Brian Scudamore, the author of WTF?! (Willing to Fail), is a serial entrepreneur. You might know him for the company he founded, 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, at 19-years-old. He pioneered this industry of professional junk removal and he gave it this amazing customer service experience, then scaled that success into three more home service brands, WOW 1 Day Painting, You Move Me, and Shack Shine.
This episode is not about his successes, it’s about his willingness and his team’s willingness to fail, to make mistakes, to do things that push them to the next level.
What I love about this episode is that he tells really great stories from his 30 years of what he calls failing upward. If you’re an entrepreneur and you are maybe struggling with getting clear on your vision or creating an awesome culture or just dealing with setbacks, this is absolutely the episode for you. You can apply all the stuff that Brian talks about to your own endeavors.
Brian Scudamore: I was 24 years old, I felt proud of the fact that I’d started this junk removal company, a way to pay for college. But ironically, it inspired me to drop out of college because I was learning much more about running a business.
I was faced with a decision. I had eleven employees. Now, one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. I looked at my team and I said, “Wow, I’ve got the wrong people here.”
I don’t even know what the right people are, but I’ve got nine bad apples of eleven employees, and I made a tough call. I said, “I’m going to clean house.”
The next morning, we had a morning huddle and would bring our team in and talk about what the plan was for the day and the logistics of sending out our 1-800-GOT-JUNK? trunks. I sat the team down and I said, “Guys, I’ve got some bad news, but we’re going to part ways.”
I said, “This isn’t working out for me. This is not the company that I envisioned building.” I took the blame, because this was a leadership lesson for me. This was an inflection moment where I had to say, “I might not have given you the love and support you needed. I didn’t hire the right people necessarily. I didn’t train you well. Whatever the reasons, I’ve decided we’re not moving forward, and this lands on me.”
I think they appreciated the transparency and the honesty, but I had to start again. Going from five trucks, five years into the business, half a million in revenue, down the one person, just me, lonely in that truck trying to run the business, was an absolute nightmare. But I said, “I’m committed to rebuilding the business, and we’re going to get back on track, even though it’s going to be hard.”
Charlie Hoehn: What was that transition like?
Brian Scudamore: I think we forget the painful moments in our lives, so when I look back to 1994. how long was it that it really took me to rebuild? I don’t remember. I think somewhere from three to six months.
I had a call center, I had trucks, I had people out there running the trucks, I had customers. I really came down to this point of there’s nothing left. I’ve got jobs that are booked and nobody to service them.
I had to cancel a bunch of my current jobs, and I had to rebuild.
That meant having that big brick Motorola cell phone and answering in between hauling jobs, trying to hire employees, trying to book new jobs. There I was building a junk removal business that had grown and I felt was important and was significant, yet I had nobody to help me.
I had to rebuild, and it was a moment in time where I said, “Okay, this might not be fun, this might be hard, but I believe in a bigger vision.”
Today, we look at our business and say we’re taking the ordinary business of junk removal and making it exceptional through customer experience. I didn’t have exceptional people.
It might have been ordinary people that I could have helped become exceptional, but I didn’t know how to get them there. I didn’t know how to develop. So at that time I said, “This isn’t working out, we’re parting ways.”
It was a new day, but it was a painful one.
Rebuilding it Better
Charlie Hoehn: What were the steps that you took to prevent those mistakes when you were rebuilding?
Brian Scudamore: I said to myself, “What’s the most important thing that a company has that’s a part of where they’re going?” All the company has really is people. It doesn’t matter whether you look at Apple or Google or AirBnB, it doesn’t matter how sexy or glamorous a business is. All you’ve got is people rallying together to build something special, to do something different, to challenge the status quo.
It’s all about people.
The decision moving forward was, I don’t ever want to bring the wrong person into my company again. When I look at the business and that opportunity to start fresh, it meant that everyone I interviewed, it wasn’t just, can they lift junk and throw it into the truck. It was, are they happy?
I wanted to hire happy people because I surround myself with optimists.
“I wanted to find people that saw what I saw in the world.”
Who saw that the world was generally good and that the world is presented with this opportunity everywhere. I got out there and I started to recruit people who were like minded. If someone was negative in the interview, the interview ended.
If they were positive, cheery, and had a fresh, sunny outlook, that meant something to me. The mistake I was not going to make again was bringing the wrong people onboard.
Now, I’m human. I’ve hired thousands of people. We have 5,000 people with just one of our brands, 1-800-GOT-JUNK? today. You’re bound to get some wrong. However, I do think, when people walk through the head office and they look around, someone who is an outsider, a visitor coming in goes, “Why is everybody smiling?”
It’s this energy. We’ve hired happy people. We found the right people, and we’re treating them right. It hasn’t always been this way, and we’ve made mistakes in our hiring in the past. But we learned from that. We learned from that failure, and every day going forward, it’s about ensuring that we live that commitment of finding the right people and treating them right.
A Student Forever
Charlie Hoehn: Where are your businesses today from those beginnings?
Brian Scudamore: I am still learning. I’m 48 years old and I will be learning forever as long as I’m alive. I believe that I will continue to make mistakes and my biggest mistakes might be yet to come. But the title of the book is willing to fail, I’m willing to fail, I’m willing to try new things, I’m willing to make mistakes but learn from them in the spirit of getting to a better place.
If I think of where the business is today, of our four brands, they’ll collectively do 365 million dollars in revenue this year. 1-800-GOT-JUNK? does about 300 [million] of that. I don’t share that in a bragging way but more as a size and scope of what we’re building.
After 29 years, we’ve been working hard to grow great business. It took me eight years to get to a million in revenue. Me now do a million in revenue on average each day.
People talk about how the world’s changing so quickly. Well, our business is changing so quickly, and what an opportunity to make mistakes. What an opportunity to get more learning. This whole WTF attitude has been one where, 20 years ago, I was like, “Man, do I have to keep making mistakes?” Another failure, and this and that.
It’s a different approach and feeling, which has been very empowering to say the list.
Find Your Inspiration
Charlie Hoehn: What really comes to mind that you want listeners to take away from this interview?
Brian Scudamore: One of the things that I say in the introduction is I wrote this book to inspire. Inspiration is something that’s very personal. An entrepreneur, a wannabe entrepreneur, a soon to be entrepreneur, someone who is listening to this podcast might go, “You know? I was inspired by this story.” Someone else is going to be inspired by different stories.
Who am I to say what inspires?
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over nearly 30 years of building a business, if I look at the WTF book and say, “What’s a moment that stands out?” I think it’s the story of being on my parent’s dock.
They have a summer cottage, about an hour away from Vancouver where I’m based. I remember I had joined the EO, the Entrepreneur Organization, and it was supposed to be an empowering, exciting, enthusiastic experience for me.
But I was surrounded by others who had businesses that, mine was a million in revenue, theirs is worth five million, 10 million 100 million. I felt little.
I felt small, not just in the way of my revenue but also in the way of my success and what I was giving to the world. I got a little depressed, a little bit of a doom loop.
I went to my parent’s summer cottage on Bowen Island and I sat on that dock and took out a sheet of paper. I said, “Okay Brian. Stop thinking about the bad things. Stop thinking about all the obstacles.”
“What could the future look like if only I imagined pure possibility?”
I started to dream ,and I said, “We would be in the top 30 metros in North America…We would be the FedEx of junk removal. Clean, shiny trucks, friendly uniformed drivers, on time service, upfront rates.”
I said, “We would be on the Oprah Winfrey show.” I started to create this painted picture, this vision of the future and sure enough, after writing down my ideas in the future with present tense verb saying, “We will make this happen,” not hope to or want to.
I started to look at my painted picture and felt a sense of not just hope but a sense of accomplishment of what would happen in the future.
I sat on that dock with a frown. I left with a smile, and I left with a sense that it was time to spread the word and share with others.
A long answer to your question Charlie, when you say, what would I want people to leave this podcast with? If they could think for themselves as an audience member, as a listener, what is their purpose in life, what do they want to contribute to the world—don’t worry about how to get there.
I talk to young entrepreneurs all the time and they’re like, “I don’t have the money, I don’t have the idea.”
Don’t worry about how. Just think about where, where are you going, what could it look like. Then think what would it look like, and set out to rally a team around you of amazing people who could make your big dreams happen.
That’s been a life changer for me. Come up with a painted picture, come up with a vision, and once you know the destination, it’s easier to start putting all the little pieces in place to make that journey happen.
A Dream Since Childhood
Charlie Hoehn: I’m curious, how did you land on junk removal? How did that give you a strong sense of purpose and a place that you were going to become the FedEx of junk removal?
Brian Scudamore: I was in a McDonalds drive through, of all places, 18 years old, trying to figure out a way to pay for college. I was one course short of graduating from high school, and my parents were not going to fund my college degree.
I had to figure out how to A) talk my way into university, and B) find a way to pay for it.
There was this beat up old truck in front of me in a McDonalds drive through and I looked at that truck and said, that’s the business, that’s what’s going to pay for university.
Now, did I choose junk removal or did it choose me?
Today on my Instagram, I put out a picture of me with a self-portrait that I drew of me hauling away junk. I did this drawing at four and a half years old. My grandmother passed away and I remember we cleaned out our home, I found a binder that said, “Brian’s drawings,” and there was this picture of me in the uniform.
It was drawn in blue—the same blue color that we use for 1-800-GOT-JUNK?
I had a hat on, I was sweeping up trash, it was unbelievable. Who imagines themselves as a junk man as a kid and then actually becomes one? It was strange.
Back to the comment, did junk choose me or I did I choose it? I don’t know. I’m in the junk removal business, I’m in other home services and absolutely feel passion each and every day for what we’re building and how we’re building that.
Most kids dream of being superman, wonder woman, you know, who knows? There I am dreaming of becoming a junk man and then however many years later turns into reality. Very strange.
But it happened.
The Blue Wig Marketing Plan
Charlie Hoehn: You have all these fun chapter titles in your book. Tell me about the blue wig.
Brian Scudamore: Yeah, we take the business seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. We are a little bit quirky, we’re a little bit unusual. We’ve all got our gifts and intricacies of who we are. I think the blue wig spirit for us was born out of a story. It was born out of me thinking, “How do we market our business in a way that’s unique, that could have a standout?”
I remember reading Seth Godin’s book, Purple Cow. Seth Godin is a customer by the way, which is cool. He talks about the fact that when he was in France and was on a train, they saw thousands upon thousands of black and white cows. They all start to look the same, things blend in.
But imagine if you could see a purple cow. That would catch your attention. It would be truly remarkable. You’d tell others, you’d send pictures home, and the whole bit.
So for me it was, what’s our purple cow? How do we stand out in a world that’s filled with other junk removal companies? So we literally got out there, a bunch of our franchise partners, and we said what’s the toughest city to stand out in? One person said New York City, one person said Las Vegas. I said, “You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to go to Las Vegas and we are going to stand out. We are going to show that we can get the attention of eyeballs in Las Vegas.”
So we hopped on a plane, a whole bunch of us, in three dollar blue wigs and some bowling shirts that said 1-800-GOT-JUNK? on the back printed on them, and we had a handful of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? tattoos that we could stick onto people’s hands.
We went into the Hard Rock Hotel, and I remember walking into the casino with all of these people and I said, “Let’s show everybody that we can stand out here.” Everyone’s got Armani suits on and they’re dressed to the nines.
“We’re the dorks in blue wigs and bowling shirts.”
Yet everybody was coming up to us going, “Who are you? Are you a band? Are you guys on a stag? A bachelor party? Who are you guys?”
Drew all this attention, and everyone by the end of the night was walking around with 1-800-GOT-JUNK? tattoos on wondering who these famous 1-800-GOT-JUNK? guys were in blue wigs. We proved to ourselves that it can be an inexpensive marketing stunt type thing. Where you just get out and take something as simple as curly blue nylon hair and put it on your head and people will take notice wondering what you are doing.
It is that whole velvet rope, that line up effect where if you’ve got a few people lining up outside of a bar, then the line grows. It is down the block, before you know it, no one realizes that the bar is actually half empty. People want to line up with other people because they feel like “I could be missing out, what’s going on here?”
So our marketing opportunity became, “Let’s put on some blue wigs.” Let’s stand out and see what we can do with this. It was a tactic that grew for us in many ways across 1-800-GOT-JUNK?.
A Growing Strategy
Charlie Hoehn: I am curious what was the next iteration of blue wig marketing or that kind of standing out tactic, how did that ripple into the next evolution of your marketing?
Brian Scudamore: I was always someone really questioned the value of mass media. I thought it’s expensive, it’s a noisy world, there is so much advertising, we’re bombarded with 5,000 messages a day.
The last thing we should be doing is traditional mass media. We met a guy, however, named Roy Williams, the wizard of ads, he calls himself. And he looks like a wizard. He’s got a wizard’s tower in Austin, and he is this ad writer.
His claim to fame is nobody has bought more radio on the planet than him.
He doesn’t just buy radio, but he writes these brilliant ads. He sat down with us anad said, “You know if you look at your business and understand what is really truly unique about 1-800-GOT-JUNK? or any of our brands, it’s magic.”
He said, “Brian you’ve been inspired by people to bring magic into the world.”
He started telling me stories that made me go, “Have you’ve been talking to my mother?”
Like how do you know this stuff? He said, “You love Willy Wonka, Doctor Doolittle, you love the little leprechaun who sold frosted lucky charms…”
I mean it literally blew me away, but he knew these things because he could tell from a few stories that what inspires me in life is making people feel happy. Happy magic, things that can happen in the world that you just go, “Wow isn’t that fun?”
And so, when we met with Roy he said, “All I know is radio. It’s what you guys need to do. I will write radio for you that I promise will stand out” he said, “If something sounds like an ad, someone driving in the car listening to the radio is going to treat it like an ad. But if you have something that truly stands out…” and he went to the effort of even going, “You know we are going to have two people speaking on the early day radio ads. We’re going to have Brian as the founder, but we are going to have someone who’s got a completely different voice that stands out and apart from Brian.”
So we created this magical radio campaign where we said, “You just point and junk disappears” and we told stories on radio.
Roy told us, the wizard of ads said, “You are going to go through the chickening out period, somewhere between 12 weeks up until probably 26 weeks.”
“You are going to question your investment radio because it is not working. At about 26 weeks, the magic will start to happen and you’ll see that the results are coming in. The reach, the frequency of the radio, your investment will start to work.”
We spend $10 million a year today on radio. It has absolutely been one of the biggest drivers, much bigger than the blue wigs. Culturally, blue wigs is part of our spirit, but the radio and the magic and the storytelling that we do…
“It’s hard to put into words, but it has been truly remarkable for us.”
Roy said, “Remind people that we’re the company that Oprah told them about and the Wall Street Journal and Good Morning America.”
We’ve talked about some of the wins we’ve had as a company, and somehow that credibility in our radio really helped to put us on a great growth spurt.
Stories from WTF?! (Willing to Fail)
Charlie Hoehn: What other stories do you really enjoy from the book that you are excited for readers to checkout?
Brian Scudamore: There are so many failures. People say it all the time, like, “Brian, you and your team, what an overnight success. Look at what you guys have built, look at what you have done over the last few years.”
I remind people that it has been 29 years. I heard a stat that Walmart took 25 years to get to seven locations. Seven, not 7,000. When you look at businesses and how long they take to actually build momentum, my favorite stories are the ones where those little things just add to the momentum.
The Oprah Winfrey story, the dropping out of university to tell my dad that I am putting it all on the line for the junk removal business. These are all little tiny decisions, but they all add up to the momentum. That flywheel, that momentum just starts to spin faster and faster with its own weight propelling it.
The business is so big and doing so well right now that, knock on wood, I feel like we couldn’t slow it down if we wanted to.
We’ve attracted these amazing entrepreneurial minded people to our cause. Let’s build Shackshine, let’s build WOW 1 Day Painting, let’s build these brands together with people that want to that are passionate about something and want to build with us.
I have always believed that we are building something much bigger and better together, something bigger than we ever had built alone and that’s what all those little stories are about.
This is where I struggle a little bit with, “Oh Brian Scudamore has written a book.” Well you know what? I am not telling my story. I am telling our stories, and stories are meant to inspire others to create their own story. In fact, the very last chapter in my book has a heading, “your story.” But really the whole chapter is blank because I want someone to then think, what’s their story?
From the time they finish the book until the time they write their first book, what’s the story? Fill in the blanks.
It’s Not about Failure
Charlie Hoehn: What struck me about this interview and about your book is the message is more than just a willingness to fail. It’s really the ability to rise from the failure well so you know that the failure is going to serve you in a large way it seems, is that fair to say?
Brian Scudamore: It is very fair to say. It is one thing to be willing to fail and jump off a cliff, but then what are you going to do when you hit rock bottom? What are you going to do to learn from that experience to then say, “Okay that hurt, that was hard, but here’s how it’s going to make me stronger.”
Some of the most successful people in the world I think has really had on the outside what would be seen as big failures. They’ve been victims, things have happened to them, but it is how they’ve dealt with that failure and said, “This is now a stepping stone to greatness.”
“It is what you do with that failure.”
I would want to convey to your listeners, don’t just go and make reckless mistakes and hope that some pay off.
Go out and put yourself out on the limb, make mistakes, and see that things aren’t always going to go as planned. When the plan goes sideways, when things go south, go, “Okay what do I do about this?”
I almost bankrupted my business. I’d hired a COO to come in who was an ex-Starbucks president. I thought, “Oh my gosh I have hit the jackpot here,” and together in 14 months we almost bankrupted the company.
We were down 40 plus million in revenue. I have laid off 52 people, I then laid off more people, and that was painful. But if I hadn’t failed so miserably in bringing on the wrong COO for me, she’s gone on to be ridiculously successful with a big financial institution here. If I haven’t brought on the wrong COO for me, I wouldn’t have reflected. I wouldn’t have learned, I wouldn’t have then re-engineered who’s the perfect person for me and how do I get out there and find that person so we truly can get this incredible brand or family of brands that we are building on track towards the billion dollars that we want to hit.
Connect with Brian Scudamore
Charlie Hoehn: Tell me Brian, what is the best way for listeners who read the book to follow you or reach out to you and tell their story potentially if you want that?
Brian Scudamore: Yeah, I would love to have people reach out. I think as an author you put a book out there and then you hear crickets.
I wrote the book to inspire. I would love to know if someone’s inspired. I think the best way to get me is any of the social media handles out there of @brianscudamore.
I am on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, you name it. I think that if somebody was to reach out and tell me a story of how the book impacted them or something that’s struck a chord with them and it makes it all worthwhile.
It takes a long time for people to write books. You agonize over every word. And as an entrepreneur, as many entrepreneurs are, we’re perfectionists. I want to get it right. So to get some feedback from people that it made a difference, even if they’ve got one nugget out of the book, that would be a rewarding thing.
Charlie Hoehn: The final question I have for you is something we actually touched upon earlier but I just want to restate it to kind of tie this up with a bow is to give our listeners a challenge. What is one thing from your book that they can do this week that will have a positive impact?
Brian Scudamore: Yeah, that’s a great question. It may not just take a week, but they can sit down and commit to doing this process. It might take a couple of weeks, but to me, it is what’s your vision, what’s that destination, what does it really look like, what do you want to accomplish in this life, what will you put on this planet on this earth to do?
The easiest way I have done that is that story at the dock.
Sitting down one page double sided and just start writing. I was very careful of my language not “I have a goal of… I hope to accomplish… I am going to try and do X.”
It was “We will be in the top 30 metros in North America by December 31st 2003.” We hit that goal two weeks early. Now no coincidence that five years out that is what we envisioned doing. What is it that your audience envisions doing that they’re committed to doing? Don’t get caught up on the how to get there. Just focus on where you’re going and what it looks like. That would be my challenge.