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The Beer & BBQ Test: A conversation with Brian Scudamore, Founder & CEO of 1-800-Got-Junk?

“It’s All About People.” This was the motto that Brian Scudamore adopted for his company, ironically, after he let the entire team go in the name of revamping his culture under a clarified vision. From this critical turning point to bring about a fundamental change in the way he hired, Scudamore transformed a $1 million company into 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, a thriving junk removal business that operates in hundreds of locations across Canada, the U.S. and Australia. As part of our Leading With Courage℠ conversation with Scudamore, we talked about the challenges of maintaining a consistent cultural fit among new hires while a company is in the midst of rapid growth.

Leading With Courage℠ Academy: Let’s go back to the early days when you started 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. How does one decide to get into the junk removal business? Was it something you planned or did it just come about by chance?

Brian Scudamore:

It came from seeing an opportunity and seizing it. In 1989, I was one course short of graduating from high school. I was in a McDonald’s drive-thru. I remember there was a beat-up old pickup truck in front of me with plywood side panels on it. It said "Mark’s Hauling" on the side.

The truck was filled with junk. I needed to find a way to pay for college. So when I saw that truck in the McDonald’s drive-thru, I said, “That's my ticket. I'm going to go start a junk removal business."

I started 1-800-GOT-JUNK? ... it was actually called The Rubbish Boys at the time. I bought a pickup truck within a week for $700, followed by spending $300 on fliers and business cards. Then, off I went.

Ironically, what funded my college education inspired me to drop out. I was learning much more about business by running one versus studying in school. My dad, who's a liver transplant surgeon, thought I was nuts but I still went against his advice and started building the business.

How long did it take you to know that you had a success on your hands with the business?

It took eight years to get to $1 million in revenue. Today, we're almost a $300 million business. We do a million dollars on our busy days. It really shows you the flywheel momentum that starts to build over time.

Over 22 years, we’ve built an exceptional customer experience, a call center, marketing systems and a system of franchise partners. All that learning and experience has helped us launch three other home-service brands.

What other types of businesses are those?

We created O2E Brands, which stands for "Ordinary to Exceptional", and it serves as the parent company of four key businesses we have, including 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. For example, we take the ordinary business of painting and make it exceptional with

WOW 1 DAY PAINTING. We also have You Move Me, our moving business, and Shack Shine, our window, gutter cleaning and home detailing business.

Excellent. Let’s talk a bit about the kind of challenges you’ve encountered and successfully navigated through. In writing Being A Leader With Courage, we spoke with about 30 CEOs who exhibited many common behaviors during their first 18 months of stepping into a C-Level role. They realized that they were trying to do too much themselves, weren’t good at focusing on a few strategic imperative, stuck with under-performers for too long, didn’t respect the existing culture and so on.

As you were aiming to grow 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and these other businesses, what negative behaviors rose to the surface and how did you minimize those so they didn’t derail your success?

Becoming isolated. Leaders can get into the trap of thinking they need to be self-sufficient, so they try to do everything. In 1994, five years into the business and with half a million dollars in revenue, I fired my entire company.

I had 11 employees and I had isolated myself from them. How? By trying to do everything on my own. I wasn’t spending enough time developing them.

I tried to do all the administrative work and sales. On top of it, I realized that the truck team members that I hired weren’t clean-cut, professional or friendly. They didn't fit with the things that I saw would be important in the customer service side of our business.

So I pulled them all in one day and I said, "I've got some news for you guys. I'm letting everybody go."

In a group setting, I said, "As your leader, I've let you down. Either I didn't hire the right people, didn't train you enough or didn't give you the love and support you needed. But I've really got a situation where the only thing I think I can do is clean house and start again."

When you try to do everything yourself and don’t spend time with your people, it makes things a lot worse. So I rebooted things by saying to myself, "I will build this company the right way from this day on, starting from scratch. Going forward, it’s going to be all about the people, including finding the right people and treating them right."

What particular event or epiphany did you have that made you go from your initial model to saying, "No, these aren't the right people. This isn't the team that's going to carry me forward”?

I just started to realize, slowly but surely, that I wasn't having fun in my business. I was highly stressed. I didn't enjoy the people I was working with. I didn’t connect with them. Part of it was my isolating myself and not getting to know them. Part of it was them in that they weren't the clean cut, professional, happy people we needed to revolutionize the junk removal business.

So, once I had that epiphany, I said, "I'm making a change." From that point on, I knew I was going to either get rid of everybody and start again or I was going to get rid of the nine bad apples and keep two that weren't that bad. In the end, for my culture, I faced the fact that I had to start again. Even if I kept a couple of the people who weren’t so bad, some of the old stories and habits might’ve worked their way back into the business. A clean break was the best solution.

Once you cleaned house and re-started with a white sheet of paper, how did your business fundamentally begin to change?

We got focused on hiring happy people that we like. We call it the “Beer and BBQ Test”. It’s more of a cultural test where we hypothetically ask ourselves as we’re interviewing people, “Is this someone we could see ourselves having a beer with? Could we see them at a company barbecue intermingling with people in the company? Do they have something they bring to the business that they're passionate about that the whole company will be able to benefit from?”

We just learned to screen people from a cultural standpoint first; we hire on attitude and train on skill. That’s made a massive difference for us. The people who walk into our businesses today can feel the magic, so to speak. There’s an energy that's pretty special.

Are there other ways that you're testing for this cultural fit that others could learn from?

We put people through a lot of interviews and take our time recruiting someone. We’re slow to hire and quick to fire. When I interview someone, I’ll ask them, "How many times have you been in to meet with us so far?" If I hear them say five or eight or eleven times, that’s a good thing: they’re meeting with a lot of different people. We want enough opinions that tell us we have the right person on the team who’s a great cultural fit.

When you say the team, are you looking primarily at franchise owners or direct reports? How far does the vision or culture of yours stretch throughout the company?

I’m referring to both franchise owners we’re recruiting and employees in the company. For employees, we know if they’re hired, they’re going to land in a particular department – let’s say our People Department or Finance Department. So we’ve got to put them through the “Beer and BBQ Test” to ensure they have the same spirit and mandate that we have.

For our franchise partners, we certainly get the message out to them. We share our story, we provide samples, and we give them tools to develop culture. Just as we do for employees, we interview franchise partners for cultural fit first and foremost.

You touched on attempting to do too much and how that was a function of becoming isolated. Was it that you didn’t trust those individuals or was it perhaps more about how you were trying to tackle too many initiatives at once?

Can you talk a little bit about how you tried to do too much and how you fixed that?

I think, early on, leaders often go through a period of thinking that we can do things better than everyone else: “I started the business, I know the business, I've been here longer than anyone else – who better than me to handle this?”

Well, I found myself trying to do everything. So I started to advocate rather than delegate. If it got busy, I would say, “Hey, can you go do this and you go do that?” Over time, I became much better at understanding how to delegate. For example, if something was a public relations function, the old way of doing things meant I was the PR Department and would do all the pitching to the press. Sure, we’d land Wall Street Journal or Fortune, and other great spots. But when we expanded nationally, I said, "I can't do it all anymore."

So I created a system and process for delegating. Let’s use public relations as an example. First, I created a checklist for how we might get free press and boiled that down step-by-step. Once I recruited a person for that role and trained them, I was then able to show them how to embrace the tasks with the energy and spirit I was looking for.

As a result, I can truly say that if you hire smart people and give them the tools to succeed, you will find that those people can do a better job than you ever could. You don't have to do as much as you think.

Right now, if I look at my businesses, I actually do very little. Yes, I’m here every day. Yes, I set the strategy. But I’m not doing certain things nearly as much because I've realized you have to have the team do the work. It takes the right people and you have to empower them.

CHALLENGE QUESTIONS: Do you have a version of The “Beer and BBQ” Test in your own environment in which you hire for culture? What challenges have you experienced in staying true to your vision as you scale? In our follow-up blog post to continue our conversation with Brian Scudamore, we’ll talk about painting a picture of the business and how to convert it into reality so that people live and breathe the mission every day.

When your emerging leaders truly get what your company’s larger purpose is and how they fit into it, you’ve got momentum that feels as though nothing can stop it. How long does it take to get there? Quicker than you think when you enroll your team in a Leading With Courage℠ Academy Workshop.

In two days or less, we’ll show your up-and-comers how to move from employees to leaders, enhance their business development skills and build greater self-awareness of their strengths and blind spots.

Call us at 312.827.2643 or email

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