A walk in West Africa that turned into a Run for Love
Rob Martineau discusses his ambitions for wellness brand TRIBE, and how a walk in West Africa turned into a Run for Love.
“As recognisable as Heinz beans”, Rob Martineau discusses his ambitions for wellness brand TRIBE, and how a walk in West Africa changed his life.
Rob Martineau started running to deal with the stress of his life as a busy corporate lawyer.
Amid 80-100 hour weeks, the 40 minutes or so he spent running home was a lifeline, a chance to decompress. However, through TRIBE, running became a way to live life and see the world rather than simply escape from it.
Several years into his law career, Rob started to wonder if perhaps it wasn’t for him after all. There were the long hours, but also a gnawing sense of claustrophobia. He took some time out to consider his options, but instead of lying on a beach for a few months, he decided to take an unusual walk.
“I walked through Ghana, Benin and West Africa to Ouidah, an ancient spiritual centre on the West African coast. I felt very unclear about my future and that my life was going off course. The walk was about simplicity. We were walking 20-30 miles a day and it was a healing experience. It helped me see myself again. It was a very special place to walk, very natural. We were welcomed by the local people for food, and then we’d walk on the next day.”
He wrote a book, published by Jonathan Cape ‘Waypoints: A Journey on Foot’*, which described his experiences and how it changed him. He emerged with a new perspective and after he came back to the UK a return to corporate law was not on the cards.
Instead he looked to his love of running, starting to think he would run with a cause. He started Run for Love in 2013 with two friends, ex-private equity analyst Guy Hacking, and ex-business insights executive Tom Stancliffe. They undertook a 1,000 mile run across Europe, from Odessa to Dubrovnik, to set up the first home for trafficked children in the UK.
However, he recognised he needed to find a bigger audience to achieve his goals: “There were only three of us and it wasn’t enough. The idea was to get other people to join for different stages. In the end, we had 250 people, and raised £300,000.”
Run for Love began to morph into a broader nutrition and wellness business, TRIBE. The more they undertook extreme sport and mixed with other athletes, the more they grew frustrated with standard sports nutrition products. The group had seen fellow runners have a poor reaction because they couldn’t tolerate the synthetic chemicals or sugar. Instead, they sought to make “amazing natural nutrition products.”
The trio started testing products in their kitchens at home. Rob says: “We did a trial run of all the products with hundreds of taste tests. We realised we needed more help and worked with a nutritionist. She became a semi in-house product developer.”
They developed a range of products that fulfilled their brief of natural, tasty and useful products for sports people.
The group has subsequently built up its distribution reach. Direct distribution from the group’s website is still a big part of the business, at around 60%. The group also sells in retail stores, such as Sainsburys, Boots, Holland & Barrett, WH Smith, Whole Foods and Plant Organic. Rob adds: “Ultimately, we want it to be available anywhere you can buy a Mars bar.”
This is the money-making part of the business, the only area that seeks to make a profit and the one that ultimately allows the other two elements to exist: community events and the charity. The ‘community’ element is about encouraging people to come together and sign up for the group’s adventures. The latest, Run for Love 4, is a 260 km multi-day ultra-marathon, through the Croatian National Parks. Participants can join for the full six days or just the last one. Over 10,000 TRIBE athletes have now attended more than 500 runs and rides.
“Events are just part of building our brand. People want to connect and be part of it. It enables us to fundraise,” he says.
The third element is the charity – the TRIBE Freedom Foundation. The group has raised over £500,000 to date with the aim of ending modern slavery and human trafficking. The organisation works with survivors of modern slavery – helping them regain their independence and overcome their experiences – and also helps tackle the causes of it. For example, they are currently working with Themis Financial Crime Agency on a new research project, commissioned by the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, investigating the direct and indirect role of financial institutions in modern slavery.
Rob is convinced that the world is coming round to his perspective, even though the pandemic has forced them to shut down some of their events. “We were really sad not to do our personal events. We have had to be very resourceful, developing corporate partnerships and replacing activity with online events.”
Some events have still taken place in between the changing regulations. The group managed to host a three-week relay run across Scotland’s John Muir Way, for example, raising £60,000 for the foundation. Today, Rob is satisfied that they give an integrated approach – with training plans, nutrition products, events and the charity.
Does he ever regret his change of lifestyle? “I managed to get it going and build something that is now a great business. I feel really lucky to have had the chance and you don’t mind the long hours when you’re building something of your own. I found law quite claustrophobic, whereas entrepreneurship has a different intensity every day. I really love it.”
He’s so glad he switched when he did, admitting it would have been much harder later. His focus from here is on building TRIBE: “We’ve come such a long way from where we set out. We’ve achieved amazing stuff for the foundation and we’re doing well in all parts of the business. In ten years we want TRIBE to be as recognisable as Heinz beans or Costa coffee.”
*“Waypoints: A Journey on Foot” published with Jonathan Cape in April 2021
This article was previously published on Smith & Williamson prior to the launch of Evelyn Partners.