For as long as he can remember, Donny Harrelson, owner and founder of BackYard Self Storage, always had the itch to start his own business. He always wanted to build something he could be proud of. That itch was finally scratched in 2006 when Harrelson discovered self storage by way of a friend. "I always wanted to own my own business, but, being in management with Progress Energy, I knew of the issues that came with managing a lot of people," he said. "I wanted to find something I could do with the least amount of people. That something was self storage."
Harrelson put the wheels in motion and started working towards his goal of opening a self storage facility. He conducted a feasibility study, prepared a business plan and acquired funding through a local community bank. He identified a space near Ocala, had the land cleared and, in December of 2006, the building that he designed himself was officially open for business. Harrelson eventually sold the business in 2010 after a road construction project was set to change traffic patterns and access to his facility, but he wasn't done with self storage yet.
"For the next seven years, I continued working at Progress Energy, now Duke Energy, but still looked for new opportunities," he said. "I knew I wanted to get back into self storage." That opportunity came in early 2017 when Harrelson identified the perfect location to build out a new self storage facility. He purchased a five acre lot with 62,000 square feet of cleared, leveled and paved asphalt. The lot had lights and a fence and was ready for customers to store their RVs, boats and other large toys. Over time, Harrelson built out the mini-storage building, which opened in March of 2018.
Like most entrepreneurs, Harrelson has faced his fair share of challenges along the way. "I had some early challenges with the state in terms of them wanting to put in a turn lane near our facility," he said. "I drove to Tallahassee to meet with the Department of Transportation and got the turn lane nixed. Also, everything was new to me in the beginning. I hired a lady that had been a manager at another storage facility for years. She helped us tremendously."
Harrelson loves being his own boss and finds running his own business to be very rewarding. "I like to meet new people and help fulfill their needs," he said. "Most of them are in transition. They're moving from one house to another. I get to help them with that transition. We work hard to make our customers feel like they're everything to us."
Harrelson continues to work for Duke Energy as a Project Manager. He works four ten hour days with Duke and then spends late afternoons, Fridays and the weekends at his storage facility. By January 1st, 2019, Harrelson plans to retire from Duke and focus full-time on his self storage business. Beyond that, he would like to do another self storage facility and possibly help his son get into the business.
What advice does Harrelson have for aspiring entrepreneurs? "Follow your dreams," he said. "I went to several seminars on self storage and the guy there said 95% of people that come to these things will never do anything with the information. When I decided to make my move, I was standing on the ledge and I told my wife, 'I'm at a point where I need to do this.' At some point you just need to step out and have faith, but do your research and don't go into it blind. For example, when I did my research, I found that 85% of renters were females, so I made my office clean and neat."
Harrelson also stressed the importance of being financial conservative. Before opening his first self storage facility, he put money away and, when it came time to get a bank loan, he was able to show the banks how serious he was and that he had some skin in the game as well. "Take a chance and be confident," he said. "When I first started, I told my wife that the business would not be a failure." Twelve years and two businesses later, Harrelson has kept that promise.
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