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Starting a Successful Cleaning Service: Decisions That Can Make Your Business Flourish

Updated on January 12, 2013

There’s something to be said for being able to set your own hours, choose the people you want to work with, and make money at the same time. Several years ago, my now-grown children were in the fourth and eighth grades and absorbed in numerous afterschool activities. From 3 o’clock on, we squeezed volleyball, soccer, swimming, and dance lessons into busy afternoon schedules, arriving home just in time for supper and homework. Where would I find the time for a second job, one that could bring the needed income and not interfere with after school interests.

After brainstorming dozens of ideas and participating in numerous family discussions, we decided a cleaning service might be the answer. This decision marked the beginning of a pursuit that would occupy much of my time and energy for the next twelve years. By trial and error, I learned the ropes. Along the way, I discarded ideas that didn’t work and incorporated the ones that did. As I reflect over those years with that business, particular decisions made along the way helped make that business a success for me.

1. Houses or businesses or both? After cleaning a few houses and vacuuming dog hair off the sofa and battling mildew around the bathtub, I realized most offices offered fewer challenges. Another advantage in cleaning offices is that management usually considers office cleaning to be a necessary expense. Some homeowners may consider your services to be a luxury and try to coax you to lower your charges. Within months after starting this business, I dropped the houses and cleaned only businesses.

2. Getting the jobs---I got amazing results by offering to give companies one free cleaning---no obligations. This method got me most of my jobs---I usually approached the office manager in person, but I also offered the free cleaning by cold calling some places. Surprisingly, only one office manager abused my generosity. After giving the business a thorough cleaning, I handed her a written estimate of our weekly cleaning fees. She smiled as she proclaimed, “Now Dr. Rogers will appreciate what I do every week!”

3. Employees or sub-contractors? As my business expanded, I hired a couple of people to help with the cleaning. I soon found that treating them as sub-contractors offered more advantages for both of us than hiring them as employees. At the end of the year, I sent 1099 forms to them. They paid their own social security and income tax. The IRS website provides a list of requirements for treating workers as subcontractors.

4. Good treatment of your employees or sub-contractors.

Paid vacation--Every summer, I gave the cleaners a paid vacation. I took over the cleaning of their businesses one week but gave them their pay as usual.

Good pay—When taking on a new business to clean, I first cleaned the business, determined the amount to be charged, but paid the workers most of the income. I kept a small percentage. Most of them told me they figured they were making $15-20 an hour.

5. Good treatment of clients--I tried to put myself into the shoes of the businesses that my company cleaned. I stayed in close contact with the owners or office managers to make sure their needs were met. I called them or dropped by at least once a month to see if they had complaints. Frequent contact assured that their concerns could be dealt with before they became bigger problems. As a result, I rarely received complaints.

6. Legal issues

Sole proprietorship or corporation? Soon after I began cleaning businesses, I realized that I wanted to incorporate for several reasons. For one thing, if some mishap resulted in my getting sued, incorporation would offer some protection against the possibilities of losing personal property.

Incorporation--Note: This section does not constitute legal advice---it’s recounting of what I did. I went to the local courthouse and read as many cleaning service incorporation papers as I could find. I found a couple that I liked, and I wrote my own papers. I then took my paperwork to the local courthouse, paid a filing fee, and I was incorporated as Professional Cleaning Services of AL, inc.

Franchise tax---In Alabama corporations also pay a yearly franchise tax. I paid $100 in franchise tax each year.

Bonding—People like to know the people who come into their home or office are bonded. Early in the process, I contracted with a large insurance company for bonding insurance. It’s probably much more expensive now, but it’s based in part on the number of people in your company. At the time, I paid about $50 each year.

7. Specialties? General cleaning is what most people expect from a cleaning service. But sometimes the client can ask you to perform additional services, such as window washing, stripping and waxing floors, or carpet cleaning. Be sure before you get into any of these specialty services you that you know how much time and additional expense is involved and charge accordingly. Or you may decide not to do these extras at all. I washed windows regularly at one business and incorporated the fee into the overall bill.On the other hand, I swore off carpet cleaning, as well as stripping and waxing floors. I decided it wasn’t worth it after crawling out of my car one night around midnight, exhausted, with far too little pay for the amount of work involved.

8. Your vision—How much growth do I really want for this company? Because I had other responsibilities, I did not want to grow a big company. When one of the workers could not clean a place (rare), another worker or I cleaned. A larger company---at that time in my life---would have overloaded me. This decision is an individual one.

My cleaning service remained vital for almost thirteen years. Altogether I netted almost $100,000 from this little side business. Starting the business was somewhat time-consuming during the first three year, but quite manageable after that. When I moved to another city, I gave the business to one of the ladies who had been with the company from its beginning. Of all the benefits gained from this endeavor, the most enduring has been the self-confidence of birthing this “baby” and watching it grow.

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