We don't do any Facebook advertising, but we position it in such a way where, people look forward to the things that post. They look forward to our content, they look forward to that quality, they look forward to seeing that crazy cooky picture of gym selfies, and things of that nature.
And so, we're able to capture a lot of sales out of that. Because people want to buy into that culture. Like, wow, they're having fun at that gym. Taking selfies. Oh wow, Jo does show up! I would say definitely like 9.9 out of 10 of my clients come from Facebook.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Where is your incredible motivation come from? It seems like this has always been a part of you and who you are. Can you find an origin?
JO WILLIAMS: My origin is definitely my mom. This is where I get emotional. (laughs) Growing up, I watched my mom go from job to job, job to job. She was overwhelmed all the time. My dad, wasn't in the picture much. And at the end of the day, she was crying herself to sleep, but as soon as she had to wake up, she had to put on that cape. But I saw through that. I always saw my mom in pain, even though she thought she was putting on the brave face.
And she was a nanny for a really wealthy family. One day she took me to their home and they had an east wing and a west wing, I mean the home was like a shopping mall. It was like huge. And I remember sitting in the grass and like playing with one of the kids toys, it was like a technology type gadget toy that was sitting in the grass, and I wanted to play with it! Because this wasn't stuff that I saw at home. One of the ladies' kids came up and said, "What are you doing? Why are you playing with my toy? You're black."
JESSICA JACKLEY: Oh my gosh.
JO WILLIAMS: And I was like, even to that today, these words tattooed me. And it wasn't really a racial thing for me, it was a feeling of, "I'm better than you." And that changed my entire perspective for the rest of my life. That is the hub of what makes me want to go over and beyond to make women and everybody really feel like they're somebody. I would never want to feel like I felt growing up. You know, you're this because you're fat, you're that because you're poor, you're that because your mom is a single mom. There's a whole bunch of dynamics growing up that people made me feel inferior. And I take all of those feelings and I pour that out to my gym, I pour that out to my clients. I always want my clients to feel like a million bucks.
Eve if I just tell them that they're beautiful, or if I compliment them on their sneakers, whatever the case may be, I would never want anyone to feel the way that I felt growing up.
JESSICA JACKLEY: What a beautiful response to the tough things that you'd been dealt earlier in your life. I, I applaud that so much and I find that incredibly inspiring. So what are your thoughts, what is your vision for the future of your business for the next three, five, ten years, and what do you think you'll need to have some courage for?
JO WILLIAMS: Well, even in the next year, I ... plan on, for lack of better words, dominating fitness. I don't plan to be quiet about this movement.
JESSICA JACKLEY: You're kidding! (laughs)
JESSICA JACKLEY: So the only way to do that is to ... open up locations everywhere, which is what I'm Aggressively doing now, I'm going on my fifth and sixth location by January 1st, there would be a total of six locations, not four. And by the end of 2017, we're looking at a total of about 40 locations. And as far as courage is concerned, you have to be courageous in this field. It's not even an option. Like, you, it's not an option. And that's in ny field, not just fitness, but you have to be a bss about it. And not in a cocky way, but in a way, in a way that you, your feet are planted, you're grounded. And you know exactly where you're going.
I'll tell anybody to their face, that ... my gym is better than yours!
JESSICA JACKLEY: So you have to explain this to me, becuase you, I have not yet, I'll say yet, been to a bootcamp of yours. I would love to go someday, but describe to us, what is your secret sauce? What do people do when they show up?
JO WILLIAMS: It is, from the time you walk through the doors to the time that you leave or you'll be actually crawling, you'll walk in but you'll crawl out. We literally embody genre of fitness within that one hour. So for 10 minutes you might be doing abdominal work. And then for 10 minutes, you might be doing hip hop aerobics, for 10 minutes you might be running on the treadmill, 10 minutes you might be on the elliptical with dumbbells in your hand. We cover all bases! Nothing is taboo.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Is it different every single time?
JO WILLIAMS: It's different! Every workout is different. You know people aren't going to continue to pay $150 a month for something that's boring.
JESSICA JACKLEY: So you changed your pricing from $19 to $150. That was a big move.
JO WILLIAMS: (laughs) Definitely. We're not the $29 bootcamp anymore. We're $150. Um, but you know, the workout is invariably different every single day. And that's what keeps people coming back.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Well and you're telling them that they're beautiful.
JO WILLIAMS: Yes absolutely.
JESSICA JACKLEY: It sounds like that message, the culture that you create is just as much a part of what really makes it work as the, fitness.
JO WILLIAMS: Right. Without it, it'd just be any bootcamp.
JESSICA JACKLEY: Right. Incredible. Do you personally design all the workouts still?
JO WILLIAMS: I do (laughs). Which is why I never sleep! I'm very hands on. That's my biggest challenge. letting go. I'm wearing all the hats right now. I'm answering the phone, I'm showing up to all the sessions. IT's very hard for me to detach myself because my day is not complete if I don't get to see my clients. Realistically that's not going to be able to continue to happen, if ...
JESSICA JACKLEY: Not if you expand—
JO WILLIAMS: Right, right, I'm expanding in 40 locations, 50 locations. But you know, it has to happen, though.
JESSICA JACKLEY: So, I'm picturing you of living in the parking lot outside of that mall, still totally hopeful, as hopeful as you are today, as hopeful as you were at any moment in your life? How do you think about risk and do you think about things that way?
JO WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely. But my motto has always been, "Scared money doesn't make money. You have to be willing to go all in. You have to be willing to lose it all, to gain it all. Whether you want to open a nail salon or a hair salon or whatever you want to open, you can't hold onto your last $12, like in my instance, you can't hold onto that. You gotta let it go. I did not eat for about a week, after I spent that $12. But look where that's taken me. And that would not have happened if I did not let go of that $12. If I wasn't willing to go all the way broke. And don't even be concerned about what other people have to say about it. I honestly had to put that out there.
Because someone, as soon as you tell someone what you're getting ready to do, you tell someone your plan. "I'm getting ready to spend my last $12." Or "I want to invest "$5000 into my first bar." Somebody is going to discourage you. You can't let anybody discourage you.
JESSICA JACKLEY: IN your story, did you, I mean, did you run your ideas by anybody before you, as you're in the parking lot? Did you check with a friend or a family member, like, I'm going to use my $12 for the mats?
JO WILLIAMS: I did not. Nope. MY sister lived about a block away, and even she didn't know I was homeless. Nobody knew my plans because I didn't feel like it was anybody's business. You have to protect your vision like, like it's already $1 million. It's okay to feel like you're the only crazy one who feels crazy about your dream, because that's all it takes, it only takes you as an individual, as a person who has that dream. And it's okay to be crazy, so I say go for it. Go all in. Just let it go. Risk it all, lose it all, and go after your dream.
JESSICA JACKLEY: I have zero doubt that somebody listening right now has just kind of stopped the podcast has gone off to go, take that leap.
JO WILLIAMS: Go open a barber shop! (laughing)
JESSICA JACKLEY: Right. Right.
JO WILLIAMS: And that's just the whole concept behind it. You have to smart. You gotta think ahead. I've always thought ahead. Those four women that I started with, I always saw them representing 400 women. I always saw that one location representing 20 locations. I never saw myself as just being small business. At some point in my mind, at some point I knew that I would become a corporation.
JESSICA JACKLEY: I love that. I love that. And I love your spirit and your attitude and your incredible confidence. It's—I want it to rub off on me! (laughing) So, so I've heard you say several different things. You know, protect your vision. Protect your dream. Think big. Take those risks. Be hopeful.
There's so many things, you've already sort of dropped into this conversation, but what other advice would you have for entrepreneurs out there that are right at the beginning and want to start something and are looking at your journey and saying, "Oh my goodness, if I could only—"
JO WILLIAMS: Stop being fearful. I can't emphasize that enough. The only thing that's holding that vision back from manifesting is fear! It's either fear or money! And since you can get money, the only thing that's left is fear. So you have to put on that fearless cape, you just gotta step out there and do that, and believe in yourself. Nobody, nobody can believe in you like you can.
JESSICA JACKLEY: There is so much that you have figured out, and it just comes so naturally to you, and so much to be proud of. I have no doubt that you are going to succeed and we will all be rooting for you and perhaps joining some of the bootcamps.
JO WILLIAMS: yes! Yes. In a city near you. It's coming! (laughs)
JESSICA JACKLEY: Absolutely. Absolutely. No doubt.
JESSICA JACKLEY: The version of courage that I saw Jo display and that she's just manifested in her life again and again and again, it's one that is completely powerful and empowered. She just decided at every point to make a choice to do the scary thing, and take that step that was in front of her. And to be brave. I think many small business owners, many entrepreneurs struggle with growth when it means they have to give things up, that they've been executing on from the beginning of their venture. So I look forward to seeing her learn to do that more and more. I have total confidence she'll be able to do it. And it'll be fun to check in with her over time to see how that has worked itself out.
That's it for this episode of Points of Courage. Next week, I'll have an environmental engineer in the studio to talk about how he turned a devastating diagnosis into motivation for starting a now-global tech company.
Points of Courage is produced by Panoply Custom Studios and is brought to you by Hiscox Insurance, America's Number 1, online small business insurer. Another thank you to Jo Williams for talking about her incredible venture. To hear more inspirational stories of entrepreneurship, subscribe to Points of Courage, wherever you get your podcasts.
I am Jessica Jackley, thank you for joining me.
Want to learn more about Jo's journey to start Inferno Fitness? Go to Slate.com/pointsofcourage to read the article and check out more about what she does.