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Mike Israetel: Inside the mind of a fitness industry titan

Fast-Talking, foul-mouthed and charismatic – Dr. Mike Israetel is a 5’6″ and 250 lb slab of Moscow muscle. He is also the co-founder of Renaissance Periodization (RP), one of the largest evidence-based online coaching platforms in the world. Inhabiting a fascinating balance between click-baity and informative rpstrength has over 400k followers on instagram. Beyond the sizeable following (not necessarily an indicator of an actual business) RP has coached tens thousands of fitness clients including Olympians and CrossFit games champions.

We have interviewed Mike twice for our business podcast (see them listed at the end of this article). From those interviews we gleaned a ton of valuable knowledge. This article will breakdown the choicest pearls of wisdom from our encounters with the good Doctor, and how you might be able to apply them to life and business.

Business Principles

In this first section I’m going to use quotes from the various interviews to sketch out some of the key principles that Mike and his colleagues have used to build and scale RP.

“F*ck angle. The sh*t works. How about that angle? People love that angle.”

Use Science

“Fundamentally at the end of everything, RP is trying to help people get into better shape using science, reason, and logic.”

This is the mantra of Renaissance Periodisation. By evidence this isn’t ‘oh my mate Jeff got great bicep peaks using blood occlusion curls so we should use them’, It’s drawing conclusions from peer reviewed, dense, academic papers and acting accordingly. As you will see later on, it is also the basis of how Mike interacts with life in general.

Embody the message

Deferring to the scientific evidence extends beyond the product itself and into their hiring process. All of RPs coaches have PHDs and many have competed at high levels in their respective fitness disciplines. Now, most of us coaches don’t have the budget to hire a 20 deep team of industry leaders…but I think the takeaway from this is that you have to embody your message as a business. RP is all about research and results so its team is comprised of great researchers who have achieved great results. If you’re a fat loss coach – do you know what it’s actually like to lose fat? If you’re a strength coach did you ever manage to get strong?

The customer is the most important thing

This is what Mike had to say about his co-founder and RP CEO Nick Shaw.

“He personally cares about every single customer review deeply;  to where if he gets a review that is substantively negative, it hurts him and it keeps him awake, and it keeps him contacting the rest of our team and saying ‘how can we fix this?’

To reach true size as a business there are some fundamental mindsets that need to be in place. With a service business, like a personal training company, a bordering on obsessive dedication to your product is one of them. It may seem a little ass-backwards to be obsessing over the singular comments of one out of thousands,
and it is likely inefficient. But, that dedication to perfectionism has been a major contributing factor to the success of RP.

Sell sh*t that works

When asked about marketing tactics Mike, unsurprisingly, isn’t one for gimmicks.

“Sell things that work, and then you don’t ever have to worry about  this and that in the marketing. You never have to worry about like lying to people or here’s the angle we’re going to take? F*ck angle. The sh*t works. How about that angle? People love that angle.”

This is a non-negotiable for Mike and it makes complete sense. Fads come and go but the stuff that is actually useful will stick around. RP aims to be the Tortoise to P90x’s hare.

Setbacks Happen

From the outside it can appear that Mike and Nick never make mistakes. This isn’t the case. In developing the RP App they sunk 150’000 (yeah, you read that correctly) into a version that never saw the light of day.

“So basically they quoted us to something like 150 K for the app. And we’re like, that’s a shit load of money, but reasonable. And then they did redid the spec and quoted us back at like 900 K and we’re like, well, that was done. We signed a ton of money to that and it went nowhere.”

Most people that take a 150k L might decide to no longer pursue that path. Nick and Mike persisted, and now the app is central to the RP offering. Obviously that 150k is proportional to the size of the business at the time but there are still some lessons to be learned.

1. things don’t go perfectly in business. There is risk involved but you need to take risks and have setbacks in order to keep moving forward.

2.investment is key to scaling.

Routine

People love a good routine. The popularity of James Clear’s Atomic Habits has turned the craft of the morning routine into a pseudo-religion.

Whilst we don’t think you can transmute your way to Billionaire status by simply drinking the same coffee as Jeff Bezos of a morning; there is power in looking over a broad sample of high performer’s schedules and observing the patterns.

Here’s what stuck out in Mike’s routine.

  1. “Almost all my days are profoundly similar.”

Consistency toward a goal seems to be the only way to achieve big things. Whilst there may be flourishes here and there, and what appears to be ‘overnight’ successes, it seems that across all high-performers a dedication to repeating the same positive behaviours is vital. Mike is no exception.

2. Mike works more than you do.

When questioned on how often he rests he replied. “I work a half-day Sunday and it’s my only day off of training.” Yep. Mike works 6.5 days a week. He also trains in the gym for 11 total sessions a week AND does BJJ on top of that. RP is Mike’s baby and he is absolutely dedicated to its success.

This isn’t to say you can’t achieve reasonable success with a 40 hour week (that’s how we’ve built and run Propane Fitness)

But to get extreme results then the majority of the time it seems that extreme inputs are required.

Mental Models

This section is great for anyone looking to improve their general decision making. Mike holds a few principles dear that have allowed him to make better decisions in his day to day, and reap greater fulfilment from life.

Play the numbers

“I don’t run my life on 1/10’s I run my life on 9/10’s and I would recommend everyone else do the same.”

This philosophy is at the heart of Dr. Mike’s interactions with reality. Make the decisions that are the highest likelihood of achieving a positive result. Our cognitive biases and wishful thinking can too often lead us down the path of chasing exceptional outcomes – The 1 in 100 shot that could take us to the moon, but will most likely conclude in a ball of flames. The results of chasing this leave us frustrated, and we start to tell a story of bad luck and ‘things never go right for me’. Then when inevitably the next low percentage play doesn’t come off, our negative mindset is galvanised and we feel trapped.

Instead we can make higher quality, less sexy choices and slowly the world will reinforce our positive beliefs and more importantly provide us with a series of favourable outcomes.

Annie Duke’s excellent book Thinking in Bets espouses the same message. It’s not about your biggest single win, but the totality of the smaller wins outweighing the losses.

On how he gets sh*t done

“The sensation I get after writing a section in a book or something, and really fleshing out a deep intellectual concept is like pure elation. It can’t be matched by anything on social media.”

This is really a statement in defence of Deep Work. Mike has seen himself that the rewards of intentional, difficult tasks are far greater than the mini dopamine hits one receives from an instagram like.

It seems that this attitude was instilled in him from a young age.

“My grandma had this saying, which translated from Russian means ‘once you’ve done your task, you can bravely go and relax and enjoy yourself.’ “

He has conditioned himself to not be comfortable relaxing until the big tasks of the day are complete. That nagging feeling + the knowledge that the rewards of deep engagement with the task at hand is enough to steer him away from the childish distractions that trap so many others (including us).

Mike also celebrates the small daily victories – something that I think is an essential missing piece for many people who seek to be ‘productive’.  It is too easy to expect oneself to be productive, with any other outcome being branded a failure. Mike sees it differently. He was diagnosed with ADHD from a young age – his early frustrations with concentration have resulted in a feeling of true achievement whenever he gets any task done.

” If I just took my ability to work and sit and calmly produce value for granted I’d never be where I was now. Anytime I’m productive, I’m like ‘wow!'”

This internal cheering-on is the final piece of the puzzle that allows Mike to work so many hours, and have such a relatively high output. It is simply pleasurable for him to be productive. He doesn’t have to stress about burn-out because the work itself is nourishing.

Dr Mike’s Ultimate Bullsh*t Detector

When we spoke, Mike outlined his diagnostic tool for whether or not something is a lie.

He did warn us that its probabilistic – so there are no legally binding promises. However, the more boxes a claim ticks the more likely that the person claiming it is selling a dream.

1. If a claim violates the underpinning fundamental laws of physics/biology/chemistry

This one is fairly self explanatory. If a claim somehow flies in the face of the generally agreed upon laws of reality then there is a decent chance the claimant is chatting breeze.

2. When a claimant ignores, dismisses or unconvincingly argues against well-intentioned alternative user questions.

People that don’t gracefully debate conflicting viewpoints, and in fact shutdown any hint of opposition are generally insecure in their own stance

3. If a claim is layered heavily with emotion and or moralistic taboo.

If someone’s sole reason for you needing to follow their method is based on extreme guilt then that is one red flag, and you may be about to join a cult.

4. When a claim comes with a complex web of ‘by no means clear ideas’ that interweave.

If a claim involves a series of logical leaps that are both unclear in their mechanics and overly complicated then chances are there is something amiss. E.g David Icke’s Lizard Elite theory that combines the idea that a secrete interconnected elite run the world AND they are also Alien Lizards AND that we can’t see that they are lizards because of our brains not being on the correct frequencies to see true realities AND that these alternate waves can be accessed through hallucinogenic drugs. How does this actually work? Well it’s kind of unclear…

5. When you claim a revolutionary discovery without explicit due diligence in explaining how it works.

If a claim flies in the face of accepted knowledge BUT there isn’t a clear explanation as to how it functions then alarm bells should ring.

6. When a claimant evades testing of claims or if the claims are tested and they turn out to be wrong, then the claimant says it’s an improper test.

Claimant: Test my theory – it will hold up!

Researcher: After rigorous testing, your claim didn’t hold up.

Claimant: NOOOOO you DIDN’T DO THE TEST PROPERLY!

Researcher: How was it improper?

Claimant: It just was!

Researcher: *Sighs…shakes head*

7. When an argument or claim fails to define its terms or is generally unclear in its language.

Vague, flimsy, slippery terminology smells a lot like BS.

8. Someone makes a claim that nearly all or all of the experts are totally wrong.

The literature might be wrong in some specific ways but EVERY tenured expert is COMPLETELY wrong? Come on now.

9. Claiming to be a perfect or nearly ideal solution without acknowledging costs, complexity or trade offs.

Everything comes with trade-offs. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.

10. When a person fronting a claim has a high degree of financial, political or more importantly ideological self-interest in the claim.

If a person stakes their living or intellectual identity on a singular claim then beware of ulterior motives. They could just be convincing you of something for personal gain, or the safety of their raging ego.

And there it is; your guide to cutting through the bullshit, and a little peek inside the machinations of the mind of Mike Israetel.

Listen to our full series of Mike Israetel podcasts below:

 

Listen to “111. Mike Israetel: The Return” on Spreaker.

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