Mexico’s Gym Industry Is Booming – CBJ Podcast with Javier Díaz

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image of javier diaz
Image courtesy of Javier Díaz, graphic done by CBJ
CBJ Podcast with Javier Díaz
Graphic done by Climbing Business Journal; all photos courtesy of Javier Díaz

Javier Díaz co-founded a gym, Sierra Elevation, in Mexico with business partner Adrian Hovelman in 2021. Two years later, Sierra Elevation merged with Adamanta, the leading climbing gym chain in Mexico. Packed into that multi-year period was an on-the-ground education for Díaz, as he learned what it took to operate a gym in Mexico, realized the advantages of partnering with a larger entity, and borrowed ideas and concepts from gyms that he had visited in the United States. In this episode of the CBJ podcast, Díaz discusses that backstory, while providing a brief history of Mexico’s gym scene and giving some valuable assessments of Mexico’s climbing gym culture. He also explains why he thinks Mexico’s climbing gym industry is on the cusp of a veritable boom period and about to “go big.”

Thank you OnSite for your support!
And thank you Devin Dabney for your music!


Timestamps

00:00 – Intro
02:58 – History of the climbing gym industry in Mexico
11:22 – Díaz’s climbing and business history
17:39 – Finding the right location
20:40 – Sierra Elevation’s business plan
23:59 – Advice received from American gym operators
26:31 – The “climbing, yoga, fitness” model in Mexico
29:27 – Being new to the indoor climbing industry
32:39 – The Adamanta and Sierra Elevation merger
40:19 – Strengths and weaknesses
43:51 – Easing members into the merger
48:56 – Business lessons learned
54:10 – Why is the industry in Latin America about to boom?
56:13 – Díaz’s contact information
57:50 – Closing

OnSite Climbing Walls

Transcript

BURGMAN: Javier Díaz, it’s really nice to have you on the Climbing Business Journal podcast. Thanks for stopping by here.

DÍAZ: Hey John, thanks for the invitation. Well, it’s an honor to be here.

I am really personally excited to have you on the show here. And I also think just for Climbing Business Journal at large, we’re excited to have you because we have had the intention for, ever since really Climbing Business Journal’s inception, ever since the beginning, to cover comprehensively the gym industry of North America, which means Canada, the United States, and Mexico. And yet Mexico has always been, in some ways, the most challenging of those three countries to cover for us because—I think for a number of reasons. We don’t have as much of a pipeline to the industry heads and the industry leaders of Mexico like we do in the U.S. and Canada. And I also think we just don’t have the reportage infrastructure, meaning we don’t have as many connected sources, we don’t have as many writers that we know down in Mexico, and stuff. So, it always takes a little bit more detective work, or it always has, but it’s something we’re hoping to improve on starting now, starting this year, really. It ends up being pretty appropriate, though, because from talking with you prior to this call, it sounds like Mexico is really reaching something of an apex in terms of its gym industry. So, the timing is kind of appropriate. Is that accurate?

Yes, for sure. Well, always we are working hard to bring good experience in climbing here in Mexico. I think it’s the normal process of how things work, like with some time. And now that climbing is getting bigger every time, more people are getting into the sport. And also, it’s more available for everything: interviews, new athletes, and many other things, right?

Javier Díaz climbing outdoors
Díaz (pictured) says the climbing scene around Monterrey, Mexico—“La Ciudad de las Montañas”—originally began with outdoor climbing at nearby crags, before the area’s first gyms were built.

Let’s back up a little bit. If you could just give maybe to the best of, just off the top off your head, give me a little bit of an education on the history of the climbing gym industry and climbing gyms in Mexico. Because, full transparency here, I think most of the listeners to this podcast are from the United States or Canada, and there are some other listeners in Europe, in England and Australia, and some other countries. But so, I think that there might be less of a familiarity with just how the Mexico gym industry evolved. So, I’d be curious to hear where and when it started and how it grew.

Yes, for sure. Well, I think it’s good if I give some context beforehand. And I’m from Monterrey, Mexico, that is in the border with the United States in the north. And my city is called “The City of the Mountains,” or “La Ciudad de las Montañas.” And we have a lot of mountains in the city.  But the main climbing areas are La Huasteca, Potrero Chico and El Salto. Well, climbing started in those areas. I know that Potrero Chico was developed by many Austin climbers in the nineties, I believe. Well, climbers from La Huasteca were more Mexican climbers and also from El Salto. And I know that some of those climbers also opened the first climbing gyms in Mexico. And I don’t remember the first name of the first climbing gym, I believe it’s Gravedad Cero, but I’m not 100% sure. I also know there were like four climbing gyms beforehand. Some of them are Rock Escuela, El Extremo, Rock Art, and Mad Complex, which is still open for business right now.  And, well after that, other climbing gyms opened, like Delta and then Sierra Elevation, which is now Adamanta, and also Pico Norte, which right now has two locations. And I’ll say that’s a bit of the background.

Also, something important is that in La Huasteca we had a hero for many of the Mexican climbers. That is Paco Medina, who has many first ascents in La Huasteca. He also has a brother; we call him Repo Medina. And I think those guys and their friends, or their generation, became the climbing development here in Monterrey. Another thing that I wanted to mention is that there is a great documentary called “Sueños de Altura” that talks about all the history in Mexico climbing. And English it’s called something like “Altitude Dreams” or “High Dreams,” but in Spanish it’s “Sueños de Altura.”

And when you’re talking about those original gyms, those first gyms in Mexico, is it parallel to the gyms, the timeline of gyms opening in the United States? Which is to say 1987, 1988, late eighties. Is that around the same time that the gyms opened in Mexico?

No, I believe it’s a little bit in the 21st century. Because I know that the first climbers in Mexico, or at least in the North of Mexico and Monterrey, were in the 1990s and late eighties. So, I don’t know the exact year when we opened, but I bet it’s in the twenties.

Trango Holds Pardners

And what were these early gyms, what were they like, from either if you visited some of them, or maybe from what you’ve heard? Because that was obviously, it wasn’t that long ago in the scheme of things, but it kind of was in terms of gym development, right? Gyms in the early 2000s were quite different than gyms now. What do you know about just what those gyms offered and what their atmosphere was?

Yeah, I actually wanted to say 2000 last time. But, so, there was a lot of passion in these climbing gyms. Definitely it was more of mom-and-pop type of gyms. I don’t know for sure, but my educated guess would be that they had that space from a friend or relative and they opened a bouldering gym there. There were no high walls or climbing in those gyms, it was mostly bouldering. And there was a lot of passion. Some of the athletes also operated the climbing gyms. And I think that’s one of the challenges, because if you are not there, it’s not open. And something that I can recall is that they were always closed on the weekends, because on the weekends they went out for climbing. And when Adrian and I—Adrian is my business partner, co-founder of Sierra—when Adrian and I started in 2016, we started to think about a climbing gym, it was very strange for us that they were open on weekends, because we know that on weekends we have a lot of new people. So, that was one of the opportunities that we saw. Another thing was that many of them didn’t have parking space, and that was also like a challenge or an opportunity, right?

Yeah. Tell me a little bit more about just your own entry into the climbing gym world. How, when and where you started climbing, and then to that point, started thinking that opening a gym was something that you wanted to do yourself.

Yes. So, I graduated high school in 2011, and I remember that before graduating high school, I wanted to go climbing, because I knew Monterrey had a lot of climbing. And I went to one of these small climbing gyms, and I didn’t get the best service. And it was kind of like nowhere busy, there are no coaches around. So, I just did like a small circuit, and I didn’t know what I was doing. And then I left. And that was it. That was my first experience.

And then Adrian’s friend—no, I’m sorry, Adrian’s cousin—took us climbing because he was a good climber, or he’s still a good climber. And he took us climbing to La Huasteca. And after that, it was a really nice experience to us. That was in 2011. But then he didn’t want to take us climbing again because we were new, so he was more like, “No, I’m going to go and climb hard grades.” And then after that, we went to study college in the U.S., first in Austin and then to Dallas. And there was when we started climbing in a commercial gym, called Summit, Summit, Dallas. And I learned about climbing, and someone had took the time to teach us. And they give us the orientation, and it started to make sense. And another important thing is that now when we were coming back to Monterrey for vacations, our friends from Monterrey were asking us to take them climbing. So, the story was, like, we started to think why our friends who are from Monterrey, they don’t teach us climbing if there are so many mountains there. So, we thought that maybe it was because of the lack of knowledge or the lack of commercial climbing gyms. So, we had a “wahoo” moment, me and Adrian, and were like, “Let’s build a climbing gym in Mexico, and let’s go back to build one.”

Díaz giving an orientation
After a subpar first climbing gym experience, a positive one at Summit Dallas led to Díaz—pictured (left) giving an orientation—eventually starting his own gym in Monterrey.

It’s kind of interesting and fortunate for you, your whole experience with climbing started, from the sound of it, with a bad experience. You said you went to the gym; you didn’t get the best service. And I think in the industry, that’s always the big risk, right? Because sometimes with a person or a customer or potential customer, you, as a gym owner, as a business operator, you might only get one shot, right? They’re going to come in, they’re going to try it once, and if they get a bad experience, they’re going to leave and maybe never try climbing again, especially if climbing is significantly out of their comfort zone. And so, it’s kind of lucky that you had a bad experience, but then through the twists and turns of your life found you had other opportunities to climb. And then it really ended up,—you had better experiences, and it ended up changing the course of your life, or your career, certainly.

Yes. And sometimes when we are just starting a business, like a mom-and-pop business, we don’t realize that there are some errors, like some basic errors, like that one of a bad experience that don’t bring us new clients. Because I also remember once that we were back in Mexico around 2016 and we were trying to open the climbing gym. I started to go to these other climbing gyms, like the smaller climbing gyms that were before us. And I remember a story that there was a couple coming, like a man and a girl coming to the climbing gym, and there were many guys without a shirt, and sweating, and it was hot inside. And then I just remember the moment where the girl just whispered something to the guy and they left because she was feeling, like, uncomfortable. So, those small things are sometimes the things that don’t help us to drive a business.

Yeah, I think that’s the ultimate businessperson’s mind, right? Is you’re kind of constantly taking in these little, small moments that you observe as a customer yourself. And you’re kind of internalizing them and thinking, “When I open my own business, these are the things I want to change. These are the things I want to do better. These little things, they might be little things, but a bunch of them, a bunch of these observations, ultimately add up to be a much larger experience when it’s all accumulated.”

Yes, definitely. And that’s also why it took us so long to open a climbing gym. Because the facilities for a good climbing gym, the good facilities, are really hard to find, and sometimes you need to build it yourself. And our first climbing gym, that is Sierra, it started from the ground up. We didn’t find, or it was really hard to find, someone that wanted to build the gym for us or that believed in the vision and the dream. And what already existed was just for bouldering gyms. And many of them didn’t have a commercial front. So, finding a commercial front, finding parking space, having AC—like AC it’s called in the US, right? Those things are the challenge.

I wanted to ask you about that. Because you had told me in our correspondence before this conversation, you had said that once you decided you wanted to open a climbing gym and that became a goal, it took years—I think four years is what you said before you actually found

Yes, it took four years.

Yeah. Before you actually found a facility or landed on an idea, a place for the facility. And you said within those four years, you were visiting a lot of other spaces. And I think your exact phrase was that no space that you visited was the right fit. You had this concept in your mind for your gym, and you visited all these other places and you’re like, “Yeah, it’s just, something about it is not quite right.” And you mentioned the parking, you mentioned the commercial front. I’m wondering if you could explain a little bit more about what made places that you visited not the right fit? Because I think that’s something that a lot of gym owners, new gym owners, when they want to open a gym, they might, first of all, think, “I’ll try to find a space that I can repurpose and turn into a climbing gym, as opposed to starting from the ground up.” So, I think that is a goal for a lot of people, to find a space that can be converted to a climbing gym. You went through that for four years?

Yes. And I think that’s the main challenge. Because we knew that—how big the climbing gyms were in the US. So, we wanted to get the foundation right. Because we knew that, if in, I don’t know, ten years, an American gym or a bigger gym, a competition, came and was in front of us, we wanted to be able to just stand and defend ourselves. And many climbing gyms, they adapt the space to the climbing gym and then they get shorter walls, or they don’t get all the different areas, like the training area for the climbing gym, or they don’t have the right spot for the bathroom, et cetera. And I think that was the main advantage that we had. Because our investors, most of them were friends and family, and, well, we were all scared. We didn’t know we were going to miss our money or lose our money. So, it was really important for them and for us to find the right spot and persuade them to, “This is the right spot, and we are going to be here ten years, and this is going to last. And even if another commercial climbing gym gets in front of us, we are in a good standing ground to have a competition,” you know?

Trango Holds Pardners

And you wrote a business plan, originally, which I always think is pretty interesting for somebody that’s new to the climbing industry—to write a business plan. Because I think there are some resources out there for learning what goes into a good climbing gym business plan. But at the same time, somebody coming into the industry from the outside might not know—like you said, you might just be kind of observing other gyms and putting those into the business plan. Can you talk a little bit about what you put into your business plan when you started your gym?

Yes, just before that, I had another idea that I wanted to share about that location. Well, we have a customer who owns, not climbing gyms, we have a customer that owns commercial gyms, like weight gyms, and he shared with us something really special. He said, like, “A good location and good management equals cash flow.” So, it sounds very, like, capitalist, but it’s true. If you find a good commercial, if you find a good spot, a good location, and if you operate well the gym, then it should be profitable.

And the other idea that you mentioned about the business plan. So, Adrian and I started, just graduated from college, and we both studied business, but we didn’t have any experience in business before. So, we didn’t want to come empty handed, asking for money and millions of pesos. So, we said the least thing that we can do is to have a business plan. So, we started to research and talk to business owners in the U.S. while were still there. We asked them for interviews. We visited every climbing gym in Texas. We went to Houston; went to Dallas; we went to Austin several times. One time, I remember that we slept outside of a hotel in the car, just because we didn’t have money to pay for the hotel. Everyone was really friendly, and they shared their knowledge. We met with Kyle, the founder of Summit Dallas, and he was really kind as well. And I guess that when you do something and people know that you are already halfway done or that you have done some research, they’re willing to help you. But if you arrive empty handed and just say, like, “Hey, I want everything, and can you share everything with me?” Maybe they won’t share as much. But another person that helped us a lot was Kevin Goradia from Crux, just when they opened. And we went to the first days after inauguration, and he sat with us, and we shared a couple of good stories and knowledge.

Can you crystallize a little bit what these people were telling you. When you went to these gyms, particularly gyms in the United States—Houston, Austin—and you’re showing them your business plan, you’re proving to them that you’re serious, and they are imparting to you some wisdom about opening a climbing gym, can you remember what they were telling you? I mean, they were obviously encouraging you to do it.

Yes.

Was there anything else that they were giving you?

Well, I remember that they mentioned to balance climbing with fitness, and balance climbing with yoga. So, then we learned about the model of “climbing, yoga, fitness,” and it clicked really well for us because we knew that we were entering an emerging market, that there was a lot of people who were scared about climbing, and that they needed something else to get persuaded to buy a membership. So, that’s what we did at Sierra. We also, I believe that we have the biggest fitness area of climbing gyms in Mexico, just because were a little bit scared of just doing climbing. And so, we wanted to have a net, a safety net, in case that climbing wasn’t enough at the time. And I think it proved right, because we had to create new climbers. That was a great insight from some of the business mentors in the U.S. Another good idea that they shared with us was, like, how much AC we needed, or the rental shoes—I don’t know how to say it, but the initial purchase of the rental shoes. And also, the frequency to change the routes. All that was really new for us. So, having some insights of that was really good. And just asking if it was a good idea and if they believed it was a good idea for us.

Sierra Elevation building exterior at night
When designing Sierra Elevation (now Adamanta Sierra), Díaz opted for a climbing, yoga and fitness model to cater to a broader customer base. “We wanted to have a safety net,” he says, “in case climbing wasn’t enough at the time.”

So, when you mentioned the “climbing, yoga, fitness” model, the trifecta, which you see at a number of gyms here in the United States and in Canada, and you see those three activities grouped together, I think—in the United States, at least—the core of these gyms, the core membership, for most of them it’s climbers, right? People climb, and maybe they will also take yoga classes, maybe they will also use the weights and do some of the fitness stuff, but the climber is the core base. Obviously, there are exceptions. There are some climbing gyms where people go to just do yoga or they just do fitness, but most of the time it’s the climbers. Was that the case in Mexico, or was it a matter of people that were already into fitness or into yoga, and they go to your gym, and they get introduced to climbing as kind of this other thing that they could try when they’re already doing these yoga and fitness stuff?

That’s a really good question. And we had a little bit of both. It was kind of a mix. So, we have a thing called the “sponge effect,” that when you open a good climbing gym in an area that needed a climbing gym, you have the sponge effect where all the strong climbers come to the good facility and to the new climbing gym. So, we had a little bit of that. And then we also had a market, or just people, that were interested about climbing, but that they weren’t completely sure if they wanted to purchase. But the ones that they saw that we have also the fitness area and the jogger area or the jogger salon, then it was enough for them to say, “Okay, I’m interested. I will give it a try.” And a lot of women were more interested in joining the climbing gym because of yoga. So, that also helped us. And, well, I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot, but you know what they say, that “first bring the girls and the guys follow.” So, it’s an interesting saying, and I believe it works. But also, I say that I wanted to shoot myself on the foot because, well, I respect women, and it’s not, like, the strategy. But once that you have a mix and it’s not just guys, it’s easier for you to create a good atmosphere and a better community, as well. Another thing that we have at Sierra is that we have a good community, and people like that a lot. They show it off a lot. We also have a good restaurant, and I believe people enjoy it.

And when you opened the gym in 2021, and as we have said, there was a long process of searching and building, and you were also so new to it all, and I think that probably helped you maybe in a way. Because I think it’s almost like if you know, I always kind of think if you know too much about something, it almost can be a detriment because it’s easier to talk yourself out of something. Was that the case here? I mean, I think of you just being right out of college, wide-eyed, pretty ambitious. I can’t help but think if you had been in the climbing industry for decades and decades, you might have, I don’t know, just like pumped the brakes a little bit or maybe talked yourself out of it. I just love the aspect of your story, where it’s just kind of a young guy, or a couple young guys, saying, “Yeah, let’s go for it, let’s start our own gym. Why not?”

Yes, definitely. I believe that when you just graduated, you dream a lot, and when you’re in college as well, you’re dreaming a lot. In Mexico, Adrian and I have something that we call—I will say it in Spanish first, and then I’ll translate it—“El síndrome del recién graduado,” which means “the syndrome of the recent graduate.” And that basically means that you arrive at your first job and you are like, “I want all this and I want all that. And also, I want to open my business, and this and that.” And then you go out and you realize that it’s not as easy to raise money, and it’s not as easy to build a gym or any kind of business, and it starts to lower your hopes a little bit. And many, many friends and families, or my own family, parents, just tell us about the risk and “are you sure,” and all this, and it’s hard to just keep going forward. Because we saw what happened in the U.S. and how it grew, we were very convinced of what we wanted, so it was really hard for us to hear them. Because we already lived it and we saw it before, so we knew the potential. And also we were convinced that we didn’t want to spend our time or our life in an office space. We wanted to do something or pursue something that we actually wanted. So, yes, in short, I guess that right now I will definitely think it twice. I will never like to go through four years looking for investment and looking for a space to rent. But now that it went well, I’m very glad that we went through that.

OnSite

And it actually wasn’t that long after you opened, a couple of years, that you, Sierra, your gym, merged with Adamanta, which was the big news that we put in the Climbing Business Journal’s Gyms and Trends Report for 2023, and that’s kind of how you and I originally got to corresponding about this and about the evolving gym industry in Mexico. Can you tell me a little bit about how that merger came about? Because like I said, it was only a couple years after your gym opened that you’re merging with another gym. So that’s pretty quick.

So, the first time that I heard about Adamanta was when Adrian and I were looking to open a business, and Adamanta only had their first location. That was in Santa Fe, and it was a small bouldering gym. However, that gym was opened almost ten years ago; in November of this year, they turned ten years. And I remember I visited the Adamanta and I had a small chat with Mau Huerta, who is the climbing director and headsetter of the program of all Adamantas. And I was like, “They have something, I don’t know, something is going on here,” and they have Walltopia, which is obviously the leader of climbing walls. And then we both went on our ways, we opened Sierra and then the next time that we had a connection or an experience with Adamanta was when Bruno Mijares was one of the founders, came to Monterrey for a competition and we went for dinner after that. And we said, like, “Hey, these guys are cool people,” and we had a good chat. And then later on we wanted to open the second location, so we asked them, we called them, and we say, “Hey, could you give us advice on how to open, or the best practices to open a second location?” Because they already had four locations at that moment. So, after a one-hour meeting, we kind of connected and we share values and we share good insights and best practices. We kind of, like, didn’t see each other as competition because they were in another city.

And then later on, the story says that Jose, which right now is the Director and who was also in the call with Bruno, the story says that they call each other, and they say, “Hey Bruno, hey Jose, like these guys, they are doing things well, they are smart. What do you think if we ask them to partner with us?” And then they just ask us if we were going to visit Monterrey if we could receive them. And Adrian and I were like, “This is very suspicious.” And we took them to the climbing gym that we were looking to open or to the space, and they like it a lot and they basically invite us to join forces. And because we had a good click and because we had the same vision, we thought that one and one equals or, I say wrong, one plus one equals three. So, that’s kind of how things started. And then there were, like, many months of negotiations and back and forth and talking to our investors and this and that, and then we reached an agreement in October of last year.

Were you ever a little bit reluctant to merge, to partner with somebody? Because up until that point, this had really been your creation, your baby, kind of something that you quite literally started from the ground up. And I don’t think that that side of mergers, gym mergers, gets talked about enough. When somebody really puts their heart and soul into starting a gym, it’s a big thing to bring somebody else, somebody outside, that wasn’t a part of that hard-scrabble, blood, sweat and tears, to kind of bring them into the journey and make them a part of the gym, or make your gym kind of a part of what they’re doing. Yeah, did you ever just have any night when you were sleeping, lying in bed, thinking, “Oh, I don’t know. This is my creation here. I don’t know if I want to bring other people in or give other people some access to it”?

Yes. And we talked to a lot of close friends, to see their opinions and their advice. One time, I even got an intervention from friends. They were like, “No, Javier, why are you doing this?” But Adrian was really, really sure of the decision. I was thinking a little bit about it. And then I noticed their manners and how we handled things and how we were able to solve doubts, how they opened their books and how we open our books and how the conversation went. And I noticed it was the right decision. And right now, I don’t regret about it. And I think it was the correct decision. Because it also help us grow faster, serve more people, and at the end, it also helps every other climbing gym. Because I believe that the challenge is to create more climbers. It’s not just to—I think there are two mentalities, and one is like, I have this slice of cake, and if there are more climbing gyms, then I’m going to eat less of that same cake. But our mentality is, if there are more climbing gyms, the cake is going to grow, and we can still eat the same slice, or maybe more slice. So, if there are more climbing gyms, I think it’s good for everyone. And yeah, kind of with that mentality, I put my ego on the side, and I thought it was the correct decision.

Another hard thing was to say goodbye to our brand. Because I like the name of Sierra, and obviously the culture that we have built. So that was a hard transition. But later on, with the time, I also started to like Adamanta and how they do things. And we complement very well because they have strengths and we have weaknesses, and some of their strengths are our weaknesses. So, by sharing and by getting together, we do definitely better experience for our climbing clients.

Indoor climbing at Sierra Elevation
Díaz views new climbing gym growth from somewhat of “a-rising-tide-lifts-all-ships” mentality. “If there are more climbing gyms, I think it’s good for everyone,” he says.

Can you expound a little bit on that, when you say you have some strengths and weaknesses, they have some strengths and weaknesses? And I want to say, obviously, it seems like it was a really wonderful merger. It seems like it was a really good thing. So as much as I ask you if you were nervous or stressed about it, it seems to be that it was a great thing in the long run. But when you say that you had some strengths and weaknesses and they had strengths and weaknesses, what were the strengths that they brought? What were the strengths that you brought and the weaknesses, and vice versa?

Yes. I think that the main strength that they brought to us is the climbing or the setting. Because they have been in business for ten years in Mexico City. I believe there are more routesetters. And the climbing—I don’t want to say market, but the climbing community—is bigger in Mexico City, like, no doubt. So, that also creates more setters, and that also creates an environment where setters can develop faster. So, we learned more about setting with them. Right now, one of their best setters is in Monterrey. And we are improving the culture, or the work ethic, of setting. It doesn’t have to be improving, it just can be learning, just sharing.

Some strengths that we had is that I believe we did better marketing and better operations than them. Because Adrian and I basically live in the climbing gym, so we were always there and were very careful with how things worked and the process, and all this. However, Adrian and I learned climbing not so long ago, and we didn’t have as much climbing knowledge of setting. So, that’s something that they help us a lot. And also, Jose, who is the director, he’s very numeric and left-brained, so he also brings that to the table. And I don’t know, just together we are a great team. It’s not just the three of us there’s, also Mayis [Fierro], Yair [Gutierrez], Estefania [Lugo], and all our staff team at the front desk. And we are learning from each other. Like, even our front desk staff is learning from us, and we learn from them as well.

Another funny thing is that they changed their operating system just at the time that were doing the merger. They used to have Mindbody, and we have Rock Gym Pro, so when they change, we teach them so much about Rock Gym Pro. We just hand them the manual of Rock Gym Pro that we build it ourselves, and they were like, “This is gold. If it wasn’t because of you guys, we’d have, like, a learning curve of five years or something.” So, it was fun, and it’s still fun. We’re complementing each other in good ways.

And how did you handle this with your membership? Because I’m sure that there were some members that loved your gym, kind of because it was more in that mom-and-pop style, right? Not mom-and-pop literally, but just two guys sort of starting this grassroots gym, and then here they are merging with something that’s a much larger entity. What was your strategy, and kind of what worked or maybe what didn’t work in terms of easing your membership into this change?

Yes, that’s also a good question, and we told our members that the soul of Sierra was still there, and it’s still there, because, well, each climbing facility has its own culture. Like, at Adamanta Escandón people take their shirt off and there’s a lot of climbers; like, you can tell that there’s just this culture of climbers very hard. And if you go to Adamanta Satélite, it’s more like family-oriented, because they have lead walls and they have top auto belays. So it’s a little different in each location. And sometimes we get to feel that just because a brand is coming to a city, we say, “No, they’re going to change everything,” and all this and that. However, Adrian and I and all our teamwork, or team employees, are still working at Sierra, and we’re just trying to improve the brand. So, a nice thing for our clients, it was that we were able to lower our prices. And that’s something really hard to do. Probably if I didn’t merge with Adamanta, I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t have that safety net of what happens if it doesn’t work and what happens if we don’t get more members, and all these things or all these questions. But with Adamanta, we were able to experience and see if it worked, because we have the backup of all the different locations and we had more resources. Because, well, we bought new holds at the same time that we partnered with Adamanta, and there were many different things that we were able to improve when we partnered with Adamanta.

Approach

Do you think the drop in price helped with the transition for the members? I can’t help but think that must have been, it’s like, “Hey, this big change is coming, we’re merging. But the nice thing is prices are going to be cheaper.” I could see that as almost being like a mitigation strategy against any pushback. Not to say that’s what it was at all, but I could see that that’d be a way that people could get more accepting of such a big change.

Well, the main question was, “Is it better to lower the prices or not?” Because clients are used to this price. Like, “Why are you going to lower it?” However, the rest of the Adamanta’s location had a lower price. So, if you want to be a multi-gym or a multi-location gym, you need to have the same pricing in each location. Because if not, it doesn’t make sense. So, that was the main idea why we lower the prices, because it’s easier to lower the price of the new climbing gym than to raise the prices of all the other locations. And at the same time, it help us to balance or to bring good news also to our members, because we can say, “Well, we are selling the business, goodbye.” But then our members are going to be like, “Hey, what’s in it for me?” So, kind of telling them all the new things that were coming, like a new location in Monterrey—we’re right now building the second location in Monterrey, new holds and better prices—I think that it helped to mitigate the change in membership or changing name. But in reality, I don’t think that there was any hard feelings about changing the business or the name. Because we told them that the truth, that we weren’t selling, that we were still going to be operating the gyms, and that we were involved. I think the members have a lot of appreciation for us because they knew that the gym was built with a lot of hard work and effort.

And when you think back to the evolution of everything, from getting the idea to start a gym, going through the process, multi-year process, looking at different locations, starting a gym, and then ultimately merging with Adamanta, can you distill it down to some lessons? Like, what are kind of the biggest business lessons that you’ve learned throughout this process of wearing a number of different hats, from gym creator to gym owner to gym operator to now part of the merger?

Yes, I think that, well, first, we never knew or we never thought that in just three years we were going to partner with the biggest chain in Mexico. However, I feel that being a good person, it’s always the best way to operate or to handle yourself and to build a business. Because people are always watching, and people also talk about their experiences. So, just always trying to do your best will help you in the future. And I think that having a vision of what you want and building the right foundation that will be able to last many years, I think that was something really important. Because if we builded the first gym, and at least in our experience, we only had one bullet, so we had to make sure that the bullet was aimed correctly.

And another good idea, or another good experience, is that people are very important in a business. One time I listened, or I heard, that the companies don’t breathe, but the people that operate the companies, they breathe. So, realizing and knowing that the importance of the people inside the company is super important. And that’s something that I believe I learned through the time because, well, obviously in class they tell you the important things of people, but most of the times you need to learn it the hard way.

And I will say also that knowing all the parts of your business, like being at front desk, being at marketing, being going up and scaling up, it’s the right thing to do because if someone is missing, at least I can do my best. Or if I know that the front desk is crowded, sometimes I jump in and I try to just solve the questions of our clients and give a break to our front desk staff. Just yesterday we were doing switching spots in the switching rotations, and yesterday I spent my day as a routesetter. Obviously, I’m very bad at setting, but it was a good experience to be on their shoes, so I could learn that they were maybe missing equipment or missing tools, and it helped us empathize more. And the last thing I’ll say is that making sure that your people have the right tools to do the job, because it’s really hard to work without proper tools.

Díaz climbing indoors
“Companies don’t breathe, but the people that operate the companies, they breathe,” says Díaz, who approaches gym management with a people-first mindset and tries to support all areas of a gym’s operation, from routesetting to the front desk.

I love all those, and I think it would not be a bad suggestion to say to every gym owner, or every gym manager—maybe owner, I guess—you should spend a day working every job in the gym just to gain that experience and to know, okay, if you’re a routesetter, this is what your day to day looks like. If you are a front desk staff, this is what your day-to-day—I think that could be really educational for any gym owner, as you said, to be in the shoes of the different people that are in the various positions in the gym. So that’s really cool that you did that.

Yes, and it was something that we’re doing in all locations of Adamanta. Jose is going to be at the front desk on March 8th. Adrian Hovelman also spended a day at routesetting, and the manager of Sierra right now is going to spend a day in the department of sales. So, we’re all switching jobs just to learn and kind of empathize more with the rest of the team.

I want to close with something that you had mentioned to me in an email when we were going back and forth. And I think it was near the end of the email, you said that you feel that “Latin America is about to grow really big in climbing,” and that was so cool to hear. And I want to hear from you why you think, as an insider, why you feel that Mexico and Latin America at large is about to grow, in your words, “to grow really big in the climbing industry.”

Well, I always say that what booms in the U.S. and in Europe later on booms in Mexico. And now I’m also realizing that it also booms in Latin America. And there are so many—well, Latin America is an emerging economy that is growing. There are some big countries—Brazil, Chile, Colombia—and their economies is really strong. I also remember an article that Climbing Business Journal posted of how Mexico is switching and improving into more like commercial climbing gyms. And after the last year saw in the Pan American Games that happened in Santiago last year, I started to put more attention to what was going on over there. And I saw, like, three climbing gyms that opened last year. And I have some friends also in Chile who are climbers, and they tell me that there’s so many climbers there. So, I feel that it can be like a sponge effect. And obviously, if someone from Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Latin America is hearing this and they want to get in touch, we are welcoming to talk. And, yeah, it’s just a feeling that I feel that climbing is growing in Latin America as well.

Yeah, and to something that you just said there, I want to mention you had said to me that you are very open to any correspondence from people, anybody that might be listening to this, that wants to start talking with you, share some ideas with you, or just kind of exchange some thoughts. You said you are very open to ideas and collaboration from anybody in the industry, whether it’s other gym owners, whether it’s hold companies. I see you as kind of somebody who’s very open-minded and very willing and excited to work with anybody that really wants to work with you. So, if anybody is listening to this and they want to get in touch with you, they want to get in touch with maybe collaboration or just sharing ideas for gyms, where is the best place, or what is the best way, for them to reach you?

Yes, I believe by email it’s good. And my email is J, of Javier, and then Díaz, D I A Z, at Adamanta dot MX. And just by chatting, that’s how our history changed with Adamanta. So, even if it’s not for business, even if it’s just for advice, I’m also open to teach, to share, because people have shared with us. And I believe that if you share, and if you are open to helping other people, everyone gets better, everyone grows.

Javier, I think you have a really cool story. I really admire your ambition to just go for it, to start the gym, and to accept the twists and turns, the partnership that has come from that with Adamanta, and everything. I think that you bring a lot to the table, and I think the Mexico industry is a really exciting thing to be following now. And you and Adamanta, you’re a big part of that, so thanks for taking some time to chat here on the podcast.

Thanks to you too, John. It’s a pleasure to be here. The first time that we started working in a business plan, we were researching from Climbing Business Journal. So, it’s an honor to be part of this now.

Thanks for listening to today’s episode. And again, if you’re a gym operator or a product manufacturer or a hold shaper and you want to be a part of what Javier is doing, or if you just have some ideas to share with him or you want to get more locked into the Mexico gym scene, whatever, you can email him at JDiaz@Adamanta.mx. And make sure you’re plugged into all that CBJ is doing too—webinars, news articles on the CBJ homepage, social media updates on Instagram. And definitely make sure you’re following the Impact Driver podcast that my colleague Holly Chen is doing, which is the other CBJ podcast, but it’s totally routesetting themed, so check that out. Okay, that’s it for me. Thanks to Javier for coming on the show. I’ll be back soon with another episode. We’ll see you next time.

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