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How to Start and Grow a Commercial Cleaning Company: 16 Tips From an Owner of a $3 Million Janitorial Company

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How to Start and Grow a Commercial Cleaning Company: 16 Tips From an Owner of a $3 Million Janitorial Company
Tips to Start and Grow a Janitorial Company

Ten years ago, I made the best decision of my life. I decided to change course completely and start a janitorial company. I plunged right in! Ten years ago, I was a senior manager at a national hospitality chain. I knew there wasn’t any opportunity for me to get ownership in the restaurant, and I was getting tired of working for others.

My wife’s parents immigrated to Canada from Iraq as refugees, with little knowledge of English and even less money in their pockets. Her father became a janitor for a school and worked for many years as a janitor until the day he retired. They also took on, as a family, some nightly cleaning contracts. Fast forward to today, all five of his children are university degree educated, and all very successful.

My wife suggested that I follow in her father’s footsteps and start a janitorial company. Her reasoning was it wouldn’t cost me much money to start, there is an abundance of demand for the service, and there are great people, many of them immigrants like her father, out there ready to work hard and honourably.

At first, I didn’t take the idea too seriously, discounted it.  But, after seeing what we were paying our janitorial company at the restaurant, how badly they treated their staff, and how unprofessional the service really was, I realized she might just be on to something.

I did some research. I observed that the janitorial business can be quite profitable, does not require much for financial investment, has a profusion of opportunity, and often lacked professionalism and systems which I knew I could bring to the industry.

Extremely impressed with his work ethic, I sat down with one of the servers at the restaurant I managed and said let’s start a commercial cleaning company. Without hesitation, he was in.

Today, we do roughly $3 million in annual sales and are growing every year.

I would like to share with others, who may just be starting, or perhaps struggling to run a commercial cleaning company, some of the ways I built mine.

Here are my 16 questions and tips on how to start and grow a commercial cleaning company.

Should I build a business plan for my janitorial company?

I would bet the majority of those who are starting a janitorial company have not made a thorough, well laid-out business plan. I would also guess that there is a very close positive correlation between the janitorial company that builds a plan, and the company that succeeds.

Before I started the cleaning company, I probably wrote 20 different business plans, on different kinds of businesses. Every time I wrote the plan, I would hit a road block, finding big holes in my plan. I would find that the business might not have a big enough demand, that it required too much capital to start,  or that the field was saturated with too many competitors relative to  the amount of demand, on and on.

When I built the business plan for my company Picture Perfect Cleaning, it became incredibly clear to me that the commercial cleaning business has tremendous upside, doesn’t require very much capital, has an abundance of demand, and is fairly easy to start.

The most interesting part about writing the business plan is to look back at it, nine years later, to see what I wrote, and what has actually came to fruition. It’s incredible how much of our business today is living and breathing the business plan I wrote nine years ago.

Creating a business plan for your business forces you to create a mission and vision for your business, helps identify the clients you want to target, clarifies your finances, and really illuminates your brand and who you are as a company. It helps create your short-term and long-term goals as well.

I personally used Business Plans For Dummies to create my business plan, but there are plenty of resources out there.

starting a janitorial company

Is a janitorial business profitable?

The wonderful thing about starting a janitorial company, is it doesn’t require a lot of money at the beginning. You can start very small, as we did with our business, and gradually build it up. All you need is enough money to get incorporated and purchase a vacuum, mop and mop bucket, and other small supplies, and you’re ready to provide your services!

Once you are up and running, the janitorial business can be quite profitable. Everyone has different margins, depending on their business model, however, I would suggest you can make about 25% profit before EBITDA. If managed well, the janitorial business can be an extremely healthy business to own.

Is the cleaning business recession proof?

Very few businesses are recession proof, and although I wouldn’t call the cleaning business recession proof, I would call it recession resistant. Running our business in Calgary, Alberta since 2010, we have seen many hard times in the province, including some real recessions. Despite office and business vacancies being quite high, and the recession being hard on the economy, we have continued to grow our cleaning company every single year.

During the recession times, we didn’t grow our cleaning company as fast; However, we still managed to grow the business, and not go down in sales. The reason for this, is because the market share for the janitorial business is so spread out. There is such a large pie to take from, if you are providing better services then everyone else, and targeting your marketing dollars wisely, you will not feel the same impact as most other businesses in a recession.

Since originally writing this blog, we have experienced the greatest pandemic of our time. COVID-19 has truly tested the question, “is the cleaning business is recession proof?” It has certainly been a roller-coaster of a ride for us. Initially we lost a significant amount of business due to closures. After about one month of the pandemic, we were asked, due to outbreak and preventative maintenance, to take on two large senior care facilities, adding 22 full time custodians, extremely fast. Now, many of our businesses are beginning to reopen, and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  We withstood one of the greatest tests a business can possibly go through, which proved to me, if you work hard enough at it, diversify the industries you target, it is rescission resistant.

As I discuss in another blog, during a pandemic like COVID-19, there is great hope for the commercial cleaning services industry, and I am extremely optimistic to see how the commercial cleaning service industry is going to progress over the next year or two, from the results of COVID-19.

How do I start a janitorial company?

Once I built the business plan, I began putting feelers out to every single person I knew or spoke to, telling them that I was starting a janitorial cleaning company. From my dentist and barber, to my friends and family, to all the customers and co-workers I worked with at the restaurant, I told them all.

An old friend that I used to work with was a manager of two small coffee shops. I told him my plan of starting a janitorial company, and he happily said that we could start with his coffee shops. My partner took one shop, and I took the other. We cleaned them seven days a week, and it was the perfect setting for us to learn the ropes of the business.  Looking back now, we had no idea what we were doing, but it certainly was an amazing learning experience. And thankfully, cleaning is not rocket science, so we were able to leave the place sparkling clean, The only problem was it took way more time than it should have.

By talking to everyone I knew, we ended up with jobs cleaning my dentist’s, my dermatologist’s, and my doctor’s office. We also clean the gymnastic gym my daughter goes to, my neighbour’s law office, the Church where I knew the priest, , and more. Almost all of these contracts, led to other contracts as well, through referrals. I promise you if you start building strong relationship anywhere you go, and you never pressure them, but just share your sincere excitement with them about what you are doing, you will find that people will be eager to support you.

Should I keep my day job?

If you haven’t heard this yet, hear it from me. The most successful entrepreneurs are often those who are desperate. There are numerous examples of immigrants who come to Canada or the United States with little money, and either they, or their children, become a huge success story. Or someone from  Canada or the United States who came from a less fortunate environment becomes a leading business mogul. I believe I know why this happens. It is because they are desperate to put food on their table, they are tired of financial hardship, and they are deeply motivated to have the opposite. These people may not have much education either, so they have fewer options to build a professional career. Instead, these individuals become hyper-focused to not only survive but to break the chain of poverty for themselves and their future generations.

This brings me to my point. If you are working a day job, and trying to casually start a janitorial business on the side, I will be surprised to see it succeed until you quit your day job. Get desperate, put a gun to your head (not literally, of course) to say if you don’t work your butt off you won’t be able to put food on your table. Watch how that desperation will manifest itself into success.

Now, I know many of you reading this will respond that you are not in a financial position to just quit your day job. You have bills to pay, perhaps kids to support, etc…, I understand this, and certainly, there are exceptions; however, to get to the multimillion dollar business that you can get to, it will require ultimate sacrifice.

How to keep my janitorial business on track?

From the very beginning of our business to the present day, we have had structured weekly meetings. It started with my partner and myself meeting at my kitchen table, in my 900 sq.ft. condo every Monday morning. We established a well-structured agenda for the meeting that would take 2 hours to complete. We would cover sales, staff, clients, supplies, profit and education (anything we’ve learned or want to learn). We still have these same meetings today, but now with 9 managers in the room.

Although, some might find meetings a waste of time, I can’t express how important they are. They allow you to reflect on the previous week, adjust your goals, get on the same page and catch any details you may have missed, forgotten about, etc…. As we have grown, they are even more important, so that all of our management team are on the same page. As well, it, gives them an opportunity to present their week past achievements and next weeks goals. It also is a good opportunity to provide feedback, and share best practices for any challenges that may be arising.

Where can I learn about building and growing my commercial cleaning company?

Again, lucky for me, janitorial services aren’t rocket science. It’s simple enough that anyone can do it, but complicated enough that only few can do it great. It’s important that you are always learning and growing to understand the commercial cleaning industry.

Nowadays, there are plenty of resources to learn from. I highly suggest joining the Facebook page Grow My Cleaning Company. Mike Campion has created a wonderful community there, where we janitorial entrepreneurs can come, share our challenges, and get many responses to these challenges. Generally, people are very supportive on this page, and are often in the same shoes as us. I also took Mike’s course, and he is a fantastic guy, with plenty of knowledge to share with people like us.

I find Dan Liebrecht from CleanGuru extremely helpful as well. He makes Youtube video’s that cover a wide range of janitorial topics, and he’s got a wealth of insight to share. When I first started the business, I watched Dan’s videos quite a bit.

What kind of business relationships should I build for my commercial cleaning company?

Building strong, long term relationships in business is imperative. You want to find vendors that match your companies cultural DNA. Find vendors who care as much about customer service, execution and loyalty. Besides labour, our next biggest cost is cleaning supplies and equipment. It took us about six months of trying a few different companies, but once we found the right janitorial supplier, we have stuck with them ever since. They are just as passionate about the industry as we are, take customer service seriously, and always find solutions to our problems.

Because of our loyalty, and continued growth in sales volume, we get greater discounts than most. We also have been able to create excellent systems with our supplier, for picking up and delivering the supplies. Creating that consistency with them has eliminated many stresses and costs that could arise without the strong relationship.

In the commercial cleaning industry, there are a handful of other professionals that you will deal with, besides your staff, clients and equipment supplier. Others you want to make sure you have very strong relationships with may be your accountants, lawyers, SEO managers, website designers, uniform printers, to name a few.

building relationship on starting your company

Is starting and growing a janitorial business hard work?

If you want to build a janitorial company properly, for long term growth, you had better be ready to work your butt off. Building a janitorial company is no walk in the park.

For the first three years of starting the janitorial cleaning business, my partner and I found ourselves cleaning almost every night, going home to sleep for a few hours, then working at our desks all day, until the cleaning started again at night. There were days that I thought I was living a nightmare, and questioned if I was crazy for getting into this business in the first place. But most days, I saw the progression, the potential and the positive results. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that motivated me to work even harder to get there.

We certainly did reach the light at the end of the tunnel, and now I don’t believe I’ve actually cleaned a location myself, besides helping wax a floor not that long ago, in 3-4 years or so. Most of my work today is at my desk, steering the company’s ship. I’m now in a new tunnel, looking to get from $3 Million to $10 Million in yearly sales. The work is different, and certainly provides a lot more flexibility, than in my first years, but it’s still hard, and requires a tremendous amount of focus. Most importantly, however, it is a lot of fun!

How should I start selling my janitorial services?

Everyone wants to know the secret sauce to growing their cleaning company. I tell them, “Especially when you first are starting your janitorial business, and you have little or no revenue coming in, get on the phone and start making cold calls. That’s your secret sauce to grow you cleaning company…cold calling.”

Every second of every day that you aren’t cleaning or doing administrative work, you should be cold calling businesses in your area. Although I made a script, I rarely used it, because  I preferred being more natural on the phone call to being scripted. Seek out the decision maker and ask if you can swing by to provide a quote. It’s pretty simple, but requires having a strong backbone, as you will get told “no” over and over again. For every “no” you get, it means you are one no closer to a yes. If you call 50 businesses a day, you are bound to get at least a few leads each week.

Once you build some positive cash flow, and have some extra profit to reinvest, then you can start looking at other marketing initiatives.

How to work on my janitorial business and not in it?

You have likely heard the expression “work on the business, not in the business.” This is impossible to do without building, from the beginning, the proper systems for your janitorial company. Every step we took, even when it was just my partner and me, we built a system for it.

We would simplify and break down every single job to the most precise detail. We built routines for every job we had that, specifying every step along the way. From “Unlock the door, turn off the alarm, get the blue cloth, fill up mop bucket” etc…. This way, once we were ready to hire our first custodian, we had a perfect and efficient routine for them to be trained on and follow. To this day, we still build these routines for every client we take on. The routines are built in accordance with our contract that we created with the client.

Once we were ready to hire managers, these systems were even more important, as we could pass on our systems to them, by training them thoroughly on them, and they could now perform our jobs as well as, and hopefully better, than us.

Everything within your business should have a system. If you don’t have a system for something, ask yourself what the system should be, and work diligently to build it. We could not have grown to $3 million a year in sales without having systems in every part of our business.

What will really make my cleaning company grow?

After the two coffee shops we cleaned, our third client was a small, four floor condo building. I got this job from a cold call to a husband-and-wife property management company. I was so shocked when he said we could quote it, and even more shocked when we got the job!

My partner and I were so excited about it, that we, and one other person, spent three full days cleaning the small condo top to bottom. We cleaned every wall, light cover, nook and cranny that we could find. We even changed all the lightbulbs for them, as more than half of them were burnt out.

The feedback from the residents was incredible! They said it was so clean and bright in there now, it felt like a hospital. All the residents, as well as the property manager, were ecstatic!

The property managers then called us and asked if we would like to take on the contract for a much larger building that would require a full time custodian on site, Monday to Friday. This was our fourth contract. We took the same approach as we had taken at the first condo, and managed, once again, to please  all the residents.

One property after another, the property management company began filling us up with condos to clean. To this day, nine years later, we still clean the first, second and third condos that they gave us.

They decided to sell their property management company. However, the wife kept going in the industry. She became an onsite manager of an extremely large condo. Guess what happened? We got the cleaning contract there! We still have it today.

She recently has moved to another even larger building with over 700 units, and we are in discussion of quoting it.

My point is, it’s amazing what can happen when you work extremely hard, with integrity and care, and go above and beyond the client’s expectations. Eventually, this approach to business will come back to reward you.

What’s the most important contributing factors to having a successful commercial cleaning company?

Anyone who has hired people before, or even managed people, knows the frustrations that can occur, when you hire the wrong person. That one wrong person can really ruin it for you and everyone else. They can suck your attention and drain your emotional energy, while hiring the right person will contribute to growing your janitorial company.

I truly believe that one of the major contributing factors in our success is taking the hiring process extremely seriously, and doing it slowly and meticulously. We currently have,roughly, 115 custodians, and to this day, I’ve hired 90% of them myself. This is one part of the business I have not yet let go of, as there is nothing more important than having the right people working for us.

In the janitorial industry, your labor cost is by far your largest cost. Nothing else even comes close. Once you add in management, your labor cost could be as high as 70%. If you don’t get the hiring process right, your commercial cleaning business will have little-to-no chance of long term success.

When I’m looking to hire, I try to get as many applicants as possible. The more that come in, the more likely it is that I will find the right person. Ideally, I receive 60-90 resumes to filter through. From there, I typically call back 20 or so. I have a quick 5-10 minute phone call with those applicants confirming they meet our requirements. Finally, from those 20 or so calls, I narrow it down to about 10 people to have a face-to-face interview with.

My face to face interviews (typically at a coffee shop) are intentionally quite casual. I want the people I’m meeting to feel comfortable with me, and to show me their true identity. I try to get to know them on a personal level, as well as understand their professional cleaning experience.

I am looking for custodians who are positive, friendly, caring, loyal, and not greedy, have a strong work ethic,, high standards for everything they do, nice smile, and good family values.

With my thorough hiring process, I can almost always find the person I’m looking for. They are out there, but you have to put in the time and effort in order to find them.

How should I treat my cleaners in my janitorial business?

Before I started the janitorial company, I spoke with a few owners of other janitorial companies as part of my market research. Every one of them expressed the challenges of finding and keeping good people. They literally tried to scare me away from the cleaning industry because of this challenge.

Thankfully, I was not only not scared, but I was excited, about the challenge. I knew that if we treated our people better than anyone else in the janitorial industry, we would not only be incredibly successful, but I could also go to bed at night, knowing I was creating jobs that people love.

We have a philosophy that work at Picture Perfect Cleaning should be the best job our workers have ever had. It may not be the most money they’ve ever made, or will make, but we do our best to ensure that they will never find another organization that will care for them more, provide more flexibility, and appreciate all their hard work as much as we do.

Every decision you make as a janitorial business owner, that affects your custodians, should be, “If I do _____ , will it be the best job they’ve ever had?” and “what can I do to make it the best job they’ve ever had?”

Align yourself with this philosophy, don’t just say you’re doing it, but actually do it, and you will be on your way to creating a solid foundation for your commercial.   cleaning business  and a culture that truly flourishes.

Do I need an office for my cleaning or janitorial business?

As I mentioned, we have roughly 165 clients and 115 custodians, as well as a management team of 9 people, and we have never had a need for an office.

There has never been a better time to do business. The technology we have at our fingertips allows us to be incredibly efficient. Using apps like Google Drive, Zoom, Dropbox and Gmail, we are able to communicate in an incredibly rapid and efficient manner. Our management team rents out a private room once a week, to have our weekly meetings and drop off all our paper work and expenses to our Business Administrator. We also often meet individually for one-on-one’s.  Otherwise, we have no need whatsoever for an office .

Coffee shops have become my second home. I do all my one-on-one’s with our management personnel, and all my interviews, at a coffee shop.

Not only is not having an office a major cost savings which you can pass on to the client, but it also allows myself and the rest of the management team to make extremely efficient use of our precious time. Having my office at home, allows me to save significant amounts of  time driving to and from an office. Our management personnel love it because they can be much more flexible with their time. If they have to take care of a family emergency, they are right there. If they need a quick afternoon nap, they can  take it.

We don’t micromanage our managers, but we do create very tangible goals that they need to achieve, and as long as they are achieving these, we give them the freedom to work on their own hours. Because of this freedom, and as long as you hire the right managers, I am convinced that they’ll work even harder for you , than if they were being micromanaged and in an office.

Since writing this blog, and going through COVID-19, I do not think my words could be truer in this section. The world is quickly learning that an office space is often not needed, and technology is available to make our lives much more efficient. Many who had rejected the idea of not having an office, are now embracing it, and realizing the economic benefits, and productivity increase.

Major companies are jumping on the work from home model. Shopify, is giving its employees $1,000 to furnish their work-from-home setups with whatever gear they need. Twitter has guaranteed that if workers want to work from home forever, Twitter will enable them to do so. Bank of Montreal (BMO) is promoting a blended home-office work schedule, with 30-80% of employees expected to have some remote, at-home work.

The future of how we work is getting a face lift like never before. I am grateful commercial cleaning services business has always been set up and prepared for this face lift.

Should I take on one off jobs for my janitorial services company?

Some business owners take the approach that they will say “yes” to everything, and take on anything they can get, even if it’s not in the typical work they do in their business is. They try to be everything for everyone, and don’t know how to say “no.”

 Sure, this approach will garner some good cash in your pockets in  the short term.But,  to build a long term business, you must focus on what you are amazing at, and not veer off  course to collect any shiny penny that you see along the way.

The janitorial, cleaning industry can cover a lot of different types of services; commercial cleaning, residential cleaning, post construction cleaning, move in/move out cleaning, one time deep cleans, floor waxing, carpet shampooing, window cleaning, parkade cleaning and so much more.  My company, from day one, focused on ongoing, commercial cleaning (once a week, twice a week, seven times a week, etc.. We would not take on one-off jobs, as we knew they would become a distraction from what we were doing for our ongoing clients, and from what we are good at. That said, for our ongoing clients, we will certainly take on one-off jobs,  such as carpet cleaning, or waxing.

Decide what you want to do, and become the leading expert in it. Take the long term approach, and don’t be afraid to say “no” to business, if it isn’t consistent with what you do, and if it is likely to pull you away from your focus. Keep things as simple and streamlined as possible. Don’t add on a tone of extra work, so that you can be totally absorbed in coordinating and managing it. Be very specific with what you do, and don’t look back.

I hope you found this blog useful. I would love to hear from you, if you have any questions, feedback or perhaps, if you disagree with any of my ideas (that’s totally okay too because we can all learn best practices from each other).

growing janitorial services family

How to Start and Grow a Commercial Cleaning Company: 14 Tips From an Owner of a $3 Million Janitorial Company | Picture Perfect Cleaning, Inc. — Calgary, Alberta

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