Against the Odds: Opening The First Climbing Gym in Albania
Apr 06, 2015
There are ten million Albanians in the world. Less than one-third of them live in Albania.
Tucked away in the picturesque Balkans, Albania is the second poorest country in Europe and has a smaller population than Connecticut, despite being twice its size geographically. Most of its land is mountainous, making it isolated and largely inaccessible from the outside.
Cool blue mountain lakes, tall rugged peaks, and green-sea beaches form the beautiful backdrop to a country with a turbulent history — Albania was led by an isolationist dictator for 40 years, up until 1991. The country still suffers from government corruption. Protests and riots are a regular occurrence.
Five years ago, if you had asked an Albanian about rock climbing, your question would have been met with a blank gaze. “You mean alpinism?” they might have responded. There is no word for rock climbing in Albanian. At that time, one could have counted nearly every rock-climbing-Albanian on two hands.
Five years ago, Jeff Dokmo, Brooklyn Boulders Team Member and avid rock climber, arrived in Albania to do economic development work after graduating from college. Dokmo knew little about the culture prior to moving. His work would soon change that.
Dokmo arrived in Tirana, Albania in January of 2010. From day-one he was immediately immersed in the lifestyle. Says Dokmo, “I learned that long coffee breaks during the workday were culturally important for building relationships, which in turn helped get business done. And my job gave me the chance to travel around the country, to help start many projects that had incredible social impact.”
He built relationships with many Albanians through business and otherwise. In addition to learning the history of Albania and its people, he also learned enough Albanian to begin having small conversations.
Somehow, even in a country without a modern climbing foundation, the powerful magnetism of the climbing community was still at play. Dokmo ran into that tiny crew of renegade climbers. Ten climbers in total, this was literally the only group in the country with interest in modern climbing. He eventually began climbing with them outside. After visiting their training space — a tiny plywood wall set in a cramped garage — a daydream he once had turned technicolor:
“While in college, I had dreamt of a business that combined my interest in social justice and empowerment, my growing commitment to achieving sustainability in a community through quality business practices. And naturally, a heavy dollop of my passion for rock climbing.”
To this day, Albania is still covered with remnants of communism: every square kilometer in the country holds an average of twenty-four bunkers. That’s 700,000 bunkers in total.
Following World War II, communist ruler Enver Hoxha began to act hostile towards Albania’s immediate neighbors. Largely by his own doing, Hoxha became paranoid of retaliation. In 1973, he instituted a stout wave of repression against his own people, limiting private property, cutting off Albania from foreign influence, and bolstering the construction of bunkers, a process that would continue until 1987.
According to Dokmo, Albanians are often distrustful, an attribute that can make both climbing and carrying out business dealings rather difficult with them. Given the country’s past, this disposition is not without substance. The intimacy of sharing an extended coffee break turned out to be pivotal in developing the right connections. “Everything in Albania is done by connection; you need to know someone.”
With enough Albanian language ability in his repertoire to get cozy with the locals, and new found confidence in his business acumen, Dokmo began to build relationships with that group of Albanian climbers, including the leader of the pack — a chain-smoking, second-hand gear toting man who spoke very little English, and endearingly referred to Dokmo as Mallok Amerikan, a derogatory term that describes his affinity for the mountains.
Simultaneously, Dokmo sought strategic business relationships in hopes of funding his idea. He discovered that one of his advisors happened to be an angel investor who was “looking for impact beyond the financial bottom line.”
It was roughly one year after his arrival, several months after his intended length of stay, that Dokmo realized his idea might have contextual substance. And it was then that he decided to take on a seemingly impossible task: to open the first rock climbing gym in Albania.
While Dokmo continued his development job, he also began working on his business plan at night. He says, “The odds were stacked against me in almost every way.”
Five years ago, one could have counted nearly every rock-climbing-Albanian on two hands.
Unlike the United States, where modern rock climbing has a rich twentieth century history, with major movements in Yosemite National Park, recreational climbing has held very little place in Albanian history. Establishing a business and selling indoor climbing in Albania was like throwing a dart with your eyes closed and without a target.
Furthermore, “foreign investment in Albania was at an all-time low due to poorly enforced regulations. McDonalds had even attempted to enter the country but pulled out when they ran into bad business dealings.”
To compound the the issues, when Dokmo attempted to analyze market potential for his idea, locals informed him that public records were terribly unreliable because they were often altered by the government. There came a time when Dokmo could either let go of his idea and surrender to the odds, or, propelled by passion and fervent belief, dive in head first.
He quit his day job.
“I recruited a friend from Colorado to join me, and set out to hire an Albanian colleague. I enthusiastically sent out emails, talked with everyone I knew and everyone they knew. I was hoping the 26% unemployment rate in Albania would drive lots of applicants to our venture.”
In the end, only one Albanian applied for the role. He spoke six languages, had a law degree, had experience at a graphic design firm, and was an active guide for a local Albanian hiking group. They hired him immediately.
The city of Tirana is a “labyrinth of alleys and narrow streets, with lots of empty buildings. Some were crumbling in decay, others were half constructed.” Dokmo’s initial idea was to target college students. He found a space close to the local university and signed a lease. Six months later, Rock Tirana was built and open for business.
In the months following the opening, the team discovered that college students were not coming to climb. Turns out that, despite their enthusiasm to try the sport, university students simply could not afford it.
Dokmo and his colleagues were at a loss. After channeling marketing towards this age group, not to mention choosing what they thought was an optimal location, their key demographic was a miss. Meanwhile, hoards of children began filling the space each day, running around on the mats and disrupting other climbers.
For young children in Albania, free time is usually divided between smoke-filled cafes with backyard playgrounds, expensive sports programs, and staying at at home. The crew grew weary of having children in their space, with concern that their behavior would deter other climbers. With limited customers in their key demographic, the gym was running out of options.
Says Dokmo, “children were a major problem, just before we realized that they could be a solution.” And with that, the Rock Tirana crew began planning a kids program; inventing games, developing climbing activities, and drawing road-maps for all day programming. Slowly, they introduced their new program to small pilot groups. It was was met with tremendous success.
“Suddenly” he says, “we had found our best, most reliable program.”
Today, the vision for Rock Tirana continues to evolve. The kids program has expanded to include over forty children who now climb three times each week, in addition to taking part in outdoor excursions. The gym now has a staff of three young adults, offering competitive local wages and training for additional high-access work. The neighborhood around Rock Tirana also continues to improve. Lots that were once decrepit and empty now house three new businesses. In 2015 — three years after opening — the business is financially sustainable for the first time.
“It was incredibly difficult to say goodbye to my life in Albania, not to mention a business that was quite literally a dream come true,” says Dokmo, “Albania is my home away from home. Reconnecting with the community there and continuing to support the dream means everything to me.”
This month Dokmo, who now stands on the Board of Directors for Rock Tirana, will travel back to Albania to reconnect with his business, the staff, and the kids in their program for the first time in two years. All told, after moving abroad in 2010, an intended stay of just a few months had quickly become four incredible years.
Want to help support Rock Tirana?
Rock Tirana is currently accepting donations for their youth program. Proceeds will be used towards gear for the children (shoes, harness, etc…), new climbing holds for the gym, and the assurance that this non-profit business will continue to positively affect the community in Tirana.
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