Thinking Inside The Box

April 20, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Bryan Houck is a “refugee of corporate America.” Houck made a promise to himself to start his own business once he lost his passion for the work he was doing at the time.

When that time came, it meant thinking inside the box, when — after three years of searching through business plans — he settled on what would become myway Mobile Storage.

“I stumbled across mobile self-storage and really started looking at it more out of curiosity than anything else,” said Houck. “Every time I peeled back a layer to the business model, it kept getting better and better and better. It’s a virtual business model; it’s not based on a bricks-and-mortar model.”

Mobile self-storage companies drop off storage units to a renter, allowing them to load the units at their convenience. The company will then pick up the storage unit and bring it back to its warehouse. If a renter wants to reload or unload their storage unit, the company will again drop off and pick up the unit. Myway Mobile Storage offers unlimited deliveries and pick-ups for free.

The mobile aspect of the business was a strong draw for Houck; it allows myway Mobile Storage to service customers in a much larger area than regular self-storage competitors. A typical self-storage company serves customers within a radius of about 60 to 70 square miles of the storage building. Myway is capable of effectively reaching an area of approximately 2,000 square miles.

Houck noticed the opportunity for growth in the self-storage industry, which has gone from a $15 billion dollar industry to $23 billion just in the two and a half years since his original business plan.

“The top 10 players in the self-storage industry combine to make up 12.1 percent of that $23 billion. So you’ve got a well-established, growing industry that’s completely fragmented. And then on top of that, throw in to the mix a niche with a very service-oriented spin like mobile self-storage that can come in and basically reinvent the entire concept of storage for the United States.”

While the idea of mobile storage is not new, the methodology in which Houck has approached it is. He recalled the moment he turned in his resignation: “I can remember sitting in the parking lot across from my boss’s office preparing to resign from my perfectly good job to get this thing started. I only had about four months of cash flow at the time in the bank. Nine minutes before it was time for me to resign, my cell phone went off, and it was one of the investors that I had been talking to. And nine minutes before I resigned, he actually gave me his verbal that he would come on board as a key investor. It’s just amazing: Things like that have happened over and over — where, just when you think nothing great is going to happen, that one little thing happens to keep you alive and keep you going.”

Houck built a prototype storage box in his garage, and it turned out “horrible,” he said. After building the first 40 storage units, he engaged in a strategic relationship with a nationwide firm to produce the units using his exclusive myway design. The shell of the storage unit is made out of corrugated plastic, which is completely weatherproof. The shell fits over a wooden box and, once stored in the warehouse, the shell is removed, allowing the box to “breathe.” This eliminates condensation and mold issues.

Both the shell and box are 100 percent recyclable, making the very nature of the business green, said Houck. Because moveable storage units are used, myway is able to stack the units three high in the same space a traditional self-storage company uses for one unit.

Houck has implemented several operation systems that have made the company one of the “Best Franchises for the 21st Century,” according to “Eye on America,” a nationally syndicated television news series.

Franchises, however, were not his goal when he started the company. Houck’s initial goal was to open nationwide corporate locations without leveraging the company until it was turning positive cash flow.

So far the company has franchises in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Baltimore and St. Louis. Each franchise is a roughly $1 million investment spread over two years. Houck said a myway franchise is set up so the franchisee can run a successful business with five employees, no main phone line at the local level, no office or secretary, and no accounts receivable. Customer service and orders are handled through the Grand Rapids office.

This means that, as the company grows nationally, more jobs are created locally. The company has already expanded its space by moving the offices out of its original warehouse located on Turner Avenue into office space located at 15 Ionia Ave. SW. In the next five years, myway plans to open 50 warehouses in 35 markets, a mix of corporate-owned and franchises.

Houck has formulated a unique way of attracting and retaining top talent. Instead of implementing a management program, Houck created an “entrepreneurial program.” The program lasts five years, with the first year devoted to training in all aspects of the company, from delivering to marketing. After completion of the first year, an employee can reserve any available market under his or her name. At the end of the five years, that person is ready to start a myway Mobile Storage business in the reserved market.

Houck also set up a “bonus deferral program” that allows employees to opt out of cashing a bonus until the end of the five years, when the company will double the bonus to help with seed money for start-up costs.

The idea came to Houck while in the shower and reflects his reasoning for starting his own company in the first place — financial independence.

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