Chris Warner

How many people in the climbing industry can say they got started climbing at an early age? Either by attending a birthday party, or getting sent on a camping trip to shape up bad behavior, or some other way that teens find themselves in the woods or at a climbing facility, so many climbers will tell you they started young. So will my amazing guest today, Chris Warner.

Chris Warner is one of the most prolific entrepreneurs in the outdoor active lifestyle markets. He’s the owner of Earth Treks, a collection of climbing gyms in North America, a sponsored athlete, an entrepreneur, a leadership educator and a kickass motivational speaker.

On this week’s Intrepid Entrepreneur Podcast, Chris is talking with me about how he, a “terrible kid” got into climbing at the age of 15, and how this led him to start his own business.

Chris was leading climbing trips when he got stuck in a snowstorm with a big client. When they ran out of books to read, Chris and his client started talking about the gym he dreamed of owning one day. By the end of the storm they had a preliminary business plan worked out on a piece of toilet paper. When they got back, Chris got to work.

Today, Earth Treks is preparing to open their 5th facility and has over 300 employees. Chris is talking with me about how a business so large can stay entrepreneurial, and his secret is surprising: It’s not about him! It’s about hiring employees who are passionate about the company’s core values, and about climbing.   

Chris is telling me more about getting started in climbing, keeping employees motivated, taking the skills he learned climbing to the professional industries, and changes in the climbing industry in this episode. He’s truly a one of a kind, doing some amazing work.

Bravery in business Quote

“We took the idea that we could learn something about ourselves through adventure and we could apply it to other aspects of our lives.” -Chris Warner

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  • Chris Warner, owner of Earth Treks, a collection of climbing gyms in NA. Chris is also sponsored athlete, an entrepreneur, and a leadership educator. He’s a motivational speaker, here today to talk about being a multifaceted outdoor industry entrepreneur.
  • Grew up in NJ right outside of NYC. Got sent his sophomore year of high school on a five day trip to the woods and loved it. Started to work for the same program when he as 17, then Outward Bound, which led him to start his own company.
  • Helped start Outward Bound in Baltimore in 1986. A great experience working with kids, traveled to Asia in 1989, came back from expeditions fired up to start earth treks 1990.
  • Started as an outdoor climbing school, talking people to South America, Denali, etc. Got stuck in a snowstorm with a developer client and ran out of books to read.  Chris started telling him about the gym he wanted to own, and the client offered to help. Made projections for company on toilet paper w/sharpie. Got home an started Earth Treks.
  • Leadership Education: taking the leadership learned at high altitudes back to the audiences
  • Approached in the ‘90s by defense intelligence agencies to train spies to work outdoors with minimal equipment. After training realized they had taught leadership and team building skills to them also.
  • Approached by Wharton Business School to train in leadership. Took to Kilimanjaro. No one had experience or a lot of training so they only way to be successful was by changing their behaviors. Now does the same thing in a conference center.
  • Have to be great at being able to put the mission of the organization ahead of personal desires. In mountaineering a lot of times it’s more important for people to get to the summit than for the team to get to the summit. And that generally results in death in mountaineering.
  • Climbing partnerships based in trust and caring and passion for the sport.
  • Just got land to build their 5th gym, in DC, will serve about a million customers this year, growing by 20% a year, 300 + employees
  • In a company that big, it can’t be about personality because he just doesn’t have time to know everyone. It’s about the company, and employees are passionate about core values
  • Climbing gyms on the rise b/c industry is moving indoors (from outdoor climbs).


“We’re in the opportunity business, not the strategy business.” -Chris Warner

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Earth Treks:

Speaking Website:

Book: High Altitude Leadership:

Transcription (Click to Expand)


Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: For my guest today, Chris Warner, life actually is a boulder problem. Chris is the owner of Earth Treks, a collection of climbing gyms in North America. He’s also a sponsored athlete, an entrepreneur, and a leadership educator. He’s pretty kickass, motivational speaker, too. I’ve seen him speak before. And I have to say, guys, after a year of interviewing some of the most interesting and innovative entrepreneurs in our markets, I have to say this interview with Chris Warner is truly one of a kind. You’re going to have to listen in today to learn why. Chris Warner, welcome to the Intrepid Entrepreneur Podcast.

Chris Warner: Well, thanks. It’s my pleasure to be here.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: It’s so great to have you here. Chris is an athlete, an entrepreneur, and a leadership educator. And he’s here today to talk about being a multi-faceted outdoor industry entrepreneur. And I’m really stoked to have you talk about your high altitude mountaineering expeditions that you’ve done, everything you’ve done with Earth Treks, which is a cool company I’ll have Chris tell you about, and also, where I first encountered you was at the bicycle leadership conference while you were giving a keynote there on leadership. So it’s great to actually sit down and have a conversation with you here, too.

Chris Warner: Well, thanks.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: And you’re calling in from Golden today? From home?

Chris Warner: Yeah. Thankfully, I get to be home now. I don’t actually have a plane ticket purchased until March of this coming year, which is a world record.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s amazing. I’m actually just excited to have, like, two weeks without having to go near Durango International Airport, that’s what we call it.

Chris Warner: I was at four cities last week so it’s nice to be home.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Oh, good. All right. Well, tell us about–just tell us about Chris Warner. Like, how did this, just, entrepreneurial think tank of all of here.

Chris Warner: I think I was pretty lucky, and that I was a terrible kid. I grew up in New Jersey, just outside of the New York City border, and when I was in sophomore high school, the parole officer came around and she had vengeance in mind. So she grabbed twelve of us total knuckleheads, dragged us into the woods for five days to the point of making us suffer. And we went rock climbing and orienteering and backpacking, and I fell in love with it. I was, like, finally found my calling in life. So I started to work for that same outdoor program when I was 17 and then that led me to Outward Bound then Outward Bound led me to start my own company. That just led me around the world.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Let me ask you really quickly: how old were you when you were this “terrible kid” and when you went climbing?

Chris Warner: Well, [inaudible] never proud of that but that experience happened when I was a sophomore in high school, so it’s 15.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: It’s so interesting. I know you’ve spent a ton of time like I have around the climbing industry, and how many people have the–as very similar story. I think 5 out of 6 people I speak with that are in the climbing industry were kind of going down that terrible kid pathway until they found their people.

Chris Warner: Yeah, it is real. One thing is because we have all this energy, right? We’re super excited, we like adventure, and we obviously have a little bit of [tolerance?] to risk and so I think that’s what got us into that path. And it’s funny that you said it because I just recently spent a bunch of time with Peter Metcalf, the CEO of Black Diamond. As he told his story, I was, like, “Oh, my God, that’s me but 10 years younger.” Well, he’s done a lot more on this life than I have.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Well, I don’t know. You sound like–you’re just getting started on some fronts. My husband has a similar story and [inaudible] pretty much all of his best friends he’s gone on expeditions with, so. Well, that’s great. So anybody listening out there who might be having issues with the teenager in this boat, just know it’s all probably going to be okay. Take them to your local climbing gym just as soon as humanly possible.

Chris Warner: That’s right.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: So tell us about–basically, you said, after Outward Bound, you started your own company. So you obviously knew that you were flying your own flag and you were kind of heading down the road to owning your own company, but you obviously did a lot in between, I think, Outward Bound and starting your own company. Can you fill us in a little bit just on the pathway?

Chris Warner: Yeah. So I actually helped start the Outward Bound school in Baltimore back in 1986 so I had to experience taking kids out of maximum security prison, and we thought that we could rehabilitate them. So when they wanted to start the first urban Outward Bound program, they came to me and said, “Can you come in and help us get this whole thing started?” And that was it. An amazing opportunity. And that introduced me to Baltimore. And they were struggling off and on for the first couple of years. And so I had the opportunity to come back in, help them evolve into the next level, and come back in and evolve into the next level.

And finally, in 1990 after having traveled through Asia–we’ve done a new route on [inaudible] in India in 1989 and came back to the United States and they said, “Okay, [inaudible], you have to stay with us. You have to be here for a couple of years.” And they were great to me. In fact, that next winter, they gave me some cash to go off and I went back to [inaudible], did a new route on the west face of [inaudible] in the winter. And I came back from that expedition pretty fired up to start Earth Treks. And I really wanted to get out of the hoods in the woods business and take, I don’t know, mature people climbing. And one of my colleagues sat me down. He said, “For somebody who takes so much risks with your personal life, why don’t you take one with your professional life?” And that was the kick in the pants that I needed to leave Outward Bound and start Earth Treks. So.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: When was this? This was 25 years ago, right?

Chris Warner: Yeah, this was 1990.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Wow.

Chris Warner: Yeah. And we were in the height of a recession, there’s a lot of stuff going on. But you’re always driven to make this thing happen. We’ve started as an outdoor climbing school, taking people to South America and to the [inaudible] and all sorts of other stuff like that. And in 1997, excuse me, in 1995, I was on Denali with a client and we got stuck at the 14,000 foot camp for 6 days in a blizzard. This man was a multi, multi-millionaire, big developer. And he said to me, “You know, Chris–well, actually, we ran out of books.” We memorized all the ingredients in Fig Newtons and we ran out of things that we’d [inaudible] to talk about. I said, “Well, I always wanted to start a climbing gym.” And he’s– “Well, let’s figure out how to make this happen.” So the only paper we had was toilet paper, and we had a Sharpie marker, and we wrote the first projections for the company on toilet paper.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That is phenomenal.

Chris Warner: And he said, “If we survive the storm and you get me home alive and you could prove to me that you could pay me the money back within 5 years, I’ll lend you $400,000 to start your first gym.”

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Oh my gosh.

Chris Warner: And the storm ended, we made it back down, we flew back out, and I spent the summer working on primitive versions of Excel spreadsheets, and I faxed off my findings that yes, within 5 years we could pay you back, and then 15 minutes later, he called up and said, “Okay, where do you want me to send the money?”

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s amazing.

Chris Warner: Yeah, it was a super cool experience. And he’s still an amazing friend and mentor to me.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of a business plan on toilet paper. I remember when I was–I first got my first assignment from Dwayne [inaudible], he was, like, “Wow, you sent it in on time and it wasn’t on a napkin or a paper plate.” He’s, like, “What do you want to do next?”

Chris Warner: Yeah. Well, some people recognize genius, right?

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: But that is just a phenomenal story, so. That’s how Earth Treks started.

Chris Warner: Yeah, and it’s been an evolution. We really were lucky that we started as educators first and–all of us had come from Outward Bound. And we took the idea that we could learn something about ourselves through adventure and we could apply it to other aspects of our lives. So now it’s my personal story. So it’s fun to try to find a way to just keep–increasing the size of the audience. And indoor climbing is so fantastic for that because we can bring people into our tribe who would have otherwise been left out of it.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s exactly right. That’s actually how I learned how to climb at UC Davis, and I learned how to climb indoors first. Peter Croft actually was giving a clinic and I got lucky enough to show up that Saturday. And how crazy is that? And then I climb inside pretty much exclusively for three months, and then I had a friend take me up to Donner Pass, and I literally just got the shit scared out of me, pardon my expression.

Chris Warner: Yeah, I understand.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: It’s a totally different game, but at the same time, I really thought it was helpful for me. I know a lot of people will poo-poo learning indoors and then going outside. But for me, it was just important to do it in that sequence because of the head game. For me, personally, it worked out great.

Chris Warner: Oh, yeah. Well, it did a pretty good job, too, for Chris Sharma and Sasha Digiulian.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Yeah.

Chris Warner: Yeah, yeah. It’s amazing, right?

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: And Beth Rodden, right?

Chris Warner: Yeah. Because people can–there’s a lot of things you could–look, when I first started climbing outdoors, it was scary stuff. We had, gold line ropes and we used to tie somebody to a tree and it would hip belay the other person up who is tied with [inaudible], just basically a bunch of wraps of rope around your waist. And if anybody who fall and both of you were in trouble, the one person was squished to death and the other person [inaudible] all the flesh in her hands.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Oh, my gosh.

Chris Warner: Yeah.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: So when did you decide to take the game inside at Earth Treks? Did it exclusively go inside?

Chris Warner: Excuse me?

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Did it go exclusively inside or do you still–

Chris Warner: Well, actually, we’re still running an outdoor guide service, but after 26 years we’ve finally shut down our international mountaineering guide service.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: And was that just this year?

Chris Warner: Yeah. We shut it down in September. We did led over 200 international expeditions, and they were just phenomenal stuff. In the last couple of years, we specialized in leadership development expeditions and taking cancer survivors on expeditions. So they were very emotive trips where the objective, of course, was to get to the summit, but more importantly, it was to help people evolve, right, to help MBA candidates become better leaders, and then to help these cancer survivors just process what they’ve been through.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s awesome. I mean, that must have been–I mean, a great way to finish, I would think. But I bet, also, maybe that was a good place to end. Kind of seeing the mark that those types of trips leave on those audiences.

Chris Warner: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I had [inaudible] times and had done a ton of other stuff. It’s just different if you have multiple themes that you’re trying to craft for people. And just getting to the zone of a peak is gratifying, but it’s much better when it’s connected to something, I don’t know, more important in life.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: And I think that is a great jumping off place, if you will, to talk about your leadership education. And I definitely am not going to leave some highlights from your climbing career. So everybody listening just know we will hit that as well. But tell us how you evolved from basically taking the leadership that you teach when you’re climbing high altitude expeditions back to audiences. I guess in the United States only or is that a global job that you have?

Chris Warner: Well, I have done it outside the United States. It’s the greatest paper out in the world, in terms of what you get paid. In fact, I was with four different groups this week and I made everyday more than I used to make in a year when I was just a dirtbag guide.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s awesome.

Chris Warner: Yeah. Everyone just aspired to getting this part-time job. But the real story is, in the late ‘90s, we were approached by the defense intelligence agency. They were training spies who were going to put listening posts, originally above Sarajevo, and then the same group ended up transferring it to Baghdad, etc. And so what they needed to learn how to do was to take a minimal amount of equipment into these obviously dangerous places and be able to perform the work. So they had to use small and simple tools. We got to teach them all of these techniques so they could be successful. And these people were caught. These would have been an international incident.

I mean, certainly, they probably would have been killed. But being in Baghdad before Baghdad fell was a very dangerous job. And so after we had spent weeks and weeks training these folks, they came back to us and said, “Now only were we successful but what you really did for us was, besides teaching knots was to teach us how to be a great team.” And that was the real value for them. And the same time, the Wharton School of Business came to us. So that’s one of the top MBA programs in the country. And they said, “Can you help us train our MBAs on how to be better leaders?” I mean, clearly we all work in an environment where it’s ambiguous, it’s dangerous, there’s [inaudible] or had business not necessarily physical but economic, etc.

And we were psyched for that opportunity. So we started taking them down to South America, we took them to Kilimanjaro as well. And we created this environment where they built a high performance team and they had to do it in an environment where they had no prior experience, with the minimal amount of training. And so the only thing that was going to allow them to get to be successful was to change their behaviors. And so we use behaviors to drive results. So all this was happening more than come in an outdoor setting, originally, but as word got out, people would come to me and say, “Hey, can you do this with our business?” And we’re not about to take 400 insurance brokers on a climb.

So let’s see what we do in a conference center. And what I really found was the stories that we have in mountaineering, like climbing [inaudible], climbing [inaudible] you, etc. But inside those stories are these themes that are just universal. Like, overcoming adversity, being the best person that you possibly can be. How do you take a small group and prepare them for the extreme challenge that they’re going to face? And so I took those experiences and, really, at the same time, I kept being invited into cooler and cooler conversations with smarter and smarter people. And so suddenly I’m now surrounded by these amazing leadership educators–I’m teaching leadership in kind of some unique ways.

And start to connect the dots. And the dots are really all the things that we learn through climbing. So if you want to get to some of the peak, you have to be passionate about–you know how it is: [inaudible] requires passion.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: It does.

Chris Warner: And so we also have to be great at being able to put the mission of the organization ahead of our personal desires. And we see this in mountaineering a lot of times where people–it’s more important for them to get to the summit than for the team to get to the summit. And that generally results in death in mountaineering. So passion was one of them. The second one is just teaching people how to craft and create a vision for where they’re going so people can help them get there. The third one is just about partnership. Like, what makes a climbing partnership so great is the fact that it’s based in trust and caring. And the last one is how do we teach people how to not only work hard but work smart? So we have to learn from our past mistakes.

What makes me capable of getting to some of the K2 is not showing of the bottom. It’s 6 or 7 or 27 failures I’ve had before that I’ve never reflected upon or when I try to be more successful when the challenge was even bigger.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s outstanding. That I know I remember is you were talking about this–there were things that I watched during your keynote at the bicycle leadership conference and you had some pretty graphic moments in there. too, that I thought were really–it definitely woke us up. You know what I mean?

Chris Warner: That’s our job, and you know this as a journalist, right? So it’s one thing to have the information, the answers, but if no one’s going to listen to you, it’s useless. So, classic academic has the answers but doesn’t have the story. And what we have is outdoor adventures, is we have these amazing stories that are right with themes and we can use this to open people’s minds. And once their minds are open, it’s our job to fill them.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Yep. That’s awesome, I love that. And it doesn’t sound like there’s any shortage of work for you on the speaking front, huh?

Chris Warner: No. And I work with generally two types of companies. One are companies that are A-plus already and they’re desperate to get to A-plus plus so if you help them get 1/10 of 1% better, they’re ecstatic. And the other group that I work with are companies who are at some kind of an inflection point. The world, as we know it today, is changing so rapidly. If we don’t adapt with it, we’re going to struggle. So those two groups bring me in. And it’s great because they take the lessons and apply them on Monday morning.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s actually something that I find almost unbelievable because I obviously have seen my fair share of speaking engagements and keynotes–and you get really inspired, you take a ton of notes, but then you go back and it’s, like, kind of business as usual. How do you ensure that people actually apply what they learn? I mean, is it working with the smaller group, maybe, or is there almost a curriculum that you’re in charge of, too?

Chris Warner: Well, I think I’m really good at sparking–adding more gasoline to a conversation that’s already been occurring. So I just spent the morning with the Colorado Department of Public Safety and they are senior leadership. They’re working hard to continue to evolve that organization. This weekend, I was with a $500M company try to go to $1B. That’s because of the $3.7B company trying to go into $10B. The week before that, I was with a giant nonprofit that’s just raised $25M this year and they’re trying to get even bigger. So generally, the couple things that happened–if you’d give me a little bit more time, if you give me 3 hours, you will absolutely know who on your team should stay on your team and who on your team needs to be sliced off.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Really?

Chris Warner: Yes. And I almost never go in and spend 3 hours with a group where there’s not personnel changes very shortly after I leave the door.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Wow. That’s powerful.

Chris Warner: Sometimes as short as two hours after I leave the door.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Oh my gosh.

Chris Warner: Yeah. Yeah.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I actually never heard of–that’s just all new to me. I didn’t realize that you had the impact that you did and as soon as you did on these literally, like, million and billion dollar companies.

Chris Warner: Yeah.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: And tell us about the Colorado Department of Public Safety. Did that have anything to do with just them doing a better job with the safety in the winter or–that that’s really interesting or just maybe trying to uplevel?

Chris Warner: Yeah, they’re trying to uplevel so I was asked by the Hickenlooper Administration to come in. And I work with all the cabinet members and senior executives. And since then, I’ve worked with a couple of different departments. They’re brilliant people working in an environment where change is a challenge. It’s got a lot to do with the political cycle. You become elected, your team comes in and you only have so many years to change things. And as a resident of the state of Colorado, I’m ecstatic that the Hickenlooper Administration is working so hard to change the culture of the whole state government.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That is great. I’ve only just recently started to work with that a little myself, working with Luis Benitez on advisory group. And that was really the first time I’ve been to the mansion, and all that fun stuff. And you’re right, everybody I’ve met there is brilliant.

Chris Warner: Yeah, they are, they are. And Luis and I used to work together. Deputy Chief of Staff for Hickenlooper was a student of mine on an Ecuador trip. So, Wharton student, so we’re all connected.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Yeah, it’s a very small world, isn’t it? You know that better than I do because I know you’ve been doing this in different forms a little bit longer than I have. So going back to the way we all got connected, and this is six steps away from kind of a terrible kid story, but can we talk about your incredible climbing career and how you basically went from falling in love with it with those being tied to a tree and hip belaying somebody to all of a sudden, being on the highest peaks in the world?

Chris Warner: Yeah. I’m not sure how that happened, actually, Kirsten, but I am the biggest believer in do not engineer your future because life is so exciting and you don’t know, like, when the next better thing is going to come by. And so, I get started climbing aggressively. In fact, the first–we used to go from New Jersey to [inaudible] and eventually, up to the [inaudible] and stuff like that.

And I remember going off to college and telling my mother I was leaving early to go to school, which is definitely not my style, and instead, I hitchhiked to Wyoming and did the Grand Teton. And my mother, I confessed to my mother at Christmas and said, “You know, mom, I climbed the Grand Teton.” And she’s, like, “What’s that?” And I said, “Well, it’s a mountain.”Oh, this girl from Brooklyn, she had no concept of what’s happening so she asked my cool, drunk, and old Irish uncle: “You know, Uncle Rhodey, what’s this Grand Teton thing?” And he goes, “Barbara, that’s French for big breasts.” So I got in tons of trouble for climbing the Grand Teton.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Oh my gosh. That is a great story, too. But I totally hear what you’re saying. It’s, like, you let go with the side of the riverbank, you got into the current, and you went with it. You followed your passion, and that literally has taken you all over the world which is a real key takeaway for my audiences. Essentially, we are choosing to be in the outdoor active lifestyle markets. We’re choosing to be entrepreneurs. And we’re doing that because of, basically, what you’re describing. It’s hard to train and teach and support a bunch of entrepreneurs with the wild hairs that we have in these markets. Tell them not to engineer their future when, honestly, Chris, they can’t engineer their future right now anyway. Because it’s just changing so much.

Chris Warner: And you know what? We’re in the opportunity business, not the strategy business. So opportunities arrive–and the [inaudible] in business is the greatest example of that because it’s so hard to find real estate so we looked in Washington D.C. for 20 plus years before we finally got a building. And now, in January, we’ll start construction on that. It’s 45,000 sq. ft. [inaudible].

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Wow, congratulations. That’s going to be a great location.

Chris Warner: It is going to be a great location.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: And how many locations do you have there? Would that be number 5?

Chris Warner: That’s number 5.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Okay, great. And the very first one was–where did you start the first one?

Chris Warner: Oh, that was in Columbia in Maryland which is as far from [inaudible] as you possibly can get.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: And do you attract, like, a group of people that meet there and then go plan missions outside together or do they all just kind of–like, the culture there–is there a culture?

Chris Warner: Well, I think it’s changed so much. I mean, originally, we built clubhouses for climbers. And then suburban moms showed up and then–it’s just so different now. It’s so much more about [inaudible] very suburban still but it’s really about what we–I call the urban athletes. So folks who are–on Wednesday, they’re going to yoga, Thursday, they’re going climbing, Saturday, they’re going to crossfit, on Sunday, they’re going on a long bike ride. So they want a little bit of everything. And yes, there are the super hardcores but there’s an infinitely greater number of the urban athletes in the gyms.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: And what about age groups? Because that’s been–we’ve always looked in the industries, we’ve always looked to the climbing gyms as a way to attract the youth, and I don’t mean because of birthday parties.

Chris Warner: Oh, 100%. Most of my staff started climbing by attending a birthday party in a climbing gym.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Yep.

Chris Warner: Yeah. And the good thing is–I remember this email I got from a client and she said, “You know, I never understood why in your fitness rooms, you don’t have TVs.” We have all the treadmills and stuff all pointing out a window towards the climbing. And then she goes, “One day, it dawned on me I realized I was watching humanity and I saw dads climbing with their daughters. I saw young kids getting their first kiss, I saw older people trying to hold on to their youth.” And I’m, like, “That is the whole point. This is a place for all of us to come together and just be the best versions of ourselves.”

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I love that. So if we were to look at the split right now between athletes, Earth Treks slash entrepreneurship, and leadership educator, is it one third, one third, one third, or does it depend on the time of the year?

Chris Warner: I told you [that depends on?] the time of the year. Yeah. This last couple of weeks have been just crazy for going out and sharing the story with big companies. But we’ve all said two of our holiday parties this week, like I said, it’s early December–and that’s just so great. Like, we just love hanging around with each other. We have 300 employees.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Oh my gosh, that’s outstanding.

Chris Warner: Yeah. We’ll serve about a million customers this year, and it just keeps growing. We’ve been growing at 20% a year for the last dozen years.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Well, I mean, congratulations, that’s fantastic. I mean, tell me this. This is a great question for my audience, Chris: how do you keep a company of that size entrepreneurial?

Chris Warner: Well, first of all, our mission is to share our passion for climbing so we’re all climbers. And climbing is entrepreneurial.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Yes.

Chris Warner: Yeah. And you think about: if life was a boulder problem, right? We get kicked off–we just had this insatiable need to continue to work on it so that we’re good enough to get that boulder problem. So having that kind of people working for the company, it’s been fantastic. And we promote from within almost exclusively so people move up in your organization which gives people hope that there’s a career here. And you really move up because of merit, not because of, like, your good interview or whatever you look good in a business suit or something like that.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I’m sure there’s a lot of your employees in business suits that kind of zip up the back, right?

Chris Warner: Yeah, maybe.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I’m kidding.

Chris Warner: Actually, we purposely have our holiday party where everybody has to dress to impress. Because this is the one time of the year that you could take that dusty suit out and brush it off.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s awesome. So another question I have. Just curious entrepreneur over here, is: how do they get enough? How can your 300 employees in those diverse locations get the culture stamp from Chris Warner? As things grow, how do you scale your own cultural imprint that you have on your own company?

Chris Warner: All right. That is 100% of my job. My job is to make you happy that you work for this company.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I love that.

Chris Warner: Yeah. It’s funny. This is exactly when I go into company is this is what we’re addressing, this issue. Not to bore the listeners but we have to have a really strong mission statement that motivates people, and we have to be united by our core values. And when you have strong–our mission is to share our passion for climbing and our core values are in every single office, everybody is hired based on the core values, you’re evaluated based on your core values. And as a result to that, we all act in the same way. And culture comes from the bottom of an organization as well as the top. And so how do you create this opportunity for young people to do their best possible work, they will help you make the culture better.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s fantastic. I love all of that. It’s definitely inspiring for me to hear that because we have, at Verde’s, we have four different office locations. A lot of [inaudible]. And I’ve been looking around at how to do more just video and livestreaming and different things so I can cut back on my travel because, obviously, my kids are getting older. I thought that you had to be around more when they were babies, but it turns out middle school’s pretty much treacherous if you’re not around.

Chris Warner: Yeah. We have a 10-year-old.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Yeah. So I also have a 10-year-old. My daughter just turned 10. And anyways, we’re going with is do you find yourself using any of these tools? I mean, aside from, like, project [inaudible] or anything, do you ever, like, livestream yourself around or is there, like, a weekly call that everybody jumps on, like, what are some of the ways that they do get psyched by having Chris Warner as their boss?

Chris Warner: Well, I have a [inaudible] which is too bad. We really rely on old-fashioned stuff. So when I’m in the gyms, I’m climbing in the gyms, and we are–we jus were the best damn parties you’ve ever been to. I mean, we had this kickball tournament this summer that a hundred and something people showed up for in all the bases were kiddie pools and they just make people have fun and do good work.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Right. I love that. That’s powerful. And you know what–

Chris Warner: Because we’re in the same situation. A lot of us are, as leaders. You really only can have an intimate relationship with 15 people. Like, you and I can really know each other very well, we work together very closely, but all of a sudden, the 16th person comes along. I might have to actually move you aside to get that person to fill your spot. So there’s a limit to how many people we could have that really strong bond with. And they say about–we could all know on kind of a decent level about 150 people. So that scaling your presence in an organization is going to be limited just because of those simple demographics. I mean, in 300 employees, there’s no way I could know everybody’s–even their name because you’re always so far apart.

So we’ve always [inaudible] the company words not about Chris Warner. I mean, listen, in 2000, they took away my phone and desk because I was never in the country. So it’s not about a personality. It’s really about the company first.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Well, that’s all just very, very valuable information. And I mean, we were able to really see into so many different facets of your journey as an entrepreneur and I think there’s so many things that people within different places in their own careers can relate to where you are. So it’s just been awesome having you here to discuss all of these. And I wanted to let people know where they could find out more information about Earth Treks or anything else that you might have that you’d like people to find online, if you want to share the URLs.

Chris Warner: Yeah. So, well, Earth Treks is or you could just Google Earth Treks. And then you could just Google me, Chris Warner. I do have a speaking website, there’s some videos on there, some full length videos. You can get a pretty good idea the kind of work that I do with groups, and there’s some downloadable stuff on there. Yeah. And I have a book called High Altitude Leadership. It kind of–you write these things, it’s almost like running a marathon. You write just to see if you can make it to the finish line. And luckily, that book has really resonated with a lot of people. And it has, I think, a limitless shelf life.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Well, one thing that I do, when I interview somebody on this show that is an author, I give away five signed copies of their book so I’m going to open that up right now, I’ll take care of the details with you but just so everybody who’s listening knows, we’ll set that up and I’ll give you the details on that in probably in the outro and then the podcast notes page. So that’ll be great. So one last question before I let you go, kind of working through different friends, mutual friends and whatnot, I’ve heard you comment on just kind of the upward trajectory of climbing gyms right now as a business. Can you speak a little bit as to why you think those are–it’s not so much a resurgence, or is it a resurgence? It just seems like you’re seeing an uptick right now. And I was hoping you might be able to speak a little bit about what’s that about.

Chris Warner: Yeah. We all are. So right now, do you know there’s an estimated 400 and I don’t know, 30 indoor climbing gyms? Well, it’s estimated that there’s been 50 million check ins this year, and that’s not all of our customers. Because some people don’t check in. Because of what the systems are. At least maybe 16 million people are check in–people climbing in the climbing gym this year. That’s a phenomenally large group of people. Connected to those is just as industry insiders, connected to those people is cash, right? And so we have a really successful retail operation inside of our climbing gyms. Not everybody has that. But climbing gyms are becoming a very important segment of the [inaudible] retail market.

And as the center of the gravity is moving indoors, more and more of us, whether it’s Peter Metcalf or Kim Miller or who the CEO of SCARPA or the [inaudible], etc., everybody’s starting to realize that we have to accelerate our conversation so that we’re in a position to move this whole industry forward. That makes this fascinating time for me. I’m on the board of the Climate [inaudible] Association and [inaudible] have ready access to go climbing with guys like [inaudible] the American Alpine Club. So all those are in there having this conversation together and we would love to be more proactive as a climbing industry as opposed to just being reactive.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I love it. Well, I look forward to helping that cause because obviously a lot of people you just named I worked with and forth.

Chris Warner: Yes. Yeah, we’re all stuck together.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Yeah. Happily. And yeah, that sounds super exciting. It totally makes sense when you think about people wanting to have more of an experience around their retail.

Chris Warner: Yeah, yeah. No, we are what retail wants to be. I mean, how many people walk in the doors of [inaudible] came climbing on our gym [inaudible].

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Right. That’s fascinating. Well, let’s plan to have another podcast maybe at the end of first quarter of 2016 where we might be able to talk a little bit more about how that mission is being furthered.

Chris Warner: Great. Well, thanks so much for the time. I appreciate the opportunity. This is a great time to be in the outdoor space.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: It truly is. And it’s been an honor having you on the show, Chris, and I look forward to having you back and we’ll talk more about the future of climbing and climbing indoors, specifically. So thank you so much.

Chris Warner: You’re welcome.

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I’m pretty sure Chris Warner is one of the most prolific entrepreneurs in the outdoor active lifestyle markets. He’s a little bit like our Michael Jordan, isn’t he? Chris is a multi-faceted entrepreneur for sure who seems to just revel in getting after in business. I think that Chris just loves to create opportunities for people to enjoy outdoor sports and be influenced by the character we build in joining these sports. He’s created pretty cool career, spreading the word around just that. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty happy that this self-described terrible kid went climbing that one day and fell in love with it. We’re all better off because of that.

Did you know that Chris has a bestselling book titled High Altitude Leadership? And yes, he’s graciously going to sign 5 copies for 5 lucky listeners to the Intrepid Entrepreneur Podcast. You can enter to win one of Chris’ signed books by heading over to the podcast notes page on the website formally and while you’re at it, check out And if you like this episode, head on over to iTunes and give it a positive review. Doing this really helps to bring visibility to the outdoor active lifestyle markets and to the entrepreneurs who make them great. Until next time, go big.


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