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the ladder

Brian Scudamore, CEO of O2E Brands, is photographed at his office in Vancouver last month.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Brian Scudamore, 46, is founder and chief executive officer of O2E Brands Inc., the parent company of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, Wow 1 Day Painting, You Move Me and Shack Shine, a window-washing and gutter cleaning service. In 1989, he started a junk-hauling business after he saw a junk-filled pickup truck at a McDonald's drive-through.

I was trying to figure out a way to pay for college. I saw that pickup truck and I went "I should haul junk." So I got a truck and within a week had a company called the Rubbish Boys. It was meant to sound bigger than just me. It was a $700 investment and within a couple of weeks, it had paid for itself.

My father is a liver transplant surgeon and financially he's done well – but his belief was, "Brian has to make it on his own." So I had to fund my own education. In hindsight, I appreciate that.

I started the business at 18 and I quit school at 23. I had my big brick Motorola cellphone and I'd be in class. There was no vibrate or mute. This big thing would ring and I would disrupt the class. And I realized that school was just in the way for me. I decided I was learning more about business running a business – which is what I ultimately wanted to end up doing.

Wherever someone thinks they can get the best learning, that's the path they should chase. School might be it for some people. I knocked on doors and met entrepreneurs and learned from them.

I think I got my business inspiration from my grandparents in San Francisco. I used to go down and work in their army surplus store with them during the summer and Christmas vacation and saw their passion for running a small business. I knew that's what I wanted to do. Not necessarily run a store, but play the game of business.

At four and a half years old, I had apparently drawn a portrait of myself sweeping up junk off the side of the road. I found that picture when my grandmother passed away when I was 30 and I was already over a decade into my business.

The No. 1 tool or gift I think I bring to the business world is teaching people how to "vision" – how to paint a picture of their future and where they're going.

I discovered the power of vision in 1998. I had built up a million-dollar company but it wasn't the most glamorous. I thought "Gee, Brian, you kind of suck. A million dollars, that's cool, but what about your tech buddies that are building $10- and $20-million businesses?" I was in a bit of a minor depression. So I went to my parents' cabin and sat on the dock and closed my eyes and said, "I'm not going to think about all the reasons I can't do something – I'm just going to think about what's possible."

So I took out a piece of paper and started writing. It was one page, double-sided, and it was the future of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? It said: We will be in 30 metropolitan centres by the end of 2003. We will be the FedEx of junk removal, with clean, shiny trucks and friendly, informed drivers. We will be on The Oprah Winfrey Show. And all the things that got written happened. We hit 30 metros two weeks before Dec. 31, 2003.

One of the tricks is to imagine that vision in full colour. Don't think about the how while you're dreaming. Because then you'll go, "Oh, man. It's not realistic to be on the Oprah Winfrey Show." After you agree that it is going to happen in your mind, then you start to think of how – and you find the people who can help you make those dreams come true.

We are a $250-million business, which sounds like a big number. But it doesn't mean anything to me other than a measurement of how we're doing, like the scoreboard at a game. The reason we've never taken the company public is because I'm not chasing returns and quarter-to-quarter growth. I'm chasing a dream of building possibilities and inspiring others.

We start our quarterly meetings by reading that painted picture. We've always got a future vision. It allows us to have something to chase out in the horizon. Right now, the measurable vision is to have 10 brands by the end of 2020 and a billion dollars in revenue. Those numbers are not meant to make it about the money. If we've got 10 brands, then we've got 10 great leaders and all these franchise partners who've done exceptionally well. It's more of a great thing.

Money is not very meaningful to me. I have a modest home and a modest lifestyle. The car I drive is a Fiat 500. I love all things Italian. I love my coffee, my wine, my Fiat.

No matter how much money I have or will have, I don't believe in spending it on things to demonstrate wealth. It's interesting how many entrepreneurs you meet, especially when they're younger, who want their boats and cars and toys.

I'm a big believer in "Don't trust the experts." Go ask their opinion. But life changes too quickly. Look at the experts in the hotel space. The biggest brands. Hilton and Hyatt and those guys. Did they predict Airbnb? Of course not.

When I looked at franchising my business in 1999, I went to about a dozen franchising experts and every single person without exception said it couldn't be done. "You can't franchise junk removal – it's a pickup truck hauling away junk." So I took that information and said, "Okay, how do I turn this model upside down." What if we create a call centre where we do the booking and dispatch for [our franchise partners]? Then I started to approach some of the experts and said, "Okay, now what do you think?" And a couple of them said, "Yeah, I think you might be on to something."

The best advice I ever got was from Greg Brophy, the [late] founder of Shred-it. He said "Don't ever compromise on the quality of people you bring into your organization." It's so easy to make decisions where you just go, "I need somebody. That guy is good enough." But good enough isn't good enough.

My big mistakes have always been the people ones. In 1994, I fired my entire team of 11 people. I literally fired the whole company in one sitting because I'd brought in the wrong people and didn't give them the attention they deserved. I didn't give them leadership. And then I made the same mistake when I brought in a Starbucks executive. I'd looked at the Starbucks pedigree and thought, "Wow, I've hit the jackpot here." And together, we just about killed the business. It was awful for both of us because it was the wrong fit.

We have something we call the beer-and-barbecue test. Can you see yourself having a beer with this person? Do you find them interesting and interested? Do they have a passion? A shared set of values. And then – if they were at a company barbecue, would they fit in? Would people want to chat with them?

I have a little hack that's have helped me have my family time, and my me time, and my health and fitness time when I'm away on vacation. I get my assistant to change my e-mail password and my social media passwords and not tell me what they are. I can't check a darned thing. What if the office burns down? Well, call the fire department. We have a team of people here who will deal with crappy situations.

Success in leadership comes down to: Do you have followers? If you have no one following you, then what are you leading? You have to have people who trust you, who believe in what you're doing and who want to lead others behind them. So I think it all comes down to human qualities. Is a leader likeable? Do they care about their people? Do they have humility? That sort of stuff.

At my kids' elementary school, we're going to have a "Can You Imagine?" wall, where kids will put up their visions for themselves. Some kid is going to say, "Can you imagine if I found a cure for cancer?" And they won't have the faintest clue about how to go make that happen. But when you "vision," you just see yourself make something happen – you don't think how to do it. And that could start a kid's life off on a journey – like I was with my little picture saying I'm going to be in the junk business.

As told to Vancouver-based freelance writer Jason Tchir.

This interview has been edited and condensed.