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Leaders of the pack: Spacebox co-founders bring hi-tech to storage

Published on Saturday, 18 Apr 2015
Stuart and Lewis Cerne
Co-founders, Spacebox. Photo: Bruce Yan

Brothers Stuart and Lewis Cerne target 10,000 users by the end of 2015

One secret to a successful start-up is spotting a need that people immediately identify with. In this respect, the brothers behind Spacebox have hit the bullseye.

Stuart and Lewis Cerne have come up with a concept which is essentially straightforward. Well aware that most homes in Hong Kong offer very limited space – despite what property agents might like to think – they decided to set up a company that provides handy extra storage facilities as and when required.

To add something more, though, users will also be able to manage an online account to make bookings for pick-up from home or redelivery of items from a nearby warehouse – and to keep an updated record of precisely which possessions are where.

Somewhat like calling up a favourite tune on a smartphone, if a client wants, say, to switch to their winter wardrobe as the temperature starts to drop, they can simply tap in the details and fix a time. Or, if they want to store some kids toys or put away their holiday gear after a summer break, the requested number of durable, standard-size plastic containers – ordered up by few quick clicks – will be delivered to their door and collected again by appointment.

“Basically, people can just go online to order extra space and we take care of everything else,” says chief executive Lewis Cerne. “Clients can keep a record of inventory on their computer or mobile and can use other apps to take photos and ‘tag’ their boxes, so they know exactly what is inside each one.”

Moving fast, the initial plan took shape in September last year. Company details were sorted out by November, and the first live trials began in January.

A key element was negotiating terms for flexible use of secure, climate-controlled warehouse space with third-party operators. There are now premises available at various locations around town, including Aberdeen, Chai Wan, Kwun Tong, Fo Tan, Tsuen Wan and Tung Chung.

In addition, specialists were called in to work on the software specifications and ensure a reliable tracking system and easy-to-use interface. A pricing structure was devised based on a storage rate starting at HK$49 per month for a box with a capacity of three cubic feet, an individual QR code, and a choice of two levels of service. One is for express delivery within 24 hours for an extra fee of HK$100; the other fits into the weekly schedule for the neighbourhood.

Arrangements were also put in place to provide insurance cover of up to HK$2,000 per box to guard again theft or damage during transport or storage. And, responding to early feedback, options were introduced to supply larger cardboard boxes for hanging garments and to accept irregular-sized items such as bicycles, sports equipment, skis and suitcases. The rule of thumb is to accept anything that can be carried, and a logistics manager has been appointed to coordinate warehouse operations and transport.

“Right from the start, we have listened closely to what people are saying and asking for,” says co-founder Stuart Cerne, who had previous experience in commodities trading and logistics. He also had previous start-up experience, having set up Enecore, a company focusing on energy-saving and emission-reduction projects, in 2006.

“It is about understanding client demand and making it as convenient as possible for them to store things,” he adds.

At present, boxes are sealed in front of customers and reopened by them on return. The possibility of being able to specify just a few items, rather than the whole box, for selection and delivery from the warehouse is under consideration. Clearly, though, it entails other technical aspects and an extra duty of care.

There are also plans to link up with NGOs, so clients can donate items in storage they no longer need.

“Everything has been planned and designed with the needs of the average Hong Kong household in mind,” says Lewis, who began his career in Hong Kong with Noble Group, before switching to Enecore in a day-to-day management role. “From the user’s perspective, we want the business to feel intuitive, making it easy for them to manage on a mobile phone. But on the systems and operations side, it is important we can handle an increasing volume of business with no loss of speed or efficiency.”

As sales efforts gather pace, the initial target is to sign up 10,000 users by the end of 2015. Beyond that, there is a growing feeling that the sky is the limit. Broad estimates suggest Hong Kong has around 1 million households that are obvious potential targets.

“So far, progress is very encouraging,” Lewis says. “We are making a few changes to the app and getting ready for a big marketing push in the next couple of months. As one initiative, we will look at public housing estates and hope that once people hear about the service, they won’t just think it is clever, but will immediately see how it applies to them.”

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