Decision Dialogues
Decision Dialogues

Episode 27 · 11 months ago

Building Confidence, One Kid at a Time


On Episode 27 of Decision Dialogues, Mark Willoughby and Karl Graf speak to Eric Meltzer, co-founder of The Grit Ninja, a series of gyms with a ninja warrior theme and a big focus on empowering children. Eric and his wife Allison started The Grit Ninja two years ago, and Eric discusses the decisions, financial and otherwise, he has made in order to have achieved such big success with the concept in such a short time—especially considering the impact of COVID.

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Are you paving the way for the life you want facing decisions that may affect you personally and financially? The decision dialogs podcast, brought to you by Modera Wealth Management, presents personal stories about navigating through life's pivotal moments, narratives that we hope will inspire you as you create your own story. You'll learn what influence their next steps and gain insights that could help you with your own critical choices. Welcome to decision dialogs. Thanks for joining us on decision dialogs. Were thrilled to have you along. My name is mark, will it be? I'm a principle of wealth manager at Madera Wealth Management LLC. Today, my colleague Carlograph, who's also a principle and wealth manager at Madera, will be chatting with Eric Melser. Eric is the CO founder and owner of Grit Ninja. Co Founders Allison and Eric Molser open their Ninja Warrior fitness business with the simple mission to positively impact the lives of the children and adults that walk through their doors by building a supportive community that encourages personal growth and individual accomplishment. We're delighted to have Eric along and I'll hand it over the car. Thank you, mark lorc Hi Carl. Pleasure to speak with you. First question out of the gate is how did you come up with the name Grit Ninja? I love it. Oh, cool, you know, I will when my wife and I were, you know, kind of laying the plans to start the Grit Ninja, I had happened to be reading the book grit by Angela Duckworth and when I kind of reflected and took a step back and it's like what are we trying to accomplish here? You know, at the top of the list was, you know, helping to either change people's lives, mainly kids, or help improve them. And you know, something that we hoped kids would, you know, kind of get out of the experience and our in our programs was just grit, right, like we wanted to be a place where we could celebrate grit. I'm not sure if like teaching is the right way to think about grit, but at least the place where like grit could be celebrated. We're like that's kind of the number one quality that we wanted kids to kind of get out of our program is like learning how to fail, pushing themselves stepping out of their comfort zone every time they come in, kind of reaching for new obstacles. So great was the word that, like, we kind of came to and that's how we sort of got got the name. Well, I think it's great, you know. I persistence pays, as they said. It's something that's not taught, so I think that's that's really good. So this was not your first career. How did you arrive at this decision point, and what kind of thought process did you go through, financially and otherwise, when you decided to make a career change and step out this way? So my wife and I had, you know, wanted to start our own business and we wanted something, as I said, that could really either change people's lives or possily impact people's lives, and we wanted something that was kind of like a combination of fun and fitness. And what we liked about Ninja Warrior is that anyone can come into our facility and accomplish something, whether you're three or whether you're sixty, whether you're someone who's good athlete or someone that sort of struggled in team sports for a variety of reasons, and we like the idea that it's like you verse the obstacles, or you versus yesterday's version of yourself. It's not you versus, you know, everybody else in the room. And we kind of like came up with the concept, you know, spent a lot of time sort of researching it and figured out if it was going to work, and then it was just this desire, I think it was a desire to really have more of an impact on people's lives than I was having in my prior career. That kind of led to us saying, okay, we're willing to take the risk. And then, you know, it was a big risk.

We funded it with our own capital. We funded it with an amount of money that was well, huge. If I lost it, it wouldn't, you know, wasn't going to bankrupt us. But then kind of felt like, I don't want to go the rest of my life without having, you know, taken a risk. I always felt like if I tried this and it failed, I'd be much happier for having tried and failed versus never trying at all, which fits in with the whole philosophy of the best. This too. It's really, really a nice kind of synergy there. Yeah, so the other history and your family of entrepreneurship or I mean what motivated you to say, Hey, we want to start a business. Yeah, it kind of so I do a little bit. My brother in particular, like was, you know, successful lawyer, made partner at a blue chip law firm, Kirkland and Ellis, and then I think the day after he made partner he quit more or less to start his own, you know, entrepreneurial business, and I always admired that. I looked up to that and I saw the impact that he was having on people's lives and I thought that like okay, you know, I want to have that type of impact. And as might be a little bit too personal, but you know, I used to ask my son, who is probably five at the time, you know, like what you do today, right, and he would tell me what he did at school and he would say, Daddy, would you do today? And I would feel myself like, just to be totally honest, like internally cringe a little bit when I described my day. And this conversation happened for like thirty days in a row and I was just kind of like cringing after a while explaining like what I did that day. That's not to say I hated my job, it's just to say I got this feeling of like I don't want this to be what I do the rest of my life and like I'm just not having the impact that I want to have. So, Eric, can we talk a little bit, flesh out a little bit what you were doing before you found it Great Ninja? Were you in a similar sort of job or was it completely different? Completely different? So I was in, you know, financial services industry for fifteen years. You know, I spent the first five years at Goldman Sachs and then I spent the next, you know, roughly ten at a small investment firm, a hedge fun okay. You know, for me, though, when I think about like what helped shape who I am, I think sport and camp had a big role in doing that. And by no means am I like a top tier athlete or anything like that, but I always valued like the roll of sports and helping to shape character and helping teach kids things that just can't be taught in the classroom, like grit being, you know, kind of a prime example. So you had new, relevant professional experience to prepare you for what you launched with your wife that is fair to say. Wow, okay, so you took you took a flyer on this one. I took a bet. Yeah, and bet. We took a big bet on us. Yes, well, I'd like to piggyback a little bit on what Mark Said and did you have an example or you know something out there in the physical fitness world that you used somehow to have an adapted or did you just come up with this? You know, our a mentor or someone on that you know, did you seek out someone in that line to help with the transition or the development of Your Business Model? You know, my kids were into the TV show Ninja Warrior and I had noticed that there was not near us, but I noticed a couple hours away, if you Jim's had kind of popped up where you could train on the type of obstacles that you see on the show. So we had visited, you know, one or two of those Jim's and that's kind of when like the light bulb kind of went off of like Ah, this is interesting and and for the reasons I described earlier, we like kind of the Ninja Warrior sort of obstacle course based fitness concept. And yes, then from there it was okay, let's look at all the gyms across the country that offer something similar. I visited some of them when I kind of traveled for work, and a couple of like funny random stories. But yeah, for about a year I was with kind of stopped in at different gyms around the country see who is doing what in kind of like... know, took the best of what we saw other people doing and then kind of came up with our own concept. Mentor I mean I'd always admired, well, my wife and I are had a pretty formative experiences at, you know, overnight camps growing up. We were both campers and then counselors, and I'd always really admired the director of the camp I had gone to then went on to like actually found a brand new camp. So he was someone that, as far as like building a culture, building a community, building a family, feel we'd I'd always admired that and definitely tried to like apply that to the business we were creating. So I would say it was like a mixture of a lot of different influences, but then ultimately we just came up with our own, you know, our own concept, our own program and financially, before you started, what kind of considerations did you go through? How much runway did you allow yourself? Yeah, how did you work out the financial aspects? Obviously I'm a background, which should be should have helped you a little bit, I hope. Yeah, I mean we kind of like, you know, gathered some right until I'm like, okay, what do we think it's going to cost us to open this? You know, what's the upfront cost with, you know, equipment, physical improvements of the space? And then it was like yeah, it was okay, here's the money. If it all goes to zero, what happens to us as a family? In the answer was, you know, it would hurt, but it's not going to it's not going to break us. And I had, you know, for fifteen years I had saved up some money. So it was money that wasn't going to cripple us if we lost it. But you know, would it would have made it then, for sure. And financially, in the course of the growth of Your Business, right, you have several locations now, I think. Right, yeah, we're expanding. Yeah, and during the course of that, what was the most difficult financial decision that you had to make along the way? Um, well, I think. I mean there was a there's a few points. Right. We were fortunate that like pretty quickly we knew this was work, you know, this was working very quickly, right, and so it was profitable. It is profitable very fast, right, and we great feedback from the community. So that all was good. You know. I think the second facility, like the rent is double. It's a much bigger space, right, so that's another risk. And I think during covid was some big decisions. We made a couple of, I would say, very key decisions, like in March of two thousand and twenty. You know where, at that point that business was. We've been open for maybe fourteen months. You know, we had to close at that point. Obviously the world isn't extraordinarily uncertain. How the heck did you survive? There's my question. Yeah, there's. Okay, so a few things. One, I made the decision it keep paying my key staff, like these people have become family to me. It was not going to like leave them high and dry, but to we said, okay, guys, kids need to be active. Right. If kids are sitting at home doing nothing, their sports are all gone, like that's devastating. So, like what can we do to help kids be active? We first started doing virtual programming, but then what was really interesting is we came up with essentially a mobile version of our gym. So we, you know, went out and bought cargo van, we designed and built mobile equipment to fit in a big cargo van and then we started first going to people's houses and like running Ninja Warrior classes in their backyards, and then that expanded to we reached out to all the local part districts and started working with them to run like outdoor Ninja Warrior classes on like soccer fields. So we would show up with our truck, set up all the equipment, you know, and then run the classes outside and then classes over, we pack up and leave because you realize that like this was a socially distant activity, right, so you don't have to be breathing on somebody else. We can wipe down the equipment in between use and so we felt like it was a safe activity.

It was fun and what was cool a is for a lot of kids, like we were the first activity they had done since covid hit, and so that was like, you know, pretty cool and special. So that business has really grown in this past fall. You know, we were working with I think, seventeen different part districts across Westchester, New York and Connecticut. You know, we're offering outdoor Ninja Warrior as a class and like that's something that's going to live on, you know, post covid and that business. There was no like, okay, we're just going to buy all this equipment and here you go. It was like we actually designed and built the equivalent ourselves with our own team. We bought the vans, we kept you know, we were paying people as we were developing the program that was definitely a financial risk, especially during covid where we had no idea like what the world was going to look like in the future. But that's, you know, really paid off and the outdoor program is kind of been a nice feeder to the indoor program in addition to being a nice business on its own. Necessity is the mother's intention? Yeah, for sure that is. That's a terrific story and obviously you tapped into a need, right, the need of kids to be active. They the parents to get him out of the house once in a while. Yeah, and it allows them still to do things positively where so much else seemed to be closing in on everyone at that time. Right. That's great, that's terrific. So it sounds like you've grown a quite a lot in the time that you've been in business. So what are the challenges you have in terms of management, terms of staffing, in terms of multiple locations, for instance? What kind of lessons did you pick up along the way with that? Yeah, I mean I kind of knew this just from my business career and or my financial services career and like observing other businesses. I knew the importance of people. Right, like it was sort of a dumb people are the most important, but like we want to have like the best equipment, the best curriculum, the best program but it really just comes down to like good people good coaching, right, like the experience someone has is so dependent on how good, like the coach is, and for us, like our people are the ones, you know, designing the program or their people are the ones coaching the kids, and our people are also the one like building obstacles as well. So I would say I relearned the importance of like having a great team, and that's been like extremely hard to find, especially we're in an area that's you know, you can't just put up a job flyer and twenty people that have the perfect experience walk in the door. You know, we have to tire people that maybe we're doing something totally different, but we just believe in they have potential and you have to really networks extremely hard to find good people. We've been able to. We've certainly kept the good one, you know, to kept the ones that we have, but that's been, you know, for sure the hardest part, but probably where we've executed the best. But then even like, especially in this economy, I mean it is so brutal. Hiring just assistant coaches extremely hard and we've definitely like turned down business because we haven't had staff at points in time. Right, okay, and give a larger vision for the Grit Ninja Concept. How far do you think you might go with it and how are you able to manage your personal life and work life balance as you continue to grow? The second part. First, I mean there's this blending of my personal and business life because my wife and I, you know, run the business and are the soul owners of it, and then we have four boys, you know, ten, eight, six and six months. My older three, like are at the gym all the time and they love it and it's been like very cool to see them, you know, have a great experience at our facility, you know, taking classes or part of our team. So it's just like there's just not a separation really between like family and business, you know, for better or worse. Right, M me and my kids were there to like zero pm at night, like...

...building tables like the day before we open put like it's just funny, but I think like they'll look back and like think, you know, I think it'll be a special thing for that daddy's absolutely to be a great memory for them, I hope. So, yeah, I think I've appreciated that. I'm sure I'll appreciate it more later, but it was definitely appreciated. You know, storry digress. But like part of really why we started it was my kids, right, like it was their interest that sort of spark this and when we look at like what products were going to offer, it's kind of like what's going to work with my kids right, not that every kid is like my kids, but you know, my point is like they're sort of central actually to the to the business. So Vision, I mean, yeah, we have pretty big dreams. I mean, you know, like I would like to have these gyms around the country and I also think the mobile program is something that, you know, it's worked around here, here, being New York, Connecticut, in New Jersey, and I think that can absolutely either be like a franchise concept or company own, but I think it could work in any community in the country. Like, I think this is a great it's really a sport for kids and I think as kids do different activities, whether it's basketball, I mean all the team sports, like, I think an individual sport like this one, where it's there's a lot of fitness to it, it's fun and I think there is a lot of character building because, like, you're going to fail a lot, you're going to fall. That's how you get better. I think that has a role in every kids sort of set of extra curricular activities or sport activities. So long when did answer, but I sort of would like this to be really around the country, both like the mobile programming and then also more gems. Well, I think it's terrific. Fact it's going to be a great experience for your kids, obviously, to work with mom and dad as there. Yeah, I mean participate that is really going to serve them well, I imagine, in the longer term. Can I drill down on the MOM and dad aspect here? You know, I've been on a number of these podcasts, Eric, and in many cases it's one or the other spouse, yeah, that does the entrepreneurial thing. Yeah, and their spouse who doesn't do the entrepreneurial thing, you know, has a kind of a steady job to keep income coming into the household. Yeah, you guys obviously put hand in hand, you and Alison, and decided to jump in at the twelve foot end. Talk to us about the thinking behind this being a really a family business? Sure so. Actually, one like clarification just to make is that when we first started I did not quit my job, so it was basically, I would say, nights and weekends for me, still spending. I could of Mimmy knows, nights and weekends for me, full time for Alison, and then when covid happened, that's actually when I jumped in full time. It's just fascinates me that both of you, husband and wife, decided this is something we want to do. The kids kind of prompted it. Yeah, mom and dad seemed to have said, okay, let's do it. Yeah, I mean it, maybe it's like a dumb decision right like that. It could be a stupid thing to do, for sure, but it's it's kind of both what we wanted to do, you know, and I think we both bring different things to the table. I think the business is better for both doing it. You're right, financially, it's like less comfortable for sure, especially because at the beginning we didn't need this necessarily to like support our family. We obviously do now, but that goes back to like this was just like what I want to do with my life and like it was like, for better or worse, I want to give it a shot and I don't want to kind of half assid no, it's a deeply held conviction for both of you, clearly. Yeah, it was Alice and working before, you know. Okay, so she jumped back into the world.

She was a corporate lawyer to not like that, you know, but she's, you know, love this. Okay, fascinating story. Yeah, it seems like it's found, like you've tapped into a passion for your entire family. It sounds like, yeah, able to build what is by all kounts of successful business and with a great future ahead of it, seems. So that's the remarkable it's a remarkable story. One thing I want to relate to you, eric, about your boys being at the gym until eleven o'clock at night and helping out mom and dad. And when I grew up, my mom and dad own a gas station. Yeah, I started working at the gas station at nine or ten years old and it's one of the best experiences I had growing up. So I salute you for I mean the entire family is aligned with this, which is really, really cool. Yeah, totally agree. Thank you. I started working at eight years old with my father too, but you know, those are times they would never, never give up. So it's a going to be a great memory for all of them. So, speaking of challenges, of course that the kids face and in the grit and Enger, what was a memorable hurdle that you faced and took on personally, and how did you find the Grit to overcome that? When I think about the gym, it's been probably the presence of my kids and Alison is just like a driving force here right. Like Alison is big on like you know, will debate things for a while like a nervebout something and she's kind of big and like let's just get out of her own way and just let's do it, like let's make it happen, like yeah, and she's, I think, very good about about that, and I think, you know, learning from her the mentality of like, if you fail, it's like, okay, so what? Right, like I'm you know again, we're fortunate that, like, you know, we're not going to like the home with you know it like. So I I think it's just that mentality that I learned from her, one for my brother, my parents and others, of just like, you know, if you fail, it's okay, like it doesn't define you. There's a lot to learn from it, and I think that's kind of pushed us forward to be able to take risks. It's terrific, which is right in line with the philosophy of the program and what you're trying to coach into these kids, right, and that seems like a great takeaway from the story. Right, don't be afraid to fail, but reach for something if you really want to do it. Yeah, I totally like. I mean people would be like what the hell are you talking about? Like your alson was a loyal lawyer, you know, and then a stay at home mom like you are, doing investor relations like you're, and yet a nice job and an industry that pays extremely well, like and you have three now, for because, like, what are you doing? I mean there's a lot of like, you know, and as like yeah, right, I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm doing it. So, if we plotted those things down a say, a happiness satisfaction scale, you're happier now, or where you be? For or more satisfied? Certainly I think you're more satisfied now, it seems. For sure. Is One part of this that fascinates me, Eric, which is you mentioned earlier your passion for Team Sports, yeah, which I share. I feel like that's a huge part of a kid's upbringing because of the sacrifices to have to make to their teammates. Right, talk to me about how that really because Ninja is kind of an individualistic how did the to interact? How do you make that work? Yeah, so well, I guess I would frame it a little differently, which I think not every kid fits into team sports, right. Yeah, there's a bunch of different reasons why. Maybe they have certain special needs. Maybe they're just not viewed as athletic. Maybe...'s a mental thing. So first I think there's a lot of kids where, again, they don't have a home in team sports, and that's okay, right. And there's a lot of pressure parents put on like got to play baseball, you got to play soccer, you play basketball, and like, you know what, six year old Tommy probably maybe isn't getting anything out of playing baseball and maybe he isn't getting anything out of soccer, especially at that age, whereas they come to us and there's like they're going to accomplish something, right, like everyone comes in and can accomplish something kind of regardless of the starting point, and when they accomplish that there's like a new goal to work towards. When you take a step back and you think about, like what is sports all about? But I think a lot of what we offer probably get to like the essence of what sports is about, now, the team part of it. So we've actually started, you know, we have a team and we actually now there's like a league where we do competitions against other gyms and that has the dynamic of like kids rooting for each other. You know, I think it's a nice as compliment as I would say, like I think kids should do both. I think there's a definitely a role for team sports. I also think there's a role for individual sports where it's like you verse the obstacles, you verse yourselves. It's kind of really a chance for personal growth and you're not competing against everyone else in the room. You're sort of collaborating with them, working with them, cheering them on. I hear that you simply meet the kid wherever he or she's at and work with them from there to there. Whatever they want to overcome, you help them get yeah, I got you. Okay, I might suggest that a child who develops more confidence in themselves, once they develop that by this totally, maybe then they're more willing to undertake a team sport because they would be less intimidated by some of the dynamics that might happen. Yeah, there's a great story a kid that came to us with, you know, some and he's five right, but he had like some struggles physically. was just you put them on a soccer feel he's just a free doesn't want to do it. You know, you put him at like a rock climbing gym with friends, he's like, I don't want to do it, I'm nervous. You know, he came to us and started doing well and I asked his mom recently. I was like, Hey, you know, just checking his with us for a year. How's his going? And she said to me, you know, it's like this change his life. I said what he means? Like he's different kid, like he is way more confident now because when he walked in here he thought a lot of things were impossible, that never get to do, and now he's doing them. And so now he's like, to your point, when he's doing a new activity for the first time, he's like not afraid of it anymore. Instead of being the last one to do it, he's like, I'll try it. You know, he's comfortable taking risks and to your point that he has a written sense of confidence in himself that is now transferring to like other areas in life. So I'm Eric Moser now. I'm pretending I'm Eric Moser. You tell that story. Versus, I could have stayed in investor relations, right, there's no competition, right. Yeah, yeah, for sure, good for you. Good for you. That's a terrific story. Thank you. If someone else young a person wanted to start a business and approach to you and ask for what would be one piece of advice that you would give them as they were embarking on that thought process or on that journey? What would that be? I would say just to do it. Like when you map things out on paper, there's like a million reasons why it's not going to make sense, like you can talk yourself out of anything. Like us doing this made no sense. You know, it's like it made no sense. I think that's just like do it and if you fail, so what now? Obviously, like don't be wreck you know I say that like don't be reckless and like do your homework, but I don't think you'll regret it. Terrific piece of advice. And the last question is, what is the last non financial decision that you had to make? I mean, I feel like every day we're...

...just like making different decisions, like hiring people, you know, we going to run this program or not. I mean that was this morning. Is discussing how we're we going to run like a special needs class and our new location and how we going to do it and we going to get volunteers and how we going to get volunteers to help with our coaches to make it one on one for the kids. That was so that was like what's on my mind is what I was doing right before this call. Got It okay. So thanks very much to Carlin Eric for letting US listening on their conversation. We appreciate their time and perspectives and thank you for tuning in. We hope you'll join US next time on decision dialogs from more stories from successful business owners. So long for now. Thank you for listening to decision dialogs. We hope you found today's stories helpful for your own decisionmaking. If you like to listen to more episodes, you can subscribe on your preferred podcasting APP or visit our website, where you'll also find show notes and important disclosures. WWW DOT moder wellcom forward slash decision dialogs. This has been a production of twin flames studios.

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