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Here’s the thing about cleaning: Everybody can do it, but nobody wants to. That’s why a cleaning business can be a great success if properly run—the market for it is practically endless.
“I really fell in love with the industry—I liked the idea that it’s not very sexy,” says Ron Holt, founder of Two Maids & A Mop, which went from a small operation in Pensacola, FL to a brand-name company that spans most of the southeast in 13 years. “I saw the demand and recognized I could diagnose some weaknesses and build some strengths out of them.”
Which isn’t to say starting a cleaning business and keeping it afloat is easy. There’s still the matters of learning the intricacies of a good deep clean, finding a niche, building a trusting clientele as well as a trustworthy team, marketing, and all the other little things that any small business owner needs to worry about.
“In the first few years I struggled, and even lost money. But it forced me to get my hands dirty, to get inside the business and learn everything. I’ve served in every role and capacity in the business, and on the other side of the abyss there was a real business model with growth and profits,” says Holt.
Holt quit his job in Atlanta to move to Florida and start the business, which is now looking for franchisees to expand the brand. If you’re inspired and want to get started on that path, ask yourself a simple question:
Maybe you’re an expert on wiping down the counters or mopping the floors at home, and those skills are transferable—assuming you’re interested in starting a residential maid service, which clean houses, apartments, condos, and other homes. But maybe you want to tackle bigger jobs: commercial spaces, cleaned by janitorial teams nightly or multiple times a week. That may involve carpet cleaning, window washing, and other duties that require major equipment and more training. When starting off, it’s best to choose one path (though a future in both is certainly possible) and excel in it.
Even within those main market groups, there are ways you can shape your business to match a particular niche. Maybe you want to keep things small, cleaning the homes yourself part-time. Maybe you want to build a small team that you can keep a close watch over to ensure quality. Or maybe you want to move into management and administration, overseeing a veritable army of cleaners who handle a variety of tasks in different settings.
The choice is yours.
“Cleaning was not something I was good at—the business was more important to me than the trade,” says Holt. “Early on, there were some things I had to do because there was simply no one else to pull it off. I did clean my fair share of homes, especially during the first 6 months. I’ve pushed the broom, vacuum cleaner, talked to customers. I learned a lot from those days.”
Building a team was his goal from the start—and though your goals can change over time, having an idea of the kind of cleaning business you want is important for the next step.
For a small operation, you won’t need to invest in heavy duty equipment like industrial carpet cleaners—it will be more about labor and time management. A larger enterprise requires that, plus investment in assets like multiple vehicles and real estate. If you need to make large investments in fixed assets, look into the Section 179 tax deduction that was recently made permanent by Congress, which allows businesses to immediately write off up to $500,000 in qualifying.
For materials and supplies, look to big box stores to get your stuff in bulk. Holt started off at Sam’s, but eventually switched to negotiating directly with chemical manufacturers and distributors in his area. By working directly with them, you can usually test supplies for free and decide which are the best.
“That way you can think quality first and price second. It’s easy to go with the cheap stuff, but at the end of the day, the quality of the product will dictate the quality of the cleaning,” says Holt.
If you have your sights set on starting small and making it big, Holt advises focusing your investments on labor and not getting bogged down in administrative costs, a misstep he saw countless times while visiting other cleaning businesses.
“In other places there was just this buzz of activity going on in the office, and I couldn’t understand why there were so many people who weren’t involved in the generation of revenue,” he says. “So I built something that doesn’t have so much overhead when it comes to administration. Two people can manage an office that does over a million dollars in sales.”
All the other labor costs should directly generate revenue: That’s where your professional house cleaners come in. Labor is the largest operating expense, but it’s an investment that will pay off.
The question is, how you decide what to pay people to work in an admittedly un-sexy industry that many see as a stopgap job? How do you attract dependable, trustworthy people who want to clean for a living, and keep them without paying exorbitant salaries?
Holt admits that there’s a ceiling to prices and rates in his industry. But he says there are two ways his company works to make sure his cleaners enjoy a comfortable lifestyle: competitive wages and powerful team culture.
Though every market is different (Two Maids & A Mop has offices from Florida to Maryland and Texas), employees average between $13-15 an hour. But Holt makes a point to meet the average threshold for that community, if not beat it.
“Before we ever open an office, we research the local market,” he says. “We want to know what other employees in consumer services in general are earning. There’s a war for talent right now and everybody is fighting for good, honest, hardworking employees. If our wages don’t meet the average threshold, we have to increase our wages.”
On top of that, Holt and his offices want to turn the image of a cleaning business upside-down for their new employees.
“The perception is that they’ll be working for a less-than-professional business. But this is a business like any other. Our offices are located in successful, high-growth areas of our communities. People can walk in and think ‘This place is not going to close down next week.’ Every quarter we take the whole team out to an event, like a baseball game or water park. It’s not just another job, another paycheck, for these folks,” he says.
Speaking of checks, setting prices can be a confusing endeavor for someone new to the business. As with most businesses, too low a price could give people the impression that your work isn’t high quality, while too high will scare them off. You’re competing with other businesses, but also the customers themselves, who might just decide to do it on their own.
For an idea of what low and high is for your community, you’ll need to do some research.
“How we decide the overall rate depends on research of the local market,” says Holt. “We want our rates to be in the 75th percentile of the local market. We want to know what other people are charging and we base it off that.”
In terms of deciding how to price each job, create a formula that takes into account basics like square footage, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and the number of people and pets. Two Maids & A Mop asks for the overall condition of the home as well, using a sliding scale that goes from “Don’t go in there” to “You should be hiring me!” This is all completed on the homepage of each location’s website, making the process easy for both parties.
There’s a bit of a classic marketing image associated with cleaning businesses: Door hangers. Business cards and brochures stuffed under welcome mats. These methods are still very popular in the industry today.
But unsurprisingly, their return on investment is lessening as people turn to the internet for almost all of their needs. Holt recognized that and followed suit.
“We don’t have any offline marketing at all anymore. We switched everything to a digital marketing platform, which includes social media and SEO. All those things generated much higher ROI than our old methods, and now our marketing expenses are investments, not just expenses,” he says.
In terms of keeping the books, billing clients, and staying organized, a cleaning business is a lot like other small businesses. The difference in this industry is the willingness to turn a “dirty” business into one that’s enjoyable—both for your staff (in labor and administration) to do and for your customers to experience.
Once you learn the ins and outs of building a staff, sourcing supplies, a creating a good internal culture and external presence, the rest is about cleaning the floors and toilets. How easy is that?