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The year is 1989. I’m a 19-year-old kid who decides to start hauling junk as a way to pay for school. I spend every dollar I have on a beat-up Ford truck, slap some plywood on the sides and paint my phone number in giant block letters. I call myself the Rubbish Boys (I want to sound bigger than just one guy), and I order flyers and business cards promising to “stash your trash in a flash!”

It’s my first time running a business and building a brand … and I’m in a little over my head.

Branding is one of the hardest parts of building a business. There are so many things to consider: your business name, brand colours, logo and so much more. My branding in the beginning wasn’t anything fancy. I was focused on making money, so I didn’t spend much time on creating a cohesive brand. But once I realized that branding has the power to move people and make them connect with your company, I made it one of my biggest priorities.

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Turning my fledgling operation into a recognizable brand changed my entire life. Here are three things I’ve learned about building a brand from absolutely nothing.

1. Never underestimate the value of free press

In the early days, I relied solely on flyers and word of mouth to get business. It worked well enough for a while, but I knew I had the capacity to serve more people – I just didn’t know how to reach them. This was in the years long before the internet or digital marketing, so we had to get resourceful to spread the word.

I’m the first to admit that hauling junk isn’t the most exciting business idea – and it doesn’t make the most riveting story, either. No one was going to give me press without some encouragement, so I called the local papers and told them what I was up to. It must’ve been a slow day in the newsroom because they picked up the story stat. We even made the front page! Overnight, we couldn’t keep our phones from ringing and I was an instant believer in the power of free PR.

2. Leverage guerrilla marketing

Despite all the advances in marketing and technology over the years, there’s one part of our strategy that is the same today as it was in my first year in business. Our phone number is painted on the sides of every one of our trucks. Why? Because our trucks can do more than haul junk – they’re mobile billboards.

We call this strategy “parketing”: No matter where our trucks are parked, they’re earning attention and bringing in potential customers. Parketing was so effective that we rebranded from Rubbish Boys to 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, a decision that forever changed the trajectory of our business.

3. Sometimes, you have to start over

When we launched our second brand, I thought I had branding in the bag. We had already grown one successful brand from scratch, so obviously we knew exactly what we were doing, right? Wrong.

I thought we could apply the same strategy from 1-800-GOT-JUNK? to our new baby, so we named it 1-888-WOW1DAY!. Unfortunately, it didn’t resonate with customers in the same way. Our colours – a gaudy blue and orange – also weren’t doing us any favours. Even though we had a killer (and unique) value proposition to paint people’s homes in a single day, we were struggling.

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Just when I thought we’d have to shut down completely, I realized the business model wasn’t the problem – the brand was. We rebranded as WOW 1 DAY PAINTING and revamped our logo to an image that reflected our personality. Starting over was costly and time-consuming, but totally worth it.

Branding used to be a heck of a lot simpler than it is today. In 1989 you didn’t have to fight for customers’ attention online. Nowadays, branding goes far beyond your business name – it’s a representation of who you are and what your company stands for. As Jeff Bezos famously said, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” What do you want people to say about you?

Brian Scudamore is founder and chief executive of O2E Brands, the parent company of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, WOW 1 DAY PAINTING, You Move Me and Shack Shine.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

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