Wayne Cavanaugh, the founder and current CEO of Ninja Nation, had his first experience as an entrepreneur as an undergraduate at DePaul University. Along with a few friends, Cavanaugh briefly ran a valet service for local restaurants before joining the workforce in the finance and private equity industry. This mix of entrepreneurial spirit and financial experience uniquely positioned Wayne to disrupt the consumer health and wellness market with Ninja Nation.
- BS, Finance, DePaul University, 1999
- Master of Business Administration, Duke University – The Fuqua School of Business, 2006
Before pursuing an MBA degree at Fuqua, Wayne spent three years working in private equity with a focus on consumer businesses. However, Wayne knew that he wanted a new challenge; he wanted to cross over and run companies and management teams like the ones he had worked with in private equity. “I applied to Fuqua because of both the culture and Fuqua’s renowned brand management and marketing programs,” said Wayne.
Wayne realized that given all his experience with the financial end of consumer product companies, he could pursue courses at Fuqua that rounded out his skills and better prepared him for roles in operations and management. Beyond his coursework, Wayne was a COLE Leadership Fellow at Fuqua, which helped him develop his leadership style and further prepare him for running a company. “The business school education was phenomenal. The valuation class, the negotiations class, and all the bits and pieces you pick up along the way have contributed to my success as an entrepreneur,” said Wayne.
Wayne’s first venture at Fuqua was a startup founded with a classmate. Although the business did not take off, the lessons learned would help Wayne refine his leadership style. Wayne returned to private equity after Fuqua and in 2011, he stepped away from private equity to become the president and CEO of one of the firm’s portfolio companies. Wayne earned his stripes growing that company and elected to move on after a successful five years of growth to pursue his entrepreneurial passions.
At first, Wayne believed entrepreneurship was about what he had learned in the classroom. “I thought entrepreneurship was about founding a great company, creating a brand, and calling a few clients – in reality, it’s all about the first time you make that first dollar. In entrepreneurship class, you learn about how to establish and structure a business, but very little to do with the hustle and work and blood and tears that go into getting to that first dollar in revenue. That first dollar means you’ve created value in your customer’s life,” said Wayne.
Leading a startup is much different than managing an established company. “You have to be the most passionate person in the room if you’re going to lead a company. Entrepreneurship has this intense connection between the time and capital invested and a founder’s ability to sustain their business with passion and energy. If you’re the most passionate person in the room, you’ll be able to carry the doubts of all those who have come on this journey with you. Instead of worrying about the brand or infrastructure, I focused all my energy on the consumer of the business and making that first dollar in revenue,” said Wayne. Out of that passion, Ninja Nation was born.
Ninja Nation is a leading provider and operator of obstacle course arenas across the United States. These arenas combine the challenge of obstacle courses and physical activity with play to provide healthy, safe, and engaging experiences for everyone.
Inspired by the passion of extreme athletes to build gyms and playgrounds, Ninja Nation aspires to create a unique and accessible training experience. Rather than focusing on the niche slice of gym-goers who are the next American Ninja Warrior, Wayne focused on making the experience accessible to children and families. “I wanted to create a community culture, with a well-trained, highly-engaging staff, and a facility that has offerings for children and adult athletes alike” said Wayne.
The founding principles behind Ninja Nation sit at the nexus of Wayne’s background experience in consumer-oriented health and wellness services and his passion for youth coaching. Ninja Nation’s core mission is to reach over a million “Heroes,” of which there are 190,000 today. Ninja Nation addresses issues like childhood obesity and excessive screen time, while still providing an unmatched experience for children and adults alike.
One difficulty at the inception of Ninja Nation was how rapidly the business plan evolved and expanded to where it is today. Rather than setting things in concrete, Wayne and his team created a digital plan that allowed them to set new goals and revise their plans. With this strategy, Wayne was able to launch three facilities in a three-and-a-half-month period to great success.
Ninja Nation’s growth model of a franchising system is noteworthy in how it has allowed the Ninja Nation brand to expand. When Wayne sat down and considered Ninja Nation’s core mission, he and his team realized that the franchising model was the best way to grow the number of lives impacted by Ninja Nation. Over the past two years, Ninja Nation has grown to three corporate locations, two franchise locations, three mobile operations, and with more on the way.
Given the shift in model and rapid expansion of the company, Wayne’s role as CEO has evolved as well. Wayne has taken a step back from the corporate locations to primarily focus on developing and maintaining relationships with current and future franchisees.
Building the proper team is a key component to Wayne’s operation at Ninja Nation. His first hire at Ninja Nation was a former American Ninja Warrior whose expertise helped him create the first arenas, while other hires included a VP of Marketing and arena management staff that can shore up any weaknesses. Wayne has every member of his leadership team read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. “In today’s business world, vulnerability and authenticity go hand in hand. By learning how to connect with people and be more vulnerable, you can adopt a leadership style that allows you to empower them to shore up your own weaknesses and create an exceptionally talented team” said Wayne. “Being an entrepreneur is more about serving people than being the boss. If you want to be really successful, you have to think, ‘All my free time belongs to my family and my employees,’ and I’m here to serve and empower them.” When asked if he had any advice for young entrepreneurs, Wayne emphasized that you cannot study your way into entrepreneurship; entrepreneurship has to be earned. “Find people willing to support your dream, trust your gut, and let the world vote to decide whether it is the right time.” Secondly, Wayne stressed the importance of always being willing to look for an idea. “Don’t get wed to your first idea, find an idea that resonates with you, and swap ideas with friends to find an idea that really has traction. Once you find that idea that gets you going and keeps you going for weeks on end, follow that idea and the passion behind it.”