My self-storage career started off at a small facility more than 16 years ago. I was 23. High-speed Internet was taking off, Google was getting ready to take over the world, Myspace was still on the drawing board, and the music industry was just beginning to experience the economic upheaval of file sharing. Now, you’d think that maybe—just maybe—a little Silicon Valley dust would have made it to my property. Well, that didn’t happen and, to my dismay, it wouldn’t for many years.
The first self-storage management software I used was a DOS system. My printer was of the dot-matrix variety, and my facility gate controller was the size of a rolling suitcase. To add insult to injury, I had to update the gate controller ... manually … every day.
Over the last 15 years, self-storage technology has made huge strides. Operators are no longer forced to purchase a gate system that has the technological prowess of an Atari or process payments through something that has the grace of a Magic 8 Ball. Now you get to take part in the revolution as it happens, not 10 years later.
One advancement that has altered the world in general is cloud technology. Its basis is nothing more than the ability to deliver on-demand computing resources from applications or data centers over the Internet on a pay-for-use basis. That’s it. Do you have a Gmail account? Then you’re using the cloud. Do you like to watch Netflix on your smartphone? Again, you’re using cloud technology.
Note I said “pay-for-use” basis. One way or the other, you do pay for these services, either directly or by giving advertisers access to your information. Services like Gmail are free, but you pay by allowing them access to your personal data.
Let’s explore how can we leverage this technology for self-storage operation.
We’ll start with the most effective use of cloud technology in the self-storage industry: our management software. Back in the pre-cloud days, a facility’s software would typically be available on one computer in the management office. All reports, payments, etc., were completed at this central hub. If you needed a specific report, you had to be in the office or request that a copy be sent to you by fax.
At the end of each day, the manager would use 3.5-inch floppy disks, a recordable CD or a USB drive to back up the day’s transactions. The thought of losing your facility information to theft, computer virus, human error, a natural disaster such as a lightning strike or just mechanical failure was horrifying, but also very plausible.
If you manage one or more property, cloud technology has allowed you real-time access to the performance of every facility. This allows you to make more informed decisions on a much faster timeline—no more waiting on a fax to process or an overnight package of reports to arrive. Today you can get updated information at the click of a mouse, smartphone or tablet. Just making this one update to your facility’s array of technology will make light years of difference in your operation.
The next way to leverage cloud technology is through e-mail. In the pre-cloud days, e-mail was limited to platforms such as Microsoft Outlook or AOL. Once you programmed your information into the client, it would download your messages directly to your computer. In time, smartphone makers such as Blackberry began producing devices that specifically allowed you to get your messages while traveling.
The cloud now gives you complete control of all your business communication systems. Using the Internet, you can set up and issue e-mail addresses via your facility’s domain, control their access, monitor their use, and easily remove them without any issues. In addition, most enterprise e-mail providers offer apps so you have access to administrative functions from your smartphone or tablet.
There are also many cloud-based storage providers available to store your documents. Programs such as Box, Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive provide online storage for personal and enterprise use. This makes the transfer of documents, especially large ones, extremely efficient. As with e-mail, these services give you access from not only a computer, but your smartphone, tablet and laptop as well—no more carrying around USB flash drives to back up files.
The cloud has also allowed for greater collaboration via project-management programs like Asana, Basecamp and Teamwork. For example, if you’re building an additional phase of buildings at your facility, all interested parties can work together via the cloud. The finance company, architect, engineer and contractor can all have access to plans and drawings, comments, potential issues, the construction timeline, surveys, etc., allowing everyone to work with the same set of documents and the most recent knowledge base.
Finally, there are a variety of CRM (customer relationship management) programs available to self-storage operators via the cloud. Options like Highrise, Salesforce and SugarCRM allow you to track who your customers are and how they find you. You can use this information to calculate the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns. Using this data, you can easily remove campaigns that aren’t providing a return. In addition, many CRM programs have e-mail functions that will give your facility an additional avenue for marketing to existing and former customers.
The cloud has changed the way self-storage facilities operate. The ability to obtain accurate and real-time reports is priceless in today’s economy. As with all technology, take time and test some things. Not everything that works well for one company will work well for the policy and procedures of another. It’s all about what works best in your operation. There’s no replacement for real-time speed, collaboration and accuracy.
Matthew Van Horn is a member of the operation team at Reliant Management, a full-service self-storage management company specializing in management, feasibility studies, facility acquisitions and joint ventures within the self-storage industry. He’s also president of 3 Mile Domination, a full-service self-storage marketing and strategy company. For more information, visit www.storesmart.org or www.3miledomination.com.