My own history with First Endurance goes back to 2008, when I used EFS and Optygen during my training for - and subsequent race at - the November edition of Ironman Arizona. But the actual roots of how that came to be trace back even further, to my first discovery of "endurance nutrition" (for lack of a better term) in college. I was a walk-on to the Princeton lightweight rowing team, and - like many rowers (though less and less as the sport grows) - a total novice. But I wasn't just a novice to rowing; I was a novice to endurance sport more generally. Unlike the multitude of swimmers and middle-distance runners who find their way to rowing, I was a team sports player. And a fairly "static" one. My best sport in high school was lacrosse, where I was a goaltender. I stood around a lot and tried to catch rubber balls thrown really, really fast at me. But it turned out I had a knack for endurance sport, and I really gravitated to the work:reward structure of endurance training. You trained, and you got better. You trained harder, you got even better.
In the late 90's, rowing, like many endurance sports, was fairly old school. I'm mostly skeptical of new technology and "improvements" - and have become even more skeptical as I've gotten older. There was still a lot of cotton apparel - synthetic fabrics had really just started to take hold, and were unquestionably better. And nutrition was an afterthought. In hindsight, it still baffles me that for a sport where our weight was a major factor, nutrition was literally never covered. For reference, American collegiate lightweight rowers must weigh no more than 160lbs and the boat average must be 155lbs; international lightweight rowers must weigh no more than 72kg and the boat average must be 70kg; weigh-ins are typically done the afternoon before major races in college; international weigh-ins tend to be more strict, though the exact timing varies. Midway through my sophomore year, I thought that maybe drinking something other than just water might be a good idea. I ended up doing a lot of weird experimentation on myself, but the one unequivocal success was that calories during a long practice were better than no calories. Shocking revelation.
But I didn't want to just buy Gatorade. Some of it was a sense that anything that was so mainstream wasn't really "credible," but mostly it was that I wanted something that I could easily keep at the boathouse in powder form. I remember trying a bunch of the weird sports drinks on the market at the time - remember GPush (thanks Macca…) - and I bought them all from this little and coincidentally local online shop called PersonalBestNutrition.com. The then owner (whose name I've forgotten) and I chatted regularly, and I learned a lot. And I also got my teammates to actually think about nutrition before and after practice. And then, my senior year, PersonalBestNutrition was sold to an existing customer and the person who many of you may know as the face of PBN after almost 20 years, Brian Shea, aka BrianPBN on the forum. Brian and I immediately hit it off, and he remained a close friend and advisor of mine, including helping me a lot when I got into triathlon after college. He was the one who really helped me identify my high sodium need and solved my constant issues with cramping. I went from someone who struggled mightily as a 70.3 athlete with cramping to never suffering from cramps once during Ironman. Thanks Brian!
In the fall of 2008, Brian and I were discussing Ironman nutrition, and he'd just started carrying First Endurance and was a believer. He was probably more excited about First Endurance than any product line I can remember. I'd just started using EFS in training when I went to Interbike, and I thought, "I'll go talk to these guys. Maybe they'll be interested in sponsoring me." I approached the First Endurance booth, met co-founder and VP of Marketing Mike Fogarty, and was pretty promptly given the blow off. Mike mostly handled the cycling sponsorships at the time; the triathletes were mostly handled by the other co-founder, VP of Science Robert Kunz. I was pretty bummed. But Brian assured me that the products were outstanding and to not let my perception of the business side of things affect that. And so in spite of being turned off at having been given the cold shoulder, I stuck with it, and EFS fueled me to a 3rd place overall finish, out dueling Chris Lieto on the bike to set a new course record, and, thanks to some further help on Brian's part, I came to an agreement with First Endurance for the 2009 season. It was a product only deal, though they ended up sending me a lot of checks for the races I won, and so began one of two career-long sponsorships (the other was with Zipp/SRAM) that extend to this day. I'm much more of a tester/advisor - and I'm no longer paid by either company, but I'm thrilled to still get to work with both companies in some small way.
In the 10 years that I worked with First Endurance as a professional athlete, I saw a lot of changes. The company, founded in 2002, became one of the market leaders in the sport. I saw them make incredibly brave decisions that highlighted the deep, personal commitment to ethics and leadership. They refused to do single serving gel packets because they thought them too environmentally detrimental, a decision that we'll revisit in a future article. They left the European pro-tour because of being horrified by the obvious doping of Ricardo Ricco. They sponsored Sanier Duval the year that Ricco made that "incredible" breakaway at the Tour de France (and was subsequently busted). They fulfilled their contractual obligations, and then exited the sport, choosing to invest in US continental cycling, ultra running, and triathlon instead. And they abandoned all artificial sweeteners (sucralose was common in some early flavors of EFS and Ultragen), phasing them out (and replacing them with the natural plant extract stevia); I was one of several driving forces behind this decision, and I tested many prototype flavors to help support the changeover. As an athlete, you were an important voice on the direction of the products, and you were also expected to be an avid and active tester. It was one of the most rewarding and productive relationships I had during my professional career.
But my own professional career wasn't the only one that changed in 2017. Around that time, both co-founders were interested in a change. They'd founded the company together and operated for over 15 years with incredible parity. First Endurance never had a president or CEO in the time that I was with them. There were the two VPs. And they were happy that way. I'm sure there were disagreements, but I do think that I had as much of a front row seat as anyone. I think they just wanted to do something different with the company. The downward trend from 2012 in triathlon and cycling hit them as hard as anyone else in the industry. They each considered buying the other out, but ultimately it was Mike Fogarty who took over the reins. Robert Kunz is now happily retired and spends most of his time gardening and playing in the mountains. I'm not sure who got the better deal. But it's Fogarty's story - and the story of the new (and old) First Endurance that I want to tell.
First Endurance is not a new company. 2022 will be the 20th anniversary of the company. But when I see the rebranding. And experience some of the totally overhauled products, it's definitely not the same. I asked Fogarty what's changed beyond just the logo. And what's remained the same.
Fogarty: That's a great question. There are three key things that have been happening at the same time, which is critical. Without all three of them, we wouldn't have found ourselves in this unique situation and position.
First, we're just having fun. It may sound trivial but makes all the difference. We have an amazing new team assembled and everyone's on the same page with the same focus. Because we're small, everyone's a key player and everyone is working towards the same goals. It's really rewarding to have an idea and see it executed quickly, and it's letting us double down. In years past, we would try to launch one new product a year. In 2021, we've launched seven new SKUs already and have one more cued up for September.
The second key is that we're still a small, nimble, niche company by design. We never aspired to be big or mainstream. Because of this, we're able to move fast and do things the larger companies can't. This puts us in a unique position. A lot of the other conventional 'endurance nutrition' companies have constraints that limit what they do because they have significant overhead and need to hit certain sales numbers to succeed. We operate under an entirely different set of variables. We don't have to worry about the things most companies worry about. We don't have to make concessions. First Endurance isn't for everybody. It's designed to meet the unique requirements of discerning athletes who need to be able to train and race hard. Plus, and this is significant, it also allows us to partner with a different type of individual and team (more on that later).
We like being in a dynamic, changing environment. It keeps things challenging and forces us to adapt quickly, which is interesting. It's like being in a race and having something go wrong, which is usually the rule, not the exception. If you don't figure out a way to react and adapt and adjust, you're done.
Third, timing is everything. It kind of seems like 'lightning is striking twice.' When we started back in 2002, there was a need that wasn't being met. There was a huge disparity between the research and technology that was available and the products that were on the market. Things were outdated and stagnant. Fast forward twenty-one years and it's like history is repeating itself. There's a ton of great new research and technology but, in my opinion, nobody's giving endurance athletes access to it. We're changing that-again.
We're lucky. We have an established reputation, we know the key players and we have a lot of great relationships. Because of this, we're able to open doors and do things other companies can't. One of the greatest things about the endurance community is that it's a relatively small, tight-knit group who can smell bs a mile away.
When I first heard that Mike had bought out Robert's shares of the business, the surprising thing wasn't that First Endurance had been sold; it was that they hadn't both cashed out. The endurance space has never been a stranger to acquisitions and roll-ups, and I could think of any number of possible buyers; I knew of several offers that were made during my tenure as a sponsored athlete, so it definitely wasn't a case of an absence ofi suitors. So why, after 15 years, why would a co-founder want to not only rebrand, but to reimagine a lot of the core product line. While the post-2012 decline in triathlon seemed to have stabilized a bit, ultra-running - a space First Endurance had long supported - was very much enjoying time in the spotlight, so I think the sale would have been an easy one. But it was clear talking to Mike that he didn't want to just do something new, he wanted to do something new with First Endurance. I definitely got the sense that Robert wanted a larger lifestyle change; but Mike wanted to do a second act at the company he helped found and build. I asked him why.
Fogarty: We've just completed a massive rebranding and launched a bunch of revolutionary new SKUs. On top of that, we have the perfect mix of people involved and it's super interesting and exciting. It's been the culmination of years of work. Selling now would be like qualifying for IM Hawaii after trying for three years, flying to the big island, and then not lining up for the race. We're too invested and excited to see how this plays out to walk away now.
The loss of co-founder Robert Kunz was a big loss though. From the outset, First Endurance had always been a research-focused brand. And Robert, as VP of Science, led that. This was what led me to First Endurance in 2008. After talking with Brian Shea, I saw that First Endurance put BCAAs into the EFS electrolyte drinks because of research showing that it helped delay fatigue. I was reading that same research and just adding them manually (they taste AWFUL when done this way, and also mix terribly… just FYI for all the do-it-yourselfers out there). So, I remember thinking, "Here's a brand that gets it." But when Robert retired, I had to ask, who's doing R&D now, reading the latest research, and deciding what is relevant to product development?
Fogarty: Dr. Luke Bucci is our Chief Scientific Officer now. I've known him for more than 25 years and he was always my #1 pick. He's not only the industry leader in sports nutrition, he's also an accomplished author and lecturer and holds multiple patents and patent applications on clinical laboratory testing methods and nutritional supplements.
When I first met Luke, I'd just been hired as a project manager and he was the VP of Research and Development for a publicly traded company. A group of us decided to go to lunch one day and he offered to drive. Being naïve, I figured he'd be driving something pricey. To my surprise, he rolled up in powder blue El Camino (which he referred to as 'the gentleman's Cadillac') and was blasting Rush 2112. He's been surprising me ever since.
If Dr. Bucci doesn't think we can develop something unique or significantly better than what's on the market, we don't bother. He's already made a significant impact on product development. When we were discussing the EFS Hydration mix, he came up with Suntheanine ®, a patented ingredient that helps foster mental toughness (the intangible variable that's usually the difference between winning and losing). After a year of testing, modifying and retesting prototypes, we knew we had something special.
When we got the costing for the formula, there was an option to use a cheaper, generic version of Suntheanine ®. A lot of companies would make the swap to save money, even though it would have been less effective. Because Dr. Bucci knew the other version was inferior, we were able to avoid one of the common pitfalls that can easily sabotage a great idea in the eleventh hour.
I wore many hats as a sponsored athlete of First Endurance. And that was typical. Almost all athletes had relationships with the company like I did. In addition to the doping scandal with Sanier-Duval riders Ricco and Piepoli, I think the absence of a real collaborative relationship with the pro tour teams also led First Endurance to refocus in areas like triathlon and ultra-running where the athletes could be both ambassador and guinea pig. I remember one of the best parts of working with First Endurance was that I felt I really could drive product decisions. I know it wasn't only me, but as I mentioned earlier, I remember not long after bringing up my concerns with the presence of artificial sweeteners in their early products that they took them out and have never used aspartame or similar products since. I asked Fogarty if this spirit of collaboration still endures.
Fogarty: We stick with our athletes for a very long time. Like you said, we worked together for fourteen years! First Endurance doesn't sponsor an elite athlete or team just because they get results. We only partner with endurance athletes who meet a specific criteria. Sure, they need to be good athletes, but they also have to understand sports nutrition and want to be actively involved in our product development. Matt Hanson is the perfect example. He's not only an amazing athlete, he's also a PhD who understands the importance of getting your fueling and hydration dialed. Matt calls nutrition 'the fourth leg of a triathlon' because he knows what's legit and what's just marketing hype.
Our development process hinges on athlete involvement, suggestions, and feedback. What we learn at this level allows our Research and Development team and athletes to stay at the forefront of endurance performance. Sure, it's a longer-than-normal development process, but the result is worth it. We have an impressive number of dedicated athletes who've been using First Endurance since 2002.
When athletes contact us about sponsorship, the first thing we want to know is what their favorite First Endurance products are. If they've never tried First Endurance before, we don't sponsor them, no matter who they are or what they've won. We may offer them a discount, so they can try stuff, but that's it. You'd be shocked if I told you who we've turned down or which professional triathletes buy First Endurance on a regular basis.
First Endurance doesn't market and advertise the way most companies do. We rely more on word-of-mouth than anything. We sponsor demanding events so athletes to get a chance to try our stuff. We're confident in our system, so we have a 100% performance guarantee. There's no risk for new customers. Most companies that have liberal guarantee policies end up taking a significant amount of product back. We don't. Our returns are virtually non-existent. It's not that there aren't any returns, there are a few. They're usually related to flavors though, not performance.
One of the most interesting side stories is that First Endurance's life as a business has occurred during the Amazon-ing of retail. When First Endurance was founded, Amazon still mostly sold books. It's stock was $13/share (about $3500 as of the latest close…). First Endurance has dabbled with Amazon on and off, but has largely remained purchasable only through LBSs, specialty retailers like PBN, and direct through their website at firstendurance.com. I asked if Amazon was a part of the "new" First Endurance.
Fogarty: A week doesn't go by when I don't have someone tell me that we 'need to be on Amazon.' Well, we think Amazon is the race to the bottom. We're in no hurry to increase third-party online distribution.
If Amazon is the inescapable story of the past two decades, COVID is the inescapable story of the past two years. I asked Mike how the global pandemic impacted First Endurance, coming as it did not long after he'd just completed the buyout and started the rebranding and rebuilding.
Fogarty: Just speaking from a business perspective, last March of 2020 was terrifying. There were a lot of sleepless nights. Now, it's the complete opposite. Demand is through the roof and we're having our biggest year to date.
What was unexpected is the renaissance of endurance sports. It's almost like everyone finally figured out how cool/fun it is to enjoy the outdoors. It's great seeing all the new people on the road and trails. It's the silver-lining of the pandemic.
2020 and 2021 have been one step forward, two steps back. There have been tons of unforeseeable challenges. We thought we had the transition from the old EFS formula to the new EFS formula dialed. Delays in the new label material paired with printers being backed up by months (instead of weeks) forced us to go out of stock of EFS, our most popular SKUs, for the majority of the 2020 season. If we knew it would take six months instead of three weeks, we would have gone a different route entirely. Especially because we ended up compromising with a less-than-desirable-look just to get the new EFS out on the market.
Things like lids and bottles—which have never been hard to get before—suddenly became next to impossible to secure. We've had to settle for white lids instead of black lids at times because we didn't want to go out of stock. Manufacturing delays have been challenging too. We quadrupled our production for MultiV and MultiV-PRO to get ahead of demand, but it didn't work out because of out of stock issue. We ended up being out of stock of those two SKUs for months.
Shipping delays this year have also been a serious issue. We were taking five business days to process orders in June and half of July. On top of that, carriers like UPS and Fed-Ex were taking a week to deliver. No one wants to wait 12 days to receive an order.
I used to think things would eventually be smooth sailing. It took me 20 years to figure out that business is constantly riddled with different problems and challenges. What makes all the difference between a good and bad company is how they deal with them and go about solving them.
This is the first in a series of articles I'll be doing with First Endurance. The future articles will focus on the products themselves - EFS, the new Liquid Shot, and other changes to the core product line. But those are all the "now" of First Endurance. To close out this first article, I asked Mike, what's next for First Endurance?
Fogarty: There's a lot going on. We've got a patent-pending product coming out this fall that's unlike anything we've ever done before. We also have four other prototype formulas ready for athlete testing, and we've got a couple more product concepts in the works. It never ends, we keep upgrading.
We're bringing on a couple key people who have been advising for years. They bring a wealth of knowledge and will make us more dangerous than ever before.
In addition, we're focusing on clearing up the confusion and guesswork around endurance nutrition. Things like cramping and dehydration shouldn't be the #1 issue athletes still face. There are relatively simple solutions to these problems.
For more about First Endurance, check out their website at FirstEndurance.com.