Light bulb moment #1: When the mother of Omar Soliman, Friedman’s best friend and eventual business partner, called the two friends “the college hunks hauling junk” when they were working out of the back of an old beat up cargo van. They both realized the name was catchy and it stuck.
Light bulb moment #2: When their startup business took off that first summer after a small amount of marketing, they recognized that there was a legitimate business model that could grow.
Light bulb moment #3: When people would call Friedman about the company’s erratic drivers—not knowing that Friedman and Soliman themselves were driving the cars. They recognized they had to work on the business, not in the business, if it were to ever scale. “If we were ever going to have another truck, let alone another location, we had to start documenting and creating checklists for how we did everything.” This mentality would eventually lead them to creating systems for their process, which then led to their current franchising business model.
Fourteen years later, College Hunks Hauling Junk has total revenues of more than $100 million, 2000 employees and has 104 franchises across the country. It’s been an interesting journey along the way. They’ve dealt with a recession, not striking a deal on the first ever episode of Shark Tank and numerous challenging franchising relationships in the early days.
Chief Executive spoke with Friedman about scaling the business, the franchising business model and more. Below are excerpts from this conversation.
Talk about how you’ve scaled up College Hunks Hauling Junk?
We started documenting what we did every day. It was a checklist. How do we wear the uniform? How do we drive the truck? How do we greet the customer? How do we answer the phone? That was our early standard operating procedures and operating manual. The first time we would start hiring people, we would say, “Here’s the checklist. Here’s what we’ve been doing and what seems to work. So now you can do this.: We had some trial and error there and some employees made mistakes, but then we got people who would help improve the system. So, it wasn’t just me and Omar developing and evolving the systems. It was the team members that we were hiring who were also helping to scale those systems.
We learned about the idea of franchising, we attended a trade show and there was a little seminar about how to franchise your small business. And at the time, it seemed like sort of a glamorized way for us to grow and scale because we thought, “We’ll site back and collect royalties and the franchise owners will do the heavy lifting.” In reality, when we went down the path of franchising, we realized it was, a very steep learning curve and it really involved starting a new business from scratch because we were no longer just in the moving and junk removal business. We were in the franchising business. We were fortunate to surround ourselves with good mentors and read a lot of really good books and go to a lot of really good seminars and soak it all in. We tried to apply everything that we were learning and seeing into our business and empower the people who we were hiring to really do the same thing.
We added our second, third, eventually eighth truck up in the D.C. area. And when we began franchising, we decided to move our headquarters to Tampa, Florida because one of our ideas was that we would have an inbound call center that booked the appointments for the franchisees. The D.C. area, which is where we started, was really high cost of living, cost of labor, cost of office space, didn’t really have a call center market to draw talent from. Tampa checked all those boxes for us. And so we set up shop in Tampa, started franchising, worked with a franchise consultant to help prepare us to be able to do that.
In the early days, we leveraged a lot of publicity actually to get our name out there. We were on the very first episode of the first season of Shark Tank before anyone knew what that was [they were not able to strike a deal]. We were on the air, getting some exposure for the brand. I had gotten some nice write-ups in various publications that kind of put the brand on the map. It made us realize, we have something here that we need to continue to build towards and grow. It was a function of time, persistence and people that have really been the keys to our long-term scale.
What are the challenges and benefits to being a franchisee CEO?
Franchising is a unique business model where the various parties are very interdependent on one another. The franchisor relies on the franchisee success and vice versa. What we try to really emphasize is the fact that we have one thing in common and that is the brand, the brand equity, the brand integrity, and the brand reputation. So, when we bring a franchisee into our system and when we are growing our business with independent business owners, we emphasize how important it is and how everybody has the lofty responsibility to uphold that brand equity and integrity. And we have some legal measures in place to make sure we can protect it. These are compliance measures and brand protection measures that protect us in case a franchisee doesn’t uphold the brand standards. We make sure everything we do from a compliance standpoint is really in the best interest of everybody’s investment in the business and the brand of College Hunks Hauling Junk and Moving.
With that mindset, we’re able to create an aligned vision of all the parties and stakeholders. As long as our vision is aligned and we’re trying to grow this brand to the best that it can be…while we may have some disputes or disagreements on various technical or strategic elements…at the end of the day, we’re still rolling in the same direction. And I think that’s a critical element of a franchising business. Everyone keeps that big picture in mind, nobody gets overly self-centered about their own business in their own market and neglecting the bigger picture of what we’ve invested in this common enterprise. So that that’s been our approach and it’s worked.
You started this company from out of college and now you’ve got 2000 employees. What has been the education process been like for you as CEO?
Once I became an entrepreneur, and by the way, I didn’t really even know what that word meant until we had started our business and people would say, “Oh you’re an entrepreneur, you started a business,”… from then on, I became sort of a student of entrepreneurship. I became a very avid reader of books. I would go to entrepreneurship conferences, I would talk to successful business owners who have been there and tried to apply the things that I was learning to my actual living, breathing business. At times, I’ve tried to force it too much. I’ll go away to a different conference and I’d come back and my employees would think I was crazy cause I would give them a list of like a hundred things that we needed to start doing that we weren’t doing yet.
Joining the International Franchise Association was very helpful to us. I joined a group called the Entrepreneurs Organizations, and that was nice cause I was surrounded by other entrepreneurs that were doing high-growth things. I’m now part of a group called the Young Presidents Organization, which is very similar. It has a group of my peers, business leaders that are trying to raise the bar in their own respective organizations. The passion I had for being a business owner and the opportunities and resources that were out there to learn and being able to apply those learnings to our business…was invaluable to the trajectory of the business as well.
Building leaders is one of our company core values, so we want to encourage everybody in all organizations down to the front line, those who are hauling or answering our phones. They’re not just here just to do that. They are here to learn and grow, get better, and improve themselves and in whatever capacity that may be.