By the time Robert “Rocky” Detwiler hit his 30s, he was already a millionaire.
Then the phone rang.
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“I just grew up as an entrepreneur,” said Detwiler, 46. “My dad came with a bunch of tapes after going to an Amway presentation. They were all about success and personal development and leadership skills. I started listening to those and got very engaged.”
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For those familiar with it, network marketing is as much about selling a dream as it is about selling products. And young Detwiler had bought into the dream — of financial independence and the freedom that came along with it.
At 13, he became a student of Amway, learning from those tapes and tagging along with his father to seminars. By the time he was 17, he had a thriving Amway business selling home, beauty and health products.
He was rising fast, he thought. But what he couldn’t know is where this rise — and fall — would eventually take him.
“I was always taught that when you could invest your money and live off the interest, you had made it,” Detwiler said. “I used my network marketing success to do some investing, including real estate and some businesses.”
One business Detwiler invested in belonged to a childhood friend. The returns were good, so he kept feeding it.
“I was earning good interest on my principal,” he said. “I was flying high.”
Then he got the phone call.
On the other end of the line was somebody from the Arizona Corporation Commission. He explained that the commission was working closely with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to investigate some improprieties with Rocky’s friend’s company.
The company, the commission official explained, was a fraud. His friend had been running a Ponzi scheme, providing strong returns to early investors like Detwiler by using money from later investors.
But the jig was up. Detwiler’s friend of nearly 20 years had been caught in a web of lies, and it was likely — more like a certainty, in retrospect — that Detwiler would lose his house and everything he had invested.
“It cost me well into the seven figures,” Rocky says emotionally. “I lost land, homes, most of my possessions.”
It was 2008. He was broke and broken.
His confidence shaken, Detwiler followed a business opportunity to Vancouver, Wash. His wife moved back near her family in Arizona. The business failed. The marriage was failing.
Unable to afford rent, Detwiler moved into a spare room in a friend’s house and took a job at the Portland airport. By this time, the housing crisis was in full swing. His friend’s house slipped into foreclosure. The friend moved out, but Detwiler, with nowhere to go, stayed put. He lived rent free for nearly a year.
“They moved out, stopped paying and I didn’t know where to go, so I stayed,” he said. “The power was left on. The water was left on. I was squatting in this 4,000-square-foot house.”
Detwiler said he felt like a failure. He had no career and no prospects.
“I was at a place where there was no way out. I had just lost millions of dollars,” he said. “One of my closest friends took advantage of me. My self-confidence hit an all-time low. I hit bottom.”
One dreary night in February 2009, Detwiler said, he decided to take his own life.
“I remember looking in the mirror and seeing the shell of a guy who had once been something,” he said. “I stood there wondering, ‘How did this happen?’ I was at a crossroads. I had to decide if I wanted to live or die.”
I started to think could I be victorious rather than a victim. When I started down that train of thought, got to a place that evening where I thought I’m going to live and not die.
As he stood staring at a mirror, he started reflecting on his life, and something — maybe those words of self-improvement from those Amway tapes, maybe something else — refocused him on the power of words and positive thinking.
“At that moment I realized I had to make some new rules for myself,” he said. “I put a plan together. I got rid of all the Fruity Pebbles and ice cream and junk food. I figured as out of control as my life was, I would control the one thing I knew I could: what I ate.”
He went back to reading positive words and surrounding himself with positive pictures. And he began to make progress. He ate better. He felt better. He re-embraced his old habit of working out. He lost 47 pounds.
Physically and mentally he was stronger, but financially he was still in trouble. So when his contract job ended and the number of bank notices coming to the house increased, Detwiler took that as a sign that it was time to go home.
He made two phone calls — one to a friend, and one to his brother — and had a job and place to live.
Detwiler moved back to Boise.
His new home was the opposite of the McMansion he had left behind. In fact, it was a “house” in name only. In reality it was a treehouse in his brother’s backyard. It wasn’t much, but it was private and nonintrusive, so Rocky gladly accepted.
Detwiler was on his way up, but his wife didn’t see it. Their marriage ended.
He did nothing but work and work out. He invested all the savings he had in a personal trainer with the goal of becoming a top bodybuilder, worthy of one of those glossed-up cover photos on the magazine rack. He hired a photographer to photograph him when he reached his goal.
Within months he had reached it, dropping from 13 percent body fat to 4 percent on his 41st birthday. It was December 2010, and he looked like a magazine model.
“I sent the story into Bodybuilding.com and I started to get emails from people all over the world,” Detwiler said. That was in March 2011. “I didn’t think I had done anything, but I’m giving hope to people from Czechoslovakia to China.”
Detwiler’s story on Bodybuilding.com went viral and prompted an invitation from the company for him to visit.
“I’m sure they were thinking they were just going to give me a tour, but I saw this as a real opportunity,” he said.
“I was still thinking a lot about the power of words. At the time these other apparel brands, like Affliction, were huge, but their message wasn’t positive. I decided, ‘I’m going to come up with a company focused on the positive power of words.’ ”
Detwiler went to a local screen printer and printed 18 T-shirts with the message, “Never give up.”
During his visit, Detwiler met with founder and CEO Ryan DeLuca and gave him a shirt. Within weeks, Detwiler and his new company, Samson Wear, were a Bodybuilding.com vendor.
“I borrowed a couple thousand dollars from a friend and started selling,” he said. “For the next several years I sold at expos and online.”
Dan Thiry, experiential marketing manager at Bodybuilding.com, said few locals stroll into the company’s headquarters and land vendor deals. Detwiler’s exuberance and turnaround story were his strongest pitch, Thiry said.
“He brands himself as the innovator of the power of words, and there’s some credibility behind that,” Thiry said. “I’ve never seen Rocky on a bad day. I bet he doesn’t have bad days, because he creates his own energy, and he’s a very positive person.”
Things were going well. Detwiler moved out of his treehouse and into a basement apartment. He received more recognition for his fitness success from Bodybuilding.com.
But Detwiler wanted more. He wanted to touch more people. In 2014, he and a small team launched the Samson Life Challenge, a self-improvement program that focuses on making small changes that can have a lasting impact on wellness.
The program preaches improving interpersonal relationships, health and finances as a three-tiered approach to self betterment. Membership costs $20 per month or $197 per year.
“We launched it and I expected 12 people to show to sign up for the first Samson Life Challenge [at his Boise office at 3350 Americana Blvd.] We had 60.”
About 10 more later registered for the program, and 90 percent completed the challenge, he said.
Nine participants were teens struggling with depression, including one who was suicidal and another who self-harmed, said Tawnia Owens, founder of Hart Inspired, a teen suicide prevention nonprofit.
Those kids in the program made some amazing, miraculous life transformational changes.
Hart Inspired founder Tawnia Owens
Owens, who encouraged the teens to join Samson Life Challenge, said she liked that the program included letter writing, thankfulness journaling and other ways to foster interpersonal relationships in an increasingly digital and detached world.
“I think teens get away from that connectivity with that cyberspace and Facebooking and texting, not connected to real relationships,” Owens said. “When I heard Rocky share about the program, I thought of a few teens that would benefit.”
She said the teens made dramatic turnarounds by the time the 90-day challenge ended.
Detwiler, who now lives in Meridian, noticed the program had a particularly strong impact on teens and began tailoring it to at-risk youths. The success stories became fuel for him. He threw himself into both his apparel company and the related at-risk program.
Today, both are growing. The apparel sells online on Amazon and Bodybuilding.com., and has expanded into health care, with Rocky’s positive messages adorning hospital and hospice scrubs. Meanwhile, the self-improvement program has taken on a life of its own, with businesses offering the program for employees as a wellness benefit while the companies help fund it for at-risk kids.
“It’s clear to our customers that we didn’t build this simply to make money,” he said. “We built it to transform lives.”
Revenue remains modest. Detwiler said Samson Life has earned several thousand dollars in its early stages. He supplements his income with earnings from clothing sales and fees from motivational speaking and life coaching. Detwiler is the sole employee of the company, though he said he farms work out to eight or 10 subcontractors.
Owens and Detwiler recently decided to create a program specifically for at-risk teens. A six-month course, which is scheduled to begin June 9, will cost $1,200. Owens and Detwiler are still working to line up corporate sponsors.
The sense of mission keeps Detwiler going. While he now has more stability in his life — he lives in a new home with his new wife, Cheryl Detwiler, whom he married in September — he doesn’t know how this story ends.
“We’re building a company on one of the most powerful forces: words,” he said. “If we can change the words we use, we can change the way we think. And if we can change our thoughts, we can change our habits and our lives.”