Corrections or additions?

This article by Clay Tyson was prepared for the

January 9, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights


Building — And Rebuilding

Pursuing the entrepreneurial dream proves tough, but

climbing the mountain leads to a job he loves

I had been with Coinstar almost four years when I hit

the geographic ceiling. That’s my term for not being able to continue

up a career ladder unless you are willing to move 2,438 miles away

to a city that sees the sun 48 days a year (that would be Seattle).

Not that I would have disliked Seattle. It rests at the foot of some

of best alpine climbing in all of North America. I would travel there

in the coming years to climb Mt. Baker and to take a classic route

up Mt. Rainier, the mountain on Washington’s license plates. But a

certain six-year-old (that would be my daughter, Katie) and my love

of traffic congestion would prevent me from moving from New Jersey.

So I gathered my fresh-out-of-the-oven stock options and said


to the company I helped start and watched go public just six months

prior. I had been working cruel hours, traveling more than a double

A ball team to help build a business that installs machines that sort

and count pocket change and spit out receipts that supermarket


turn into greenbacks. I was ready for some time off to sort things

through and decide where I wanted to go next.

With the stock options resting comfortably in my brokerage account,

I felt like I could afford to shop around for a while before I


a new job. I fell into a little consulting work, which got me out

of the house paid the mortgage and preserved the chastity of my


account and stock options. This also afforded me the opportunity to

go rock climbing more without having to schedule it around petty


like working for a living.

I also began to ponder the bigger picture of my career track. Years

ago, when a company I worked for went belly up, two of my close


and colleagues went out on their own and started a business. I asked

myself then: Do I have it in me to start my own business? Like most

people, I carried this romantic notion that I, too, could chart my

own course, create jobs in the New Economy, defy the odds, beat the

competition, build a company, nay, an empire in this great capitalist

society. A regular Andy Grove about to start the next Intel. But


someone if they think they could start their own business is kind

of like asking someone if they like Jazz. Everyone wants to say `yes’,

but when asked to name three Jazz artists, their eyes glaze over like

a six year old in his third hour of a Cartoon Network binge.

At the time, I thought long and hard about whether I was an employee

or an employer, and I came to a conclusive answer: I was an employee.

And I was completely comfortable with my station in life. I would

later go on to be employee number 15 at Coinstar, a company that went

public during my employ, and would be witness to the sacrifices made

and risks taken by entrepreneurs. That experience would only serve

to solidify my view that I simply did not have it in me to go it


It was exciting contributing directly to the birth of a public


but trying anything like that on my own was not very high on my


do" list. I was also very intimate with the statistics that told

me that it was much more likely that I would fail than succeed. Let’s

be honest: I was chicken, but comfortable in my chicken-ness.

As the weeks ticked by and the interviews for jobs become more


an idea started to take shape in my lazy little mind. Being in my

early 30s, I began asking myself the time honored question idealists

with a few stock options in the bank often ask: If I could do anything

I wanted, what would it be? For me, this was a preposterously


question, because I have never believed that I was entitled to really

love my work. I love rock climbing. I love my daughter. I love going

to the movies. Calling on grocery chains, developing consumer


campaigns to support the roll out of Coinstar machines was a task

I found less painful and more profitable than selling shoes at


but I’m not sure I’d call it "fun" and I certainly didn’t

love it.

A ghost of an idea began rattling around in my head. I had begun


a few years earlier and found that it did for me what no other single

activity could do. It challenged me on a physical, emotional, and

spiritual level. Visiting climbing gyms in the Delaware Valley, I

was amazed at what a simple (and apparently profitable) business it

seemed to be. I had 12 years of sales and consumer marketing


and three years of climbing experience. What more did I need? Well,

a half a million dollars for starters. Yeah, I had stock options,

but not those kinds of options. I had worked for Coinstar, not


So with some time on my hands and no interviews on the horizon, I

started hammering out a business plan. Only one problem: I had no

idea how to write a business plan. I had never even seen a business

plan. I had written many marketing proposals however, and how much

different could they be from a business plan? You had to answer some

pretty basic questions: What, why, how much, where, by whom, and when

can you pay back the money you borrowed to start this business. I

had enough business savvy to know that the last question was the most

important and that the others were there only to answer it.

Over the next three months, I researched, wrote, and revised my plan.

I made contacts within the industry and pulled together an advisory

team to lend me the credibility I so sorely lacked. I mastered Excel

spread sheets. I had people with real world experience review my plan.

To my amazement, everyone who read it had only minor recommendations,

and most said it was one of the best organized, thorough, and well

written plans they had read.

The lesson was simple: Don’t be afraid of finding the perfect answer

or strategy. Just start writing, and worry about organization and

presentation later. I simply sat down and in great detail answered

some basic questions. Make no mistake, it was a lot of hard work,

research, time, and more revision then I care to admit. But I wrote

this plan without any fancy "Business Plan In a Can" software

or New Age marketing books espousing the power of the brand in the

New Economy. A former manager once shared some advice he learned in

the Marines. When in doubt, just do something — anything. The

message is that inactivity is the enemy and that, given our training

and experience, if we just try to do something — anything —

it will likely take us down the right path.

So now what? I had a 36-page business plan with spiffy color photos,

spread sheets linked to more spread sheets, contacts in the industry,

and a clear vision of the type of facility I wanted to create. I


the two things that are the hardest things to find when starting a

rock climbing center — the building and the money.

Finding the building was not easy. I started driving around older

industrial areas looking for buildings with 35-foot ceilings. Phone

calls to commercial real estate brokers evoked laughter. I was looking

for the impossible: 35-foot ceilings in a 7,000 square foot building

(a small space in commercial real estate terms) for less than $6 per

square feet. But I found the perfect building nonetheless, at 200

Whitehead Road in Hamilton Township. It was available, cheap, had

great highway access, and 35 foot ceilings. The broker told me it

had been available for over a year, and there seemed to be no real

danger of it being leased any time soon. Okay, now go get the money.

I immediately started attending venture capital networking meetings.

These luncheon meetings are places where wide-eyed dreamers like me

mingle with deep-pocketed investors and venture capitalists. My


it became abundantly clear, was uniquely positioned not to thrive

in this kind of environment. VCs are looking for home runs, returns

on the order of multiples of 10. What I was looking for was an angel

investor, a high net worth individual investing in early stage


There were some angels in attendance at these meetings, but in many

cases they were looking for the same as thing the VCs. I made


to each of these groups, but all I got were a few pats on the back.

I worked full time at the money hunt for about four months. I had

a few bites, sent out a lot of executive summaries and business plans,

but never struck pay dirt. All the while I was fine-tuning my plan

and keeping an eye on my building. There was little risk of it being

leased out from under me. A run-down, dusty, brick warehouse from

the 1940s is not on the commercial real estate hot list.

What amazed me most of all during this time was the transition that

had take place within me. All during the writing of my plan, I would

wake in the middle of the night with ideas running through my head.

I would try to go back to sleep but inevitably would find myself out

at my computer typing away. This dream grabbed hold of me like nothing

else had, save an ambitious climbing project. I thought about it all

the time and talked about until my friends stopped returning calls.

My parents were impressed with my zeal but seemed to harbor a seed

of skepticism in the way that people tend to view the newly converted.

Sometimes I even stopped to wonder if I had gone off the deep end.

If this project was such a slam-dunk, why had no investors surfaced?

What had happened to me? Remember, I was a sworn "employee."

I had consciously told myself that starting a business was not in

my future. What had changed? The right idea came to me at the right

time. It seems that entrepreneurs are made, not born. This dream was

about more than making money. It was about building a business around

an activity that had changed my life. I saw an opportunity to expose

thousands of people to the sport of climbing, and to make a pile of

money in the process. Or so I hoped.

So what happened next? Short version: I never found the money, started

selling my Coinstar shares piecemeal, and began dipping into my


I had to get a day job again. I would not give up completely, but

in the meantime I had to earn a living. I was fortunate to land a

great job in my previous industry with a marketing agency based in

Florida. As I had done before, I was starting a new program. I was

drawn to this sort of opportunity because it gave me the chance to

do something that had never been done before. That’s what drew me

to Coinstar. Help Wanted ads call this "entrepreneurial


Fast forward two years to the summer of 2000. My love affair with

my new job had turned into a dead end relationship with someone who

needed way too much therapy. My business plan was still on the shelf

in my office, quietly mocking me. I had never really forgotten my

dream; it was just on hold. I still woke up in the middle of the night

thinking about it and never lost my nearly religious conviction that

the business would be a success if I could only find the money. Like

my former manager once said, I needed to do something, anything, to

jump-start the project again.

One idea that friends had tossed out at me was to approach another

climbing gym owner and see if he wanted to form a partnership. I


dismissed this strategy for a simple reason: If a gym owner wanted

to start another facility, he didn’t need me. I had nothing to bring

to the table that they didn’t already have. Finally, I suspended my

skepticism and sat down and wrote a letter to the manager of a


gym about 70 miles away. I knew the guys who ran it and figured we

could at least have a conversation. I sent the letter with a copy

of my executive summary, explaining what I had and didn’t have. I

had solid marketing and sales experience, a great plan, a great


and a surplus of passion. What I didn’t have was money.

Before I even got a chance to follow up my letter, they called me

and suggested we meet to discuss the details. I nearly dropped the

phone. How could this be? I had put off contacting these guys for

months, thinking it a stupid, dead-end idea, and with one letter I

was closer than ever to finding the money, and pursuing my dream.

Memo to self: There are no bad ideas when it comes to looking for

money. I should have held close that important lesson I learned early

in my career in sales: If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

We set up the meeting and I got on the phone immediately to the broker

to make sure the building was still available. If I didn’t have a

building, the meeting would be a short one.

"Hi Joe. Clay Tyson here. I’m meeting with some investors next

week and I just wanted to make sure the building was still


I said.

"Clay, good to hear from you, but I have bad news," Joe said.

My heart sunk and my vision blurred.

"The lease for the building is under review at the attorney’s

office," he said.

"Joe, can I ask who is leasing it and what they are going to do

with it?" I asked, stunned.

"Funny you should ask, Clay. The guy is opening a climbing gym.

He felt the same way you did as soon as he saw the building: it’s

perfect for a climbing gym."

In less than 30 minutes, I went from starting down the road toward

living my dream, to slamming into the brick wall of delayed actions

and missed opportunities. Had I not waited to contact the owners of

the other climbing gym, had I not dismissed the idea as a silly one,

I would have beaten this other guy to the building and been working

on my grand opening marketing plan. I can’t overstate the level of

disappointment. I had invested so much of my heart, soul, and money

in this idea and now it seemed to be lost forever. I had decided that,

yes, I could be an entrepreneur, and now it appeared I’d be forever

cast as an employee.

I had the meeting with the potential partners anyway, figuring I


pass on an opportunity to secure some financial backing, even though

the one part of the equation I was bringing to the table had just

burst into flames before my eyes. The meeting went well, but I had

to tell them about the building not being available. It was a short


Okay, so I continue working for The Man for a while. Things could

be worse. I was making a good living. I made my own schedule. I


around the country working with very creative marketing professionals.

I had what many would consider to be a dream job. But I was still

restless about the new climbing gym opening in my backyard, in my


January came and I made it a practice to drive by the building every

now and then to see what was going on. Nothing. Finally, in late


I saw some activity. I pulled into the parking lot, walked through

the front door, and saw the steel being erected for the climbing


As I was leaving I ran into the owner in the parking lot and


myself. Immediately he knew who I was. The broker had told him there

was this guy looking at the same building. Michael Fortunato


introduced himself and gave me a nickel tour.

Mike and I seemed to hit it off right away. But why shouldn’t we?

We shared the same dream. What quickly became clear was that our


of this rock climbing center were nearly identical. When I summoned

the courage to ask who would manage it for him, he simply replied

that he would be interviewing. What he didn’t tell me at the time

was that he had no intention of hiring someone with my level of


(or salary expectation).

If there is one thing I have learned in 15 years of selling it is

this: When you see an opportunity, jump on it, and jump hard. I went

home, printed out my five-page executive summary, pulled a few select

pages from my business plan, and wrote one of the best sales letters

I have ever written. The package was at FedEx by 3 p.m. that day.

Before I could call Mike on Tuesday, he called me with a novel


You show me yours, I’ll show you mine. Business plan, that is. We

agreed to exchange complete business plans and meet again the



It was clear by reading each other’s plan that we were of like minds.

Even down to the numbers. There was only an 11 percent difference

in our start-up costs. Over lunch we came to a few conclusions. My

background in consumer marketing and sales would be an asset to the

operation. Mike’s logistics expertise and experience as a business

owner was something I sorely lacked. Perhaps most importantly, we

shared a passion for establishing a world class climbing facility.

We knew the importance of customer service and helping the public

enter this exciting and challenging sport.

Many climbing gyms do a great job serving the needs of the climbing

community. But we knew that a climbing center can not survive on


climbers alone. We had to reach a broader audience, and embrace our

mission with near religious fanaticism.

Two more lunch meetings were required to work out the final details

and give me the courage to ditch my day job and jump on board. During

our discussion, Mike had a few important reservations that spoke


to the issues I had struggled with over the years. He knew how hard

I had worked to open my own facility, and how heartbroken I was when

he got the money and the building before me. His concern was that

I would become resentful of not being able to do this on my own, and

in not being an equity holder in the business.

I had already thought a lot about this very issue. The strange thing

is, I was completely comfortable with the path ahead of me and excited

about the opportunity it represented. I would be an integral part

of this project and would be given the opportunity to use my


in sales and consumer marketing to build a successful business around

a sport that I loved. What more could I have asked for? Soon I would,

again, be waking up in the middle of the night with ideas flying


my head, and this time they were ideas I could act on the next day.

Although I would not be a equity partner, I would be a partner


In the coming months, Mike would come to trust me with important


and operational decisions, and make me feel like I was a vital part

of the operation.

One question I have asked is why did Mike change his plan and hire

someone at my level? This much I know: The experience of building

my own plan, doing the research, and living day and night with the

dream of opening my own facility gave Mike the courage and confidence

to bring me on as a team member. Memo to self: Those people who say

that all of our experiences and hard work and disappointments and

failures in life only prepare us for what we are meant to do. . .

they’re right.

I have come to an unexpected realization in the past six months of

helping Mike get Rockville up and running: I’m grateful I never found

the money. Mike’s experience as a business owner has been critical

to the success we have achieved so far. I doubt I would have been

able to navigate some of the challenges and obstacles he faced in

getting the facility built and open. What continues to amaze me is

how when I don’t have the answer to a problem, he does. He is the

owner of a restaurant — Remi’s Cafe in Haddonfield — and


of his experience in starting and building that businesses over the

past 10 years, he knew how to get Rockville up and running.

So it seems I have come full circle. After years of launching new

consumer marketing programs and helping to build new businesses for

other people, I evolved into what I can only call a frustrated


I built my own business plan, and became emotionally invested in it.

Then, after struggling to make that plan a reality, I nearly tossed

in the towel. Now, here I am, an employee again. But there is a


difference in my present position: I am a partner. And I get to use

my skills and experience to help build a business around something

I love.

Clay Tyson, now manager at Rockville Climbing Center, was

an advertising sales representative at U.S. 1 in 1989 and 1990.



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