Nick Friedman had an idea. Suppose you could take the natural high spirits that compel college students to kidnap one another's team mascots and toilet-paper rival frat houses and harness it for good?
Friedman is president of College Hunks Hauling Junk, a $3 million franchiser headquartered in Tampa. The company's 23 franchises employ mostly college students and recent grads; even about half of the franchise owners are in their 20s. Friedman motivates employees almost exclusively through internal competition. Franchises and individuals vie for bragging rights and (generally modest) monetary rewards in contests over total revenue, average job sizes, customer loyalty, disposal costs, and a long list of other performance measures.
"A person's day-to-day tasks don't necessarily connect to external competition," says Friedman, explaining this we-have-met-the-enemy-and-he-is-us approach. "Internal competition helps them be more productive at what they are accountable for. And ultimately, that puts the company in a better position to win market share."
Friendly rivalry, of course, is endemic to college life, and the company's early employees translated their frat-war sensibilities to the job. Shortly after College Hunks's launch in 2005, haulers from its Virginia branch went out to their truck one morning and found it lathered in shaving cream and draped with a University of Maryland flag. They retaliated with a dead fish in the Maryland branch's truck. Rather than reprimand the offenders, Friedman and CEO Omar Soliman fanned the flames. "We wanted to harness that competitive, prankster enthusiasm and channel it for good," says Friedman. "So we challenged the two locations: Who can haul the most junk by summer?" He offered a Bahamas vacation to the winning team. Maryland triumphed, and a culture was born.
The founders soon dispensed with volume of junk collected in favor of key performance indicators as the bases for contests. They developed a dashboard -- available to the entire company over an intranet -- and created competitions around the numbers tracked there. Most employees check the dashboard every day for their own and rivals' latest standings. To keep things fresh, Friedman and Soliman periodically add new contests. In the latest, franchises vie to see which can donate or recycle the most junk, thus burnishing College Hunks's green cred while reducing landfill costs.
College Hunks pokes the competitive embers during orientation programs, which generally include three to six new franchisees. "We say, 'Who is going to be the rabbit that everyone is chasing?' says Steven Nickels, whose title is national head coach. "And, of course, everyone wants to be that person." Although every franchise competes against every other franchise, the rivalries born in these sessions -- Phoenix versus Detroit; Orlando versus Los Angeles -- run particularly hot. "They have a little bit of ego," says Nickels, "and they want to beat the guys they were training with. Phoenix is telling Detroit that they don't have the experience. Detroit's telling Phoenix that they don't have the energy."
When an initiative is moribund, sometimes the spark of competition brings it to life. Not long ago, the company created a program to sign up local businesses willing to display the Hunks's marketing materials in exchange for a cut of referrals. In the beginning, the Orlando franchise signed up four businesses in four months. Then Friedman made a contest out of it, offering no money -- just bragging rights. Orlando won, enlisting 35 local businesses in just one month.
Other competitions target employees rather than franchises. Haulers ask satisfied customers to vote for them in a Hunk of the Month contest that pays out a few hundred dollars. (The Hunk of the Year -- based on an annual tally -- scores $1,000.) "We know how many votes we're getting, so if people are running close to each other, it can get pretty competitive," says Ben Reynolds, a former Hunk of the Year based in College Park, Maryland. "If another guy and I are tied at eight votes, and he is going out on a schedule that has five jobs, and my schedule only has three jobs, then he may rub it in that he's got chances at two more votes than I do. Then I have to really make my jobs count. It's fun."
Though in-house rivalry is College Hunks's meat, for other companies, it can be poison. "I've seen a fair number of contests where -- if the prize is something people really want -- they will begin to sabotage each other," says Cindy Ventrice, founder of Potential Unlimited, a consultancy specializing in employee motivation. "The priorities get all mixed up." Employees might fail to, say, report problems in order to win safety competitions. Contests must be designed with care, she warns, so they reward only desired behavior.
Ventrice adds that not every company -- or every employee in every company -- responds to competition with equal enthusiasm. "College Hunks is the ideal kind of culture for this, because it's playful," she says. "There are other companies whose cultures are not in the least playful. If you start putting competitions in, then they get very serious. That's not necessarily a good thing."
For more information about how to motivate employees via competitions, including sales contests and product development challenges, visit www.inc.com/keyword/oct09.