Wadih Haddad's Startup, The Box, Is Reinventing The Self-Storage Sector In The Middle East
The entrepreneur's dive into the self-storage industry was driven by his curiosity to bring better solutions to the market.
From storing a few boxes in his villa in 2006 to help out a few friends, and to finally running out of space and being pushed to look for options, Wadih Haddad’s dive into the self-storage industry was driven by his curiosity to bring better solutions to the market. Since then, his passion for the self-storage industry has not only grown, but also thrived. Bringing in his years of experience as a sales executive, which Haddad says has instilled in him the importance of having a clear business operations, mission and sales strategy, the entrepreneur took the leap to entrepreneurship and officially launched The Box in 2007. He started with a 15,000 square foot facility offering self-storage in Dubai. “I was hand delivering shipments and was obsessed by exceeding customer expectations, it just gave me a kick!" Haddad recalls.
At a time when the self-storage industry in the Middle East consisted of warehouses renting out excess space, the startup honed in on offering end-to-end moving and storage solutions. Contrary to the market’s usual offerings of minimum commitment periods, huge sizes and costs of warehousing, The Box started bridging the gap by offering self-storage solutions to enable consumers to rent storage units of any size, ranging from 16 square foot lockers, all the way up to 1,000 square foot mini warehouses with flexible contracts. It also expanded to include local moves, international shipping, packaging, order fulfillment and other related services to serve as a one-stop-shop for both its commercial and individual clients, though the core focus still remains self-storage, constituting 80% of the business.
Setting up the company in Dubai then -at the height of the global financial crisis- wasn’t an easy endeavor. Haddad remarks that the startup ecosystem was non-existent in 2007, with “more obstacles than opportunities, [and] more bumps than support.” He faced various issues, from finding the right location, to landlords who didn’t fulfil commitments. “You go through so much pain and frustration just to set up, and then, you don't even open up shop yet," he says. But Haddad persevered, building up his company with limited resources, and bootstrapping it to fuel its growth. “Setting up a business is relatively easy, but only when you have the right resources and people in place to support you," he says. "When setting up, you often don’t have access to these resources, and everything is relatively a first-time experience.”
Source: The Box
Brand awareness was also an initial challenge they faced as a lot of people didn’t know that such a service actually exists. Producing educational videos and being present at business events were their first steps to tackle such issues, as well as hosting their own events to raise awareness and understand customer needs. But being faced with these hurdles allowed Haddad to learn the significance of a great team.
“You need to develop the right people, have a culture of innovation, and always keep your eyes and ears open to know what's out next and make sure you're the first to do it being the industry leader and everyone else follows," he says. Passion was a crucial factor too, he notes. “Passion is what kept me going after being met with frustration after frustration.” Though the company had early seed investors, The Box grew with the support of bank funding and debt solutions such as peer-to-peer platforms. It grew and, in 2010, he was able to buy out his early investors too- a commendable feat for any entrepreneur. “Without my commitment to my team, innovating a deal structure that kept everyone happy and the passion to keep going, I would have given up like nine out of 10 businesses do.”
Today, Haddad happily states that they have grown without any equity rounds, and instead calls their customer as their biggest investor. “We focus on bringing in more revenue to support our growth and better the customer experience. We then take all that revenue and reinvest it into our growth which has brought us to where we are today.” With offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Beirut, The Box serves across more than 30 facilities and operates 250,000 square feet. Its newest mega facility in Jumeirah Lake Towers, DMCC Free Zone, just opened its doors this year, providing over 140,000 square feet of storage solutions across four floors and convenient drive-up units. Haddad notes they have ongoing discussions with several parties interested to bring the venture to their home countries too.
It also has an ongoing partnership initiated in 2019 with online afforestation community Tree Nation to plant a tree on behalf of every customer that signs a new storage contract. And the partnership has borne fruit, literally- in 2020, they’ve planted 2,000 trees for each customer. Besides this, in 2020, Haddad says The Box was awarded the CSR Label for Environment by Dubai Chamber, and became the officially recommended self-storage provider in Dubai by the Dubai Municipality. And The Box is not done yet- it's got plans to grow further. “[We plan] to take our 14 years of learning and put into action for expansion through JV and franchises," Haddad says. "To lead the way in raising awareness about our industry in the region which is still underserved.”
Source: The Box
It’s worth commending here that throughout this interview, Haddad reiterates the value of what his team brings, and the impact of the company’s focus on the welfare of his employees. “When starting a business, all your success depends on yourself, your energy and passion. When you start recruiting team members, the formula changes since your success depends on the success of your team. I was fortunate enough to learn this at an early stage,” he explains. The entrepreneur believes in the adage that it’s the people that make the companies, sharing how they hold on-spot awards for outstanding service and public recognition as motivation for employees. Haddad also talked about having a ‘daily morning huddle’ to encourage team dynamics, share team wins, collaborate easily on their day-to-day activities, and get help from the rest of the team, if needed. “This gets each and every person focused to protect our people and culture, which results in an overall positive impact on the financials of the company, and this is the reason for our success," he says.
This is an indication of the startup’s approach to harnessing their company culture. Culture is, according to Haddad, the company’s key differentiator. “It’s the invisible mesh. We love our staff and always do our best to invest in their happiness. Because we believe if customers are to experience the best in convenience, we must first lead by example. You can copy everything, but a culture is hard to replicate.” Haddad states that having a clearly defined mission, vision and core values helps in navigating their decisions, “We hire and fire based on our values and celebrate success. We bring together individuals who have these values, and then delivering the promise comes naturally and doing it everyday together is just a lot of fun.”
This foundation on culture has been pivotal as the company operated through various crises. "I believe success is easy, but maintaining success is the challenge," Haddad notes. As a company that is still thriving after the 2008 crisis and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Haddad reflects on an important mindset: “Resilience, if it doesn’t break you, it makes you stronger. We are luckily in that space, and it’s a constant struggle you have to go through every day.” He continues, “But you have to go through it, [because] the ones that preserve through it are the ones that succeed. You need to be focused on taking the right decisions as a team, take risks and have faith that it will pass. The rewards might not come immediately for the hard work you put in as a team, but you have to remember that as the valley passes, you’ll be heading towards the peak.”
Much like any other company in this period, the COVID-19 pandemic caused The Box to adjust their offerings. It introduced contactless check-ins to enable customers to move belongings to storage without human contact, with an increased number of virtual surveys through Whatsapp and other tools. “As people needed to adapt -move homes, downsize, start working from home or move to their home countries temporarily- we were essential. We recognized the importance of this, and we made sure we were there for them when they needed us most,” says Haddad. The team strategized to ensure proper precautions as recommended by authorities were enforced to protect staff, clients, and vendors.
Source: The Box
As residents feel the impact of the pandemic, with people losing jobs or having to move back to their home countries, I asked Haddad’s thoughts on the startup’s market validity for a company such as his- especially as it relies on the permeance of people in the country. To which, Haddad gladly answers, “Our service essentially buys people time. In times of uncertainty, such as now for example, when they aren't sure whether to renew their tenancy contract or to downsize or to temporarily return to their home countries, they have their life’s belongings in a box. They are able to count on us to take care of their things until they are sure of their next move. I see us as an enabler to help people get through tough times.” He believes that as people leave, some will arrive too. “Ours is one of those few industries that people are able to count on during times of uncertainty, and as such, our demand has grown during the pandemic.”
Given all that has happened in the region over the past year, I asked whether the entrepreneur still thought it was a good time to follow through on one's entrepreneurial dreams. “In my experience, there is no right or wrong time, there’s just circumstances that you need to manoeuver around. In a time like this there are many opportunities. Things are cheaper, and suppliers are standing in line.” He continues, “I began my entrepreneurial journey during the 2007 global financial crisis. I was getting favorable rates, I had people’s attention which is hard to get in the boom time, so there are always pros and cons to any situation. Part of being an entrepreneur is spotting those opportunities and acting on them.”
He concludes by sharing his advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “Do it today, do it now. I have come across many people who have great ideas but keep it for later. Life is about learning from doing, that’s experience; if you fall down you learn, or you ultimately make it if you keep going. Never let go of that mindset that failure is part of progress and a prerequisite for success. You rather do it today, making the best of what you have at your disposal, and then better it over time, rather than waiting for the perfect time to start something in the perfect way.”
Pamella de Leon is the Startup Section Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East. She is keen on the MENA region’s entrepreneurship potential, with a specific interest to support enterprises and individuals creating an impact.