Michael Skrentny is currently president and part owner of Mystic Systems Technology Corp. (MSTC), a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company that provides management software, access and alarm systems to the self-storage industry. He has been with the company since 1991.
Inside Self-Storage caught up with Mr. Skrentney to discuss his unique history in the self-storage industry, the development of MSTC as a company, the perceptions surrounding the launch of its Account Manager program, and his insights on the future of self-storage software. We are now pleased to present an interview with Michael Skrentney...
Now that we know some of your background, what were some of your earlier positions in the self-storage industry?
My first experience was as a manager for Shurgard Storage Centers in Washington state. That was in 1984 when Shurgard was raising capital through limited partnerships. I learned a lot from the experience because Shurgard was very focused on management and quality service. They were from the part of the country that brought us Microsoft and Nordstrom. They wanted to instill that kind of ownership mentality in their employees, and they were very committed to education. They quickly promoted me to regional manager and relocated me to Phoenix, to develop what was then a new market for Shurgard--managing, acquiring and assisting in the development of new properties. At the time, all of the facilities under my direction were computerized, and we used the MSTC Mini Manager as our system.
In 1987, I took a position as VP of operations with a relatively new up-and- coming company, Storage USA. They were in the business of developing high-quality storage facilities and from the very start began positioning themselves to be one of the top three operators in the industry. I was impressed that such a small company could have such drive and focus. We were definitely the underdog, but there was no question in my mind that it was only a matter of time before we reached our goal. We always approached things from the standpoint of "Will this work now?" and "Will it still work with 100 or 1000 sites?" Dean Jernigan was always willing to put the necessary resources toward any problem so that it could be solved in the best possible manner. Much of the groundwork we laid in those days is still in place today.
When I came to work with MSTC, we also had an affiliate company, Arizona Mini Storage Management, which managed the Storage Solutions facilities in Arizona. I was again VP of operations. I worked this position for several years while also working sales and management at MSTC. Later, when I became president of MSTC, we made the companies more independent and autonomous so they could each focus on their particular business.
How has this helped you in your career at MSTC?
I am fortunate enough to have had experience on every level of self-storage management, from on-site management, to supervising facilities all across the country, to writing and implementing policies for several major self-storage corporations. All the while I was also a customer of MSTC, so right from the start I was an outside advocate giving them suggestions on how to make their products more meaningful for the managers, management companies and owner/operators. Whenever we put something new into our program, we think about how it affects the people in all of those positions. Several other key persons in our organization come from the background of self-storage management, so we definitely have that part of understanding the business down pat. In addition, I am able to apply the fundamentals of teamwork to taking ownership and commitment to quality service in how we do business. They are the key elements of MSTC.
When computers first became available on the Macintosh platform, MSTC was one of the first software vendors. Explain its history for us.
MSTC actually started working on products in the early 1980s. At that time, one of the founders of MSTC, Tom Swanson, was an owner/operator in Tempe, Ariz., and had a desire to computerize his storage facility. He worked with some local people developing a product and then realized that this was something they could take to market; so, in 1984, Mini Storage Technology was in incorporated. Right from the start they had a customer-service philosophy, and were the first in the industry to offer 24-hour, 7-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year technical support.
In those days you actually leased the program, the computer and even the computer desk. If something went wrong with the system, they literally shipped you a new computer overnight. It was an Apple computer with two floppy drives and no hard drive. Believe it or not, MSTC was able to actually run a management program and a gate-access system all on that one computer, even when it was supposedly technically impossible. Granted, it didn't have the level of sophistication that we expect from our programs now, but for its time it was very innovative. At the time I was working for Shurgard and we had the MSTC gate-access systems also. I'll never forget the day that Millie Swanson came over to our facility in the heat of summer to troubleshoot a problem we were having with a keypad. It was well over a 110 degrees and there she was out in the middle of the sun on the hot asphalt with a long mop handle in her hand, trying to pull wires out to reconnect the keypad. We took a Polaroid picture and she looked like Carol Burnett doing one of her cleaning lady comedy acts. I wonder where that photo is. That really stuck with me that MSTC would go that far to serve its customers.
In the mid-'80s it became evident that the business world was moving from Apple to IBM-compatible computers and that DOS was here to stay. MSTC jumped on the DOS bandwagon in a big way and began the task of creating the Mini Manager II, which was a derivative of the Apple program but clearly better. At that point, they knew the shortcomings of the previous system and what it needed to do to be at the forefront of technology for this marketplace. When the program came to the market, people didn't want to lease their systems any more, so the approach was all sales. MSTC got out of the business of providing all the hardware and the desks, but stayed with the approach of offering a complete system. Now, however, you could do more than just lease it, you could own a license to the software. By the early-'90s, almost all Apple-based systems were converted to the DOS system. A very similar experience to what is occurring now with so many moving from DOS to Windows.
What significant changes have occurred to MSTC through the years, and how has it impacted the marketplace?
MSTC has always been at the forefront of technology. In the early 1990s, MSTC was the first to conceptualize and implement an alarm system that could be retrofitted into existing facilities because it employed the use of wireless transmitting technology in conjunction with other hardwired devices. This system came with individual door transmitters that could be wired to magnetic contacts or placed in passive infrared devices that required literally no installation. This meant that alarms could be rented out to customers who were willing to pay extra for them. Shortly afterwards, we developed 16-channel multiplexers that could also be utilized in the system. This allowed the system to be practical for new installations where all units were to be alarmed as well as for retrofits.
In 1995, my business associate, Kathy Trevillyan, and I also took over controlling interest in MSTC. It was our goal to reorganize it into a company that still cared about quality products and customer service, but that could hold pace with the way the world does business today. In 1996, we moved our offices and expanded our staff to help maintain consistent levels of sales and technical support. We began business planning using outside consultants, such as George S. May International Co., to help us identify areas that might need work. We also felt that the world would be going over to the Windows platform and we wanted to be at the forefront of that effort with 32-bit technology. So we started the process of defining the specifications for what would later become Account Manager for Windows. It was important for us that we keep the good things about the DOS Mini Manager II that made our company a success, but we wanted to stand on top and incorporate many of the things our customers had been telling us they wanted in a new system.
We began programming the Windows-based Security Manager in 1996 and Account Manager in 1997. We were expecting to release them both by summer of 1998; however, software development is not an exact science and the process took longer than expected. Meanwhile, in 1998 our programming staff (which consisted of three family members) decided that they were not happy with the direction of the company and they departed in October of 1998, leaving us with an incomplete program and some unhappy customers who were anxiously awaiting their new systems.
Recognizing the need to act quickly, we selected a software-development company that had a great deal of Windows- and Internet-development experience, to outsource the actual programming of Account Manager. We decided to turn a negative into a positive, and I began working with them on a daily basis. This gave MSTC a great opportunity to take a fresh look at Account Manager and make it even better than initially conceptualized.
The only problem we encountered was timing. It became apparent to us that we had to start over almost from scratch, and we were already late releasing Account Manager. So we did everything we could to speed up the process. We had up to five people working 10- to 24-hour days trying to accomplish the impossible. We learned an incredible amount during this process. All the while, many people in the industry were waiting to see us fail and spreading rumors that we were going out of business. Consequently, we released version 1.0 of Account Manager a little prematurely. We thought people would be happier to see the product partially functioning and that they would have the patience to go through the completion process with us. We were wrong, and we then recalled the product and began a more controlled approach to releasing the software in the fall of 1999.
That's quite a story. It's easy to see how perceptions can be inaccurate. Are there any thoughts you'd like to share with your captive audience?
We're here to stay! We've weathered a tough storm and come out stronger. It has made us tune into our customer base even more. After all, they have been frustrated; yet, we stuck in there day after day and listened to what they had to say so that we could be the best. We owe a debt of gratitude to thank all of our customers who have supported us and given us the strength to persevere. It is our business and our pleasure to serve such excellent people.
Windows development tools are holding the floodgate open for software vendors. Do you feel this makes the buying decision more difficult? How has competition affected your business?
We program utilizing Microsoft Visual C++ development tools. It is possible to utilize other development tools, but they do not all get the same result. Account Manager offers literally thousands of options of how to do business. It takes a lot of programming (source code) to support that much flexibility. I find there are a lot of systems out there, some of which are new to the marketplace, but few demonstrate the level of experience and depth of configuration that Account Manager has.
Just being "Account-based" makes its source code more complex than anything else. The word "account" as used in our system means that for each customer that rents units at the site, we establish an account you can enter the customer contact, billing and identification information into. In addition, you can have multiple contacts and multiple units in the account. For each account in the system, you actually customize all of your business practices so you can do business with them the way they want you to do business. We have over 15,000 programming hours in the system, and we plan to keep going strong.
Lots of companies will put a Windows product out there. There aren't any real controls in place to regulate software. That's one of the reasons why so many products come to market. Anyone can form a company, write a program, get a trade-show booth and an advertisement, and claim to be an expert. It's difficult initially to tell them apart. They all appear to do the same basic functions. It's the flexibility to conform to how you do business, the accountability of the system tracking controls, and the customer support that sets apart the better ones. I think you'll find that the more mature companies in the industry understand this, and if you evaluate the products you'll see some significant differences.
Developing a reliable, proven product is not easy from what you've explained. Is your newest Windows property management product, the Account Manager, bug-free?
Microsoft has certainly demonstrated that no successful product is bug free. At any given time, any software system has a list of known issues. It is the responsibility of the software companies to minimize the potential risk of any bugs by thorough testing and to respond quickly to any that are identified. A software system with no bugs is essentially a dead system and will soon be obsolete. We maintain a list of issues in our software, track the progress made on each issue, and then test the fixes prior to releasing a new version. We have released a new version of Account Manager at least once a quarter and intend to continue to do so through the year 2000.
So "buyer beware"? What advice would you give to a first-time builder of self-storage who is shopping for automation products?
Since we lack the equivalency of Consumer Reports in our market, it is important to educate yourself via seminars, publications, and relationships with management and consulting companies, as well as with the vendors who supply you with the products. Talk to other operators and learn from their experiences as well.
"User-friendly" is a term so often heard in software marketing. Is there truly such a thing as user-friendly software?
We decided that "user-friendly" means being compliant with Microsoft Windows. We designed our system to use all the standard menus, tool bars, wizards, task bars, properties sheets, drop lists and dialogue boxes you would see in a product developed by Microsoft. In this way, the computer operator is half way there just by learning how to use Windows. We find that people who are Windows proficient find the system easy to use, and those who only know DOS get frustrated. Until they learn Windows, they will continue to be frustrated. We recommend that everyone using our system should take a basic Windows class to learn how to maneuver around, and then they can take one of our optional training courses. In addition, our system has a very thorough online help system that will help the user find just about anything they need to know about the system.
Internet technology is also another life-altering device in our society. How has MSTC applied Internet features in your business and in your products?
We use the Internet as our primary means of communication, even within our own company. In addition, we have created a website that allows our customers to easily contact us for sales inquiries, and support questions, and to make suggestions on product development. Several of our employees actually work from home several days a week and utilize the Internet almost exclusively to stay in touch. We utilize synchronization so they can log on and update their database to match the main one on our network. In the Account Manager, we utilize the Internet for corporate report transmittals and are expanding that to include credit-card processing and the mailing of customer invoices.
We also see the future as being one in which there will be a web-based approach to self-storage management software that will allow storage customers to check their balances and history, make changes to their account and make online payments via the Internet. From a corporate standpoint, the home office of multiple sites will actually maintain the server and host the database that the sites will log on to as browsers. This will allow the home office the ability to always have the most recent information at their fingertips making call-center reservations, rate management, audit controls, report timeliness and marketing decisions a snap.
What can this industry expect to see from your organization in the next three to five years?
Our big emphasis over the next few years will be to continue to refine the Account Manager to meet the needs of the industry, to introduce our new security hardware line and to develop and release a web-based enterprise version of Account Manager. All the while our focus will be to continue to improve our quality of customer service and to introduce innovative and leading-edge solutions for the industry.