By Kelly Ann Crane
When Australian-born Ross Milton created Bounce Middle East, he took more than just a physical leap of faith. Signing over his life-savings for a run-down office block in Al Quoz; turning his back on a high-paid corporate career; numerous exercises in patience, tenacity and diplomacy – it wasn’t all smiles and somersaults.
“I used to lie down on the floor at home, look up at the ceiling and ask myself ‘What am I doing?’” Milton said, eyebrows raised.
“I signed a 10-year lease on a property that didn’t have the right classification to even operate as a sports facility. I knew how many people I had to get through the door each month to make rent. I had concerns about everyone going home in the summer – we opened in June,” he added. Needless to say Milton experienced more sleepless nights than when his first child was born seven years ago.
Bounce is an extreme indoor trampoline universe behind Times Square Mall in Al Quoz and it’s shaping up to be one of the city’s most successful recreational venues yet. The centre’s 80+ trampolines – free jumping, dodgeball, wall trampolines and the giant air bag – are booked out at AED 80 (USD 22) per person, on the hour, for pretty much the majority of the 10am-10pm opening hours every week.
Its customer base is predominantly kids, but as diverse as tweens, teenagers, dodgeball teams, birthday parties, skaters, skiers, thirty-somethings, base jumpers, basketball players, corporate groups, budding Olympians, divers, tricksters, circus performers, trampoline fanatics – the list goes on.
From USA to UAE
Born and raised in a small town called Wodonga, Victoria, – halfway between Melbourne and Sydney, Milton was “born in the bush,” he said with a smile. Fondly referring to himself as the “black sheep” of his family, the 51-year-old left home for the bright lights of the big city and thus found his city wife, whom he would later marry. Two kids and a short span back in Wodonga later, Milton and his family were on the move again, this time to the USA and food giant Mars.
“I was the global CFO of a USD 30-billion business,” he said. “I found a comfort in numbers but also knew I had an aptitude with people.” In July 2012 he moved with Mars to the UAE and took on the responsibility of more than 8,000 people as the head of HR for the wider Middle East region.
Milton admits he dreamt about starting a business for about 25 years, but never did it. “A voice in my head was always nagging. Something just felt right about this. I’ve gone from leading senior executives to coaching students and young people in their first jobs. It’s very different, but extremely rewarding.”
“Lots of my good friends in Australia have started various businesses and I was envious,” he said. “Developing and coaching is something I’m good at and my gut would often tell me I’d be successful. About three years ago I was in Australia and dear friends of mine told me about Bounce. A year later I was back again and it stuck with me. Kids running around having a blast. All my passions were ignited.”
Making the jump
Serial entrepreneurs Ant Morell and Simon McNamara, the founders of Bounce Inc. – now run seven centers across Australia with plans for facilities in Hong Kong, South Africa and Stockholm. The pair signed an agreement, allowing Milton and business partner Doran Davies, rights to develop the concept across the Middle East.
“I did limited research,” admits Milton. “It was a large degree of gut feeling. I thought the Middle East is desperate for something like this and it was six months from conception to opening.” But one thing Milton did do – something he advises all budding entrepreneurs to consider – is read a book.
Approached many times and asked his best advice for an entrepreneur, Milton’s answer has always been the same. “I would give that person a book on starting your own business,” he said. “It could be any book. I would say ‘if you can read this book, from start to finish in the next four weeks, come back and we’ll chat about it more’. I’d say 99% of them wouldn’t finish the book. I suppose for me it was just a sign that if you can’t even read a book, you’re not ready to start a business.”
Part to test his theory and part to gain some less-than-needed reassurance, Milton read five books cover to cover. “I don’t think all the answers are in the book, not at all,” he said. “It’s more about the dedication and showing you’re prepared to sacrifice other things in your life in order to finish the book.”
The startup journey
A chat with Milton is a bit like a session with a life coach. Full of positivity and encouragement, it’s not difficult to see why the former corporate soldier was destined for a life at the helm. “I should have had more confidence in my own skills and abilities,” he said. “Being an accountant I was a little more risk averse than most, but looking at this place it makes me wonder if I should have backed myself a bit earlier.”
Leaving a high-paid job, Milton knew it would be months, if not years, before he could pull the same kind of numbers from his own entity, but said the job-satisfaction doesn’t compare. “I can’t describe the feeling when I come out from the office and hear 100 school kids having a great time; learning something new; learning about their bodies.”
Bounce Worldwide currently works with more than 1,000 schools globally. Milton launched Forces in Motion – a course of study on Newton’s Laws of Motion for teachers and students, culminating in a session at Bounce.
“We explain the science behind jumping and falling back to earth while they get to bounce around having a great time,” he said. “Teachers love it – kids love it more.”
Milton also hopes to find the next Emirati trampoline Olympian with the help of five-time national champion of Spain, coach Chris, who runs training school Flight Academy. “We have a nine-year-old who can do a double somersault with a double twist,” he said. “The sky is the limit – pun very much intended.”
So why trampolines? “What’s not to love about it?” he said rhetorically. “When I first jumped on one of Simon’s trampolines, it brought back so many memories. Jumping out of trees; on my parent’s bed; my trampoline at home in the back garden.”
Bounce Middle East has been open for eight months and in terms of business model, it’s hitting all the right targets with an estimate of 300,000 visitors in the first year.
“You’ve got to have a passion for wanting to run your own business,” said Milton. “I think a lot of people have good ideas and want to try, but don’t want it enough.”
Bouncing off the walls
Milton now works more hours than in his job at Mars and believes this constitutes a large proportion of his success. “Being a finance person, I wouldn’t have gone into something that wasn’t going to provide a return. However, starting any business means a significant investment. It means long hours and as the general manager, the buck stops with me. We took a building that was predominantly offices and had to do major demolition work to get the place ready, as well as get it rezoned from industrial to sports and recreation.”
Getting the authorities to sign it off was a challenge given some officials had never seen a trampoline before. “They are learning and evolving all the time. The UAE is a great place for entrepreneurs, but for us there was a huge gap between idea and reality. It took a lot of time, patience and tenacity.”
Milton’s tips for an entrepreneur on the verge of taking the leap come threefold.
“Surround yourself or at least have someone on the end of a phone who has done it before so when you do have that sleepless night or that moment when you’re flat out on the floor you can speak to someone who knows exactly what you’re going through,” he laughs.
“When it comes to the economic department and the municipality, go yourself. Don’t send a PRO to do your job. Nothing beats having the conversation or the one-to-one, building the relationship, asking the right questions.”
And finally, when in doubt, BOUNCE!