Scott Sinclair remembers the exact moment he stumbled onto an idea that would soon change the lives of cramped city dwellers globally.

During the frigid winter of 2006, a water pipe ruptured in his five-family New York City townhouse, flooding the basement that housed the residents’ storage lockers. Headed downstairs to assess the mess, Sinclair ran into a neighbor hefting an armload of soaked clothing upstairs just as a deliveryman from FreshDirect, the city’s new on-demand grocery service, walked in the front door.

“I looked at FreshDirect and I looked at Rebecca and said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a no-brainer! Why doesn’t someone do for the storage industry what FreshDirect did for the grocery industry?’” Sinclair recalled.

The following year Sinclair did just that and launched Box Butler, the innovative pioneer of valet urban storage.

Box Butler founder Scott Sinclair (center)
Box Butler founder Scott Sinclair (center)

Creating space from scratch

The former financial printing executive designed his startup from the ground up with no previous self-storage experience, unless you count being fed up with fighting the city’s endemic space crunch.

“I’m a New Yorker; I don’t really have the time on the weekend to go to a storage locker that, quite frankly, is not the most fun experience,” Sinclair admitted. “The whole experience is just wrought with time consumption and cost, and even once you’re at the locker, you still don’t know whose stuff is stored next door to you.”

Box Butler’s friendly, trained concierge team and “field butlers” take the headache (and backache) out of urban storage by providing door-to-door transport to and from urban digs to its own secure, meticulously-maintained, climate-controlled warehouse in Teterboro, NJ.

Storage by the inch

Clients pay by the square inch for the volume they store. No boxes? No problem; you can pack your stuff in containers you choose, rent handy plastic Butler Boxes in assorted sizes, or forego containers altogether, a godsend for golfers, skiers and bicyclers. Insurance is included up to $500 per container. Package pricing is available for more and less than six months. If you’ve been a storage customer elsewhere for more than a year, Box Butler guarantees it will beat your current rent by at least 25 percent. “We store everything. It’s not just lifestyle storage or offseason clothing; we also store furniture,” Sinclair explained. “We’re a great fit for people who are moving in together, staging their apartment for sale or traveling. We fit a multitude of needs.”

One-hour storage

While launching a start-up just as the Great Recession hit certainly presented its financial challenges, it had the advantage of providing Sinclair with the ideal workforce to sell the storage valet concept to value-conscious New Yorkers.

“In the early days, our primary workforce was all actors and musicians. They had great communication and people skills and really knew how to engage our clients,” he recalled.

That committed, artistic attention to detail has resulted in near-perfect performance on Box Butler’s one-hour delivery window, a key selling point with its fast-paced clientele. “Not only do we hit that one-hour window; we even call our clients 15 minutes before we arrive in case they need to run an errand or grab a cup of coffee,” Sinclair added.

Customers can schedule delivery online and access their stored items seven days a week at the warehouse with 36-hour notice. Box Butler will even haul unwanted items free to Housing Works, a New York nonprofit that fights AIDS and homelessness, and return with the receipt for tax purposes.

Ahead of its time

If you suspect that others have taken note of Box Butler’s success and jumped into the full-service storage space, you’re right. Newcomers such as MakeSpace, MyPorter, Clutter and urBin reflect a global movement to help cramped city dwellers. Sinclair, for one, doesn’t mind the competition one bit.

“Coming out of the depth of the recession, we started getting phone calls from places like London and Singapore and California, where they were going to school on our business and testing our model,” he said. “Our competition has raised awareness of this space in general and that’s been great for our business. Now we’ve seen on-demand storage everywhere from Frankfurt and Paris to Hong Kong.”

A mountainous opportunity

Last year, Sinclair sold Box Butler to Iron Mountain, a Boston-based storage and information management company serving 156,000 organizations in 36 countries that’s poised to take his brainchild to the next level. He remains its CEO.

“We’re definitely focused on growing our presence here in New York, but expansion to other cities is something we’re focused on doing,” Sinclair said. “My dream is to take the Box Butler brand global.”

Don’t be surprised to see Box Butler migrate to the Sun Belt, where some 70 million retiring baby boomers present an untapped storage market just waiting to be waited on.

“Retirees often have a storage locker, and as they age, it becomes too much,” Sinclair said. “I think there’s a need in Florida, Arizona and elsewhere for just the service component of not having to schlep to the storage locker. That’s just illogical for so many people.”

Jay MacDonald