Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?
Molly O’Connor here, the Founder + CEO of The Mobile Locker Co, an onsite storage solution for events. We are the first mobile locker service in the US and utilize an e-commerce strategy for selling locker rental sales.
We service both spectator and competitor events, such as concert venues, golf tournaments, mud runs, and half marathons where participants and attendees utilize our locker units to store their stuff.
We kicked off our growth phase last year, and have since grown from two vehicles in one region to five vehicles in five regions! Our year over year revenues have just about doubled each year for our past two fiscal years as we’ve expanded our fleet and coverage areas.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
As a runner I was experiencing a need for a more secure, more convenient option for my valuables and gear at road races. Scratching my own itch, I launched the service with a focus solely on running events in New England.
Utilizing my connections with other runners and syncing up with event organizers, we tested the concept for 8 months with a locker trailer before bringing the trucks on the road and rebranding as The Mobile Locker Co.
The initial launch with the locker trailer was self-funded from my personal savings. This allowed us to test our systems with minimal overhead and also gather real world feedback on the concept. Luckily, it was well received and we were able to secure funding to get our first two trucks on the road from personal connections through my two initial sweat-equity partners.
I consider myself very fortunate because I was in a position where I could leave my job and focus full-time on the business with support I had from my then-boyfriend/now-husband. Without the freedom to make the jump, I don’t believe I would have been able to do what I’ve done with TMLC.
Before taking the big leap, I had worked in sales and marketing in several different capacities: Sales support, online copywriting, social media management and B2B marketing. I took a lot from my experience and applied it to our online sales and marketing strategies.
Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.
Our initial concept, the locker trailer, was the big challenge. I originally planned for it to be custom-made out of reclaimed wood to look a bit like an old Grand Wagoneer. After a meeting with a few woodworkers I saw their quotes and quickly ditched that design dream!
We ended up sourcing prefabricated units and partnering with a welding company to create the trailer. Start-up costs were reasonable, but the next several months were a sort of a trial of errors that threw many unexpected costs our way: Extended wear on our towing vehicle, custom tarps that needed replacement multiple times, and more less-than glamorous upkeep put our limited budget to the test. We realized that, while seeing great responses from clients and customers, there were real improvements that needed to be made in order to make the service something we can grow. So, we moved up to the trucks!
This seemingly went smoothly at first: We worked with a dealership to select the trucks, they set us up with a fabricator to install the lockers in each one, and planned to lease the two brand spanking new locker vehicles from them, with all costs of fabrication included. Then came the big shock! It turned out the sales rep had never gotten the lease approved. Even though we’d already made the initial payments and needed the trucks to be in operation the next week, the finance department wouldn’t approve the lease, because we were a brand new business.
This was probably the most stressful week of my life.
All of a sudden my entire business was at risk. I was 28, technically without an income, a renter, and that was not enough for the dealership to OK almost $100,000 dollars worth of trucks. After a lot of back and forth, the dealership finally agreed to finance the trucks for us if we bought them and paid hefty down payments for each one. This was a lifesaver in that we still actually had a business, but it basically drained all the funds we had raised that were meant to be our cushion as the trucks ramped up their schedules. We had to pay for the fabrication and truck skinning separately, which took another huge chunk out of our funds.
All in all, we are in a better place as a business now that we own our first two trucks, but it was a close call. Had we not been able to get the dealership to agree to finance, we would have been back at square one! We found a partner to lease our new vehicles.
Describe the process of launching the online store/business.
While some may see us as a brick-and-mortar operation (on wheels!), the online component has been crucial not only in customer experience and boosting rental sales, but in creating a presence that enables us to attract the attention of event organizers.
We launched our site a couple of months before our first event, and at that time we had secured a series of small races with a local race organizer. I still remember the day the first online order came in and I was notified via email. While driving along Storrow Drive in Boston, I saw the email and screamed "YES!!" with, I admit, a couple of tears of joy forming. Each event we were seeing a dozen or so online renters, which we found were about 20% of our total rentals per event. Our first big success: The Run to Remember in Boston with over 100 online rentals. I was thrilled! This event gave us insight into what we needed in terms of event qualifications (size, distance, location, etc) and pre-race marketing on behalf of the event organizer to drive runners to our truck.
The biggest lesson learned initially was finding the right e-commerce platform for our website and online rental system. Being a small business with limited funding, I am a bit of a penny-pincher when it comes to the budget. And so our first pick for our site was inexpensive, but it was also clunky, inefficient, and awkward to manage. I finally realized making a bit more of an investment will save me time and give my customers a smoother experience. I still opted for a moderately priced platform, rather than a fancy custom site, but it’s working much, much better for us.
The biggest lesson learned with the launch was working on a smooth transition from an online order to an onsite rental. Again, this goes back to the e-commerce platform we initially used and the upgrade we later made. It took a bit of trial and error, but now the process is seamless from the time the renter puts their online order in until they pick it up onsite at their event.
Since launch, what has worked to attract new customers?
Our business is a bit unique in that we need to first attract events and events then deliver customers directly to us. While we have identified a range of categories that we target for our event booking outreach, there is much more opportunity beyond our prospects list. So for us, a combination of SEO and paid search through Google AdWords has been very important.
At first, we assumed interested customers would be the key driver for sales. The thought was runners would want lockers at their races, ask for our service, and that would be our path of least resistance in terms of securing business. We invested in paid Facebook ads targeting users in our regions who were runners or interested in fitness. While this delivered a moderate increase in exposure to our posts, we did not see this translate into revenue. Neither through direct rentals nor requests for our service.
It felt frustrating. Our online presence wasn’t getting the attention or interest that we were seeing in person. But then the lightbulb went off and we realized our sales focus really needed to center on the event. We keep an active online presence through our social media accounts to keep our repeat customers informed about what events we’ll be servicing and as a great way for a potential event to see what we do. But we spend our marketing dollars solely on Google Adwords and our e-commerce platform enables us to incorporate and analyze our SEO efforts easily.
Based on my experience, I would advise anyone in the early phases to spend smart. Facebook and Instagram likes are great for the ego, but they’re not always likely to drive sales.
Think about how you yourself would be driven to try a new product or service. It’s probably by reading about it from a trusted source or having a friend suggest it. You can often do you own PR by simply emailing writers with your story. A little bit spent on Google AdWords can go a long way and a bit of research will enable you to target influencers who can promote your service for you.
How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?
We are growing, attracting new business, expanding our current partnerships, and seeing repeat business from the majority of our clients, which is all great! That said, I hesitate to paint this picture of an easy breezy expansion where everything is always smooth!
We’re still learning and always working on ways to streamline processes for clients and our staff. Our budget is tight and as an owner I am making sure everyone else is paid before I pay myself. I have been so used to handling everything myself that delegating can be a challenge. I think many small business owners would agree with me on that! However, I am working on bringing in regional sales reps to augment event booking efforts and expanding our event managers’ roles to cover more of the upkeep for their vehicles.
In the short term, we just launched our newest truck which will live in Charlotte, NC and service the Southeast. Our next truck will be coming in the fall, heading to Texas. We will continue with this pace of expansion until we offer coverage in every major hub in the US. All of our sales focus will be on securing agreements with event organizers who run multiple events.
Long term, we are working on upgrading our current vehicles and creating a secondary service targeted at longer rentals that require automated service. It’s an exciting move, and we are going to be seeking a second round of funding to get that project going.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful advantageous?**
The current startup culture is so focused on whether or not your business is "cool" and at the start I was spending too much time on “cool” things: Facebook likes, contests with giveaways, free sunglasses. It all added up in terms of expenses but not in terms of ROI!
I realized actual revenue is much better than exposure or engagement. That’s when I turned my focus to getting better, more qualified events on our schedule by beefing up our SEO efforts and paid search spending.
Another thing I learned to do was to let go of my original idea and allow the business to find it’s groove a bit more organically.
At first, I had such a narrow focus on only the road races customer-segment, which I was desperately trying to make work. Even as inbound interest for spectator events grew (where we service attendees, not participants), I was still focusing my outreach on road races. People were proactively finding us online, because the need for a solution was so great, and instead of following the path of least resistance I was trying to make my dream happen! I finally accepted that my end goal was success, and that the smart thing to do is to follow the path that’s unfolding in front of you, rather than trying to clear through brush!
Starting a business is stressful, whether you have to be a bit scrappy like me, or you have a generous amount of funding to lean on. Handling stress in normal life was easy for me. I didn’t dwell or worry all that much and usually a quick run got me back on track. Business-owner stress hit me at a whole new level, and I found myself struggling to get out from under it.
I developed a coping mechanism that has helped me immensely. When I find myself stressing about something, I create the worst-case scenario and go through how I would deal with it. Then suddenly this big looming cloud of anxiety becomes something I own and can manage.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Shopify for our website and e-commerce. Their sleek templates are easy to manage and customize, so we can control everything internally rather than having to contract a company to manage the site for us. It has been a great asset for us.
MailChimp is our email marketing software. We reserve our newsletter for only a handful of important messages annually and MailChimp has been an affordable option that again gives us great templates to customize.
And of course, Google Adwords!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources for your business?
I find that learning about others’ paths to success is the most interesting when I am not directly comparing their experience to my own.
Probably an expected answer, but Lean In was incredibly insightful, even if I don’t necessarily agree with all the elements of the concept.
On the other spectrum, I’ve found comedians’ biographies motivating. My favorites are Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. While of course I’m not trying to navigate the comedy world, I find I can relate to and gain insight from their stories of powering through and overcoming obstacles.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My number one piece of advice, assuming you’ve prepared and planned, is to schedule yourself time off and do not feel guilty about it!
In our culture it’s assumed that the only way to be successful in a startup is to work yourself to the bone. But when you get to that point, you’re not effective.
Even if it’s one day a week, or just one afternoon, take time for yourself. You business will not shut down if you take a day off, I promise! It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon!
Also, it’s imperative that your goal is to make what you’re creating a success, not a sale. You never know what will happen. Even if you have an exit plan, it may work perfectly, but it also may not. If it doesn’t happen by the time you plan for it, you still have a business to run.
The biggest mistakes I’m clued into, that I see others make are my competitors, so I’ll keep those hush hush!
In general, though, I do see a lot of money wasted (can you tell I’m super focused on my budget?). If you give someone a water bottle with your company name on it, will that turn into a sale faster than if you put the same investment into paid search where you can connect directly with a customer who’s looking for what you’re offering?
Sure, branded giveaways are fun and it is a way to get the word out, but a more focused investment means a better ROI (which means money!).
Where can we go to learn more?
Check out our social media! It’s where we post most about company updates, new events, and of course pictures of our spokesdog and spokescat.
And check us out on social
- Molly O’Connor, Founder of The Mobile Locker Co
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Shoot me an email!
- Pat Walls, Founder of Starter Story