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Stuf Storage Co-Founder and CEO Katharine Lau on Going After the $48B Self-Storage Industry

The Crunchbase “Female Leader Series” is comprised of stories, Q&As and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.


Katharine Lau is CEO and co-founder of Stuf, a next-generation self-storage startup recently recognized as one of Fast Company’s list of The World’s Most Innovative Companies in 2022. Stuf partners with real estate owners to monetize underutilized space in commercial buildings as inviting, tech-enabled storage powered by hospitality-inspired service. 

Lau is passionate about reinventing consumer experiences in the physical world and leads the company’s vision and overall strategy in transforming the self-storage industry. Prior to founding Stuf, Lau led supply growth at Industrious, the nation’s largest premium shared-workplace provider, and pioneered an “industry first” asset and liability-light growth strategy. 

In this Q&A, Lau shares her journey to entrepreneurship, advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and her experience simultaneously running a startup and growing her family. 


Q: What inspired you to start your company? 

I lived in Hong Kong and Shanghai during my teenage years and saw entire cityscapes change overnight. I have been drawn to real estate ever since and made a career out of it. What I learned early on is that there are tons of underutilized real estate in commercial buildings all around us; and more often than not, it has set empty for years. That revelation inspired a years-long search for the right idea to breathe new life into these spaces. 

The “aha” moment came during the pandemic. Spring cleaning led me to self storage, and I was incredibly underwhelmed by the options. When I learned that 1 in 10 U.S. households rents a storage unit, I immediately saw the connection between underutilized space and self storage. Additionally, my entire career up until now has been working for great companies started and run by men. I have always wanted to show the world that great companies can also be started and run by women, so I decided to bet on myself and this big idea that we could transform storage for millions of people while reinventing dead spaces. 

 

Q: What problems were you trying to solve with your company? 

In the early days, Stuf was designed to solve problems that I personally came across when trying to rent a storage unit, including:

  • Proximity: Existing self-storage options were often far away or inconveniently located at the fringe of neighborhoods. 
  • Clunky buying experience: Most operators required me to show up in person to sign an agreement and provide a credit card. Have they heard of the internet?
  • Poor on-site experience: Visiting these facilities on my own felt “sketchy,” and I have heard the same from other women time and time again. 

I confirmed these problems were not unique to me and were shared between people and businesses after launching the company and rapidly growing our membership over the last year and a half. At the same time, I knew it was wasteful to build new buildings for the sole purpose of being self-storage, particularly when there are millions of square feet of underutilized space under our noses. That is why I continue to have confidence that we are solving the right problem for consumers and businesses and doing it in the best way possible for users, landlords, local communities and the environment. 

 

Q: In the first eight months of 2021, only 2.2% of venture capital was invested in female-only founded companies. Do you feel welcome and accepted as an underrepresented group in the VC space? 

I am fortunate to be backed by two Black-owned VCs who make it their mission to back women and people of color; Wilshire Lane Capital and Harlem Capital. When it comes to the broader VC landscape, I am often caught between two extremes: Feeling out of place because I am a woman in a sea of men vs. feeling like I belong because of my previous startup experience. In addition to  being a woman, I am also an Asian-American woman which is a rare breed among founders. 

I cannot help but live with the weight of my company and my investors, but I often feel responsible for elevating Asian-American leadership in the VC and startup worlds. Most importantly, though, I am trying to make my parents proud. They immigrated here from China with $20 in their pockets to build a better life for their families, and I am driven to build upon their hard work and legacy. 

 

Q: What is your advice for other entrepreneurs trying to scale their own company? 

Being organized and efficient never hurts! Spend the extra few seconds or minutes to build reusable tools or organizational systems that can grow with the business and make everyone’s lives easier. For example, if you are hiring for several roles and managing multiple interview processes, spend the extra few minutes to develop a recruiting dashboard with links to job postings, resumes, LinkedIn profiles, case studies, interview notes and more. This saves you and your team precious time going back and forth sharing the same information over and over again. It also allows you to track your candidate pipeline and hiring processes all in one place. 

 

Q: What is one challenge you have faced as a female founder? What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs in a similar situation?

In January, I gave birth to my first child who is truly a blessing (although I often joke that Stuf is my firstborn). For a company that is a year-and-a-half old, it means I have spent just as much time pregnant as I have not pregnant. When I first got the news, I knew the company was not at a point where it could operate and thrive without me. 

I spent the next several months setting up the business to stand on its own, which I believe is the true marker of success for any CEO. I even raised money and saw wires hitting our bank account as I was in labor. I am proud to say we had our best quarter when I was on maternity leave earlier this year, and we doubled our revenue. What a wonderful thing to come back to, right? 

Mothers inevitably do the heavy lifting during pregnancy and the newborn days. The amazing fact that women can produce life seemingly puts us at a disadvantage. However, now that I am on the other side of maternity leave, I truly believe there is a way to reframe it into an advantage. My pregnancy and motherhood forced me to delegate responsibilities and let go of the day-to-day so I could focus on the future. For expecting founders, I highly encourage you to spend time securing additional funding, hiring great people, establishing systems and processes, and launching new initiatives that your team can run with. 

 

Q: What’s the main lesson you’ve learned about hiring since you started your company, and what are the most important things you look for when bringing on new hires? 

Hiring is the most difficult part of the job. A good or bad hire makes all the difference when your company is made up of a few people. Everyone puts their best foot forward during the interview process, including the company, so it can be difficult to imagine what it will be like to work together, particularly when faced with challenges. That is why I read into every interaction (email, call, or in-person), and I look at how much effort a candidate puts forth in formatting a case study versus the quality of their responses or work (quality wins). I also never let a reference call go to waste and dig very deep for honest feedback about the candidate. 

I do not have a defined list of qualities I look for when bringing on new hires. Every role and phase of the company may require something different, so what I am really looking for is someone who goes the extra mile in the interview process. Does she send you a few articles about marketing strategy because it came up during the interview? Does he send a follow-up assignment without you even asking? Did she do a “reverse” reference check on the company? These are all signs that the candidate cares deeply about the opportunity, and it will inevitably translate to their work. 

 

Q: How did you know you were choosing the right investors? What have they brought to the company? 

Before Stuf, I never appreciated that investors are much more than the capital they offer. My investors have opened many doors for me, helped me hire great people, and introduced me to other investors who ultimately joined us in our journey. 

Fundraising is like dating. Be intentional about who you bring on board, because you will be with your investors for many, many years to come. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Industry experience: Does the investor have industry or related experience to help drive your company forward or avoid pitfalls? Have they been successful to date? 
  •  Mission-driven: Does the investor have a mission that resonates with you and is not only about making money? 
  • Network and connections: Does the investor know people or businesses that can help you? Think about who you need to know to build and run a successful business, including potential investors, customers and vendors. 
  • Support system: Does the investor offer any support systems or meaningful resources to its portfolio companies? 
  • Working chemistry: Do you jive with the investor? Can you thrive and survive together in good and bad times? Do they communicate openly and provide honest feedback? 
 

Q: What qualities do you possess that you think have contributed most to your success? 

I am resourceful and organized. I love figuring things out for the first time, and I consider myself a creative problem solver. Rather than going from A to B to C, I like to say that I can get from A to C without sacrificing much in the way of quality. What really drives my success—and therefore the company’s success—is a natural ability to weave lightness and brightness into my work and among my team, particularly in stressful situations. 

 

Q: Do you have any mentors or do you mentor aspiring professionals? Do you feel that mentorship opportunities are important for the future of the industry? 

Mentorship is a huge part of my life. The mentors I had in college shaped my early career and set me down this path. I have had different mentors throughout the past decade who helped me navigate pivotal professional moments, including starting my own company. 

I have also played on the other side as a mentor with Apex for Youth, a nonprofit organization for underserved Asian and immigrant youth from low-income families in New York City. As a mentor and former co-chair of the associate board, not to mention a child of immigrants myself, I have seen firsthand the immense impact mentorship can have on both the mentor and mentee. These experiences only strengthen my conviction that I must continue to seek out mentors and provide mentorship to the next generation of leaders. 

 

Q: What do you find most rewarding about your experience as a founder so far? 

The most rewarding thing about starting my own company is hearing wonderful reviews from our customers, particularly when they call out Stuf team members. Those reviews are so validating because they mean we are solving the right problem in the right way and with the right team. It gives me even more conviction that we must continue growing to serve people and businesses all across the country, and introduce new products and services that empower them to do more with less.

  • Originally published May 31, 2022