How to Start a Cleaning Business

Editor’s note: This article was excerpted from our Cleaning Service start-up guide, available from Entrepreneur Bookstore.

If it can get dirty, chances are someone will be willing to pay you to clean it.

And that’s why few industries can claim the variety and depth of opportunities that professional cleaning can.

What’s Inside
Introduction
Target Market
Location
Pricing
Marketing
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The cleaning industry has two primary market groups: consumer and commercial. The consumer arena consists primarily of residential maids service, along with carpet cleaners, window cleaners and a variety of other cleaning services required on a less-frequent basis. The commercial arena is dominated by janitorial services, which typically provide a wider range of services than maids service, along with other cleaning companies, such as carpet and window cleaners that target businesses rather than individual consumers. While it’s recommended that you decide on a niche and concentrate on building a business that will serve your chosen market, it’s entirely realistic to expect to be able to serve multiple markets successfully.

Before you leap into the cleaning business, it’s important to look at it with 20/20 vision. Though technology has certainly had an impact on cleaning services, this is not a high-tech business. Nor is there any glitz to it. And there will be times when you’ll have as much trouble as Rodney Dangerfield getting respect.

But the upside is that you can build an extremely profitable business that will generate revenue very quickly. Most cleaning service businesses can be operated on either a part-time or full-time basis, either from home or from a commercial location. That flexibility gives this industry a strong appeal to a wide range of people with a variety of goals.

Another positive aspect of the industry is that within each category of cleaning businesses are market niches and operating styles that vary tremendously. Salt Lake City janitorial service owner Michael R. says, “We offer a wide range of services to a very limited clientele. We have refined our customer base to a group that we feel we can best serve in a way that will allow us to maintain those customers permanently.”

This means you can build a company that suits your individual style and talents. If you like doing the work yourself, you can stay small and do so. If your skills are more administrative in nature, you can build and manage teams to do the work. For people who like working outside, the opportunities in service areas such as window cleaning and pressure washing are abundant. Residential maids service offer fairly predictable hours; disaster restoration and cleanup can mean calls at all hours of the day or night.

Few industries offer this tremendous range of choices and opportunities, and the need for general and niche cleaning is expected to increase in the future.

Do You Have What It Takes?
The necessary qualifications depend, of course, on the type of cleaning service you decide to start. But for any type of service business, you need a determination to make the business work, a willingness to please the customer and the dedication to provide a thorough cleaning job.

Another critical requirement for the owner and the employees of any type of cleaning service is honesty. “Clients must have total trust in the people who come to clean their homes,” says Fenna O, who owns a maid service in Orlando, Florida. This is important whether they’re cleaning bathrooms every week or carpets twice a year–or dusting and vacuuming an office at night.

A maid service is probably the simplest business in terms of necessary cleaning skills. Janitorial services, carpet cleaning businesses and other niche cleaning operations often require the use of special equipment and/or cleaning solutions for which you must be trained.

Beyond actually being able to do the work, a cleaning service operator needs some basic business skills. You need to understand the administrative requirements of running a company, you should be able to manage your time efficiently, and you must be able to build relationships with your employees and your customers.

Franchise or Independent Operation?
That franchises will work closely with you as you start your business and take it to the point where it is running smoothly and profitability is an advantage, especially in the beginning. But you may find that once you become established and are financially secure, a franchise agreement is a decided disadvantage.

For people who want to own their own business but would rather choose an opportunity that has proven successful for many others rather than gambling on developing their own system, a franchise is the way to go. Also, most franchises provide a degree of marketing support–particularly in the area of national advertising and name recognition–that’s extremely difficult for individuals to match.

In the long run, you’ll likely invest far less money operating as an independent service than as part of a franchise. Also, as an independent, you’re not tied to any pre-established formulas for concept, name, services offered, etc. That’s both an advantage and a drawback. The advantage is that you can do things your way. The drawback is that you have no guidelines to follow. Everything you do, from defining your market to cleaning a bathtub, is a result of trial and error. As an independent owner, you must research every aspect of the business, both before and during your business’s lifetime, so you’ll start right and adapt to market changes.

Start Your Own Cleaning Business, 3rd Edition

Target Market
Most of the cleaning service operators we spoke with used personal savings to start their businesses, then reinvested their early profits to fund growth.

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If you need to purchase equipment, you should be able to find financing, especially if you can show that you’ve put some of your own cash into the business. Beyond traditional financing, you have a range of options when it comes to raising money. Some suggestions:

Your own resources. Do a thorough inventory of your assets. People generally have more assets than they immediately realize. This could include savings accounts, equity in real estate, retirement accounts, vehicles, recreation equipment, collections and other investments. You may opt to sell assets for cash or use them as collateral for a loan. Take a look, too, at your personal line of credit. Many a successful business has been started with credit cards.

Friends and family. The next logical step after gathering your own resources is to approach friends and relatives who believe in you and want to help you succeed. Be cautious with these arrangements; no matter how close you are, present yourself professionally, put everything in writing, and be sure the individuals you approach can afford to take the risk of investing in your business. Never ask a friend or family member to invest or loan you money they can’t afford to lose.

Partners. Using the “strength in numbers” principle, look around for someone who may want to team up with you in your venture. You may choose someone who has financial resources and wants to work side-by-side with you in the business. Or you may find someone who has money to invest but no interest in doing the actual work. Be sure to create a written partnership agreement that clearly defines your respective responsibilities and obligations.

Government programs. Take advantage of the abundance of local, state and federal programs designed to support small businesses. Make your first stop the U.S. Small Business Administration; then investigate various other programs. Women, minorities and veterans should check out niche financing possibilities designed to help these groups get into business. The business section of your local library is a good place to begin your research.

Start Your Own Cleaning Business, 3rd Edition

Location
A Homebased Location
One of the hottest business trends today is to be homebased, and cleaning services are excellent candidates for this type of setup. After all, your customers will likely never come to your facility since all your work is done on their premises. But that’s not the only issue influencing your decision to operate from a homebased office or a commercial location.

Many municipalities have ordinances that limit the nature and volume of commercial activities that can occur in residential areas. Some outright prohibit the establishment of homebased businesses. Others may allow such enterprises but place restrictions regarding issues such as signage, traffic, employees, commercially marked vehicles and noise. Before you apply for your business license, find out what ordinances govern homebased businesses; you may need to adjust your plan to be in compliance.

What’s Inside
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Opening a Commercial Location
Many industry veterans believe that in order to achieve authentic business growth, you must get out of the home and into a commercial facility. Certainly, doing so will help you create a successful and professional image, but before you begin shopping for an office, think carefully about what you’ll need.

Your office area should be large enough to have a small reception area, work space for yourself and your administrative staff, and a storage area for equipment and supplies. You may also want to have space for a laundry and possibly even a small work area where you can handle minor equipment repairs. Depending on the size of your staff, consider allowing for a small break area.

Regardless of the type of cleaning business you have, remember that chances are slim that your customers will ever come to your office. So look for a facility that meets your operational needs and is in a reasonably safe location, but don’t pay for a prestigious address–it’s just not worth it.

Vehicles
Because your work is done at your customers’ sites, vehicles are as important to your business as the location of your office. In fact, your vehicles are essentially your company on wheels. They need to be carefully chosen and well-maintained to adequately serve and represent you.

For a maid service, an economy car or station wagon should suffice. You need enough room to store equipment and supplies, and to transport your cleaning teams, but you typically won’t be hauling around pieces of equipment large enough to require a van or small truck.

You can either provide vehicles or have employees use their own. If you provide the vehicles, paint your company’s name, logo and telephone number on them. This advertises your business all over town. If your employees use their own cars–which is particularly common with maid services–ask for evidence that they have sufficient insurance to cover them in the event of an accident. Also, confirm with your insurance agent that your own liability policy protects you under those circumstances.

The type of vehicles you’ll need for a janitorial service depends on the size and type of equipment you use as well as the size and number of your crews. An economy car or station wagon could work if you’re doing relatively light cleaning in smaller offices, but for most janitorial businesses, you’re more likely to need a truck or van.

For carpet cleaning services, you’ll need a truck or van, either new or used, for each service person and his or her equipment. A good used truck will cost about $10,000, while a new one will run from $18,000 up.