Hastings entrepreneur Randy Stenger has taken a creative business concept from the playground to the Shark Tank — and he’s emerged with an offer to help expand his company, Extreme Sandbox, to other states.
Stenger started his business, in which adults pay to play with construction equipment like bulldozers and excavators, in 2012. On Tuesday, he appeared on the ABC reality show “Shark Tank” to pitch Extreme Sandbox’s expansion, garnering an offer of $150,000 from two of the show’s investors to buy a 20 percent stake in the company.
“I think I was jumping up and down — I was shocked,” he said. “They definitely edited out a bunch of curse words.”
But Stenger was already moving full speed ahead, with or without funding from being on the show, he said.
He plans to open a second Extreme Sandbox this spring near Dallas, at a resort with a conference center, horseback riding and a golf course. Maneuvering construction equipment will be another activity visitors can try, he said.
But because of the investment of the show’s “sharks” — Mark Cuban and Kevin O’Leary — he’ll be able to move even faster with expansion, he said.
“I think it’s just going to accelerate our growth,” he said. “We’re going to get the second one open in Texas and then evaluate some other possibilities.”
Stenger accepted the agreement on stage with a handshake. He hopes to close the deal formally this spring.
Digging up business
The notion of a playground for “big kids” came from a car ride several years ago, Stenger said.
“We were driving by a construction site and one of my oldest kids … said, ‘Dad, wouldn’t it be fun to go play on that stuff?’ ” he said. “And that was really the spark of the idea.”
Stenger was working for Target as a retail consultant. With the help of his brother, he began building his business, choosing a sandy spot in Hastings and asking the city for flexibility with zoning rules.
While Stenger was still with Target, the business began to take off. At first, it was geared more toward individuals, but over time he’s begun catering to groups and corporate clients “looking for new and unique ways to engage their employees,” he said.
“We blow the doors off any golf or bowling outing,” he said.
For individuals, packages start at $195, and corporations usually spend $75 to $150 per person, he said.
Peter Bailey, president of the Prouty Project, a company that helps organizations develop leadership strategies, has taken six groups to Extreme Sandbox.
Working with Bobcats and bulldozers on an obstacle course builds team camaraderie and helps individuals overcome beliefs that they cannot do something, he said.
“He’s got a really neat idea,” Bailey said. “So we’ll continue working with them as this goes forward.”
Making it on TV
Stenger began the process of appearing on “Shark Tank” last April through an open casting call. Several video auditions and follow-up calls followed, he said, which was stressful.
“Even when you’re there, you’re not guaranteed anything,” he said. “They make it very clear you could be cut at any time.”
Last month, he finally learned he would appear on TV, he said.
“You really just want that end result of being on television,” he said. “They call it the ‘Shark Tank’ effect.”
The connections of the “sharks” on the show can be more valuable for a business than the financial investment they may offer, said John Stavig, director of the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the Carlson School of Business.
“To be on the show, it has to be a fun or somewhat outlandish idea,” Stavig said. “It’s more about the entertainment.”
He was skeptical whether Extreme Sandbox could “scale up” its business, but he thought partnering with the Texas resort was a good way to expand, he said.
The concerns about scaling up were mentioned by two sharks on the show. Both passed on investing.
But in the end, Stenger found his two investors, who will split the $150,000 stake.
“This is going to be a game-changer for us,” he said.