Tanner Larsson, author of Streak Free Profits: The Insider’s Guide to Growing a Profitable Window Cleaning Business From Scratch, shares his advice about how to start a window cleaning service. He explains what equipment you’ll need, what cleaning solution to use, window cleaning company marketing, and more. [17 min.]
Start by giving us a general overview of the window cleaning business.
Well, the window cleaning business as a whole is a great market to get into because it has a very small initial investment, very easy to get into, low startup costs, no franchise fees, not very many sunk costs. It doesn’t have much in the way of operating expenses, extremely profitable, a lot of really basic things you look for in a good business are just totally apparent in window cleaning. It allows anybody, whether you have a college degree or you’re just some kid getting out of high school or whatever, to start your own business. You don’t need a lot of specialized training or anything else. Once you’ve learned the basics, you’re ready to run.
Should you focus on residential window cleaning, or is it more profitable to do commercial window cleaning?
That’s really dependent upon your market and what your goals are in terms of your window cleaning business. If you’re a snowboarder and you want to ski all winter or board all winter, then you probably ought to focus on the residential market because it’s a spring to fall kind of a market. And that’s the bread and butter, that’s where most window cleaners make the vast majority of their income. I know my company pulls in about 60% of its profits from March until about September. And it’s because that’s where your money’s at from the homeowners doing their spring cleaning summer, cleaning getting ready for parties, whatever. Getting that winter grime off their windows, because when it’s blooming outside and it’s all pretty and green, nobody wants to look through dirt. So the residential market’s really great for those kind of people, but it’s not really the greatest for sustainable income in terms of year-round business. That’s where the commercial side comes in. There’s a lot more competition in the commercial market because of the fact that people are trying to get that sustainable income because commercial accounts offer year-round monthly service contracts. If you’re looking at your typical strip mall with a bunch of little storefronts in it, you may clean each one of those storefronts once a month, twice a month, year round. So it adds a renewable income source for you that continues to come in month after month. And that’s what sustains you through the winter months. Some other people branch out into other services, but in the fundamental core businesses you really have either residential or commercial and some light industrial, which typically gets lumped into commercial categories. But if you’re looking for sustainable income you should focus on both. I’d say a good 40% of my business or more is commercial accounts. Over the years you gain more and more, but starting out it’s a lot easier to target the residential market because the marketing is easier, the customers are generally friendlier and they’re easier to approach, so it really is dependent on your goals and what you want to achieve with your window cleaning business.
Walk me through the process step-by-step that you used when you started your window cleaning business.
When I started a window cleaning business, the reason I even looked at window cleaning in the first place was because I was looking to start a business within my first year of college, didn’t really think college was the answer for me, and I found a window cleaning business for sale in the newspaper. I went to check that out, and it looked awesome. It turned out that I couldn’t afford the seller’s asking price, he didn’t want to work with me, no financing, so I couldn’t buy it, but after getting a look at what they were offering and what the window cleaning business could do, I knew that was something that I wanted to pursue, at least part-time. So I kind of just hooked myself up with a squeegee and a bucket, and once I felt confident in my skills I went out there and kind of went door-to-door looking for business. Not the best way to do it, but it’s all I knew to do at the time. Little by little I just kind of built it up into a growing business.
Is there a difference between window cleaning and window washing?
Most definitely. Window washing, I mean, to a professional window cleaner, is almost borderline insulting. Window cleaners already have a slightly bad reputation in terms of people kind of associate window cleaners with, you know, the guys who jump on your windshield at a stop light and try to clean you with a newspaper. That’s not us. Or they associate you with the bums walking around downtown offering to clean your windows with a squeegee and a bucket for $1.50 or whatever. It’s not what we do, especially with the way I perceive my company and I project the image of we’re a professional service company. We clean windows. Anybody can wash a window, but we clean it. It’s not carpet washing, it’s carpet cleaning. Same thing with us, it’s window cleaning, not window washing.
Talk about the process of cleaning windows. It sounds simple, but, walk us through the steps a professional takes.
Most guys that start window cleaning do think, oh, I don’t need to learn anything, I don’t need someone to teach me or anything. I can just pick a squeegee up and pull it down a window. Most people’s experience with a squeegee begins and ends in the shower, squeegeeing down the glass, and that’s really just to get the water off it, that doesn’t actually clean it. The basic steps of us cleaning a window, we have a lot of specialized tools that do this, but we’ll clean the frame, we’ll wash down the frame, wet the window, which there’s a special way to wet the window to avoid damaging or grinding any dirt into the glass so you don’t create scratches. Wet the window, then squeegee it off using a variety of techniques depending on the type of glass, and the condition of the glass, touching up the window to make that final little sparkle on it so that it looks perfect when it’s finished. We’ll also move into screen cleaning, track cleaning or anything else that the customer may want after the windows are already clean.
What kind of equipment do you need to get started and how much does it all cost?
That’s probably one of the best things about window cleaning. Very, very low startup costs. You can pretty much get going for under $300 and that’s buying a lot of stuff you really don’t need, you don’t really have to have, but having it is very nice. The only expensive items you’re looking at really are your ladders, and that’s totally optional. There’s a lot of window cleaners I know that make $100,000 a year that never get on anything bigger that a stepladder because they only do first floor window cleaning. Pretty much only commercial accounts or single-story homes. I, personally, don’t mind the ladders, and I’m not afraid of heights, and none of my crews are either, so we do up to mid-rise and high-rise window cleaning as well. But for the average window cleaner all you need is maybe a sixteen foot and a twenty-four foot ladder along with some squeegees, strip washers, razors, stuff like that, but you could really get going for about $300, especially if you look on craigslist or in the newspaper and buy some ladders that somebody else has already paid the premium on.
Can you recommend any specific products or brands of equipment that you’ve found to be reliable?
Definitely you get what you pay for as with any business in the equipment and what not. You buy cheap stuff and it’s going to break, and with window cleaning there’s not a lot of equipment damage or turnover or really anything renewable that you have to get besides some squeegee rubbers, soap, stuff like that. So if you buy the best products, they’ll last for a long time. In terms of my favorite products for window cleaning, for squeegees, Sorbo makes the best brand of squeegees I’ve ever used. I’ve used all of them. They have the appropriate angle, there’s a whole bunch of different options and lengths and everything else, and they just hold up the best. I’ve had some of my guys drive over some of my squeegees and they haven’t even bent. Unger makes a really good brand of strip washer, which is what you use to wet the window. They have a really great strip washing material that’s kind of fuzzy stuff that’s abrasive but it’s not abrasive at the same time, and they last for a long time. And as far as ladders go, you can’t beat a Werner ladder. I mean, they’re pretty much the industry standard for everything. Another brand called Gorilla Ladders that are pretty good for like your stepladder and smaller, but if you’re going with a big extension ladder, I wouldn’t buy anything but Werner. The extra money’s worth it on those kind of pieces of equipment.
Do you need a van, or other kind of specialized vehicle?
Again, it depends on what type of window cleaning you plan on doing. If you’re only going to do first floor and storefront-type window cleaning, you can use any old car with a trunk. You don’t need anything special. However, if you want to start hauling around ladders and such to do multiple story homes or buildings, then you’re gong to need something that you can strap your ladders to. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a van. A truck would be fine with a ladder rack or a camper shell. You could even use a car, whatever you’re willing to do as long as you can get your ladders on there safely and not breaking the law will work. I personally prefer either a van, a big cargo van, or a Ford Ranger-sized mid-sized truck, with a camper shell so that you can lock up your stuff.
What type of cleaning solutions work best for windows? Can you recommend a specific brand?
No, I personally don’t believe in all those ready-made cleaning solutions that all these, I consider them snake-oil vendors, are trying to sell. There is a proven method for cleaning windows, it’s a totally over-the-counter solution that anybody can get, and you mix it yourself, and you don’t need to buy all these fancy chemical solutions. There’s just a fancy way of selling you something that you don’t necessarily need. Those solutions cost a lot of money. It may be ten dollars for the bottle, but they probably recommend that you use half the bottle in two gallons of water. Whereas the solution that I recommend you mix yourself, and what most professional window cleaners actually use, unless they’re selling their own product, is a solution that you can make for roughly 50 cents or less for 4 or 5 gallons of water.
What about window cleaning franchises? Are there any worth considering?
This is kind of a touchy subject considering that I obviously believe in starting your own business. I’m not much of a franchise guy for the window cleaning business. I actually wrote kind of an expose article on window cleaning franchises and licensee programs. A window cleaning franchise is kind of, in my opinion, there’s no point. Because what they’re asking you for is a lot of money, usually $25,000 or more, for your initial buy-in of the franchise, and then an ongoing royalty of 6-8%. In a different business like a restaurant or something like that where they actually provide you with training and support and management software and all that kind of stuff, it’s great. In window cleaning, they offer support, which support to them is you fly out at your expense to do a two or three-day training seminar with them at their location. Or you pay even more money to have them come and do a two or three-day training seminar with you. You don’t need that. You can teach yourself, or you can buy a package which is the way to do it, I think, because you can find you get everything you need in one little location, and you can just look back and refer back to it as many times as necessary to achieve your goal. But with that you’re paying for these guys extra money on top of the $25,000 and the 6-8% you’re paying a year, it’s just way too much money going out for a very simple business. It’s not very technical. And then they say that you’re going to get national brand recognition by buying into their franchise. Think about it, name a single window cleaning franchise that you know all over the country. Nobody can do it, but you ask them the name of a restaurant franchise, and they start going off with Quiznos, McDonald’s, Burger King, all that kind of stuff. They can think of a million of them because franchises work in certain industries. Some people do very well with it, but I truly thing there’s better uses for your money than having to pay someone else for something that you can learn on your own.
Are there other services you could provide in addition to window cleaning to boost profits?
Yes, there’s a wide variety of services. Those include track cleaning, screen cleaning, chandelier cleaning, blind cleaning, things like that. There’s also some other services that are very, very profitable that require additional equipment, but can bring in a nice extra revenue stream and are very compatible with your business and customers will typically take you up on them. Those would include pressure washing and Christmas light installation. That’s actually a big ticket item right there, and it’s pretty much it’s own business. There’s a number of people that operate just a Christmas light company sixty days a year and do nothing else, and make big-time money.
Talk about bidding and estimating. How do you come up with a quote for a specific window cleaning job?
Bidding a house or a building, there’s a number of different techniques and methods to do that. There’s a per-window method where you actually assign a value to each window, and just count them up and then multiply by that number. There’s a time-on-job method where you kind of figure out how long it’s going to take you and times that by your hourly rate. I recommend all window cleaners establish an hourly rate as a minimum for what they need to earn. This way they prevent themselves from going out on a job that for $15 it takes them 20 minutes to get there. It’s not worth it. So if it’s a small job like that you have a minimum rate and say, “This is what we charge for our base, and everything else goes up from there.” It just depends on what you’re comfortable with. I teach a number of methods in my package for creating your own bidding process. First, I’ll count up all the windows and the different difficulties of those, whether it’s a one-floor, two floors, three floors or what not. And then look at, okay, it’s going to take me this long I think, or it’s going to cost this much for just labor. Then say, okay, how much profit do I want to build into this job, what do I think the market can bear. That’s really the big thing. You want to price it as high as you can, but at the same time you don’t want to stress the market. Because you’re always going to have that fly-by-night window cleaner who’s going to come in there and do a job that you couldn’t do for less than $200 who’s willing to do it for $50. So you want to price yourself as attractively as possible, while at the same time maximizing your profit margins. And there’s a fine line between that, and it’s going to take some time. When I first started bidding my jobs, when I very first started out, I’d do a job for $200, and it would take me nine or ten hours, and I thought I was doing great, until I really did the math and figured it out, okay how much did I lose to overhead and everything else, and found out I was working for about the same as if I had a job with somebody else. And then over time I learned what the proper method of bidding was and how to ensure my profit margin so that I didn’t get screwed on jobs like that, I would actually make my profit like I had planned.
What marketing techniques have you found to be successful for window cleaning businesses?
Marketing is very simple for a window cleaner. You don’t really need to know anything fancy, you don’t need to hire some high price marketing firm to promote your service or your company. Some of the best marketing techniques for a window cleaner, especially if they’re targeting the residential market, are some very simple things that people have known about for years. Fliers, direct mail campaigns, even some basic radio advertising, and simply going door-to-door. You need a solicitor’s license to do that, to go door-to-door, but it can be very effective. I’ve actually wound up hiring guys who specialize in that, and having them actually go solicit customers for me. I don’t like going door-to-door, but the flier method works very well. You can just simply print up a bunch of fliers and go around neighborhoods that you want to target, and flier the neighborhood. Paper them with fliers, and your response rates typically for window cleaning if it’s in the right market and you target the flier to the individual who’s house you’re trying to get as a customer, you can get response rates between five and ten percent. Which is very good for a marketing campaign anywhere. You’re getting the five to ten percent conversion on your customers with a flier that maybe cost you 2 cents or less to make, so you’re doing pretty well. Another one of my favorite methods of marketing your company is simple word-of-mouth. You provide a killer service for a competitive price, and talk to your customers, and you know, remember their names, know something about them, remember their dog’s names, things like that, you build a relationship with that customer, and they will be happy to refer you to their friends. Home services is something that a homeowner will talk about with their friends. Wives will sit down and talk and they’ll be like “Oh, I need to get my windows cleaned,” “Oh, I have a great guy who could do that,” and they refer you. Especially if you offer a referral program where they get some sort of incentive to refer you on, whether it be a discount or a cash rebate or something along those lines, you can make your word-of-mouth marketing automatically bringing you customers, more than you can handle.
Are there trade publications such as magazines or newsletters dedicated to the window cleaning profession?
There are a few. The International Window Cleaning Association, IWCA, they have a magazine for window cleaners that they put out, I think quarterly, and there’s another one called Window Cleaner Magazine, and there are some trade associations that you can join — worldwide, national, regional — that have their own little newsletters.
What about websites and forums? Where can people just getting started go to network and learn from other window cleaning business owners?
You know, there’s really not a true forum out there yet for window cleaners. Window Cleaning Directory has a forum attached that you can join and talk about your window cleaning business and what not. I’m actually working on a forum right now for window cleaners, but it’s not live yet.
What are the biggest mistakes people make when they start a window cleaning business?
It’s some of the same things that happen with any business. People get really excited about an idea, but don’t take the time to actually research it and create a plan of attack or a business plan for how they’re going to achieve what they want to do. So jumping in without researching the market and people getting so excited about it they’ll just quit their job and go buy a squeegee. I really don’t suggest them doing that. That’s why I wrote my book, so people can take the time and go, okay, here’s what I need to do to start a successful business, and I give them an action plan that says before you do anything, do this. Sit down and plan out what you want to achieve with your window cleaning business. Short-term, long-term, medium-term goals. Once they have those goals, then they can start breaking down what they need to do and what needs to be achieved in order for them to meet their goals and their deadlines and what not. It’s going to take a little while to get going, so you need to make sure you have money saved up so that you can afford to live. You don’t want to be going hand to mouth while you’re trying to start your business. That puts too much pressure on you, and actually can lead to failure because there’s too much going on. I actually recommend most window cleaners start part-time. Work around their existing schedule, cleaning windows whenever they can, just to get their feet wet, and then once they’ve learned the skills and they’ve kind of got a good feel for the business, then grow it full time, if they want to do that. A lot of guys just want that extra income to get them some more spending money on vacation or what not. And if that’s the case then there’s no reason to go overboard with what you’re going to do. So take your time, plan out what you want, and don’t get in over your head.
Tanner Larsson is the author of Streak Free Profits: The Insider’s Guide to Growing a Profitable Window Cleaning Business From Scratch.