Aubrey Marcus Wants to Pump You Up. Should You Let Him?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s going from supplement peddler to New Age guru as his company booms.
By Matt Foley
Aubrey Marcus had a dream. Not the deep sleep kind, nor that of Martin Luther King Jr. — though there was certainly a lesson to be learned.
Marcus spoke to a dragon while on ayahuasca, and now he wants to change the world.
“The key to learning is radical, honest, vulnerable introspection,” says Marcus. “I have a lot of tools to help me with that. One of them is my plant medicine journeys.”
While in Peru several years ago, Marcus took part in an ayahuasca ceremony. During the roughly eight-hour trip that ensued after drinking the psychoactive brew, a giant dragon appeared with a question for Marcus: Why do you want power?
“My answer was, ‘To help people,’” Marcus says. Then came the montage of flashbacks from all the times that Marcus used his power and privilege for his own self-interest. “I had to examine my true motivations,” he says.
That was also when, according to his book Own the Day, Own Your Life, Michael Aubrey Christopher Marcus decided to change his first name to just Aubrey. After years of battling depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse, Marcus was reborn. These days, that’s the type of inspiration that Marcus — CEO of the lifestyle brand and supplement company Onnit, best-selling author and hit podcast host — promises his followers.
I created this as much for me as I did [for] the rest of the world.
Marcus, 38, is a storyteller. He’s always believed he had a message to deliver the world, but until that first psychedelic trip in 2011, Marcus wasn’t quite sure how his belief would come to fruition. But one thing he does understand is messaging. Listening to Marcus is a constant exercise in soaking up motivational lessons while sifting through Silicon Valley buzzwords and well-rehearsed name-drops. It’s a sales pitch from a fresher Tony Robbins. And now, the Aubrey Marcus business has birthed another revenue stream: interactive life coach.
With Fit for Service, Marcus is taking a hands-on approach in guiding his followers — at least those with the means — toward “Total Human Optimization.” At the core of everything Marcus preaches is the idea that average Janes and Joes, himself included, are operating far below THO. Some days we have energy and our minds are sharp; others we’re cranky, tired and depressed. Optimization requires a better understanding of the body, mind and soul — preferably with the tips, supplements and hardware that Marcus is ready to sell you.
“In order to best serve ourselves, our families and the world, we first have to be fit for service,” says Marcus.
For $3,000 per quarter or $10,000 for a full year, Marcus’ most devoted students take on recommended reading, weekly accountability check-ins, monthly video chats and quarterly in-person summits with Marcus and other master teachers. At present, he has roughly 120 students — mostly entrepreneurs and financiers. The goal is to build a community of future masters who “may go off and start their own tribe,” while Marcus coaches a maximum of 150 additional devotees each year.
Prior to his emergence as a guru, Marcus tried a little bit of everything. Born in California and raised in Austin, Texas, where he is now based, Marcus attended the University of Richmond in Virginia before working in biotechnology, investment banking and gold mining. In 2010, after raising seed capital, Marcus founded Onnit as a nootropics-based supplement company. Commonly referred to as “smart drugs,” nootropics are purported to improve cognitive functions in healthy individuals, though their effectiveness is debatable.
“The concept of using natural ingredients to improve wellness has been around for centuries,” says Dr. James Valek, chief medical officer at Chicago Family Health. “It’s important to be clear that these substances are not medical cures.… There’s far too little data to confirm if these products really work.”
Onnit released its flagship product, Alpha Brain, in July 2011. The company completed two double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials — “with over 80 healthy, young patients with a standard deviation higher than the average IQ,” Marcus adds — at the Boston Center for Memory; the results were published on PubMed. The conclusion? Six weeks of using Alpha Brain improved recent verbal memory and executive function, though further study is recommended. Supplements such as Alpha Brain do not require Food and Drug Administration approval before going on the market.
Marcus recruited athletes like UFC fighter Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews and Olympic skier Bode Miller as endorsers, and took off thanks in large part to an early advertising partnership with comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast (routinely one of the 10 most downloaded audio programs in the world). Rogan is now a full partner. Onnit declined to reveal its revenue, but pointed us to a recent Playboy report that it generates more than $70 million per year.
At some point in the early Onnit years, Marcus also tried to make nail polish for men with “alpha male swagger” happen. Two other early products — RollOn and RollOver — were marketed as supplements to take before and after using ecstasy.
While Marcus seems to have matured from those frat boy beginnings, skepticism abounds, particularly as he expands into selling athletic training regimens under the Onnit brand. “His philosophy of optimization is all about looking and feeling good,” says Connecticut-based wrestling coach Jack Conroy. “That works for the average guy, but why would an athlete follow the training methods of someone who never performed?”
Online, the loudest detractors allege that Marcus’ parents — commodities trader Michael Marcus and Kathy Shubin, co-founder of the Fleshlight sex toy — and his acupuncturist stepmother, the real Alpha Brain mastermind Janet Zand, are responsible for the frontman’s success. For his part, Marcus has been open about his stepmother’s role. Marcus claims that Zand was a nutritional doctor “for all of Pat Riley’s NBA teams” (there is no record of this). “She had a lot of knowledge about how to use natural ingredients to increase performance,” he says. “I had a stack of supplements for game day [in high school football and basketball], a stack for test day [in classes]. That’s why Onnit is so powerful. I created this as much for me as I did [for] the rest of the world.”
Marcus will tell you that what he has built, from Fit for Service and Onnit to the Aubrey Marcus Podcast, is for anyone who wants to invest in bettering themselves or the world at large. To an extent, that’s true. But Marcus has found his niche at the Venn diagram intersection between Rogan and entrepreneur–internet personality Gary Vaynerchuk. At the Onnit Academy Gym in Austin, you might find Lance Armstrong training alongside MMA-fighter-turned-social-media-star Tim Kennedy.
The athletes help bring in the acolytes. For the right price, Marcus will take them on a trip.
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