When they had boxes full of bolts, t-nuts and driver bits lining the shelves in their bedroom, the Yokums knew it was time for a change. Nathan and Liz Yokum are the founders of Rock Candy Holds and in 2011 they had just moved production of their climbing holds out of their garage but they still didn’t have enough space for their growing hold manufacturing company.
“The breaking point was when our son pulled something off a shelf and landed on one of Nathan’s foam shapes taking a big gash out of it,” Liz told CBJ. “That’s when we knew we had to get out of here.”
That accident set in motion a series of moves that has led Rock Candy to its newest and largest facility, and their first true headquarters. Rock Candy is in the process of moving their distribution and product offices into a former art supply store in Akron, Ohio. They’ll also take over several neighboring vacant lots and add on to the existing building to create a 12,000 square foot space; just over 9,000 SF of the building will be devoted to a new bouldering gym called the Rock Mill. Having a bouldering gym in the same building will allow the team to do more efficient product testing as well as get in a nice climbing session during lunch.
The Rock Mill will also function as a showroom for Rock Candy products. “I like the analogy: You walk into a brewery and they have a tasting room and you can see the back room and see whats going on there,” Nathan said. “Now we have our tasting room.”
The Rock Mill will operate like any other bouldering gym with memberships and day passes. It will be a boon to the local climbing scene in Akron, a college town of 200,000 people, that doesn’t currently have any commercial climbing facilities.
The Tasting Room
The Rock Mill is not the first time Rock Candy has brought bouldering to the city.
When the Yokums started Rock Candy in 2007 they created a small 500 square foot “woody gym” in their manufacturing space. First opened to friends and family, it quickly turned into the place to be for local climbers. For a donation of $20 a climber could get the pass code and have a session anytime they liked.
“It got out of control really fast,” Nathan told CBJ, but they loved bringing the community together and sharing their passion for climbing. In 2010, they had to close the wall when they moved into a larger manufacturing space. But as Nathan put it, “We knew when we shut it down that we would bring it back and do it right.” Doing it right took longer than they expected.
Over the next 5 years they grew Rock Candy into one of the power players of the industry and at the same time they scoured Akron for a suitable building to build the gym and headquarters. They found it last year and quickly started the wall design and construction plans and hope to be open this fall.
Even with the addition of The Rock Mill to the growing Rock Candy universe, the Yokums have been able to keep it real and stick to their Northeast Ohio roots. “The Rock Mill is part of the Rock Candy family,” said Liz who heads up the marketing department. “But it’s branded a little bit different.” She says that while Rock Candy is rooted in the local community, the brand has a national and international reputation. Having the bouldering gym portion of the company separate allows them to do more specific marking to their local community under the Rock Mill brand. “We can create a different face for this local piece,” Liz said.
Rock Candy is not the first climbing hold company to start their own gym. So Ill built their eponymous gym in St. Louis and Asana has a nice little bouldering facility in Boise, Idaho. But Rock Candy is the first company to create a separate brand that sticks to selling the experience of climbing.
Several years after starting Rock Candy, Nathan and Liz were still working full-time day jobs and taking care of hold orders, pouring and shaping during evenings and weekends. Then the recession hit and Nathan’s position at the local youth center was eliminated.
“So, we said to ourselves if we’re going to make this Rock Candy thing work, now is the time,” Nathan said. But trying to grow a fledgling company during the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression may not have been the smartest idea. “We started at that time when gyms were looking at me and saying, oh man we can’t spend any money,” he said.
But like all things forged under pressure, Rock Candy came out stronger and leaner and better for it. “At a certain point we were looking at the bottom line and it wasn’t there. So we really had to reevaluate what we were doing and our approach to it,” Nathan said.
Nathan had been pouring holds 15 hours a day at a time when their first son was born. They knew that if Rock Candy was ever going to be a success, they would have to really connect with their customers and keep expenses down. How could they do all of that with only a limited number of hours in the day? The answer turned out to be outsourcing.
Once they off loaded the most onerous aspect of selling holds, pouring urethane, they finally had time to provide the customer service they had always wanted to. From that point on the Yokums and their team have focused not just on the customer but on the lifestyle of their customers, the routesetters. With their “Setting the Sweet Life” and “Support your Local Setter” marketing campaigns they tapped into a well of passion and emotions from setters around the globe.
“We really like the idea of not only marketing to routesetters but actually providing what they need,” Liz told us. “It’s not just marketing. It’s listening and responding and adjusting to what people really want.”
With smart marketing and extending their line to include some very unique shapes, Rock Candy has been able to grow at a pace that is sustainable yet at the same time adaptable. When asked what is the key to Rock Candy success, Nathan doesn’t hesitate: “Determination.”
Nathan and Liz exude the persistence and determination that people from Ohio are famous for. Nathan even quotes Cleveland Cavaliers basketball star Lebron James when talking about how Rock Candy has made it through all the ups and downs: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
“That’s really true especially in the climbing industry,” Nathan said. Ohio is not a place where pro athletes are hanging out and taking word of Rock Candy out to the rest of the world. “Were not rubbing elbows with other industry super stars on the streets,” Liz said. What they have been doing is spending their time creating a solid business built on great customer service and a great product.
Nathan is a quiet, soft spoken guy prone to understatement and Liz gives off a homespun earnestness that comes through in her Midwest accent. “As a brand, in general we don’t have a lot of the hype that a lot of other brands have. And that’s an area we can improve,” Nathan said. “But part of that is because, um, we’re real.” He would rather spend his time shaping foam or playing with their two children than schmoozing at trade shows or trolling the internet.
2014 was a year in which the company circled the wagons, as it were, and kept a low profile while they got the Rock Mill in order and built an online ordering system for Rock Candy that was specifically geared toward the climbing gym buyer. “We didn’t put out a lot of new stuff, and that was somewhat on purpose,” Nathan said.
Their lack of hype on the scene is likely why Rock Candy didn’t show up on CBJ’s 2015 Grip List (they were #11) but that could all change this year. They have already been a major sponsor at this year’s CWA Summit and have been hold sponsors for Louie Anderson’s Setter Showdown.
But most importantly, Rock Candy has already put out 60 new shapes this year and plans to bring an additional 140 urethane shapes to market in 2015. That’s not including the expansion on their popular wood training series. All those new shapes will definitely get the attention of buyers and setters and prove that quality and quantity overcome hype any day.
Liz and Nathan have grown a company through hard work and smart marketing, and their plans to grow Rock Candy as well as the climbing gym are not over yet. “The book is still being written,” Nathan said.