Sender One Climbing Ascends through Adversity
Sender One Climbing LLC (Sender One) is an indoor climbing company whose facilities also offer yoga and other fitness activities. Additionally, Sender One Climbing provides children activities such as after-school programs and birthday parties.
Co-founder and CEO Alice Kao discovered 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, alongside her business partners, she launched Sender One in 2011 on her return to the United States.
Getting people to believe in her idea was one of many obstacles Kao encountered in getting Sender One to where it is today. Kao recounts the time she 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, which, until recently, was thriving.
Sender One’s first location opened in Orange County in June 2013 with 300 members and 21 employees, generating $1.8 million in sales in its first 12 months of operations. 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 3 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 Sender One is not a majority woman-owned business, Kao leads a diverse workforce, with 60% of Sender One’s leadership positions held by women. Volunteer and community involvement are also intertwined in Sender One’s culture. The company partners with the Boys and Girls Club organizations, as well as drug rehabilitation groups in Orange County.
Additionally, the business regularly hosts fundraisers and community events for various environmental programs to protect outdoor climbing areas and to support the growth of competitive climbing. For example, at its Los Angeles location, in March 2020–just before the widespread COVID-19 shutdown–Sender One hosted the Pan American Championships. By the competition’s end, two athletes had qualified for the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics, where climbing is making its debut.
As with many other small businesses, COVID-19 has hit Sender One hard. Sender One 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 the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, Kao was able to retain or bring back many of her staff. Though the business continues to suffer due to the closures, Kao and Sender One continue to inspire the surrounding communities with their hopeful outlook. Recently, Sender One’s Orange County location reopened, albeit briefly, with 10% capacity; and has played a part in providing relief during the pandemic by converting their facilities into providers for distance learning support programs for children learning virtually.