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The lightbulb moments and brick walls that created a $150 million Tampa company

Margie Manning

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College Hunks cofounders Nick Friedman (left) and Omar Soliman, at the Synapse Summit.

Driving an old van and hauling away other people’s junk gave Omar Soliman and Nick Friedman their first taste of entrepreneurship.

They enjoyed it so much that what started out as a summer job led to the creation of College Hunks Hauling Junk and Moving, one of the fastest-growing and largest privately held companies headquartered in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.

The company, launched in 2005, is now approaching $150 million in sales, said Friedman, who is president.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. In 2008 and 2009, during the recession, the initial business — hauling junk — hit a brick wall and nearly dried up. That led to a brand expansion, when they added moving services to their offerings.

Friedman and Soliman, who is CEO, shared some of the lessons learned while building the company during the Synapse Summit, a startup and innovation conference produced by Synapse Florida.

Here are a few takeaways.

Moms know best. College Hunks began when Soliman’s mother nagged him to get a job during a summer break from college. He persuaded Friedman, a high school friend who was doing what he described as an unfulfilling internship with the International Monetary Fund, to join him in driving an old cargo van around and charging people money for picking up their junk. Soliman’s mother also came up with the name of the company when she said, “You guys are like the college hunks hauling junk.”

“We started laughing but we could feel the earth move when she said that name,” Soliman said.

After a summer on the job, working from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, “It was the first time we found something we were passionate about … It was the first time we came to the realization what entrepreneurship was.”

Soliman later won first place in a college business plan competition with the idea.

Working on the business. After college graduation, Soliman and Friedman got “regular” jobs, but the lure of entrepreneurship was strong so they decided to do College Hunks full-time.

“There were a lot of skeptics … We used that as motivation, as fuel to just prove the doubters wrong,” Friedman said.

Initially, Soliman and Friedman did everything themselves, but to persuade customers they were a bigger company, they made up aliases for different roles in the company, including “Richard Livingston,” a bulldog attorney who actually was Friedman.

“We really walked, talked and acted like a much bigger business than we actually were from the very beginning, because that was our aspiration, to become a bigger business,” Friedman said.

When the two started to burn out, a mentor recommended a book, The E-Myth Revisited.

“It was all about working on the business, not in the business. That was the next light bulb moment for us. If we were ever going to have another truck, let alone another location, we needed to start documenting how we do things,” Friedman said.

Customer experience. The company grew and started franchising, when it got a big break, appearing on the first episode of the TV show Shark Tank. The owners turned down an offer to buy equity in the business, but learned the power of publicity.

That lesson was reinforced when College Hunks was featured in a Newsweek article, “College Kids to Millionaires,” along with Bill Gates of Microsoft, Michael Dell from Dell Computers and Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook.

“It revalidated and reinstalled confidence in us that we were doing something a little bit different. We were taking a traditional business model, putting a creative wrapper on the brand and a focus on the client and customer experience, and that was what was allowing us to reach our success,” Friedman said.

Purpose-driven. Friedman and Soliman started becoming very intentional about the vision they were trying to create. And, after starting to offer moving services, they focused on standing out in a commoditized business.

“Our biggest issue was – how are we going to stand out, how are we going to compete with all of these other moving companies out there,” Soliman said.

They researched companies that are truly loved, such as Southwest Airlines and Netflix.

“What we found is that they were purpose-driven. Everything they did, every decision they made, was about a fundamental purpose that they embodied across their entire organization,” Soliman said. “It’s all about building relationships and creating an experience.”

Purpose-driven companies follow a set of rules, he said.

• They speak to their brand-lovers.

• They spend more money on client experience than on advertising.

• They deliver on their brand promise.

• They have 100 percent commitment from everyone in the organization.

“Ultimately the message we try to impart to our team members, all of the Hunks around the country, is, you are the brand. You are the face of the organization. Not just us as the founders, but everybody in the organization as well,” Friedman said.

Customer service creates brand loyalty that allows a business to thrive, he said.

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