Unmanned Self-Storage: Everything we Know

self-storage

What is Unmanned self-storage? What companies have succeeded, and who has failed? Read everything we have learned in the past five years.

When the founders of Unmanned self-storage businesses first announced they would run their facilities without staff on-site, anyone with a bit of experience in the industry knew it just wouldn't work.

Since its beginning, Unmanned was met with skepticism - and a bit of fear. After all, if these founders were right, it would mean that the whole industry would suddenly need to relearn their business and put technology at its core.

Initially met with skepticism, Unmanned self-storage has become a success – and might be the future of the industry.

Fast forward a few years, and businesses have shown that their take on Unmanned self-storage does work after all. Having scaled to two dozen, even a hundred and more facilities in a few five years, these companies have proven that Unmanned cannot be ignored – and might even be the industry's future.

What is Unmanned self-storage?

Unmanned self-storage, also called unstaffed or unattended self-storage, is a business model in which self-storage companies, aided by technology, operate their facilities without permanent staff on site.

While descriptive, the term "Unmanned" misled many into thinking that there would be no staff at all in an Unmanned facility. More correctly, Unmanned is about two things:

  • Reducing work for the managers by taking processes like reservation, selecting, and booking a unit online.
  • Creating a better customer experience so tenants can use the product right away, without waiting for opening hours or staff.

These improvements take work off the manager's shoulders and frees them from having to be present at their site all the time. We have seen operators find new ways how to attend to their sites:

  • Sattelite Sites: Operators that don't want to change their whole business at once have started opening often smaller "satellite sites" close to their existing ones. While satellites can operate independently, operators feel less at risk knowing they can always send staff over if someone is needed.
  • Regional Managers: Instead of being on-site at one site only, regional managers are now in charge of several facilities at once, which they visit on a regular schedule and as tenants might require.
  • Outsourcing: Especially newly founded businesses that do not have existing staff prefer to remain "lean" and avoid hiring. Instead, they hire service companies to take on specific tasks, including repairs and checks of units.

As you see, Unmanned isn't really that - unmanned. But it makes operations way more efficent – and this is what the industry just might need.

Types of Unmanned Self-Storage, by Example

Unmanned isn't one size fits all - in fact, we have found that no Unmanned businesses are the same. While some might look similar from the outside, behind their website, there is a unique set of challenges, legal requirements, and an IT-system built to solve their exact vision.

Localstorage - low tech, with manual steps

Being forced to run their sites efficiently, operator Localstorage chose not to staff them. Instead, they developed a simple booking website that, upon signing an e-lease, gives a personal PIN-code to the new tenant. At the facility, tenants go to their unit themselves and put on their padlock - without a manager present.To this day, Localstorage's process isn't fully automated. Nevertheless, it's been a profitable business: Since 2009, Localstorage has grown to 15 sites in Vienna, Austria.

ExtraPlatz - automated move-in & move-out

When we started developing a solution for our client ExtraPlatz in 2015, their main concern was that they wouldn't have the staff and time to deal with customers on-site. So, Karibu developed a system that would precisely automate everything from move-in & e-signing to move-out. Even virtual tours were put on the website to reduce inquiries to see the facility in person drastically. And we succeeded: Since 2016, ExtraPlatz has been operating their site without ever having to hire a manager.

Selfando – fully automated

Booking is central in self-storage: Selecting a unit, signing a lease, and moving in is on top of every operator's mind when thinking about processes in self-storage. Yet, from move-out to talking to customer-service, changing units, to sharing digital keys, it is surprising to hear that at a self-storage business, there can be dozens and even up to a hundred processes that all can be automated, or not.

Knowing that it is no surprise that there are "degrees of Unmanned," While many self-storage software vendors have started to offer online booking, they are yet far from automating everything they could.

By automating all of these processes, our client, Selfando from Germany, takes a radically modern approach to self-storage. From online booking to customer service, back-office operations to facility management, early 2021, Selfando will launch one of the most automated and modern Unmanned businesses to date.

Successes in Europe & the USA

placeB (Switzerland)

This self-storage operator started the first-wave of Unmanned self-storage in Europe. Founded mid-2014 by Terry Fehlmann, former co-owner & COO of Zebrabox, Switzerland's biggest self-storage operator, PlaceB has grown to 25 facilities, all across Switzerland's German-speaking parts, adding new facilities every few months.

24Storage (Sweden)

If you are in the European self-storage industry, you have probably heard or met Michael Fogelberg, a long-time entrepreneur with a streak of self-storage successes, from Shurgard Europe to SelStore, to 24Storage, which he founded late 2014. Today, in 2020, 24Storage's website lists 24 facilities in operation.

Storebox (Austria)

Storebox, initially called "StoreMe," launched in 2015 as an "Airbnb of Self-Storage," a peer-to-peer marketplace for self-storage. In 2016, StoreMe opened its first two Unmanned self-storage facilities in Vienna and hasn't looked back since: Today, Storebox is an Unmanned self-storage franchise, with more than a hundred micro-storage locations in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.

10 Federal (USA)

In 2016, 10 Federal started raising capital to convert a first few self-storage sites for Unmanned operations. Even if 10 Federal had to invest in developing their own solution it paid off: Today, in 2020, 10 Federal operates several dozen Unmanned facilities across the Southeast and beyond.

Why Unmanned Projects fail

For the last five years, we have helped self-storage developers in the USA, and Europe, automate their businesses. Following the market closely, we have seen some property developers succeed, and some of them fail. Though failure never came down to one reason alone, when it comes to technology, we see startups repeat these mistakes to this day:

Thinking technology attracts business

Unmanned is not a magic bullet. Apps or smart locks won't improve business when you're in a wrong location or a bad market.

Look at unmanned as a way to operate facilities more efficiently. Demand needs to be there, but suddenly you can operate at better margins and at smaller locations that prevouisly just wouldn't be profitable

Assuming your vendors will solve it for you

You and your vendor might have very different ideas of what "Unmanned" should be. It can be sobering to find out the "Unmanned" you've been sold takes an a lot of manual work after all.

Think about your ideal processes and how technology should automate them. This will not only serve you in building your IT-System but also serve as a basis for operation manuals and be a guide for future improvements.

Developing technology yourself

High expenses for software and hardware development turn your self-storage into a technology business.

While you might not be able to buy a full solution off the shelf, you don't have to scratch from scratch, either. The parts that you need already exist. You only have to find them and put them together.

Über den Autor
Sebastian Kerekes, Consultant & CEO

Sebastian Kerekes ist IT-Berater mit über 15 Jahren Erfahrung in der Umsetzung von IT-Projekten. Als Geschäftsführer von Karibu hilft er Immobilien­unter­nehmen bei der Entwicklung neuer Produkte und Dienst­leistungen, und hat so Self-Storage-Anlagen, Parkhäuser und Stadtquartiere erfolgreich digitalisiert.