There is comfort in the familiar. Even entrepreneurs—many of whom are risk-takers by nature, and therefore, somewhat comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable—can find it disconcerting to foray into business unknowns. This is why forcibly pushing business forward, whether pursuing new development opportunities, gambling on new services, or investing in new technology, can be a scary proposition for self-storage operators.
After all, if a business is moving along smoothly, the act of pivoting direction or introducing something radically new to tenants in anticipation of market changes has inherent risk. What if it backfires? If you move too far down a new path and it doesn’t go well, is the damage irreparable to the business and your psyche?
Earlier this month, I was able to attend the Federation of European Self Storage Associations conference and tradeshow in Barcelona, Spain. I was impressed not only by the communal nature of the gathering but also the enthusiasm and purpose of self-storage operators blazing trails in emerging markets like Finland, Germany, Norway and Spain. These are pioneers widening the reach of a global industry, introducing the service concept to new consumers and molding it to thrive in cultural context.
Self-storage is similar but different all over the world. It may be familiar on the outside to any veteran from an established region, but there are nuances in every market that necessitate adaptation of the business model. I thought about this juxtaposition during in my conversations on the tradeshow floor, and unwittingly embodied it as I made my way around the city in what little free time I had to explore.
I find traveling alone to a foreign country in which I’m not fluent in the native tongue a tad intimidating. I’m a first-generation American raised by British parents. I like to think I have some inherent European sensibilities, but there’s an odd aloneness for a linguistically challenged traveler on bustling streets that have an urban familiarity and yet are like nowhere you’ve ever been.
When you’re pressed for time, it’s best to hit the high points. Prior to setting up the ISS booth, I found my way to Las Ramblas on my wife’s recommendation and enjoyed the energy of the vendors, sidewalk cafes, tourists and street performers. During my walk from the hotel and back, I was struck by the amount of trash and graffiti that were present on the streets. I grew up in Los Angeles and have walked Chicago, New York and London. Urban grit is a given for any big city, but having heard how beautiful Barcelona was, this surprised me. I quickly learned, however, that Barcelona’s beauty isn’t necessarily at street level. When I looked up, I was taken by the architectural diversity, particularly the artistic detailing on building faces and window treatments. Some were quite stunning.
Looking up became a ritual as I walked between my hotel and the conference center during my stay. On the night of the Welcome Dinner, held inside the courtyard at the Poble Espanyol architectural museum, the uphill walk from the conference location also gave me my first glimpse of the city’s postcard outlay as the sun began to set. I began to see the forest from the trees and gained confidence that I could imbibe the local culture despite my rudimentary Spanish and disorientation trying to decipher Catalan.
On the last day of the conference, I awoke to thunder, lightning and a sizable downpour. I was disappointed because I wanted to try to see the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, the iconic Roman Catholic church that’s been under continuous construction since 1882. I was leaving the next morning and figured if I saw only one thing before I departed, the church should probably be it. I grabbed a taxi and battled local rush hour. I arrived just after 6 p.m., narrowly missing the last tour of the day. Undeterred, I walked around the outside of the property, snapping pictures, marveling at the near impossibility to get the entire thing in frame from the ground or any reasonable distance away.
Since I couldn’t participate in the church tour, I felt confident enough to take a scenic, 4.8-kilometer stroll back to the hotel and grab dinner along the way. I plotted a rough route that would take me past the Arc de Triomf and toward Las Ramblas. As I scuttled along, remembering to look up during my trek to gaze at the architectural detail, I became wary of clustering gray clouds above me. Quickly, one rain drop turned to three turned to a downpour.
If you’ve been to Barcelona, you know that roads and walkways seem to jut in every conceivable direction. It’s the City of Diagonal Streets. I wound up scurrying, slipping and sliding through a very cool if intimidating labyrinth of narrow cobblestone pathways, hesitant to stop. I was in go mode. My traveling insecurities began to return as daylight disappeared and silhouetted strangers peered at me from under doorways in their unsuccessful attempts to stay dry.
Eventually, I came to a clearing. Through my rain-soaked glasses—a bit disoriented—I swore I could see an Irish pub shining like a beacon. At last, something familiar. Safe harbor. I sloshed across the courtyard and opened the door. As I stood inside, sopping wet, an Irish accent muttered matter-of-factly, "Is it raining out?"
It felt and sounded like home just as my nerves were starting to fray. I suppose if there’s a moral to the story it’s that sometimes blindly navigating the labyrinth of the unknown leads you to an unexpectedly familiar and comfortable place. Cheers to those of you who brave the unknown, unafraid to push your self-storage businesses forward with cunning and innovation. You’re helping to lead a maturing industry here at home, shaping it for a new generation of consumers. It’s as tasty as a piping-hot cottage pie.