The Rubbish Boy

Illustration by Nate Otto

Brian Scudamore was 19 when he set up his junk-hauling business with a used pick-up truck and a stack of business cards. But his ambitions were always greater than being a one-man junk operation. Brian Scudamore wanted his company to have a brand as polished as FedEx or Starbucks, and he wanted it to be big. Today, 1–800-GOT-JUNK is in three countries, and Brian is using what he learned about franchising to take other unglamorous home services—moving, painting, gutter cleaning—and make them into big businesses.

This story is a bit of a departure for The Distance, even though it’s still about a business that’s at least 25 years old. Most of the business owners you hear from on the show are focused on slow growth or staying small. Brian Scudamore is all about scale and branding. He sells franchises, which is a model we haven’t explored on the show before. And he found a way to put a professional gloss on the dingy business of hauling away the industrialized world’s garbage—not bad for a former junk man.

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Transcript

WAILIN: Brian Scudamore is a minimalist. He drives a tiny Fiat 500 and he doesn’t have a desk at his office, or a computer. He does all his work on his iPhone. This would not be that remarkable if it weren’t for his job. Brian Scudamore is the founder of 1–800-GOT-JUNK. Maybe you’ve seen the company on Oprah or on the TV show Hoarders. Maybe you’ve seen his blue trucks driving around. They’re the ones that say 1–800-GOT-JUNK? in big white letters. Brian built a multinational company by asking people that one question. And, for hundreds of thousands of households across Canada, the U.S. and Australia, the answer is yes.

BRIAN SCUDAMORE: There’s a lot of junk out there. I’ve thought before of the number of trucks we have out there, about 2,000 trucks, and if I think of the billions of dollars worth of junk removal we’ve removed and how much space that takes—I think on a bigger level too just how wasteful the whole planet is. You know, it surprises me sometimes. If you think of how often we tear down homes and build new ones, and where does all this stuff go?

WAILIN: If there is any excess in Brian’s life, it’s been channeled into his business and the relentless way he’s marketed both his company and his own arc as a high school and college drop-out turned successful entrepreneur. Because for Brian, he may have started out as a junk man, but this is not a story about junk. Brian’s ambition is to take unglamorous home services — ones typically done by small, mom and pop operations, and make them into worldwide franchises.

BRIAN: We can find something like gutter cleaning, and gutter cleaning isn’t a sexy industry, but we can bring a fun, friendly brand and face to it that makes people go, “Wow, that’s kinda cool.”

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, a master class in branding and empire building from a junk man. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

BRIAN: I think most people that go start a home service business like windows and gutters or moving, they’re technicians. They’re people who, “Hey, I worked for a moving company, I can go do this myself.” Well, that’s not what we’re doing. We are coming in saying, “Let’s build and scale something as a national brand,” and it’s a different approach.

WAILIN: Remember Brian’s tiny car? It’s emblazoned on all sides with the logos of his brands. There’s 1–800-GOT-JUNK, of course, but there’s also three other businesses: Wow One Day Painting, You Move Me and Shack Shine. Wow One Day Painting is just what it sounds like, a service that finishes a paint job in a single day. You Move Me is a moving company, and Shack Shine cleans windows and gutters. The four businesses bring in more than $200 million in combined revenue and fall under a corporation Brian named O2E Brands. The O2E stands for ordinary to exceptional.

VANESSA WOZNOW: Here on the floor, you can see, um, we have a threshold. It says, are you ready to be exceptional? Because everything that we do…

WAILIN: That’s Vanessa Woznow, the national public relations manager at O2E Brands. She’s showing me around the company headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s called the Junktion with a K, and touring the office feels a bit like taking an intensive motivational seminar based on Brian’s career and the history of the company. The conference rooms are named after acronyms like IAAP, a Brian catchphrase that means “It’s All About People.” That same quote is on the wall, along with an illustrated timeline of the company and images from Brian’s life. One conference room has a blown-up version of a self-portrait he made at age four.

VANESSA: It’s him, thinking about what he’s going to be when he grows up, and you can see he’s got a little broom and he’s cleaning up some papers, one of which has his name on it, and, you know, call it serendipity, call it fate, maybe he always understood that he was going to be a junk man in his life.

WAILIN: Brian’s story starts in 1989, when he was 19 years old and sitting in the drive-through of a Vancouver McDonald’s, staring at the pick-up truck in front of him. He had dropped out of high school and talked his way into college, but needed a way to pay for it. The pick-up truck was filled with junk and had a sign that said Mark’s Hauling. Brian thought to himself, maybe I can do something like that. He spent $700 on his own truck and started knocking on doors. His first job involved picking up some concrete.

BRIAN: It was me looking it up in the phone book where the dump was, and took the concrete off to be disposed of and realized okay, pretty simple business model. Knock on someone’s door, haul away their junk, take it to a landfill or a transfer station and dispose of it and rinse, repeat, you know, it was great. We were called the Rubbish Boys and I put an ad in the local newspaper. It was a classified ad and it said that I’d haul your junk away, and my slogan was “We’ll stash your trash in a flash.” And I got calls, and within one day, I had business. Within two weeks, my company paid for itself.

WAILIN: There are many ways to make money from junk. You could go through people’s garbage, looking for stuff to sell. You could be the junkyard that sells scavenged metal to a larger scrap processor, all the way up the chain to a Chinese factory making appliances from recycled metal to sell back to the US. Brian chose to be in the junk removal business. People pay him to take away the stuff that their local waste services won’t take, or that they just don’t know what to do with.

BRIAN: My method of making money, I realized early on, was being that service-based business, taking the junk away. I could have sold some of the stuff that I hauled away and over the years, I’ve tried to do a bit of that, but I realized that there wasn’t as much money to be made. In fact, it’s very cost prohibitive to try and sort out all the junk and all the materials to be recycled. Often, the easiest way is to be the transport company that takes it to one big warehouse, what we call a transfer station, and let them sort and recycle. We’re just the hauling business.

WAILIN: Brian also wanted his junk removal business to have a polished image: Clean trucks, professional drivers in uniforms, white glove service. He took his inspiration from companies like FedEx and Starbucks that are ubiquitous and standardized across all their locations. And Brian discovered, completely by accident, that people were willing to pay for a premium junk hauling service.

BRIAN: I looked in the local newspapers where we advertised and found out what the competitors were charging, and picked a rate similar. I remember we were about $80 a pick-up truck load and then a few years later, we got an article in the local newspaper, the Vancouver Province. We were on the front page of the newspaper, and somehow they misquoted our price and the reporter wrote that we charged $138 a load. I don’t know where she got that number from, but what happened was our rates effectively went way up, and we realized people were paying that fee and we realized that as we were professionalizing the business, that cost money, and so that extra rate made that possible.

WAILIN: That was 1992, and Brian’s business was still The Rubbish Boys. It wasn’t until 1998 that he renamed the company 1–800-GOT-JUNK, partially to capitalize on the popularity of the Got Milk advertising campaign. The toll-free number belonged to the Idaho Department of Transportation, which — according to company lore — gave Brian the number after he called them 59 times. Now he had a catchy name that was also the business phone number and made his trucks into big, mobile billboards. Here’s Zara Calvo, who’s worked at O2E Brands since 2004. Her first job was answering phones at the company’s call center, which today handles 9,000 calls a day.

ZARA CALVO: They would just see the truck going down the street so when you’d answer the call, most likely it was people asking what you are and what you do. What I remember from being on the phones is how often they would mention the truck, and “Oh, I just saw your truck, you know, driving down the road and what do you do? I have stuff, can you come pick it up right away?”

WAILIN: By 1997, Brian was ready to expand beyond Vancouver. This is the part where McDonald’s comes back into the story, about eight years after he spotted the junk truck in a Vancouver drive-through.

BRIAN: I’d always loved Ray Kroc’s model of franchising. And I loved the fact that he was able to grow something quite quickly around the world through a franchise model, so I wanted to do this with other people.

WAILIN: That’s Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald’s into a global behemoth. Brian wanted to do for junk removal what Ray Kroc did for Big Macs. He just had to figure out how to do it.

BRIAN: When I started advertising franchises for sale, 1–800-GOT-JUNK, nobody understood why they would buy a junk removal franchise. They thought, “Why wouldn’t I just get out and buy my own truck and start hauling junk just like you did, Brian Scudamore?” And I realized that I had to have something added to my business that really made it franchise-able, something that was a barrier, that prevented others from from getting into the business without us.

WAILIN: To belabor this McDonald’s analogy, you might say that Brian was looking for that special sauce. The brand recognition that he was building with his new 1–800-GOT-JUNK name was an important ingredient. Then he did what successful franchisors do — he created a playbook that he could hand to a potential franchisee and say, “Look, here’s how you set up and run a junk hauling operation.”

BRIAN: I took everything in my business and figured out how to put every best practice down to one page: How do you price jobs, how do you market the business when things are slow, how do you find great people, how do you train your people, how do you answer phones in the call center, what’s the script?

WAILIN: Toronto was the first official 1–800-GOT-JUNK franchise. A year later, in 2000, the first US franchise opened in Portland. Today, 1–800-GOT-JUNK has about 200 franchises in three countries. Brian’s model of a premium junk removal service works best in densely populated areas with a certain level of affluence. Simply put: The richer you are, the more stuff you’ll throw away, and the more likely you are to toss something rather than reuse it. This is true of both households and companies. 1–800-GOT-JUNK works with corporations like Victoria’s Secret, CVS and J Crew, which use its services across locations nationwide to haul away unwanted store fixtures and mannequins.

SCOTT PARRY: My record is 150 trucks at a single department store in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and that job took most of a month to complete…

WAILIN: That’s Scott Parry, a national account manager.

SCOTT: In one job we did at an Arby’s in Florida, we were removing just a whole pile of trash that was outside and we found a gun in there, so we had to stop and call the authorities at that point. It was mostly expired roast beef that had been out in the sun for a week, so not a pleasant job by any stretch of the imagination. They also found some pornography in the same pile of trash, so it was just like a little slice of America right there.

WAILIN: Not only did franchising 1–800-GOT-JUNK allow Brian to blanket Canada and the US with his trucks, but he also realized that the systems he built for junk removal — from the call center to sales and marketing strategies — could be easily adapted to other home services. He acquired Wow One Day Painting after he hired the business to do a job at his house and was impressed with the work. You Move Me was started in-house at O2E Brands after Brian had a miserable experience moving. And the newest brand, Shack Shine, came from an entrepreneur who approached Brian about a partnership. O2E is selling franchises for all of its businesses. For Brian, it’s an alternative to other ways of growing his company.

BRIAN: I didn’t have to get out there and raise venture capital. I didn’t take the company public. I went out there and found other people that wanted to build this with me, and that’s what franchising is. They pay a franchise fee for my expertise and knowhow. And then we scale it together. You bring on more franchise partners and more investment, and off you grow again.

WAILIN: The strategy of expanding via a network of franchisees is also an answer to some of Brian’s early setbacks with The Rubbish Boys. He had tried partnerships twice before — once at the start of his business with a roommate in Montreal, where he briefly attended college, and a year after that with a friend from French immersion camp. Neither arrangement worked out. But recruiting franchise owners has paid off.

BRIAN: We have all these entry-preneurs, people that find their entry point into the world of entrepreneurship with us, and so I can relate to that loneliness of starting a business from scratch on your own. We take that pain away for entrepreneurs and have them welcomed into the O2E Brands family so we can build something together.

WAILIN: There was also a failed attempt in 2005 to expand 1–800-GOT-JUNK into the United Kingdom. Brian says they hired the wrong guy to oversee that market and had to pull out after nine months. Today, O2E franchisees undergo a rigorous screening process.

BRIAN: We help them create a budget and we walk them through the cash needs and the requirements and it’s almost an entrance exam, if you will, of just really make sure that this person has their ducks in a row and they know what they’re getting into, ‘cause building a business isn’t easy. While we might make it easier, it still is a risk and it’s tough, but we’re careful. And by the time we’ve brought that person on board, we believe that their chances of success are quite strong.

WAILIN: When you hear Brian talk about his different brands, including 1–800-GOT-JUNK, you realize that the actual mechanics of these businesses — how to load a truck or paint a wall — are almost incidental to the system that Brian figured out for branding, franchising and getting big. He wants O2E Brands to encompass 10 different home service businesses by the end of 2021.

BRIAN: It’s amazing how similar moving is, painting, junk removal, gutters and windows. I mean, they’re home services. They require friendly, happy people who have an attention to detail and do a great job, who follow up, great communication. They’re different in their execution of putting paint on walls or putting junk in the back of a truck, but really, you can teach anyone how to do any of those businesses. They’re not crafts. They’re customer service-based businesses.

WAILIN: It’s not so much about the physical labor for Brian as much as the emotional labor — being able to provide friendly, professional service when you’re fielding a phone call from a stressed-out customer or walking into the home of a hoarder. As Brian is fond of saying: It’s all about people.

BRIAN: Sometimes you’re moving and you’re hauling away junk and someone’s going through a divorce. You’ve got to be careful what you’re getting involved in and how to talk to people. So we try, with any of our businesses, have a level of empathy. It’s one of our core values and paying attention to how someone feels and what they might be going through, and people can be grumpy on moving day ‘cause moving makes you grumpy. And if we can come in and make it almost fun at times, that’s where I think we can treat someone like a friend and be a little empathetic and crack some jokes, have some fun, and make their day a little bit easier.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Please tune in next week, when I ride along on a 1–800-GOT-JUNK truck in Vancouver. The easiest way to get that episode when it’s released is to subscribe to The Distance on iTunes, Google Play Music or wherever you listen to podcasts. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

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