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When Harsha Rathnayake arrived in the UK in 2004, he could barely speak English. Back then, he must have cut a far different figure from the now affable well-spoken owner of London Junk.
The ten employee company’s turnover is now creeping towards £1m and it will add a sixth truck to its fleet in March.
Rathnayake started the company in 2009. While studying at Kingston University, he worked part time as a driver for a garbage removal firm.
“In July 2009, my boss wanted to close company and go back to India,” he explains. “For last month’s wages, he offered the old Ford transit truck. That truck was then worth about £700. He owed me about £1200, but I decided to take his offer.”
With a beat-up transit and about £160 to his name, Rathnayake started London Junk. There was one problem: as a recent émigré from Sri Lanka, he had no credit history and the banks blankly refused to finance his nascent venture.
“Some of the banks didn’t even want to open an account for me,” Rathnayake. “The only option I had left was to find some part-time work. I found two jobs, one for the morning and one for the evening.”
For the first year of London Junk’s existence, Rathnayake would rise in the small hours of the morning to do newspaper deliveries. That work finished at 7.30pm. “And then, at 8.00am, I’d start working on London Junk and finish at 5.00pm. At 7.00pm, I’d do takeaway deliveries for an Indian restaurant which went until midnight.”
“It was hard,” Rathnayake says. “But, when you’re working towards a goal and you can see you’re getting there – then you find the courage to do it.”
The paper round and the takeaway deliveries also offered a unique form of Guerilla marketing for Rathnayake. “When I delivered Indian in the evenings, I’d put my card through the doors and when I delivered papers, I’d use as a chance to drop my leaflets.”
Marketing and building his customer base was a constant mission. “At the start, I never had a full day of jobs. So I used to walk for miles dropping my leaflets. I advertised on Google using the £75 voucher they gave me when I signed up. I also just knocked on doors, when I saw people had garbage that might need to be removed. Sometimes I got jobs, sometimes I didn’t.”
The tipping point for London Junk came after one year when Rathnayake managed to save enough to add another truck. His bank account was also looked healthy enough for him to just focus on London Junk.
“I thought, this can be the working capital I need. I never had that. It was literally empty every day. As I went along and finally had some money at hand, I knew I could leave the part-time work,” he recalls.
Now firmly established in its North-East London base, Rathnayake’s aim is now to build a franchise model over the next two years. “I want to have three franchise partners. I’m hoping to do the first one in eight months’ time,” he says.
The three partners will be strategically dotted throughout the Capital. Rathanyake wants London Junk to cover all of London. The work has already started to scale London Junk’s IT systems to cope with the intake of new partners.
London Junk’s original branch will function as an HQ. “The franchise owners will be able to log into our system and see what jobs need to be done. We will also have one call in centre and all of the jobs will be dispatched from the central hub. I want the franchise owners to focus on doing some local marketing and growing their franchise.”
It’s a long way from the lonely struggle of London Junk’s first year. Now an established business, securing finance is now much simpler. “Yes, now they’re offering me finance,” quips Rathnayake. “Sometimes I don’t need it and the bank manager will call and offer me a loan. And I refuse. Now they’re chasing me to give me finance. But when you need it, it’s never there.”
Another great example of.. Banks being the (removed) they are. "Yeh sure we'll loan you out money when you've got lot of options. Well barely look in your direction when you're starting up!"
Great Story! Really good example that hard work and determination conquers all obstacles!
I've built a few businesses and sadly it does sometimes feel like you can only access finance when you've got money. When you haven't and actually need it its very difficult to get!
The sad thing for all the other people like Harsha - and this forum is FULL of them - is when they fail, there won't be a government bailout waiting for them.
But I'm tremendously happy that, on this occasion, it has worked out. From speaking to Harsha, I can honestly say it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.
Great story, thanks for sharing.