Building a self storage empire

Nov 14 | 2017

Steve Jordan spoke to Lucy Maidman and asked what makes a 20-something law student want to start a self store.

It’s very hard not to be impressed by Store & Secure in Basingstoke.  It’s not that it’s very different from most other top-class self storage establishments but, somehow, the brilliant yellow livery, the security gates and CCTV cameras, the signwritten cars, the glass frontage and the smiling face of Lucy Maidman in reception combine to make it feel like a safe place to be.  

Lucy and her sister Sophie started out in the self storage business eight years ago in Bournemouth.  Their father, Brian, had built a successful moving business in the town (Maidmans, now owned by White and Company) and it was his inspiration that provided the opportunity.  The Bournemouth facility being successful, the company decided to expand to Basingstoke last year.  

I asked why Basingstoke?  What were the criteria that drove the decision to move to the Hampshire town 60 miles nearer to London?   There were some geographical benefits: Basingstoke is far enough from Bournemouth to have a different catchment area yet close enough to manage.  It’s also sufficiently close to London to catch business from customers who are not prepared to pay London rates.  But, for Lucy the key was much more 21st century.  “We analysed the Internet search history of the local people,” she said.  Lucy said that she was looking for people searching for ‘storage’ not ‘self storage’ as few members of the general population would recognise the term.  She was also not worried about competition.  “We don’t mind competition,” she said.  “That just means there’s a demand.”  

Why self storage? 

Encouraging young people to join the moving and storage industry has always been a challenge.  Today, with ever-increasing opportunity, the problem endures.  So, what was it about self storage that was attractive to a 20-something law student?  “I always thought I would be involved in business, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Lucy.  “I was never interested in the moving industry but self storage is different.  Everything is so new and the business model is easier. It’s got so far to go; most people don’t know what self storage is yet.”  It’s certainly less labour intensive: Lucy and Sophie run both establishments with just one member of staff in each.  It’s also not subject to the same peaks and troughs as the moving business: once a store is full, the rental keeps on coming in.  

Building new 

The Basingstoke facility is being built in phases. It currently has 350 rooms of various sizes, from 10-2,000 sq ft.  Phase two will include a mezzanine floor and a mix of rooms that will be based on the popularity of each size in phase one. The company also has serviced offices on-site, some of which are used by storage customers.  

The occupants are more commercial in Basingstoke than in Bournemouth.  “We have a lot of eBayers and Amazon sellers,” Lucy explained.  “It makes sense for them rather than having their own premises and paying rates, maintenance and utilities.  It also means they can easily upscale during peak periods and contract again when necessary.”  Lucy even has some companies operating from the self store unit and even a drummer who practices after work without disturbing his family.  Store & Secure also provides a delivery/collection room that can be used by customers to leave goods for collection by carriers or receive goods in. Mail boxes are provided for paperwork.  

I thought that it must have been intimidating when they first saw the warehouse, newly fitted out, knowing that they were tasked with the job of finding customers to fill it.  Lucy said it was certainly a challenge but, I suspect, one she relished.  “We started the SEO before the fit out,” she said.  “We had a pay-per-click campaign and were selling rooms before we had them.  We joined the Chamber of Commerce and threw ourselves into networking and doing leaflet drops.  But most of our work comes from having a fully optimised website.  We spend all of our marketing budget online.”  

Personal service 

As a small family business Lucy believes that, even a self storage business can provide a personal service.  “We greet customers when they arrive, try to know them all by name and offer them refreshments,” said Lucy. “The store is always clean, it’s open every day, we never try to upsell a room that they don’t need and customers only need to give two weeks’ notice when they wish to leave.”  

The personal service also extends to the sales process too. Although she acknowledges that people want to do everything online she says that asking for too much information can scare people off, so they try to get the balance right.  “We call people back within five minutes of receiving an enquiry and provide quotes within an hour up to 9pm.  Ideally, we try to contact them while they are still looking at our website then we can start to build the relationship straight away. People often don’t know how much space they need so we prefer to talk to them so we can provide proper guidance.”   The company has created a friendly, engaging tone of voice that matches the brand, even for automatic bounce-back e-mails.  It has recently been awarded BS EN 15696:2008 for the provision of self storage services.  

Where is the industry going? 

Predicting the future is never easy.  With the march of technology, what is around the corner is impossible to know.  Already some self storage operations employ no staff at all and work exclusively through automated kiosks to handle sign-up, payments and access. Lucy believes that this trend is likely to become more common.  Mobile technology too will become the normal way of handling enquiries with everything available ‘under the thumb’.  People will no longer ever expect to speak to a real person.    

But there is a fine line between traditional warehousing and self storage.  Lucy does not foresee an expansion of services offered to include handling and fulfilment in competition to traditional third-party logistics operations.  “It’s possible,” she said, “but that would change the business model away from what makes it attractive.”      

Security and social media 

Store & Secure is a manned facility that benefits from security gates and CCTV and Lucy insists customers provide two forms of ID and pay by direct debit.  This doesn’t prevent criminal activity, but it does make it much more difficult.  

As a company that relies so much on social media, online security is important too.  “We manage all our platforms ourselves,” said Lucy.  “There’s very little opportunity for anything to go wrong but, if we have a problem, we find that bad feedback goes away as long as people can see you have responded and dealt with it properly. Your response is more important than what has been said.  You can normally turn a bad review into good publicity if you deal with it well.  You need to go over the top in trying to put it right.”  

“There is so much publicity to be had on social media. We get people to check in on Facebook and, if they do, they get ice lollies and sweets and cakes.  They ‘hashtag’ us and we have a lot of fun with it with banter and competitions. I have a really good group on LinkedIn; without social media I would never have met them.  The older generation might think that they got on OK without it, but it doesn’t work that way anymore.”  

Lucy said that the new Young Storers group set up by the Self Storage Association (SSA) in the UK will be critical in the future in allowing the industry to explore the opportunities of social media.  “The SSA has a massive part to play,” she said.  “Membership of SSA has grown and we can only imagine what might be possible in the future.  The annual awards create credibility and recognition, and the courses run by the SSA are very helpful.  Social media will allow us to create a forum on which we can speak every day. It will be great for the industry.  If we have ideas we can share them and fast-track the way the industry develops.  We can have discussions between young minds, that instinctively understand the technology, and develop ideas in ways that would never have been possible in the past.”  

It’s this opportunity that fascinates Lucy and is the reason that she and her sister are so hooked.  The business model might be simple, but the opportunities are endless.    

Store & Secure won the Best Independent Facility award from the SSA in 2017 

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