It’s the universal cry of parents, generally heard by the second day of college breaks: “Get a job!” Omar Soliman’s mother joined the chorus; she was not about to have her son hanging out at the neighborhood pool all summer. “You have to do something,” she told him.
Soliman’s friends had nailed down prestigious internships in his hometown of Washington, D.C. But Soliman liked to party; he couldn’t imagine sitting at a desk all day. After years of delivering furniture for his mother’s store, he remembered that a lot of people had stuff they wanted to get rid of. If he borrowed his mom’s van, he could make a little beer money carting their trash away for them.
That night, Soliman came up with a name for his new business: College Hunks Hauling Junk. He distributed flyers the next day, and within hours, his phone was ringing. He asked his buddy Nick Friedman to help out. They made $220 in three hours cleaning out a woman’s garage.
Soliman and Friedman pocketed $10,000 that summer. And now, just four years later, they run a nationwide company that pulled in $3 million in 2008. College Hunks employs 130 people and has 16 franchises in 10 states and D.C. They cart away everything from tattered sofas to ancient computer parts, and plan to expand to 80 franchises by 2012. “People love the idea of friendly, clean-cut guys slinging junk,” says Friedman.
But the two weren’t ready to become full-time trashmen after graduation. “We were trained to finish college and get a good job,” says Soliman, who first went into marketing at a research firm. Friedman became an economic analyst for a consulting company. Within months, says Friedman, “we were pretty antsy. I sent Omar an e-mail: ‘What’s your timeline for the business?’ He replied: ‘RIGHT NOW.'” They quit their jobs but had trouble finding a bank willing to lend them money. “We didn’t have much of a credit rating,” says Soliman.
After five turndowns, one bank decided to gamble $50,000 on their idea. They put together another $60,000 from their parents and their own savings. To jump-start the business, they bought a truck, hired a graphic artist to design a logo, ran newspaper and radio ads, and recruited haulers on campuses. Wearing their new uniforms—green polos and khakis—they made presentations at county fairs, chambers of commerce, and real estate offices.
“At first, we lost money,” says Friedman, “because we underbid the jobs.” One customer hired them to dispose of a dozen trash cans filled with construction debris. They measured the job by volume instead of by weight and charged just $130. “The containers were so heavy, it took us two and a half hours,” says Soliman. “And it cost us more than $250 in fees to dump the load.”
But the tough hands-on experience taught them what—and what not—to do. They minimized the cost of unloading at landfills by recycling metals and electronics and donating to charities over 60 percent of what they collected. They hired consultants to help establish national franchises, bought a toll-free number, set up a website, and established a call center in Maryland. Last year, they relocated to Tampa, where the rent is cheaper.
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These days, Soliman, 26, is the visionary, and Friedman, 27, the nuts-and-bolts guy. The pair are shopping around a book that encourages young entrepreneurs to take risks.
“I didn’t realize I was an entrepreneur until I started driving the van,” says Soliman. “Neither did Nick. I just knew that I wanted to do something on my own. I figured if Nick and I failed, we’d learn more from failing than from not trying at all.”
Getting Ahead with Soliman and Friedman
Q. What did friends say when you quit your jobs to start College Hunks?
A. Nick Friedman: They thought we were crazy. They said, “What about your résumé?”
Q. Any regrets?
A. Nick Friedman: No. I felt like I was stuck in a rat race at the consulting company. There was just too much time in the workday. Now that Omar and I have our own business, there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything we want to do.
Q. What’s the strangest thing you’ve found in someone’s junk?
A. Omar Soliman: There was the very long boa constrictor. We’ve also picked up World War II ammunition, a vintage set of Playboy magazines from the 1960s [the employee who found the collection sold it on eBay for $300], and baseballs signed by Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, which we keep on our desks.
Q. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
A. Omar Soliman: People don’t fail—systems do. If something goes wrong, you can’t blame an employee. You ask, What in our system went wrong?
Q. What are the pros and cons of hiring college kids?
A. Omar Soliman: They’re energetic, not as likely to complain or file grievances. The con is they’re likely to go out partying the night before and not show up for work.
Q. What’s the toughest part of your job?
A. Omar Soliman: Combating the too-many-ideas syndrome. We get off on tangents, like thinking about rolling out a recycling service. We need to stay focused on the job at hand. We are looking for a partner, though, for our next business—College Foxes Packing Boxes.