Raised in the ghetto of the Lower East Eide of Manhattan, Coss Marte his youth on the streets. Despite his humble beginnings, Coss now runs a fitness company with 20,000 customers based on the same street corner where he grew up selling drugs. Here’s the story of how Coss Marte turned his struggle with crime, drugs, and addiction into a healthy and constructive outlet for ex-cons and civilians alike.
In The Beginning…
Coss and his siblings all slept together on one mattress. As a small child, he would jump over heroin needles strewn on the steps of the decrepit apartment building. The hood was a miserable and dangerous place, filled with addicts buying and using dope of all kinds. He started smoking weed at age 11 and spent the rest of his youth hanging around on the streets, more and more immersed in the drug culture.
Frustrated with living in poverty, at age 13, he seized the opportunity to make $400 a day selling drugs. School and goals became irrelevant. He recalls his young life as “sitting on a milk crate at a corner, selling crack.”
He reflects on the crime culture, “When someone went to jail, it was like a badge of honor.” People bragged about their felony records. You grew up knowing you were probably going to end up in the system.”
Predictably, he earned his own felony conviction at an early age. Locked up at age 13 for selling dope, he spent the next 16 or 17 years trapped in the revolving door of the justice system in and out of jail, and on perpetual probation.
World-Class Fitness Company Starts in Prison Yard
Coss was very overweight when he went to prison at age 23. Doctors told him his cholesterol levels were so high that he could probably die within five years due to related health issues. So he started working out and dropped 70 pounds in six months. Other inmates started noticing the dramatic change and joined him working out in the prison yard. It didn’t occur to him that his prison yard workouts were the conceptual seeds for growth of a nationally famous fitness business.
Languishing in solitary confinement, with 110 degree temperatures and the cell crawling with bugs, he picked up a bible and started reading. He had been in despair from being unable to get so much as a single postage stamp to mail a letter to his family, when a stamp fell out of the bible! It was enough to make him start feeling hopeful that maybe there was something bigger than himself involved in his situation. He could now see that he was a danger to himself, his family, and to the countless people he had sold drugs and their families. For the first time in his life, he started praying. He prayed about how to make up for all he had done.
It occurred to him that he had already made a small start, by helping the guys in the prison yard. He realized that he was helping them work out. And, he realized that that was what he wanted to do with his life. His passion was working out, so it made sense to make a life of helping people through it.
Right there in solitary confinement, the world’s most improbable place to start what would become a multi-million-dollar business enterprise, Coss Marte started writing out a variety of workout routines. He even wrote his now famous 90-day work out plan, as published in his book, ConBody. He created a comprehensive prison meal plan, which he says was completely disgusting, but does work. He became laser focused. He told other inmates what he had in mind. The typical feedback was, “Forget it. You’re planning to offer a prison-style boot camp. Nobody’s going to go to that.”
But, he couldn’t be dissuaded. He knew his entrepreneurial skills. He reasoned that he had already built a highly successful drug business from nothing. He knew that success is a matter of consistency and having a product people want. So, he was confident he could succeed with the idea.
Launching a Prison-Originated Business Startup
When Coss finally came home on parole, he lived on his mom’s couch for the next year, as he struggled to build his new fitness business. He thoroughly appreciated that couch. He appreciated everything. His son had been 2 years old when Coss last got arrested and was now six. He says the desire to continue being with his family is what kept him focused.
He tried to get regular jobs, to get some income while he built his business, but nobody would hire him, because of his criminal record. The repeated rejection was brutal, and success seemed impossible. Still, he relentlessly passed out business cards on the subway, stuck flyers everywhere, made announcements, and just started working out on the street to draw attention to get his business started. He says it was straightforward gorilla marketing and trying to sell everybody he knew from the streets.
But then, just as in prison, when his workout group had grown organically from inmates watching him run laps and lose weight and then joining him, people now started gathering for his workouts in the neighborhood park. Despite all odds, he was beginning to build a workout group – but this time it was one that would become his customer base.
When it got cold, he rented a tiny dance studio. Fitting 20 people in it was a tight squeeze. So, he branded the experience as an authentic prison work out in a small spaces, similar to prison conditions. The concept blew up! Coss hired his first employee, who had spent 14 years in prison (7 in solitary confinement), and started holding classes in two rooms simultaneously. Classes filled quickly. Soon, Coss opened up a gym – on the same corner where he had first gotten arrested for selling drugs as a child.
Overcoming Destitution and Discrimination
Finding locations for classes was difficult. Building owners didn’t want convicts invited into their rental spaces. But, one enlightened landlady believed in second chances and gave Coss his opportunity. Today, all of ConBody’s classes are full, and Coss looks to open more locations, to give people coming out of prison their chance at a new life.
He asks people to imagine the experience of getting out of prison. Most prisoners don’t have any family waiting for them when they get out. All they’re given is a bus ticket and $40. They go to the nearest fast food place and spend $20 stuffing down their first non-prison food. With their other $20, they get on a subway train, and that takes the rest of their money. Then what? To get more money to survive, they quickly end up doing the same illegal thing they knew how to do before prison.
Coss emphasizes that the system doesn’t rehabilitate them, it just punishes them. In fact, he finds that the system sets people up for failure, and he’s made it his mission to help fix that system. He believes that the only way rehabilitation can happen is by private citizens supporting programs that do it, like ConBody. Coss Marte has overcome all obstacles, from his earliest childhood in drug alley and growing up in the corrections system, to build a fitness company that now has 17 employees – 14 of whom are formerly incarcerated individuals.
His team goes back into the prison system three times weekly, to try to keep in touch with inmates as much as they can manage, to help give them hope that they can make it too. ConBody has a contract on Riker’s Island. His group goes into the jail and trains inmates, “We’re working on creating a direct pipeline from the inside out, to give people coming out of jail an opportunity.”
Coss’s rehabilitation program is working. Nobody on his team has gone back into the prison system. Most of the people working for him were previously homeless. Some had slept on his couch, or on air mattresses he provided. (He had four of those in use at one time.) Today, all of Coss’s employees have their own homes. Some have gone on to become exceptional achievers. The program has made an enormous impact on the lives of formerly incarcerated people, their families, and their communities.
State-of-the-Art Fitness Concept is Huge Success
ConBody has had more than 20,000 people participate in its no-frills workouts. The company has one of the industry’s highest customer retention rates, over 70 percent. Coss attributes that to the sense people get of the program’s uniqueness and the team’s geniusness. The facilities are built to look like actual prisons. Customers go through prison gates and have their mug shots taken. They get the whole experience.
Coss describes initial interactions, “At first, many people seem to feel a little uneasy about are what they’re going to experience. But, after they meet the staff and realize that the trainers are not going to kill them, they relax and barriers break down. That changes the game. Their whole attitude changes. They really start humanizing them in their minds and recognizing the employee as just a regular person.” So, people are transforming their bodies and their consciousness through their workouts.
The thriving ConBody company has been featured by over 200 major media outlets, including NBC, CNN, the New York Times and Men’s Fitness, and has even been the subject of a Ted Talk. Coss has raised a combined total of $200,000 through winning business pitch competitions, including Shark Tank.
The fitness chain has a gym in Saks Fifth Avenue, has operated a pop-up gym at a location above a Louis Vuitton store, and has received numerous requests for international franchises. The company also operates in Chelsea, another upscale area. Coss spends around $250k per workout studio, for development. He has also launched an online platform, through which people can work out with a formerly incarcerated individual for $9 per month, using on-demand work out videos. ConBody has also produced DVDs, and Coss’s book ConBody was recently published and is now available on Amazon. The company also has a retail component in the gyms, offering various workout clothes and accessories.
ConBody Leads as High Social-Impact Business
Coss Marte, former head of a large scale drug operation, is now devoted to helping people transform their lives and to ending discrimination against former prisoners. He says it’s been a humbling journey. No longer a “drug kingpin” (as a court had once labeled him), he says he has become just somebody trying to change the way people see formerly incarcerated people.
He can’t hire every former prisoner, so Coss partners with non-profits to help people find work. He serves on the board of Thrive for Life and works with Fortunes Society and other organizations striving for prison reform and helping provide jobs, shelter and other assistance for released prisoners.
Coming Full Circle
Looking back, Coss recognizes traits that enabled him to build his fortune as a drug dealer as the same ones that have made him a successful entrepreneur and author. He sees himself as a type that can’t lay around on the couch with nothing happening. Of course, he’s also someone with extraordinary marketing, strategic planning and growth management skills.
Today, Coss still lives in the old neighborhood, though it’s been gentrified, “just art galleries and poodles, as he describes it. His mom works out with him several times a week. He sees her being healthy at her age and pushing on with her life, and recognizes her life as a real success, an example of overcoming the toughest obstacles to build a good life.
Coss Marte is focused on the fact that 76 percent of people released from prison go back. He says his mission is “to change the statistic.” He believes that that requires helping people humanize each other in their perceptions and stop the discrimination that keeps formerly incarcerated individuals from moving forward with their lives after prison.
For more information about the ConBody company or starting classes, check out ConBody online: