A New Wave of Climber Entrepreneurs

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Being entrepreneurial doesn't always mean diving in a dumpster for day-old baguettes

The climber stereotype we all know is that of the dirtbag living out of his or her car, traveling from crag to crag, climbing the best lines, far removed from the money-obsessed mainstream. While these atavistic aspirations are worthy (who among us doesn't have them?), the picture that it paints of the climbing community is limiting. Climbers are a diverse and resourceful group, and a dedication to climbing does not necessarily equal a life of asceticism and poverty.

As the sport grows, there are an increasing number of climber-entrepreneurs building businesses around their passion. Here, five climber-entrepreneurs that have made the leap tell us what it’s really like.

Kim Vines, Kush Climbing

Kim fell in love with the sport and changed her life to support the habit. She is one-half of Kush Climbing, the two-year-old startup that she co-founded with her husband, Kyle. Kush produces sustainable hemp crash pads with rad printed designs.

She and Kyle came up with their business idea during a stint in Joshua Tree. The pads also pay homage to the history of climbing. "The first big walls were sent on hemp rope stolen from phone companies,” Kim explains.

Kush Climbing pads are made from hemp and recycled nylon. | Photo: Courtesy

They wrote the initial business plan on the back of a guidebook. Then they launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the project and moved to Denver, Colorado to officially start the business in early 2015. As they get Kush Climbing off the ground, she works as a manager at a local climbing gym. Kush had $25,000 in revenue in 2015 and recently launched a new website.

According to Kim, “Most people can go rock climbing [but] not everyone is a climber. The same is true for business. Decide to be an entrepreneur and never stop the pursuit.”

Bradley Spence, Boulder Denim

Spence, co-founder of Boulder Denim, has always fancied himself an entrepreneur, he says.  “Tac [his co-founder] and I have been coming up with different business ideas since we were 15 years old bussing tables together.”

Bradley and Taz got the idea for Boulder Denim when the two of them met up to climb at Niagara Glen in Ontario and saw how silly each of them looked: “He was wearing gym shorts and his knees and legs are super scuffed up, and I was wearing baggy yoga pants. We knew there had to be a better solution out there."

Photo: Courtesy

So they decided to create their own jeans that would combine comfort, flexibility, style—and environmental friendliness. They worked with a Canadian fabric producer to produce a denim that is 93 percent cotton, five percent elasterelli-poly, and two percent lycra—unlike most "stretch denim" which “just consists of spandex and cotton,” said Bradley.

Then, they launched a Kickstarter campaign in late 2015, raising more than $90,000 within a few months, that made their vision into a reality. Kickstarter, said Bradley, was a game-changer that turned an idea into a business with customers all at once. They began shipping their product in November 2016 are hitting the road this spring in a converted RV to visit “every major city, crag, and climbing gym in North America to sell our jeans and climb with our community.” 

Paul Roberts, Mindful Routes

Paul Roberts, a sponsored athlete with Evolv and FrictionLabs, has been climbing since the age of 16 but, he says, he was an entrepreneur first, finding ways of making money ever since he was a kid. One example: As a teenager, he ran a basement recording studio for local bands. In 2015, he started Mindful Routes, which helps athletes of all ages focus on improving their mental game through workshops, coaching, and curriculum development.

Paul Roberts teaches internal dialogue techniques to a youth climbing team. | Photo: Courtesy

Though the business is still young, Roberts has been working towards it for much longer: “Since I began climbing the thing that brought me back to this idea over and over again was the mental game and figuring out ways that we can positively affect our climbing and our lives through implementing mindfulness practices.”

Paul is careful about balancing his growth as a climber with the growth of his business, though he admits that sometimes it’s challenging. He plans his schedule so that his rest days coincide with days that are computer-heavy or around workshops. “This way I still can have a whole day of climbing when there’s not much to do. The one thing that has been a bit of a hassle is my ability to just get up, leave and go into the desert or wherever for a week or two on a climbing trip.”

Paul eyes his next hold on Potrero Chico’s Cyclops (5.13a) | Photo: Courtesy

But the compromise is worth it: “Every time I teach a workshop, participants remind me of how much they need just the slightest insight into their own self-awareness and growth as a person. The psych levels that are raised in the workshop are so high there's never been anything else in my life where people have felt so motivated and invigorated to pursue their passions with a stronger drive. This is what I want–I want everyone to experience that feeling and the workshops I teach with Mindful Routes has been doing that."

Matt Segal, Alpine Start 

Matt Segal, a professional climber who has represented North Face for the past ten years, came up with the idea for Alpine Start Foods in 2015, which produces high quality Italian instant coffee, while working on a climbing project in the Canadian Bugaboos. As a coffee aficionado, he was frustrated by his limited options—basically, Starbucks Via—while out in the wilderness, and he started Alpine Start, to meet that need. What makes their product different, says Matt, is temperature: “A lot of instant coffees can’t be dissolved in cold water, but ours can.”

A future cup of wakey juice

But there’s the additional appeal of a coffee made for and by outdoor enthusiasts: “We want to create not just good products, but a brand that outdoor consumers could relate to. We want to build a brand for people that like being outside.”

For Matt, the challenge of work-climb balance is even harder, since he has to balance essentially two full-time careers as a professional climber and as an entrepreneur.  First, he set ground rules for their growing team (which now has 2 full-time and 3 part-time employees) with a no-excuses all team call every Tuesday. “I was in Hueco Tanks and I took a call in the boulders. I was in Mexico last week and answering calls,” says Matt, adding with a laugh, "I joke about my professional climbing career that you’re never really working but you’re always on call." And so it goes with his foray into entrepreneurship, as well.

Photo: Courtesy Time Trial

His hard work is paying off. Alpine Start, which was founded in 2015, is now available in 36 Whole Foods’ locations across the Rockies, and will soon be available at REI as well. “Business is a lot like projecting a hard route. You have a lot of ups and downs, but you’re not going to send until you start trying hard. Some days you don’t see progress, but even micro-progress is progress.”

Jon Cheng, Time Trial by Randori

Not all climber-entrepreneurs are outdoor climbers, and not all of them even intended to build companies around climbing. Such was the case with Jon Cheng, who accidentally created the first augmented reality climbing game, Time Trial, in 2016.

Cheng demos his speed climbing game at Brooklyn Boulders

A programmer by trade, Cheng’s entrepreneurial venture was a business teaching coding. According to Cheng, he had asked his local gym if he could set up a table to recruit new students, and built Time Trial as a “fun game climbers could play to get them excited about learning to code.” He didn’t receive a lot of interest from coders-to-be, but he did receive a lot of attention for the augmented reality climbing game, and after getting enough of the same feedback, he decided to pivot to focus his efforts on bringing Time Trial to the masses.

“I want walls dedicated to augmented reality games at gyms around the world,” says Cheng.

Time Trial has already been part of competitions in Singapore and France, and is expanding to other gyms both in the U.S. and abroad. In the meantime, Cheng is working on the code to help it scale: “We’re working on an automatic setup process so the software can scan your wall and set itself up.”

Cheng was looking to recruit coders and in the process created the first augmented reality climbing game.

Cheng has a big vision for how augmented reality can change indoor climbing: “Normally once you complete a bouldering problem, you've conquered it. That's it really. You've beat it. With Time Trial you can keep challenging yourself to beat your score. After a few tries you think you've got it down, but then your friend challenges you and beats you by a half second. Now it's on!”

Ultimately, Time Trial is about facilitating the community aspect of indoor climbing, which is very important to Jon: “We all challenge ourselves on the same walls, and everyone is always rooting for you… It’s awesome to be in such a positive environment.”

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