written by Chris Horne; photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
What in the world led an art student and a graphic designer to start a rock climbing gym/yoga studio just outside of downtown Akron? The short answer: To serve a community of local climbers they’d joined and fostered as they grew a company that has become one of the nation’s highest ranked for the climbing holds they make.
The huh? What? Yeah, that’s correct. Rock Candy Holds, based right here in Akron, is among the industry’s best. Co-founder Nathan Yokum still sculpts and forms the molds in his workshop at the Rock Mill, the indoor climbing and yoga facility he opened with his wife Liz a year ago.
But which came first: the climbing or the holds? The climbing. In fact, that’s how Nathan and Liz met at the indoor climbing wall at Kent State. While it’s still a great introduction for beginners, back then serious climbers used indoor walls as practice for the real rock formations they encounter in the wilds of Northeast Ohio. Now, indoor climbing is it’s own sport, even though there’s plenty of crossover, and the people who do it are passionate.
That’s in part because of the community that has formed around climbing. The competition is internal — you’re not really trying to beat anyone but your own best effort — so support comes freely from the friends (and strangers) who climb with you. Naturally, when the Yokums built a climbing wall in their garage after college, they opened it up to friends.
Here’s the twist. They quickly figured out how expensive the climbing holds (those colorful bumps that allow you to scale the walls) can be. An art student, Nathan figured he could make his own. He was right, but to keep his costs down he had to order enough materials to create more holds than he needed. So, to pay for this new hobby, they started selling his holds to area gyms and friends who had walls of their own.
“It’s sort of a hobby that got out of control,” Nathan says.
The hobby got out of control after Nathan, a casualty of the recession, was downsized from the position he held at a local ministry. Liz, who was working as a graphic designer at Kent State, got pregnant. They looked at their situation, sized up their future and went all-in on Rock Candy.
For a while, the Yokums operated a climbing wall co-op in Kenmore where their community could could test the holds on one side while Nathan made more on the other. Then the business got too big and they had to choose between the climbing wall or using the space to accommodate their growing enterprise. They went with the extra space, but they knew one day they would open another gym.
In the meantime, Liz says they slowly learned to think differently about how they ran the business. For most of Rock Candy’s early years, their decisions were reactive or made spontaneously. It had worked out for them, generally speaking, but she knew they could do more if they planned better, directed their growth more intelligently and improved their cash flow. So they tinkered with the business the way Nathan does each hold, crafting and sculpting it into a better form.
Rock Candy continued to grow, even as their family grew too with the addition of another baby boy, but their itch to open another facility — to work amongst their community again — kept nagging at them. Over five or six years’ time, they won a business plan writing competition, sought out partners and had a few false starts. Having learned from other indoor climbing gyms that plans can evaporate in a flash, they were careful about when and how they announced their opening. That proved wise because, even after they found the right building and lined up the right partner, there were road-bumps like budget overruns on construction.
This gave them another opportunity to put the mindset they developed as climbers to work as entrepreneurs. When you’ve practiced your resilience by clinging to the face of a rock cliff without a net, you have a little easier time overcoming the obstacles that come your way as a small business owner.
“It’s been challenging,” Liz says. “This is the busiest I’ve ever been, but I love it.”
That makes more sense when you remember that climbing teaching you to make your best effort the competition you’re trying to topple.
As Nathan tells himself when he climbs, “Try harder. Try harder.”
It leads you to an unending cycle of trying to improve. For the Yokums, that means being responsive to the growing community of climbers, both new and experienced, that come to Rock Mill. One way you see the difference in their gym is in the weight room and the yoga classes offered on site — as you watch the most skilled climbers, you realize it’s pretty much vertical yoga. This is not just so the climbers can get a well-rounded workout, but it’s the kind of thing that friends can setting aside a couple hours to do, taking a class and then a climb, socializing the whole time.
And that’s where Rock Mill’s strength lies. Its attention to community.
//The Devil Strip’s small business and entrepreneur reporting has been made possible thanks to the support of The Fund for Our Economic Future and the Burton D. Morgan Foundation. You can learn more about being an Akron entrepreneur by visiting akronisforentrepreneurs.org