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Climbing to greater heights: How these S’poreans opened 2 bouldering gyms amid Covid-19

boulder movement

Many people tend to confuse bouldering for indoor rock climbing.

To set the record straight, they are two completely different sports. With bouldering, all you’ll need are sports chalk and climbing shoes, in place of complicated and expensive gear like ropes, harnesses and carabiners.

While bouldering requires much less endurance than rock climbing, this robust and dynamic sport definitely serves as a test of an individual’s sense of balance and muscular coordination.

When Boulder Movement first opened in Singapore, there were already several existing bouldering gyms in Singapore, but they weren’t beginner-friendly and did not cater to working adults.

Boulder Movement entered this space to offer this differentiation factor and they are now arguably the most polished indoor bouldering gym on the island.

Although Covid-19 has made some fitness places stumble and fall, Boulder Movement is climbing to greater heights and has even managed to open two new outlets in the middle of the pandemic.

Starting an inclusive bouldering gym where even newcomers can find their footing

Singaporean climbing enthusiasts Jansen Ko, 34, and Joe Fu, 32, opened Boulder Movement’s first outlet at OUE Downtown Gallery in August 2017.

Jansen and Joe’s wife were climbing teammates back in university, so that was how the two founders got acquainted and embarked on climbing trips together.

Upon graduation, Jansen still retained his passion for bouldering, but was frustrated at the lack of bouldering gyms that were both “comfortable and designed specifically for working adults”.

Moreover, most of the bouldering gyms available at the time were not exactly beginner-friendly. “It’s a huge pity that new climbers don’t get a good introduction to the sport, and end up leaving their first session feeling discouraged,” said Jansen.

Together with Joe, he decided to address this problem by starting Boulder Movement to give new climbers a safe space to explore the sport and gain confidence.

“Who knows? This could be the start of a lifelong adventure for them, just like how it was for me,” he added.

boulder movement
Image Credit: Boulder Movement

As such, Boulder Movement offers climb sessions and climbing classes specially catered to a range of levels, from absolute beginners to expert climbers. It is now well-regarded as one of the most beginner-friendly gyms that still offers challenging routes for seasoned climbers to test their limits.

The sport is gender-neutral, so women can perform as well as men. In fact, Boulder Movement’s inclusive and welcoming atmosphere makes it very popular with female customers, who form a majority of their client base.

Customers always leave appreciative feedback on Boulder Movement’s welcoming and encouraging community, and the gym has since evolved into a supportive space where strangers are able to form close friendships over climbing sessions.

They made use of their occupational skills to bring Boulder Movement to life

Juggling between full-time jobs and bringing their new business idea to life was not easy. Jansen soon found himself at crossroads, having to delve deep and decide what he ultimately wanted for his career.

He eventually arrived at a conclusion and decided that climbing is his calling.

They pooled together their savings to conceptualise and open their gym, and Jansen eventually left his job as a real estate valuer and exit the franchise businesses he was dabbling in to focus on growing the business full-time.

“After seeing many batches of climbers start their journey at Boulder Movement, and grow into such accomplished climbers, I feel emotionally fulfilled and content,” reflected Jansen.

Jansen, Joe, boulder movement
Founders Jansen Ko and Joe Fu / Image Credit: Boulder Movement

Joe, who is still a practising architect at ONG&ONG, contributed his skills in design and project management to open their climbing gyms. His expertise proved exceptionally helpful, considering Boulder Movement’s rapid expansion.

“Being an architect myself and Jansen, coming from the real estate industry, allowed us to study the feasibility of the sites very quickly and effectively,” he explained.

As a young father of three, Joe also had to work on his time management and multitasking skills, and learn to prioritise tasks in order to take on multiple roles.

Making bolder moves in the face of adversities

As new entrepreneurs, the pair didn’t think business would be as difficult, and thought they would gain traction quickly. While promising, the initial response garnered by the gym still fell short of their expectations.

Since their first gym was located towards the end of the basement corridor of Downtown Gallery, it saw very little human traffic.

boulder movement
Boulder Movement Downtown / Image Credit: Boulder Movement

The founders relied heavily on digital marketing initially to get the business going.

They made many mistakes, but pivoted quickly to figure out what would attract instead of alienate their customers, like understanding the optimal cost structure, for instance. They learned a lot through the process of re-evaluating what customers wanted, and balanced that with keeping the business afloat.

At first, the team struggled with a lack of capital, know-how, and the pressing fear of failure and mediocrity. But with the support of their friends and family, they celebrated every milestone and learned along the way.

Today, they have built a robust system together with a good team, and are ready to take on new challenges.

Opening two new outlets mid-pandemic

Of course, new challenges presented in the form of Covid-19.

For one, their second gym in Tai Seng was set to open in May last year, but construction was halted due to the Covid-19 circuit breaker. As a result, the opening was postponed to August 2020.

They handled design conceptualisation, lease negotiations, renovations and route settings to hiring new team members, all while fulfilling daily operations for their existing outlet. They even started marketing the new gym to existing and new customers.

As it turns out, Jansen and Joe did not intentionally open their second gym in the middle of the pandemic.

“It was more the case that after months of labour, the baby was due and we just had to deliver,” Jansen joked.

Boulder movement tai seng
Boulder Movement’s second gym in Tai Seng / Image Credit: Boulder Movement

When the Covid-19 restrictions on sports operations were announced, new guidelines were put in place, including restrictions on how many customers could enter the gyms, as well as a mandated closure.

Some customers even cancelled their subscriptions, and revenue dropped to zero during the two months of lockdown in 2020, and for another two and a half months in 2021. The latter was a lot harder for the team due to the “start-stop nature” of measures.

The Boulder Movement team were tired and frustrated with having to shut and re-open at such a short notice. In addition, the vague guidelines were also contradictory, so many operators in the climbing industry struggled to interpret and implement their own rules.

While some climbing gyms could remain open, most were forced to shut. Unfortunately, Boulder Movement was categorised together with larger fitness gyms due to the high-risk, mask-off nature of the activities, even though climbers had been wearing masks since the first circuit breaker measures rolled out.

bouldering with masks on
Bouldering with masks on / Image Credit: Boulder Movement

The local authorities eventually recognised that climbing was a low-risk, mask-on activity in the most recent Vaccination Differentiated Safe Management Measures.

Boulder Movement was once again in service, but not without a two-hour duration limit and a hard cap on the number of patrons.

“Climbers have been used to day entries pre-Covid, so there’s been a sense of injustice that customers still have to pay the same prices with less climbing time now,” Jansen said.

However, rents, salaries, and overheads continued to loom over the business owners’ heads. Jansen and Joe even had to dip into their own savings to keep their business afloat, raising funds from shareholders.

They also resorted to government subsidised financing in the form of a temporary bridging loan, using any means possible to tide over their growing cash flow difficulties.

The two young founders stuck to their guns and continued, in specific order, to focus on the people, product, and profits. They insist that it would be a disaster to run a business the other way around.

Through weekly online check-ins, they managed to keep their growing team motivated, and continued to pay everyone their wages such that no employee had to suffer a pay cut because of the lockdowns.

Living by Mark Zuckerberg’s motto to “move fast and break things”, the team constantly fine-tuned their services to adapt to the ever-changing regulations.

The community had been flexible and appreciative too, responding well to the new measures. Their customers came back from each closure with higher levels of energy and enthusiasm, simply happy to be able to climb again.

They also kept their customers eager for more by regularly switching things up. They refresh routes twice a week to provide new challenges for their climbers, with the intention to teach specific movement lessons to achieve a range of learning outcomes.

Camaraderie and friendships forged at the gym are another testament to their supportive atmosphere. Their team on the ground even welcome all customers with their first names, cheering them on when they climb.

In response, Boulder Movement received an outpour of support from their customers. The team eventually decided to reciprocate the encouragement with a new and improved offering as a way to give back to their enthusiastic fans.

By building the best facility that they could afford, they wanted to give their customers something even more exciting to look forward to.

Boulder Movement's third gym in Rochor
Boulder Movement’s third gym in Rochor / Image Credit: Boulder Movement

In May this year, Boulder Movement’s third outlet in Rochor opened its doors.

With more gyms, the team have a bigger canvas to work on. They’re now able to increase the level of difficulty to cater to more seasoned climbers.

Opening not just one, but two gyms, mid- pandemic requires a lot of courage and confidence. “Even if the market is down, we still have to continue to add value to customers. Hopefully when the market recovers, customers can come along for the ride,” said Joe.

Taking Boulder Movement to greater heights

boulder movement team
Co-founder Jansen Ko and team / Image Credit: Boulder Movement

Some evenings at the gym are magic. From strangers cheering each other on to people determined to conquer a project, these memories, though intangible, are incredibly fulfilling to Jansen and Joe.

As the founders grow their business, accessibility soon becomes their main point of focus. They’re looking at new ways to define accessibility beyond the confines of route setting quality and beginner-friendly nature of their challenges.

They’re thinking if they should consider accessibility in terms of pricing too, to extend inclusivity to customers who are financially hard hit by the pandemic.

Additionally, they are also thinking of new ways to make Boulder Movement accessible to more age groups — for example, younger climbers aged between six and 13, can also find joy in climbing.

However, accessibility as an ideal remains elusive; Jansen and Joe hope to seek answers and solutions through more dialogue and debate.

The team has went through a great deal of difficulty in growing the business, and fears of complacency still keep them up at night. Even when the day is done, their minds are still at work, figuring out which new areas they should improve on.

Today, these millennial founders are proud of having created something so heartfelt, out of absolutely nothing. With a vision to create a company that customers adore and their employees are proud of, these guys are taking things a step at a time.

For now, they’re working on adding more value to their membership plans, but are tightlipped about any future plans. One thing’s for sure, we can expect to see much more from Jansen and Joe in the months to come.

“We want to push the envelope on behalf of our customers, and seek to constantly delight them,” hints Jansen.

Featured Image Credit: Boulder Movement

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