Founders: Jeremy Balboni, Lance Pinn
Company Description: Hybrid urban rock climbing, fitness and co-working facilities
Company Site: http://brooklynboulders.com/chicago/, Facebook, Twitter
Date of Interview: December 2014
Jeremy Balboni is the CEO and co-founder of Brooklyn Boulders. He and his team have brought “the beauty of new fitness” in their 3rd facility to Chicago with a grand opening party that wrapped in December. His favorite breakfast is a green smoothie, bowl of berries, one pancake and a side of bacon – “Because bacon is important.”
On getting the first location open:
Jeremy and his friends actually wrote the original business plan for Brooklyn Boulders in college. “The concept in our minds was actually born 13-14 years ago.”
The plan didn’t take off back then, and the friends graduated from college and took full-time jobs. Jeremy worked in investment finance for a few years before the team decided to revive the plan. “We had a little bit more credibility and know-how … a little bit. We tried harder. It’s different when you’re 19 than when you’re 25. When you’re 25 you still don’t know a lot, but you know more.”
Backed by family, friends and themselves, they opened up their first facility in Brooklyn in 2008, amidst the crashing US economy. “It was successful from the start. And by successful I mean that a lot of people appreciated what we brought to the community. We went into a neighborhood that wasn’t as developed as it is today. I think and hope it (the development) is partly because we’ve established a good presence there.”
On leaving a job you like for something bigger:
Jeremy continued to work in finance, a job that he enjoyed, until 2011 when he decided it was time to go full-time and expand Brooklyn Boulders.
“Climbing was something I’d been super passionate about for a long time. The fitness model in America isn’t as exciting as it could be. The more traditional models aren’t as interesting as what we’re putting out there.
“Here you have an opportunity to be part of the community in a bigger way. When you have all these people coming to do something they believe in – it creates community. You’re providing people a way to do fitness that is fun, exciting and addictive in a good way.”
“You’re changing peoples’ lives in a real way. Now, when you do that in an urban environment you can affect a lot more people – people that are looking for purpose and to belong to something.”
“So you’re changing lives, you’re changing communities and neighborhoods, you’re working with really interesting people, you’re growing the company so you can offer a way to grow professional careers.”
“It’s win-win-win: putting out a positive product, having a lot of fun, following your passion, and it’s good business from an economic sense.”
On financing each facility:
As you can imagine, building a large rock-climbing and community facility is not a low budget project. After they borrowed money from family and friends for the first opening each additional facility has been backed by a few individual investors.
“It gets easier because you’re proving your concept every time. Boston (2nd location), was tough to fund because some people thought it was just luck in Brooklyn (1st location). We fought pretty hard for people to believe that this was a concept that would work in different places. The risk goes down for them (investors) every time.”
“The #1 reason why investors believe in us is that the team is really strong. Having Brooklyn be successful was a plus, but the biggest thing was knowing that the team can do it again. It gets easier because your network gets bigger, your credibility goes up because you’re succeeding and you keep building the team that is going to make it happen.”
“Businesses live and die by the people running it.”
On leveraging his past experiences:
Jeremy believes that while it wasn’t the reason he got into finance, it did end up helping him along the way.
“Speaking the investment lingo, knowing what they are looking for, knowing how to communicate to them, knowing how to make them feel safe, understanding how to manage capital and how the world works.” – to name a few.
“(It) hugely helped me in giving me professional discipline. Knowing how to work with other people – above and under me, knowing the strength of teams, the rigor of work, the focus required, the maniacal devotion required to grow a business. These are all things I acquired working in the investment world for 6 years.”
“You eat what you kill and you are judged by the strength or weaknesses of your decisions.”
On mission and core values:
“We have a much better idea of what we’re trying to do now. We always knew, but now we’re able to vocalize it and focus it a lot more than before.”
Mission statement: “Facilitate complete engagement of urban communities in unconventional physical spaces by providing diverse unique experiences.”
Core values: 1) Get weird 2) Co-create 3) Make it beautiful 4) Be relentless, 5) Attitude is everything 6) Inspire
On what gets him excited:
“Good books, good food, new experiences, meeting cool people, meeting cool cities, traveling the world, climbing everywhere.”
“I’m excited about growing the business. I’m doing it with a team that I’m friends with. It’s also extremely exciting to work with people that believe in what we’re doing and are extremely motivated. Everyone works their asses off – it’s animalistic. But we’re happy doing it. It’s not just working hard to make money, but because we believe in it.”
At the time of the interview, Brooklyn Boulders had about 200 employees (full and part-time), and 3 opened locations (Brooklyn, Somerville, Chicago) with construction started on a 4th location in New York City. Time to “get weird.”