Technology: Junk 2.0

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 10-09-2006

There are few businesses more elemental than hauling junk: Send a truck, get the stuff and drive away. Do those simple things more efficiently than the competition, and you can make some serious money. That's the formula at 1-800-GOT-JUNK? llc, a fast-growing Vancouver franchiser that built its business around information technology.

The junk-hauling part remains simple. "We're still on the Sanford and Son model, as basic as can be," says Cameron Herold, the company's COO. But the scheduling and operations management behind the scenes, he says, "leverages technology so we can accelerate our growth and keep out competitors. Our office feels like a dot-com, except we're profitable."

1-800-GOT-JUNK?, which began franchising operations in 1997, has systemwide sales of $112 million (Canadian). In an industry where most competitors are local players with only a handful of trucks, GOT-JUNK? has 276 franchises in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. And all franchise owners are reasonably tech literate. "We interview potential franchisers to make sure they are technology users," says Herold. "Our franchisees have to download all the forms we use; we have no paper-based marketing information. People sometimes say that our way is not user-friendly, and we say, 'Okay, see ya.' It's really user-friendly if you use a computer."

GOT-JUNK? spends about $1 million per year on IT, says Herold. And despite a small full-time staff of seven, the company does not outsource technology. "We really want our IT team to be part of the company culture, to vibrate at the same frequency as the rest of us," Herold says.

To that end, GOT-JUNK? uses a custom-built system called Junknet, which runs all back-end operations for the franchises. "It's part intranet, part content management system, part CRM, part scheduling software," says Herold. The system sends drivers real-time scheduling information and updates, and client information such as payment data and driving directions, via mobile phones and text messaging. "Our trucks don't use paper anymore," says Herold. Junknet also ties in with QuickBooks for simple record-keeping and accounting. "Franchise partners are so dependent on the software that it keeps them from leaving" to join competitors, Herold says.

The Junknet system, which currently supports 2,400 users, allows customers to book service online through a Web interface, and is built to scale for future growth. Currently, about 17 percent of the company's business is booked through the system, with a goal of 30 percent in two years. To get the word out about GOT-JUNK?'s services, the company spends nearly $1 million on Google and Overture ads to drive online booking. Meanwhile, the company is deploying an online learning suite for drivers and navigators.

Sounds like a lot, but Herold insists GOT-JUNK? is not pursuing technology for technology's sake. "When it was suggested that we put Voice over IP in our call center, I said, 'No way.'" The job is too important to trust to anything but proven technology, he says. Instead, he stocked the call center with high-end traditional handsets that he picked up on eBay for a fraction of their retail price. He's also stuck with the familiar Microsoft Outlook instead of migrating to free Web applications from Google. "We don't want to be first mover," he says. "We're growing so quickly, I don't want to take risks of that nature."

And although technology is pervasive at company headquarters, Herold says he manages his own computer usage carefully. "I don't check my e‑mail first thing in the morning," he says. Instead, he uses a technique he credits to the old steel-industry executive Charles Schwab, and compiles a top-five priorities list at the end of each workday. "I work more offline than on," he says. "If an e-mail is important, it will still be important when I get to it."