During the summer before his senior year of college, 21-year-old Josh Cohen was just looking to make some money by hauling his neighbors’ junk. Now, Cohen’s company, The Junkluggers, of which he is the founder and CEO, is a community-oriented junk removal company that serves residential, commercial and government agency customers in 11 states and has 18 franchise partners.
In this interview, Cohen, who was recently named as one of Waste360’s 40 Under 40 award recipients, discusses entrepreneurship, eco-friendly solutions and what’s next for his growing business.
Waste360: What was your inspiration behind starting The Junkluggers?
Josh Cohen: We started in June 2004, which is the day I got home from studying abroad in Australia. When I was in Australia, a few friends and I were talking and one of the friends said that he had made $100 hauling away a neighbor’s refrigerator. I thought that was a great idea and a good way to make some extra cash. I went home and printed out some fliers and started going door-to-door.
I realized that I was passionate about the business and I really enjoyed it. It was gratifying helping people. It wasn’t just hauling junk. It was helping people to clear out memories that they had had for a lifetime to prepare for new memories. We saw that people were really appreciative of that. I got a ton of compliments, reviews and referrals. I found the whole customer satisfaction piece of the business very rewarding.
Waste360: What sort of items were you hauling in the beginning?
Josh Cohen: We mostly started residentially in my neighborhood. We were cleaning out basements, attics and garages. My first customer was an 80-year-old woman whose husband had passed away and she was moving out of the house they had lived in for 60 years. At that point, I was hauling with my mom’s SUV, charging $50 a car load and doing it all myself. I was going there before and after my internship to help her. We did that for about two weeks.
Waste360: What was the next step?
Josh Cohen: Very early on, I could tell that there was a real need for this: a professional, reliable, eco-friendly service. At that point, most people were just doing it themselves or hiring dumpsters. I didn’t like the idea of things being thrown away. I’ve always been pretty ambitious, and I decided that I would grow this thing and that I would franchise it one day. I spent many years trying to perfect the model as much as I could. I spent nine years building our core locations. About three and half years ago we started franchising.
At our corporate location, we have 65 employees; system-wide, across our 18 franchise partners, we have about 150 employees.
Waste360: You saw a need to do things differently. Can you talk more about what you were trying to achieve with your business?
Josh Cohen: I was trying to adjust the industry to not only help people get things out of their homes and provide all of the labor, but also to make sure that things didn’t get thrown away into the landfills. Every single day, we still continue to haul lots of stuff that’s perfectly reusable. That was really what I was trying to change. When I say “eco-friendly,” I mean trying to save the earth—trying to keep all of these things that were going into landfills a few years ago from going now.
Waste360: What are some ways that you have been able to do that?
Josh Cohen: We donate or recycle about 60 percent of what we haul away. We opened a first of its kind shop, which is our Second Chance store. It’s a place where we upcycle furniture in addition to donating or recycling it. We donate a large portion of our proceeds back to a local charity that helps kids with cancer called Mikey’s Way.
We sell a lot of the items “as is,” and we also have a professional workshop. We have carpenters and other people who work in furniture restoration. We get a lot of furniture that was made with high quality materials like solid wood—the way things used to be made more commonly—but they are just a little bit brown and older now. We take a lot of that furniture and we restore it, sand it down, and paint it in more modern colors. Then, we resell that as well.
Waste360: What type of professional development or training did you do to build your business or did you have to learn it all on your own?
Josh Cohen: I think I made a lot of mistakes and I’ve had to learn a lot of hard lessons. I’ve solicited business coaches over the years. I’ve learned from my peers [in small business owners groups]. I read a lot of business books. I try to learn from other people who have done this before. I think that and just learning as I go and making mistakes have been my business school.
Waste360: You have a goal for your company of diverting 100% from landfills. How do you think you will get there?
Josh Cohen: I think that some of the states and the regulations need to catch up in terms of what can or cannot be recycled. They also need to provide more resources to do so. I’ve noticed, for example, that a local county has a requirement that all residential and businesses need to recycle but there’s no enforcement. There are a lot of businesses that don’t recycle.
We are actively building out sorting centers in different parts of the country that specialize in different types of materials that we’re sourcing out from our trucks and we’re recycling. We will continue to expand those efforts until we’re able to repurpose or recycle everything that we haul away.
Waste360: What’s next for your company?
Josh Cohen: We aim to expand our reach into other areas of recycling. We’re looking at a few different ways to be involved in the recycling side of the business. We are focusing on picking up items that can be recycled and looking at how to best recycle them.
Also, we plan to aggressively expand throughout the country and then probably other parts of the world. We’re looking to do so with like-minded franchise partners who want to grow a big business, want to have multiple revenue streams, and want to make a difference.