Bootstrapping Boys to Booming Business
The College Hunks have grown up, while growing their corporate mission
It all started with a van, two guys in college with a summer to spare, and an idea.
“The summer before our senior year of college, I had an internship at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. It looked great on my résumé, and in my mind, I was preparing for the next year when I would enter the real world,” says Nick Friedman, president and co-founder of College Hunks Hauling Junk and Moving.
Omar Soliman, CEO and co-founder of College Hunks, also was in Washington, D.C., for the summer in 2003. He didn’t have an internship, but his mother told him he needed to find something to do, other than playing video games with his friends all summer.
“Omar’s mom approached him with her beat-up cargo van that they would use for furniture store deliveries,” Friedman says.
“After delivering a piece of new furniture, people would always ask to have their old furniture hauled away, so there was this kind of niche need for hauling junk. I decided I would haul junk all summer and see what happened,” Soliman says. “All we needed was a name.”
After a few beers with friends, and a little humor from Soliman’s mom, College Hunks Hauling Junk had its name—and what a household name it has become.
“My mom says, ‘You guys are like the college hunks, hauling junk.’ I was like, that’s pretty good. I put it on some computer printout flyers literally that night, put the flyers around the neighborhood and by 6 p.m. the next day, I’m sitting at home playing video games and my cell phone rings. There’s a lady on the other end of the phone, and she says, ‘Is this the College Hunks?’ ”
Sixteen years later, College Hunks Hauling Junk and Moving has two corporate offices, one in Tampa and one in Washington, D.C., and has plans to add two to three more offices in the next year. They’re looking at San Diego and Miami.
The company has 115 franchise locations throughout the country and the company is expected to have a revenue this year of $130 million, in addition to growing its newest company, Trash Butler.
The “hunks” have come a long way since meeting in detention one day.
THE SCHOOL YEARS
Soliman and Friedman grew up in Washington, D.C., and met during their second year of high school.
“I met Nick in 10th grade. I think it was in detention, of all places. We kind of looked at each other and started talking about what we were in there for,” Soliman says.
“I remember one time, Nick was on the basketball team and we were playing a big basketball rivalry game. During the game, a ball came loose and went out of bounds. Nick got entangled with the other team’s mascot and ended up hitting it on its head. I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘Man, I really like that guy.’ ”
The memory brings laughter from Friedman. More than 20 years of friendship has created many laughable memories and close bonds.
“Reflecting back on our childhood, myself and Omar both kind of got into playful, friendly trouble. But it was us not sitting still in class, not listening to the teacher or not paying attention,” Friedman says. “I think those were probably early indications of our entrepreneurial energies and our spirit.”
The two parted ways for college: Soliman to the University of Miami and Friedman to Ponoma College in Claremont, California. They didn’t lose touch and kept working on the concept of hauling junk.
Starting College Hunks Hauling Junk was just a way for a couple of college guys to keep busy, and make some extra money, during the summer. Neither Soliman nor Friedman really thought it would become anything other than that, but timing was on their side.
“I went back to school for senior year at the University of Miami. They announced that there was a business plan contest open to the entire university. First place was $10,000 and second place was $8,000. If you were in the top 25, you’d get $500,” Soliman says. “I called Nick and told him I was thinking about writing a business plan for College Hunks Hauling Junk. And I told some of my buddies that didn’t know a lot about the business. They said it was the dumbest idea they’d ever heard, and it was never going to win.”
A judge during the competition loved the concept of College Hunks Hauling Junk so much that he noticed an error on his judging sheet and changed it at the last moment. This cinched Soliman’s winning score.
Soliman’s business plan won first place by one point, and that point changed everything.
“I think Omar winning that competition gave us enough confidence and credibility to have the belief that the company could be a reality because it had this third-party recognition,” Friedman says. “We graduated from college, moved back to D.C., and didn’t actually start the business right away because we didn’t really know how to start a business.”
Instead, like many young college graduates do, they sought jobs in the corporate world, ready to climb the ladder.
Soliman took a job at a health care consulting company, in marketing, and Friedman took a job at an economic consulting company. They worked about three city blocks away from each other in tall buildings behind cubicle walls. It was like 10th grade all over again.
“I remember emailing Omar about three or four months into it saying, ‘This is very unfulfilling. This isn’t going to be what we’re doing for the next 20 or 30 years of our lives. What’s our timeline for starting the business?’ He was obviously feeling the same thing because he emailed me back all capital letters, ‘MY TIMELINE IS RIGHT NOW!’” Friedman says.
THE BOOTSTRAPPING YEARS
The College Hunks decided to leave corporate life and strike out on their own. It was not a glamourous time.
When they started, they did everything including driving the trucks, hauling the junk and answering the phones, and while the business grew, they knew they’d need to grow as well to accommodate the demand.
“We parked the truck at our parents’ house. If the disposal site was closed, we’d hold stuff in our parent’s driveway and they’d come home and have nowhere to park,” Friedman says. “We were truly bootstrapped entrepreneurs from day one. It happened one truckload at a time and, meanwhile, we reinvested back into the business.”
With the company growing and Friedman and Soliman managing nearly everything, the daily grind began to take a toll on the business partners.
“All of a sudden we realized, there’s only so much junk the two of us can haul, or move, in a single day. There’s only so many calls we can take,” Friedman says. “We were asking ourselves, is this what we really signed up for? And we started to get burned out. One of our mentors recommended a book called The E Myth Revisited by a guy named Michael Gerber. The basic premise of the book is, if you’re going to scale a business and grow a business, you have to also learn how to work on the business, not just in the business, and you have to create systems and processes for the business to scale.”
It was a light-bulb moment for Friedman and Soliman.
“We realized that if we were ever going to have a second truck, let alone a second location, we had to document how we did everything,” Soliman says. “We started creating checklists, from how we drive the truck, to how to wear the uniform, answer the phone, talk to clients, load the truck, and that was the early foundation for us to eventually be able to hire employees and, down the road, franchise the business.”
Early on, Nick and Omar believed the company would lend itself to a franchise model and could be taken into other markets.
After producing $1 million in revenue their second year, they began to look at the path to franchising.
“I think we had a glamorized view of what franchising was going to be. We thought we would just sit back and collect royalty checks and not have to work as hard. Pretty quickly we realized that franchise owners expect a lot from you and they’re expecting you to provide a streamlined, turnkey process,” Friedman says. “When we started franchising, we knew one of our goals was to have an inbound call center to book appointments for the franchisees.”
It occurred to Friedman and Soliman that perhaps Washington, D.C., was not the best market to continue to grow their business.
“We were having a lot of trouble keeping employees in the D.C. area. The office space was expensive, the employees were expensive, there was high turnover and there was no sort of call center environment to draw from.”
If only there was another region, conducive to entrepreneurs, with a strong call center base.
In 2008, College Hunks Hauling Junk moved to a new home.
“The Tampa area popped up as we were researching markets that had call centers, a lower cost of living, and an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Friedman says. “That’s when we moved to Tampa and started franchising.”
The company built out a call center at Westshore and Gandy Boulevard in Tampa and had sold four franchises when the housing market crashed, sending their company and franchise projections out the window.
“A business is a lot like a video game. Level one is one truck picking stuff up, level two was adding moving services. It gets more and more complex as it goes on,” Soliman says. “And, obviously, the recession was a very complicated part of the game.”
THE GROWING YEARS
The duo say their wives accuse them of arguing with each other like an “old married couple.”
“We started out as best friends and have been business partners for over 15 years now,” Friedman says. “I think one thing that has kept us together, both as business partners and as friends, is that our vision and our values have always been in good alignment. We’ve always been pretty good at communicating without ever getting resentful, emotional or taking things personally.”
The College Hunks have had a media presence since their startup days, appearing on the first episode of ABC’s Shark Tank in 2009, and also on episodes of Bravo’s Millionaire Matchmaker in 2010 and HGTV’s House Hunters in 2013.
“Our first experience with the press was when the Washington Post did an article on us when we first started and we saw how much that made the phone ring,” Soliman says. “We realized we needed to become a public relations company. We joke now that our trucks have been on more TV shows than the Kardashians.”
Soliman and Friedman are both married with children. Friedman is still moving into his waterfront home in South Tampa and Soliman’s new home is under construction.
Recently, the Friedmans traveled to Park City, Utah. One of the perks of his success is traveling privately, he says.
“That’s a motivator for me to keep building the business and keep growing. To be able to enjoy that luxury,” Friedman says.
With small children at home, the “college hunks” are now family men and prefer time with their loved ones over TV show appearances.
It hasn’t slowed business though.
The company is now working toward scaling its next venture, Trash Butler.
“About five years ago, we started paying attention to doorstep trash pickup service at apartment complexes,” Friedman says. “We called it Trash Butler, but the work was performed by College Hunks [Hauling Junk]. We quickly realized it needed to be treated as a stand-alone company.
A few years ago when Friedman and Soliman named Roman Cowan chief operating officer for College Hunks Hauling Junk and Moving.
“Our involvement in the day-to-day operations was a lot less, we were able to become more of the visionaries,” Friedman says. “We looked up and saw Trash Butler had actually grown into something. It was doing a couple million in revenue and we hadn’t thrown any weight behind it, and not a lot of money, time or attention.”
Friedman and Soliman knew that it was a scalable business that could grow relatively fast if it had some capital, so the company engaged with Florida Funders, a Tampa firm that provides early-stage funding for Florida companies.
In April, Florida Funders announced a $4.1 million investment for Trash Butler, the biggest gain for the organization so far, says Tom Wallace, managing partner at Florida Funders.
“We didn’t just want money, we could have gone to a bank for that. Whoever was going to invest, we wanted them to be able to leverage their expertise from technology to a relationship standpoint, to apartment complex managers and developers,” Friedman says.
Soliman says Trash Butler eventually could be its own $100 million company. The company is already operating in 25 states. In 2019, Trash Butler is expected to do about $7 million in revenue.
From scoring a free van, to winning a competition by one point, to throwing caution to the wind in the corporate world and appearing on TV, the College Hunks are happy they chose the entrepreneurial route and, ultimately Tampa, to plant roots.
“I think the move to Tampa was the best decision we’ve made from a business standpoint,” Friedman says. “I always describe it as having small town comforts, but big city amenities, and the business community in particular is so accessible.” ♦
College Hunks Hauling Junk and Moving has a partnership with Goodwill Enterprises and Habitat for Humanity.
“A lot of times people will call Goodwill or Habitat for a pickup and these organizations are not equipped to go get the items for free, so they’ll refer us as a priority pickup where we do charge our fee, but if it’s for people that need to get rid of stuff right away or they have a mixed load, some junk and some donated goods, the organizations pay us to pick it up and deliver it to the charity of their choice,” Friedman says.
The company does more than 200 pickups a month, nationally, which adds up to tons that goes to charity instead of waste sites.
About a year and a half ago, some franchise owners of CHHJ approached Friedman and Soliman about taking the company’s philanthropic efforts further, requesting a national social cause to rally around. An internal company survey revealed childhood hunger was the at the top of causes that, collectively, the company cared about.
“We discovered Feeding Children Everywhere, which is based out of Orlando, a really great mission-driven organization. We have a partnership that’s been going on for the past two years where we donate two meals to the organization for every completed move or junk haul, with the goal of over a million meals in the first three years. We’re well over half a million meals that we have donated, to date.”