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Lance Pinn is the President and Co-Founder of Brooklyn Boulders (BKB), an adventure lifestyle company best known for its 4 large scale (18,000 – 40,000 SF) facilities in New York City, Boston, and Chicago. Beyond its flagship locations, the BKB ecosystem backed by 300+ employees is home to BKBX, an unprecedented training center that just opened in Boston, BKB Wild, an outdoor expeditions offering, and the BKB Foundation, a 501(c)3 with the mission to provide climbing access for all and a focus on adaptive and youth mentorship programs. Lance has a Bachelor of Science in Business Management from Babson College.
This week’s Change Maker interview took place in front of a live audience in November 2019 at Open Doors: Allston, presented by BNY Mellon.
Kait Ziskin Levesque: To kick things off, I’m a Brooklyn native, so I want to know why you named a gym in Boston for Brooklyn.
Lance Pinn: While I’m not a Brooklyn native, I did live there at the time that I founded Brooklyn Boulders. The people that live in Brooklyn are the people that live in New York City, and they won’t take no for an answer; they continue to follow their dreams. Boulders is the activity that we wanted to undertake. When we said we wanted to make the first rock climbing gym in New York City, everyone told us “No,” but no one could ruin that for us. So Brooklyn Boulders was the name that we had to carry with us to Boston.
KL: But Brooklyn Boulders isn’t just a climbing gym, correct? There’s a lot of information on your website and in the news that says it’s a special community as well. Can you speak a little about how you’re building that?
LP: It was not intentional. We had a space in Brooklyn that we wanted decorated in the most cool way possible. So, we took a look at our budget, and we didn’t have any. We were good friends with some of the founding fathers and mothers of the graffiti community in New York City and they made a graffiti hall of fame for us. Before we could put up the first walls in the space, it was covered with graffiti on the inside because they hooked it up.
Then people from Brooklyn started coming in trying to get a peek at what we were doing there. A woman from Gotham Girls Roller Derby came in and said, “Wow, great venue. It would be wonderful if we could party in here for a fundraiser for Gotham Girls.” She wanted to take the place over and we wanted to have people care about being in the place, so we let her have her way with our facility. Five-hundred people came and they left talking about us. In our mind’s eye, they told all their friends that it was the coolest place to be.
So we paid attention to that and thought about how useful we could be to the community. We took an entrepreneurial mindset to create a community space that added to who we are and expanded our limited scope of rock climbing. We continue to have an open mind and listen to our community and then foster the events that they want in the space.
KL: I love that. I think that is the type of ethos we try to pick up on at HubWeek, where we are listening to what people want and going out to find more of that. How does that transfer to some of the spaces you’ve built out here and in DC?
LP: It’s my job to convince people that rock climbing is for them. Guess what? Not a lot of people believe me when I say it. Let’s look at the numbers: 3% of people will rock climb once in a year. There are people that are adventurers and there are people that have interests that they will pursue no matter how far away and inconvenient it might be. Paying attention to how people want to use the space and trying to design space around what they find to be a utility lends to additional use of the space for those communities. Once they’re in, they can go ahead and try rock climbing. It’s fun, engaging, and it gets your mind going. Once you try it and leave, you’re likely to come back.
KL: I know some of the people here went to BKBX earlier today. Can you tell me about Brooklyn Boulders and BKBX? What’s the difference and why should I go to one and not the other?
LP: You should go to both. *laughs* It’s a complicated question and requires a little bit of paying attention to how adaptable we are. We have changed our mindset along the way. Originally we had Brooklyn Boulders Somerville. Then we happened to be friends with these people that made The Fenway a big deal, Samuels & Associates. Good friends, my family friends from a long time ago. I annoyed them for a long time, saying, “We sure would like to be in Fenway. Can we be in Fenway please?”
One day they gave me a call, and I thought, “This is it, this is the call.” And they said, “How would you like to go to Allston?” Then they pointed to the zoning change and what Harvard is doing, and they said, “Remember, we made Fenway. This is the next ticket, this is the place that you want to be. This is where the center of the action is, so you should come and build a smaller version of Brooklyn Boulders here. We know your target market. We can put you with a new Trader Joe’s, a Starbucks, and everything like that.”
We thought about it and wondered what’s to prevent somebody from taking the place across the street and making something that’s similar. We didn’t want to be left in a lurch at that point, so we thought: How can we make this differentiated? How we can we make it more meaningful for more people? How can we also apply things that we want to the space? And we thought: climbing training. It would be great to have an Olympic climbing training venue here.
We thought that was a good line of progress for us, but we also had to face reality that not everybody wants to rock climb. Few people want to train hard at rock climbing, so we decided people don’t want a rock climbing training center. What is everyone training for? Adventure. So this is the first adventure training center. We don’t care if you’re going on a hike to Walden Pond or to Mount Kilimanjaro; how do you know if you’ve trained for your adventure? No one is really going in that space. We think we’ve developed a system here where you can tell exactly how strong you are day to day, how much stronger you are than yesterday, and how strong you need to be to be trained for your adventure. That is the difference here. And by the way, on your off days, you can go enjoy the lifestyle facility in Somerville.
KL: I don’t know if you know this, but HubWeek’s founder is actually a Babson alum like yourself. We see a lot of people coming out of Babson as entrepreneurs, and there seems to be a focus there on building the next wave in the future of innovation. Is that something you thought of when you were at Babson? Did you leave there knowing you were going to develop the next big thing? And what surprises have you had since leaving?
LP: As much as I would like to say we had it all figured out, that’s not the way it occurred. However, there was some knowledge before we left school. At Babson, you’re not cool unless you have a business plan. You’re taught to make a business plan your first year, and then you tout your business plan for the rest of your time at Babson. My partners thought of putting a climbing gym in Boston and then another climbing gym announced they were going to build a facility in the area, so we may have thought our opportunity was lost. But I never stopped hearing about the world’s greatest business plan for a rock climbing gym.
Later, after we graduated, I went to work with one of those guys for their family business. Three years and seven business ideas later, I caught the climbing bug at a job interview in Maryland at a fantastic rock climbing facility down there. I came back to New York City, and soon I gave all my money for rent to traveling to New Jersey and upstate New York to give it a try. It was not something to be sustained, and it just seemed odd that there wasn’t something to answer this need in New York City. So we thought, “I wonder if we have what it takes to build a rock climbing gym here.” We were naive enough to not pay attention to every obstacle that was in the way, because there were many. But we did it anyway, and it turns out if you’re not selling alcohol, the city won’t shut you down, they’ll just give you nice little packages of fines (that we delayed paying for quite some time). *laughs* Now we have facilities in Queens and Chicago, and we’ll be coming to more neighborhoods soon.
The HubWeek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.