I dropped out of A-levels but went on to become an entrepreneur running my own successful business – Wales Online

As teenagers wait to pick up their A level results next week one man who dropped out of his exams twice has a message for those who don’t get the grades they hoped for. Ollie Noakes struggled in sixth form and left with one AS grade D in PE – but five years later he opened his business which now turns over £1.5m a year.

Ollie Noakes who founded the successful Boulders indoor climbing centres with a half a million pound loan aged 23, admitted he messed around and his mental health suffered as he tried to fit into academic work at school. Now he is urging anyone who doesn’t get the grades they hoped for, or feels exams aren’t for them, not to panic and to consider other options.

“I went to a traditional school with a sixth form. It was quite an academic school. I had a good education but I’m dyslexic and never really took the academic side of things. My school was very focussed on academic work and it was a given everyone would go to university.” You can get more story updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletters here.

Ollie Noakes founded Boulders indoor climbing centre in Cardiff aged 23

Ollie went on to sixth form but pulled out half way through AS in the first year. After “a lot of debate” with his dad he began a Higher National Certificate (HNC) vocational qualification in leisure at another sixth form the following year. But Ollie didn’t enjoy that either and admitted he began acting up: “I was thick as thieves with one friend and causing mayhem. Eventually one member of staff told us if we stopped behaving like idiots they were willing to keep us on.”

He never got the HNC, but Ollie began climbing at a climbing wall with help from the college, became a swimming pool lifeguard, and joined the Army Cadets and then the Territorial Army. During his time in the TA he gained military mechanics qualifications, met people from all walks of life, and joined the Army Mountaineering Association going on expeditions to the Alps, Greenland, Cuba, the Himalayas, Morocco and Europe.

It was here that Ollie met Rob Lawrence, who was five years older and would become his business partner to launch the Boulders indoor climbing centre off Newport Road in Cardiff in 2008. At the time it was one of the only indoor climbing centres in Cardiff and only one of a few in Wales.

Ollie and Rob, who left the business in 2014, settled on Cardiff to open Boulders because they climbed a lot in Wales. They secured the cash they needed to launch it from loan and equity. As more and more people started the sport Ollie opened a second branch in Cheltenham in 2019 and earlier this year a third centre in Culverhouse Cross in Cardiff.

Ollie Noakes at his Boulders climbing centre

“I’m from London but we settled on opening Boulders here because we were spending a lot of time in Wales climbing and fell in love with Cardiff,” said Ollie.

Boulders now employs 60 people and Ollie said he wasn’t concerned by people’s academic qualifications when he was hiring. He just wants to know they have the skills and the attitude he wants.

To people awaiting their exam results, the successful businessman has this advice: “School is just one direction, there are plenty of other opportunities to pursue. Don’t worry but do go out looking for those other opportunities. Go out and try things and fail at things. Think about your strengths and what works for you.

“I felt low when it was going wrong for me in sixth form. It was a direction I was not on. My advice to students who are worried, and their parents, is to say school is only one direction. I would encourage parents not to force people back into another round of A-levels if it’s not worked.”

Now aged 38 and married with a two-year-old son, Ollie, a qualified climbing instructor who holds national and governing body awards for climbing and mountaineering, added: “I did a lot of soul searching, hard work and boring work. In school it’s pass or fail but in work it’s not all about academic qualifications.”