Paul Cave, BridgeClimb: the best ever story of perseverance

“I had a two-year business plan and it took 10 years,” admits Paul Cave, founder of the iconic BridgeClimb business on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. To put this into context, that’s longer than it took to actually build the bridge in the 1920s.

Paul Cave, founder of BridgeClimb operating on the Sydney Harbour Bridge“I borrowed some money, and then I borrowed some more. If I turned around, I was dead and buried. I was so far along that tunnel that there really wasn’t an alternative … other than pursuing it!”

In this exclusive chat with the My Business Podcast crew, serial entrepreneur Paul reveals the extraordinary lengths he has gone through in order to protect his IP, how he operates one of the most heavily regulated businesses in the country, as well as his sheer determination and perseverance to succeed despite the odds being enormously stacked against him. Plus loads more!

Enjoy the show!

Disclosure: My Business editor Adam Zuchetti completed a BridgeClimb experience as a guest of the company prior to the recording of this podcast.

Full transcript

Adam Zuchetti: Welcome to the My Business podcast, it's Adam Zuchetti here, the editor. We have an absolutely fascinating guest in the studio today who I'm really excited about. I'll cross to Andy and say good day though first.

Andy, how are you?

Andy Scott: I'm very well. I'm very excited as well because having been in this wonderful country for 16 years. Today's guest is one of the first things I did here.

Adam Zuchetti: Oh, very good. Well I'm sure you're not the only one.

Andy Scott: I reckon not. I reckon but enough of my yakking, let's introduce today's guest.

Adam Zuchetti: Today's guest was telling me that 3.6 million people have effectively gone through their doors and they are world renown and if you haven't heard of them, I really don't know which rock you would have been under. We have Paul Cave who was the founder of Bridge Climb which operates on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Paul, thank you so much for coming in.

Paul Cave: It's fantastic to be here, thanks for having me for this chat.

Adam Zuchetti: Brilliant. I guess that everyone does know Bridge Climb, it's such a famous experience but people don't realise it's actually a business first and foremost. Now you've got a really interesting tale to tell about establishing the business. I understand it actually took longer to get government approval to start the business than it did for the Harbour Bridge itself to be built, is that right?

Paul Cave: That is true.

Not necessarily government approval but the process took... I had a two year business plan and that took 10 years so it was a long time. I think during that period when the concept of climbing the bridge... I actually thought we'd find something else somewhere else in the world that we could replicate. We didn't find something else. So that was a big part of the journey.

We were pioneering a lot of things and there wasn't any such thing as climbing a bridge for tourists anywhere in the world. A lot of what we had to come up with firstly was the research about the bridge, and its history, and its heritage, and the environmental issues, and safety issues, and the fact that the bridge has got to be maintained. Lots of unions on that bridge, 16 of them back then, 120 bridge workers, so sharing that space with them, the tow truck drivers and all those sort of issues all became part of that journey.

Of course, this is a really simple idea and with simple ideas you want to do your research but you can't share that idea with anyone because otherwise the genie's out of the bottle as simple as an idea as it is. That was probably one of the most difficult things, I think that simple idea and how do you research a simple idea? How do you get the answers to the questions before you actually approach the government? Because we really wanted to go with a business plan that was pretty thoroughly researched so that was I think a big part of that challenge, of that journey.

Adam Zuchetti: That is a really big challenge. A lot of business struggle with that. They're trying to be innovative, they're trying to bring new things to market but they're worried about a competitor getting a jump on them. For a 10 year process there's obviously a lot of time for someone else to get wind of this and try and beat you to the punch. How did you manage that? To maintain the exclusivity of your idea, ensure that no one did get the jump on you, but that you were still able to effectively go through all the research, all the channels, all the approvals, everything that you needed to get the business up and running.

Paul Cave: Yes, I think this is a really great question. We ended up having 176 people sign confidentiality agreements so about 6 pages in length, they were meant to onerous because I remember going to a patent attorney and our lawyer and they were frantic that I should ask, the patent attorney particularly couldn't believe I was asking. He said: this is my business. Your business is frequently about patenting someone, something and I understand that but I don't want you discussing this with your team, I just want your brain to give me some ideas around whether I can patent this but then how do we go about it. In the end, and the same with the lawyer... Lawyer's traditionally over their lunch discuss with their partners, these are the cases I'm dealing with.

I have the confidentiality agreements from those two people framed at home. They were significant and we needed to talk to people like the NRMA and I needed psychologist, and psychiatrists about traffic distraction, about people suiciding and heritage, and environmental... So a lot of people needed to be consulted with including North Sydney Council, Sydney City Council, and then a lot of people within government departments who we manage to get cooperatively give us information or work with us. It ended up being a big part of the journey related to the simple idea and how do you keep it to yourself.

If you're revved up about it, yourself so excited, how do you manage that excitement? How do you contain what is a really simple idea?

Adam Zuchetti: You must have met some resistance from people thinking either: this is a great idea and I myself want to go and tell other people or resistance in, no I really don't want to sign these confidentiality agreements. And if it was an organisation, or a business, or a government department, or something that you really needed that information from, how did you manage that kind of push back to ensure that you were getting those agreements signed and that everything was going in your favour?

Paul Cave: If we couldn't get someone to sign them, we didn't talk to them. Yes, understandably a lot of people don't like the thought of needing to do that, but we had to say this is something that's interesting, we think it's different, I think it's different but I don't want the idea out there until we've done our research. The big issue was my goal was to try and enable this to happen but I didn't honestly know if it was going to be feasible at the end of the journey. Because would we find something that would disenable us? In the end, we found solutions to the issues about how we climb ladders and I wanted to, at a relatively simple business plan, was to attach someone for 100 per cent of the time from start to the end of the experience and prepare them to do it, fairly simple.

Could we actually attach people? How are we gonna do that? How would we communicate with people, as well during that?

I was hoping that I was gonna find, as we said earlier, something that we could replicate in the rest of the world but we didn't find that. The journey become longer because we were inventing the attachment devices we use are all internally developed. Those sorts of things just took a lot longer.

Andy Scott: Paul, it's really interesting to me that you talk about it being such a simple idea and it is. I'm interested to know where the genesis of the idea, where you came from. Did you just look at the bridge one day and think, we should walk up that? Or was there something more to it?

And I guess the second part is, you obviously knew there was gonna be a lot of work involved in doing this, but at what point did you realise you possible underestimated how much work was gonna have to be done? How you mentally got yourself through that.

Paul Cave: I think success in business is always not just one marathon but a multi-marathon and that's my approach. I tend to be someone who likes the passion but like the journey and likes the obsessiveness and likes those characteristics that come with this sort of thing. So I think your question relates partly to an approach as to how one does something like this when you don't know whether you're going to be able to actually get to the end of that journey.

You're right, I didn't understand. Even though we did a lot of work, we didn't really realise just how complex this was gonna be. If I had known this was gonna take me 10 years, I never would have started. Simple. Really simple. I allocated an amount of money, I spent four times that amount of money and spent five times as long as I thought I would but I think also you get so far along a journey that if you think you're succeeding and if you think you're heading in the right direction, you want to pursue that to the end.

Of course I borrowed some money then I borrowed some more. If I had turned around, I was dead and buried. So far along that tunnel that there really wasn't an alternative. I didn't ever see an alternative other than pursuing it and needing to keep going.

Andy Scott: Was it the little winds that helped you get through that then? Obviously time was blowing out, the expenses were blowing out, all these other things were coming, is that how it was? Little wind, little wind, little wind – I'm moving forward, I'm making progress, I'm getting towards my goal.

Paul Cave: Yes, broadly. Sometimes it's three steps forward and two backwards and that often happened.

We had an issue with State Rail. There's a rule in the state if you're within 8 metres of train track, thou shalt wear a fluorescent orange jacket, makes good sense. I said to State Rail, we're putting a fluorescent. We don't want a fluorescent orange jacket, we're putting people in grey to blend them in environmentally with the bridge.

“Oh no, this is our rule.”

I said, we're coming down this ladder. We're within six metres of your train but we're wearing a one metre lanyard and I'll have a hundred million dollars’ worth of public risk insurance. This lanyard will attach.

“No, no, no, none of that. The rule is fluorescent orange jacket.”

So dealing with State Rail over that issue took over 2 years.

Andy Scott: Wow.

Paul Cave: In the end, the Chief Executive stepped in and said we can put a cover around the ladder so that the train drivers can see people. There are other ways to resolve this. Fortunately, an act of parliament was passed to enable us to do that to overcome State Rail.

Way back then, unions played a significant part in running under sets of rules that were related to their own needs and not thinking outside that. That became...that was demonstrative, I think, of the major sort of challenge.

Adam Zuchetti: Yeah, needing an act of parliament. Was it just the one? Were there others act of parliament that needed to be introduced so that the business could get up and running?

Paul Cave: No, that was really the only one and that was a change in their rules, just simply a change to accommodate that distance, the requirement that State Rail has.

Adam Zuchetti: Another interesting question to ask you would be: having done 10 years’ worth of research and thinking you'd solved every possible imaginable problem, once you actually launched the business and began training, were there things that cropped up that no one and nothing during that lengthy process that actually thought about? Or was it all really smooth sailing because it had all been done before?

Paul Cave: I think the fact the research was so thorough was probably, at the end, very, very helpful but as an entrepreneur, still, what are you in control of? And what aren't you in control of?

We'd put a bit of work into it, a bridge in the U.S., spent several years at it and then we might have had a hint of agreement close to being in place when some aeroplanes  flew into a building 10 years ago, 11 years ago. That's just the reality of the risk one takes for any entrepreneur. Things that are outside your control that you can't always necessarily provide for.

Andy Scott: You'd done all this work, spent all this time, all this money. First day you opened, did you know you were gonna have costumers? Or was it the first day, unlock the door, open it ...

Adam Zuchetti: Just hope!

Andy Scott: Can you go back to that? Were you there first day, did you open the door? Tell us what that was like. What was going through your mind at that point?

Paul Cave: That was one thing I always felt really confident about, ‘cause this was doing something that was on an Aussie icon and it wasn't available anywhere else in the world. I felt very confident about the customers.

And fortunately, with something that was unusual like this that the PR and the press coverage was significant and it's still today is the biggest driver of customers for the business. Customers were never, in that instance, were never really a concern. Numbers of them or the magnitude of them but ... we can always do with more.

Andy Scott: You said at the top end 3.6 million people on that bridge, it's obviously a very successful business. At what point...you had all this confidence, you'd done this research, what point did you realise I've hit the jackpot here, I've cracked this?

Paul Cave: Day one. Yeah. Day one. I really knew, once we got there the rest was going to be a lot easier than the making it happen. Mind you, I think with climb leaders and with people and with keeping things fresh and changing and evolving, unless we kept continuing to do that you would lose interest for your own staff.

We talked earlier about numbers of photographs, there are millions of photographs of that bridge but they'll be millions more. One of our ideas for the future is biannual photographic exhibitions. And you know you'll keep getting so many angles and weather and all sorts of other things that keep on telling more stories about this icon.

Andy Scott: I think that's an interesting thing we did talk about before. In the actual mechanics of the business, how do you see most, 90 per cent of your business coming from people never done it, do it once, and I'll never come back and you think there's going to be millions of these people so we don't need to worry about it? Or do you say, it's really important people do it a second time or a third time and a fourth time? Have you identified that and what have you don't to shape that customer flow?

Paul Cave: Sure, sure. It's highly desirable that we provide different experiences, so a range of experiences. We opened the business just climbing during the day time. Now we climb 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and the nature of the experience is in the parts of the bridge you're on. The way we can mould that experience is an important part of what becomes the feature of the climb. We can have anything from a wedding, marriage proposal on the bridge to someone celebrating a birthday or all sorts of other events. Of course, you've got some people that really want to climb and they've got a fascination for knowledge about the technical parts of the bridge or history. I think our role is to share bits of what Sydney and the building of that bridge was incredibly significant.

When you think about 1926 we built that bridge so there was only a million people in Sydney. They had 50 million people crossing Sydney Harbour by ferry in the year the bridge was opened and we talk, as you did a little earlier, about technology today moving on and you think that total ferry industry was disrupted over night when the bridge happened. You think of the changes that the bridge then brought on but that bridge was built with eight lanes of traffic, it's still the widest, car carrying bridge in the world today.

When we think about infrastructure that this state's now building a lot of, that bridge is the most incredible example of what's possible. Back then, it was built light years ahead of its time and it's still today and will for many years to come be something that's an inspirational thing in terms of what's feasible.

Andy Scott: It's off topic a bit but it's the issue with the bridge for me with the traffic is not how much traffic you can get over the bridge, it's the grid lock in the city when you get to the other end that hasn't kept up with you.

Paul Cave: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Andy Scott: Travelling out in the city is smooth sailing in those regards. Obviously, it is an Aussie icon. Do you feel a responsibility for that as well as a custodian of, almost yes it's your business, but a custodian of representing Australia something wider as well?

Paul Cave: Absolutely, absolutely. I think the bridge, as it is, as significant as it is for Australia, with my own personal collection of bridge history is now 6 and half thousand pieces. A lot of that history is incredibly important.

I think in the future, we're seeing our role as bringing that alive and using the example of Bradfield and his incredible vision but in an educational sense. One of the things we're very much working at is the evolution of a concept but using what the bridge represents as an example of what is possible with the infrastructure and solving those problems with transportation, the bridge was a huge part of. Bradfield designed Sydney Railways. We're now about to build a railway, probably, along the northern beaches that he designed back in the 1920s. Why have we taken so long? Why are we taking so long to solve these problems?

The bridge is such a good example, you don't want to build a tunnel that's four lanes and 10 years later you knock it down and add two more lanes for triple the cost. The concept of resolving these issues a long time in advance rather than a parliamentary term of three or four years, those two things just don't meld together but we're at least building some great infrastructure today.

Adam Zuchetti: Paul, we're running out of time but I want to ask you something else and that's about when you did open the doors for the business, given how unique this experience was, how did you set your pricing structure?

Paul Cave: Ah. So the pricing of parachute jump number one had no comparisons, there aren't any comparisons to that. There are no comparisons to climbing the bridge. It was a really interesting exercise. We had a very evolved U.S. who said that were particularly skilled in this area of pricing U.S. market research company, who insisted by showing people sketches on a piece of paper, inanimate sketches, not experiential at all in my opinion so we had a real hassle. They'd do this at airports and with blue collar and what collar, we're going to tell us at airports what people are prepared to pay.

I said it's not what people are prepared to pay at all. Tell me what the price of a parachute jump if you were the first one, and they found it challenging to answer the question. Anyway, they ultimately were asking how much would you be prepared to pay? If people have a choice they want to offer you less. If you ask the question that way, it was a silly question. Anyway, they came back and said that people were prepared to pay $40-$60. I said it's not gonna make…ring for us at those numbers so we'll start at $100. Took the chance, priced it at $98 and the rest is history.

Adam Zuchetti: Fascinating.

Paul Cave: I should on pricing say that we ask every climber to rate their experience and we're 88 per cent of our people who climb filling out a six page form at the end. For today, I know what the ratings for the 760 people who climbed the bridge yesterday were. What our value for money, how they rate our experience, the climb leader and that is incredibly important to us. We keep making changes to the system or the process or the experience because of feedback from customers, where we're looking for feedback whether they're positive or negative. Really encouraging complaints, really encouraging that feedback cause that's gold.

Adam Zuchetti: It must difficult now that you're getting so many people doing...how many people climb the bridge on any given day?

Paul Cave: We're climbing a couple hundred thousand a year so we probably average 500 a day.

Adam Zuchetti: If you're getting 500 a day that's quite a few, that's quite an amount of data that you have to go through on a daily basis.

Paul Cave: Yes, yes.

Adam Zuchetti: How do you actually process all that?

Paul Cave: We process it totally so it comes back historically. We then, each day, if something sticks out amongst those 200 forms we address it there and then on the spot. If there's been a negative issue particularly or something that's of concern we will immediately be in touch with that customer the same day. But of course, our climb leaders are being assessed with each and every group they take and our process is being assessed there and then. You're looking at those things visually but then we're getting that coming back to us periodically, weekly.

That's very important for the way we run the business because we're continually looking for change. We would make to that business three to four changes a fortnight, more than half of which have come from customers and that has been the case since day one.

Adam Zuchetti: Paul, I think there's so many things that I still want to pick your brain on so if you're happy to, do you want to come back in a couple of months and we can explore some more issues?

Paul Cave: All right.

Adam Zuchetti: Thank you so much. Andy, anything to add before I wrap up?

Andy Scott: No, just appreciate your time Paul. What a fascinating story. Yeah, again there's so much more that we can learn from you so grateful for you to come back.

Adam Zuchetti: Good. All right, if you have any questions for Paul or want to do the bridge climb yourself, where can people go?

Paul Cave: We'd love to hear from them. Well, the website would give them all the information.

Adam Zuchetti: Yep and that bridgeclimb.com is it?

Paul Cave: Yes.

Adam Zuchetti: Very straight forward. All right if you've got any other questions for us, enter it at mybusniess.com is the place to go. Keep the five star ratings coming and you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. We'll see you again next week. Thanks for tuning in. Buh bye.

 

Full transcript

 

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