Struggling entrepreneurs make waves with sand-resistant beach towels

Forbes’ ‘30 Under 30’ focuses in on founders of an environmentally conscious San Diego company


Five years ago, Brandon Leibel, Steven Ford and Bruno Aschidamini were hunkered down in their Pacific Beach two-bedroom loft apartment crammed with Turkish beach towels.

They transformed their small living room into a sales processing center for online orders, replacing furniture with a simple Ikea work table and chairs. They maxed out their credit cards, survived on rice and beans and drove Uber to make ends meet as they got their Sand Cloud company off the ground.

They stopped passersby at Mission Beach trying to peddle their creation — sand-resistant beach towels — for however much people were willing to pay.

This week, Leibel and Ford were featured in Forbes magazine’s annual “30 under 30” list. From 15,000 nominations, the magazine selected 600 “revolutionaries” in 20 industries. The San Diegans were in the social entrepreneur category of “impact-driven leaders” who combine “purpose and profit.”

Co-founder Aschidamini missed out on the honor because he is 34. His partners, at 29, fell just under the age 30 cutoff.

“He’s been crying for five days,” Brandon joked, then added: “It was a point of reflection for me and Steve and Bruno about all the sacrifices we’ve made. We remembered the times we had no money and were sleeping on floor. ... We went a year straight without making a single dollar.”

How did three creative young beach lovers go from struggling-to-survive former students to logging $20 million in sales over the past five years?

Theirs is a simple formula. They identified a demand for an environmentally friendly product that fit a need — a lightweight, sand-resistant towel — and combined it with a corporate credo of donating 10 percent of their profits to marine conservation causes. Their motto became #savethefishies.

Then they reeled in one of the biggest fish of all to help them. A successful spiel on ABC’s “Shark Tank” in early 2017 brought multi-millionnaire panelist Robert Herjavec on board with a $200,000 investment in exchange for 15 percent of their company.

Last Jan. 27, Shark Tank revisited Sand Cloud on its 10-year anniversary update featuring its top 20 best-selling products. The start-up’s total sales had risen from $1.6 million in 2017 to $15 million by then, and a reported $100,000 had been donated to nonprofit groups.

Sand Cloud has expanded their product line to include ecology-friendly beach accessories, including T-shirts and sunglasses created with recycled plastic bottles, metal straws, bamboo and glass water bottles, and hats and sports apparel of sustainable organic cotton.

In April, they debuted a bedding line with the Bed Bath & Beyond chain. Now they’re developing a bath towel line. Last month, they ventured into the retail market, opening their first store at 1033 Garnet Ave. in Pacific Beach, sharing space with Randall’s Sandals.

Brandon has just moved back to his native New York State to concentrate on expanding the brand’s East Coast presence.

He and Ford met as students at San Diego State University and later joined with Aschidamini when the three worked together at a life insurance call center.

They spent their free time and after-work hours hanging out at the beach. It was their love of sand sports and water activities that turned their imaginations to beach comfort. Their initial idea was a beach towel with a pillow embedded, hence the name, Sand Cloud. The pillow idea was dropped as impractical, and they focused on a sand-shedding towel.

The secret to their towels is the fine cotton fiber from Turkey that is so close-knit sand doesn’t easily adhere. Leibel reveals the secret to their success: “If you’re going to try to start something you’re passionate about, don’t let anyone derail you.”