This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Despite the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis, there were some industries that benefited from the events of 2020. Among them would be moving and storage service providers, expediting the exodus from major cities as more people than usual moved away from urban centers to more suburban and rural areas—at least for the time being.
As indicated by rent prices starting to stabilize (and even spike), that exodus is over. And while the aftereffects will be felt for a few years, the population shifts look more short-term than permanent. And 2021 could be an even bigger year for moving companies, as some of those people who departed are now preparing to return.
Based in New York City, Piece of Cake Moving & Storage launched in 2018 and has since grown to have a fleet of over 50 trucks with more than 300 employees. A good deal of that growth came in the past year, and the company is preparing for a busy spring and summer.
Fortune recently spoke with Piece of Cake founder Vojin Popovic to learn more about the business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, as well as plans for the next year.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Can you share a bit about your professional background prior to launching Piece of Cake?
I launched Piece of Cake in 2018; I was 24 at the time. I have always had the interest in setting up my own company. I started working as a helper on a truck for one of New York City’s largest moving companies as my first job when I was 20. With my focus I was able to quickly pivot from being a helper to a driver to eventually a sales manager.
I was able to learn the ins and outs of the industry and started thinking about my own vision. The experience I had starting from the “bottom” has served me well when launching Piece of Cake. I am able to understand and empathize with every role in our business, and I value each function and person as being critical to the vision. I am a strong believer in learning through experience and deciding to just go for it.
What inspired you to launch Piece of Cake?
English being my second language, I recall sitting in a Starbucks looking for a synonym for “easy.” I wanted to create a smooth moving experience for our customers. It was closing time and I had five minutes to come up with a business name, fast. “Piece of Cake” popped up on Google, it stuck, and it has been sticky ever since with our customers.
I started Piece of Cake for two key reasons: First, I saw gaps in an old and traditional industry, and I had my own ideas on how we could do a better job in delivering a happier moving experience.
Secondly, I really wanted to create a workplace where our people smiled. An environment that supports people through their life’s ups and downs. I generally hire people for their spirit over their qualifications.
Ultimately, what we have is a business built around an unmatched customer experience and an internal business culture that cares about its people.
What makes it different from other moving companies and storage services available?
The moving industry is traditional and extremely competitive, I’d say especially in New York City. There are only a few big players, and within a short period of three years, we are competing alongside New York’s largest and oldest moving brands.
We operate in what we like to call a “me too” industry, in which moving companies claim to do and be better than their competitors. The service we perform—moving items from A to B—is the same, but how we do it varies drastically.
Moving our customers for us is a privilege, in their life’s most intimate moments. We have seen it all: new babies, young couples, college students, retirees, internationals, and deceased estates.
Our true point of difference is our emphasis on the customer experience. It sounds deceptively simple, but it’s all in the execution. You can’t cheat customer service; it requires consistency and constant monitoring. We take care of our people, and they in turn take care of our customers. There seems to have been a major gap in our industry, and you see it when you read our 1,000s of positive five-star customer reviews.
For those of us who have spent the past year in New York City, moving trucks on the corner were as commonplace as a daily visit from the USPS truck. What has the last year been like for your business?
2020 was a big year for us in many ways, including our revenue, people, and consumer demand. Last year was our third year in business, and we experienced 360% year-over-year growth from 2019.
In the end, you are only as good as your last review on Yelp. We never let the numbers distract us from our purpose. It is a blessing that we deliver a service that is essential, but we were moving people during some incredibly difficult moments and changes in 2020. That wasn’t lost on us.
Every single person in the business played a huge role by showing up and putting in the work. Working through a pandemic meant we also had to be quick to implement safety measures. We were one of the first movers in NYC to introduce contactless moving services because there are no shortcuts to providing a tangible service like ours. In this industry, your response has to be immediate and you need to be in sync with your customer every day.
What kind of scaling or demand issues did you run into?
Hiring has been the area of most opportunity and most challenge because we are very deliberate about our culture. If there is one most important part of our brand, that is, without a doubt, our people. Finding skilled professionals that are the right fit was not an easy fix as demand grew.
Another challenge was running out of warehouse space and needing to expand in a hurry. We also decided to automate and refine many processes back of house to optimize efficiency when working at such a frenzied pace. In the end, all the challenges were a silver lining because they pushed us to grow in all sides of the business as we scaled.
The pandemic is not over, but there are signs that rent prices might be stabilizing, and there could be an influx of people returning to New York City this coming summer and fall. Have you seen any changes in reservations for the coming months ahead? How do you see the rest of 2021 panning out for moving companies, compared to 2020?
We have recently seen a rise in office moves out of storage, which speaks to economic confidence in New York. We’ve also noticed many local moves across the five boroughs, which means New Yorkers are staying in New York. Thus far in 2021, we have seen record numbers of customers requesting our services for the upcoming peak months. It’s a combination of our reputation and spiking demand. In terms of timing, spring and summer are typically the busiest seasons of the year for moving. We’re ready for this trend.
Last year we saw many long-distance moves from New York to Florida, Texas, and California. We also saw many New Yorkers move to their holiday homes in the Hamptons or put their items in our storage facility until further notice. 2020 was a big year for the moving industry in New York City, but at this stage, 2021 looks like it will give last year a good run for its money.
How is Piece of Cake funded; is it entirely private or have you conducted any fundraising rounds as well?
We are completely private and 100% funded by our own profits. When you earn every dollar, you think twice about how you spend it, so we’re very calculated about our strategy to scale. We have not once discussed outside investment.
Looking ahead, where do you see Piece of Cake in five years? Do you plan to expand to more markets?
I’m happy to share this year the next city to see Piece of Cake Moving and Storage will be Miami. In five years we aim to exceed 100M in revenue, with a fleet of 300-plus trucks, and offices in key cities across the U.S. We want to see our bright pink trucks in every major city and support Americans all over the country with their American dreams.
Finally, for many people (especially city apartment dwellers), moving can be perceived as a necessary evil. What is your No. 1 tip for people who are moving that they might not have considered or thought about before?
No one thinks about the hidden costs of moving, especially in a city like New York, where 70% of New Yorkers are renters. It means the population is always in transit. The No. 1 hurdle many customers miss is not considering their total moving cost.
The total “moving cost” includes a security deposit, first month’s rent, broker fees, moving company fees, their own time, packing supplies, and so on. For this reason, when it comes to booking their move, they will cut corners for the “cheapest” moving option.
Ultimately, the cheap moves end up costing them more than stress and damage. It is an expensive city to live in; we understand that, and people have had a rough year financially. We hear so many horror stories after customers switch to Piece of Cake after a nightmare move with another mover. We aren’t here for the hard sell. If you want some advice on your specific moving situation we are always here to help, even if you decide to move with someone else. We genuinely care.
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