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Meet Wes Shih of Sender One in Westchester

Today we’d like to introduce you to Wes Shih.

Wes, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
My wife, Alice Kao, and I met Wes Chu, our co-founder in 2012. Wes Chu went to elementary school with the officiant of our wedding. Wes Chu already knew he wanted to build an indoor climbing gym in Southern California. We found we had complimentary skill sets. Wes Chu was a software engineer in the finance world; Alice had worked in international sales and marketing for a number of large toy companies, and I was an attorney looking to make a change. What we all shared was climbing; and more importantly, what climbing had done for each of us. For Alice and Wes Chu, climbing had guided them through tough personal times and formed the basis of close friendships. For me, climbing was a refuge from the stresses of my day job; and in the years I had worked in other parts of the U.S., (Little Rock, AR; Portland, ME), the climbing gym is where I found a community in a new city every time I moved.

From that introduction, Alice and I became Wes Chu’s business partners. We spent our nights and weekends working on the business plan, raising funding, and searching for a suitable location for Sender One’s first location. Although we had concentrated the search in Los Angeles, we found an ideal location in Orange County–an underserved climbing gym market compared to LA. More importantly, the building owner was willing to take a chance on us–a start-up with no operating history and 3 people with no climbing gym management experience–planning to do dramatic things to their building.

And that is the short version of what they say is history. Fast forward to today, and the Orange County location’s success allowed us to begin looking for Sender One’s second location–in LA proper–after the first location had been open for only about a year and a half.

Has it been a smooth road?
I don’t know any business that don’t have hurdles, or ups and downs–even the successful ones. If starting and growing a business were easy, everyone would be doing; but not everyone does and it’s not for everyone.

Luckily, our greatest challenges have almost always have been outward facing. The partners are a good match. Alice, Wes, and I compliment one another, and there’s no ego in the room. We all want what’s best for the business and each of us does what’s best for the business every day–at least we try to.

The significant challenges we’ve faced have almost all been construction related, specifically because of our unique business and the curveballs we throw at our construction people and at the city departments. We do dramatic changes to the buildings we occupy and fill them with structures (our climbing walls) that people have never seen before. It’s not like we’re building a retail shop or a restaurant or an office–things people see everyday. So the challenges have come from educating our construction partners and city department officials about our unique business–and showing them that actually, we are not THAT different in most ways from other service businesses. And in the ways that we are different, reassuring them and then following through.

The whole process of educating and reassuring takes time, sometimes lots of time, which means patience and money. It means accepting that months and months can go by with apparently little to no progress, and sometimes with little to know certainty that we will succeed in convincing builders or city officials that we are in the right and should be allowed to press forward. Meanwhile–funds continue to be consumed. In building this new location, we’ve had at least 2 major curve balls like this that caused months and months as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in delays.

And I’m leaving out all of the run of the mill construction complications that arise on any major build out like ours.

The other challenge comes from trying to explain to our new and existing customers why our new facility is so far behind schedule. For the most part, people are understanding. But frustration is natural, and we do our best to live our core value of seeing things from other people’s perspectives, and hoping they can do the same for us. All told, it will be about 2 years from when we found the site for the LAX location and its door’s opening.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
Sender One started out as a simple but straightforward idea—to be a place where people could discover themselves and connect with others…through climbing. Sender One is a place where climbers of all ability levels can discover and explore their limits. A place where the strongest climbers can train and challenge themselves. THE destination for people who have never climbed before to learn the sport. And most of all, a climbing gym that combines the state-of-the-art facilities, walls, and equipment of modern “mega-gyms” with the cohesive, intimate community of a small gym.

Sender One’s purpose is: to discover ourselves and connect with others through climbing. We pursue this purpose by thinking, living, and upholding Sender One’s five Core Values:
1. Share your passions. You love something; something makes you happy—whether it’s climbing, working with kids, or teaching. Pass that love along so that others can experience what you feel.
2. Find creative beta. Harness your imagination thoughtfully by finding novel and interesting approaches to our everyday responsibilities.
3. Learn from your projects…and send them. Learn and grow from each task, challenge, and interaction; then follow them through to the end.
4. See the world from other people’s perspectives. Treat others as they would want to be treated by conscientiously putting yourself in their shoes. Help others to also understand your point-of-view.
5. Climb together. Work together, support each other, share ideas, and earn trust.

We are most known for our large, open, beautiful climbing spaces. We have some of the tallest, largest climbing walls in the world; and certainly the most iconic and photographed.

We are most proud of the supportive, diverse, and inclusive communities of climbers we have grown; and the large-scale competitions, spectacles, and events we have hosted. We introduce climbing to thousands of new people every month. And these successes are often intertwined. For example, at our Orange County location, in its first year of operation, we hosted the US National Sports Climbing Championship. The event was live-streamed to tens of thousands of viewers worldwide. We had dozens of people from the local community volunteer their time to work the event. And over a thousand people (our building capacity) came to view the event in person. It was the first time this event had been hosted in Southern California.

We look forward to similar successes with our new location–particularly with climbing’s inclusion in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and Los Angeles on the short list for hosting the 2024 games.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
Los Angeles is a great place to own a business–for the brave, the driven, and those that appreciate the journey just as much as the destination. Because of the city’s size and diverse population, how well a business does, in my opinion, becomes more meritocratic. It’s a highly competitive environment, which drives you to be better and constantly improving. The size of the city also creates more opportunities for many different kinds of businesses that don’t exist in other places.

However, the size of the city also cuts the other direction. It’s like the difference between a large, public university and a small liberal arts college. There’s not a lot of hand-holding here in Los Angeles, which affords a lot of freedom. But at times, you wish it were less impersonal, particularly in the midst of dealing with challenges. There are many many resources, but the burden is on the business owner to find them and utilize them. In the end, I think that makes the successes that much sweeter, knowing you did all the heavy lifting on your own. But it’s not a place for the timid, the meek, or the people who want things to come easy.

In the end, like maybe everyone, I wish the city could help businesses create and actualize their visions faster, be a bit more supportive (how much, I’m not sure), but I also know there are trade-offs or every tweak. Change this one piece, and an unexpected consequence arises, that may or may not be beneficial.

Pricing:

  • Membership rate is $84/month for unlimited access to climbing, yoga, and fitness
  • Day rate is $22.
  • Our Introduction to Climbing lesson, which includes day rate, rental equipment, and 1-hr of instruction – $30
  • Youth and group events start at $449.

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