How Two Best Friends Built a Successful Business Hauling Stuff to the Beach
The Sand Runners concept seems simple enough: Two guys take your beach gear from your vehicle or hotel to your place on the sand, then haul it all back at the end of the day.
If you’ve ever spent half a day at the beach lugging chairs, umbrellas, coolers and an unreasonable number of toys to your place in the sun, you can appreciate the ingenuity of a business built on solving a common frustration.
And Sand Runners has turned out to be a dream career for best friends Ryan Barca and Spencer LaBarbera.
“It honestly has been like the best job I could ever even conceive of,” Barca says. “We’re sitting on the beach, we’re talking to people all day, we’re in the sun, we’re helping people.”
And the reception they’ve received at Treasure Island, Florida, on the state’s west coast, has been positive, making the job that much sweeter.
“People genuinely appreciate what we’re doing,” Barca says. “That means a lot to us — it’s important that we see the look on people’s faces that are like, ‘Wow, without you my day was going to be ruined.’”
Sand Runners charges $5 for a one-way load, or $10 roundtrip. The partners make extra cash from tips. The 22-year-old entrepreneurs won’t disclose exactly how much they made in 2017, their first season, but Barca says the amount was “in the tens of thousands.”
But just because they’ve enjoyed some early success doesn’t mean that starting the business has been a simple walk on the beach.
“We both dropped out of college to do this,” LaBarbera says. “We both used our life savings. It took all of that. At one point I had four jobs; he had three jobs.”
The business partners and roommates haven’t given up their gigs as Uber drivers just yet, but they’re confident they’ve created a business that’s replicable at any high-traffic beach in Florida. They intend to dominate all those beaches — and beyond.
“Where we’d like to be in five years is to for sure have this region of Florida completely locked down and probably southern Florida — Miami, Key West,” Barca says. “And then that’s where we’d probably want to start branching out to California, up the coast.”
Getting onto those beaches will require permits and approval from city councils, whose members might need some convincing that there’s a demand for Sand Runners on their beaches.
All of that takes patience and persistence, but the pair says they have plenty of both.
“We want to bring this to the far reaches of the world,” Barca adds. “And we’re young, so we got plenty of time.”
A Business Built on Sand
When Barca was a student at St. Leo University in Florida, he took a beach vacation with his family. Unable to check into the room early, Barca lugged all the gear to the beach. As a result, he was sweaty and miserable the rest of the day.
That hassle sparked an idea: What if there was a beachside service that carted the chairs, umbrellas and towels and set it all up so beachgoers could simply enjoy the day?
“We need to jump on this,” Barca recalls thinking at the time. But he knew he couldn’t run the business alone, so he called his childhood pal LaBarbera, who was attending Eastern Connecticut State University at the time.
In January 2017, before they hit the beach, Barca and LaBarbera filed paperwork to make their business idea a reality. That included registering as a limited liability corporation, acquiring insurance and getting permit approval from the City of Treasure Island.
The partners selected Treasure Island partly because of its local, family-friendly appeal and partly because at some points it’s more than an 800-foot walk across hot sand from the parking lot to the water.
They also work with some local hotels, which allow Sand Runners to promote their services and haul guests’ beach gear to and from hotel lobbies.
To keep costs low, the duo used two manual wagons their first season, but after a particularly brutal Fourth of July holiday, they invested in electric carts this year.
“In a one-week span, we lost 10 pounds each,” says LaBarbera, who estimates that they also spend about $12 every week on sunscreen.
Sand Runners opened for business on March 24, 2017, and was on the beach through Labor Day. Barca and LaBarbera set up their sandwich board sign every Wednesday through Sunday most weeks — more often if it was a holiday. This year they started March 1 and expect to operate past Labor Day.
Barca says that when a vehicle pulls into a parking space, they can quickly predict whether the beachgoers will become clients — coolers and tents are a giveaway that a family is there for the day and could use some help.
At that point, Barca or LaBarbera rolls his wagon over to the open trunk and offers the service. If a beachgoer accepts, the guys assign a number and load up the gear, stacking coolers, towels, chairs, bags and surfboards for the walk down the sand, typically in one trip. Typically.
“We had one family… they had three carloads — four coolers, four tents, all the chairs, tables. They had speakers,” Barca says, then nods toward LaBarbera. “You called me and you were like, ‘Yeah, I need backup.’ We each did a double trip.”
After walking the clients to their spot, the guys help set up canopies, dig holes for the umbrellas and other tasks. Then the partners mark the place via a location app so they can find their clients for the return trip.
They also use that location app when a client texts or calls in a request for supplies from the Publix grocery store across the street. For another $5, plus the cost of the item, the guys will pick up everything from water to tampons for beachgoers.
“Whatever anyone needs, we’ll run and go grab it for them because it’s such a far walk out there,” says Barca, who estimates that 10% of his clients are local residents, 30% are tourists from out of the state or country and the remainder are Florida tourists from outside the Tampa Bay area.
Business in Every Direction
Sand Runners operates out of a public lot with about 60 parking spaces, but there’s additional parking across the street. Customers can drive up to the Sand Runner station, unload their gear, park their car across the street and find their beach day already set up for them.
The pair also gets a lot of business from people who may have had the energy to bring everything on their way to the beach, but not coming back.
“We get a lot of people who are coming up to use the bathroom,” Barca says. “And they’re like, ‘Hey, can you come find me down there — we didn’t use you on the way down, but we need you on the way back up.’”
Sand Runners also gets referrals from other beach-based services.
“I give out their cards sometimes if I see people struggling out to the beach with their stuff — then they can get help back in at least,” says Christian Pownall, who works for Taylor Beach Service renting beach chairs and umbrellas. “I’m surprised nobody else had thought about it… but I’m glad someone did.”
Dressing the Part
It’s tough to build an empire when you look like the court jesters, so Barca and LaBarbera spend a lot of time deciding how to best brand their business. The pair wears matching blue shirts that sport the company logo, along with identical straw hats, khaki shorts and reflective sunglasses.
It’s all part of presenting themselves as professionals, Barca says.
“If you see a guy in a swimsuit and he comes up in a wagon and says, ‘Hey, can I pull your stuff?’ you’re not going to trust him,” Barca says. “Personality is also a big part of it.”
One of their first clients, Melissa Stewart of Winter Haven, Florida, agrees. But it was more than nice clothes that convinced her she could trust them with her family’s beach day.
“It was their personality and the way they carried themselves,” says Stewart, who comes to the beach with her husband and 1-year-old daughter. “They’re very respectful — ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am’… And that goes a long way.”
The duo’s efficiency and timeliness make it well worth the money, according to Stewart, who’s a regular client.
“When we go to the beach, I want to be comfortable because we’ll go just for the day,” she says noting that she tips the guys more than 20% any time she uses the service. “They’re well worth the money, if not more.”
Stewart says that Sand Runners is part of the reason her family now only goes to Treasure Island for beach outings, so she hopes the business expands.
“I won’t go to the beach without them,” Stewart says. “It’s something I could see catching on at every beach.”
Barca and LaBarbera agree they’d like to franchise in the future, but they consider maintaining the consistency of the Sand Runners brand an essential element of their success.
“You have to really dedicate the time — you can’t expect immediate results,” Barca says. “We want to be the ones controlling the destiny of Sand Runners and not leaving it really up to anyone, until we know for certain that we can trust people to do what we do and do it the way we want it done.”
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She had to spend two days at the beach to get this story. It’s a tough life.