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Junk Hunters
8 min read

Junk Hunters: “I Only Spoke A Few Words When I Arrived In The Country”

Harsha Rathnayake moved to the UK to study in 2004 as a 19-year-old. When he arrived he knew very little English and had no friends or family here. 

Today he is the CEO of Junk Hunters, a company that he started in 2009 with £150 which now has a fleet of 12 vehicles, employs 20 staff and has an annual turnover of £2million. If there was ever living proof that hard work and a positive attitude pays off, then Harsha is it. 


Can you tell us what Junk Hunters does in a few words?

We offer on-demand rubbish collection, sending a truck and a two-person team to people’s houses or offices to collect rubbish too big for their regular bin which we then recycle or dispose of responsibly. 


Could you tell us a bit about your background?

I come from Kandy in Sri Lanka and arrived here in 2004 to study engineering at Kingston University. It was a big challenge and I had no idea what to expect but I thought ‘let’s go for it’. I didn’t know anyone here and I couldn’t speak or write English well. I struggled to take class notes and borrowed notes from friends to copy up. 


When did you know that you wanted to set up your own business and how did you come up with the idea? 

While I was studying I took a module called Business Applications in Engineering. It was my favourite subject and I found it really interesting. I wanted to know more about business and decided that’s the route I wanted to take. 

My father had passed away and my mother had helped me out a bit with the course fees initially but I had a part-time job working for a recycling company to cover my living costs and to continue onto do my Masters in Engineering and then an MBA. At the same time that I was graduating the recycling company closed down and they didn’t have the money to pay me my final wages of £1,200. The manager offered me an old transit truck instead worth about £700, which I accepted. At that moment I decided I would set up a junk collection business. My friends and family thought I was crazy to have three degrees and be driving a rubbish truck! 




What social mobility barriers did you have to overcome to set up the business? 

The main ones were language and finance as an immigrant. I only spoke a few words when I arrived in the country and sometimes struggled over the phone with other accents. Sometimes I’d have to ask two or three times for people to repeat themselves and they’d hang up. 

I had about £150 in savings for the business and went to three banks to ask for a start-up loan but was unable to get one as I had no credit history. 



How did you overcome these barriers?

I studied English as much as I could and watched YouTube videos to learn. Financially, I considered what options I had. If there is something I wanted to do, I wouldn’t be held back by the fact that I didn’t have money. 

I found two part-time jobs to raise funds and fitted them around working for my new business during the day. One was 5.30am till 7.30am delivering newspapers to 109 houses and the other was 6pm till midnight delivering takeaways for an Indian restaurant. 

What’s your advice for setting up a business with no access to start-up funds? 

Consider all the options you have. If the bank says “no” it’s not the end of the world. Never have money as your main motivation for business success. Decide on another goal far removed from money. This will give you all the courage you need to get through the difficult times. If money is the only motivation and it isn’t coming in fast enough people often get discouraged and give up more easily. Be honest with yourself about your level of ambition and the personal sacrifices you are willing to make. 

How did you gain your first customers? 

I didn’t have much business at first and used to knock on people’s doors if I saw they had rubbish outside and offer to take it away for a fee. Some people said yes and some didn’t. I also had leaflets printed that I put in the newspapers and takeaway bags on my other jobs. After one year I had the money to give up the extra jobs, buy another truck and employ two people. 

What’s your most successful marketing channel for getting new customers now? 

Keeping the existing ones happy is easier and around 50% of our business is from repeat customers but what’s worked best for us are Google pay-per-click ads (PPC) and attending BNI (Business Networking International) events. PPC puts you directly in front of someone who is in need of your service. At business networking, your personality and reputation are very important. Your reputation is about how you deal with things – if you do what you say you’re going to and ultimately what people say about you when you’re not there. 

How did you differentiate your business from others in the industry? 

We believe in transparency in an industry that doesn’t always have a good reputation for it. Some firms will quote a cheap price to get the business and then turn up and change to charging a higher price or just don’t show up at all. We offer a professional, reliable service with a two-person uniformed team, branded truck and a two-hour guaranteed arrival window. We also recycle and dispose responsibly.

How do you find good employees and how do you keep them? 

One of the ways we find them is through existing employees. I’m also good at interviewing and don’t focus on qualifications or experience but on the right attitude. You can teach someone to do a job but you can’t teach them to be honest. We train them well and treat them well and they stay for a long time. 

And now you have a franchise model, how did the idea for that come about?  

We originally started as ‘London Junk’ but we were doing well and wanted to expand nationwide so renamed to ‘Junk Hunters’ in 2017. We considered branching out versus franchising but decided that branching out relied heavily on one Operations Manager in a location and if there was a problem it could be a long way to travel. A competitor had also tried branching out and it hadn’t worked but we’d seen some very successful junk industry companies franchise in the USA including College Hunks Hauling Junk and there wasn’t anything like this in the UK market. 

I visited three franchise consultants then chose one who helped detail how to finance a franchise business, the percentage to keep and the model. We launched the franchise model in March 2018 and already have three franchisees. Our first franchisee was a university friend of mine who had initially thought I was crazy starting a rubbish collection business but saw the success and wanted to join! 

What do you wish you’d known before you started the company? 

I don’t really have any regrets but I probably would’ve started learning English at a younger age. I went to a small village school where we didn’t get taught it. 

What drives and inspires you? 

My motivation is to have a positive impact on people’s lives. I want to be someone who made a difference in this world. Pain and sacrifice are short-term. 

What are your proudest achievements? 

I’m proud of everything that I’ve achieved but there’s a long way to go. My next ambition is to have a chain of 25 franchises in the next five years – to support them and train them all – their success is my success.

For a comprehensive guide to getting your business up and running, download our how to start a business in 20 days eBook.

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Junk Hunters

Harsha Rathnayake is the CEO of Junk Hunters. Junk Hunters started in 2009 and now has an annual turnover of £2million. They offer on-demand rubbish collection. He was speaking to Sophie Cross, a freelance writer and marketer specialising in business and travel. 

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