Twelve years ago, Dave and I packed a rented mini van full of fresh holds. We embarked on a journey to Arizona for an event called the Phoenix Bouldering Contest. Before leaving, we triple checked the rental policy which promised "unlimited miles". We didn't understand how they were alright with 42 hours of driving and 3,000 miles being put on the van in just a few short days. We piled six people in the van, along with the products, and everyone pitched in for gas. Being packed so tight, the trip there was really long and awful, but we eventually arrived. This was an important weekend for us - the start of our business. It was the "big launch" of a tiny idea called So iLL.
We arrived in Phoenix just in time to set up our modest display. We had no money for professional images or branding, so it was simply a card table covered with a John Deer blanket from our family room. We piled the small table full of homemade holds and wished for the best. Big surprise – only a few people came by our booth. We had no name, no image, no brand… nothing. We simply wanted to plant a seed that we were confident would grow. Simple is beautiful these days, but at the start, it would have been nice to have great print materials or some sort of branding to help us show our products in the way that they deserved.
Before packing up on the final day, a young Japanese girl happened to walk into our booth. The conversation was brief. We gave her a few holds to take home, along with my Juno email address scribbled onto a piece of paper. Dave and I packed up the booth quickly that evening. We left for the 21 hour drive home feeling disappointed in the weekend, dissatisfied in our display, and overwhelmed with an overall feeling that we didn't connect with anyone. What we didn't know was that the Japanese climber was actually with an employee from PUMP, a company in Japan with six climbing gyms, six retail stores, and online distribution all over the country. Over a decade later, our relationship with PUMP has developed into great friendships and a valued distributor relationship.
Sometimes I feel discouraged after a long tradeshow. Since we put so much heart into what we create, I would like more instant gratification. I realize this sounds selfish. Of course, it is amazing to show our new products and see faces light up, but the orders and pre-seasons usually come later. I have had to learn time and time again that investing in relationships and treating people the right way always helps us grow in the long run. The greatest things come after investing time and energy into early ideas while no one is watching and absolutely no one is patting you on the back. The reward comes much later after product development, numerous samples, and months of work getting the systems in place for distribution. The reward finally comes from seeing our goods all over the world, helping to make people's lives easier. Each year, the first group we get to see this happen with is PUMP. We see our products released in the Japanese market before they are even released in the States. This brings a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment.
We have always had a goal to visit Naoya, Takashi, Katsu, Kousuke, Taro, Tsukuru, and Toshiaki in Japan. After twelve years of waiting, it finally happened this Fall. It is hard to describe how good of a time we had. Not only did I enjoy the food, friends, and new faces, I really enjoyed learning about their business. They have such an amazing set up. For instance, their bouldering gym in Tokyo is on 3 floors. It is completely different than the US style of open warehouse space (cool as well, but very different). The gym is unique and urban, and the space they have converted is simply cool. They re-purposed an old mechanic shop, and the transformation reminded me a lot of what we did at Climb So iLL. At this location alone, they have the single largest retail offering of climbing products that I have seen anywhere in the world. Their dedication to climbing and business is like nothing I have seen. Dave and I got a chance to see their warehouse, as well. It is about a one hour drive from Tokyo. Twice a month the guys load up the van and head to the warehouse. The So iLL stock was impressive to say the least. They sell So iLL to other gyms all over the country, so having a good stock all of the time has proved to be an advantage for them while servicing such a large community.
Beyond business, much of what I learned during my trip was from the people that we spent time with. The culture is very different than in the US. People are respectful and genuinely care for one another. Our friends are so loyal, almost beyond what words can describe. It is rooted deep down in them, and their care for other people is impressive. I have a lot to learn from the Japanese culture. For instance, when entering another building, you take your shoes off, no matter if it is a house, a restaurant, or even a climbing gym. It is a sign of respect, and to me, means that you really care about another human being, their possessions, their co-workers, and their family. Even driving seemed different. I got the impression that people realized that there was another human being inside the other vehicles on the road. What an interesting concept that we take for granted in the States. We should be respectful and honorable to other people. We don't have to always agree with others, but honoring them as a person seems like such a reasonable thing to do.
Here is a rundown of the PUMP crew.
Naoya: He owns PUMP. He started the gyms about fifteen years ago and has been a staple in the climbing community, developing routes and opening facilities to help people succeed. During our trip, Naoya took us outside and showed us natural areas with some of the largest bamboo I have ever seen. He also took us to some of the best sushi in the world. He truly treated us like VIP for a week, and we can't thank him enough for being so generous. We are looking forward to working with him more closely in the future.
Takashi: He runs PUMP. We have known TK for almost a decade. We always joke that we are both professional climbers, albeit a different kind. We are professional "climbing business" guys, not athletes. He is not only great at his job, but he is mentoring the younger setters, managers, and retail buyers, teaching them climbing as a business and helping them grow in their roles. He really cares about the company and the future of their business. His family is also amazing, and we both share a love for novelty sodas. There are some great ones in Japan.
Katsu: This guy is amazing. He has become one of our best friends. If you see gear throughout Japan and how full PUMP's shops are, it is because of Katsu's dedication to importing and distribution within the country. His attention to detail and interest in climbing products from around the world is unmatched. He has one of those personalities that you just want to be around, calm and collected. He knows his stuff; I admire when a person is really skilled in their field of work. Before we flew to Japan, a big Tsunami was hitting the country. He emailed and said, "It's no problem. If climbing gyms get flooded, we can go swimming." I have a lot to learn from this guy and his outlook on life.
Kousuke: We missed spending time with him during our visit. Over the last year though, we were able to hang out in Salt Lake City, Germany, and even at Climb So iLL in Saint Louis, MO. Kousuke is one of the most famous route setters in all of Japan. He was away from PUMP during our visit, because he was setting for the World Cup. He set a lot with So iLL for the event. He even drew pictures of Dave and I on the back of some of the World Cup holds before putting them on the wall. His attention to detail and interest in setting is profound. He really wants to learn a lot and doesn't have a big head or ego, even while being one of the best setters in the world.
Taro: It was an honor to meet Taro. This guy runs the online shop at Pump-Climbing.com and Pump.Ocnk.net. He takes all of the photos, runs the website, and updates products with images. It is great to have him on staff, because he is basically doing the job of a marketing agency. He helps the brands by creating imagery that connects with climbers in Japan. He also carries himself with a level of professionalism that I don't see often. He is the man behind the curtain and doesn't need to be in the lime light or patted on the back. He simply creates amazing content and delivers the experience that shoppers receive online.
Tsukuru and Toshiaki: Dave and I had the privilege of getting to hang out with some of the strongest athletes in all of Japan. These guys are the Daniel Woods and Paul Robinson of Asia - unbelievably strong and unbelievably friendly. Tsukuru is a World Cup champion and Toshiaki climbs V14 and is a So iLL athlete in Japan. We were able to have dinner and a late night coffee with these guys where they shared with us a top secret climbing video they are working on featuring so many So iLL pads and friendly faces. I can't wait until we can share the finished product. Dave and I look like beginners in comparison to how strong these guys are.
Pump crew, thank you so much for an experience that we will never forget!
I am not the best writer, nor am I even positive that anyone reads this blog about our business, travels, and lessons. However, I really do hope that I have shared some things of interest with you and can be encouraging. See you out there.