Mike Howard is a guy who you’ve never heard of, or you fucking love him. He rides his bike from Bucksborough (or some town in MA) to Boston no matter what the conditions are.
He has three kids, probably a hot wife, and a creative mind. We met Mike during the very first stages of working with New Balance for a project called #Runnovation which turned out to be amazing for all parties. Well, we’ll let Mike tell the story… ladies and gents, this is Mike Howard and his full experience with November Project.
Hey kids, did I ever tell you about the time Brogan and Bojan asked me for a million bucks?
Okay, in truth, it wasn’t exactly a million. It was somewhere in the mid-to-high nines, as I recall – a number close enough to a million without having the audacity to actually be a million. And if I’m being completely honest, they didn’t exactly ask me for it. Not at all, actually.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.
The first time I met Brogan it wasn’t against the epic backdrop of Harvard Stadium. No, instead I met him in a humble conference room in Brighton.
For those of you who’ve never experienced Brogan indoors, suffice it to say there are issues of scale with which one must contend. People like Brogan aren’t supposed to occupy humble conference rooms in Brighton, or anywhere else for that matter. He entered, and I swear about five people had to leave just to accommodate him.
Let me just state for the record, I’ve always been the kind of guy who feels perfectly comfortable owning a man crush. I think it’s a healthy thing to acknowledge. I mean, I’m a very happily married father of three lovely little girls, but come on! If you’re a dude, and you know Brogan, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
So in walks this guy, made of pure thunder and charisma (roll the R, for full effect). He’s ten feet tall if he’s an inch, his limbs are covered in several square yards of gnarly tats, he’s got the whole chiseled jaw thing going on, and an 18-pack that’s fully apparent even under a down jacket. So when I reach out for a handshake and he leans in (and way, way down) for a bear hug instead, well, it’s pretty much all over. I’ve got a full-on raging broner.
But as it turns out, the most appealing, magnetic thing about Brogan was that he and his mysterious Serbian shadow cohort, Bojan, had stumbled onto something for which they were obviously, and uniquely intended – something for which it seemed they were put on Earth. People spend their whole lives oblivious to their “something.” Maybe they never find it. Maybe they never even bother to try. But these guys had it. And they believed in it with all their heart.
Moreover, they weren’t content to simply write off their “something” as the product of accidental or serendipitous circumstance. Instead, they’d taken the time and initiative to examine it. To analyze it. To decode, identify, and isolate the specialness of their something.
And over the course of the next I-don’t-know-how-long, Brogan set about communicating his research findings, spewing his cult of personality all over the humble conference room and its occupants while pitching us on his grand plans for the November Project and its eventual global takeover.
The insights he shared were thoughtful ones. They’d observed, for example, how the confined dynamic of the stadium and Summit Avenue allowed for friendly competition while at the same time, neutralizing it – allowing less competitive folks to melt in unselfconsciously amid the waves of ascending and descending bodies.
They also observed how this dynamic facilitated social interaction. Rather than just passing the same runner once a day along the Esplanade with little more than a polite nod of the head at best, in the stadium, you pass the same people often enough to force interaction. To not interact would be awkward. And eventually, that interaction becomes second nature. Comfortable, even.
He shared their thoughts on an optimal female-to-male ratio (“About 60/40. Girls like working out with girls. Guys like working out with girls.”), and the motivational power of shirtlessness and rock-hard booties.
He shared their totems and rituals – the hugs, the Fuck Yeah’s, the oar handle inscribed with Sharpie, the grassroots gear – and the important and intentional role all of it plays.
November Project, as he pitched it, was about fitness, yes. Undeniably, fundamentally, unrelentingly, this thing was about people pushing one another to dry heaves and then to the higher levels of awesomeness that lay beyond.
Not insignificantly, it was also about free fitness. Indeed, “free” was one of the core tenets of their movement. Damn the membership fees! Your world is your gym! Getting fit is your inalienable right!
But most importantly, they recognized the power of November Project as a community, above and beyond all else. You should all know this: If Brogan made one point most loudly, clearly, and explicitly in that humble conference room, it was that he and Bojan regard each and every member of their exponentially growing tribe as friends. Friends they would never under any circumstances betray, or exploit. They very clearly recognized that this fact, more than any other, set November Project apart from, and above all the boot camps and the running clubs out there. Community was their special sauce.
And alas, therein lay the million-dollar rub, and the moral of this story. But once again, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Bear with me.
The truth is I already knew a whole lot about this November Project thing, because I’d already been stalking all of you for months. It started about a year ago. A colleague of mine named Janeen was leaving for a new job in New York. On her last day she came into my office, wrote the words, “November Project. Check it out.” on a Post-it, and stuck it to the screen of my laptop.
So I did. I checked it out. In the online-y sense, anyway. And then I “liked” you, and I “followed” you. I enjoyed your pictures and videos, the blog posts, and the hash tags. I discovered other friends and colleagues were also passionately involved, and as online stalking goes, it was a delightful experience. Thank you! Seeing you all having fun together never failed to either inspire me to go out and play, or to frustrate me because I was stuck in my fucking office.
I wanted to participate, too. I don’t want to diminish that fact in the least. I love shit like this, which is part of why Janeen stuck that sticky note in the first place. But to be honest, I wasn’t necessarily in the market for another community to which I could belong. Again, I’m a husband and a dad. My oldest daughter was just turning eight, and my younger twin girls were just two years old. So I was (and am) a little busy with all that.
Nor did I need any particular motivation being #weatherproof. I live in the suburbs about 12 miles west of Boston, and since 2008, I’ve ridden my bicycle to and from work more or less every day, year-round. I take a lot of pride in my motivation during the winter months, and I felt a philosophical kinship with November Project in that way. I relish the fact that people think I’m crazy for getting out there in the hell and the high water. I suspect you guys take some pleasure in that, as well. Winter in New England will suffocate you if you don’t get out and embrace it. We’re not the crazy ones, they are.
Still, I really did want to participate. It didn’t help that I was going through something of a midlife crisis – coming to grips with the fact that my life didn’t accommodate certain freedoms anymore. Here was yet another party I could not attend. Another spontaneous adventure I couldn’t embark upon. I wanted to participate. But I didn’t feel I could. So I never did.
Then came that meeting in the humble conference room when my orbit intersected with November Project.
Neither I, nor any member of my team initiated the meeting. Claire Wood did. You guys all know Claire, of course. She’s November Project to the core, and she also works for a certain Boston-based athletic shoe company that rhymes with “Lou Valance,” a famous Vegas lounge singer I just now made up. Her company is also a client of mine, and my team was there as a communication partner.
The purpose of the meeting was a bit vague. It was an introduction, certainly. Ostensibly it was about striking up some sort of a partnership and, at least to me, it made complete sense. I mean on the one hand, here’s this Boston-based athletic company with a sense of local pride at the core of its global presence. On the other, we’ve got these guys who’ve started a bona-fide fitness phenomenon right in their back yards. These two parties should at least share a dance, shouldn’t they?
Good impressions were made, hugs were exchanged, and the meeting concluded, more or less thusly: “Guys, we love you. What exactly do you propose? Put it on paper, in detail, and let’s talk again.”
Brogan then left the humble conference room and returned, one can only imagine, to Mount Olympus where Bojan had been waiting for him. The two then did what they were asked. Very meticulously and thoughtfully, they drew up a proposal, complete with carefully itemized budget items, for this Boston-based athletic company to aid in the worldwide development of the November Project brand.
The sum total of their proposal? You guessed it. Just shy of a million dollars.
A million dollars! A million dollars?! Seriously? The audacity! The nerve! Are these guys delusional?
Let’s just say, the other side of the table was not super receptive.
But here’s the thing: Of course, they asked for a million dollars! What the fuck else were they supposed to do?
They’d been charged with putting a number on their life’s calling. This thing that had come to mean so much to these two guys – this thing that had come to define their lives and their friendships, into which they’d poured so much effort and energy – they were being asked to put a price tag on it. What would you do?
Would you lowball your own passion?
Brogan and Bojan weren’t armed with even a vague context. They didn’t know how their million-dollar ask compared to other athletic sponsorships. They didn’t know how it compared to other marketing efforts. And most of all, they didn’t know if another chance like this was ever going to come along. So they did what they thought was right, and did their level best to do themselves and their November Project justice.
Shortly after the ill-fated proposal, I received an email from Brogan. He wanted to talk and suggested we meet for coffee. It was a Sunday, February 17. The next day was President’s Day. I had the day off, so I told him I’d go do his workout and we could have coffee after that.
The Destination Deck was down on the wharf at the Children’s Museum, and it was fucking cold. How cold? Hold up; let me check with my Internet. Yep, it was about 16 degrees.
The ride from my home through the morning darkness was bleak and lonely. The loneliness is significant. See, November Project starts at 6:30 AM sharp. So if you’re traveling any distance to the location in the dead of winter (particularly if you’re traveling by bike), getting out of bed is only the first psychological obstacle to overcome.
The turnout that day was not epic. Of course, it was a holiday, and it was Monday, and again, it was 16 de-fucking-grees out. Still, given all that, they managed to draw numbers I estimated in the low triple digits. It was impressive.
The workout? In a word: Humiliating. There are pictures. Sad, unfortunate pictures. The ignominy is etched into my psyche. I’ve run marathons. I am an avid cyclist. When I was in high school…no. NO! I will not invoke high school accomplishments in my defense. Let’s just say, if you’ve been taking for granted your ability to push and/or sit up without testing that ability recently, you’re gonna be a little crestfallen after a Monday with November Project.
After my fitness Come-to-Jesus, Brogan and I had coffee around the corner. The sun had risen and the loneliness of the day was melting away. We got to know each other a little better, and talked about things like monetization and scalability. We discussed analogous business models, and their dreams for this thing to become a full-time enterprise.
I asked why he didn’t start by just throwing up a “shop” tab on his blog. At the very least. Just make some tee shirts, maybe a winter beanie or something. Start super simple and see what happens. “Your people love this thing,” I said. “They want it to succeed. They would buy a freakin’ tee-shirt from you, no doubt about it.”
He said they’d talked about it, but that they were already doing this Grassroots gear thing – spray painting a stencil of their logo on athletic gear people already own – and it had become part of their culture.
Okay, well what about co-branded merchandise? Like, what if you struck a deal with, the aforementioned Boston-based athletic company to produce a line of November Project gear designed along the #weatherproof ethic (#weatherproof is another November Project-ism). Maybe you could just license your name? Talk to a lawyer. See how it’s done.
He didn’t find that palatable either. I can’t recall exactly why, but as we bounced around other thoughts (Kickstarter? Alternative sponsorship model?), the primary themes of conversation all came back to authenticity. Staying true to the values that made November Project special in the first place was non-negotiable. They wouldn’t take any chances on anything that might compromise the integrity of the beautiful thing they were building.
The more we talked, the more I understood their frustration. November Project is a very time consuming labor of love for Brogan and Bojan, but doing what you love for a living has never been more romanticized than it is today.
We’re constantly being pumped full of lofty TED-talk and pithy Pinspiration. Steve Jobs’ famous graduation speech at Stanford has well over 30 million views on YouTube. Everywhere we turn we’re inspired by Fast-Company-ready stories of life passions translated into wealth, fame, and success.
So why should November Project be any different? It’s nothing if not wildly entrepreneurial. And yet, by its very nature and code, it seems to defy monetization.
Oh, and there’s also this rather substantial elephant in the room: How do you go about scaling Brogan and Bojan? Ask either of them and they will insist it can be done. Indeed, as more November Projects pop up around the country, who knows? Maybe they’re right. But without those two enormous personalities, without Harvard Stadium, without this town needing something just like this, could November Project really be November Project?
These two young men had found their lightning. Finding the right bottle for it was proving more difficult.
Which, for me, begs the question: Does all lightning need to be bottled? Does it need to be mass-produced, shipped, marketed, advertised, and merchandised? As a culture, have we gone too far commoditizing our Passion™? And have we cheapened it in the process?
In the end, the Boston-based athletic shoe company and the Boston-based grassroots fitness movement did share their dance, albeit without the million-dollar marriage.
For my part, it was an incredible experience. As an, “Advertising Professional,” being involved with this thing and being entrusted, along with my team, to bring it to life genuinely and purely – to not fuck it up – forced me to examine what I do and the ethic with which I do it.
I’d like to think our November Project, um, “project” helped contribute a little more to the fame of the thing, but I don’t know. The guys were doing a pretty good job on the fame thing before we got mixed up with one another, and they’re doing even better with it now. Either way, I’m profoundly proud of the work we made together.
As a person – specifically as a 40+ year-old person – the experience has proven even more rewarding. After that bitter cold day in February, I continued to attend the workouts as regularly as I could. I’m calling them “workouts,” but I never thought of them that way. True to Brogan and Bojan’s mission, it’s become a valuable community to me, more than anything else. I’ve met interesting and talented people with whom I never would’ve come into contact with otherwise. I’ve brought friends along. I’ve even won that oar handle – the Positivity Award.
It’s helped me become more connected to my larger community, too. I never used to think of Boston as my home. I was just biding my time until we left for Southern California, or New York, or who knows where. That’s changed now. Now I can see the value I lend to this place – the value we all could lend if we would just decide not to flee for fairer climes.
I was riding from a workout one morning with Brogan, talking about another plan he was concocting, and I remember he said, “Yeah, Boston could stand to be a whole lot cooler.” I think with more people like him, and Bojan, and the rest of you, it stands a chance of fulfilling that promise of increased coolness. I like to say, “Boston needs you more than you need New York.” I think November Project is a shining example of that belief.
While writing this, I was reminded of some of the early emails we traded back and forth. This one sums up my feelings then and now:
You’re still young. You don’t have mortgages or families yet. And this is the critical thing: what you’re doing matters. It makes a real difference in people’s lives.
My advice to you is this: Don’t sell this passion of yours to fucking anyone.
Keep building November Project (and your personal brands) using every connection and resource you’ve got.
Get out there and speak. Scrap. Struggle. Lose your jobs. Get new jobs. Lose those jobs, too.
And then THEN, something will happen – something will click, and your tattoo’ed asses will wind up rich and famous for creating this thing.
And when you look back on it all, you’ll have all those cool stories that come from building something great together. And you won’t be kicking yourselves for the compromises you made early.
I would give anything to be in a position to take the sorts of risks you guys can take right now. Trust me, in 10 years, your lives WILL look very different, one way or the other.
Whatever happens with Brogan and Bojan and this social/fitness movement/experiment of theirs, they will look back on this as one of the most amazing times of their lives. And we can all have the privilege of saying we were there for it.
Meanwhile, if any of you has an extra million bucks burning a hole in your pocket, maybe consider investing in these guys. I don’t know if you’ll ever see the money again, but you might find the return is a whole lot more valuable.Share via socials: