Ashley Drake Interview – The Natural Grip

Ashley Drake Danielle Sidell natural gripWhen I first heard from Ashley Drake, founder of The Natural Grip, she reached out to correct a minor trademark issue with my post about her business. We got to chatting, and she gave me some background information about herself and her business. Ashley Drake, along with Crossfit athlete Danielle Sidell, appears in the Shark Tank Military special, episode 608.

Her product is a hand protection grip that prevents hands from getting “shredded” while doing a lot of bar work, whether it's pull-ups, weight lifting, or gymnastics. It's a simple product and the story of how she started the company might be the best we've ever seen on Shark Tank!

Ashley Drake Background

Ashley Drake is better known as Captain Drake to her colleagues in the Army Corps of Engineers. She has a Master's Degree in Communications, so she's not a professional Engineer, but she is branched as an engineer.  She works in a construction unit that puts her with the civilian work force. Ashley was deployed in Iraq for 15 months in charge of distributing all construction equipment through northern and southern Iraq. “My unit was lucky,” she explained,” our platoon didn't have injuries or fatalities. Being there reminded me why I was serving country.”

I asked Ashley which she liked better: being in the Army or being an entrepreneur. “I like both,” she said. “There are a lot of similarities between the two. I think the training I received in the Army helped prepare me for entrepreneurship. They're both challenging and interesting; I like being involved and solving problems, which I do in both areas. I'm just thankful our product was well received.”

Ashley wanted to create The Natural Grip because she had a personal need for the product. “I first got involved in Crossfit training in grad school at Virginia Tech. I wanted to build upper body strength and maintain physical readiness. It took me 4 months to do pull-ups,” she recalled, “It was hard on my hands. Ripped hands is badge of honor in the Crossfit community, but if I ripped my hands, I couldn't work out for a week. I looked everywhere, but I couldn't find hand protection for my small hands. I tried gloves, but gloves can still rip hands.”

“The constant complaining to my husband, Justin, led to the invention.  He is a licensed athletic trainer and he said ‘hey I think I can help,' he's been very supportive. Justin actually invented Natural Grip – the patent is in his name. He specifically created it for me when I was set to compete in a local competition in Louisville so I wouldn't rip my hands. I didn't get far enough in the competition to need the grips, so I still had them in my gym bag. I offered them to a woman at a local gym who was going to do 100 pull ups for time. Later on, she stopped me and wanted to buy them – I couldn't get it out of my head. Then I shared the idea of making it a business with my husband and the rest is history!”

Best Shark Tank Start-up Story EVER!

When Ashley told me the story of how she and Justin started the business, I was blown away. The Sharks will be too when they hear it! “We have zero debt,” Ashley said. “We made the first 150 pairs we sold from scraps in the trash at my husband's office. We literally started with nothing. We used the revenue from that first order to buy in bulk and originally sold them on a Facebook page; then went to an e-commerce website with PayPal. Now, people can order from us or through distributors and hundreds of gym pro shops.”

“Looking back makes me reflect that it all happened so quickly – we were a cottage business making them in our home part-time and now we've grown to a 1000 square foot facility and my husband is full-time. We were turning a profit from the beginning – I just assumed every company was profitable – but when I started telling people our story they were like ‘wow, you are so lucky!' We just moved into the new facility when I went to tape Shark Tank.”

The Road to Shark Tank

“I'm more the face of the company and Justin is behind the scenes. We reached out to Danielle to be a spokesperson last fall [2013] because she's an active reservist and a sponsored athlete in the Crossfit community. She's an excellent brand ambassador.”

“As for Shark Tank, we went the traditional route of filling out an application. I submitted a video in February [2014] and heard we'd made the next round in mid-March. Once it got serious and I knew we were taping, I reached out to Dave Alwan (Echo Valley Meats) because I wanted to know the ‘battle space.' Pat from Happy Feet in Louisville was a big help too. He was a good sounding board. I decided to tape with Danielle so Justin could mind the store and take care of our 4-year-old.”

Ashley couldn't go into detail about what happened in the Tank, but she's definitely ready for the Shark Tank Effect. “We've been working for the past two months with our web development team to lay the foundation. Leap does our hosting and development, we've been experimenting with different landing pages. They're using Cloudflare and RackSpace to handle the anticipated load. Our new site went live on Halloween and we'll be testing through the week leading up to the episode.”

Parting Words

I asked Ashley what she likes about being an entrepreneur and what advise she has for aspiring entrepreneurs.

“Personally, what excites me is our business is going to sink or swim based on our efforts and what we do every day. A lot of people go to a job and bitch and complain. Entrepreneurs can only look in the mirror and that excites me – it's stressful and keeps me up at night sometimes, but I like it. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, it's a lot of work and stress and you need to think about a lot of things you don't necessarily want to do. While I think we need to encourage innovation in the USA, people need to be honest. If they don't have the passion, maybe they should do something else.”

I asked Ashley one more question. She answers it over at The Hot Dog Truck.

About Rob Merlino

Entrepreneur, auteur, raconteur. Rob Merlino is a blogger and writer who enjoys the Shark Tank TV show and Hot Dogs. A father of five who freelances in a variety of publications, Rob has a stable of websites including Shark Tank Blog, Hot Dog Stories, Rob Merlino.com and more.

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