Trail Blazer: An Interview With Martin Sterling


Martin Sterling is a man who came, quite literally from nowhere. His early years were marred by childhood abuse, his school years where wretched due to undiagnosed dyslexia and dyspraxia. He found a retreat in the world of martial arts which he started studying in 1969 when he was just 7 years old. The physical world of martial arts was a liberation and became a central theme in his life, taking him into many varied and diverse jobs including being a bodyguard and a stuntman in the movies. It was while on a journey in the far east in 1983 researching the martial arts of India that Sterling was first exposed to the arcane practices of fire walking and glass walking. He went on to study these practices in depth for many months at the feet of the Indian masters, before returning to the UK in 1984 to set up and run his first fire walk here - an event for his martial arts students at the time.

Slowly, a germ of an idea began to develop. It became apparent to Sterling that although fire walking did have a novelty value to the general public, it was still viewed as a 'stunt'. However, the idea of utilising fire walking for philanthropic fund raising gave it a relevance and social value too so he set out to convince the fund raising world that sponsored fire walking was a better idea than sliced bread!

Says Sterling "I began to realise that introducing such a seemingly radical idea as fire walking into such a conservative market as charity fundraising was not going to be easy work. I had quite a few charities who were interested in principle - but they were all saying 'come back when someone else has done it first' - so it was not going to be a simple task. The first fifty or so charities I had explained it to just did not 'get it' at all. They just sat and stared at me, as though they were a dog which had just been shown a card trick. You could hear the tumbleweed blowing in the breeze"

While still running Firewalks for his own students, Sterling put the idea on the back burner for a while. His job as a martial arts teacher was fairly all consuming for many years, opening his first full time Academy in 1988 but still his mind still returned to the concept from time to time. He had organised quite a few charity related fire walking events since his return from India but these were not organised by any particular charity, rather he had suggested that his students get sponsored and they would nominate a worthy cause to be the recipient of the funds.

Deciding it was time for sponsored fire walking to break through into the 'mainstream' of events, Sterling devised a simple yet effective plan.

"As we had so many charities who had said they would do it only after someone else had done it first, we set our own event up and asked a leading charity that if we made 5000, could we give it to them in return for putting their name on it? They asked us if it was a trick question and said yes, that would be fine. So, we organised the event with their name on ( it raised 5800 ), got a letter of reference from the charity saying what a great event it had been and started sending it to all those waiting on the side lines. Slowly, the idea took off. We did about 4 others that first year, and about 12 the year after. It was hard work even then though."

The 'overnight success' of sponsored fire walking took another good few years of hard work and the sound of doors being slammed in his face. The university Rags started to embrace the idea in the mid nineties with Derby Rag being the first one to test it and Oxford, Cambridge and others following suit soon after. That brought Blaze to the attention of some of the bigger players in the charity fundraising world and they were 'discovered' then by Marie Curie Cancer, Anthony Nolan Trust and the British Diabetic Association.

"Things were just starting to get established after all those years" continues Sterling " but then in 1997 some idiot from some other operation had organised a corporate fire walking event which went very wrong and made the papers and TV. It was back to square one again for us - you could not even give the event away then. All our hard work seemed to have been in vein."

The Present

It seems that the truism about success with any new idea follows a predictable pattern. Firstly, any new idea is ridiculed. Secondly it is violently opposed and thirdly it is accepted as common sense. The idea of Sponsored Fire walking seems to have followed that path. Here in 2005, 21 years after its inception Sponsored Fire walking is now seen by most charities as common sense. So much so that they think it has been around from the year dot and don't realise that someone invented the idea and the years of hard work and graft that went into it to start with.

Also, now Blaze have opened the door, other Firewalk instructors are treating it like its 'lost property' they found on the floor and are trying to jump on our idea and take it as their own. "Lamentable but understandable I think" says Sterling of those who try to profit from his two decades of hard work " some of the people who offer charity fire walking events have no idea of the years of hard work we have put into it. It's because they themselves are still new to the whole scene having only comparatively recently been introduced to fire walking. Often just letting them know they are infringing our intellectual property rights is enough and they stop doing it. No harm, no foul." but of the others he says "then there are those who know very well they are stealing. They are the ones we take action against. I abhor people stealing my life's work under the thin guise of 'doing it for charity and its all for a good cause'. Some of them just self destruct. Some we have had to drag a few into court and stop them that way. Sometimes it's the only way. The thing which gives these charlatans away is the way that everything they do is 'modelled' (read plagiarised ) on our operation. The price is often 50 per person. Or exactly half at 25. Or a flat rate of 1500. The other give away is that they scour every word that we put out there, in search of inspiration. (actually the biggest give away is how they use the words Firewalking and Charity in the same sentence..) For instance, chances are this very line you are reading is at this moment being read by someone looking to rip us off in some way or other. That's why we have buried it down here, in the body of the text. It would be a rare fundraiser indeed who reads this far through the article. So, you are either at a loose end to be reading this or looking to find new ways to scam the public by ripping us off in some way. We know who you are. And we are going to kick your ass too" Smiles Sterling. " In a very 'left handed' way, its very touching that they are so impressed with the ideas I have developed that they are compelled against their best judgement to blatantly rip us off... after all, they only tackle you if you have the ball, right?

The Future For Blaze?

So what does the future hold for Blaze? "Amazingly, we are still coming across charities everyday who have not heard of using fire walking - even after all these years. Initially, we thought this might have a three or four year life span but it seems that they are still making people who have not yet firewalked with us! " jokes Sterling " Regarding the future, we are engaged in developing four new events to be trialled over the next twelve months with our established clients plus we have a brand new fundraising concept which we believe will be even more popular than the firewalking in the long run. We are also expanding into Europe now too by forming strategic alliances with Firewalking experts in different countries who are requesting licences to use our 'Sponsored Firewalking' template. We have started promoting the Blaze concept in Sweden and in Dubai through our representatives there and we can see great things ahead by working in unison with these like minded people."

Long Term Goals?

When asked about the long term aims of Blaze, Martin Sterling lights up like a Christmas tree. Clearly, this is something close to his heart.

Just what does the NEXT twenty one years hold for Blaze? "We realise that we have just started the good work we are capable of with our fundraising concepts. Now that what we offer is becoming more accepted, its time to raise the bar"

Sterling continues "Firstly we are concentrating on the development of our current crop of new instructors - after all, it's important to have good people who can drive it all forward. I think we have only recently become aware of the esteem people place on the quality of our instructors - which is a reflection upon the time I have put in with them." Then he says something which initially could be taken to be a flippant comment but by looking at his expression you would become aware that he is deadly serious.

"In the UK over the last ten years alone, it is has been estimated that Blaze has raised 5.6 million pounds for worthy causes. We can see that by working with our licensed partners in the rest of the world, we could be generating at least that much each YEAR for worthy causes, maybe more. You can probably understand why we just can't allow other peoples personal avarice get in the way of the work we do here. Nothing can be allowed to endanger that dream"

And then he says it.

"Our long term goals are that over the next twenty one years we will have surpassed a total raised of One Hundred Million Pounds raised worldwide ( 100,000,000 ) for worthy causes by using the 'Crazy' idea I developed all those years ago. And by working with the right people across Europe and the world, raising in excess of 5m a year across the next 20 years - it is totally achievable too. In fact, we may have to expand our vision a little. Maybe 'only' aiming to raise a hundred million pounds is under estimating it. We will have to wait and see."

Coming from anyone else, throwing figures like that around could be written off as idle rhetoric. But this is the 'man from nowhere' talking and when you review the challenges he has overcome already, things take on a very different perspective.

"Sure, we have had people laugh when we have shared our vision with them - but it just shows they cant see what isn't there yet. This whole thing started because I saw what wasn't real yet but could be. It's no different." Sterling smiles to himself as he concludes "Can you imagine being part of the team that helped raise one hundred million pounds for charity in your lifetime? A pretty good reason to get out of bed in the morning eh?"