Same-day carry-out service for extra odds and ends
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
1-800-GOT-JUNK? might be a colorful company name, but Aaron Fastman’s South Burlington business really cleans up.
Back in 2005, working two jobs and newly married with a child on the way, Aaron Fastman faced a turning point. “I started to realize that I wasn’t making enough money to support a family the way I wanted to do it.”
For advice, he phoned his father. “My dad is an entrepreneur,” Fastman says. “He’s got his hands in a lot of things: organic vending machines, insurance financing, a lot of stuff with my brother, who’s a lawyer. I said I was looking at franchises, because a lot of young people were getting into them.”
The elder Fastman mentioned that his best friend’s niece owned a 1-800-GOT-JUNK? franchise in Washington, D.C., that was flourishing and seemed like something that would appeal to Fastman’s environmental consciousness. “I laughed when he said 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, Fastman exclaims. “I laughed!”
He didn’t laugh long. After a month to consider if it would work in a state as small as Vermont, he decided to look into it. “And thank God I did, because Vermont was the last franchise available on the East Coast.” After his application was accepted — “You have to show a certain amount in fixed assets so they’ll even talk to you,” he says — he traveled to corporate headquarters in Vancouver, B.C., for an interview process and won the franchise.
To finance the enterprise, which required a little over a hundred thousand to start, Fastman sold several rental properties and took out a business loan. He opened in 2006.
Fastman had something going for him — a kind of ace in the hole — because this was not the first major turning point in his young life. He had survived a much bigger crisis.
Following high school graduation in 1992, he headed from his hometown of Woodstock, N.Y., to Colorado to study at Colorado Mountain College. His education would come to an abrupt halt when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease.
“It was cancer in the neck and chest, and I had to drop out of school,” he says. What followed was six months of chemotherapy and a month of radiation treatment at the Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and another six months or so of recovery.
“I’m 17 years in remission now, and I can honestly say it was probably the best thing that ever could have happened to me besides my son being born. It was, when I was 20, a real wakeup call and allowed me to pay attention and really enjoy life. It made my life a lot of fun, and I don’t really sweat the small stuff.”
With his cancer in remission, Fastman headed to Vermont, familiar from visits to hometown friends attending Goddard College on his trips back from Colorado. “I taught snowboarding at Smuggs and went mountain biking every day,” he says. “Then I met a girl, moved out to New Mexico to study radio at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I graduated five years later, and came back to Vermont.”
Fastman had dreams of becoming a stand-up comic and getting into talk radio. He landed a job at Burton Snowboards through friends and took a second job as an engineer with Clear Channel radio.
“It was awful!” he recalls. “I was in a box all day, making, like, $250 a week, fresh out of college with a lot of loans to pay. I was there probably less than a year. I decided to do social work.”
Still working at Burton, he joined Northeastern Family Institute (NFI) in South Burlington. “I worked two years in their group home and three years in community-based services, being a mentor,” says Fastman.
He met his future wife at NFI. “We married pretty quickly, and had our son, Ezra, in 2006; that’s when I started this business.” Although they separated when Ezra was 2, they remain friends and share custody. “I have the most expensive, best babysitter in the world: his mom,” he quips.
Most mornings, Fastman wakes early enough to catch a CrossFit class before work. He has morning meetings for the whole team to discuss the day’s goals and business in general. “I listen to them,” he says, “because they have an interest in what happens to the company.” A large chart on the wall of the warehouse on Patchen Road in South Burlington tracks the company’s numbers. “We do daily profit-sharing and have all sorts of incentives and bonuses.”
What sets 1-800-GOT-JUNK? apart from similar companies is the kind of service that’s offered. “We’re a full-service junk-removal company,” says Fastman. “We go to people’s homes or businesses and do all of the lifting, loading, sorting, recycling, donating, and on top of that, come in and do all of the cleanup. We ask our customers to sit back and relax.
“All the guys are in uniforms, the trucks are cleaned every morning, and we have same-day service every day of the week. People call us the FedEx of junk removers.” He employs as many as 12 full-timers in the summer, and between five and eight in winter. The entire fleet runs on biodiesel.
“When his crews show up, it’s a class act.,” says Eli Lesser Goldsmith, the owner of Healthy Living and one of Fastman’s friends. “No messing around, no funny business, just professional guys, and the work gets done fast. Aaron has a determined work ethic and knows how to build a business. His innovative marketing and promotions are impressive.”
The aim is always to recycle and donate up to 100 percent of what’s picked up. “Our goal is to keep stuff out of the landfill,” says Fastman. “So many people in this community need goods, and we fill that niche. We work with ReSource, the Refugee Resettlement Program, Goodwill, Salvation Army, HowardCenter, COTS, and a couple of others. Customers feel good knowing their stuff isn’t going to be thrown away.”
Kris Gruen, director or WGDR Goddard College Community Radio, has known Fastman since he was 14. A few years ago, Gruen wanted to spend a summer doing physical labor and approached Fastman about helping out on the trucks. “Aaron was so thorough and so fast to learn the franchisor’s model, there was room to start thinking outside the box. We started to home in on the deep value Vermonters place on reuse and preservation of historical treasures.”
More than 50 percent of the company’s business comes from repeat customers. “You cannot upset one person in Chittenden County, because there aren’t a million people here like, for example, New York or Chicago or L.A. So we spend time doing little things, whether it’s a $15,000 job or a $15 one.”
Little things include sweeping up after every job, cleaning every truck every day before it heads out, and calling every customer within 24 hours for feedback. “When a front door is loose, we’ll take a screwdriver and tighten it,” he says. “I love my crew because of that. The guys you put on your truck will make you or break you. We can’t put guys out there that don’t care.”
This dedication has helped sales move from $100,000 to over a half million. Business clients, such as Jessica Bridge, the owner of Element Real Estate, make up some of the repeat customers.
“We recommend his service for sellers about to put a home on the market, who need to get rid of a lot of stuff. With the service he provides, it makes his franchise a clear choice,” Bridge says.
Although things appear rosy now, the recent recession almost put him out of business. “What happened,” he says, “was that ’06, ’07, ’08 were really, really good, growing 35 to 40 percent each year. In ’08, I made some choices that I was going to have to pay for in ’09, not anticipating the recession. So when ’09 hit, we had invested a lot in infrastructure and we got caught in a very hard place.”
It was terrifying, he says, “because I had put my heart and soul into this, and there I was, broke and going through a divorce and didn’t really see the end. And then we just bounced right back out of it, and at the end of 2009 and through 2010 and ’11, it was just crazy. We doubled — just doubled! — added trucks and employees, and even moved from 500-square-foot to a 2,000-square-foot warehouse. We haven’t looked back.”
He compares the recession to his cancer: “It almost killed me, but what I learned and took from that experience is going to make me such a better businessman and made this business so much more efficient.”
Although 1-800-GOT-JUNK? is Fastman’s first franchise, it is not his only business venture. All those years he worked two jobs, he was saving and investing in rental properties around the area, which he manages. And just this year, he landed four patents for an iPhone case. “I just started a new company and have a couple of employees for that,” he says.
Continued growth for the franchise will need to come from expansion, says Fastman. “We’re hitting somewhat of a plateau, and I bought all of Vermont and from Plattsburgh, N.Y., up to Canada. We’re thinking of maybe two trucks in Plattsburgh to navigate those waters, then possibly southern Vermont.”
He still rides his mountain bike every day with a group of friends, and time with Ezra is a priority. “We go skiing, snowboarding, bike riding. He loves soccer and basketball and is way into skateboarding now, so I put on the pads and go the park. Then after he goes to bed, I go back to work, because I have a lot of business in California with my iPhone case.”
Fastman enjoys making presentations for the American Cancer Society. “The stories are often very dark, and I’ll get up there and have people laughing so hard, because I bring humor to such a dark subject.
‘I’m a big guy — 220 pounds — I battle with that all the time. I have black curly hair and all my life have wanted to be skinny with blond, straight hair like Brad Pitt’s. So when I was going through chemo, the doctor said to me at first, ‘You’re probably going to lose 20 to 30 pounds, and your hair might come in straight.’ Mom and Dad are sitting in the back, sad, and I’m thinkin’, ‘Wow! I’m going to lose 20 to 30 pounds and my hair is going to come in straight? I’ve wanted this all my life.!” •<