Sunday, October 15, 2006

World's Most Unusual Moving Company.

Shawn Lyons Story

Rabbit markets itself as an anomaly in an industry with a bad rep, capitalizing on a staff of artistic types, word-of-mouth referrals, and a Web site that posts positive customer testimonials and descriptions of extra services traditional moving companies don't usually offer.

So far, Rabbit's bare-bones sales and marketing strategy—except for maintaining its site, the company spends no money on advertising—is working. Rabbit's founder, former itinerant writer Shawn Lyons, who started the moving company in 2004 for $1,500—the cost of a 1981 Dodge Ram cargo van—estimates revenues will be around $300,000 in 2006. This is up one-third from a year ago. "Originally, I was just going to do the 'man with a van' thing and have time to write," Lyons says.

But about nine months into helping friends move their furniture in his spare time, Lyons decided he was onto something because demand kept increasing. So he pursued the licensing and insurance required by New York City and State and started to build Rabbit into more than just a traditional moving company, carving out a niche with young urban dwellers.

Today Rabbit, apart from making residential and commercial moves within the New York metro area and renting storage space, also offers massages ($80 per hour) and feng shui ($200). Clients normally take advantage of these extras after the move. Moving prices range from $100 an hour to a flat $1,500 for a complicated, labor-intensive move that includes packing.

Toby MacPhearson, a 31-year-old information-technology worker in Manhattan, paid Rabbit about $650 to move from the neighborhood of Chelsea to Hell's Kitchen, and is glad he took advantage of the feng shui service. "I was mostly in it for the practical aspect: It helped me reduce my stress by helping me set up the apartment in a logical manner," says MacPhearson, who has since referred two friends to Rabbit.

Still, Rabbit is a tiny presence in an industry that generates approximately $7 billion a year in revenues and employs an estimated 450,000 workers. David Sparkman, a spokesperson for the American Moving and Storage Assn. (AMSA), an industry advocacy group with 3,400 members, estimates that there are 5,000 to 6,000 mostly small, family-owned moving companies, with just a handful of large van lines.

With so much competition out there, concentrating on a unique group of customers has helped Rabbit establish a strong reputation. Apart from Rabbit's positive plugs in its Web site's testimonials section, sites like and include posts such as: "Rabbit Movers are awesome. I've used them and passed them on to friends as highly highly recommended."

That seal of approval lends multiple benefits to Rabbit. "The notion of community in an urban setting leads to positive word of mouth, customer loyalty, and branding, and it seems like Rabbit has all of those," says Heidi Neck, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College.

Those who hire Rabbit to help them move shouldn't expect stereotypical movers. "Most of our guys are artists or in some creative field; they're just a really creative bunch," says Lyons, who counts chefs, painters, musicians, and writers ranging in age from 23 to 43 as his employees. "We're trying to move away from the perception of movers being supermacho creeps. Movers kind of have a bad rep in New York, and for good reason. There are a lot of scams, so we try to combat that," he says.

Aside from wanting to work with people whom he liked on a personal level, Lyons says it was easier to communicate the tone he's trying to create for the company to people who already intuitively understood it through their own experience. Trying to nurture friendly interactions with clients further sets Rabbit apart from the competition.

Since good employees are the key to creating a good moving experience, Rabbit pays fair wages across the board. Lyons says most of his movers make between $13 and $15 an hour, while many other companies pay workers under the table or at minimum wage. Keeping morale up, he says, is a necessity when your primary selling point is alleviating stress for the customer.

Also atypical of a moving company: Rabbit's community of young movers and customers is forming around the Brooklyn art scene. Lyons studied literature and writing at Temple University in Philadelphia and wanted to have his career fit with his creative background. So he recently bought and renovated a space in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood (Dumbo stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge), where he now rents space for artists to display their work.

Not directly related to Rabbit's moving business but intimately connected with its people and its style, the studio will host exhibitions at this year's Dumbo Arts Festival, and some of the artists will be Rabbit's own movers. Lyons says most of the people he expects to attend the exhibition are former customers who asked to be added to the Rabbit mailing list.

The company also specializes in moving art for galleries. Lyons says the movers' appreciation for the work establishes a trust between them and the client. "What's really great is that they're not just movers, they're really smart guys. In a business you need things that are malleable—people who are quick and able to adjust to what you need," says Priyanka Mathew, gallery director for Gallery Arts India, one of Rabbit's clients, and a former banker at Goldman Sachs. Mathew says Rabbit has moved scores of contemporary Indian paintings and sculptures without damaging a thing.

The company also employs a design aesthetic on its Web site, trucks, and T-shirts that appeals to its target demographic of young urbanites. "I just went along with what I would want in the aesthetic of the designs, the character, and quality of the movers. So far it's working, I think," says Lyons.

Rabbit's faithful clients—Mathew included—agree that the company's got staying power. "I really think this is the way that business is going to be moving—especially small business. You have to be sound fundamentally, but to create a niche and an edge, you've got to try and differentiate yourself, and that's what Rabbit does very well," says Mathew.

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