When I talk about my new book, Upstarts: How GenY Entrepreneurs are Rocking the World of Business, which is out next month, people tend to assume that the bulk of the companies I cover are in the tech industry. And while it's true that I do profile many awesome companies in that space (like Loopt, Xobni, Mint.com, Aviary, Quirky, and many more), I've got to confess that I'm always a little more drawn to companies that have become wildly successful in industries that are a bit more mundane. That was the idea behind my first book, Alpha Dogs, which showcased eight amazing businesses in relatively ordinary industries.
So in Upstarts, I continued to seek out those kinds of companies. Among them is College Hunks Hauling Junk, which made an impressive debut on our Inc. 500 list this year at #156. You don't get much more low-tech than this — basically, these guys make a living hauling the junk in your basement to the dump. I've been talking to co-founders Omar Soliman and Nick Friedman for a couple of years now and have had the pleasure of watching College Hunks grow into a multi-million dollar franchise operation. It didn't happen by accident. Here's what I think are the biggest factors in their success:
1. They entered a fragmented industry with a low barrier to entry but differentiated themselves through branding and top-notch service. Hunks are clean cut, wear khakis and collared shirts and drive snappy new trucks. And they know that their real business isn't just hauling junk, but making their customers' lives tidier and more organized. They professionalized and classed-up what we typically think of as a "dirty" business.
2. They looked to an existing successful business — Vancouver-based 1-800- Junk — for guidance and ideas. There's no shame in taking a peak at someone else's playbook and adopting their best practices!
3. They put a green spin on their operation by pledging to recycle approximately 60% of the items they collect. They also donate a percentage of revenues to College Bound, college scholarship and mentorship program. That kind of commitment to social causes means more and more to customers these days.
4. When they decided to expand their original Washington, DC operation to include franchisees, they didn't waste time hiring someone who knew the ins and outs franchising — industry veteran George Palmer. Kudos to Friedman and Soliman for knowing what they didn't know.
5. Even though this isn't a tech company per se, Soliman and Friedman have made significant investments in information systems that help the business run smoothly as it grows. Lesson: every company needs to be a tech company at some level.
Both Friedman and Soliman will be joining me at a special program for young entrepreneurs at this year's Inc. 500/5000 conference in Washington, D.C. The good news is that whether or not you made the list, you can join us, too. If you're under the age of 32 and would like to attend, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, but keep in mind that seating is limited. See you there!
DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.
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