Jan Bikker of 1Box: ‘Container operated storage has a great future’
We recently interviewed Jan P. Bikker of the successful self-storage company 1Box. He talks about his entrance into the self-storage world, the different strategies the company employs to continue to grow and why 1Box chose USC’s Z-Box containers.
“I started self-storage in 1999 for the American company Devon Self-Storage. That was also one of the first self-storage companies active in the Netherlands. In 2006, the company was sold to several parties including City-Box, then I became franchise coordinator there. Just before the acquisition of City-Box by Shurgard, I started for myself with four rental properties in the Netherlands.
When I came across a financial party in 2017, I started self-storage in Rijswijk and Groningen in two premises of my own. In 2019, I set up a joint venture with Miami-based Volta Global. From there we started to expand considerably in the Netherlands. Last week, I opened the 27th branch in the Netherlands and several more are on the way. We ourselves think we are halfway there in terms of expansion. In three years we hope to have around 50 branches in the Netherlands.”
How did you get into the self-storage world?
“I had a construction degree and could have taken over my father’s construction company, but ultimately did not choose to do so. I had my own real estate agency at the time. But that didn’t make me happy either. Then Devon was looking for a development manager for Europe, a position that brought together all the facets I possessed such as architectural acumen and my experience as a real estate agent with appraisals. Since then, I have seen how the self-storage product has evolved over the years and I am still excited about it every day.
I immediately saw the potential of this type of storage. Then also went to America for a while to see what the self-storage market was like there. There it works well because you have a lot of big cities with dense buildings. If you looked at the Netherlands with an American perspective, you could also think of our country as one big city, only here there was hardly any self-storage.
After the U.S., you saw the rise of self-storage first in England, logical as an Anglo-Saxon country, and then came our country, partly because we also speak good English here.”
Introduction to USC
“USC I already knew by name. The first time I actually encountered USC was when 1Box in Hellevoetsluis took over the Safe Store Storage branch. There were a number of USC containers there. We took a good look at them and then we got excited. Meanwhile, we already have Z-Boxes at our locations in Utrecht and Breda. They are also planned for the location in Barendrecht. With the Z-Box we can take advantage of more square meters of outdoor areas.”
Why did 1Box choose USC containers?
“Self storage started using shipping containers in many places. In England, self-storage sites of 50 to 100 shipping containers are very common. But such non-insulated containers all suffer from the same problem: condensation. This is because the climate in Western Europe does not lend itself to using uninsulated containers. USC’s containers do not have this problem. You don’t even have to have thick insulation, as long as you control the temperature difference. And besides, it looks much more solid and beautiful. Also, aging is much less visible. Shipping containers often have a life on them before they are used in self storage and therefore often have many dents and dings.
So we already had experience with USC in Hellevoetsluis. in Utrecht, Janus took care of the indoor installation, and it was clear from the beginning that we would choose USC’s outdoor containers for the infill. The advantage of USC containers is that they are easier to move and modular.
Placing containers is really only possible with a permit, although not everyone knows that and even if you can easily remove them again. “In many outdoor locations, zoning does not allow for the placement of containers.”
The success of 1Box
“We have assembled a very good team at 1Box. This enables us to roll out our business model in other countries as well. We clearly do things differently, better too we think, stubborn as we are, and we see that in the numbers.
The personal approach is much more emphatic with us than with many other market players. With self storage, everyone thinks of a physical place where you can store things, which in itself makes sense. However, we see this a little differently. We want to meet a need. The average self storage operator asks the customer, “How much square footage do you need? We ask, “What can we help you with? With us, that has been implemented throughout the organization. You’ll find that reflected on the website, in the applications we handle when we have a contract. We score very high on that with the customer. We get that done by training our branch managers on it almost daily. We have a very strict program for that and the enthusiasm of the branch managers for this is really unmatched. It means thinking differently and presenting differently.
In addition, thanks to the joint venture with Miami, we have a lot of knowledge and expertise available from America., Think of software packages for price indications, determining competitive positions, traffic intensity around locations and demographic data of the environment around proposed and existing locations. This allows us to make much better marketing decisions or search for suitable self-storage locations. While optimal locations are few and far between, you can optimize many things. So there is a lot of invisible knowledge behind the success of 1Box. Measuring is knowing.”
Near future self storage
“The larger self storage entrepreneurs see that only 25% of people here in the Netherlands still know what self storage means. As that percentage increases, user numbers will automatically grow as well. Then that means there’s a lot of building left to do. Thanks to companies such as Shurgard and ALLSAFE, which are in highly visible locations and advertise heavily, awareness of self-storage is already rising considerably. We are hitching a ride on that. By the way, our goal is not to become the biggest, but to hold the third spot.
Moreover, we also operate in other European countries. We started in France, now we are busy in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy and Austria. There is still a lot of opportunity to further roll out our formula. Our approach is that we first acquire a local self-storage operator/company, as they know the local ins and outs of the market. From there, we expand further.”
Entrepreneurs looking to start self-storage?
“If it’s not a sizable number of units, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. We are not ready here yet. In America, they fill sites with a few hundred containers but that is often in sunnier climates. People here prefer dry loading and unloading and are more likely to choose indoor rather than outdoor units. But it is also difficult for me to see into the future.
I personally wouldn’t start it now. You will probably still manage to get your units full the first time, but after an average of 1.5 years, you get very nervous because the first customers are going out again. You then need quite a marketing machine to fill up the establishment again.
Self-storage is not a business model you can just push through. To keep your units full, you have to keep advertising constantly from the start. So if you don’t do that until the exodus has already begun, you’re too late and suddenly you have to be able to free up a lot of marketing budget. We now have the advantage of large scale. While our marketing budget is several tons per year, we are able to spread that across all branches.”