Monday 11 December 2017

Building on a Smart idea

Paul Jacob tells Sean Gallagher how hitting his head while clearing boxes led to a successful storage business.

Paul Jacobs who started Smart Storage after his building firm closed down. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Paul Jacobs who started Smart Storage after his building firm closed down. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

The cry regularly heard from homeowners these days is that there is never enough storage space. Irrespective of the size, or the type of houses we live in, there just never seems to be enough space to store the volume of stuff we accumulate. From clothes and shoes, to books and DIY tools, we all long for somewhere to put them that is accessible yet out of sight.

This week I visited one man who seems to have come up with an interesting solution to at least some of our storage challenges.

Set up in 2011 and located in Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow, Paul Jacob's company, Smart Storage, specialises in the design, manufacture and installation of modular storage units for houses.

Currently employing 38 people across Ireland and the UK, the firm will see its turnover reach €4m by the end of the year.

Jacob grew up in Waterford city, where his father manufactured gates for a living. From as young as 10, Paul could be found helping his father hang and paint gates - an experience that instilled in him the desire to one day work for himself. After school, he completed a degree in construction management at Waterford Institute of Technology before getting a job working on the construction of some of Ireland's new motorways - including the Blanchardstown, and Mullingar bypasses and the first section of the M50. Later he was offered the opportunity to head up a demolition and recycling company before joining Greenstar where he took on the role of managing and developing the company's waste management facilities.

However, driven by his desire to start his own business, he left in 2004 to set up a house-building company. After a great start, it would unfortunately become a casualty of the economic crash that was about to grip the country. "Like many other construction companies during this time, we were faced with the option to either die slowly and painfully or go quickly. We decided to take the latter option and the tough decision to close the business in 2010 and try and move on," said Paul.

And move on he did. The following year Smart Storage was born. "As the father of two teenage daughters and living in a semi-detached home, we always seemed to be struggle when it came to finding places to store things," he said. "One wet Sunday afternoon in early 2011, I was clearing out boxes from under the stairs when I became frustrated from constantly banging my head on the underside of the staircase.

"I began to think that there had to be a better solution than this and so, sitting at our kitchen table, I sketched up a two-drawer unit that could fit neatly under the stairs, complete with slide-out drawers that would fold seamlessly into the wall without protruding handles that would obstruct the hallway. I then got a local carpenter to make this up for me and install it in our own house.

"When the neighbours saw the finished unit, they all wanted one for their own houses and things just took off from there," he added. Producing a guaranteed Irish product was important to him so, using timber from Coillte, he outsourced manufacturing to a company in Carrick-on-Suir - a move that would enable him ramp up capacity once the orders began to flood in.

"However, our challenge at the time was that we had developed a product that everyone loved but no one knew about. We knew we needed to get the message out to the market but in a cost-effective way. That for us was Dragons' Den", he said.

Having appeared on the show the following spring, turnover quadrupled. However, installing the units became his next bottleneck. Because each installation was bespoke to an individual home, installers had to make a number of visits. While this proved an ideal way to start the business, the labour-intensive nature of the business model meant it was going to be extremely difficult and expensive to scale.

"That's when I realised that the best way to grow the business was by redesigning the units into a flat pack modular system that could be fitted in any home irrespective of the pitch, angle or length of the stairs," he said. "People could choose a standard 1, 3, 5 or 6-drawer unit that fitted into a standard wooden frame or carcass with the remainder of the space filled with blank wooden panels."

This meant customers could now call the company or go online and order the number of drawers they required, agree a date for an installer which could then be done in under three hours. The outcome was a scalable business model which he rolled out across the country.

In 2014, Paul turned his attention to the UK market. Appearances on Peter Andre's 60 Minute Makeover House programme on ITV and the Sarah Beeny series Double Your Home for Half the Money, on Channel 4, helped establish the business there. Today, he has crews located throughout London, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol - with UK sales now representing 60pc of his total revenues. Given the size of the potential market there, he is optimistic that he can grow it tenfold over the next three years.

With patents already granted for the US and Canada as well as Europe, Paul has recently begun to turn his attention to breaking into these markets either on a license or franchise basis.

"Recently too, we are seeing a big interest from developers both in Ireland and the UK. They start by including our units in their showrooms and then either fitting them as standard in all their homes or by offering them as an optional extra for new purchasers," said Jacob. "Storage is one of the top three concerns for most homebuyers along with location and energy efficiency. Because the system is fully modular, we are now also able to train the developers' own carpenters to install them in their houses," he said.

Jacob has come to believe that the crash in the construction sector has actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise for him. "If that had not have happened, I'd still be battling away trying to build individual houses and trying to get paid.

"But achieving as much as we did over the five years would not have been possible without a serious effort from a lot of people including our fantastic team of direct employees and our even larger circle of third party suppliers," he said.

Jacob understands what's really important when it comes to starting your own business. It's about solving a problem that people have and providing them with something they actually need and for which they are willing to pay.

Like many startup entrepreneurs, he started out with an initial design that he brought to the market but which he continued to improve upon based on customer feedback and logistical considerations.

Today he has developed that into a scalable model that can succeed in any market.

Watch out, America.

For further information: www.smartstorage.ie

Paul's advice for other businesses

1 Your customers should dictate how you sell

In deciding how you are going to sell to customers, you should remember that it is not about how you want to sell that is important but rather how your customers want to buy. This is particularly relevant where a product needs to be installed not just supplied. Most customers are looking for convenience as well as value.

2 Change is good - embrace it

Many business owners fear change. Instead of fearing it, you should learn to embrace change as a natural and necessary part of sustaining, growing or scaling your business. Be aware that change is inevitable and you have to change if you want to remain relevant in a constantly changing market environment.

3 Build a strong team

You cannot succeed in growing or scaling a business if you do not first build a strong and dependable team around you. Not only is it important to recruit the right team, you also have to learn how to delegate responsibility and accountability to them. This will free you up to think more strategically about the future of your business.

Sunday Indo Business

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