Is minimalism practical? Can you really have a tidy, modern living space like the ones in the architecture magazines, where there are acres of bare tabletops and the sofas look like they’ve never been loafed on?
Yes, you can, but there’s a dark secret behind all those magazine spreads. Before the photographers showed up, the people who live in those immaculate spaces either had to throw out all of their stuff, or hide it away.
And for the average urban-dweller, that’s a real challenge. Unless you’ve got enormous closets (unlikely) or you just don’t buy things (again, unlikely), the only way to achieve the Zen look is to put your infrequently used items in storage.
But storage comes with its own hassles. You have to box up your stuff, drive it to a warehouse or a cargo container in a sketchy neighborhood, and pay for a bunch of square footage you probably won’t use. (It’s a geometry thing—few storage facilities are engineered for optimal packing of objects in 3D space.)
What if you could just outsource the whole problem? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could throw your extra stuff in boxes, e-mail your personal concierge, and have him cart it all away to a secure, undisclosed location? Then when you needed some of it back, you could just e-mail the concierge again and tell him which boxes you wanted. It would be like Dropbox or Google Drive for your physical belongings.
Well, if you live in San Francisco, you can already get a service like that from a new startup called Boxbee. You start by scheduling a pickup using Boxbee’s website or mobile app. Within two hours (or the next day, for van-size loads), a driver comes to you and takes your boxes away to the Boxbee “hive.” (You can supply your own boxes, or use Boxbee’s.)
|Executive Team: Kristoph Matthews, founder and CEO|
|Tagline: “Now you can store any number of boxes, on demand. No more clutter. Live in your space.”|
|Funding: None disclosed; winner in “startup 1.0” category, Launch Festival 2013|
|Pricing: Ranges from $3 per month per box for a file box (10”x12”x15”) to $15 per month per box for a wardrobe box (24”x20”x34”)|
Pictures of the contents of each box are saved on Boxbee’s site, to help you remember what’s in them. Then when you want to retrieve one of the boxes, you just go back to Boxbee, check the box for your box, and you’ll have it back within a couple of hours.
The service isn’t cheap—it starts at $3 per month per box for a file box (10”x12”x15”) and goes up to $15 per month per box for a wardrobe box (24”x20”x34”). At those prices, it wouldn’t take many boxes to overshoot the cost of a typical storage unit. But Boxbee is designed to appeal to people who are as short on time as they are on space, and who presumably won’t mind paying extra for mobile-mediated pickup and delivery.
Silicon Valley types certainly love the idea. In early March, a panel of investors and entrepreneurs at the Launch festival in San Francisco gave Boxbee the best new startup award, bringing the 15-month-old startup a spate of tech-blog publicity and provoking a flood of investment offers.
But founder and CEO Kristoph Matthews, who’s currently participating in the AngelPad startup accelerator, says he’s going to put off fundraising for a couple of months while he focuses on “tightening up the business model.” He says that before he tries expanding to other urban areas such as Los Angeles, he wants to make sure he understands “the cost structure, the user acquisition model, what customer segments we are targeting—we are not taking anything for granted.”
Maybe not. But the big vision at Boxbee is clear. Matthews wants the company to grow into a “stuff management platform” that would bring the power of cloud-storage services like Box, Dropbox, or Evernote into the real world.
“Cloud storage is such a great idea, but it needs to extend beyond the world of software and apply to people’s physical things,” he says. “Our vision for the future is that your home finally becomes the place where you just keep the things you love and need every day. All of the other things you only need on occasion, you keep somewhere else, and just order it when you need it.”
It’s a natural idea, in an age when you can whip out your smartphone and order a limo on Uber, share a car on Zimride, or find someone to pick up your dry cleaning on TaskRabbit. And clearly, the storage industry is overdue for a bit of Silicon Valley-style disruption—its only real innovation in the last couple of decades has been the storage pod, introduced in 1998 by Clearwater, FL-based Portable On Demand Storage (PODS). Pods are popular with homeowners, but the smallest units are about 8 feet by 7 feet by 7 feet, which makes them impractical for anyone who just has a few boxes they want to send off-site.
Matthews, who was born in California but has lived a nomadic existence in Saudi Arabia, Germany, and other countries, says the idea for Boxbee came to him in 2011 while was vising his parents, who now live in his mother’s native Thailand. “I overheard them complaining about how they have to make two or three trips a year to California just to retrieve items from storage,” he says. “That was their life. At the time, I was using Dropbox a lot, and the idea just clicked.”
Last year Matthews stepped away from his training in mechanical engineering and a job at an East Bay semiconductor company to turn the idea into a company. He thinks several big trends are putting wind in the venture’s sails. One is urbanization: the more people who move into cities, the smaller and more expensive the average living space becomes. Another is consumerism, which seems unabated despite the sputtering economy.
Third is the mobile revolution. Because consumers can get so much done using their smartphones, they have a new appreciation for the value of time, and they don’t want to waste it on moving stuff around, worrying about which hours their storage facility is open, or borrowing a car so they can drive there. “Boxbee is at the center of all those things,” Matthews says.
It’s also at the center of the actual pickup, delivery, and storage process, in the sense that it’s a classic middleman. Boxbee doesn’t own any storage facilities, trucks, or cars, and it doesn’t employ any drivers. What it has actually built is a bunch of Web and mobile software for taking orders, tracking inventory, dispatching drivers (mostly from mom-and-pop moving companies), renting warehouse space, and making sure all parties get charged and paid correctly. Boxbee makes money by keeping its own costs low, which means Matthews and his developers are spending a lot of time optimizing around logistical matters such as the routes drivers follow.
Boxbee’s user base is still small—in the hundreds, according to Matthews—but people are already using it “for all sorts of different reasons,” he says. A typical customer might be a single woman living in a small Nob Hill apartment who doesn’t have room in her closets for both her summer clothes and her winter clothes, and uses Boxbee to swap them out every six months.
Another might be a sentimental parent who lives in a house without an attic, and doesn’t really have room for old family mementoes, but can’t bear to discard them. “My own mom still has homework assignments from me with gold stars on them from third grade,” Matthews says. “She says ‘I am going to read it someday.’”
We’ve all got stuff like that—the report cards and the old Star Wars figures and the refrigerator art make up the stories of our lives, after all. Boxbee knows we’ll never throw it away, but it’s betting that urbanites are coming to value uncluttered living space even more.
And down the road, there could be more to Boxbee’s business than just storage. When Matthews talks about Boxbee as a “stuff management platform,” he’s serious, and he’s not just talking about your stuff—he sees Boxbee as part of the burgeoning sharing economy.
“Imagine the not-too-distant future where we have a feature in the interface where someone can browse what kinds of objects their friends have in storage, and they can have that delivered to their house and sent back, like a lending library,” Matthews says. “It turns storage into something that is not just a poor excuse to hold on to your stuff, but a dynamic thing that is useful to a lot of people.”
In this scenario, if you needed a hammer, you wouldn’t go to the hardware store to buy one—you’d just look on Boxbee to see if your neighbor has one in storage. It’s not an idea that Home Depot would like, and it may not fit with traditional American consumer culture, but it would certainly save money, cut back on waste, and help the environment.
Perhaps if we can’t bring ourselves to own less stuff, we can at least use today’s information tools to distribute it more efficiently.
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