From non-English speaking immigrant to successful UK entrepreneur

Seven years on from starting London Junk, Harsha Rathnayake shares the inspiring story of how he started a business with nothing but £160 in life savings...

Name: Harsha Rathnayake
 London Junk Ltd
Started in:
Company description: 
London Junk is ultimately a two-men-and-a-van rubbish collection service. It offers shiny trucks, a friendly uniformed two-man team, two-hour guaranteed arrival windows, upfront pricing and sweeping up afterwards.

Describe your start-up barrier:

English wasn’t my first language – I studied in a small school in a little village in Sri Lanka where we didn’t speak any English. 15 years ago I couldn’t speak a word of it.

Secondly, I lacked finance to grow my business; I only had £160 to start up with. Lack of funds was a huge issue for me; banks didn’t want to lend me any money at all as I didn’t have anything as security and didn’t have a clue about credit scores.

What were the practical steps you took to overcome these issues?

First of all, I resolved to learn English at every opportunity I had. I was determined, and I managed to teach myself the language. Some online learning and YouTube videos helped me a lot too.

I started my business with the old transit tipper I got from my previous job, plus my lifetime savings of £160. This was the only money I had available for marketing, running costs and overheads, etc, so I needed to raise more finance. When the banks wouldn’t help me I didn’t know where else to seek advice – I didn’t have any connections. I realised I only really had one other option: to do it myself.

I worked 19 hours per day, including the weekends, for one year to overcome this challenge. I found two part-time jobs, one for the early morning and one for the late afternoon until midnight.

I woke up at 4:30am every morning to go to my morning job – doing the paper rounds for a local newsagent – which started at 5:30am and ended around 7:30am.

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I would then return home to take my truck and get on with rubbish collections for my business from 8am. I would finish at 5:30pm, and make my way to a local Indian restaurant at 6pm where I spent my evenings as a delivery driver.

As this job finished around 00:00am, I only slept for about four hours each night. I had a few good friends to help me occasionally with loading the trucks, but I never had any financial support from friends or family. My main aim was to keep existing customers happy, as this was much cheaper than trying for new ones.

It took me one year to achieve the funds I needed to grow my business. I could then afford to buy a second truck and employ two people. At this point I gave up my two other part-time jobs.

What was the outcome?

Since then, I have bought new trucks year after year and employed more people. Today, after seven years, I have developed the business to a point where we employ 10 people and have a fleet of six custom-build trucks. We are now approaching £1m in turnover.

What key questions should entrepreneurs who lack funds ask themselves?

  1. Is there a sufficient demand for the product or service you are going to offer? It’s always best to start a service business if you lack funds, as you don’t need to buy any stock.
  2. Can the product or service you are about to offer make a positive difference to people’s lives? If the answer is yes, you have a greater chance of building a successful business. Always ask yourself how you could improve on value. Make sure there is no need for customers to look for alternatives elsewhere; it is much cheaper to keep existing customers than look for new ones.
  3. What contingency plan do you have in place if things don’t work? Business environments and market conditions are changing rapidly – things can change no matter how good your business plan is. You always need something to fall back on.

What one piece of advice do you think aspiring business owners should take on board?

Building a business is a medium- to long-term activity – it is likely to need a lot of planning and very large personal sacrifices.

Be clear about your motivations and be honest about your level of ambition. Don’t wait for the perfect business plan. Start now, fail, learn and try again.

Is there anything you would do differently?

I did everything I could at the time to make to most of very limited resources. Looking back at these things after seven years, I have nothing to regret. It has been hard but I didn’t waste any time, I am always glad of that.



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Showing 1 comment

  1. Congrats to Harsha and others who have succeeded as he did. Here in the US we hear about similar success stories every day. In fact, immigrants own 11 percent of US businesses and are 60 percent more likely to start one than native-born Americans. They represent 17 percent of all new business owners (in some states more than 30 percent). Foreign-born business owners generate nearly one-quarter of all business income in California and nearly one-fifth in New York, Florida, and New Jersey. In fact, forty percent of our Fortune 500 companies were started by an immigrant or a child of an immigrant.
    An informative worldwide book/ebook that explains America and its business environment to help immigrants and int’l students is “What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More.” Endorsed worldwide by ambassadors, educators, and editors, it aids those who want to learn more about US culture on many issues, including business operations.
    Its four business chapters explain how foreigners can succeed in the US business world, from getting a job to owning/starting their own businesses. However, they must understand the complex US culture above all in order to succeed.
    In describing America, chapter after chapter identifies “foreigners” who became successful in the US and contributed to our society, including business people. An entire chapter is devoted to starting and running your own business. However, most struggle in their efforts and need guidance. Perhaps concerned citizens, improved labor-business cooperation, and books like this can extend a helping hand.
    Here’s a closing quote from the book’s Intro: “With all of our cultural differences though, you’ll be surprised to learn how much our countries—and we as human beings—have in common on this little third rock from the sun. After all, the song played at our Disneyland parks around the world is ‘It’s A Small World After All.’ Peace.”