I was born and raised in rural southern Indiana. My father was a construction manager for a local developer and my mother was the school nurse at my k-12 school. We were middle class and lived in the middle of nowhere on an old peach orchard.
My family drilled two important traits into my brain – frugality and confidence. I was cheap and held onto my money obsessively. They built me and my siblings up and made me believe I was destined to be great at something and that I could accomplish anything I wanted to do.
I became an entrepreneur by accident. The company my father worked for owned a few shopping centers in town and the old man who cut the grass for them had a heart attack. He could no longer work so my father did what any rational person would do. He volunteered his 13 year old son to take over the 4 commercial properties.
He bought a trailer and a mower which he leased to me and let me rent the household truck to haul the mower 15 minutes to town. I didn’t have my license so I had to pay my mother $10 per hour to drive me and sit in the truck while I worked. My father taught me how to build my budget and keep track of expenses and income in Excel. He showed me how to fax the invoices so I could get paid. He bought me a cell phone and billed me for that too.
Quickly enough I got very frustrated paying my mother a wage to sit in the truck. I decided to hire someone who could drive me and help me with the mowing. I created flyers advertising the job and slipped one flyer in each locker in the junior and senior hallways at school. It had my cell phone number on it and a few requirements. Experience with using a weed eater and a driver’s license. $10 per hour with no equipment required.
Now I was in business. That same $10 per hour was now helping me get the job done about 30% faster than before. I played with the spreadsheets and my projections each night and decided my father’s lease agreements on the truck, trailer, and mower weren’t acting in my favor. I saved up money as fast as possible and within 3 years I had purchased all three from him and owned them free and clear. At this point I had 10 properties I maintained and it took me about 15 hours per week to mow them. I was making about $40 per hour on my time as a 16 year old the and the day I got my drivers license and I could work alone it bumped to $50. Filing my first tax return and sending a check to uncle sam without a single deduction was the best lesson I ever learned.
By the time I went off to college and handed off the business to my younger brother I had about $40,000 in my checking account.
Funny thing about that $40k. I was given a book by a family friend about blue chip stocks and their stellar performance over time. I decided to make a few bucks and invested every last bit of it in early September of 2008. The market tanked and over the next two months I lost about $15,000 before selling so I could pay my tuition. A full summer of work out the window. Ouch.
I learned after a few tough semesters that if you work smart the 80/20 rule applies to college coursework the same as it applies to everything else in life. Take the guy or gal down the hall who has an A+ average (4.3 GPA) and studies for 60 hours per week in addition to the time in class. You can do 20% of that work (12 hours per week) and achieve 80% of that GPA (3.44). I’ll say right now that I do not think this applies to the science, engineering, or pre-med students – those kids worked their asses off just to pass. So with about 15 hours per week of class and 12 hours of studying that leaves a lot of free time for networking, sports, fun, and business.
From the beginning I wasn’t too thrilled about the idea of working for the man. I hadn’t absolutely decided that I wanted to be an entrepreneur but I did keep my eye out for opportunities as they arose. Junior year as the semester wound down one hit me right in the face.
At Cornell the off campus housing operates on 12 month leases. That leaves all of the upperclassmen stuck paying rent for those extra 3 summer months while the apartment sits empty. I listed my apartment on Craigslist to try to sublet my room but so did 90% of the other students. There simply wasn’t the market for it and there was no way I would be able to find a renter.
One day I got a response to my Craigslist ad from the mother of another student asking if I would rent a small corner of my room to her son for his things while he was away for the summer. I called her and she complained about the exorbitant prices the local summer storage company charged her for the pickup and delivery service last year. She lived in California and needed me to come pick it up. I quickly made a deal to go get it and put it in my room for about half of the price she paid last year.
It was a great deal for me. I fit all his things in my huge cadillac and hauled them to my apartment. In about an hour I made a few hundred bucks. But now I had a problem. His items were in my room so I couldn’t rent it out to a tenant over the summer. I only had one option: fill my room up with stuff.
I decided to check out this company the mother had complained to me about. I had seen them around during the previous few years at Cornell but I was so preoccupied living my own life and taking finals that I had hardly noticed the sheer magnitude of business they were doing on campus. Lets call them Cornell Storage.
Cornell Storage had the contract and they were supported by the school and ran by the students. They could use campus property to pick up items and they could park wherever they wanted without getting parking tickets.
Driving around campus I noticed that they had probably 20 crews out doing pickups. They had shops set up in both the North Campus and West Campus dorms and were selling hundreds of boxes. Students were waiting in line to use their service. I went on their website and looked at the pricing. It was high. Very high. They charged customers by the pound so it was virtually impossible to estimate what your total cost would be. If your box weighed over a certain threshold the price would go from $.99 per pound to $1.99 per pound. Crazy!
I recruited my girlfriend at the time to convince her sorority sisters to store their items with me. $20 per item. Flat rate. No matter how large. We convinced about 5 of them to store their items with me and before I know it I had filled my room. A few of their friends had heard about my storage space and they began to reach out. I realized quickly I needed more space.
Lucky for me the house I was planning to move into next year had a basement. But I wasn’t currently a resident of the house and thus I couldn’t fill it up without permission. I drove over to the house and walked into my friend Dan’s room to start negotiating to lease out his basement.
He loved the idea and told me he wanted to do it with me and split the cash from the summer of storage. He had a big car as well, a 1995 Buick LeSabre, he had bought off a grandmother somewhere. It made sense for me to take him up on his offer. I needed the extra hand, it was his basement, and he had a big car. We had big dreams and he and I were both excited.
We called the company University Storage. We were in his room late that night making a facebook page and designing flyers when our other friend walked in. He got excited too and also wanted in on the cash. Most importantly he wasn’t going to be running at the track meet that weekend so he could run the business while we were gone competing. The basement was getting full and we needed his room to put things in as well. I agreed. A third split! The more the merrier! Since he didn’t have a car we decided to split the the profits that year 40% for me, 40% for Dan, and 20% for the third friend.
It was about midnight by the time we got the flyers made up and the facebook page created. We emailed everyone we knew. We posted all over our friends walls. We ran all over campus that night posting flyers all over high traffic areas, under dorm doors, and anywhere else we could think of. We bought sidewalk chalk and wrote advertisements in high traffic areas on the ground. We made a google voice customer service phone number and forwarded it to Dan and I’s phones.
The next morning at about 7am our phones started ringing and it didn’t stop for about a week. We drove all over campus sweating and loading and unloading in our basement and our rooms. A week later we had filled the entire basement and all three of our rooms with stuff. We had convinced about 50 people to store their items with us by the time it was all said and done and brought in about $5,000 in cash! We skipped our usual keystone light and splurged on a case of Yuengling. We felt like bigshots.
While the names of the players and the business itself would evolve, the momentum had started and the snowball was rolling.
Now (Dec 2018) we operate at 23 major colleges and service 10,000 customers each year. We also developed and own 2 self storage facilities with 2 more in the pipeline.