Being half American and half Malaysian, I spent the first half of my life growing up on a farm in the middle of Texas surrounded by chickens, cows, goats and all sorts of farm animals. With such an upbringing, I always figured I was going to be a veterinarian (an animal doctor) until I realized that becoming one involved a lot of studying- something which do not enjoy! So instead of choosing the obvious (and easy) path I started to take some unexpected choices with my life.
First, I travelled across the country to New York and worked in a small clothing boutique in the city on minimum pay, living in “the city that don’t sleep” and not getting much sleep myself! It was a lot of fun but after a few years of big city life I decided that what I needed was a completely fresh start and a major change of environment. At that moment I made a crazy decision to pack up my entire life and move to Kuala Lumpur, which we often visited because of my dad’s side of the family. I have always loved my Malaysian roots and figured that since things weren’t so exciting in New York anymore, I had nothing to lose.
The truth is, I had plenty to lose. Here I was in a country which I was never brought up in, where I didn’t speak the language, and where the culture was really quite foreign to me. On top of that, everyone I met seemed fixated on the idea that since I wasn’t local I must be very successful in life in order to end up here. I got lumped in with all the other “expats” in Malaysia and I didn’t have the chance to explain that I was just as unqualified and inexperienced as everybody else.
I felt that I needed to do something special, and thankfully there was something up my sleeves. Relying on my twin passions of retail and eco-friendly living (developed while I was in New York), I decided that I would start Malaysia’s very first 360 degree eco-friendly label. The goal was to make my company, EcoLove, an online label that could provide to all eco-related needs, whether it be clothes, furniture, baggage, or any of the many other things that we use on a daily basis.
But while it was a great idea, actually getting it done was a much harder task. In order to build the business, I would need to order quite a large amount of stock, and all of this stock would need a large, well-ventilated space where it could be stored.
At first I thought I could just store everything at home, but that wasn’t practical. What if there was a big, heavy shipment from a supplier? Would I need to take 5 elevators just to bring it up to my apartment? And how would I transport all my heavy goods out again when I wanted to sell them? And what if a client wanted to see my goods? I couldn’t just bring them up to my house could I?
In short, I needed a space which offered all the benefits of an office without costing the same amount, which seems like an impossible thing to ask for. But thankfully, I stumbled across just the right solution while searching Google one day/
Typing in ‘affordable storage for startups malaysia’, the first ad I saw was for a company called Flexi Storage. Curious (and honestly desperate for a place to put my growing mountain of goods) I called them immediately to arrange a meet up and knew straight away that it was what I needed.
In their gated and guarded facility, I could take my pick from units varying in size from small lockers to units the size of a standard garage. I had 24 hours access to this unit and there was also a loading bay and a large industrial service area downstairs which trucks could access, meaning that the goods I receive from my suppliers could be very conveniently transported to my unit or taken out to be delivered to my customers.
At just RM400 per month for a medium sized unit (its roughly half the size of a master bedroom) I was getting a deal that I couldn’t find on any office rental site, and the fact that I wouldn’t have to spend or worry about any extras such as security or electricity bills made it so much easier. It was, in short, just the tonic my small business needed to take off and I soon found myself at Flexi Storage almost every day, whether to top up my stock, send items off to customers or bring retailers to see the goods that I had.
As it turned out, my storage unit ended up being even more than a storage unit to me! Due to the convenience of having all my goods nearby, I even turned my unit into a makeshift office with a small desk and chair for taking stock and inspecting my goods. Using the power point they provided me, I would drop in a few times a week to inspect my goods and work on strategy for EcoLove, far away from the commotion of everyday life. I even turned my unit into a display cabinet of sorts, with my best items arranged beautifully as they would be at an actual retail store, ready for clients to come and see what my company had to offer!
Today, just over one year since purchasing my unit, EcoLove is now distributed in over 20 stores worldwide and has had over 5 million hits on its site. And, while it seems strange to give credit for this success to a mere storage unit, its hard for me to stress how important it was to my business.
If it wasn’t for my unit I might not have been able to grow my business in the first place. Because rather than have everything jam packed into my house, I found in Flexi Storage a place where my business could grow. And, instead of looking like a suspicious home business, I was able to show my clients that EcoLove was a business they could trust; a professional operation run in a professional manner.
Having the unit changed my mindset towards business too. Rather than rushing into renting an office that my income at the time couldn’t support, I made a practical decision and sacrificed the glamour of an office for something that made more sense for the business. This decision kept me focused on what was important in a startup – staying lean, cutting costs and maximising profit – and also kept me humble during my entire journey.
A lot of startups these days make the mistake of celebrating too early. They think that having a nice website and a few good products means success, but they forget to put in the hard work to build connections and foster real growth. Instead of putting their heads down and really maximising their potential, contacting potential customers and building links that will pay off, they become satisfied by merely having a business and looking more accomplished than their friends.
If I could send one message to all budding entrepreneurs out there, it would be this: don’t get caught up in the image of what you are doing, but focus on the actual job itself. Glamorous status symbols like an office are earned, not bought, and sometimes you need to purposely keep yourself humble in order to really succeed in your career. Think big, yes, but don’t give yourself big rewards at the same time.
If I was to start a new business today, I would use this ‘storage unit business’ approach all over again.
Tina White is the founder of EcoLove Resources, a Malaysian-based company that aims to supply “360 degree eco lifestyle” to its customers. She has been a customer of Flexi Storage for 2 years.