Real estate & property tech Startups Venture

Storage Startups Still Finding Space To Grow

The classic self-storage business model is pretty straightforward. You rent a space, lug your stuff there, and pay every month. Eventually you either move your stuff or it gets removed (and possibly made into a reality TV show.)

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This has proven over time to be a very lucrative business model. The top five storage-focused real estate investment trusts are collectively valued over $85 billion. In recent weeks, most are trading at or near all-time highs.

But while investors may like traditional storage offerings, consumers aren’t crazy about them. Rental fees add up, and hauling stuff to and from storage is no fun. Thus, it’s not surprising that in recent years a crop of well-funded startups have been scaling up, seeking to reduce some of the pain points.

“When you look at the traditional model, it lacks flexibility,” said Rahul Gandhi, CEO of MakeSpace, a startup that has raised over $140 million to reenvision the storage space. By moving stuff and retrieving storage items for customers, the company is one of several upstarts seeking to make it easier to manage our stuff.

The players

Venture investors have socked away plenty of cash in storage deals. Overall, U.S. storage-focused startups have collectively raised over $500 million in venture and growth funding to date, per Crunchbase and reported data.

The bulk of investment has gone to a few players, including storage and pickup services MakeSpace and Clutter, as well as peer-to-peer storage marketplace Neighbor. Meanwhile, a handful of earlier-stage players have also raised smaller rounds. We lay out some of the largest and most recent funding recipients below:

The most capital-intensive investment theme is around what can be described as concierge storage services. These are companies that rent storage space but also offer services to go along with it, such as picking up stuff, digitally cataloguing it, and retrieving items on demand.

Top-funded players Clutter and MakeSpace attempt to offset the extra expense of their high-service models by getting cheaper, more out-of-the-way storage spaces. This is a shift from traditional self-storage models, which require customers to drive themselves and concentrate on locations within easy driving distance.

Meanwhile, the other heavily funded player in the space, Neighbor, pitches itself as a cost-saving alternative. It sets price recommendations for its marketplace of peer-provided spaces that are well below traditional self-storage providers.

Storage in these strange times

Over the past year, there’s been sufficient storage demand for both traditional and upstart players in the space to see some growth.

Broadly, the U.S. storage industry has performed well amid the pandemic. In the public market, the largest storage REITS overall reported higher income and lower vacancy rates. Several startups, meanwhile, also reported higher revenue, boosted by consumers spending more time in their homes and looking to free up space.

MakeSpace’s Gandhi uses his own pandemic experience as a case in point.

“All of a sudden, my home became my office, school for my kids, and living space,” he said. It required some shuffling around of stuff to make room for their new stay-at-home lifestyle.

He wasn’t alone. Gandhi said his business roughly doubled in the past year, with customers storing about 40 percent more stuff than they were pre-pandemic. Beyond the need to clear out space, an uptick in city dwellers making temporary or long-term moves also contributed to demand.

At Clutter, CEO Ari Mir said the business managed to carry on without a pause during the pandemic because it qualified as an essential service. Business has been expanding, he said, which is not entirely unexpected given that storage demand is highly correlated with major life changes.

“What a lot of investors realized last year is while other companies’ businesses were tanking … storage companies were solid as a rock,” he said.

Meanwhile at Neighbor, CEO Joseph Woodbury saw growing demand from both sides of its marketplace: those seeking storage and those looking to earn extra money renting spare space. He says business revenue increased 5x from March 2020 to March 2021.

Now, as we emerge from the pandemic, we can imagine that storage could see another boon. After all, consumers out and about again will be looking to sock away all the exercise equipment and sourdough bread making accoutrements acquired when they were stuck at home.

Making storage more about tech, less about real estate

Certainly storage startup executives sound confident their models will continue to resonate. A shared observation from CEOs Crunchbase spoke to is that while self-storage is a huge industry, it hasn’t been highly focused on customer service.

“All these big, incumbent players have really built their footprint around the real estate,” MakeSpace’s Gandhi said. “We don’t see ourselves as a real estate business … We see ourselves as a consumer technology and marketing business.”

Both Gandhi and Mir attribute their companies’ founding stories to personal moving experiences filled with disappointment at the cumbersome steps required in securing storage. It’s particularly complicated for people in urban areas, where MakeSpace and Clutter focus, as they often don’t have easy access to a vehicle or cost-effective nearby storage spaces.

Neighbor’s Woodbury, meanwhile, said self-storage is often too expensive and out-of-the-way for potential customers. A more tech-centric marketplace approach makes it easier for people to rent cheaper space in their own neighborhoods and for the business to add extra capacity without actually having to construct new storage facilities.

After flush funding, what comes next?

So, storage is hot. But what does that mean for the future of venture-backed startups in the space?

At MakeSpace, Gandhi sees the company as well positioned, having raised a $55 million round last spring that he said “was designed to be our last round of capital.” The company is on track for $75 million in revenue this year and is profitable in several of its markets. While it is not profitable overall, he anticipates that could happen in the next year and a half.

Clutter, meanwhile, is the most highly capitalized of the lot, having raised $200 million in a SoftBank-backed round about two years ago. The company continues to scale out of that investment, Mir said.

And Neighbor is flush with fresh capital, having closed a $53 million round this month. The fundraising effort consisted of finally accepting a term sheet from real estate-focused VC Fifth Wall after repeat offers.

Still, we have yet to see a recent VC-backed storage company hit the public markets. None of the CEOs we spoke to hinted at this imminently occurring either.

However, some sort of exit does not seem out of the question, given that public investors like both the storage and tech sectors of late. One can imagine a lot of enthusiasm around an opportunity to store cash in an investment with exposure to both industries.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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