Sandee wants to be the yelp of beaches

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on August 8, 2019.
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In terms of summer hot takes, the question “What is a sandwich?” may get peripatetic foodies up in arms. An equally valid query may be: What defines a beach?

Does it have to be on an ocean? Is a sandy shore on a lake a beach? What about a peaceful river bank?

For Sand.ee, a new site dedicated to cataloguing and rating every beach in the world, the answer is all of the above. Its goal is to help users find the right beach — no matter their definition of the word. Its growing database includes more than 50,000 beaches in 178 countries and territories, said founder Randall Kaplan.

The serial entrepreneur, who also co-founded Akamai Technologies Inc and is the chief executive officer of venture capital firm Jump Investors, said he got the idea for Sandee about six years ago in Mykonos while trying to find a black sand beach. In an attempt to help, his hotel concierge circled an unidentified place on a paper map with a black Sharpie, sending Kaplan in a chaotic pursuit through backroads with no cell service. He eventually found a pristine private beach after hours of searching.

“I thought there just has to be a better way,” he said. “There was no definitive source where people could find information on every beach in the world.”

With several million dollars of his own later, and the help of consultants — involving some 75,000 man hours, Kaplan estimates — and surveys of more than 10,000 people, Sandee LLC was born. The company plans to raise its first round of outside capital later this year. A Kickstarter campaign in late-2016 raised US$35,008 from 57 backers, followed by an additional US$33,285 in related donations, said Kaplan.

The website, now in a “soft-launch” stage, is seeking additional photos and recommendations from users. Although the site is comparable with TripAdvisor and Yelp, which also list user-submitted reviews or content on beaches, Kaplan emphasised that what sets it apart is its specific focus.

“We love those websites,” Kaplan said. “But they’re not known as beach websites. We’re doing one thing and one thing only: Beaches.”

Elizabeth Monahan, communications manager for TripAdvisor, said the site does feature an annual list of travellers’ favourite beaches around the world, based on the quality and quantity of travellers’ reviews and ratings over the previous 12 months, but declined to comment specifically on Sandee. Yelp also declined to comment for this article.

Anyone can search for a beach by name or location on the homepage, although users who want to sift beaches by their amenities or post photos or reviews must create an account and log in to use the “Explore” feature. Early tests raised some functionality questions. For instance, a beach without a photo in the database might appear as a result, but users cannot click into its entry; users with accounts can search for the nearest beach, but they cannot search or sort for sand quality.

Moreover, the geolocating is not always accurate: A search for “New York City” or “New York, NY” returns nothing, but a search for “Rockaway Peninsula, Queens” returns Rockaway Beach, a stretch of sand within the city limits and accessible by subway; the first search should return what the latter did. Further searches for “Fort Tilden” or “Jacob Riis”, two separate, supremely popular city beaches next door, offer very different scenes or vibes — potentially a perfect use case for Sandee’s database — yet neither surfaced.

Stephen Leatherman aka Dr Beach, a coastal scientist and professor at Florida International University who had earlier met Kaplan to discuss a partnership, cautioned about the site’s lack of data on safety: “I can’t recommend a beach without noting the safety.” His own 50-point list includes water cleanliness, wind speed, smell and wildlife. — Bloomberg