Bolt Storage’s Nick Huber on What Venture Gets Wrong, and Why He Chose ‘Sweaty’ Entrepreneurship
The entrepreneur on the problem with “TechCrunch culture,” the power of social media, and the importance of getting excited about the little things.
When I meet founders, I always look for hustle, grit, a deep sense of urgency, and the ability to sell stock, people, and product. When I first came across Nick Huber, via his hot takes about real estate and startup culture on Twitter, it was clear to me that even though we approach business from very different angles, that we’d connect on a number of different levels.
Nick sold his first storage business, Storage Squad, for a seven-figure payout in 2021, is the Founder of media platform The Sweaty Startup, and Cofounder of Bolt Storage, a self-storage company with over 42 facilities.
As someone who grew up in a family of bootstrapped entrepreneurs, I’ve always had the belief that venture backed founders could learn a lot from the constraints imposed on great small business operators. While Nick and I connect deeply over hustle, we have some very different approaches on how to fund and grow businesses, which we discussed here along with his thoughts on Silicon Valley startup culture, hiring globally, and the future of real estate.
You are a notable critic of startup culture. How would you respond to someone who might suggest that’s “thinking small”?
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a brilliant 25-year-old entrepreneur. I was trying to get him to start a web development company with me. We just want to build websites, a team, and a company up to a couple million dollars in revenue, which I know we can do.
He keeps talking to me, getting excited, and then he goes and talks to all of his mentors in the startup culture and he comes back to me finally and says, "Nick, I can't do that. There's no enterprise value in a website development firm."
He looks into the eyes of these mentors and he falls for the allure. I made a post on Twitter that I regret now and won't make again that said something like, “I need to do more angel investing so that I can write checks for these founders, get a look into how they think, start communicating with them, reading their updates, how they solve problems, how resourceful they are, how well they communicate, and then I can convince them to leave or, when their company inevitably fails, I can convince them to start regular companies with me and we can go make real money.”
I give it a ton of crap, but value is added to the world through venture capital and taking these big risks and the people who take it on, I have a ton of respect for that, because they're taking chances. It's against all odds. They're trying to impose their will on the world and change the world and there's something heroic about that. I just don't have the courage to do that. I don't have the desire to do that. I'm not willing to sacrifice myself to do that.
Now, where it gets a little dicey and mixed up for me is I think a lot of people do it because of the ego and because they're kind of selfish. They don't really necessarily want to change the world. They don't necessarily want to hire the people. They want to walk around in Silicon Valley with sweatpants on and tell everybody that they raised a bunch of money. It's tough.
What took you to the step of launching more businesses outside of your core and what got you here originally?
I started on Twitter in late 2019 and gained my first followers right before the pandemic. That was when I learned that social media can help me raise money for my deals.
I'm a syndicator. I needed cash, and the people who invested the cash were my customers. I have two customers: self-storage unit renters and those who invest cash. I'm serving both of them. One with my management company and one with the real estate private equity folks who literally invest money with me.
Through talking about my deals on Twitter, I was able to find a lot of customers and raise money for the next five deals.
In early 2021, Marshall from Support Shepherd, called me and said, "Hey Nick, I use this service. I can help you find Filipino talent." I'm like, "Filipino talent? What are you talking about? I've only ever hired Americans.” He goes, "Well, just use this service, and then let's talk about potentially promoting the company on Twitter."
Support Shepherd set me up with three interviews in the Philippines. They built the job description. They just put me in Zoom interviews and I hired all three of them right after the call. I'm like, "Oh my God, are you kidding me? I can get this type of person for a thousand dollars a month?" It blew my mind. Shortly after that, I was promoting Support Shepherd for a 15% revenue share. When that started, the company was doing maybe 40, 50 grand a month of revenue. Fast forward a year later, the company had grown 7X.
What percentage of that growth do you think came from your Twitter followers versus their direct sales?
It was already growing really fast because it's a great service, but we stoked a lot of fuel to the fire with some Twitter threads that went viral and people started really seeing the size of the business. I negotiated to where I own a 15% share of Support Shepherd, and now it'll do $4 million to $5 million of EBITDA over the next 12 months.
Now, I'm launching several other companies that I think I can potentially find customers. The amazing thing about Twitter is that I get a look into the minds of a lot of people, I get to start interacting with a lot of people, and I get to learn how they think. I can spot operators. I can spot really talented people in these individual spaces and I can partner with them to grow companies.
What is the skillset difference between managing an overseas team versus managing a team here in the US?
The real estate private equity company has 50 employees now. 30 of them are overseas, 20 in the Philippines, and 10 in Colombia. Almost all of them were found through Support Shepherd.
We just got used to managing people all over the world. I mean, there's no difference between managing a remote employee in Chicago when I live in Athens and a remote employee in Bogota, Colombia, Manila, or the Philippines.
Are you using any team management or workflow management software?
For sure. We have CRMs. Our tech stack is definitely top of the line and we have a lot of different ways that we can keep communication and information synced.
What have been your best sources of information in figuring out how to implement all of these things from an operational perspective?
I get advice from everybody. Some people say, only get advice from people who are on a higher level than you. I've gotten pretty good advice from family, friends, neighbors, and people who aren't even in business. I've gotten a lot of really bad advice from people who are super accomplished.
As a business owner and entrepreneur, I'm hunting and prowling for 10Xers. If somebody has it and I know they have it, I'm thinking about how I can get that person on my team. As a business owner, your number one goal, and the hardest part of what you do, is finding the 10Xers and convincing them to join your team.
Let's shift gears for a second. I want to talk a little bit about real estate and real estate technology. I'm curious what your take is on where we are right now and what the next few years will look like.
When interest rates go from 3% to 7% in a year, it's chaos. Anybody who tells you that the real estate market's not in chaos is trying to raise money from you. It's not good. If interest rates stay here for another year, there will be chaos in the real estate market. The odds of that are high. Nobody's having fun in the real estate business right now.
What is your point of view on Proptech?
Anybody who talks about AI and tech disrupting construction in real estate has never owned a construction company or bought a piece of real estate. I hate to be that blunt and rude about it, but I am.
And okay, yes, Proptech matters, and I'm fortunate to have easy storage solutions—many of which are bootstrapped—that allow me to rent units in six minutes and all that.
But I look around my town and there's tons and tons and tons of real estate that's owned and not optimized from a management perspective. It's not clean. It's not well maintained. Nobody cares about doing the actual work—the labor required, a physical human to wash, repair, or clean things. There's a lot of things that need to happen before we worry about technology disrupting how people interact with their houses or their buildings.
Let's say, you were forced to be a venture-backed entrepreneur. Where do you think the most exciting opportunities in real estate tech are today?
I mean, why would I dilute? I'm going to go raise, I'm going to start a concept. I'm going to raise $10 or 20 million, dilute myself down, go out, and hopefully get my company worth $100 million and exit my company to make $1 to 7 million. After tax, I'm taking home $3.5 million dollars.
If you wanted to go make $10 billion today at market cap, where would you play?
I mean, if someone sentenced me to this, I’d rather go to prison for…six months. I cannot think of a massive problem to try to solve that there's not already really smart people and a lot of money trying to solve. I can go buy a $400,000 self storage facility and a year and a half later, it's worth a million bucks and I make 600 grand myself.
You’re really making me flex my question asking skills here. If I created an irrevocable trust in your name and I passed away, and one of the stipulations was that you had to invest it alongside a venture capital firm in Proptech home services, whatever related business, where would you be looking from a part of the innovation curve?
I think maybe insurance. I like property insurance and renters insurance, and making all that streamlined is pretty exciting to me. It's a great business. I actually started a company called Titan Risk. We're starting just brokering insurance, just like 15,000 firms in America do. We're going to do the exact same thing that they do. I think it'll be a really big company in the next 5 or 10 years.
Going back to your cost segregation business, is there room for tech in that? Or are you getting all the efficiency you need by sending things overseas?
I mean, yeah, we're building. We have a front-end web development team right now building automations inside how we model just so we can do it quicker, easier, and cheaper.
When it comes to the cost segregation specifically, do you think any of the guys who do this today are going to end up utilizing and leveraging technology in the future or do you think they're just much more on the laggard side of things?
I think the business will innovate for sure. It's a business where there are 20 nationwide firms that all do more than probably $5 million a year of revenue. It's a big industry and it's competitive. You got to stay on the cutting edge. Absolutely.
I think other companies are investing and we have to do enough investing on our own that we can carve out our piece of the pie. We don't need to beat everybody all the time. I feel like the venture capital mentality is “We have to be the best because there will be one survivor,” and my mentality is more like, "Hey, people spend $450 million a year on cost segregation, I only need 1% of that."
I've changed my mind on a lot of stuff since I started in 2018. I'm not as excited now about starting a window cleaning company, but that's kind of what you need to do to start. You need to get excited about those little things.
See also: RE Cost Seg, Blue Key Capital, and WebRun