Ryan DeLuca said he misses the company he founded as a teenager, Bodybuilding.com, and the people who helped him build the nutritional supplement distributor into a half-billion dollar industry leader.
DeLuca, 38, resigned in October from the company, owned by Colorado’s Liberty Interactive, and said he would travel extensively. Less than six months later, he pieced together a team for a new business: a virtual-reality gym.
BlackBox VR aims to sell virtual-reality headsets to people who would leap, pull and navigate through a virtual world designed as a workout. Think Indiana Jones with a target heart rate.
DeLuca, who lives in Eagle, has set up shop in a second-story office overlooking 8th and Broad streets in Downtown Boise, a few white rooms populated by white boards and white IKEA furniture. He said the space has more in common with the garage where he started filling nutritional-supplement orders at age 19 than with Bodybuilding.com’s corporate headquarters built under his leadership in 2008 on North Meeker Street off of Chinden Boulevard. He shares it with four employees and a Roomba vacuum robot.
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DeLuca said he will hire 10 to 15 employees in the coming months. He said he has put $2 million into the company, enough to delay considering bringing in outside investors.
He hatched the concept with co-founder Preston Lewis, BlackBox VR’s chief design officer. Lewis had worked for DeLuca at Bodybuilding.com. Jessica Whiting, founder of StartUp Grind’s Boise chapter, is vice president of strategic partnerships. For virtual reality hardware expertise, DeLuca hired Dan Thurber, co-founder of Boise’s IonVR, as vice president of engineering.
DeLuca said he envisions opening beta gyms catering to wealthy patrons in Manhattan and Beverly Hills. BlackBox VR could open its own gyms, license its equipment and technology or operate on a franchise model.
He hopes to develop a beta version of the BlackBox workout experience in six months and launch a beta gym in a year. Prices will be determined later, he said.
Q: What will BlackBox VR workouts look like?
A: The idea is you go to a physical gym, go into a black box — a dark room. You put on a modified headset that allows you to sweat and bounce around. You go into a whole other world. You are on another planet, or you are on some kind of adventure, or you are trying to save something, or there’s a mystery to solve. We’ll lead you through a complete workout.
Q: Why do you think there’s demand for VR exercise?
A: I think we’re all tired of going to the gym, doing three sets of 10. You get bored after a while, and you start thinking, maybe I should do Zumba, or cross training, or different fad workouts. Inside the virtual world, it can be different every time. In 10 or 20 years, people are going to wonder how they ever [worked out] before.
Q: Why virtual reality?
A: I think the biggest company in the world has not been created yet. It’s going to whoever creates the virtual reality platform, because it affects everybody — obviously gaming and film and entertainment, but also in enterprise conferencing, travel, real estate, education, health care. There are so many applications that when somebody gets this next level of devices, everybody is going to have them. It’s going to create huge companies and huge opportunities.
Q: When you left Bodybuilding.com, you told the Statesman that you were looking forward to your first-ever prolonged vacation. It didn’t take long for you to get fidgety. What was that time off like?
A: It seems like a dream come true to be retired and financially secure at 38 years old. But when I had time off, I felt it almost immediately. It was almost like a death. I was just kind of hanging out, doing fun things with fun people. But it was almost like those old ladies playing nickel slots in Jackpot, Nevada. They are just filling the time. I knew I had to get back into it.
I talked to Preston. I got this office. It’s changed everything from a happiness standpoint. Now I wake up sometimes with stress, but I love that. It motivates me. So that was the biggest thing. I was miserable.
Q: What’s it like to be back at a startup?
A: It’s so nice. The best startups are where you bump into somebody’s chair. You are right there, all day long. Eventually, you are a little bigger, but you still know everybody. They are friends and family. I remember I got to the point I’d meet somebody in Boise and they’d say, “Hey, Ryan, how’s it going?” and I’d have no idea who they were. Then I’d find out they work in customer service.
The last couple of years felt like they became more administrative. I’d get one hour a day where I could work on entrepreneurial stuff and new products that were exciting. There’d be HR meetings, shareholder meetings. I loved that stuff to a point, but I missed the entrepreneurial part, working on new products, sitting with a white board, working with customers directly.
Q: How is starting a company different this time around?
A: I self-funded Bodybuilding.com with very little cash flow. I was very lean. Which was great, because I had to learn. I was the first customer service rep. I had to learn the warehouse. I programmed scanners. I learned how to build the site. I did a little of everything, and later that helped me because I understood it.
Now, I’m more knowledgeable. I’m better funded, with a better team as well as the network I’ve built up over 17 years. When I reach out to somebody in the fitness industry, they are going to respond.
Q: Did you attend any secondary education courses after graduating from Capital High School?
A: I went to Boise State [University] for half of a semester. That’s when Bodybuilding.com started taking off, and that’s when my dad yelled what an idiot I was for buying a domain name for $20,000, and what’s a domain name. That was 1999. A few years later I hired him. Now he’s retired in San Diego.
Q: You dropped out of Boise State University during your first semester when you started Bodybuilding.com. How did you learn about business?
A: I went to the University of Barnes and Noble. I’ve read something like 650 nonfiction books that I track on Goodreads. I think there are three ways you need to learn. One is from reading. Two is from other people, which means getting good mentors. That was very difficult in the beginning, because I didn’t meet another startup CEO for probably the first five years of this. The third is experience.
The hard truth is that you have to do the daily habits. Work out. Nutrition. Sleep. Reading. Meeting people. Work. Getting feedback. Try not to read Buzzfeed too often. Do that over and over for years and years.
Q: Do you only read nonfiction?
A: It’s almost all nonfiction. ... When I look back, it was almost an insecurity thing. I hate feeling stupid. I’d meet somebody smart, and they’d say some word about financial accounting I wouldn’t understand, so I’d read a book about financial accounting.
Q: Bodybuilding.com was your creation. How do you feel looking back at your exit?
A: I feel like Jennifer Aniston in “Friends.” Friends was amazingly successful, but eventually it was going to come to an end. She did the final episode, and then she went on to other things. There was part of me that worried, “Crap. What if I look back and think those were my happiest years of my life. Why did I leave?”
But that has yet to happen. I love the company. I still stay close to everybody there. I still think it has a strong future. I miss the team. I miss the customers. But I’ve never missed being in a financial meeting.