March 7, 2023

JF3106: Becoming the Sultan of Storage ft. Baird Kleinsmith


Baird Kleinsmith, also known on Twitter as the Sultan of Storage, is a full-time self-storage investor. He buys mismanaged properties, adds value through operational and marketing improvements, and reaps the rewards of increased cash flow. With his current portfolio of eight self-storage properties, Baird has achieved full financial freedom and is dedicated to not only growing his assets but also educating others on how to do the same.

In this episode, Baird discusses what drew him to self-storage investing after a career in fintech, what he looks for in an investment property, how he adds value and scales his investments, and the stumbling blocks he’s encountered along the way.

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Baird Kleinsmith | Real Estate Background

  • Full-time self-storage investor
  • Portfolio
    • 8 self-storage properties in Colorado and New Mexico
  • Based in: Durango, CO
  • Say hi to him at:
  • Best Ever Book: The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday
  • Greatest Lesson: Finding work you enjoy doesn't require following your passion.


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Ash Patel: Hello, Best Ever listeners. Welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I'm Ash Patel and I'm with today's guest, Baird Kleinsmith. Baird is joining us from Durango, Colorado. He is the self-proclaimed sultan of storage. Baird's portfolio consists of eight self-storage properties. Baird, thank you for joining us, and how are you today?

Baird Kleinsmith: Great, Ash. Happy to be here.

Ash Patel: Baird, before we get started, I need the self-proclaimed sultan of storage explanation. What is that?

Baird Kleinsmith: Haha! It actually came from a conversation with a friend... Before I ever owned a storage property, I was explaining my ambitions to build a portfolio of storage properties to a friend, and I think he originally came up with the idea of the name "The storage king of the Southwest", and I thought "Sultan of storage" had a better ring to it. So it's an ambitious title considering I'm pretty small today, but maybe someday I'll live up to it.

Ash Patel: It's funny how nicknames can stick though, huh?

Baird Kleinsmith: Yeah, sultan of storage is way better than my real name.

Ash Patel: Awesome. Baird, can you give the Best Ever listeners a little bit more about your background and what you're focused on now?

Baird Kleinsmith: Yeah, so I spent 16 years in financial technology, led business development for a couple of FinTech firms. That journey took me to London. I live in Southwest Colorado now, but I lived in London from 2017 through most of 2020. Came back home and knew that I didn't want to continue on the path that I was on. I was tired of the corporate slog, and desperately searching for something new that allowed me to take control of my time, but also generate a great income. I listened to a podcast "My first million", with Sam and Shawn, and they had Nick Huber on, and Nick explained his strategy of buying mismanaged mom and pop storage facilities primarily in the Southeast and Northeast, and I thought, "Man, that's something I can do." And I was off to the races, and immediately built a list of the 50 crappiest storage facilities within about an hour of where I live. I typed up a letter, hit Send, and here I am today, I own eight facilities in Colorado and New Mexico.

Ash Patel: Baird, what qualifies as a crappy storage facility?

Baird Kleinsmith: I use that term I guess humorously on Twitter, as I write about my acquisition strategy... But I'm looking for properties that are under-managed, typically are not investing much in marketing, don't have much of a presence... I've bought properties that didn't have a Google profile, or the Google profile was listed with an incorrect address... Typically, the properties that I'm buying don't have websites, they're typically cash and check businesses only... And in most cases, I'm buying properties that are very far under market prices. I look for properties that are well below market in what they're charging for units that are very similar to neighbors just down the road.

Ash Patel: Can we dive into your first deal?

Baird Kleinsmith: Yeah, let's do it.

Ash Patel: How long ago was that?

Baird Kleinsmith: So I closed on that property in February of '21. Actually, the 22nd -- it's exactly, I just realized that... I didn't know it until now; the 22nd of February 2021, so it's exactly two years ago that I've bought that first property.

Ash Patel: What was the purchase price?

Baird Kleinsmith: I bought it for $1.1 million.

Ash Patel: And how many storage units?

Baird Kleinsmith: It's got exactly 200 units.

Ash Patel: So price per unit is roughly $5,000 per door?

Baird Kleinsmith: Yeah, I guess that's right. I've never run those numbers. Price per square foot, I think it was about -- what is that? I'm not good at public math, but...

Ash Patel: Well, that's okay. So hold on. This is a good exercise. What is the metric that you use? I don't know, I'm asking.

Baird Kleinsmith: Yeah. So typically, storage properties are valued based on a cap rate. But I've often said on Twitter, I don't care about my going in cap rate. I'm focused on what is my cash on cash return going to be when I tap into the potential of the property. And I'm typically targeting a 20% cash on cash return. I do look a bit at price per square foot, and I'm typically trying to buy below replacement cost, which in today's market is probably $60 to $70, a square foot to build storage from the ground-up... But I'm usually buying property between $38 and $60 a square foot. But I would pay more than that if it were in a market that supported high prices that allowed me to hit my cash on cash return targets.

Ash Patel: I love that you used that metric, because that metric really doesn't lie. You can't fake cash on cash returns, right?

Baird Kleinsmith: Yep.

Ash Patel: So great advice for the Best Ever listeners. 200 units - how was it mismanaged, or what was the value-add play?

Baird Kleinsmith: This one was my first deal, and when I looked at it, the first thing that stood out to me was that it was running at about a 45% expense ratio, and the internet at that point had taught me that a well-run storage facility should be running at more like a 30% expense ratio. So I thought that the play with that was to cut costs. And I saw a bunch of unnecessary costs... They were employing a full-time manager, who actually wasn't even on-site. It wasn't even in the office, because of COVID. They were paying a lot for her. The prior owner was paying about $600 a month to a bookkeeper... They were paying $250 a month to CenturyLink for the phone and internet bill... So I saw all of these opportunities to cut costs, but I paid Nick Huber for some consulting time and looked at the deal with him, and he said, "Yeah, it's great that you're going to cut costs, but the real opportunity with this and any storage property is driving revenue." And I looked at the prices that the previous owner was charging, and they weren't terribly below market, but they were definitely somewhat below market... And I've found now that I'm the highest-priced in the market by far, yet I'm still at 97% occupancy... And just before I got on this call, I'm planning another rate increase for that property, that will increase revenue by about 15%... So yeah, initially, I thought it was a play of cutting costs. Now I know that the combination of cutting costs and increasing revenue is really powerful.

Ash Patel: You've got the highest rates. Are you the nicest facility?

Baird Kleinsmith: No... I'm not. [laughter] There are a couple of facilities just down the road that are physically a little bit nicer, a little bit newer. My property is solid; it's got asphalt driveways, security gates, cameras, it's got everything customers care about. Maybe it's a little bit older than the other properties in the area, but I do far better at marketing. So while mine may not be the nicest-looking facility, I am number one in Google results; we aggressively collect reviews, and have like a 4.8 star rating at that property, and we show up at the top.

Ash Patel: And that's the magic, right? You're being humble, but you're putting effort into marketing your space. And that's what's driving results.

Baird Kleinsmith: Absolutely. That's one of the things that I really like about storage, is that the competition is generally pretty weak. You have a lot of older owners that probably don't have debt on their properties, they're happy to make the cash flow that they're making today, and they don't have to invest much in marketing and operations. And there's a real opportunity to add value to the property, increase cash flow, and really gain a lot of value just by running these properties really well, and marketing is one part of that.

Ash Patel: Baird, how far is this from where you live?

Baird Kleinsmith: It's about an hour away.

Ash Patel: Initially, when you bought it, did you keep that full-time person or no?

Baird Kleinsmith: I kept her on for a couple of months. At that point, I knew that others were successfully managing storage properties remotely, but I didn't have in my head exactly how that would work. I had a lot of fear about -- I think customers really expect to have somebody in the office. So I kept her on for a couple of months, and then finally just decided to pull the trigger on replacing her with myself... At that time I decided to answer the phones, I hired a local site manager... It's a contract position focused on maintenance, not a customer-facing role.

I had a few stumbling blocks early on as I learned how to manage a storage facility, but I think that experience was really helpful, and now I have a team that manages everything for me from South America, and I'm able to teach them exactly how to manage the property with that direct experience under my belt.

Ash Patel: What were those stumbling blocks, and what were the solutions for those?

Baird Kleinsmith: Figuring out the software and how to use it... The gate systems are always finicky, and have some issues... And the solution was really just learning on the job. Taking phone calls from customers, understanding what do they call, about and devising solutions to reduce those calls by getting folks on automatic payments, rather than having them call and make their payments every month. I implemented some new software that's much easier to use. That helped a lot as well.

Ash Patel: What is the software that you use?

Baird Kleinsmith: I use Easy Storage Solutions.

Ash Patel: And how many emergency one-hour drives did you end up making that first year?

Baird Kleinsmith: At least a dozen, primarily because of the gate. I didn't have somebody local at that point that could troubleshoot the gate issues that we were having... But luckily, knock on wood, we haven't had any of those issues recently, and now I've got somebody really good that's local, that if there is any issue like that, he's just around the corner and can drop by and help troubleshoot it.

Ash Patel: What is the solution for a finicky gate? Is it just better control units?

Baird Kleinsmith: Ultimately, the real solution is that there's a product that's offered by Easy Storage Solutions that seamlessly integrates with their software. I have a different software package that controls the gate at that property. Really, it was just understanding that software, and getting it running properly. But the ultimate solution is to implement the integrated product that ESS has.

Ash Patel: Baird, you have eight properties today. What was your secret to being able to scale?

Baird Kleinsmith: First is I hustled in direct owner outreach. I sent that initial group of letters, started making phone calls, just really aggressively worked to get in touch with owners of properties, and was lucky enough to find eight of them over the last couple of years that were ready to sell. But the real scale comes with operations. And I realized early on that I did not want to be the guy that was taking phone calls from customers when they were ready to make a payment or they forgot their gate code... So I decided to hire a team. I now have two full time, one part time employees. I call them employees, even though they're remote contractors, and they're in Venezuela and Peru today. And now I'm completely out of the day to day operations, or almost completely out of the day to day operations. I make decisions on revenue, price increases, I do a bit with marketing... But at this point, I'm almost completely out of the day-to-day operations. And we're at a point now where just with a team of two and a half folks, we could add another couple of properties, and then from there easily plug in more folks into the management model as we scale further.

Ash Patel: Dang, man... Life is good, huh?

Baird Kleinsmith: It is. I'm watching it snow outside, and thinking about all the skiing I'm going to do tomorrow.

Ash Patel: Awesome. Why have Venezuela and Peru? I thought that hotspots for VAs were Philippines.

Baird Kleinsmith: I tried a couple of Filipino VAs, and I struggled with the time difference; asking those folks to work during our hours is asking them to stay up overnight. I know others have had success with that, ut I failed, twice. I went through two folks over there that were sleeping on the job. And it was primarily a timezone decision.

Initially, I just hired a customer service agent. I had a manager that was stateside in the US. I hired a customer service agent in Venezuela, and she was amazing, at a fraction of the cost of a US worker; much more motivated and driven and happy in the role. And she's paid very well for her local average wages locally. And honestly, much cheaper for me than if I were to hire somebody stateside.

So I decided from there to extend that and hire an operations manager to manage the customer service team; rather than having that in the US, I moved that to Venezuela as well, and now I've got an amazing woman in Venezuela, who acts as Operations Manager and has taken almost everything off of my plate.

Ash Patel: That's fantastic. Thank you for sharing that. In terms of raising rents here, what were they when you first went in, and what are they now, on average?

Baird Kleinsmith: Oh, gosh. At that first one, it's hard for me to remember exactly where they are. But today, I'm probably 50% higher than where they were when I bought that property. I've had some properties where they were drastically under market, and I increased rent by 100%. Doubled it. But more likely, I'm typically increasing rent by 30% to 40% in the third month that I own the property, and then I try to increase by anywhere from 5% to 10% a year ongoing.

Ash Patel: Do you do that on existing members or existing customers, or only on newer people that are renting?

Baird Kleinsmith: Both. When I set street rates, which would be for new customers coming in the door, I put those slightly above what I think the market rates are. And then for existing customers, I'm typically getting them up to a point where they're at a 10% to 20% discount from the street rates. It's a bit scary to pull the trigger on such a significant increase, but we can justify it through some of the improvements that we make on the property. And there's always the fact that they are still at a discount compared to new customers walking in the door.

Ash Patel: Interesting. So you're concerned about the perception, and concerned about them leaving, but you share some improvements that you're making, and the fact that they're still below market. Do you get pushback from them? They're kind of captive, right? Are they going to really grab all their stuff out of there? Do they push back and say, "Look, you're crazy, man. That's not cool."

Baird Kleinsmith: We've certainly had some folks that were are unhappy. I had a customer threatened to sue me, in one of our recent properties... But the beauty of the storage business is that most properties are run on month to month customer contracts. And so long as you give 30 days notice, you can do anything you want to the prices.

But I'm conscious of -- I want to charge customers what the product goes for in the market. I'm not focused on price gouging. But there's certainly some customers that are unhappy; some unhappy enough to collect their things and move out. But the most that I've ever seen with even the most aggressive price increase was a 10% vacancy post increase.

Ash Patel: Ah, interesting. That's significant.

Baird Kleinsmith: Yeah. So if you increase prices by 100%, you only lose 10% of your customers. You don't have to be very good at math to realize that those numbers work very well.

Break: [00:15:51.06]

Ash Patel: In terms of Google reviews, have you had people leave bad reviews because you raised rents?

Baird Kleinsmith: We have not, actually. I'm lucky in that I haven't had any angry customers go there to leave their feedback. I can only think of one review where somebody commented that we seemed expensive. But otherwise, no. And we're very focused on collecting positive reviews that will hopefully reduce any impact of anything negative.

Ash Patel: Have you seen this industry become cyclical at all, or is demand just steadily rising or staying even what's happening?

Baird Kleinsmith: There has been some recent ebb and flow of demand. I got into this at sort of the peak of storage. You talk to owners that have been in this for a long time and it was a pretty unique cycle from 2020 through 2022. Towards the end of 2022, operators like myself started to feel a bit of a softening of demand.

Last summer, most of my properties were at 95% to 100% full. I'm now at 90% to 97% full on my properties, and things have been pretty slow for a lot of the fall in the winter... But we're seeing an uptick in demand now. I think some of that is seasonality. I think there's certainly some seasonality with storage; things slow down during the winter, they pick up in the spring in the summer... And I think this is the first year where there's actually been a little bit of a slow season in the last few years... It's a bit foreign and uncomfortable for me as a new operator that hasn't experienced that, but I think we're gonna see some pretty strong activity in the spring.

Ash Patel: Baird, have you noticed increased competition in your markets? Are they building newer self storage facilities near where you are and taking some of your customers?

Baird Kleinsmith: I have not felt the impact from that. I invest in tertiary markets with pretty small population centers; not areas that are of much focus for new development. In fact, I can't think of any new facilities that were built from scratch that have come online in the last couple of years where I own. I do think that's an issue in larger cities, like tier one and tier two markets; there's been a huge investment in building new ground-up storage. But luckily, in my markets they haven't been targets for new development. But it's certainly something that keeps me up at night. I keep a very close eye on the development pipeline to see if any big new inventory is coming on that could impact my occupancy.

Ash Patel: Does zoning protect you at all, meaning as part of your due diligence to check with the local zoning department and see if they would approve more self-storage?

Baird Kleinsmith: Yeah, part of my due diligence is just evaluating the local market and how friendly they are to new development. So I know I'm in some counties where it's going to be very, very hard for a storage operator to get a new development approved. But in other markets that are more developer-friendly, I just make sure that I'm aware of anything in the pipeline, and I talked to the planners, see if they're aware of anybody that's even just working on plans for storage, even if they haven't submitted those plans. And I haven't walked away yet, but I will walk away if I find a good deal in a market that I know is just going to become oversaturated with supply.

Ash Patel: Yeah, total side note... My partner makes it a point to pay all of her tax bills in-person. So she sits there and writes these checks out and interacts with the people at the city, whatever municipality she goes to... And that gives her an opportunity to get their ear and find out what's going on. And I wonder if you did that and say, "Hey, look, I just want to make sure no one's coming in with additional self storage. You guys aren't gonna prove that are, you?"

Baird Kleinsmith: [laughs]

Ash Patel: [unintelligible 00:20:26.26] maybe get some protection.

Baird Kleinsmith: That's good guidance. I need to make friends with county planners in six different counties now. That's a lot of planning friends.

Ash Patel: It's always good to have their ear, and have them know who you are... Because not many people take the opportunity to interact with them. And often, they love talking about what's going on. They just don't get to talk to people a lot. So yeah, I mean, I would keep that in the back of your mind.

Baird Kleinsmith: I will.

Ash Patel: Question for you. Why self-storage when you came back from London and decided, "Okay, I'm not going to do any more fintech. I need to go out on my own"? What else did you look at, and why did you pick self-storage?

Baird Kleinsmith: Oh, man... I went through so many ideas. I guess the first - while I was in the UK, I got interested in acquisition entrepreneurship. I liked the fact that --

Ash Patel: Was it private equity, venture capital?

Baird Kleinsmith: I guess very small private equity, but more of the idea of the opportunity to buy an existing small business and finance it with existing cash flow, and improve that business. There's this big trend right now around searchers, people that are looking for small businesses to acquire, improve and add value... So I got interested in that, but when I started thinking about buying a plumbing company, or a pest control business, I thought, "God, that's a lot of logistics. Pretty complicated."

Ash Patel: It's a whole other job.

Baird Kleinsmith: Yeah, pretty complex operation. It'd be great if I could find somebody to run that, but... I think I'd have to run it for a while, and I'm just not that interested in such a complicated business. So when I heard Nick describe self-storage, I thought, "Well, that sounds like the best combination of a small business that you can acquire and add value, but without a lot of operational complexity."

Now, I had this misperception at the time that storage is passive real estate income, which I now know is definitely not passive. It is a very active business. It's a small business that requires a lot of management... But I think it has less moving parts than, say, a field service business, or a manufacturing business... And I really like that about it.

I looked at all the small business broker platforms like Biz Buy Sell, and I looked at a ton of businesses there, and nothing was that interesting until I heard this strategy of buying Self-Storage properties. I love it. Now I've got complete freedom of time... I'm not joking, I'm going to ski tomorrow.

Ash Patel: Tomorrow is a Thursday. Awesome.

Baird Kleinsmith: Yeah. And probably Friday, too. I've skied four days last week; my kids run my schedule much more than my work does. I take them to school in the morning, I usually pick them up in the afternoon... And outside of those commitments, I'm pretty free to do what I want with my time. So if my past FinTech self looked at what I'm doing right now, I'd probably be a bit confused... But I'd be pretty happy that I am happy now, and I feel like for the first time in my professional life I'm really satisfied with what I'm doing.

Ash Patel: That's awesome, and I'm glad you didn't buy yourself a job. One of the reasons I asked that question is a lot of other people have the same idea as you did. But there's also car washes, and laundromats, which are trending; cap rates in laundromats used to be double digits, now they're potentially in the fours and fives. Self storage has seen a tremendous amount of competition; cap rates are compressing because of that, which helps you, because you got in a little bit early. But what are you seeing in terms of competition, and how are you looking at finding deals with all of that increased competition out there?

Baird Kleinsmith: There are a lot more people, and I'm probably at fault in some of that as well. I have a lot of followers on Twitter that are seeing my stories of success. I offer coaching to folks to help them get into the business like I have... But I have that abundance mindset of "There's plenty to go around." I think there's 30,000 independent Mom and Pop storage facilities in the United States. I only need 30 of them to be fantastically rich. So if I can help my friends by the other 29,970, I'd love to do that.

But there's certainly more competition. There are a lot of folks like me that are contacting storage owners, trying to get them to sell, like I am... But I think that there's a lot of noise in the market, and if you can effectively cut through that noise and create real relationships with the owners, it's going to set you apart. And that's part of my plan now. I've replaced my W-2 income, I'm comfortable financially... I don't have to grow, and so that kind of takes a little bit of the pressure off. I don't have to go buy a facility next month to continue to hit my targets... And so that allows me to take a little bit of a longer view approach on it, form long term relationships with these owners... And at some point, everybody's going to sell. So I just want to be the guy that that they call when they do.

The other thing is I don't know how many folks are actually doing the deep work that is required to actually track down the owner of the property, and contact them at their home address or their personal telephone number. I own eight facilities; I can count on one hand the number of letters that I've received in the mail. I can count on two fingers the number of calls that I've gotten to my cell phones... Whereas I'm on a weekly basis contacting owners on their personal cell phones, because I've done that grunt work to go and track them down, stalk them on the internet and figure out how to get a hold of them.

Ash Patel: Yeah, that's a great outlook. Thank you for sharing that. Do you have partners or investors? Or is this all on your own?

Baird Kleinsmith: Today, it's completely self funded. I was lucky to come out of my career with quite a bit of capital to deploy. But yeah, we'll see if that continues on. I like the fact that I have full control of the businesses today. I don't have investors to report to, but I realized that it probably limits the amount of scale that I can achieve if I'm only using my money. But I'm pretty comfortable where I am. My last two acquisitions were funded entirely from cashflow from the prior six properties. So I'm at a point now where that snowball is building, and I'm reinvesting the cash flow from the current portfolio to expand.

Ash Patel: Baird, what's the hardest lesson you've learned? ...whether it's about friends, money, deals, sellers... What's a tough lesson that was hard?

Baird Kleinsmith: Gosh, I think there's two things that come to mind. One is you've got to trust yourself. I should have -- so I've got eight today; I should probably have 11 or 12. I passed on some deals early when the market was really good for buying, because I wasn't yet confident in my strategy of adding value. And it pains me to think about those deals that I missed out on.

The second piece is don't make assumptions. My first deal that I bought, I looked at who owned the property, and it was a gentleman in his 40s, so relatively young... And he had only purchased the property in 2018. I almost did not send him a letter, because I thought "He's only owned this thing for less than three years. He's not going to be ready to sell. He doesn't fit that profile of an ideal 80 year old seller." I almost did not send him a letter; thank goodness I did, because he called me right away, and he wanted the capital out of it to go buy one closer to where he lived...

And then the other example with that is, just because properties appear well-run, like they have a nice website, does not necessarily mean that they are. I decided not to send letters to some owners of properties that I thought looked pretty nice, and didn't have the opportunity for value-add, and one of those actually came on the market at a price that I would have gladly paid after I looked at the financials... And unfortunately, I was just too slow to it, and didn't win that one. So don't make assumptions. Cast the net wide, and then from there, you can filter out what's a good deal versus a bad deal.

Ash Patel: That is great advice. Thank you for sharing that, and I'm glad you made that call... Otherwise, you might have been running a plumbing company right now. Good for you, man. Baird, are you ready for the Best Ever lightning round?

Baird Kleinsmith: Yeah, let's go.

Ash Patel: Alright, what's the Best Ever book you've recently read?

Baird Kleinsmith: I haven't read many books recently, but the book that I always come back to is the "Obstacle is the way" by Ryan Holiday. I try as much as I can to sort of maintain that stoic philosophy of focusing on what I can control, and responding to those things that I can't, versus reacting. So that's one that I've read many times; I need to pick it up


Ash Patel: Baird, what's the Best Ever way you like to give back?

Baird Kleinsmith: Right now it's telling my story publicly to inspire others to make change. That may mean buying storage facilities, that may mean making some other change in their career. But I get so much satisfaction from all the messages that I get on Twitter of folks appreciating my transparency and honesty in this, and I just really hope to inspire others to make a similar change.

Ash Patel: And Baird, how can the Best Ever listeners reach out to you?

Baird Kleinsmith: The best place is Twitter. My handle is SultanofStorage. You can also go to, but all it is is a landing page where you can give me your email and someday I'll build a newsletter. I haven't sent an email yet, but when I do, you'll know it will be packed with value.

Ash Patel: Baird, thank you so much for your time today. You took us through this awesome journey of leaving your career in FinTech, going into self-storage, and all the mindset changes that you've had along the way. A lot of the hard lessons you've learned as well. So thank you very much for that.

Baird Kleinsmith: Thanks, Ash. I really enjoyed it.

Ash Patel: Likewise. Best Ever listeners, thank you so much for joining us. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a five star review, share this podcast with someone you think can benefit from it. Also, please follow, subscribe, and have a Best Ever day.

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