Concern for health and desire for time leads to winning growth formula for community-oriented cleaning company.
CBT: Tell us about when and why you started Absolutely Clean.
SN: I had dabbled in Nursing school, had been a stay-at-home-mom for 12 years and had taught pre-school. For a few years, I was the director of a facility in Nebraska. But when my son was diagnosed with cancer, I had to find a job where I was in charge of my schedule.
At that time, I was on the procurement committee for a local charity and had collected a gift certificate for one of the franchise maid services. They told me that the $65 gift certificate might clean a kitchen – and that was 15 years ago. So when it was time for me to make choices about what kind of business to start, that concept was always in my head because I’m a rock star cleaner with a touch of OCD.
CBT: How large is your company now and how big would you like it to be?
SN: Today, Absolutely Clean has 20 employees, though we operate comfortably at 25 with our current client base. We’re not quite large enough yet to consider opening a second location right now; for that, we will need to grow to about 35-40 employees.
CBT: One of the things you’re known for is your seasonal update of your logo. How do you keep the new designs fresh while staying true to your core brand?
SN: I have a great designer – Right Eye Digital – in my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. His team knows who we are and hits it on the head every time. I have only sent a design back once; they consistently nail it on the first try. He listens and has a great eye for our style and concept.
CBT: Through Absolutely Clean, you work hard to raise money and awareness for various community outreach programs. How do you balance your marketing and community outreach efforts?
SN: My cleaning company, Absolutely Clean, is definitely a for-profit company, and I also have a not-for-profit organization, Time in a Bottle, through which we donate cleanings within our local community.
My secret: I have a great team, and we advertise through the community. Instead of traditional flyers that list what we can do, we highlight how you can help us give back to the community.
People want to do business with us because of our mission; part of the Absolutely Clean mission statement is “fostering service to others.” We believe strongly in that. In fact, we had an employee quit once over this part of our mission, writing on the exit statement that “all you care about is giving.” True story. If we are not promoting our annual carnival, then we have a monthly charity we’re working with. I network with our food bank and the local chapter of the American Cancer Society, to name a few. And leaders in our community also seek us out for networking. It’s a win-win. We don’t sell a clean home; we consider that a “given.” We sell time.
CBT: You’re among a small but growing group of cleaning business owners who find it valuable to make the professional products you use available for your clients to purchase from you. How do you make it work – balancing both service sales and product sales?
SN: We believe strongly in the products we use professionally, so we want our clients to clean in a healthy manner when we are not there. We don’t worry about them wanting to clean on their own; buying the products we use doesn’t necessarily save them the time we sell, but it does ensure that the air they breathe is healthy between visits. I mean, we all have to clean up after ourselves after dinner!
For my own use, I take a GenEon Trio home unit with me on vacation, especially on cruise ships (I even spray in the vents). We encourage our clients to do the same in their homes and when they are away from home.
CBT: In June, you held your Gift of Time Gala, one of the fundraisers for Time in a Bottle. What led you to add this community/charity arm to your existing business ventures?
SN: Time in a Bottle is our not-for-profit organization. It is in the infant stages and takes up most of my time these days. I am fortunate to not have to be involved in most of the day-to-day operation at this point with Absolutely Clean, and my passion for Time in a Bottle is the reason I continue in this industry.
Through Time in a Bottle, we clean for families who have children with cancer or moms/dads on the cancer journey. Each family receives five cleans which they can choose to use at their discretion, on whatever schedule works for them.
Currently we are an Iowa 501(c)(3) and are awaiting our federal 501(c)(3) approval. Once we obtain federal status, our board will discuss how we can make Time in a Bottle partnerships available to other maid services nationwide. Our vision is unique and ambitious, and we want to welcome all who desire to embrace it with us.
CBT: You were among the first cleaning business owners to truly embrace and master social media marketing, primarily through Facebook. What was your strategy and why do you think it worked?
SN: It works because I am engaged with my fans through social media. My strategy involved a full marketing plan that continues each and every year. It’s just a circle within our community that is about to end on July 12 with our Carnival. The circle grows a little wider each year and will continue to grow. Do you remember the Lamb Chop song? “This is the song that never ends…” Mine is the marketing plan that never ends.
I like to compare it to a great relationship: it takes work, understanding, humility and the ability to listen. It also takes you giving as much as you take and then adding in another 50%. That’s the social media formula, in my opinion. I have many personalities as friends, and the same is true with my fan base. Think of it like you’re reaching out to your friends. If they leave messages or post on your wall, but you never respond or even like their posts, do you think your friends will keep looking for a great experience with you? It’s the same with your fans and customers. Engage!
CBT: You started Absolutely Clean to ensure you had time you wanted to spend with your then-young family. How has your motivation strengthened or changed over the years? What can you tell other business owners about managing motivation for the long-run?
SN: About four years ago, we actually strayed from our initial business plan. We got away from hiring people who needed a flexible schedule because it was hard to manage a larger client base. That change was almost the death of us. Since we returned to my original mission in January 2014, things have been a lot smoother. I am not struggling to find staff again; I am only hiring service-minded individuals who have a focus similar to mine.
It’s been amazing to get back to our core values instead of letting the schedule be in charge. We are back to the people. As a result, we saw no growth during the first half of 2014 – on purpose. It’s been well worth sticking to our principles.
I can tell you that there is a lot of information out there about how to run a business, but if you don’t stick to what you know will work best for you and your clients, it really doesn’t matter how systemized you become. Managing people – both employees and customers – is what you’re doing through your cleaning business; you’re not managing widgets. Discover whom your ideal employee is; that’s just as important as discovering whom your ideal client is.
Gallery: 1) Cancer patient and young client Nora returned home from treatment to find her yard being Flocked with pink flamingos, an ongoing fundraiser for Time in a Bottle, 2) Marketing piece for Time in a Bottle’s 4th Annual Cleaning Up Cancer Carninval, 3) Stephanie’s daughter wearing Carnival sponsor shirt