WILMINGTON – Brothers Dane and Scott Barnes and their best friend Alex Slater grew up spending every summer on the beach at North Carolina’s Emerald Isle. The least fun part of their vacations was wrangling heavy umbrellas and tents on and off the sand every day. So they decided to do something about it. Their solution: the Shibumi Shade.

“We always felt that there was a better way when it comes to beach shade – something that could be easier to carry to the beach, easier to set up, provide more shade, and stand up to the wind better than anything available on the market,” Alex Slater says.

They are not cheap, retailing for $250. But demand has been so strong that the umbrellas are currently sold out.

Now young men, all UNC graduates, the trio drew inspiration from kites, sailboats, windsurfers, and even clothes on a clothesline. From the beginning, working with the wind was the most important idea because they saw it to be the most common failure point of other beach shades.

Designing a prototype involved lots of trial and error.

“We improvised the very first prototype with a simple set of PVC conduit pipe,” Slater says. “Getting something in the sand so that we could test and learn about it was more important than looking for the perfect solution — at a stage when we didn’t know what the ‘perfect solution’ looked like yet. This required us to challenge our own preconceptions about what we thought would work, and to actually go out and prove the concept.”

The next step in the design took the friends well outside the skill set usually learned by young male North Carolinians. “One of the biggest new skills we had to learn was sewing,” Slater says. “Learning to sew allowed us to innovate more quickly. At first, we asked a friend to sew a canopy for us because she had the knowledge and a sewing machine handy. This got us off the ground at first, but we quickly realized this was too big of an ‘ask,’ and in order to pour hours of development time into sewing concepts, ultimately we took on the sewing ourselves.”

The summer of 2016 saw the completion of the first Shade prototype, produced in a spare bedroom. The friends took it down to Emerald Isle for trials and soon had a lot of orders for their invention. They hadn’t planned on selling any but a lot of families at the beach asked where they could get one, so they decided to sew and sell a few dozen that summer, sewing everything on nights and weekends.

Shibumi Shade in carrying case.

The name they chose for their product was the Shibumi Shade.  “Shibumi is a Japanese design concept that means the elegance of simplicity, which we think fits the Shibumi Shade well,” Scott Barnes explains. “Shibumi is also a small apartment complex in Chapel Hill, where Dane, Alex, and I all lived in college, so it’s a common thread between us.”

In 2017, the team transitioned to having a professional cut and sew facility in Raleigh sew the Shibumi Shade. They again made as many as they could, but again sold out. The story has been the same every year since, though they now use a larger cut and sew facility in Asheboro. This year, Shibumi Shades are sold in 20 retail stores in North and South Carolina as well as Florida and have made an appearance at over 200 beaches from Emerald Isle to Santa Monica and from Cape Cod to Oahu.

A Revolutionary Design

The design of the Shibumi Shade is unique, an arched pole that holds a panel made of ripstop parachute material that floats on the wind. Dane Barnes says his friend Van Nolintha, owner of Brewery Bhavana and Bida Manda in downtown Raleigh, describes it best:

“Shibumi Shade honors the wind, an element that is inherent to the experience of the beach, instead of fighting it. There is something profoundly sophisticated for a product to celebrate something that speaks to the nature and spirit of a place in which it exists. When Shibumi is flying, like a flag, it marks a spot and a moment in time, sheltering friends and families who are nesting under it.”

The Shibumi Shade is extremely light, packing down into a carry sack that weighs less than four pounds. Assembly is intuitive; the entire structure can be put up or taken down in about two minutes, and is easy to relocate. The carry sack is filled with sand providing an anchor that keeps the Shibumi in place.

Once constructed, the Shibumi provides over 100 square feet of shade that’s rated with 30+ UPF sun protection, blocking 97% of the sun’s harmful UV rays. Six adults can sit side by side under the canopy, with extra room for beach gear, dogs and kids.

“We think we’ve been able to revolutionize the beach experience for thousands of beach goers; whether they’re older adults who aren’t able to wrangle heavy tents or umbrellas, or young families that already have too many items to carry to the beach and not enough time to relax, or boaters who want to bring shade to the sandbar, or any one who wants ‘setting up the shade’ to be the least of their worries on the beach,” Slater says. “The experience of sitting under a Shibumi Shade is unique because of the arch shape, the canopy flowing in the breeze, and the expansive shaded area that allows an entire group to sit together, comfortably shaded.”

Shibumi Shade at Cape Lookout

Hobby Becomes A Business

The trio plunged into filling orders for the Shibumi Shade, learning on the fly. None of the three studied design or engineering at UNC, but they did study business, communication, math, and accounting, essential skills when starting a business. Early on, Slater says, he and Dane were able to participate in an MBA course at UNC then called Launching the Venture, a 3-part course on turning ideas into start-ups.

Some of their best business advice, Alex says, came from a friend who told them to fail fast. “This means if you have an idea, don’t be afraid to test it quickly on a small scale before committing significant time and resources to an idea that may not work,” Slater explains. “We try to maintain a mindset of constant improvement, where minor setbacks are viewed as opportunities for growth.”

The startup was self-funded at the early stages. “Our first orders were made-to-order, so everything was produced to fill an order we already had,” Scott Barnes says. “The initial investment wasn’t much, only what we spent on fabric and materials for the prototypes.”

Alex Slater adds: “We didn’t make much of a return on those first orders, but by handling all of the labor ourselves, we were able to break even and prove our idea.”

Alex, 32, Dane, 32, and Scott, 29, are all native North Carolinians, and say it’s important to them to continue making Shibumi Shades in the state, to honor North Carolina’s rich textile industry. Currently they all live in the Raleigh area.

After four years of selling out all the Shibumi Shades they could produce, the friends are now thinking of taking the next step. They have each kept their day-jobs so far, but by the end of the year, they all plan to make Shibumi Shade their full time focus.

A Shibumi Shade umbrella honors the wind. (Shibumi Shade photo)

Currently their business is organized as a three-member LLC with equal ownership, and holds a full U.S. patent on the Shibumi Shade design with more utility and design patents and trademarks pending. Goals for 2020 and beyond include continuing to improve quality. “We want to make Shibumi Shades indestructible,” Dane says. “We are working with the world’s leading suppliers to design a new pole and fabric specifically for Shibumi Shade.”

The team’s biggest challenge is projecting sales for next year, a difficult task due to the seasonality of the beach shade business, and they are working on improving the elasticity of their supply chain to respond to demand. “Each year we set what we thought would be an audacious goal, and each year completely surpassed it,” Dane says.

The three friends and their families continue to vacation every year at Emerald Isle where the beach is lined with two-toned blue and teal Shibumi Shades flying in the breeze. “Emerald Isle is the birthplace of Shibumi Shade, so it has the highest concentration so far,” Slater says. “ It’s honestly unbelievable to see!”