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.
The summary below has been created by a professional transcription vendor upon review of the recorded presentation. Please excuse any typos as well as portions noted to be inaudible.
Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby, Principal and Wealth Manager at Modera Wealth Management, LLC. Today, my colleague Karl Graf, who’s also a Principal and Wealth Manager at Modera, will be chatting with Eric Meltzer.
Eric is the co-founder and owner of The Grit Ninja. Co-founders Alison and Eric Meltzer opened their Ninja Warrior fitness business with a 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 to Karl.
Thank you, Mark. Hello, Eric.
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, when my wife and I were 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 at our, you know, in our programs was just grit, right? Like, we want it 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 a place where like, grit could be celebrated, where 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 grit was the word that like, we kind of came to, and that’s how we sort of got the name?
Well, I think it’s great, you know, and persistence pays, as they say.
It’s something that’s not taught. So I think 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 positively 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 a 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 versus 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 figuring 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, while huge, if I lost it, it wouldn’t, you know, wasn’t going to bankrupt us. But then kind of felt like, I didn’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 business, too.
It’s really a nice kind of synergy there.
So the other history in your family of entrepreneurship, or, I mean, what motivated you to say, hey, we want to start a business?
Yeah, kind of. So I do a little bit. My brother in particular, like, was, you know, a successful lawyer made partner at a blue chip law firm, 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 then this might be a little bit too personal, but, you know, I used to ask my son who was 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, what did you do today?” And I would feel myself like, just to be totally honest, like internally cringe a little bit when I’d describe my day. And this conversation happened for like, 30 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 fended Grit Ninja? Were you in a similar sort of job? Or was it completely different?
Completely different. So I was in, you know, the financial services industry for 15 years. You know, I spent the first five years at Goldman Sachs, and then I spent the next, you know, roughly 10, at a small investment firm, a hedge fund.
You know, for me, though, when I think about, like, what helped shape who I am, I think sports 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 role of sports in 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 no relevant professional experience to prepare you for what you launched with your wife.
That is fair to say.
Wow. Okay. So you took a flyer on this one.
I took a bet, yeah. I 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 and adapted? Or did you just come up with this, you know, 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, a few gyms 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 gyms, and that’s kind of when like, the light bulb kind of went off, like, “Ah, this is interesting.” And for the reasons I described earlier, we liked 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. A couple of like, funny random stories. But yeah, for about a year I would kind of stop in at different gyms around the country, see who was doing what, and kind of like, you 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 had 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, who 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—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? How did you work out the financial aspects? Obviously, your background, which should have helped you a little bit, I hope?
Yeah. I mean, we kind of like, you know, gathered some right intel on like, “Okay, what do we think it’s gonna cost us to open this, you know, what’s the upfront cost with, you know, equipment, physical improvements to 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?” And the answer was, you know, “It would hurt, but 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, it would have made a dent 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 few points, right? We were fortunate that like, pretty quickly, we knew this was working very quickly, right? And so it was profitable very fast, right? And we had 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—we made a couple of I would say very key decisions, like in March of 2020. You know, where at that point, that business was, we’d been open for maybe 14 months. You know, we had to close at that point, obviously, the world is extraordinarily uncertain.
“How the heck did you survive?” is my question.
Yeah, there’s okay, so a few things. Um, one, I made the decision to keep paying my key staff. Like these people become family to me—I was not going to like, leave them high and dry. But two, 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?”
So 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 a 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 park 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 when class is 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, was 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, and this past fall, you know, we were working with, I think 17 different park districts across Westchester, New York and Connecticut. You know, offering outdoor Ninja Warrior as a class and like, that’s something that’s gonna live on, you know, post COVID. And that business, there was no like, “Okay, we’re just gonna buy all this equipment, and here you go,” it was like, we actually designed and built the equipment ourselves with our own team. We bought the vans, 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 has kind of been a nice feeder to the indoor program, in addition to being a nice business on its own.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
Yeah, for sure.
That’s a terrific story. And obviously, you tapped into a need, right? The need of kids to be active, parents to get them out of the house once in a while.
And it allows them still to do things positively, where so much else seemed to be closing in on everyone at that time.
That’s great. That’s terrific. So it sounds like you’ve grown 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, or my financial services career, and like observing other businesses—I knew the importance of people, right? Like, it was sort of a “duh,” 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, our people are the ones coaching the kids, and our people are also the one like building obstacles as well. So I would say I re-learned 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 hire people that maybe we’re doing something totally different, but we just believe in, they have potential, and you have to really network. It’s extremely hard to find good people. We’ve been able to, we’ve certainly kept the good, you know, 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’s so brutal hiring just assistant coaches—extremely hard. 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 a blending of my personal and business life, because my wife and I, you know, run the business and are the sole owners of it. And then we have four boys, you know, 10, 8, 6, and 6 months. My older three like, are at the gym all the time, they 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, they’re 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? Me and my kids were there to like, 11pm at night, like building tables, like the day before we opened, you know, 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 them.
That is absolutely going to be a great memory for them.
Yeah, 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, sorry, to digress but like, part of really why we started it was my kids, right? Like, it was their interest that sort of sparked this.
And when we look at, like, what products we’re going to offer, it’s kind of like, “Well, what’s gonna 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 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. I also think the mobile program is something that, you know, it’s worked around here—here being New York, Connecticut, New Jersey—and I think that can absolutely either be like a franchise concept or company we 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 gonna fail a lot, you’re gonna fall. That’s how you get better. I think that has a role in every kid’s sort of set of extra curricular activities or sport activities. So long winded answer, but I sort of would like this to be really around the country, both like the mobile programming, and then also more gyms.
Well, I think it’s terrific. It’s gonna be a great experience for your kids, obviously, to work with mom and dad, I mean, participating in 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—
—that does the entrepreneurial thing. And the spouse who doesn’t do the entrepreneurial thing, you know, has that kind of a steady job to keep income coming into the household. You guys, obviously, put hand in hand—you and Allison, and decided to jump in at the twelve foot end. Talk to us about the thinking behind this being 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, nights and weekends for me, full time for Allison. And then when COVID happened, that’s actually when I jumped in full time.
It just fascinates me that both of you, husband and wife, decided, “This is something we want to do. The kids kind of prompted it.” Mom and dad seemed to have said, “Okay, let’s do it.”
I yeah, I mean, maybe it’s like a dumb decision, right? Like, it could be a stupid thing to do for sure. But 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 if we’re 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, it 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-ass it.”
No, it’s a deeply held conviction for both of you clearly. Was Allison working before you—
Okay. So she jumped back into the workplace.
She was a corporate lawyer. Did not like that. You know, but she loves this.
Fascinating story. Yeah, it seems like, it sounds like you’ve tapped into a passion for your entire family, it sounds like. You’ve been able to build what is, by all accounts, a successful business with a great future ahead of, it seems.
It’s a remarkable story.
One thing I want to relate to you, Eric, about your boys being at the gym until 11 o’clock at night and helping out Mom and Dad.
I mean, when I grew up, my mom and dad owned a gas station. 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. Thank you.
I started working at eight years old with my father too. But you know, those times I would never give up. So it’s gonna be a great memory for all of them.
So speaking of challenges, of course, that the kids face in The Grit Ninja, 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 Allison is just like a driving force here, right? Like, Allison is big on, like, you know, we’ll debate things for a while, and she’s kind of big on like, L”et’s just get out of her own way. And just let’s do it. Like, let’s make it happen.” And she’s, I think, very good about that. And I think she’s, you know, learning from her the mentality of like, if you fail, it’s like, “Okay, so what, right? Like, again, we’re fortunate that like, you know, we’re not gonna, like, be homeless, you know?”
Like, so I think it’s just that mentality that probably learned from her, from my brother, my parents and others have 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.
That’s terrific, which is right in line with the philosophy of the program and what you’re trying to coach into these kids.
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! Totally! Like, I mean, people would be like, “What the hell are you talking about? Like, Allison was a lawyer, you know, and then a stay at home mom. You were doing investor relations, and you had a nice job in an industry that pays extremely well, like, and you have three now four kids, like, what are you doing?” I mean, there’s a lot of like, you know, and it’s like, “Yeah, right. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it.”
So if we plotted those things down at, say, happiness / satisfaction scale, you’re happier now, or were you before? Or more satisfied? Certainly, I think you’re more satisfied now, it seems
There’s one part of this that fascinates me, Eric, which is you mentioned earlier, your passion for team sports, which I share. I feel like that’s a huge part of a kid’s upbringing, because of the sacrifices they have to make to their teammates, right? Talk to me about how that relates. Because Ninja is kind of an individualistic—how do the two 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?
There’s a bunch of different reasons why. Maybe they have certain special needs. Maybe they’re just not viewed as athletic. Maybe it’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. And there’s a lot of pressure parents put on them like, “Gotta play baseball, you got to play soccer, you gotta play basketball.” And like, you know what, six year old Tommy probably maybe isn’t getting anything out of playing baseball, and maybe 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 gets 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 complement as I would say. Like I think kids should do both. I think there’s definitely a role for team sports. I also think there’s a role for individual sports, where it’s like you versus the obstacles, you versus yourself, it’s kind of really a chance for personal growth, and you’re not competing as 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 is at and work with them from their—whatever they want to overcome, you help them get that.
I might suggest that a child who develops more confidence in themselves, once they develop that by this, then they’re more willing to undertake a team sport because they would be less intimidated by some of the dynamics that might happen.
Totally. Yeah, there’s a great story of a kid that came to us with, you know, he’s five, right? But he had, like, some struggles physically. It was just, you put him on a soccer field, he’s just 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 in, he’s been with us for a year, how’s it going?” And she said to me, “You know, it’s like this changed his life.” I said, “What do you mean?” She’s like, “He’s a different kid. Like, he is way more confident now. Because when he walked in here, he thought a lot of things were impossible that he would 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, like he has a sense of confidence in himself, that is now transferring to like other areas in life.
So I’m Eric Meltzer. Now, I’m pretending I’m Eric Meltzer. You’re telling that story, versus I could have stayed in investor relations?
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—a person wanted to start a business and approached you and asked 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 gonna 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 reckless. , 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, are we going to run this program or not? I mean, that was this morning, was discussing are we going to run like a special needs class at our new location? And how are we going to do it? And we’re going to get volunteers and how are 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.
Okay, got it.
Okay, so thanks very much to Karl and Eric for letting us listen in 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 Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners, So long for now.
Eric Meltzer is the co-founder, with his wife Allison, of The Grit Ninja. Starting with one gym in 2019, which opened in Pleasantville, New York, The Grit Ninja has experienced significant growth and just opened a location in Norwalk, Conn., in December, 2021. The Grit Ninja also offers mobile ninja courses, a program started in 2020 at the height of the COVID lockdown situation.
The Grit Ninja offers classes for pre-schoolers through adults all fitness levels. It combines fun and adventure to bring “Ninja Warrior”-style fitness to attendees. During each action-packed class, aspiring ninjas will climb, swing, jump and run on an ever-changing obstacle course design.
Eric formerly worked in the financial services industry, while Allison was a corporate lawyer.
Eric earned his bachelor’s degree in Business at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004.
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