Business Lessons From The Sharp End

Trust, communication, risk-taking: How Catalyst cofounders Josh Wright and June Lai forged their business skills on a rock wall.

One of the main reasons Josh Wright moved to Hong Kong 10 years ago was because of its rock-climbing scene, and so it was fortuitous that he met June Lai on his second weekend there. The following weekend, they went on their first climbing excursion together–a multipitch climb called Lion Rock. They had no idea that they would someday be business partners–or that climbing together would be the best way to prepare for that relationship.


Wright and Lai might never have become so friendly at all, were it not for climbing, suggests Wright. Hong Kong is a highly stratified society, with financiers like Lai at the top; Wright, a product designer, worked for a footwear brand. “But the rock is an equalizer,” says Wright. “When you’re on the rock, it’s its own community.”

A first climb together is something like a first date: both parties are measuring each other up (albeit with potentially more injurious stakes). Climbers typically climb in pairs, with one member leading (also called being on the sharp end) while the other belays, or manages the climber’s rope. Letting out too much rope can mean big falls should the climber slip, while letting out too little can prevent the lead climber from moving smoothly up the rock, causing fatigue. “Whenever you’re climbing, you’re putting your life in someone else’s hands,” says Wright.

That Lion Rock climb went well enough that Wright and Lai decided to become regular climbing partners. In the ensuing years, they went climbing just about every weekend, training during the week. Soon, they built a little community around Hong Kong’s crags, roping in so many friends and newcomers to the sport that a local climbing store started giving them discounts.

Over the years, they formed a deep trust. “After years of climbing, I trust June like family,” says Wright. Lai concurs: “Some of my most scared moments of my life, Josh has been there and gotten me.”

The blossoming of Wright and Lai’s climbing partnership coincided with the rise of the smartphone, and soon the two began to put their heads together and brainstorm how to make a strong waterproof case to protect their phones on excursions. A wildly successful Kickstarter campaign helped them bring their cases to others, and gradually this became a full-time venture for both. Their company, Catalyst, now sells waterproof iPhone cases in over 60 countries. In forming the business, says Lai, it helped enormously “that Josh and I already naturally had that trust.”

It’s not just trust: climbing partners who become business partners also are likely to develop stronger communication skills. In an office environment, decorum sometimes leads partners to keep their mouths shut. Not so when climbing. Explains Wright: “In climbing, if somebody’s about to do something that puts them in harm’s way, and you don’t speak up,” then that person could get severely hurt. You get in the habit of sweating the small stuff, and speaking with precision about how to fix problems that might seem small, but aren’t: “If someone sets up an anchor wrong, or there’s a gear in the wall that’s in backwards, or the belay device is set up improperly, you’ve got to communicate that. When we do design work or product development, it’s not life-and-death stuff, but we still have a really direct way of communicating.”


There’s no room for decorum in climbing or in business; bluntness is the name of the game. “You don’t have to look good. You’ve seen me at my worst, and I’ve seen you at your worst,” says Lai. “I gave up worrying about what Josh thought about me a long time ago.”

It’s can also be useful to climb with a partner with a different physical type. “Climbing is like solving a puzzle with your body,” says Wright, and each body tackles that puzzle differently. Early in his climbing career, says Wright, he climbed mostly with men, and had a “macho” style, favoring routes up a rock that demanded pull-ups. He often went home with arm or shoulder injuries. Lai, meanwhile, is much smaller than Wright; she can’t even do a single pull-up. Yet Wright says he has learned enormously from studying her technique, which favors routes that emphasize leg strength. “Girls have such better technique,” he says.

It’s the same in business, where their very different backgrounds suggest different ways to solve a problem. A designer sees things differently than a financier. “We come to problems with completely different points of view,” says Lai. “Often Josh has a perspective that’s the opposite of mine, which is valuable.”

Rock climbing can also alter the way we manage risk, and “authentic risks” versus “inauthentic risks.” The authentic risk is that time you climb without safety equipment on a rocky outcropping above piranha-infested waters: not for everyone, and arguably not smart at all. But the inauthentic risk, says Lai, is when “the only thing that’s holding you back is psychological.” The heights may be dizzying, but you know your rope is just as secure as it was 100 feet further down the mountain.

Being a successful climber is in part about being able to distinguish between the two types of risk–and having the psychological fortitude to power through inauthentic risks, those moments when you’re irrationally scared.

Wright actually says the moment he decided to take the plunge and cofound a company was when he saw another climbing friend back down from the last third of a climb that he knew the man could handle. “I saw myself in him, in my career. I wasn’t actually taking that risk to go to the top,” he recalls. “When I saw that, I really decided to take the leap into starting the company.”



About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.