McDonough School of Business
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Forging Ahead: A Multimillion Dollar Business That Takes Us Back to Our Evolutionary Roots

Jason McCarthy’s (MBA’11) mom was irritated. She had asked her son to run an errand for her, and he didn’t get it done. She was standing in the kitchen, looking at her boy who had successfully completed a degree from Emory University, but didn’t have plans for a future. He couldn’t even get this one thing done.

McCarthy’s excuse did not help. He didn’t complete the task, he told her, because he had been busy signing up to join the Army Special Forces.

Today McCarthy admits that in some ways, this kind of sacrifice for your country is also selfish in the worry and fear it can instill in those who love the soldier. “When I go to war, my family goes with me,” he says. But his decision was important to him personally. It was late in the summer of 2003, and he wanted to be a part of bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice.

It would also prove important to his future — a future that admittedly seemed a little uncertain in the kitchen that day. What McCarthy and his mother didn’t know at the time was that his decision to join the Army Special Forces would teach him a way of life that would eventually launch a business that would bring in $46 million in annual sales.

It’s a winter day in 2024 in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and McCarthy is walking through town taking a business call. While his view includes greenery and palm trees, the Florida sun is hiding behind a winter haze, and McCarthy is suited up: winter hat, jacket, and 45-pound rucksack. This is a daily ritual for the founder and CEO of GORUCK, a fitness and lifestyle company, who admits he’s a bit of a baby when it comes to cold weather.

He was introduced to the concept of rucking — in its simplest terms: walking with a weighted backpack — during Special Forces training, in which soldiers were required to ruck and run with packs to simulate heavy gear. The workout made him strong quickly. McCarthy was hooked, rucking his way through his deployments to Iraq, Europe, and West Africa.

Even after his return home from training and some time spent living in Côte d’Ivoire, he continued rucking, though his focus was now more on fitness and less on survival tactics. It wasn’t long before he sketched out a new backpack design as most entrepreneurs seem to do: on a piece of scrap paper with no thought to what that sketch could mean to his future. That sketch actually led to a Craigslist ad in New York City for a backpack designer and a two-year journey that took McCarthy from rucking as a hobby to GORUCK, a multimillion-dollar business. Along the way, there were more sketches, brilliant designers, testing, classes at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business that helped him dissect and rebuild the concept, advice from his MBA professors, and a trek across 48 states with his dog Java trying to sell his idea. “One of the great things that the military taught me is that you have to do stuff,” says McCarthy. “You can’t just intellectualize everything. You will solve it in the doing.”

McCarthy's sketches of his backpack designs

When GORUCK launched in 2010, McCarthy realized quickly he and his team had tapped into something big. “What you find is that man has been carrying weight since the beginning of time,” says McCarthy. Our bodies, in other words, were designed to do it. He points to a book by Michael Easter called The Comfort Crisis. Easter, a huge rucking proponent, is a contributing editor at Men’s Health magazine, a columnist for Outside magazine, and a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has spent time studying the benefits of bringing back some of the activities of our ancestors that we have tossed away with evolution and the comforts of a modern world.

“Recall that we lived as hunter-gatherers. To gather we’d saunter away from camp and then carry back what we found,” Easter writes in a recent article, “Why Humans Were Born to Ruck,” for GORUCK’s site. “Most of these loads were small, likely 10 to 20 pounds. But scientists in Spain say gatherers sometimes carry weights equal to half of their total body weight. After a successful hunt, we’d hoof heavy animal limbs home. The hindquarter of a zebra — an animal still today pursued by African hunter-gatherers — for example, typically weighs about 80 pounds.

“Then the agricultural revolution happened, and we slowly began removing carrying from our days. New technology killed our need to run or carry. We went from mules and oxen carrying our stuff to, now, shopping carts, wheeled suitcases, and Amazon Prime dropping anything and everything off at our doors. But unlike running, most of us never re-engineered carrying back into our days — except for ruckers.”

McCarthy is not a fan of the buzz phrase, “optimize your life.” But he sometimes has a hard time explaining what his team of 50-plus employees is trying to do with the company. “It’s ludicrous,” he says, “that we can ‘optimize our lives,’” says McCarthy. But maybe it’s not so ludicrous that we can make better use of our time for productivity and health by using what we know. “I learned pretty early on that the goal of business is not to go out and chase venture capital in order to feel important in investors’ eyes,” says McCarthy. “The goal is to follow your path in life and to have a mission you believe in.” His path started in the kitchen that day with his mother and his mission grew out of all the things Special Forces taught him about challenge and strength and health.

The turning point with the company came when he identified the communities already thinking along these lines. As enjoyable as his cross-country trek with Java might have been, he didn’t sell a lot of packs — it wasn’t a great business strategy. At the suggestion of a friend, McCarthy started making his trips more strategic when he showed up at Tough Mudder events all along the East Coast and took notes. These events weren’t about the gear or the T-shirts or even the muddy obstacle course. They were about the experience — and the people who shared that experience. So what started as an idea to sell a rucksack soon became about selling better health and building community. GORUCK launched the GORUCK Challenge in 2010, which would grow into more challenges and three categories for ruckers starting with “basic,” which required five hours of time and a 7- to 10-mile hike with weighted packs, and leading to “heavy,” with a 24-hour challenge and a 40-plus-mile hike. Next came more than 500 regional GORUCK clubs, training programs for teams, and the GORUCK Games, an annual competition with a $50,000 grand prize.

Jason McCarthy of GORUCK

McCarthy enjoys the competition and what GORUCK has built, but he’s not one to think that you need a six-pack and cut biceps to enjoy rucking. “I can channel my inner 22-year-old self, the person thinks walking is for old people at the mall, but it’s such a naive point of view,” he says. “You might hear comments like, ‘you should wake up every day and eat nails and be tougher and have more discipline,’ and that’s fine. But I’m not very good at eating nails. I’m good at figuring out what works.” And rucking works for him. Not just in business and fitness but in mental aptitude. “Listen to all the philosophers of all the ages. Go read the quotes about the benefits of walking and thinking. I mean, Steve Jobs went on walk meetings, and philosophers often comment that their best ideas came while walking.”

In the Florida sun, McCarthy unzips his jacket. He’s managed to build up a sweat during his own walking meeting with a 45-pound pack on his back, though he’s also managed to carry on a long conversation without losing his breath. He has plenty to do: look at the latest numbers, see where the next GORUCK Challenge will take place, approve designs for new products like shoes and training gear.

But for now, McCarthy pulls his pack up onto his shoulders and just keeps rucking.

– Maureen Harmon

This story was originally featured in the Georgetown Business Spring 2024 Magazine. Download the Georgetown Business Audio app to listen to the stories and other bonus content.

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