From the October 1996 issue of Startups

With all we have to do in the '90s, who has time to clean? If you do, get out your mops and brooms and clean up on opportunity. Doing the jobs that others don't want to do, or don't have time to do, offers buckets of profit. The ingredients for success are initiative and flexibility, say the owners of the following three cleaning businesses.

Commercial Cleaning/Landscaping

Most people don't think that landscaping qualifies as cleaning. But if you're Christine Marshall and Althea Seeds, it does.

"We wanted to provide a few other services that set us apart from other cleaning businesses," says Marshall, co-owner of Scrub-a-Dub Cleaning Services of Allentown, Pennsylvania. The landscaping aspect of their business includes such tasks as planting flowers and shrubs, removing old trees, mowing lawns, edging beds, and even designing new landscaping. The pair will also run errands, like picking up prescriptions or delivering a package, for existing clients. They don't actively solicit such jobs but are willing to do them, for a fee, to make themselves more valuable to their regular customers. Even if it's pet sitting, Seeds and Marshall are willing to take on just about any task a client wants to have done, proving the truth of their company motto: "At your door for any chore."

The landscaping work evolved from their outside clean-up services. One client, the owner of a suburban restaurant, hired them to fix up a couple of flower and shrub beds. At first, it was to be a small job. "Once he saw what we did, he trusted us and just let us go on our own," says Marshall, explaining how planting annuals in one small area led to their re-doing the landscaping on the entire lot, and even making new flower beds. "We did it and he loved it."

Restaurant customers also noticed. Many of Scrub-a-Dub's clients are people who saw their work and stopped to ask for a quote, or were referred by the restaurant owner. Each landscaping job generates three or four more from neighbors who see them working. The pair also had signs made up which they place at each job site to attract even more customers. In fact, Scrub-a-Dub has been in business since October 1995, and the pair has yet to advertise, though it's on their agenda for the immediate future. "I know that in the winter months, the demand for landscaping is not going to be there," says Marshall. "We're going to have to fall back on the cleaning aspect of our business."

Marshall and Seeds handle both residential and commercial cleaning, both of which use the same equipment. "Residential cleaning is tougher than cleaning offices," says Seeds. "There are more nooks and crannies to do, and people are fussier because it's their home. Also, it's not the company's money they're spending, it's their own."

Marshall and Seeds credit their initial success to their honesty. "We'll size up a job and if we underbid ourselves, that's our problem," says Marshall. "When we give a quote, that's the price."

Scrub-a-Dub is finding that people prefer their services to those of larger (and perhaps more impersonal) companies. Many customers say getting quotes from other companies was easy--getting them to come back to do the work was not. "You have no idea how many people have said this, time and time again," says Seeds.

Marshall, who always wanted to run her own business, cautions entrepreneurs to try their business "on the side," so to speak, before quitting their regular job. However, she urges those with marketable skills to go for it. "We aren't out to make a large sum of money," she says. "We want to be comfortable and we want to like what we're doing."

Power Washing

Rick Christian always liked to keep things clean, including the frozen food trucks he drove for a living. When he suggested washing his employer's fleet for extra cash, he didn't realize the sideline activity would eventually become Power Washing Services of Livermore, California, a business which now grosses almost $600,000 annually.

"We started washing the trucks with a bucket, a brush and a hose," says his wife and business partner, Lori. The two were paid $820 a weekend, twice a month, for cleaning 40 trucks. Within five years, they were earning $1,300 a weekend for cleaning 75 trucks. "With more volume, we could give a better price," she adds, noting that the price per truck dropped from just over $20 to around $17 as their business grew. "We were no longer just using a brush and a bucket. We had perfected our system."

In 1982, as their truck-washing business was growing, a chance encounter altered their destiny. Rick was taking a lunch break in a parking lot when a pressure washer salesman, carrying a demo machine in his pick-up, pulled into the same lot. Rick stopped the driver, asked for a demonstration and, impressed with what he saw, purchased the machine for $6,000. Soon after, armed with his new gadget, Rick accepted a job cleaning the sidewalks of a local movie theater for $90.

From there, Rick approached other local shop owners and managers, adding clients to his roster of regularly scheduled services. The Christians now have an ad in the local Yellow Pages and participate in direct-mail coupon campaigns, but most of their business comes from taking the initiative to go out and ask for it.

"Base your business on repeat kinds of work," advises Rick, who has since replaced his pressure washer with 10 power washers--truck-mounted machines which hook up to an on-site water source (such as an outdoor faucet) and use pressure and temperature to clean, usually without soap. If there is no water available at the location, the Christians also have a couple of trucks which can carry up to 500 gallons. Repeat business from regular customers keeps the cash flow coming. In fact, Lori says, they still clean those same theater sidewalks.

By 1987, their cleaning business was grossing $96,000 a year, allowing Rick to jump into cleaning full-time. The business remained homebased until 1990, when the Christians moved to Sonora, California, about 1 1/2 hours away from Livermore. Wanting to retain their business location, they opened a shop in Liver-more, which is now run by an operations manager. Rick works from his Sonora home most of the time, going to the Livermore location a couple of days each week.

The Christians advise start-up entrepreneurs not to subcontract their services to a larger company. "We like to have a direct relationship with the people we're working with," says Lori. "We like the clients to know we're here to make sure it gets done right."

Maid Service/Residential Cleaning

Cleaning sounds simple, but don't be misled: Being professionally successful requires the ability to think on your feet. Just ask Linda Wiester, owner of Cleany Boppers Inc. in Baltimore.

Wiester relied on a commercial solvent to make her clients' glass chandeliers sparkle. But when she ran out of the product--right in the middle of a big job--and couldn't find any more anywhere in the city, Wiester had to come up with a solution. Fast. Consulting with a chemist by phone, Wiester combined water and two other ingredients to come up with her own cleaning solution.

"I didn't sleep much that night because I was afraid the chandeliers would be streaked," she says. Her fears were unfounded--the client liked the results of Wiester's own solvent better than those of the commercial one.

This was not the first time opportunity knocked and Wiester answered. The owner of the restaurant where she worked as a waitress was having some people over for dinner at her home. "She wanted the house to look very nice," says Wiester, "and I said, `I'll clean it for you.' "

Wiester's boss was pleased with her work, and some of those dinner guests became Wiester's future clients. "We still do work for those people years later," Wiester says.

Of course, turning her sideline business into a full-time venture had its drawbacks. "You lose 80 percent of your original clients when you become a service," Wiester says. "Your prices change. You can't charge $30 to clean a whole house anymore."

To make cleaning worthwhile financially, Cleany Boppers Inc. charges $22 per cleaning person per hour, with a minimum of two people for 1 1/2 hours. That equals a minimum of $66 per house, with the average charge being around $88. It's not uncommon, however, for a home to take two people five to six hours to clean--that much work would hardly be worth it for $30. Charging by the hour sweeps in profits much more quickly than a flat rate.

To tackle business problems, Wiester turned to the Baltimore chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). "I didn't want to just clean houses. I wanted to learn to run a business," says Wiester, who was pleasantly surprised by the group's offerings. One of the programs, for instance, puts a business owner in contact with an advisory board of 12 association members. "There was always somebody who could help."

To attract new customers, Wiester advises making your business visible. "If somebody wants to start a business, letter a vehicle," she says, referring to the company vans that bear the Cleany Boppers Inc. logo and which attract, she estimates, 10 to 15 percent of her customers. Having visible and informative signs at her office, which is located at a busy intersection, generates nearly enough business to pay the rent. Many of those customers are so pleased with the job done by Cleany Boppers Inc. that they become regulars.

Wiester recommends getting as many regular clients as possible. "Eighty percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your clients," she concludes. "If you're going into business, take care of your clients. Be good to them."

Contact Sources

Advanced Mailing Services, Inc., 6211 Chimney Center Blvd., Greensboro, NC 27409, (910) 299-0800.

Gluten-Free Pantry, Inc., P.O. Box 840, Glastonbury, CT 06033-0840, (860) 633-3826.

Home Office & Postal Services, 1060 West Frankford Rd., #203, Carrollton, TX 75007, (214) 394-0901.