Sarah Piano-Tjarks of Kaua'i Camper Rental
Sarah was one of the first woman entrepreneurs I met when I moved here - I was hosting an entrepreneur jam at Ha Coffee and she stood out to me. Her energy was contagious, her questions thoughtful and when I launched LEI over a year later I was thrilled to have her join the gatherings. She brings an outlook of curiosity, hope and action. She seeks out connections and solutions from the get go and has an attitude of anything is possible. Her involvement and connection to the county, the way she shows up to learn how she can support and shape a flourishing future for Kaua'i is why she is this months feature.
Describe your personal relationship with the Westfalia/Camper Van Culture? Did this exist before you bought the company? My dad had a VW passenger van, I was probably about 7 years old when we all went on a cross country trip. The van broke down and I remember holding a sign up in the window that said “Help us” haha. The sound of the sliding door is such a nostalgic sound for me. I feel like I could hear that sound from miles away and know that’s a VW van. Now that we have owned the business for years we have really gotten a chance to see how extensive the VW community is. Just driving one of these vans you are already part of the family, you’ll see other vans drive by and strangers will wave to each other. People will come up to you so excited to tell you all about their life story of how their dad used to have a van or their grandma. It is really the sweetest thing.
What is it like to "adopt" a company that you didn't originally build? Drawbacks? Benefits? Josh and I had been strategizing new business ideas for years, we both had really labor intensive jobs, he fabricated and installed granite and I had a vacation rental cleaning company. We wanted a career that fit our lifestyles. I can still remember the day we found out the business was for sale like it was yesterday. We had just returned from a trip in California where we rented a RV and LOVED IT! We came back to Kaua’i and thought this style of business would be so rad here. It was around 6am and Josh was searching on craigslist to buy some vans to start a new business and bam! The whole business was for sale on craigslist. He woke me up and was like “Babe look at this, should we do it”? I didn’t hesitate one second and said “yes”! I knew right then and there that we would get the business. It will be 3 years this January.
When it comes to buying an existing business where you keep the business name, transfer the LLC etc.. You have to do some serious due diligence. Find a turnkey business where as soon as you start ownership it’s still making money, there isn’t months of startup where you are waiting on word to get out how awesome your business is and the income isn’t there yet. Make sure it has a stellar reputation with every establishment it’s a part of. As soon as you take ownership go introduce yourselves as the new owners to whatever agency you work with. For example, the day we signed over the papers we went straight to the county of Kaua’i Park and Rec department. If the business is not members of the local chamber of commerce or tourism agency join. These relationships are resources and putting a face to a business makes such a positive impact.
How has owning a business changed you? What are you learning about yourself? With my cleaning business, I was always behind the scenes, I didn’t interact with guests. I was really excited to work one on one with our renters, finding new ways to make their trip that much better. I am a homebody and very much an introvert but I am surprised how much I loved making connections with other local businesses. Sometimes I leave one of the L/E+I meetings and feel so empowered, like not only could I take on the world but every woman in that meeting could.
When Josh and I decided to buy the business, there wasn’t any doubts. We were about to go into debt for years but we knew the risk was worth it. I have grown stronger, once I started believing in myself that I could do great things. Because I started taking risks and being vulnerable, it built my confidence level. The universe is always pointing you in the right direction, you just have to make sure you are open to see the signs.
You seem to always be attending county events and involved with how Kaua'i is changing and growing? What inspires this in you? There is a lot of big changes happening to this beautiful island, I just became curious, I wanted to know why specifically we don’t close our beach park bathrooms at night to avoid vandalism. Or why can’t you buy county campground permits online. I had all these questions and still do and just started asking. I thought we could do better. This was also around the time of local elections and I realized that living in a smaller community, those whom we elect to office make a HUGE difference in how we want our island to look.
I started really nerding out, listening to every candidate forum, educating myself on who was running for county council. I even recently listened to the budget meeting for the Park and Recs and found it fascinating! When a county council member offered the public to come and do a Q & A, I went. And learned that those in office are just like us, real people. Their jobs are to do what they think is best for the island and the people and they NEED our community input or else they are going blind. If you got something to complain about, ask about it. I was pleasantly surprised on how easy it was and how receptive some of our council members are to meeting and hearing our concerns. I wouldn’t have learned all this if I didn’t ask questions.
How do you hope your business shapes the way people experience Kauai? I hope they are able to see a more diverse side of Kaua’i. Being in the tourism industry we have the power to recommend and support other small businesses that are in the hustle just like us and steer them to a more genuine experience.
Josh and I both love traveling, and one of my biggest pet peeves when traveling is to pay for an experience or meal and have it be awful! I wish I knew ahead of time what to avoid, we try to pass that down to our renters. I find it a privilege to be able to be a part of someone’s vacation. People dream for months, maybe years about coming to Kaua’i, and disappointing them is not something I ever want to do.
What creative channels are you exploring in growing your business? We’re trying to have our website be a good home base to learn all about camping on Kaua’i. The vans are just part of our business, so trying to highlight that we offer camping gear, information on obtaining camping permits, the new rules for going to Haena State Park etc.
What is your metric of success? When a renter comes back with their van and they say “Thank you for doing this, if I was staying in a hotel my experience would have been nothing like this, we are buying one of these vans when we get home” that feels pretty validating. Or when I meet someone new here and tell them about the business, they say ‘Oh wow that’s you! Such a great idea and we love your website or Instagram, you do such a great job”. To hear that from visitors and locals alike hits me right in the heart.
How do you refuel and refresh? I try to take time and binge watch food shows like Chef’s Table, Street Food, they talk more about just food but how cooking carries tradition. Cooking is a universal language like music and I always feel motivated and refreshed after taking a day to myself and watching these shows. That and a mix of going camping will always refresh my soul. Whenever I get done cleaning a van, I sit in it and daydream our next camping mission.
Whats next on the horizon? I would love to see some improvements to camping on Kaua’I, cleaner bathrooms, more locals camping, families, less creepsters. Still brainstorming on how to be a part of this but it’s a goal. I’m learning more and more about myself as this business grows. For my friends and family, I wear my heart on my sleeve and want to solve everyone’s problems, and the more I started putting myself in different situations and experiences like the L/E I meetings, or talking with the county, the more I realized this big heart thing can be directed for business. I worry about people I’ve never meet and want to solve their obstacles so they can succeed. I don’t know where this is going to take me yet, to be continued for sure, but I am open and ready for the challenge.
Is the open road calling your name? Check out all these guys have to offer over HERE. Thank you Sarah for inspiring us with your story to explore new opportunities and see where new paths will lead.