The Bulgarian village of Letnitsa (population 2,547) is a cluster of red-roof-tiled homes in a rural stretch of countryside in the Danube River valley, between the Balkan Mountains and the Romanian border. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive east from Sofia along a two-lane highway lined with monotone Soviet-era apartment buildings and sunflower fields. As the poorest and most corrupt member of the European Union, Bulgaria is still struggling to shed its communist past as it transitions to a market economy. A small town here is an unlikely place to manufacture walls for that most First World of sports: indoor rock climbing.
“I tend to consider myself as more clever than the others,” says Ivaylo Penchev, before leading a tour of his factory, on Letnitsa’s western edge. He and Metin Musov founded Walltopia in 1998 and have since turned it into the largest builder of climbing walls in the world. They’ve assembled more than 2.5 million square feet of them in more than 50 countries. That’s enough to cover all of the office space in the Empire State Building. They’ve surpassed older, more established companies riding the surge in interest in climbing by taking advantage of Bulgaria’s cheap labor and Penchev’s ego.
Walltopia prefabricates the panels in Letnitsa, packs the components into shipping containers, and sends a crew of burly Bulgarian men to assemble the pieces like an Erector set at their destination. Because the walls can be dismantled and reused, banks accept them as collateral. The company’s team of 70 architects and engineers designs each wall to fit the client’s vision.
To woo Sharma and his Sender One co-owner Wesley Chu, Walltopia flew them in business class to tour the factory in Letnitsa, work one-on-one with designers, and drink rakija (a brandylike Bulgarian specialty) to excess in Sofia nightclubs with Penchev. “The sense we get from Walltopia is that they want to win,” Chu says.