Eleven years ago, my company’s founder, David Reddick, wrote an article for this magazine titled “The Great Software Wars,” which addressed essentials in selecting self-storage software. I’d like to revisit the topic, looking at what has changed over time and what basics still hold true.
Software is still one of the hottest topics in our industry, with thousands of packages purchased by operators each year. But changes in technology are causing companies to constantly re-evaluate their systems. Some of the larger players have even turned to writing their own programs.
Self-storage software is continually evolving; and because ours is a unique market, it must be specific to the operation of the business. Whether you’re new to self-storage, shopping for your first program, or seeking to modernize an existing operation, the dynamics of the software world will have an impact on your business sooner or later. If you don’t make a sound buying decision, you may be affected more than once over the next few years as the technology changes.
The Importance of Updates
I recently spoke with an owner who attended an industry tradeshow with the intent of shopping for new software. He already had a program, but wanted to see what was available to better his operation. In one seminar he attended, the speaker urged attendees to upgrade their software to the most recent version available, regardless which program they were using.
The owner took the advice to heart. He went home and updated all of his facilities’ software. To his amazement, most everything he had been searching for was already right there in his current program. The simple task of upgrading his software saved him from spending thousands of dollars on something new. Program enhancements should be expected and implemented regularly.
Apples to Apples
Many software shoppers want to see a comparison between multiple programs to see how they stack up against one another. But asking one vendor to weigh his program against others is an unfair request. While he will know what is current about his own product, he can’t possibly have the most up-to-date, accurate information about every company’s offering. In this day of technological advancement, it’s nearly impossible to track changes in all competitors’ software, and a reputable representative will not profess to have done so.
Keep this in mind when shopping for a program. Aside from the obvious issue of bias (every sales rep should believe his software is the best), it’s unrealistic to expect a vendor to evaluate anyone’s product but his own. The best way to compare your options is to gather demos from prospective suppliers. Pay careful attention to key functions and how they are handled, and make a list of the features you most desire. A hands-on process may be the only way to really know if you’re comparing apples to apples or oranges.
Newbies vs. Vets
The software industry has become very lucrative for manufacturers, and new selfstorage suppliers appear every year. The majority will quickly come and go. Maybe they work in other industries that demand more of their attention, or perhaps success in the self-storage market is more difficult to achieve than they anticipated. Unfortunately, they will sell some packages to operators during their short tenure, which will leave some owners in a lurch.
When the original version of this article was written, it made reference to the Inside Self-Storage 1993 “Buyer’s Guide,” which listed 32 companies under the category “Computers and Software.” Nine of them were established suppliers with experience and a steady customer base. In last year’s “Buyer’s Guide,” again, 32 companies were listed under the “Software” heading, only seven of which are real veterans of the business. What this tells us is there are new players coming on the field all the time, but few stay for the long haul.
Some newer companies offer very good products and service, and others are only in to make a quick buck. It may be difficult to know which suppliers provide the superior offering, particularly if you are new to the industry. For that reason, take your time when researching providers. Secure demos of several different programs and use them. When you factor in upgrades and technical support, you realize a software purchase is a long-term commitment—not a decision to be made lightly.
There are a few important considerations when weighing the cost of software. What Reddick said in 1994 still holds true: “The purchase price should be a fair amount for the value received.” It shouldn’t be exceedingly expensive, but neither should it be cheap. If you purchase a bargain package, you may be sacrificing important features. Keep in mind your supplier needs to make enough of a profit margin to be around down the road—your product upgrades and vendor need to be available to you in the future.
The cost for technical support should also be considered at the time of purchase. Appropriately priced support is a desirable and necessary service for customer and vendor. It’s the best way for you to get cost-effective help when you need it; and it’s the best way for your vendor to get feedback about changes in the operation of your business.
Enhancements or upgrades are usually included with support. These will keep you in the mainstream as the business and technology change. The relationship between vendors and customers stimulates new developments, which make the software more valuable to your storage operation.
Software directly affects a site’s security, and communication between the management and security systems is critical. Choose your software first, as this will most directly impact the financial aspects of your business. But make sure it will sufficiently integrate with your access control, unit alarms, video surveillance, etc.
Some suppliers offer both systems, simplifying the match. If you buy from separate suppliers, a good software program will interface with the products of mainstream security manufacturers, as most reputable vendors comply with a universal-interface specification. Keep in mind, however, that not all functions will be accomplished with an interface. As enhancements occur on either side, disparity between the systems can emerge.
Take Your Time, Do It Right
These days, very few storage operators attempt to write their own software. The time and cost involved are simply too prohibitive. A few major industry players have undertaken the task, but most keep these programs strictly for their own operations.
Fortunately, there are several good programs available on the market. Choose one that makes sense for your operation. Discuss any concerns with prospective vendors before making a decision, and wait until the purchase feels right. Though technology has advanced, the same solid buying principles apply today as 11 years ago.
John Fogg is the general manager for Lakewood, Colo.-based Sentinel Systems Corp., which has manufactured self-storage software and security systems since 1975. A member of the self-storage industry since 1986, Mr. Fogg has worked with Sentinel for 13 years. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; call 800.456.9955; visit www.sentinelsystems.com.