Master of his fate, captain of his soul, are perhaps some of the most fitting words to describe C.J. Martin.
As the founder of Invictus Fitness, Martin has a global presence as the leader of the “Sea of Green.” But like any success story, there is a first chapter.
This one begins with a lawyer walking into a “hell-hole” of a Box in San Diego, California, in 2006. “It was pretty gross,” said Martin. “Ironically, I loved that … I wanted to go and I wanted to get my work done and I wanted to feel like I was doing something hard. So there was an appeal to that.”
But as Martin experienced the life-changing benefits of CrossFit, he desired to make it more accessible to other professionals. No lawyer, said Martin, would walk into a Box without bathrooms and showers. So, after 18 months of managing the Box and juggling his career — waking up at 5 a.m. to open the gym, going to his law office from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., coaching for two hours and then back to the office — Martin came to a realization.
He made the decision to open Invictus in 2009. But, Martin at first planned to continue with his job while he opened the gym. “It wasn’t until right before we opened our doors that I was like, you know what? If I’m going to do something well, I have to be all in. So then I made the decision to do it,” he explained, noting he was fully prepared to live on Ramen noodles if it came down to it.
Thus, Invictus was born, but becoming a household name in the industry was never intentional. Calvin Sun, the director of informational products of Invictus, explained the business is viewed as a competitive gym, but “We never really set out to be that way,” he shared. “We produced good athletes as a byproduct of just good coaching in my opinion … But it doesn’t represent what we originally started off as, and it was pursuing excellence, and stuff came about organically.”
The pursuit of excellence can be broken down into three ingredients at Invictus: education, support and encouragement. It’s what Martin said is promised to each and every athlete that walks into the Box. “It was more of an observation of why we have been successful,” he said. “We give people the right information and then we support them, we follow through with them, and we always encourage them to keep seeking out new goals and keep progressing.”
One of those education pieces deals with Invictus’ website. Founding the business with several Coaches who had also been professionals, Martin said they were all “geeky in terms of learning.” Since the business opened, six days a week articles have been posted on the website. And because the early staff was so infatuated with learning, the substantive articles produced gained traction, helped along by Invictus’ early competitive success in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
In fact, education was a piece of advice Sun gave. “For Coaches out there, they need to continually educate themselves,” he said. “If they’re not growing their skillset, then that’s definitely going to inhibit their ability to be successful, and really that comes down to the client’s success.”
The staff team behind Invictus is perhaps one of its most impressive features. Along with Sun and Nick Hawkes, Michele Vieux is one of the original Coaches of the business. Vieux explained Martin is adamant about bringing on people he trusts, likes and knows have special powers. “Then he looks at the environment and the surroundings and figures out how to best utilize those people,” she said.
For instance, Vieux started managing Invictus’ Downtown location in 2010, but in 2016 it was no longer a good fit. Her strength was instilling the vibe of the community, not sitting behind a desk, so Martin and Vieux worked to create her current position of community success manager at the Downtown location. “It’s literally just hanging out and making sure everyone is having a good time and seeing the value in their membership,” she explained.
The importance of Vieux’s role echoed in the words of Cynthia Lumley, who has been a member since the first days of Invictus. “I still am friends with the people I started with back then, even though they’re no longer members,” said Lumley. “That, I think, has reflected what Invictus stands for. First of all it’s community, then it’s a CrossFit gym. But first and foremost, it’s people.”
Lumley also noted the Coaches are very in-tune with each and every member, which Vieux said they really work on behind the scenes. Communicating about injuries or sharing notes in member files happens daily at the gym so everyone is on the same page. “It lets them know that you’re paying attention and you care,” said Vieux.
One of the reasons Larry Blum, the first and oldest member of Invictus — he turned 80 in May — has stayed at the gym all this time is because of the quality of trainers. “They really can tailor a training session to my requirements,” he said. “[C.J.] pays a lot of attention to getting good people, and that’s the major reason I’ve stayed with him.”
Known as “The Legend” around Invictus — as Blum was one of the few who came to Martin already knowing Olympic weightlifting — he explained the Coaches know their stuff and are “sufficiently interesting,” which is a must in his one-on-one sessions.
“We have all pushed each other to become the best Coaches we could be,” said Martin. “As the owner/leader of the organization, I knew I had to work my ass off to set the expectation of excellence, otherwise all of these guys would be so much better than I was that I wouldn’t be able to compete.”
And competition is still fierce. Martin said they’ve never had fewer than 100 applicants for a job opening at Invictus. The tricky part has been trying to effectively screen resumes and cover letters. Current Coaches like Bryce Smith and Melissa Hurley were not nearly as qualified on paper, but they sold the Invictus team in their interviews.
But the interview process is rigorous. Full of substantive questions, scenarios and video reviews — for example, they watch a video of an athlete and ask the interviewee to name their primary, secondary and tertiary cue — Martin said Coaches have to know their stuff. “The luxury of having 100 applicants allows us, when we screen those, if you don’t nail those answers and if you don’t nail them in the way that we’re looking for them to be nailed, then we have the option to just move on,” he said. “If we didn’t have that many applicants, we would have to probably train a lot more than we do.”
However, Invictus can fall into coaching slumps. Martin explained it’s been easy to slip into a stagnate state, thinking your Coaches are great and letting up on feedback and critiques. “Just like we coach members or athletes to be their best and constantly remind them, we have to do the same with Coaches,” he said. “It’s constantly reminding them of what’s important and how to create that environment of support and encouragement within our group sessions and within our private sessions.”
So, Martin’s initial goal to make CrossFit more accessible to professionals has molded into a professionalization of the industry. He explained his retention strategy is simple: take care of his Coaches, which means they are paid well, they’ve had group health insurance since Martin could afford it, etc. “Sometimes making things priority means you sacrifice other things. Could I have made more money as the owner? You bet your ass,” said Martin. “But it was important for me to play the long game and create a group of Coaches that were really invested and really felt like this was their place.”
Thus, Invictus has grown with Martin as the captain of the Sea of Green’s soul. With an identity inspired by William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus — a Latin word that means “unconquered” — has become a safe medium to put people up against some of the most heinous obstacles they can overcome, said Martin.
“We’re a community built around education, support and encouragement. We focus on making sure we support individuals to reach their goals, and the result is that we’ve created a culture of success and achievement,” he said. “We’ve cultivated a success mindset and set a foundation for individuals to become the best version of themselves they’re capable of becoming.”