SBA Loan Programs Keep Indoor Climbing Company Open and Connected with the Community

Alice Kao

Alice Kao discovered indoor climbing while living and working in London during a difficult time in her life. Wanting to share the healing and self-discovery that climbing brought her, she and her business partners launched Sender One Climbing LLC in 2011 on her return to the United States.

Getting people to believe in her idea was difficult at first. Kao talked to over 50 banks with her laptop and business plan in hand, attempting to secure an SBA loan for Sender One’s first location. Other obstacles included people telling her that climbing would never grow because it was a niche sport. Despite these challenges, Kao endured through the hardships and pursued her business venture.

Sender One’s first California location opened in Orange County in June 2013 with 300 members and 21 employees, generating $1.8 million in sales in its first year. Sender One’s numbers grew rapidly and just prior to the pandemic, the business had two locations with 157 employees and $8.1 million in sales. Sender One had three additional locations in progress but had to halt their openings due to COVID-19.

Alongside financial success, Sender One is proud of its values and culture. Although  it’s not a majority woman-owned business, Kao leads a diverse workforce, with many of Sender One’s leadership positions held by women. Volunteer and community involvement are also intertwined in Sender One’s culture.

Additionally, the business regularly hosts fundraisers and community events for various environmental programs aimed at protecting outdoor climbing and promoting climbing as a competitive sport. For example, in March 2020—just before the widespread COVID-19 shutdown—Sender One hosted the Pan-American Championships at its Los Angeles location. By the end of the competition, two athletes had qualified for the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics, where climbing is making its debut.

As with many other small businesses, COVID-19 hit Sender One hard. The business closed both of its locations, causing revenues to drop by 95% compared to the prior year. The closures also led to a drastic reduction of staff. However, with the assistance of SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program and COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, Kao was able to retain or bring back many of her staff. Two of Sender One’s locations have reopened at 10% capacity.

Though the business continues to face challenges, Kao and Sender One continue to inspire the surrounding communities with their hopeful outlook and thoughtful outreach.

This article does not constitute or imply an endorsement by the SBA of any opinions, products, or services of any private individual or entity.