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EMERGING ENTREPRENEURS: Gymnast turned ninja warrior turned business owner

Drew Knapp opened his own ninja gym before he was 25 years old

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July 25, 2023

DE PERE – Many people may know Drew Knapp as the American Ninja Warrior – the Northeast Wisconsin kid who competed on NBC’s hit sports entertainment reality show in seasons eight, nine and 10, as well as on season three of Ninja vs. Ninja as part of the Wisco Warriors team.

What some may not know is that he is also a successful entrepreneur – growing a business from the ground up all before the age of 30.

“It’s surreal,” he said. “Some days, especially in the early years, I walk into the gym, turn on the lights and think, ‘wow, I’m actually here, this is what I get to do.’”

The 28-year-old is the owner and operator of Warrior Jungle located at 2125 American Blvd. in De Pere – the culmination of a lifelong dream.

The journey
From an early age, Knapp said he was a “very active” kid and was involved in several sports, including gymnastics – activities he did with his brothers, Dalton and Carter.

“Growing up, I was really close to my brothers,” he said. “We were all relatively close in age and did everything together – that included sports and other activities.”

Knapp said his parents (Craig and Deidre Knapp) – who opened a business of their own (Urban Battlefield in De Pere) around the same time he opened Warrior Jungle – helped shape who he is today.

“I definitely don’t think I would be where I am today and the type of person I am without them,” he said. “They have helped tremendously in my growth as a person.”

Drew Knapp is the owner of Warrior Jungle and recently became part owner of Urban Battlefield – a laser tag center in De Pere. Submitted Photo

As a teenager, Knapp said he and his brothers were obsessed with the American Ninja Warrior show.

“I saw the show and thought, ‘hey, I could probably do that,’” he said. “My brothers and I talked with our parents, and we decided to build a backyard ninja course – which included one of the show’s popular obstacles: the salmon ladder. I was able to do it right way.”

At the time, Knapp said participants had to be 21 years old to compete on the show.

“I was 17 at the time,” he said. “So, I decided to start training for the show – I’d have four years to train and then I’d apply for the show.”

Knapp said during those four years of training, he began attending college at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse – on a path to major in kinesiology, with an eventual plan of becoming a physical therapist.

By his sophomore year, the former gymnast began coaching the college’s women’s gymnastics team and also became a rock climbing instructor.

“I was taking advantage of everything there,” he said. “I started working at a rock climbing wall on campus – I was a climbing instructor there. I coached the women’s gymnastics team on campus. I was setting myself up to learn from others around me on how to run a recreational business. I learned a lot through coaching.”

Knapp said the knowledge he gained through his time as a gymnast, as a coach and as an instructor all supported his entrepreneurial journey.

“I picked up over the years – making sure that proper mats are set up, teaching skills at a certain progression rate, learning how to interact with athletes and students,” he said. “Working at the climbing wall, I learned how important customer service is. You’re creating an experience for other people when they’re coming in, and that’s a huge part of why they’re coming in and how they view your business.”

From dream to reality
Knapp said he knew by his junior year in college that he wanted to open up his own ninja gym – how he was going to go about doing that, however, he hadn’t quite figured out.

“I graduated my third year with a general associate’s degree because I knew what I wanted to do and realized I didn’t need a four-year degree to get there,” he said. 

Drew Knapp, right, said he is grateful to be able to share his passion for ninja with others at Warrior Jungle. Submitted Photo

At first, Knapp said he thought about opening up a franchise location of a similar gym in Minnesota.

“I thought maybe that was potentially the best option, but after thinking more about it – for about six months – it didn’t feel right to me to be underneath somebody else furthering their vision when I felt like I had a vision of my own,” he said.

Knapp said from the time he made the decision to open Warrior Jungle and the opening of the doors was about a two-year process.

“It was a couple years of preparing and getting things into place – like business plans, securing loans and trying to find a building,” he said.

During this time, Knapp said he looked to his uncle – who is a business owner himself – for guidance and support.

“I used some advice from my uncle,” he said. “I didn’t take any real ‘business courses’ in college. I took general economics, marketing and communications classes – but nothing crazy as far as business goes. So, I spent a lot of time after I graduated learning. Sometimes, I feel like I am still learning.”

Knapp said one of the things he’s always recognized is looking to others for guidance on things you may not know.

“Surround yourself with the right people, people smarter than you and make sure you are putting in the effort to learn and grow,” he said.

Putting in the time
Knapp said starting a business on your own is no easy task.

“I remember the first two years, I felt like I was at the business all the time – which is good because you want to make sure it is growing correctly and representing everything you want it to,” he said. “I was doing everything – paperwork, emails, phone calls, scheduling setup, hiring. I was also the head coach, so I was doing a lot of coaching at the time. I was the janitor – I was doing everything.”

Knapp said he was able to start off with a solid core of coaches who helped Warrior Jungle find success from the start.

“I couldn’t have done it without my first two coaches, Luke Chambers and Drew Greaves,” he said. “They were a huge part of bringing a solid base of coaches and instruction to Warrior Jungle that set us apart from other types of ninja instruction in Wisconsin.”

Five years in, Knapp said he thinks he has “a sweet spot figured out what we’re offering for classes and programs.”

“We’re continuing to figure out where the interest is and leaning toward that and growing,” he said. “There are going to be times where certain things are more popular, and we’re trying to figure out what people are interested in and try to run with it.”

One of Warrior Jungle’s most recent popular offerings, Knapp said, has been its Kids Night Out events.

“There’s a lot of returning customers who have been here for a while – they love taking advantage of that,” he said.

The pandemic
Like with many other small businesses, Knapp said the COVID-19 pandemic was a trying time for Warrior Jungle and for him as a relatively new business owner.

“The pandemic was brutal for sure,” he said. “We need people in the gym in order to run a business like this – it’s not like you can do ninja classes online. Right before the shutdown happened, we had just released enrollment for the next session, and then all of a sudden, the shutdown happened and we had to refund people.”

Knapp said thanks to some grants and an eventual resurgence of attendance once things started opening up again, Warrior Jungle was able to remain open.

“The grants were a huge help,” he said. “Without that, I’m not sure we would have been able to survive COVID. It was tricky to navigate through, but thankfully, we were able to come out the other side.”

‘I’ve come a long way’
Knapp said seeing his vision come to life has been a surreal experience.

“I’m fortunate to be in this position,” he said. “There is a sense of pride. I am thankful and don’t take where I am for granted.”

Throughout his entrepreneurial journey, Knapp said he’s learned many things.

“You don’t have to do it all on your own – I don’t recommend doing that,” he said. “Find help, learn and ask questions. Don’t be afraid of looking dumb, because that can hinder your growth.”

Knapp said he also encourages others to stay true to their mission – which kept him going during the many ups and downs.

“There definitely wasn’t a blueprint to get to where it was I was trying to go,” he said. “I had an idea of where I wanted to be, I just had to make sure I was continuing to put in the steps to get there.”

That being said, Knapp said there were times he felt a little more doubt and sometimes questioned if he was doing the right thing.

The 6,000-square-foot Warrior Jungle is home to a variety of equipment, such as climbing ropes, warped wall mountain, double salmon ladder, fly wheels and bouldering wall. Submitted Photo

“At the end of each day, I was like, ‘alright, this is the direction I want to be going, this is the direction I see myself. I am going to continue putting in all my effort, making sure I’m staying focused,’” he said. 

Knapp said he recognizes his time on American Ninja Warrior likely sparked some interest in his business.

“I would say me being on the show jump-started the interest in Warrior Jungle,” he said. “I think without that it would have been a much slower growth at the beginning.”

Knapp said he’s “thankful for and appreciative of” having that opportunity.

“Because, not only did I accomplish that dream of being on the show, but it put me in a good position to open up the gym,” he said.

Now, Knapp said he’s grateful to be able to share his passion for ninja with others at Warrior Jungle.

“I appreciate people coming in, wanting to learn it and wanting to grow in this sport,” he said. “It’s awesome working with athletes that have a passion.”

As a specialized business, Knapp said hiring has been a struggle at times.

“I would say I’ve been fortunate, but I think for a lot of businesses, maintaining a solid staff is difficult,” he said. “With Warrior Jungle being a niche business, training solid coaches takes a lot of time and effort as it’s not super common. So, staffing is one of the things that has always been at the forefront of my mind.”

What’s next?
As far as the vision Knapp had in mind for Warrior Jungle, “I’ve reached it.”

“I never had any aspirations of franchising or making it super huge,” he said. “My focus has always been on the Greater Green Bay community – growing that interest and supporting people’s passions for ninja, and I’ve been content with that.”

Knapp said the journey that got him to where he is today has been nothing short of amazing.

“It’s been a huge learning experience,” he said.

Though no expansion plans are in the works for Warrior Jungle, Knapp said he did recently become part owner of Urban Battlefield (a laser tag center in De Pere) – the business his parents started a handful of years ago.

“I’ve been doing a lot more with them recently, and eventually, my parents are looking to get phased out of the business,” he said. “They did an awesome job of getting everything started here and creating a successful business.”

Knapp said he is updating a few things and working on the operations side of the business at this point.

“I like it when things are running efficiently,” he said. “I am bringing a lot of the knowledge I’ve learned through Warrior Jungle to Urban Battlefield. So, it’s been a fun project for me on top of everything else I continue to do for Warrior Jungle.”

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