by Fred Schonenberg | 2020–08–04
When we look at anything, we see it through the lens of our own perspective, experience, and bias. When that lens is successful in business, an industry builds up around that vantage point and solidifies a herd mentality defining it as the way things are done (aka best practices). Disruption and Innovation come when someone looks at that same problem from an original vantage point with a different set of experiences. When the new perspective resonates with a significant set of consumers, it can disrupt the original status quo with what feels like a movement.
The last time I went to a storage facility was after my dad died. I was looking for a photo album and trekked to 3 different storage facilities and looked through 5 storage rooms he had rented across upstate New York. He picked them based on price and proximity to his house — the best deal, at the time he needed them. They were all the absolute bare minimum: dilapidated neighborhoods with dark, abandoned, pad-locked dust-rooms most likely to be forgotten, with staff that was inconvenienced by the rare arrival of a customer. To find one item within these disorganized, barely lit rooms was near impossible. After an exhausting and miserable day of not finding the photo album, I swore to never use or need a storage space.
When I interviewed Rahul Gandhi, CEO of MakeSpace, for The VentureFuel Podcast, he explained that traditionally, people rent storage when there is an immediate need (a relocation, downsizing, birth, death, marriage, etc.) and usually select their location/unit based upon price and proximity. The entire industry was a real estate game. The companies bought large, often abandoned spaces near big cities, chopped up the space efficiently, and rented out rooms to customers at the highest price with the lowest cost to operate. The industry is valued at $40b — it’s big, big business. But the money (and the focus) was in the real estate. Acquire the best space, chop it up, set it and forget it. No one was thinking about customer experience because the customer was the commodity — they always needed the space when one of those life moments happened.
Rahul was brought up working at his dad’s fast-food restaurants, many times in food courts at the mall. He knew that when he remembered a customer’s name and preferences, and had their soda ready as they ordered it, they came back day-after-day. There was value in knowing the customer and giving them a positive experience in an otherwise unremarkable exchange. When he went to AOL, he learned how software and data allow you to know your customers at scale and deliver personalized and organized experiences. With these embedded experiences, Rahul was able to look at the storage experience through his perspective and bias for personalization and customer experience — and he saw an opportunity. MakeSpace has raised $150m and is in 31 markets. If my dad had used MakeSpace, that photo album would be on his phone and we could order it to be delivered to our front door as easy as a book from Amazon. How did the huge legacy incumbent storage players not see this threat/opportunity coming? Because they only saw real estate, as that had always served them well.
You can hear the full interview with Rahul here. If you like this conversation, you might also enjoy my interview with Raja Rajamannar, the CMO of Mastercard, in which we discuss how large companies can disrupt themselves before they get disrupted (conversation here).