This Startup Savior Has a Message for Entrepreneurs: Ignore Silicon Valley
Nick Huber is leading a growing entrepreneurial movement that’s anti-unicorn—and pro-plumbing
It’s early evening in Athens, Georgia, and Nick Huber, entrepreneur and recently crowned startup expert, is about to record a podcast. Huber and his followers aren’t your typical founders. They don’t want to divine the next unicorn, launch a SPAC, raise a wad of eight-figure VC funding, or even break into a Y Combinator class. They have their eyes set on something more earthly, if not provocative: hatch a really solid pest control or lawn care business. “You ask anybody what entrepreneurship is, and they think of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Shark Tank,” Huber says. “The real, true entrepreneurs in our society are just opportunists who start something to make a little bit of money. They start scrubbing driveways or painting houses.”
In a red T-shirt, fresh off of chopping onions for his family’s dinner, the 31-year-old Huber is rattling into an iPhone in almost stream-of-consciousness thoughts as he records a podcast about today’s subject, commercial real estate. He begins in a beige basement, wanders outside, spins around with the phone in hand (a college decathlete, he has the rangy restlessness of a serious runner), roams back inside, and keeps talking. This is a decidedly unpolished, unglamorous approach to startup culture that Huber, who owns a self-storage company, evangelizes. As Silicon Valley-size fantasies have punctured the imaginations of culture at large over the past decade, his message is practically heresy. Huber suggests entrepreneurs choose a dramatically different, but perhaps more lucrative, path: low-risk, uncompetitive businesses, rather than passionate, world-changing ideas.
It’s almost a 1950s approach to entrepreneurialism, and indeed, Huber himself can seem like a throwback, almost as if a midcentury efficiency expert had landed in 2021 and found all of us a little coddled.
He’s coined his approach “The Sweaty Startup” — now a podcast, a blog, an online course, and potentially a book — which gives it a ring of one of the many commercial philosophies of entrepreneurialism pedaled over the decades. Ever since Benjamin Franklin advised “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” entrepreneurs, academics, and theorists have pitched formulas for startup success. Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek, Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, and Jim Collins’ Built to Last, are just the top of the pile. Collectively, they suggest that the only thing separating an average worker from IPO riches is ascribing to the right theory.
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“The Sweaty Startup,” on the other hand, is all about achievability: Create a service business. Do it better than competitors. Make a couple hundred thousand a year, work 40 hours a week or so, and leave plenty of time for family, friends, and hobbies. It’s almost a 1950s approach to entrepreneurialism, and indeed, Huber himself can seem like a throwback, almost as if a midcentury efficiency expert had landed in 2021 and found all of us a little coddled. “It’s get-rich-slow,” says Huber, who cautions against following your passion when creating a business. “You gotta do something not-fun for five years to make this work.”
His list of money-making “Businesses I Love” includes plumbing, firewood delivery, and maid services, while “Businesses I Hate” includes everything most entrepreneurs dream of: app development, bakeries, apparel. His point: there’s too much competition for the fun stuff — so go for the scut work. “People don’t want to hear this stuff,” Huber says.
It turns out, there are plenty of people who want to learn how not to become the next Musk or Zuck. Huber’s Sweaty Startup podcast has more than 600,000 downloads. He doubled his Twitter followers to more than 95,000, after a thread refuting “bad advice” he’d heard along the way went viral in January, with thoughts both detailed (“Miami isn’t the next tech hub…Construction costs are insane because of hurricane codes”) and general (“Starting a business isn’t right for everyone. 95% of folks are better off getting a job”). With unemployment surging and a spike in formations of new businesses, there are a lot of folks dabbling for the first time with entrepreneurial fantasies — and Huber wants to make sure he catches them before they crash.
“When we looked at folks who were starting apps, with the target of competing with Facebook or those Silicon Valley-backed startups, it was so competitive. We said, ‘Let’s think about who’s making really good money by not being very good businessmen, and go compete with them.’”
Growing up in small-town Indiana, Huber started mowing lawns for cash when he was 13. His mom charged him for rides to lawn mowing appointments, while his dad schooled him on P&Ls. That’s when Huber realized he could fire his mom and replace her with a high school girl who’d chauffeur him for the same pay and operate the Weed Eater.
By the time he went to college at Cornell in 2008, he’d saved $40,000, was majoring in labor relations, and focusing on track and field. But, the summer after his junior year, he filled his apartment with other students’ storage to make some money. He took entrepreneurship classes and was struck by how differently other kids at the Ivy League school thought about building a business. “We had this little storage idea, and we learned really quick that everyone in the class had a social media app or a new tech startup or new software idea that was a new big idea,” he says of him and his business partner, Dan Hagberg, who with Huber was co-captain of the track team. “I started to look around at all the wealthy people I know: The wealthy people in my town, of every town I’ve been in, the parents of friends who’ve been successful through business, and it’s almost exclusively not world-changing business.”
That’s when the concept of the “Sweaty Startup” began to take shape. He didn’t need to become a billionaire, he just wanted to make enough money so he had good income, family time, space to pursue hobbies like golf and snowmobiling, and not work for anyone. “When we looked at folks who were starting apps, with the target of competing with Facebook or those Silicon Valley-backed startups, it was so competitive,” he says. “We said, ‘Let’s think about who’s making really good money by not being very good businessmen, and go compete with them.’”
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He and Hagberg stuck with storage, a fragmented, $40 billion industry where owners sometimes didn’t return calls or have decent websites. They didn’t mind there was plenty of competition — as long as the competition wasn’t great. They wanted to modernize the existing model by making the business run, more or less, without them. Initially, for instance, they relied on drivers to handle pickups, scheduling, and customer service, but training took hours and drivers couldn’t keep up. They switched to having a single employee handle computer-based scheduling, and had drivers give customers a customer service number. Storage Squad did over $2 million in sales on the college-campus side last year, and in December, Huber sold that part of the business for a low-seven-figure number.
“We have a business that’s wrapped in technology, and we’re competing against a bunch of folks who have clipboards and fax machines.”
Now, he and Hagberg are focusing on the self-storage business, under the name Bolt Storage, and run it remotely: software handles scheduling, rental, and bill collecting; security cameras are onsite; customers access their own units through gate codes and locks; and Google Voice forwards phone messages. Huber and Hagberg buy small spaces wherever they’re cheap, and get to economies of scale by piecing together inexpensive land in uncompetitive cities. “We have a business that’s wrapped in technology, and we’re competing against a bunch of folks who have clipboards and fax machines,” Huber says.
The “Sweaty Startup” launched in 2018, after Huber convinced his little brother to start a lawn mowing business. Huber told him to “do the jobs right, and answer the phones,” he says. Huber figured that message might resonate more widely, so began tweeting and podcasting. (His brother took him up on the lawn mowing suggestion, and now makes around $100,000 a year for 38 weeks of work, Huber says.) He’s assembled an online course on assessing and investing in commercial real estate, pulled from what he learned buying storage sites, and is considering writing a book.
In his “Sweaty Startup” posts, he’s frank about how hard this kind of entrepreneurship is. After the initial excitement of starting a company, it may take months or years to gain momentum, he tells followers. “Find a way to make $100 an hour doing something simple IN YOUR TOWN,” he tweeted. “Do it until you have $10k+ in the bank and you’re too busy to sell new customers. Hire employee for $25 / hr to do what you do so you can sell new customers. Repeat.” A Twitter user, @edwardrooster, replied, “This thread is an M.B.A.” Another, @mikeytcaplin, who runs a web development firm, wrote “I love this. I want my next business after e-commerce to be a local services business.”
Still, Huber’s obsession with value over passion can at times become almost comical. At Chipotle, he refuses to pay an extra dollar for guacamole, his wife, Michelle, says. When it was time for the couple to move in 2018, he made a spreadsheet cross-referencing city attributes. The winner was Athens, Georgia, where they had no ties and knew no one. They planned on only living there for a bit — but are now thinking they may stay long-term. It’s a “Sweaty Startup” approach to life, really. “You don’t have to be thinking 20 years down the line,” Huber says. “Far too many people are thinking big instead of thinking small.”