Having worked triple-shifts to get Junk Hunters off the ground, Harsha Rathnayake is now determined to grow the business across Britain
Harsha Rathnayake is a man of impressively singular focus. For instance, when he first arrived in London from Sri Lanka in 2004 he barely spoke the language. But not only did he teach himself English by watching YouTube tutorials and taking a few online courses but he also used these skills to launch his own business. And now he’s bringing the same attitude into making his company a success. “My plan is to make Junk Hunters the UK’s largest garbage-collecting company,” he says.
And it’s safe to say that his grit has already served him in good stead. For instance, when Rathnayake needed money to afford his studies at Kingston University, he happened upon an opportunity that would help set him on the path to become an entrepreneur. “I found a part-time job as a driver at a garbage-removal company,” he says. The job didn’t just give him a dependable revenue stream but would also prove essential for his future enterprise. “When I graduated in 2009 the man who owned the company was closing it down to go back to India,” Rathnayake says. “He offered me an old Ford Transit garbage truck instead of my last month’s wages.” Realising that having the vehicle and his personal relationship with some of the customers would enable him set up his own business, Rathnayake accepted the offer and launched London Junk, the embryo of what would eventually become Junk Hunters.
But access to equipment and a nascent customer base aren’t enough to get a startup off the launchpad; you also need money. Unfortunately, Rathnayake only had £160 in savings when he kicked off his enterprise. To make things even more challenging, no investors were willing to bet on the young entrepreneur. “The banks wouldn’t give me a loan because I didn’t have enough financial security,” he says. But rather than abandoning his pursuit, Rathnayake found two part-time jobs that fit around his daily efforts to grow London Junk – one delivering newspapers in the mornings and one as a takeaway driver at an Indian restaurant in the evenings. “On average I had about four hours’ sleep,” he says. “I didn’t have time to watch the news and only knew if it was the weekend because the newspapers I delivered came with weekend magazines.”
Nevertheless, the insane working schedule didn’t stop him from growing his customer base. And fortunately he had a few tricks up his sleeve. “I found this online company that sold business numbers for £10 a month,” Rathnayake says. “I bought a number from them because I wanted people to think that I ran a big business and wasn’t just some lonely guy driving around answering on his Bluetooth.” Having also set up a website, he used a £75 voucher from Google to buy a pay-per-click campaign. And when he wasn’t busy delivering newspapers and chicken tikka masala or picking up rubbish, he spent days handing out leaflets. Slowly but steadily, these efforts paid off. “After one year I had enough money to employ someone as a part-time driver and to buy a second truck,” he says. “This enabled me to quit my newspaper-delivery job and then, three weeks later, my takeaway job as well.”
From there on London Junk steadily grew across the British capital until the company had a fleet of five trucks, leaving Rathnayake considering ways to grow the business across Britain. “I had to choose between two options to expand the business: [I either had to branch] out to other [cities myself or go down] the franchising route,” he says. However, in the end it was no competition. Not only would franchising enable him to grow London Junk faster and more cost-effectively but it would also mean higher profits. “Franchising is more effective than hiring managers to run the individual branches in other cities as people will always make an extra effort if it’s their own business,” Rathnayake says.
With his heart set on franchising, the budding franchisor began to prepare for the business’s next step. “The first thing I did was to look at different franchise models in the UK and in the US,” he says. Rathnayake also attended a lot of franchise exhibitions to better understand the workings of the franchising industry and to find a consultant that could help him develop the model. While these efforts would build a strong foundation for the network, the biggest difference for outsiders was more cosmetic. “The name London Junk wouldn’t work in Birmingham or on the other side of the country,” says Rathnayake. “So we changed it to Junk Hunters.”
Recognising that no franchise is complete without franchisees, he began to search for people to man the business. However, he didn’t have to look far to find candidates. “The moment my friends from university heard that I had become a franchisor they immediately wanted to know more and wanted to sign up,” Rathnayake says. But while enthusiasm is definitely a big plus, he’s also looking for people with the right soft skills. “They need to be able to put a smile on their face because that’s how you make money,” says Rathnayake. “We’re looking for passionate people who take care of customers, have a great work ethic and who aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty.” If aspiring franchisees can demonstrate these qualities, Junk Hunter’s founder is more than happy to take them under his wing.
And, having cut his teeth working triple-shifts with no one to help him, Rathnayake definitely understands the importance of supporting his franchisees. “If they’ve never run a business before we train them to do things on the business end,” he says. “We also train them how to do the job, speak with customers, do local marketing, deal with staff and operate the sales system.” But while the training goes on for weeks, the support doesn’t end there. Junk Hunters also helps franchisees build their customer base, answers calls from all over the nation and is always on hand to offer advice. “We keep them close and I want them to know that we can help them no matter what support they need,” he says.
Given the work Rathnayake has put into the model, it’s hardly surprising that his recruitment efforts have paid off. “We already have two franchisees signed up,” he says. “One is in Birmingham and one is in Surrey.” The new additions are currently being trained and will launch their operations at the beginning of 2018. And they won’t be the only franchisees for long. “My goal is to have 20 franchisees over the next five years,” he says. It certainly seems as if Rathnayake is making good on his plans to make Junk Hunters Britain’s most recognisable rubbish-collecting business.