Ditching Desk Duty For Debris, This Marine Corp Veteran Is Cleaning Up In The Junk Removal Business
Ronnie Knuckles, Marine Corps Veteran & Founder of Sgt. Junk-It
Tell us about you and your military background:
I’m Ronnie Knuckles. I served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Field Radio Operator with S Battery, 5th Battalion 11th Marines. I spent 4 years in the Marine Corps before exiting in August 2013.
I was lucky enough to get stationed on the West Coast at Camp Pendleton, CA which is perfectly situated between L.A. and San Diego. Within about 90 days of arriving at Camp Pendleton, I received orders to deploy to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. I would deploy here in 2010 for 7 months and again in 2012 for another 7 months. So while I loved being stationed in sunny Southern California, I didn’t have much time to soak it all in as I was either deployed or training to deploy.
Tell us about your business:
In 2018 I started a junk removal business located in Louisville, KY called Sgt Junk-It. Our business serves residential and commercial customers with our junk removal and light demolition services. We’ll remove any number of items from a single couch to a full property clean out and we provide interior demolition services for items like bathrooms, kitchens, decks, sheds, etc.
At the time Sgt Junk-It was born I actually had no intentions of starting a junk removal company. I had recently finished my Bachelor’s degree and had a steady career in a mid-level management position with one of the largest industrial parts and equipment suppliers in the world. That said, I had a burning in my gut to create something of my own. I did research on which industry might work for me given my background in the Marine Corps and my education but nothing seemed to fit. One evening my wife and I had dinner at my mom’s house and a 1-800-Got-Junk truck was just leaving her house after removing a pile of junk from her yard. This prompted my curiosity and I started deep diving into the industry.
Through my research and conversations with some other members of my family, I found out that I had a distant cousin (Also a Marine) who was a franchisee owner with J-Dog Junk Removal. J-Dog is the largest veteran-owned junk removal franchise in the U.S. I called him to get his feedback. That conversation quickly turned into him pitching me to open a J-Dog Franchise in the Louisville market. At the time I did not have the capital to buy into a franchise and because I was still employed that option was off the table. I still had a desire to get into this industry and then one night in late October at about 3am as I was finishing up a labor tracking document a name came to mind “SGT Junk-It”. The rest is history.
Describe how you got the business started:
The launch of Sgt Junk-It happened rather quickly. To be fair, I was not educated in the practice of starting and launching a business. I had done a lot of research on the junk removal industry but research is not action. I was familiar with the term “paralysis by analysis” so instead of getting myself in a rut, I decided to jump head-first into launching my first business. The name Sgt Junk-It came to me just before Halloween and the business became licensed with the State of Kentucky on November 27th, 2018.
“I began advertising the business on Craigslist and built my own website and social media pages to begin to drive traffic (I had no idea what I was doing here).”
After about 2 weeks we got our first lead and we performed our first official junk removal job on December 12th, 2018 for a grand total of $350.
Prior to starting Sgt Junk-It, I had taken into account the equipment that might be needed. At the time a new dump trailer would cost me about $12,000 or I could go with a dump truck but those ran for about $40,000 used. I had good credit but knew that I had no idea what I was doing so I decided I would use my F-150 and borrow my friend’s car trailer until I had saved up enough to purchase a commercial vehicle or trailer.
After the first 3 jobs, I realized that a car trailer was a terrible idea and decided to make my first investment in the business and took out a $7500 loan to buy a used 2006 GMC Savana box truck in early January 2019. We still have this truck today and use it as a backup!
Tell us why you wanted to become an entrepreneur:
Becoming an entrepreneur was not something I had ever considered before the Marine Corps. During my time in the military, I began to become acutely aware of what I wanted for my life. I had been on 2 combat deployments, been divorced, lived 2300 miles away from my family for 3 years, and I think those experiences taught me what I didn’t want out of life and so I made a commitment to myself that I would put in the work, no matter how much it took, to reach my goals and live out my dreams. I saw other, normal people doing it. Why couldn’t I? I exited the Marine Corps, got a vocational diploma, a Bachelor's degree, and a 6 figure management job in under 4 years but still…. I knew this wasn’t the path to freedom. So I began my entrepreneurial journey.
I come from a very blue-collar family. Both of my grandfathers retired from Ford Motor Company. My father was an automotive mechanic. I had started on this path myself after my time in the Marine Corps had ended. If you are from rural Kentucky this is what you do. Work, Pay Taxes, and hopefully, have a little bit left over to retire and die. I knew that I was in a position to break this trend and that is what led me to work toward creating my own business. I didn’t know much about business and I’m still learning daily, but I did know and know now that no one is going to outwork me. I will reach my goals. Junk removal was just the initial vehicle I chose to get myself and my family to the destination.
Describe how your military background prepared you for entrepreneurship:
The Marine Corps changed the entire trajectory of my life. The strange thing is that I was not some “over-the-top” Marine. I had a love/hate relationship with the Corps but I made it a point to always learn from my experiences, my peers, and both the good and bad leaders around me. I was good at my job, physically fit, and a good shot, all of which positioned me to be promoted very early in my career. During my first deployment to Afghanistan, I was promoted to Corporal (Non-Commissioned Officer) at the ripe old age of 20. The next year at age 21, and on deployment #2, I was promoted to Sergeant. I share that to say that my time in the military thrust me into a leadership position at a very early age.
Leading Marines, most of whom were older than me, during a combat deployment, was no small task. But this allowed me to learn many skills that can’t be taught but rather, must be experienced and honed over time.
“I learned how to earn the respect of those under my charge rather than commanding it through the rank I wore. I learned how to perform under pressure and make critical decisions quickly. I learned conflict management and how to build a culture whose mission is focused on winning.”
This is just a small sample of what I gained from my time in the Marine Corps but every single experience coupled together gave me the framework to deal with and excel in the world of business. My job as a Radio Operator attached to a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System battery did not translate into the civilian world at all. But the unseen skills I had learned and sharpened during those 4 years were greater than any of my civilian peers had in their tool kit at the time and gave me a strong baseline to springboard into my own business and handle the challenges that come with it.
Tell us about some of your obstacles and challenges, and how you overcame them:
When I first started Sgt Junk-It, I was naive in thinking it was as simple as getting the call, landing the job, and stacking up the money. I had done much research but had very little knowledge of proper planning and expectations. I had decided to not buy into a proven system like a franchise and that came with a cost.
When I first started the business I was working from about 5pm-10 M-F after I got off of work from my “day job”. I would then get up at 4:30am and dump the box truck and the waste facility and then drive the truck to work for the day. I did this for 6 months or so but it was taking a major toll on me physically and mentally. I did not have the time during the day to pound the pavement and market the business organically and had to rely on putting my efforts into running my own ads on Google and Craigslist.
This was an extremely challenging time and I had to make a decision if I ever wanted to grow. I decided to take out an investment to hire a “lead” who could handle working during the day to free up my time to focus on marketing and growing the business. This worked over time but it was a high cost and big risk and overall it stifled our growth for the first 2 years in business.
“Looking back I realize that I had made the mistake of not having or seeking out a mentor. Not truly understanding the market and what it took to successfully invest and grow and all of the twists and turns you experience at the beginning of starting a service-based business.”
I have since learned that there is nothing wrong with leaning on others for guidance and now make it a point to seek these individuals out. Those who have been in my shoes and experienced the same growing pains before me have become some of my biggest advocates and fueled the recent growth of my business.
Describe how you’re doing today and what the future looks like:
Since its launch, Sgt Junk-It has seen growth year to year, even though the pandemic we saw a 15% increase in gross revenue. That said, we made some decisions early on that stifled our ability to scale at the level we wanted to. This goes back to not leaning on mentors and leveraging their experience in a way that would have positioned us to grow more quickly.
A year ago, I decided to make a change. To refocus and lean into truly building a brand and a culture rather than simply providing a service. Last year our revenue was near $250,000. So far in 2023, we are on pace to exceed the $500,000 revenue mark.
“We have experienced an over 100% increase in our revenue numbers by focusing on our processes and systems, creating an experience for our customers, and building the culture among our team. We have also done this by increasing our digital presence and dominating our local market through organic methods on Google.”
We do not run a single ad on any digital platform. Today we have 5 team members, 3 of which are full-time. We work with a large number of clients and are on pace to serve roughly 2000 residential and commercial clients in 2023.
As we creep into the summer months we plan to expand our marketing efforts by doubling down on our SEO and organic marketing efforts. We now have the equipment, processes, culture, and skill set to handle the influx of jobs and projects we expect so these new efforts produce. We have also finalized plans to implement a market saturation strategy in which we saturate 10 zip codes through organic methods and targeted ad spend. Once each of the 10 zip codes are producing $75,000 in revenue we’ll move to the next 10.
Our goals moving forward are to become the most recognizable brand in the city of Louisville. Our current service area encompasses roughly 1.4 million people. When we reach 1 million in annual revenue we hope to open a second location in Kentucky and bring our service and culture to another market.
Share some advice with your fellow veteran entrepreneurs:
Since opening Sgt Junk-It, I have learned many skills and met many people. I have learned that owning a business is a long-term investment and many doors and opportunities begin to open up after you have proven you can withstand challenging times and consistently provide a high level of service. This business has allowed me to serve others in ways that I might not have been able to otherwise and was a segway into my new digital marketing agency, Spear Crest Digital. Sgt Junk-It is still growing and I am still learning daily, seeking mentors and advice, and functioning at a higher level than ever before.
“If I could go back I would have first sought out a mentor and joined a community of other entrepreneurs who shared similar challenges and worked with them to learn from their experiences.”
Although it isn’t directly related to business, I would have doubled down on sharpening my mental discipline skills and given more focus to both my mental and physical health. Sacrificing your health in an effort to grow my business was one of my biggest mistakes. A healthy body equates to a healthy mind and a healthy mind thinks more clearly and makes better decisions.
I have learned that much of what I needed to learn in business would have come more quickly had I focused on having a more solid foundation in being disciplined, calculated, and learning and working with those who had gone before me.
I have also learned that continuously learning and developing my skills pays dividends in all areas of my life but especially in my business. I am a big proponent of reading daily as it helps me to focus my mind and dial in on new methods or skills that I may have overlooked or neglected.
I highly recommend a book by Jocko Willink called Extreme Ownership and The Perfect Week Formula by Craig Ballantyne. These books have been instrumental in how I operate both in and outside of my business and I attribute much of my growth over the last year to them by taking action on the knowledge, skills, and lessons that can be found in these books.
Where can we go to learn more: