Proving Try-Hard Gyms Work: Behind the Desk with Uplift’s Andrew Hou

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Behind the Desk is a series that interviews people who are part of the climbing industry—those who run companies, manage staff, and own gyms. This time we’re heading to an area of the country—the greater Seattle region—that is steeped in climbing gym history, coaching expertise, and elite-level climbing talent. But, specifically, Uplift Climbing was developed as a gym “purpose-built for climbers,” and ever since the facility’s opening earlier this year, we’ve been curious to know more about that angle. So, we circled up with Uplift’s founder, Andrew Hou, to chat about why try-hard models work and how the gym separates itself from—and works with—other gyms in the Seattle area.

Uplift's founder Andrew Hou
Andrew Hou previously worked as a software engineer before founding Uplift Climbing, a role which Hou says helped him have a “problem-solving mentality” needed to run a gym. (Photo by Truc Nguyen Allen)

Name: Andrew Hou
Title: Founder
Gym: Uplift Climbing

BURGMAN: Tell me the story of the gym going from being an idea to an actual facility—during a pandemic, no less.

HOU: People keep asking me when I first had the idea to do it, and that’s a hard question to answer. As you know, people get into climbing, they get super passionate about it, and I think a lot of people have the thought, ‘Oh, what if I had my own [gym]? What would I do here? What would I do there?’ But the transition from that being just idle conversation to an actual reality is a little hard for me to pinpoint. But I started climbing in high school, worked at climbing gyms all through college, and definitely have always been one of those people that likes to look at things and say, ‘Hey, not only do I think we could change this aspect because it’d be cool, but I think we should change it because the business could do better this way.’ My dad has always been an entrepreneur, so I learned that from him.

I would say the first time I actually put pen to paper and figured out a business plan was around 2014. The timing after that didn’t work out for a long time—particularly because of where I was in my previous career as a software engineer. I started courting lenders and investors in late-2018. And then in March of 2020 the ink was just about to dry on the lease [for the gym] when the whole world kind of flipped upside down and we had to figure out what we could do to put the lease on pause.

 

It’s interesting that you used to be a software engineer because I’ve talked to a number of gym owners who used to be software engineers. That’s an interesting coincidence—or maybe it’s more than a coincidence, I don’t know.

Yeah, I think it’s probably a bit of both. I think in the startup software world, you are required to do so many different things at the same time; you don’t just sit down and write code. You’re often talking to customers, and you’re trying to be a little bit of a product guy, and you have to be a little bit of an infrastructure guy, and you have to do some of the actual number-crunching for the business itself as well. So, I think that lends itself to someone not being afraid to jump into many different things and just having that problem-solving mentality.

I’m glad you mention the ‘problem-solving mentality’ because you mentioned earlier that you used to speculate about certain things you would change about gyms if you someday owned a gym of your own. Can you recall what popped into your head back in the day about things you wanted to change?

Absolutely. I would say Uplift Climbing is a combination of the ten years of experience that I have in commercial climbing facilities—and all the things I wanted to see in climbing facilities that I’m finally getting a chance to implement. So, an example of that is…I kind of think of Uplift Climbing in the Seattle gym market as one of the first examples of striation to focus on the upper end of the market. While we certainly want to be accepting and accessible to everyone—and welcome anybody that may have not climbed before—there is a clientele that I observe as not being specifically targeted for service in Seattle. So, for example, if I’ve never climbed, never even put on a pair of rental shoes, I can walk into any climbing gym, climb V0, have a great time, get on a 5.5 and have this new experience of climbing. But if I’m a 5.12 climber and I’m trying to push into 5.13, it’s a lot harder because I’m going to lock into a gym and there’s going to be maybe only a handful of routes that are set for the specific training that I want to do. The average gym participant isn’t going to be looking for things at the upper end of the curve, so it makes sense that gyms don’t set as much at the upper end of that curve.

So, we—Uplift—wanted to be able to fill that niche a little bit. If you’re a V5 climber and you want to push to V8, or if you’ve ticked your first 5.12a and you want to push towards 5.13, we want to be the gym that is specifically catering to you.

Uplift's try-hard gym
Hou took inspiration from Japan’s gyms when crafting Uplift’s try-hard model, with the goal of “focusing on climbing” instead of related gym accoutrements. (Photo by Tony Archie Kim)

You and I both love the competition scene, and a lot has been made about Japan’s national team depth these last few years. One of the reasons cited for Japan being so good is that many gyms in Japan set really hard stuff. The gym culture in Japan is all about hard boulders, which is different than the gym culture here in the U.S. Did Japan’s model at all influence Uplift?

Yes, 100 percent. The gyms that we really draw a lot of inspiration from are [Japanese] gyms like B-Pump. I’m also a really big fan of GP81 in New York City. Their whole big thing is #antimega, you know, where it’s like, ‘Let’s focus on climbing,’ and climbing is the core of the product. That’s not to say that other gyms don’t focus on climbing, but there are a lot of other things added on top of it—birthday parties and corporate events and yoga studios and kids’ teams, and all that stuff, as opposed to just focusing on climbing.

One of the things that I would add to the whole idea of focusing on the higher end and setting hard boulders…there was a question of just how accepting the Seattle market would be to that. I don’t think a gym like Uplift could exist in isolation. I think the reason we can exist is because there are larger gyms and other players like the Bouldering Project or Vertical World and Stone Gardens that can feed into the existing base of climbers in Seattle. But, by and large, people have been very accepting of it. If you’re a V8 climber and you want to climb V10, we want to be the gym that can serve you. But we have a lot of people coming in who are climbing V1 or V2 too, and they’ll say things like, ‘I really enjoy that things are more hardcore here, and that there are no gimmes.’ They enjoy that additional challenge, that feeling of accomplishment where they had to try harder than they thought they could. Now, I know that’s not the case for everyone—I know that there are definitely folks who want to get into climbing a little more recreationally and aren’t looking for that sport/athletic push. Our big thing is—we don’t care what grade you climb at, but whatever you climb at, we want you to try hard. So, if you’re climbing a V0 but you’re climbing hard and pushing forward—that’s great!

 

Do you think this could be a next evolution or American gyms, arching more to that Japanese model where these boutique gyms really focus on harder stuff? Like you said, that doesn’t mean that every boulder in the gym necessarily has to have a high V-grade, but there might be a more widespread emphasis on trying really hard.

I would say “yes, and…” One of the things that we try to balance is having that try-hard mentality but not becoming gatekeepers of what trying hard looks like. Or to be gatekeepers saying, ‘You must be at this height to enjoy the ride.’

I think that, while the large mega-facilities are never going away and there will always be a market for recreational climbing and the full-service stuff, I do think people are starting to recognize that climbing can be an athletic pursuit more than just an outdoor/lifestyle/recreational pursuit, and there will be more an appetite for these [try-hard] gyms that we’re talking about. I don’t think they’ll ever fully replace the larger mega-facilities. But for me, personally, in Uplift (with roughly 2,400 square feet of vertical wall space), I have more climbing than I’d ever know what to do with. I can pop up a folding chair and sit down and all the boulder problems are right in front of me; I don’t have to run to a south room or run to a north room or go downstairs or try to find a buddy on the third floor or do all that kind of stuff. With higher density routesetting, along with the Tension and Moon boards, these boutique gyms have everything I want as a climber, and nothing more.

Uplift's boutique-style gym set-up
“…these boutique gyms have everything I want as a climber, and nothing more,” says Hou. (Photo by Tony Archie Kim)

Like you said, we now actually have a sizable base of climbers in the U.S. who want to pursue climbing athletically—that ‘try-hard contingent’ is bigger than ever, and it has taken decades to grow it.

I think so, but one thing I would say is that I think facilities like Uplift did exist decades ago—back in the 1990s—but just not in a commercial sense.

Yes, good point.

They would have been someplace like someone’s homewall or in some garage somewhere, right? But yeah, for us to exist as a commercial facility, we really can only exist in the current era. That being said, I think the try-hard mentality has always been there, of course. So I hope we can keep some of that old-school try-hard flavor, but add some of the modern technology and some of the modern amenities—articulating Tension boards, light-up holds, all that stuff.

 

Some people will probably read this and think you’re missing out on some big revenue by focusing on the try-hard mentality and not embracing things like birthday parties and corporate events.

Yeah, totally. There’s a lot of easy revenue that we’ve turned away so far—whether it be birthday parties or summer camps or other stuff like that. I maintain a really good relationship with the other [Seattle] gyms. Bret Johnston at Vertical World is a really close friend, and we send folks up to Vertical World for that type of stuff all the time, and will keep doing so—I have no intention of ever running camps and parties at Uplift.

The thing that’s really important to me at Uplift is to make sure that we’re focused and that we’re maintaining the health of the business rather than the growth of the business. My mentality on it is that healthy things will grow. If I’m shooting just for revenue and I’m trying to be a growth-first business, it would be very easy for me to open my eyes six months or a year from now and realize it’s no longer the business I set out to build. All of a sudden I wouldn’t be serving the core clientele that I set out to serve.

To be frank, while birthday parties and summer camps are really good revenue streams, they are not great for members—because if you’re a member, you walk in there in an afternoon sometimes and you can’t even get on the MoonBoard because there are 50 kids running around. Or, in an evening, maybe there is a kids’ team practice going on—how are you supposed to train when 40 kids are running circuits on a small bouldering wall? So, yeah, focusing on the members and focusing on the health of the business is a longer path towards any sort of financial reward. We’re definitely in it for the long run. We want to prove that this model works.

More hard climbing at Uplift's gym
Uplift aims to always have routes which challenge skilled climbers, including elite competitors like IFSC World Cup Salt Lake City champion Sean Bailey. (Photo by Tony Archie Kim)

Finally, I wanted to ask about some of the big-name climbers who have visited Uplift since it opened. Obviously any gym that focuses on trying really hard is going to be of interest to a lot of elite competitors, and I know that Sean Bailey—who is from the Seattle area and a Vertical World alumnus—recently climbed at your gym. How did that come about?

Again, a lot of that has to do with the fact that we’ve maintained really good relationships with the other gym owners in town. I was very proactive—before we put out our press release—in reaching out to all the area’s gym owners on a personal level. But as far as the specific climbers who are coming through, yeah, I think part of it has to do with the buzz of a new gym that is trying to focus on the top end. I consider Sean a friend, and I spoke with him a while ago and asked him, ‘When you go to a climbing gym, how often is it that you just flash the whole gym and there’s nothing for you to work on?’ He said, ‘Ah, man—basically every time.’ So, for the longest time our mantra when we were routestting at Uplift was: Make Sean fall! Make Sean fall! [laughs]. But seriously, our goal was to give him—and anyone—real challenges to work on.

The other thing is in Washington state the gyms get along pretty well. We’ve kind of become the unofficial hangout for many other gyms’ routesetters on Monday nights; they all come and climb together and train together [at Uplift]. It’s been really cool to foster that community. We want to focus on sharing what we have, and it’s brought people from all around to visit.