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Robert Cheeke, president of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, Corvallis, Ore.

| 07.29.2013 |

Robert Cheeke is one of the most prominent advocates for the vegan lifestyle. He is also an athlete, an author, a motivational speaker, an animal rights activist and a business professional involved in the online environment, the sports apparel world and film production.


Needless to say, he is more than a little busy, and we were quite lucky to get a few minutes of his time to discuss his distinctive entrepreneurial odyssey.


Q: What was the inspiration for Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness? And was this the first time you created your own online endeavor?


Robert Cheeke: When I became vegan in 1995, I was a five-sport athlete in high school, and endurance sports were my specialty. I didn't develop an interest in lifting weights until 1999, nearly half a decade into my vegan athletic lifestyle. When I started lifting weights and found fairly quick success in muscle gain (bodyweight of 157 pounds to 185 pounds in one year), I thought about developing a website to share my lifestyle with others.


I started Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness in 2002; I was 22 and it was my first time owning and operating a business. Initially I created a clothing line, developed the website, created a blog, offered online contests, and toured around the U.S. attending fitness events to spread the word about my new venture. Later I would spend half a decade touring around the vegetarian festival circuit to reach a better targeted audience, which also provided the opportunity to meet the community in person, sell products, network, collaborate with others and create future opportunities.


Q: How long did it take to create this endeavor?


Robert Cheeke: The actual business set-up and foundation of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness was created within a few months. Writing the content for the website, designing it, and implementing it was a time-consuming task, but again, all completed within a matter of a few months. We officially launched our site, www.veganbodybuilding.com, in February 2003, and it has gone through various changes, improvements and has taken many different directions over the past decade.


Q: What have been some of the challenges in starting and maintaining Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness? And conversely, what have been some of the high points of this endeavor?


Robert Cheeke: Like a lot of businesses, the primary challenges have been from the financial aspect of running a company. Finding ways to make what started as a hobby and personal interest, become a productive revenue-generating vehicle to support my personal and professional life is an on-going obstacle. In the early years of the operation, another challenge was to attract and maintain an audience.


I remember when I would get as many as three "fan emails" in a month in 2003 and 2004, and I was really excited about that. Now, I haven't listed my personal email address on my site for three years, as keeping up with email responses is now one of the greatest challenges we face. FAQ pages, our interactive forum, Facebook and Twitter alike help reduce general inquires, while also supplying information to people who are seeking it out, in an efficient way.


The financial challenges are still there, especially as we expand, but our audience is far greater than it has ever been and that helps drive revenue, create opportunities and attract customers, supporters, team members and partners. We have a loyal and committed following and one of the ways we benefit from that as a business is through our affiliate programs. We have about half a dozen affiliates who we proudly support and promote, and affiliates are one of our effective revenue-generating streams at the present time. Speaking opportunities and product sales are more popular than ever, and that has helped our team grow in recent years.


The high points have always been the impact we have on the environment and on individuals who are part of our community. The thing I am personally most proud of, aside from the number of animal lives saved, is the number of people who are now friends because they met through our website, forum or online social websites and communities. Many people who joined our website years ago now work together, some are in romantic relationships, some got married, and dozens now have their own personal online presence, their own businesses, brands and followings after being discovered on www.veganbodybuilding.com. That is something I am very proud of.


Q: How have you been able to promote your message? And what kind of a feedback have you received?


Robert Cheeke: We've been promoting our message using nearly every popular platform out there. In the early days, I printed out 8.5 x 11 posters and attached them to telephone poles all over college campuses like University of California at Berkeley, Oregon State University, and in other progressive cities including Eugene and Portland, Oregon. I was one of the early members of MySpace, and from 2003 until Facebook took over in popularity around 2008-ish, I used MySpace to find other like-minded individuals and invited them to join our website, including our hugely popular (at the time – and still hanging in there today) online forum on www.veganbodybuilding.com/forum.


I also spent 2005-2012 touring around North America exhibiting and speaking at vegetarian-themed festivals. I even created a couple of my own festivals and events (Vegan Holiday Festival 2006-2007 and Vegan Vacation 2006-2008).


Other methods for promoting our message have been collaborating with other companies, organizations and groups. We have successfully partnered with many including, Vega, Vegan Essentials, Vegan Outreach, Vegan Proteins, No Meat Athlete, Eco Vegan Gal, Forks Over Knives, Vegan Health & Fitness Magazine, and a host of others. We've connected with celebrities who endorse our brand, and we’ve tried pretty much everything else from radio, TV and magazines to leafleting on the street corner. In 2005 we produced a documentary, "Vegan Fitness Built Naturally," and in 2010 I wrote a book, "Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness – The Complete Guide to Building Your Body on a Plant-Based Diet." Both helped immensely in putting our brand on the map.


Today, we primarily use Facebook as a means of promotion. It seems to be the most efficient way to reach people. Essentially everyone is on Facebook and targeted ads are easy, effective and affordable. When online banners, photos and videos go viral, the community grows rather quickly, which directs people to our main website.


Finally, the other approach we take today is to feature as many vegan athletes as we can on www.veganbodybuilding.com, giving lots of people an opportunity to be in the spotlight. This often creates future opportunities for them to be in magazines, on radio, TV, featured on other websites and more. But it also usually ensures that they will promote their feature on our site to their communities via links on their website, Facebook and Twitter posts, their blog, etc. We help others get their start, and they help bring new members to our community.


The general feedback has been positive and inspiring. Like any controversial subject matter (veganism), we're naturally going to attract people who agree with us just because of what we stand for, as well as those who disagree with us just because of what we stand for. I tend to appreciate helpful criticism and ignore those who are just trying to stir up a petty argument online. I guess it takes the fun out when I don’t engage with blatant online attacks and they quietly disappear and find another group to harass. The positive feedback greatly outweighs the negative feedback and we’re happy to be a helpful resource for many people around the world.


Q: What professional advice would you give to someone who is interested in following your example and launching their own online endeavor?


Robert Cheeke: Back when I started in 2002, there weren’t a lot of opportunities in which to excel within this niche market. It took a lot of hours over many years to get my brand to take off. Today, there are endless opportunities to make your own online business thrive, even in the same genre of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness. Dozens of websites have spawned from our website and I enthusiastically promote essentially all of them, since I've become friends with these individuals over the years, and I naturally want to see them succeed. You'll find them listed on our Resources Page and likely in various banners on www.veganbodybuilding.com, and frequently mentioned in our Facebook and Twitter posts.


Today, the opportunities to create your own business and brand are plentiful and you don't even have to put in as much work, since so many Facebook groups and pages are already well established. Join those communities, network with the members and introduce them to your projects and programs. It really can be that easy these days. Create a product or brand, design a website, and use YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites to build an audience. Collaborate with those who are already established, find ways to marry-up in business, and you’ll be well on your way to turning your passion into a career.


Don't be afraid to fail and don't get discouraged if your ideas don’t catch fire right away with a huge and enthusiastic following. It takes time to introduce your brand to an audience, but the tools for doing so have never been more effective or accessible than they are today. Understand your own "why" of your brand, and be able to explain it simply. Learn from others and be willing to do what it takes to make an idea spread. Be innovative and creative, even if you are following a model that already exists.


Never underestimate the power of a grassroots campaign to get your project going, and don't be willing to sacrifice what you want to do just because it hasn't been done before or because others don’t think it will succeed. Be true to yourself, and be sure to have fun. If not, what's the point? If you are dedicated, genuine, and transparent, you will likely succeed in your endeavor. Enjoy the ride.


Q: Food plays a major role in the business world, from client breakfasts to trade show dinners and all stops in between. What can vegan business professionals do to successfully navigate this culinary environment - which is often not entirely accommodating to the vegan community?


Robert Cheeke: Vegan business professionals are growing in numbers, but there are still many times when you can be expected to have social events or meals with a non-vegan audience. I’ve been to many such meetings, including one important one in my career back in 2006, which was at a steakhouse near Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. Between my fellow vegan athlete friend and colleague and me, we ate 13 salads.


Since then, I've been able to recognize which chain restaurants will likely have more vegan options and offer those up as possibilities for meeting places, such as P.F. Chang's. I also realized that nearly any restaurant in existence has various vegetables, salads, fruits, rice and other plant foods, and that you don’t always have to order off the menu. Get some steamed vegetables over rice, or a veggie burrito, perhaps a big green salad with as many vegetables as they have in the kitchen, or maybe some baked potatoes with broccoli or other greens. Enjoy a nice fruit plate for dessert.


Finding vegan food in America and in many places abroad is easier than it seems, but if you want to make it even easier when planning business lunches or dinners, consider ethnic restaurants to be your best option. Indian, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Ethiopian and Chinese restaurants are all typically based on a rice and vegetable-themed cuisine. Obviously, many of those places offer meat and other animal products, but all will have a wide selection of rice and vegetable dishes. Indian and Thai are my personal favorite types of food.


The bottom line is, if you have a say in where to have the meeting, let your voice be heard and suggest something that fits your interest. If you don’t have influence over the decision, then use the recommendations put forth and order what is available, or ask for a specific creation based on your preferences. Then make suggestions to your business partners for future meeting places that are perhaps more inclusive to all types of food interests.


Thank you for taking the time to interview me. I'd like to extend a thank you to my long-time website manager, Richard Watts, and to my partner, Karen Oxley, for all of their time, effort and work they’ve put in to help build Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness. I'd also like to recognize and thank our other website contributors, partners and members who have supported us through all these years.