It takes less than a five-minute conversation with Andrea Lynn to appreciate her earnest enthusiasm for shade sails—which is why her reflection on a decades-long career in the industry may come as a surprise. “I jumped into the business with rose-colored glasses on,” she muses. “This journey has been more than worthwhile, but if I could have foreseen all the challenges I would face, I don’t know if I would have chosen this path.”
However, customers and collaborators who have benefited from her award-winning designs over the years couldn’t be happier with her decision.
Love at first sail
Lynn’s creativity is a driving force behind the success of Sonoma Shade Sails, the custom shade sail operation she co-owns in Forestville, Calif., with her business and life partner, Bob Brouwers, a licensed contractor. Her inventiveness was sparked early in life, between camping adventures and family building projects, as she mastered the process of transforming an original design into a unique final product.
“My parents were adventurous, especially when it came to our camping sanctuary; the need to solve and create became the norm. From Yosemite to Yellowstone, as we explored the outdoors, shelter took many forms of ‘tarp technology’—and even an army surplus parachute one year. I have fondmemories of imagining and actualizing unorthodox lounging areas.”
Lynn first applied this skill to a shade sail installation by happenstance in 2004. As the owners of a home building and remodeling business at the time, she and Brouwers were remodeling a home in Southern California. The project included shade sails, which Brouwers and his crew installed in collaboration with the provider.
“We got to watch and learn how to install sails firsthand,” Lynn recalls. “A stunning 10-sail array in cream and navy triangles—it was love at first sight.”
That experience inspired the duo to add shade sails to their service offerings when they returned to Northern California. Customers didn’t share their immediate excitement for the product, but Lynn remained determined. A seminar she attended years later, hosted by Patrick Howe, CEO of Wholesale Shade, San Marcos, Calif., gave her all the more reason to stay that way.
“It changed my life. We learned about every phase of shade sail creation and installation, and I was hooked—not just on the product but on Patrick’s approach to collaboration. He always says there is room in this industry for all of us—that no matter who does the work, a beautiful shade sail installation benefits everyone,” Lynn says.
Patience in perseverance
It took six years for Lynn and Brouwers to land their first major shade sail installation and another 10 to shift their business exclusively to shade sails, with Wholesale Shade as their sole supplier. Though the majority of their clients are wineries, they offer both residential and commercial services.
“We decided early on that engineered structures would be our standard, and we sleep well at night knowing our arrays will withstand most anything our winter storms can throw at them,” Lynn says. “But once homeowners understand the cost difference between ‘casual backyard shade sails’ and engineered shade structures, they tend to look for alternatives.”
The conversation with commercial clientele is easier but not without its challenges. “I love the creative process of mocking up designs and working with clients. Watching their awe unfold as we breathe life into their vision is very rewarding. But for many of them, learning about shade sails is complex enough; anything beyond a simple, classic design can be overwhelming. Meanwhile, I want every design to be breathtaking and impress anyone walking by enough to think, ‘I have to have that.’”
Sonoma Shade Sails installs three to five substantial projects a year. With each one, Lynn’s urge to create more elaborate, unconventional products grows stronger. But patience is a discipline she’s practiced since her first installation.
“I was so excited when we were just getting started and determined to shade every car, every property, every playground I saw,” Lynn recalls. “My father sat me down and said, ‘You have to learn how to walk before you run. You’re still learning how to be spectacular, and it’s going to take time.’ That conversation has stuck with me ever since.”
A new adventure
Nearly 20 years later, Lynn is done waiting. At the onset of the pandemic, she cultivated an outdoor “lab” space to materialize and experiment with ideas that have lived only on paper or in her imagination. First up was a product that could encompass both the artistry she craved and the portability desired by many customers.
Lynn and Brouwers spent a year partnering with a trusted pattern maker and an engineer to create TERRASHADE®, which debuted in 2021. TERRASHADE is a patent-pending, freestanding, semiportable, temporary shade product engineered to withstand 45 mph winds. It can be attached to earth, concrete, wood and nonpermeable surfaces.
In July 2021, they installed their first TERRASHADE for a customer—Russian River Brewing Co. in Windsor, Calif., where they also installed a permanent sail. “The next morning, I just had to go take another look at this creation that had taken over my life,” Lynn remembers. “I saw 10 cyclists laughing and lounging underneath it, bringing tears to my eyes as I felt that TERRASHADE was going to be a success.”
Lynn envisions several possibilities for the product, from outdoor kitchens to pools and car parks. In an effort to help customers understand its potential, she’s still in the early stages revamping its marketing—which includes improving her website’s search engine optimization and expanding her social media presence.
Stepping out of her comfort zone to bring TERRASHADE to fruition inspired Lynn to be bolder not only in her designs but also in her client pitches, a decision that led to her most complex shade sail installation to date. “I couldn’t be more excited about what’s ahead in this phase of reinvention,” Lynn says. “There’s an unavoidable grind that comes with running any company, but I get to create art every day and it’s never too late to try something new.”
Holly Eamon is a freelance writer based in Eden Prairie, Minn.
Photography by Julie Hughes Photographer
Project snapshot: A tail of collaboration
In summer 2022, Sonoma Shade Sails was asked to submit a shade sail design for a patio addition at the entrance of Gary Farrell Winery in Healdsburg, Calif.
The company had installed shade sails for the winery’s main patio in 2016, so co-owner Andrea Lynn knew the customer preferred more conservative designs. She drafted three simple options—but included a flashier fourth choice featuring a center cutout and a flared sail resembling a fish tail.
“Over the years I have been so impressed and inspired by companies like GuildWorks and Transformit; they bring such dramatic beauty to their sail designs. I have always wanted to marry more form into function for customers, and I decided now was the time,” Lynn says.
To her surprise, the customer opted for flair. The design was approved in August, and installation was completed the following July. The final product is 70 feet long, 35 feet wide and 14 feet at the peak, with 8-, 10-, 12- and 14-foot attachment heights on the sails. It was fabricated with Gale Pacific DualShade® 350FR in Gold Rush.
“Engineering was the biggest complication,” Lynn says. “The second biggest hurdle was the sail membrane design; figuring out how the circle sail would remain tight while connecting and attaching to itself took some time. And tying off the sections separately to maintain balance was a work of art all on its own. But it is an amazing example of coupling form with function. The inner sail creates plenty of shade for the open circle while still allowing the circle to be the focal point.”
The “dream team”
This project would not have been successful without the partnership across Andrea Lynn’s “dream team”: Patrick Howe, CEO of Wholesale Shade, San Marcos, Calif.; Charlie Vuong, director of operations, Wholesale Shade; Tim Akes, owner, CAD Effects LLC; Gary Foreman, independent engineer.
“Together, Patrick and Charlie slayed the dragon of ‘How do we make these corners work so they’ll lay flat and look fabulous?’ Tim was our magic pattern maker who ensured the fabric sidewalls can stretch while staying perfectly tight. And Gary delivered the exact expertise we needed after a long search for his specific skill set in engineering unusual sail membrane designs. It was collaboration at peak performance.”
What key lessons have you learned as a business owner?
My biggest realization was that you have to get really good at compromising—especially when you’re working with a spouse or family member. The dedication of funds and resources can make money become very personal very quickly. Knowing how and when to pick your battles makes difficult conversations more manageable.
I also recently relearned the importance of in-person interactions. Prior to the pandemic, we would never provide an estimate before meeting the customer on-site, but we got used to doing everything virtually over the past three years.
Last spring, however, I met up with a customer who was on the fence about a potential project. I learned more about his needs and hesitations on-site than I ever would have over email or the phone. And I was able to better articulate the benefits of this particular project. … I do know I’ve missed out on a lot by skipping site visits, and I’m excited about making those part of my routine again.