While a student at American University, Chris Schwab dabbled in freelance computer programming but decided it wasn’t for him. Schwab also knew he didn’t want to work for someone else and be tethered to an office.
He noticed that local businesses like cleaning and handyman services still operated the same way they had for thirty years (often with a very simple website or no online presence), so he saw an opportunity to create a tech-savvy, customer-friendly local cleaning business. “I felt that I could basically take these dinosaur industries -- in this case cleaning -- and bring it to the modern day world,” the 24-year-old says via Google Hangout.
With around $750 for a website, hosting and some marketing, Schwab launched Think Maids in July 2016 while finishing up his Bachelor’s degree in psychology. The company provides cleaning services in the Metro D.C. area, but Schwab hopes to expand to other markets in the near future.
Some other cleaning services have a reputation for flakiness, so Schwab focused on hiring cleaning people who were prompt and friendly rather than experienced cleaners. He initially posted a job ad for cleaners on Craigslist, but he ultimately found higher-quality applicants through Care.com.
Once applicants passed online and phone screenings, Schwab invited prospective cleaners for an interview. “I paid them to clean my house like they would for any other client, and I paid attention to things like: how on time they were, what their communication was like, how nice they were, how thorough they were with the cleaning,” he says. “I was really taking into account a lot of factors, thinking if I'd be comfortable with sending them into basically 50-60 homes a month.” He’d also do a background check on them using a service called Onfido.
Think Maids also differentiates itself through prompt customer service, so Schwab hired several virtual assistants (VAs) to help respond to customer inquiries within two to 10 minutes.
“Our official business hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but if someone emails us something urgent, we'll still reply at 8 p.m. or 10 p.m.,” he says. “We try and make ourselves always available. We think that's really important because a lot of things can change between closing and opening the next day.” Some customers don’t want to text, call or email, so Think Maids also offers online chat capabilities. Schwab says many people book through online chat, as well as through the website.
That said, the customer experience doesn’t end when the cleaner leaves. “We follow up after every single cleaning by emailing or calling them, asking how their cleaning was, if there's anything we could've done better,” Schwab says. “If those people are thinking of becoming recurring customers, we actually write down pretty meticulous notes on what they say so every time we send our team..., they get those same notes every time.”
Recurring cleanings are much more valuable than one-off cleanings, so Schwab makes sure those customers feel valued.
“When they sign up for recurring services on our site, I make a personalized little video for them, just one or two minutes long, introducing myself, introducing Think Maids and what we can do for them,” he says. “And that's me addressing them directly. It's not just a template video that I'm using.” He also offers discount codes that customers can share with friends (with no expiration date) and throws in sporadic freebies to retain recurring customers.
One of the reasons Schwab started a business was so he’d have the flexibility to travel. Since graduating in December, Schwab has focused on scaling up the business. As of mid-May, Think Maids was on track to hit $30,000 in net revenue for the month, and Schwab predicts they’ll hit $50,000 in monthly revenue by the end of the year.
Schwab recently moved to Japan, where he runs Think Maids remotely with help from his VAs. “I've gotten my VAs to handle maybe 85 to 90% of the daily tasks of the business, so I'm really just checking in with them in the last hour of the day and the first hour or two of the day of business,” he says.
The time difference between Japan and Washington, D.C. is 13 hours, which has presented challenges (scheduling phone interviews, for instance) and opportunities for Schwab. “Because it's such a different time zone, it forces me to be switched on for a couple of hours at the beginning of the day and switched on a couple hours at night,” he says. “I'm not being interrupted anymore throughout the day, and that's been amazing.”
I asked Schwab for his advice on entrepreneurship. Here’s what he said.
“Start with a small local business -- whether that's painting or cleaning or handyman work, power washing, whatever it is -- and build up from there,” Schwab says.
“Those things don't seem glamorous but they're extremely entrepreneurial, and you learn an amazing amount of skills that you may not in a tech company.” Schwab says that taking on a seemingly boring industry instead of launching another app or tech startup was one reason he’s succeeded. “I think there's a lot of value in doing something boring and hard,” he says. “It's paid off for me a lot.”
Small, local service businesses don’t require much startup capital. “You literally can start an actual business with a couple hundred dollars,” Schwab says. “It may not be a big tech company, but I think local business are a great entry point.”
While a full-time college student, Schwab tried to handle customer service himself. “I was dealing with a dozen customers a day,” he says. “It was too much, and it was just completely overwhelming. What I would do differently is I would get comfortable giving other people tasks earlier and make sure that I'm always working every single week on how I can automate and pass off my tasks that I do to others so I can keep focusing on growing it.”
Delegating to VAs was a real game-changer for Think Maids. “I started really seeing some growth again because I had a passion for it again and I had more time and energy to devote to the more important parts of the business,” he says.
As Schwab’s story shows, you don’t always need a completely new idea to create a thriving business. Identifying a need that isn’t being adequately served is a great strategy for any aspiring entrepreneur. Hone your ability to identify needs that aren’t being met and practice delegating so you’re well on your way to a new business idea.
Susan Johnston Taylor (@UrbanMuseWriter) is a freelance writer who’s contributed business and personal finance stories to The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Entrepreneur, Fast Company and U.S. News & World Report online. She lives in Austin, Texas, and gets her frugal Yankee habits from her mother’s side of the family.
In 2009, when Justin Wetherill dropped his brand-new iPhone 3G and shattered the screen, the self-proclaimed tech geek ordered the replacement parts online and tried to fix it himself. That attempt wound up further damaging his phone, but it also inspired him to launch an electronics-repair business called uBreakiFix.
Wetherill, then 21, and his college friend David Reiff bought broken phones on eBay and learned to fix them through trial and error. They set up a website and started repairing broken screens via mail in a living room. Once they realized people wanted a quicker turnaround, the pair started meeting customers in person.
“I was fixing phones at Panera on my lunch break, he was fixing phones at Panera all day,” Wetherill says. “We were doing the mail-in phones at night after I got off work.”
Wetherill maxed out his credit card to the tune of $5,000 to get the business going. Another friend, Eddie Trujillo, suggested they open a brick-and-mortar location. Initially, Wetherill and Reiff didn’t want the risk of a storefront, but Trujillo put up the money and they opened their first store in Orlando, Florida, in September 2009.
At $800 per month in rent, the store wasn’t in the best part of town. Still, in that store’s second month of business, it already surpassed sales from their website serving the entire country.
“There were people driving from Jacksonville, Tampa, driving hours to come get their phone fixed the same day rather than be without it,” Wetherill says. “So we started doing more stores.”
[caption id="attachment_53218" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Photo courtsey of Steven Burr Williams[/caption]
Between 2009 and the end of 2012, uBreakiFix opened 47 corporate stores. After building a portal to track metrics, like sales, employee hours and parts availability, they made the leap into franchising in 2013.
“We were at a point that we could comfortably share the model with people outside of the system and drive a consistent experience,” Wetherill says.
The company now has more than 290 locations, including franchises in the U.S., Canada, and Trinidad and Tobago. Wetherill says he plans to end the year with 450 uBreakiFix locations. Total storefront revenue hit $98 million last year, and they’re projecting $140 million in revenue this year.
“The big challenge [...] is changing the mindset of society that electronics are worth fixing and they’re not just disposable,” Wetherill says. In fact, earlier this year, the company surveyed 1,000 people about what they do when they break their phone: Only 24% even considered repairing it.
In many cases, repairing broken electronics is not only cheaper than replacing them, but it’s also more eco-friendly.
Wetherill attributes much of his success to positive word of mouth. “When somebody actually thinks about repair and takes a chance on uBreakiFix, they’re certainly surprised with the experience and we've seen that be pretty contagious in the local community,” he says. “We pride ourselves in providing extraordinary customer service experiences.”
I asked Wetherill to share his best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. Here’s what he told me.
Rather than jumping right into a commercial lease and the stress of a physical location, Wetherill started small and proved there was demand for this phone-repair service.
“If you have an idea, validate it amongst some peers, make sure it’s worth chasing,” he says. If you see good results from your tests, “you can make it happen.”
While working as an accountant, Wetherill realized the office life wasn’t for him. He tried several business ideas, including selling T-shirts and building computers, before finding one that worked.
“We were able to wedge ourselves in a niche that there was a lot of demand for and not a lot of supply,” he says. “We stumbled upon this idea and were in the right place at the right time.”
While uBreakIFix started out fixing phones, it now repairs other electronics as well, including computers, tablets and game consoles.
Although he didn’t originally want the risk and overhead of a brick-and-mortar store, Wetherill’s willingness to change his position and take that leap paid off big-time.
Wetherill hired his friends early on, a strategy that burns some business owners. He says holding people accountable has kept them working hard instead of coasting on friendships.
“We have created a culture where we try to very clearly outline what success looks like in a role,” he says.
“We very clearly articulate how that is measured and then very clearly articulate what the rewards for meeting or exceeding expectations are.”
To spread goodwill with potential customers, uBreakiFix offers free diagnostic tests on things like checking your battery’s charge.
“If it’s something that a technician can just fix quickly right there at the front desk, then we do that and send people on their way,” he explains.
“If it’s more in-depth we provide a quote and it’s no pressure to either move forward with the repair or just come pick up your device.”
Your Turn: Have you ever wanted to start a business? What service or product can you offer to fill an unmet need?
Susan Johnston Taylor (@UrbanMuseWriter) is a freelance writer who’s contributed business and personal finance stories to The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Entrepreneur, Fast Company and U.S. News & World Report online. She lives in Austin, Texas and gets her frugal Yankee habits from her mother’s side of the family.
While growing up on a Minnesota dairy farm, Cristen Breuer noticed her bulldog Moose liked to play with the black rubber tubes used for milking cows.
That discovery led the registered nurse to upcycle the tubes into dog tug toys. In 2012, she started selling the “Mootugs” on Etsy as a side business for between $14 and $21 each.
Fast forward to 2015, when she brought in six figures -- and quit her full-time job.
Here’s how Breuer built her side hustle into a full-time business.
[caption id="attachment_37206" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Image from French Bulldog Rescue Network[/caption]
Breuer started Mootugs as a hobby and a way to raise money for the French Bulldog Rescue Network.
“I was a new volunteer at the time and since I was unable to foster, I looked for another way I could contribute,” she says. “Since my own bulldog liked to play with the milking tubes, we thought it might be a fun item other people’s dogs would enjoy too.”
She’d pick a rescue organization to support each month and donate a percentage of the proceeds to the rescue in exchange for them helping her promote the toys.
Thanks to positive word-of-mouth, Mootugs was featured in the magazines Country Living and Modern Dog, and landed a five-figure wholesale deal with the dog subscription service BarkBox.
For three months, Breuer and her husband spent evenings and weekends making Mootugs by hand -- about 600 on a weekend and 150 during an evening.
“A bedroom in our house was emptied out so we could stack it (to the ceiling) with boxes of toys,” she says. “It was so much work and our friends and family thought we were totally crazy.”
Despite her success with BarkBox, Mootugs didn’t take off the way Breuer had hoped, so she brainstormed other ideas.
[caption id="attachment_37207" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Image from BadTags/Etsy[/caption]
At the same time, she was fostering dogs and says she “wanted identification tags for my foster and resident dogs that matched their silly personalities.”
She couldn’t find tags that said “Oh **** I’m Lost” for her big awkward bloodhound or “Can’t control my licker” for her bulldog that loved to lick everything in sight, so she learned how to make the tags herself.
In 2014, Breuer used funds from the wholesale deal with BarkBox to purchase tag-making equipment and launch a second Etsy shop called Bad Tags. That shop sells handmade, personalized dog ID tags with cute and sassy sayings on them like “the snuggle is real” and “straight outta rescue.” They sell for $14.
Once Bad Tags launched, social media buzz helped drive sales.
“It immediately took off,” Breuer says. “Friends and family ordered tags and they loved them. They shared pictures of the dogs wearing the tags and it snowballed. I started getting orders from strangers.”
In addition to the Etsy shop, she also launched a standalone website for Bad Tags.
[caption id="attachment_37208" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Image from Mootugs/Etsy[/caption]
But it wasn’t easy for Breuer to balance her two side hustles and her full-time job. She earned about $68,000 a year as a nurse and processed around $100 in orders per day out of her house, a pace that just wasn’t sustainable.
“I’d be up all night taking care of patients, getting some sleep during the day and waking up with enough time to fulfill orders,” she says “They’re all handmade, so I was stretched so thin with my time.”
Something had to give.
“It got to the point where I had to continue nursing and put the two businesses on the back burner or I could take the leap and go for it,” she says.
She decided to go for it.
In January 2015, Breuer and her husband sold their big suburban home and moved into a little fixer-upper house on a hobby farm so they’d have fewer financial obligations and she’d feel more comfortable leaving her job.
[caption id="attachment_37209" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Samantha Dunscombe - The Penny Hoarder[/caption]
Despite the risk, Breuer’s leap has paid off.
Last year, her two businesses combined averaged $10,415 in sales per month (80% of which is Bad Tags) and overall sales hit six figures.
Breuer is expecting a big fourth quarter this year, since many of her customers order her products as holiday gifts. In addition, the “shop small” movement, where consumers support small, local businesses over large corporations, also gets a boost around the holidays.
These days, Breuer hand-makes about 30 orders per day and only closes up shop most nights when her husband reminds her to get off the computer.
“I work more being self-employed than I did working as a nurse,” she admits. “It’s a 24/7 job, but I love it.”
Your turn: Have you tried selling on Etsy? What other pet products might you make and sell?
Susan Johnston Taylor is a proud dog mom to a rescue Chihuahua named Sebastian and a freelance writer who’s contributed business and personal finance stories to The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Entrepreneur, Fast Company and U.S. News & World Report online. She gets her frugal Yankee habits from her mother’s side of the family.