In the early 2000s, my parents bought a chunk of land in a rural suburb of Minneapolis and started building my dad’s dream. Over the next 20-plus years, he accumulated 53 shipping containers to rent as self-storage units. He also offered space to people looking to store cars, trucks, trailers, RVs and boats. Anyone who needed it was welcome, with the promise of cheap space and easy access. There were no contracts, rules or guidelines. Just pay when you can and don’t cause too much trouble. It was easy money, and my parents were just happy to get checks and own their own property.
In time, what seemed like a dream became a bit of a nightmare. Property taxes rose several-hundred percent, and site upkeep needed to be brought in line with the vision of a growing suburban town. My parents, who once appeared capable of taking on anything life had to throw at them, seemed to constantly spin in circles. They became overwhelmed with the business that was supposed to be their retirement.
Joining the Circus
Earlier this year, I was let go from my job as a project manager at a Fortune 100 company. I suddenly found myself with time to examine my surroundings. I’d always seen the family business coming my way—like a slow-moving circus train—and now seemed like the time to jump on board. I knew my parents weren’t the same bright-eyed ringleaders they once tried to be, and I could see the chaos of their operation taking a toll.
While my dad tried to keep pushing forward with superhuman drive, my mom had borne the brunt of chasing all the wild animals (customers) and keeping this train on track. At some point, she threw up her hands and let go of the throttle. She was exhausted and, in her words, “just wanted to do her laundry and have coffee with her friends.”
Getting Back on Track
My first priority was to bring some order to our storage operation. I sat with my mom and tried to understand her business structure. Who were the clients and what did they rent? Who paid what, and when had they paid? What were the profit and losses? All simple questions, I thought, but as I would learn, there were no easy answers.
I soon discovered that my mom didn’t really ever want this business. She never set up a spreadsheet of who, what, where and when. With every customer I asked about, there was a strange process of digging for their file, which contained a unit number and copy of payment, but there was no way to know if someone was late or behind on rent. Even when there was information, it was spotty. Only some tenants had contracts. Others didn’t even have real names and were just referred to by their ethnicity or job, like “The Russian” or “Glass man.” To understand the tenants and what they meant to the business, I had to bring some organization to the situation.
I created a spreadsheet from the files we had and got to know the names of everyone who rented a space. I put their names with the units they rented and any vehicles they parked. I listed the payments they had made for the entire year, so I could know if they owed rent. I walked the lot with my dad and pointed at everything asking, “Who’s in here, and who’s is this? Who pays you cash, and who sends checks?”
After about a month, I had a pretty good understanding of the cast of characters who stored their goods with us. Some were old friends; some were from Craigslist ads. Only some paid regularly. Some had moved out and left stuff. Some had died. There were lots of stories about lots of people, and my dad knew them all. When we were done, I finally had a picture coming into focus, and I didn’t always like what I was seeing.
Taking a New Path
Because of all the disjointed business transactions and handshake deals, my parents had been taken advantage of by many of our self-storage customers. I found a number of delinquent accounts and people who had not paid beyond the first time. Customers discovered that if they owed money, my dad usually wouldn’t ask for it. If he did, they could just throw a bit of cash his way, and he would generally leave them alone again for months. Some renters would tell stories of hardship or aliens or a pending inheritance and get a pass until later.
I came to learn that my dad was very averse to conflict and seemed to have a physical reaction to confronting people. This was eye-opening for me. My dad, who could do anything he set his mind to and was brilliant in so many ways, couldn’t ask for what he knew he was owed. To get the business under control, I needed to introduce rules he could fall back on when people tried to misguide him. This structure would let him know what he needed to do and how and provide me with the guidelines I needed to help him.
I searched online and found the Self-Storage Talk forum hosted by Inside Self-Storage. I read about the rules and regulations other storage facilities had implemented, and I followed the advice of one user to look up my state laws. I then started to build a new business around them.
The laws provided a roadmap I was more than happy to follow. Using them like a tool I had been missing, I sent out my first eviction letters to long-delinquent accounts. Tenants with whom my parents had been trading emails and sob stories for years were finally coming into compliance because, for the first time, they were given rules to follow. It was no longer a free-for-all. There now seemed to be a path forward for the business.
Putting the Wheels in Motion
My next move was to find a way to manage payments so I didn’t have to chase customers for money each month. I learned about online systems, then contacted a few companies that best suited my needs. Within a few weeks of setup, I invited tenants to join the new system. I used it to open conversations with them. I can now approach customers to tell them about the new procedure as well as see how they’ve been paying or not, depending on the case. The process makes things easier for them while serving as tool for me to probe into their past habits.
The software has also exposed payment gaps and quickly painted a picture of our business profitability. It can track expenses and manage communication with clients. It sends rent reminders and automatically adds late fees when applicable. I can see if someone has opened an email from me, which tells me I have the correct contact info. It gives me a reason to call customers and check in. I can then clarify their lease status and update their payments.
Using this new process, I’ve discovered many tenants who were underpaying or longer exist. Honestly, I find new ways to use the software to my advantage every day, and I believe it’s a critical tool for my business going forward.
Now redirected, my family’s self-storage operation is evolving. I don’t think it’s going to be what I thought it was for so many years, but I have an opportunity to try new things and learn new aspects about my family, myself and the people we share this time and space with. I look forward to the ride.
Charles Johnson is a freelance film and photography rigger, builder, and manager of Welcome Storage in Prior Lake, Minnesota. To reach him, email [email protected].