There’s an almost invisible ease by which companies have transitioned to e-commerce. Simple website templates and apps that handle payments and taxes remove almost every barrier to turning a physical business into an online store.
But at the back end of that e-commerce is the actual shipping of all those products so easily sold online: a space- and labor-intensive process that can quickly become unwieldy. It’s left some entrepreneurs swimming through cardboard boxes in garages and chasing down delivery vans for last-minute pickups.
For companies of a certain size, operating off a couch or in a garage soon becomes unrealistic. But those same companies are still small enough that they don’t need the often cavernous space provided by most warehouses.
“If you’re looking for a 1,000-square-foot warehouse, the fact is that doesn’t exist. Or 500 square feet, or 5,000 square feet,” says Tyler Scriven, a former e-commerce business owner who did the hunt for such a modestly sized space. That challenge led him to found Saltbox, which turns massive warehouses for single operators into subdivided spaces tailored to the more modest needs of up-and-coming e-commerce businesses. With built-in coworking spaces that offer the kinds of amenities one would find at WeWork, Saltbox offers space for businesses to do both smooth online sales and box-juggling order fulfillment.
Saltbox, one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2022, now operates five of these spaces in cities like Dallas, Denver, and Atlanta, in warehouses that range from 45,000 square feet to more than 100,000 square feet. The company has more than 300 members running businesses from these subdivided warehouses, sharing resources like loading docks, racks, and forklifts while also having their own space to store products and process orders.
Scriven says the design is an important part of the company’s offering. The shared working spaces in Saltbox locations are a kind of logistics-tinged version of a coworking site, with modern furnishings, easily accessible conference rooms, bright colors, plenty of daylight, and free coffee. Scriven says he wanted to bring some of the amenities found in typical coworking spaces into the warehouse as a way of validating the work of people running these businesses–whom he says are often pushed to the fringes of the real estate market. “Why do we find it okay to let all the digital entrepreneurs work in a beautiful WeWork, but the physical entrepreneurs have to work in the equivalent of a warehouse slum? I think that’s not okay,” he says.
Instead, Saltbox focuses on what Scriven calls human-centric logistics, or creating spaces that can both store goods and feel comfortable. Typical warehouses are often poorly air conditioned—they’re either 50 degrees or 100 degrees, Scriven says—and simple necessities like a bathroom may be in one corner of a building larger than a city block. Scriven’s are the opposite, with added bathrooms, kitchens, windows, and air conditioning. Spaces within Saltbox locations are already walled off, and are available as simple 200-square-foot warehouse spaces or more outfitted office suites with storage that can be thousands of square feet. “We try to create these spaces that are comfortable but also functional,” Scriven says.
Several more Saltbox locations are planned to open this year, from Arizona to Florida to Virginia. The need for these kinds of spaces is huge, Scriven says. “There are 710,000 business-to-consumer e-commerce companies with revenue of less than $5 million,” he says, which represents about 15% of the e-commerce market. “That segment of merchants will likely double again over the next decade.”
One of these new e-commerce merchants is Jessica Sparzak, though that happened by accident. She launched Denver-based Pickletown Flower Company in 2019 in a converted box truck, intending to operate as a mobile flower studio. Then the pandemic hit. “We started shipping nationwide, which is not something I had intended for the company,” she says. “So, I’ve spent the last couple of years figuring that out.”
As a small company with shipping demands that vary from day to day, getting boxes out the door was a constant pain point: Pickups from major shipping companies were unreliable, and sometimes staff had to go to several drop-off locations to catch delivery vans in time. “We would waste hours every day running around,” Sparzak says.
When she learned about Saltbox earlier this year, she was intrigued. Her husband happened to be near the Denver location that day, so she got him to head over and take a tour. Looking in over FaceTime video call, she says she was won over quickly. The fact that the price included daily pickups from FedEx and UPS was a boon. Within two days, she’d signed a lease on a 700-square-foot space.
The design of the space was less of a factor in the decision, Sparzak says. “All those other amenities that you would find in a coworking space, those were an added benefit. Those were not high on my list. But the fact that that’s there is really nice,” she says.
More important to Sparzak, whose staff is nearly all women, is the way Saltbox prioritizes safety, with secured locations and well-lit spaces in and outside. “It was critical for me to find a place that I knew without any doubt that every single one of them is safe,” she says. “The cost of being there for us being such a small company is definitely a stretch, but I just thought to myself it doesn’t matter, I will make it work.”
Space in Saltbox’s locations rent on a month-to-month basis, and though prices vary by location and size, they start at $840 for 200 square feet of warehouse space in Denver and $720 for 150 square feet in Atlanta.
Another Saltbox member is The Muted Home, a luxury home décor company that leases about 200 square feet in the Atlanta location. Jay Banks started the company with his wife Camille in 2020, and he says Saltbox has been instrumental to the company’s growth amid the pandemic. “They run like a well-oiled machine,” he says. Saltbox’s warehouse also aligns with The Muted Home’s design aesthetic, with a focus on simplicity, clean lines, and artisan-led craft. “From a design perspective, we mutually fit right in,” Banks says.
Scriven says the design of these spaces is continuing to evolve. The company has started adding what he calls “oasis spaces” throughout, where members can access conference rooms, work stations, and bathrooms. “As these facilities get larger, it becomes less ideal to have a member walk across a 100,000-square-foot facility to get to the nearest conference room or to make a quiet phone call,” he says.
These kinds of human-focused design concepts will likely become more common in the world of warehouses and logistics, Scriven says, particularly as e-commerce becomes a bigger part of the way the world shops. “These need to be spaces which are thoughtfully designed,” he says. “I’m not saying they’re going to become Class A offices or even a Saltbox, but I do think we’re going to see some meaningful evolution in how these spaces function for the people that work in them over the coming years.”