Starting out in a small town didn’t mean phClean owner Sara Martin had to be just another small town business.
CBT: When, why and how did you get your start in the cleaning industry and with phClean? 

SM: My dad was a farmer, and I married my first husband after three years of university classes in early childhood education. I didn’t know much about working at a “real 9-5 job with benefits,” but I worked out of my home to assist my property manager husband, taking our then-toddler with me to show apartments, take calls, deal with tenants. As our property management business got bigger, we moved into a real office, traveled a lot, had a fun life, drove fancy cars and even had our own “cleaning lady” for a few years. But I couldn’t balance a checkbook and never really knew how much money we had; I left that all to my husband.

But in 2006, I found myself a single, stay-at-home-mom who didn’t have a college degree or a job history! My husband left me to get a job and raise our daughter on my own. Since I wanted to keep my daughter at home and homeschool a bit longer, I emailed all of the contacts on our old country club mailing list: “My hubby left me and told me to get a job, so HEY – I am cleaning homes!” And I drove up to those homes to clean them…in my Mercedes…at least, until it was taken away. And that’s how I got started in the cleaning industry.

I started out cleaning homes alone in 2006, and this gave me pocket money and enough money to finish a degree at Iowa State University. But It wasn’t until I hired my first real, legal employee and started advertising in 2008 that I decided to do this for real.   

CBT: You started with one location and today have two. What’s your process – your strategic leader thought process – when you’re considering “getting bigger” and what does that mean for you? To what do you attribute your fast growth?

SM: In 2008, two years after I booked my first cleaning job, I decided this should be a real business. I wasn’t cleaning any homes by then; I had hired part time people to help and had found my start-up resources:, Debbie Sardone’s programs and ARCSI. 

As I had hired my helpers, I was using the solo cleaner model, and I kept that as I listened to all the CDs I could, downloaded all of the material I could and went for it.
I believe the reason I was able to grow fast and strong is that I did not clean. Rather, I treated my business like a business from the beginning, advertising right away with both grass roots and paid advertising. And since our home market is small, that also meant no competition, or at least not competition that was bringing it to a professional level.  

Our first “home” location is in a college town, Ames IA, with a population of 58,000. But since this includes the ISU students, the “real” residents number closer to 30,000. Looking at the population and demographics, I predict we have to start hitting a ceiling soon with growth. We also have no real competition (too small for a franchise), but that doesn’t mean someone won’t try to horn in soon. If I am going to keep growing – as opposed to sustaining – I need a larger venue, and our second location in Ankeny has that, while only being 30 minutes away; this allows us to share staff and resources while it is starting out.

CBT: Originally, your company was named Professional Home Ames, but you’ve rebranded to phClean. What prompted you to change the name and rebrand your company? What benefits or disadvantages have you experienced from the change?

SM: The name you choose for your business when you are sitting at home with no experience is WAY different than the one you SHOULD have chosen! In the beginning, I wanted to present as professional, and our town is Ames, but “professionalhomeames” is a really long thing to type. And when I began to realize we really could grow out of the town, I knew I needed to switch.  

I made the change incrementally, and stayed with the same green circle we had been using, just tweaking it so it remained identifiable. phClean gets the town name out, puts the word “clean” in, and we trademarked it! Now it is a brand name we can use in any town (or state), and it is short and sweet.

And since we worked off of our existing logo rather than starting over with a total rebranding “look,” our clients barely noticed the chance. So we’re not experiencing any disadvantages.  

CBT: When things get frustrating or you just get stuck in a rut, from where do you draw motivation, inspiration, and plain ole energy to work through them? 

SM: I go first to my small Facebook group of fellow cleaning business owners. They help me work out a thought, see something another way, or just let me vent to help clear my head.  

I draw energy by looking at the steps I CAN take and taking them rather than looking at all of the steps I have not taken yet or need to do. I’m also pretty good at not taking things too personally, which helps me not get too bogged down in negative energy. And finally, I avoid dwelling on what doesn’t work and trying someone or something else when my first (or second or third) choice doesn’t pan out like I planned. 

For motivation, I keep in the front of my mind the fact that there is nothing else I can go out and get a job doing that will give me an equivalent paycheck. So I am motivated to keep that going! But plain and simple, I also like seeing progress and forward motion, tracking successes and failures. Looking back and seeing our growth motivates me to press on. 

Now that I’ve gotten big enough to expand to a second location, I look at the bigger cleaning business owners like Tom Stewart of Castle Keepers for both the size of his operation and the skill he wields in continuing to grow. And I still get inspiration from Tom, Derek and Liz at their Cleaning Business Builders conferences.

CBT: We’ve heard you enjoy quite a high customer retention rate. Would you share your retention rate…and your secret?

SM: In 2013, our customer attrition rate was 3.55%, which fewer than 9% of cleaning companies in the US achieve. But in 2014, we drove that percentage down to 2.42% with an aggressive quality assurance program. Yes, you’re reading that right; that’s a 97.58% customer retention rate, meaning we keep 97.5 out of every 100 customers to whom we sell services.

In 2014 we added a Quality Assurance manager for four days a week, to check homes, encourage staff in the field, correct problems in the field, re-train as needed. This was the only major change. We also read and promote the ideals in the Jeffrey Gitmer book Customer Satisfaction is Worthless – Customer Loyalty is Priceless. This year we have a dedicated Staff & Quality Assurance Manager, with a part-time Quality Assurance assistant.  

I have always been heavy on staff in the office, but I also believe that that is what we need to serve well the volume of clients we have. We don’t drop balls, we are able to be prompt and proactive, and even more now, we are in the field working with staff to make that client happy. To me, that extra staffing is why we have been able to keep client loss rates so low.

The attitude we have at phClean is Client Happiness First.  All of my staff know that if a client wants to switch technicians, do it fast. If they have a problem, follow up with a prompt action and communicate it to the client. Techs let us know when clients have life events like a baby or illness, and we send cards, flowers, or drop off a small gift. We have a cupboard filled with local gift certificates that we grab and send to a client if we have “screwed up” and they let us fix it. We all know it is better to keep what you have than scramble for more new clients, and this is particularly important in a smaller community like Ames. 

We always try to do the right thing and act with integrity and have great and caring communication, and that relationship the clients have with us enables us to keep them through the occasional mistake or disappointed cleaning.  

CBT: As you look forward to celebrating your 10th anniversary next year, what goals have you accomplished along the way and what new ones are you looking forward to going after soon?

In the past nine years, going from content stay-at-home mom to owning and managing phClean is huge. Hitting $1 million in annual revenue mark is a source of pride for all of us, and keeping it above the line is essential to us now. Managing over 37 people blows my mind. It is a huge responsibility, and I don’t take it lightly. And knowing that we brought one person from tech to trainer to scheduler to being the new Manager of our 2nd location really makes me proud.

Our goal moving forward is to become a mature business: fine tune, tighten things up, and take care of what we have done well in our 1st location while growing our 2nd location to the same size in less time. I’d like to see both locations at or above $1 million in revenue in five years.  

Personally, I would like to travel even more, and do some walking adventures like hike a trail for a month! My daughter will graduate next year. and I look forward to seeing where she lands and how she grows as a person.

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