Insider Secrets for Starting a Successful Business

Starting an Office Cleaning Business

Sam Rodman, author of Instant Office Cleaning Kit: How to Start or Expand Your Own Cleaning Service, reveals his advice on how to start an office cleaning service. He shares secrets about getting started, equipment and supplies you need, bidding cleaning jobs, and finding the most lucrative clients. [15 min.]

Sam, give us an overview of how office cleaning and the office cleaning business works.

It really is a recession-proof service business, I can tell you that. No company dominates the cleaning business — in residential or commercial cleaning. The opportunity for anyone to get into it is very, very real. The ideal customer, the prime customer that pays for this type of service, have their own recession-proof businesses. Doctors, attorneys, CPAs, they’re not having an economic problem at all — they don’t even know what that is. They’re doing very well. That’s the typical customer that pays for a private cleaning service. That’s why it is, in fact, a recession-proof service business. These offices pay for anywhere from one time a week to up to five times a week. Never on weekends really, because the offices are closed on weekends and they typically close at five in the evening, so the work is done in the part-time evening hours.

What kind of cleaning equipment do you need? What brands do you recommend and where can you buy that equipment?

The cleaning supplies you could get at Wal-Mart or whatever local store, it doesn’t really matter. Ajax, all-purpose cleaner Formula 409, glass cleaner Windex. Things of that nature you can buy just about anywhere. There are a couple commercial products that you would have to get at a janitorial supply store. Specifically a liquid stainless steel cleaner for sinks, it just works fantastic, makes them shine and look brand new. Anyone can walk into a janitorial supply store and buy something in there. That’s the only place I’ve found that stainless steel cleaning product. As far as equipment, Matt, you need a 32-gallon Rubbermaid barrel with the wheels on it. The wheels are separate, they’re called casters, and you would have to purchase them at a janitorial supply store. I’ve never really seen them anywhere else. You need a mop bucket and a wringer. You need a mop handle, upright vacuum cleaner, if you don’t already have one that you’re happy with. Specific equipment, simply the vacuum cleaner or cleaners, and the barrel, a dust mop, a broom, it’s just common sense supplies. Most people probably already have most of what they need except for the things they would need from a janitor supply store. It’s not complicated really.

What janitorial suppliers do you recommend?

Every city and town has a janitorial supply store, at least one of them. You don’t have to be in the cleaning business to go into a store that sells janitorial supplies. Anyone can go in there, they don’t care if you’re in the business or not.

So how much does it cost to get started in office cleaning?

I think that a person can count on anywhere from $200-$500 for sure. Anyone can get a customer before they spend money. You can get a customer first. People think that they’ve got to buy this, they’ve got to buy that, I need this, I need that. But you need a customer first. That’s what you need and want in this business. And they’re not going to ask you to start tomorrow night, you’re going to have some notice there. So that will give you time to get other things together that you would need, but you would know that you’re going to have a guaranteed income coming in every month, because you got the customer lined up first. They don’t know what you have or don’t have. You can get what you need after you get the customer. When you get into insurance, you probably have to put down $250 on that. You do not need to be bonded by the way, that’s a misconception. The private sector business does not require bonding, they only want insurance. I have never been bonded because I’ve never been required to be bonded. It’s only government buildings and banks that generally want you to be bonded. It’s not a complicated thing. But you don’t even need the insurance until you get your first customer, either, because you can check it out, you can have an insurance company lined up, who you’re going to go with, but again you don’t really spend money until you get a customer first.

How much money can you make realistically?

Two people working together, whether it’s a husband and wife team or whoever, two people and I recommend that you don’t work by yourself, can realistically expect $50,000-60,000 part time. You can do more with more people, and you don’t have to be there. And you can make more money than that. There are people that make a million dollars a year with a commercial janitorial service. I’ve been doing this since 1992, I’m no longer involved in the cleaning at all. I don’t do the cleaning anymore, but I still own the business. I have people doing all of the cleaning for me. So you can end up that way. But in the beginning two people $50,000-60,000 part time is very, very realistic.

So this can easily become sort of a hands-off business in terms of you can have other people doing the work while you schedule and coordinate and do things that aren’t directly related to the office cleaning itself?

I do recommend that you are there and you are involved in the cleaning yourself. At least be there in the beginning. But absolutely, it can be a situation where the only thing you’re working on is hiring people and getting customers and that’s about it. You don’t have to be involved in the cleaning yourself at all. Usually most people are, because it depends on how big they want to grow the business, and it depends on their managerial ability. I think it’s one of life’s great opportunities in this country for the average person, Matt, because you do not need hardly any money to start this business and yet you can make a lot of money, especially if you position yourself to just work on building the business and having other people do the work.

Sam, talk about marketing. What are some specific techniques you’ve used to get new office cleaning customers?

That’s a good question. It’s not any one thing that you do to get customers, it’s several different things. You might get one in this manner, you might get one from that avenue, one from this avenue, it’s different things. In every city and town there’s a county tax collector’s website. And that will show you all new business licenses. This is free, and you go there, you can look up all new businesses. There’s also a website that tells you new building permits, and it will specifically say office, X amount of square feet, tell you who the owner is and where they are. This by itself is one great source of leads that you can work on, then you can contact these people and tell them you’re in the cleaning business, you’d like to submit a bid to clean their building and you do a very good job. If you’re just getting started you tell the people that you’re just getting started. That’s not a disadvantage in this business, not at all. Because if you have a house, your personal home that you live in, and you want it to be clean, Matt, and you were to call a franchised cleaning service to clean your home, you would be looking at a very high price and I can guarantee you that those people who are coming in there would be changing constantly and those people are being paid very low, low wages and this is who would be in your home. You could hire them or you could hire a private cleaning service that is not a franchise, who can give you more personalized service and ensure you that the same people are going to be there, because they’re a smaller company and not a huge franchise. Obviously that would be more appealing to most people because they don’t want different people in their home all the time, and it’s a very similar situation with offices. Behind every office or office building is an individual, a person, a decision maker. They don’t want different people in there all the time. If you say to them, I’m just starting, they’re not going to rule you out because of that, they’re going to realize that that’s a plus. Because this person is going to be here, that’s a huge, huge plus. Nobody can compete with that. The smaller the cleaning service, generally speaking, the better the quality of the work.

You talked a little bit about commercial cleaning franchises. Talk about the advantages and disadvantages of going with a franchise if you’re starting a new commercial cleaning business.

I am very anti-cleaning franchise. I always have been. I have known people who have purchased a cleaning franchise, and they worked with it for several years, and then they told me themselves, they wish they never, never got involved with that franchise, because they came to realize that they did not need the franchise. Most of them cost a lot of money up front, and then on top of that, they take a percentage of your business every month and it’s just not a good situation in my opinion. Maybe it is for someone, but not the people I have known, and I certainly would never recommend that to anyone at all because I know for a fact that you do not need a franchise. No one dominates the cleaning business. If I say hey, Matt, could you name me a fast food restaurant — everybody could do that. Name me a cleaning service — you’d have to think about that one. But I do not recommend people even get near a franchise when they can get a fantastic business of their own started with little more than knowledge. There’s no comparison.

Talk about techniques for estimating commercial cleaning jobs. How do you bid in order to both make a profit and also be competitive.

That’s a very good question. And that’s the big mystery to most people, how to price the job. Well first of all, if you were to call three different cleaning services to clean your office, and say to them that you would like an estimate, you would be looking at three different prices I can guarantee you that. You would not be looking at the same price. Offices that go up to 10,000 square feet, Matt, are priced at so much a cleaning, and I use a chart in the Instant Office Cleaning Kit to help people as a guide to know exactly how much to charge for individual cleaning. Whether it’s done one night a week or two or three nights a week. Now when you get into office buildings that are over 10,000 square feet that’s where a change takes place. That’s where the pricing of the individual cleaning is done differently. If you’re looking at a 50,000 square foot office building that’s four stories, that’s priced differently.

How does office and commercial cleaning differ from residential cleaning services? Can you do both?

Some people do both. I personally didn’t want to do both. Residential is a daytime cleaning service. Offices is a part-time evening cleaning service. But you could do both, it depends on your energy level I suppose. If you’re going to get involved in both, then you’re going to be involved in the business in the daytime and you’re going to be involved in the business in the evenings. So if that’s okay with you, then yes, you can get involved in both. I think it’s best if someone specializes in one over the other, residential or commercial.

What kind of customer accounts are most lucrative, and which ones would you try to avoid as they may not be worth the trouble?

Prime accounts are the most lucrative accounts, and prime accounts are accounts that pay over $1,000 a month for part-time office cleaning service. Whether it be for two nights a week or three nights a week or whatever the situation is, it is over $1,000 a month. It’s very nice to get those sizable checks, $1,000, $2,000, $3,000. To get those sizable checks in the mail every month, that’s very, very nice. Keep in mind these are part time. Accounts to stay away from? That’s pretty easy. Obviously uncooperative individuals. People that do not show you respect. People that do not value what you do. People that are not that interested in your bid. In fact you don’t submit a bid to someone, then sit there and hold your breath and wait for the phone to ring. You don’t do it that way, it doesn’t work that way, it’s not a one-shot deal. You know I put a bid out last week, I put a bid out last week, that’s wonderful, you very well may get it, but don’t hold your breath for it, move on, don’t depend on any one person. And the good customers like I said are medical, CPA firms, attorneys. Anything that ends in associates or groups in the name of their business, Matt, 9 times out of 10 do, in fact, employ a private cleaning service and they are prime accounts. It is well within their budget to pay very well for part-time cleaning, over $1,000 a month. These are the ones that you should go after, whether it’s a small office or a large office building. Accounts to stay away from are ones that are not offices, because people say well I’m going to price this gymnasium, or I’m going to price a restaurant, what do you think Sam? And what I think is that’s not an office. I think you should pursue the offices.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see people making in the office cleaning business?

The most common mistake is that they say to themselves, Okay, hey, I’m going to start a cleaning service. But then what they do is they go out and they spend money on equipment, supplies, insurance, business cards and whatever else they can think of before getting their first customer. Another thing I would say is giving up too soon. Marketing your service business is not a one-time effort, it’s not any one thing you do to get customers, there’s several different things. You should do a little bit of all of them. Somebody might say well, I did this or I did that and I didn’t hear anything, then they give up. It’s not a one-time effort. You don’t mail out 500 letters or something, and then that’s it. If you don’t hear from somebody it means you gave up too soon, and you didn’t do enough. Because I assure you it’s a very, very, very good business, even now in this economy. I have the accounts to prove it and I have the testimonials to prove it. Cleaning has never looked so good to me, Matt. There are people right now in this bad economy that are losing their jobs, and every day it’s on the news, but there is no economic bad time in commercial cleaning because the customers themselves have recession-proof businesses and they’re doing very well, and those are the ones you want to go after.

Sam Rodman is the author of the Instant Office Cleaning Kit, a how-to guide for people interested in getting started in the office cleaning business. He has owned and operated his own office cleaning service since 1992.