Thinking Dig: Extreme Sandbox owner Randy Stenger (BBA ’00) enjoys the entrepreneurial life

After traveling down several career paths, Extreme Sandbox owner Randy Stenger (BBA ’00) thoroughly enjoys the entrepreneurial life.

It started with a child’s observation.

Randy Stenger was driving past a construction site with his children in tow seven years ago when his oldest son, who was 9 at the time, pointed out the window and shouted, “Hey dad, wouldn’t it be fun to play on that stuff?!”

Stenger’s response: “Heck, yeah it would!”

And with that, the light bulb went off. As Stenger notes, the idea seemed “a little crazy,” but it stayed with him.

Fast-forward to today. Stenger owns and operates Extreme Sandbox, a Minnesota-based company that’s essentially a big kid’s playground, one where adults rent time on bulldozers, excavators, wheel loaders and the like. Now in its fifth year, the company boasts a 10-acre site in Hastings (20 miles outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area) and another at a resort in Pottsboro, Texas. Both locations attract customers from around the world and business continues to grow at a rapid pace. The operation also garnered local and national press attention with Stenger successfully pitching the concept to a pair of high-profile investors on ABC-TV’s Shark Tank.

By any measure Extreme Sandbox is a remarkable success. But Stenger isn’t content — one reason is his restless entrepreneurial nature, another is how thoroughly he’s enjoying his venture.

“When someone asks what I do, I tell them I’m a kid at heart — I get to dig in the dirt for a living,” he says. “And people pay me money for it!”

But he also knows how easy it is for dreams to get stuck in the mud.

False start

Born in Wisconsin, Stenger and his family moved to Atlanta shortly before he started high school. After graduation, the University of Georgia was a natural destination and at the time he’d mapped out his future. The plan: Study law enforcement, graduate in four years, land a job as a police officer.

It didn’t work out that way. As can happen with some freshmen, Stenger struggled adjusting to college.

“I failed out after my first year,” he says. “I’d attended a small private high school, and it was a shock to go to a large public university. I just fell through the cracks.

“I felt like a failure,” he adds after a moment. “I thought I was just lazy.”

But Stenger’s family wasn’t as convinced. At his father’s urging, Stenger saw a doctor who diagnosed him with attention deficit disorder, prescribed medication and set up a treatment plan. The results were tangible and nearly immediate.

“I’d been a C student all through high school,” Stenger recalls. “But that fall I enrolled in a local community college and got straight A’s for the first time in my life. It was an amazing turnaround.”

The next step: He reapplied to Georgia, was readmitted and resumed work on becoming a police officer. But a chance conversation with a professor shifted his direction. “He convinced me not to get a criminal justice degree,” Stenger says. “He said a police department would train me, and that a business degree would be handy if I ever wanted to do something else.”

It turned out to be sage advice. Stenger landed a job on the Colorado Springs, Colo., police force after graduation — and the department provided him with all the training he needed. “I enjoyed it, and I’m grateful I did it,” he says. “It made me a better person. But I also saw lots of older, burnt-out officers who were mostly putting in time to get their pensions.”

After five years on the force, he was ready for a change.

Fresh start

A casual passerby could easily mistake Extreme Sandbox’s flagship location for a construction site. Set in a bluff-lined valley a few miles outside of Hastings, it’s basically a sizable dirt lot fronted by a new, metal-roofed building attached to a massive, double-doored garage. Komatsu-brand heavy machines are scattered about the lot.

But there’s one giveaway this isn’t a construction zone: The orange, white and black Extreme Sandbox sign on the building’s exterior. Step inside, and that branding comes to life. The space is spotless and the company logo is omnipresent — on a huge banner, T-shirts, hats, toys and more. The attention to detail is impressive. It’s also a byproduct of Stenger’s post-police force experience.

After moving to Minnesota from Colorado to raise a family, his degree from Terry College turned out to be quite handy. Stenger moved into retail with the Target Corp. in 2006 and started in store management, a role he says taught him crucial lessons about branding, customer service and other elements of the trade. By 2009 he was ready for more.

“I saw a listing for a corporate job with the title of Business User Consultant – Stores Enterprise Data Warehouse,” he says with a laugh. “I had no idea what that meant, but I decided to apply. I was terrified, but I took the leap. I thought: What’s the worst that could happen? I’ll give it a try.”

It turns out the position was essentially a business intelligence role. Target was compiling reams of analytics on its stores, but needed someone to translate the data into actionable insights. Stenger’s store management background made him an ideal fit. He enjoyed the job and planned to stay at Target — until that day he drove by the construction site with his kids.

“Like I said, it seemed a little crazy, but there was something there,” he says. “I remember how the Terry College of Business’ classes and professors challenged me to think outside the box. One of my favorite sayings: If people don’t laugh at your idea, it’s probably not big enough. If it’s not creating an awe factor — or making people think you’re crazy — it’s not big enough. All of that goes back to my education. Don’t stick with the tried and true. Do something different.”

The idea certainly seemed big and awe-inspiring enough, but Stenger was initially a bit wary. That caution started to fade the more he researched the idea.

And then he and his brother visited an equipment dealership.

“They let us drive a small excavator around the parking lot,” he recalls. “It was the coolest experience ever. We were smiling and high-fiving each other for three days afterward. And we only drove the thing — we didn’t even get a chance to really do anything cool with it.”

While Stenger knew the idea had potential, he took a conservative approach. He kept his corporate gig and worked nights and weekends to get Extreme Sandbox up and running, not seeking outside funding. “People assume this was a six-figure startup,” he says. “The truth is that I got it going with less than $30,000.”

How? He rented 10 acres of land, leased some equipment, and set up shop in an old construction trailer. After a year of setup work and plenty of 100-hour weeks, Extreme Sandbox opened for business on April 7, 2012.

“I remember our first customer,” Stenger says. “It was a young woman who drove a skid-steer. When she got out of the vehicle, she said, ‘My face hurts from smiling so much!’ That’s when I knew this was going to be huge.”

Digging a niche

Still, Stenger remained prudent. He kept his day job, only opened Extreme Sandbox on the weekends, and operated out of a trailer with a pair of part-time employees. But as demand grew he took the next leap and by the end of 2012 felt confident enough to leave Target. There was another reason: Thanks to Stenger’s savvy management, the company was in the black since it opened.

“We’ve been cash flow-positive since year one,” he says, “primarily because we’ve kept our expenses as low as possible.”

He ditched the trailer in favor of the new building and was able to secure an official equipment sponsorship from Komatsu America, a move that helps tamp down costs. He also puts his Target experience to use.

“We’ve built a really strong brand, and we make use of analytics,” he says. “And we’re still committed to smart cost management. For example, we’ve centralized our managerial operations. Our website upkeep and all reservations inquiries — including for our Texas site — are handled through the Minnesota location. That frees up our instructors in Minnesota and Texas to focus on instruction. And that helps make each guest’s experience ideal.”

The focus on customer experience will prove critical in the years ahead — as Stenger notes, Extreme Sandbox isn’t the only company in the space.

“People say this is a brilliant idea,” he says. “The first thing I tell them is that we’re not the first or the only ones to do it. We’ll have more competitors. We’re aware of that. But we’ll always be the best.”

Plowing ahead

Confident? Sure, but Stenger has earned it. Extreme Sandbox’s healthy balance sheet and growing customer base make it well-positioned for growth. And his January 2016 appearance on Shark Tank certainly didn’t hurt. The 8-minute segment led to a 20,000 percent spike in Web traffic — and more importantly, helped boost sales by a stunning 180 percent over the previous year.

Extreme Sandbox has continued on that roll. Stenger has plotted out potential new locations with an eye on major U.S. metro areas.

He’s also cultivating a lucrative niche with corporate team-building events while planning to diversify with “edutainment.”

“That’s our future. The term comes from the software industry and children’s learning games,” Stenger says. “But we want to be the operation that does it in real life. We want to give an authentic experience to someone on a real training tool. Right now we provide that with heavy equipment. We’re working with Komatsu to provide high schools students with training in that realm. But it could be anything. I’d love to be able to land a 747. You can’t do it in the real world, but you have simulators for that. Will we do that? Maybe.”

Wherever the future takes Extreme Sandbox, Stenger is clearly enjoying the ride.

“People sometimes ask if I’ve thought of selling the business,” he says. “My response is always: Why would I sell!? I play for a living. I get to fulfill dreams and provide bucket-list experiences for people. I have the best of all worlds.”

http://www.terry.uga.edu/news/spotlights/randy-stenger-bba-00