How to start a cleaning business

A cleaning business is a popular choice for sole traders. In theory all you need is a sponge, a bottle of Flash and some good old elbow grease. The reality is often far more complicated. Cleaning businesses cover everything from one cleaner with a couple of domestic properties to maintain each week, to a large commercial business with thousands of staff on the books. There are domestic cleaners, office cleaners, hospital and school cleaners and then let’s not forget the other niches in this industry such as carpet, window and vehicle cleaners. The cleaning industry, sadly,  has been affected as much as any other sector by the recession; according to a report published by industry analysts Plimsoll in May 2010, 382 companies in the industry had lost more than a third of their value in the space of a year. However an abundance of opportunities remain. According to the Cleaning and Support Services Association (CSSA), the cleaning and support services industry is worth around £10bn, and employs approximately 820,000 people. The industry is traditionally dominated by small organisations, with around a third of all UK cleaning staff working within companies with no more than nine employees.


Who is a cleaning business suited to?

It’s an industry for perfectionists. Cleaning is all about making places look presentable and tidy, so if you’re not motivated enough to make things spotless it is likely to filter through to your staff and company ethics. You’ll also need to instil confidence in your clients, so good customer relations skills are essential. It doesn’t matter if the majority of the work is done when clients aren’t at home or out of the office – the point is they have to trust you implicitly if they’re going to hand over the keys to their property, so first impressions count. Running a cleaning business of any real size will require impeccable administrative skills. If you want to make any real profit you will need to be juggling hundreds or even thousands of clients, so meticulous appointment records must be kept. If you’re a little nervous about your own business skills then a franchise might be well-suited to you. The cleaning industry is a popular one for franchisors and there are a lot of opportunities out there to buy a readymade and branded model in this area (you can browse if there are any cleaning franchise opportunities that suit you here in our franchise directory). However, if your business really takes off you may find a franchise too restrictive for your liking. You’ll have to weigh up all the pros and cons before deciding to go it alone completely or opt for a franchise. Buying a franchise with Time For You, one of the biggest domestic cleaning franchises in the UK, typically costs around £12,000. Sarah Jackson, an entrepreneur now running successful care and networking companies in Milton Keynes, was a key franchisee between 2005 and 2011. She told us: “I’d definitely recommend [the franchising] system because the back-up is there if you need it .The formula is exact, and if you follow it the business flies.”

How much does it cost to start a cleaning business?

As with the aforementioned case of Sarah Jackson, you can buy a franchise cleaning business in this sector for a mere few thousand pounds, but setting up your own business will vary greatly on the size of the operation and which sector you move into. A simple domestic cleaning business, involving just you and maybe one or two members of staff will not have heavy start-up costs – especially if the majority of the cleaning equipment you use will already be in the homes you clean. Most of your start-up costs for a domestic business will go on marketing. You may attract several clients through word of mouth, but it’s unlikely you’ll build up a substantial client base without leafleting and advertising. Advertising in local papers and magazines can prove effective, as can sales letters, business cards and pay-per-click advertising, but sometimes it’s simply a case of knocking on doors with price lists. Commercial contract cleaning will involve much higher start-up costs as you will need to have your own equipment, several staff members (the average rate of pay in the sector is around £6.50 per hour) and a vehicle to get your team and/or equipment to the clients’ locations. Most importantly, you’ll need a much bigger marketing budget. You’ll also need insurance, both as an employer and for your equipment, and this can significantly add to your overheads. It’s not uncommon for accidents and falls to occur and when you’re dealing with hazardous chemicals you need to be covered for all possibilities. Some basic equipment you’ll need to set up a commercial cleaning business include:

  • Equipment trolleys: £250-400 each
  • Vacuum cleaner – £100 upwards
  • Sweeping machine – £200-2,000
  • Van – £3,000 upwards

Need a loan to start a cleaning business? You can apply for one here
When Freddie Rayner and his wife Ruth started their Time For You cleaning franchise operation, they spent about £200 on photography for advertisements. They took out ads in local magazines and as they took on more clients they spent more on advertising. Back when they started the business in 1997, they charged £6 an hour for cleaning services and took £2 profit from that. Now, with 157 franchisees bearing the Time for You stamp, the collective turnover for the business is £23m. But it wasn’t easy to reach that level of turnover according to Rayner. “18 months after we started the business, we were turning over money but still found ourselves in debt because we weren’t getting payments on time.” The Rayners then decided on a new charging strategy. They would make the price of service compelling enough to receive upfront payments. “If you make the upfront price so appealing you can avoid late payments. If you charge £20 but you could manage on £12, then charge £15 for an immediate payment and specify that the price would revert to £20 if it’s late,” Rayner advises.

Cleaning business planning: getting started

You’ll need to do your research on demographics to begin with. If you’re planning a domestic cleaning business, the area you work in will need to be one where residents can afford to pay someone else to do their domestic chores.

You’ll also want to get some idea of the service and prices other cleaners in the area are willing to offer. If you’ve had leaflets through the door or seen ads up in shop windows, call the numbers as a prospective client and find out what they charge.

The same applies for a commercial cleaning business. Find out what the offices and businesses in your chosen area are being charged. You may find out, in the course of your research, that the area you want to set up in is a saturated market and therefore you’ll need to look at other locations. Likewise if bigger, more established companies can undercut you in price you may find it difficult to survive.

Paul Gabriel set up his own cleaning company, T.E.C. Services Ltd, in 1994. After six months of ringing round to find potential clients, Paul gained a core of specialist clients, primarily data centres, before moving into office work. Now the business employs 42 cleaners, and Paul takes a small wage from the business.

Paul says he is still reluctant to branch into domestic work: “The problem with domestic contracts is that they’re very infrequent, and it’s difficult to find reliable staff.” Indeed he says that, where cleaning staff are concerned, “it’s always problematic. Staff issues are the biggest headaches, particularly around the summer – clients aren’t interested in whether a cleaner’s on holiday or not.”

However Paul says that payment is less of a problem. “We’ve only had our fingers burnt a couple of times with payment, and it can be quite time-consuming. I’ve got another director who deals with bills and payments, which reduces the potential hassle.”

Karen Perks runs My Window Cleaner in Enfield. She says late payments have never been a problem for her business. “In the early days I was just honest with the clients. I explained to them that we were a small outfit and couldn’t afford to have three-month payment plans. I think if you’re honest and give clients what they’re looking for you can avoid payment problems.”

However, Perks says finding good staff can often be a difficult issue. “It can be quite hard to find people in this industry that take pride in their work and therefore do a really good job. We get round that by treating staff with a great deal of respect and valuing them. I think that’s why we do so well. One of our window cleaners has been with us for ten years.”

Wiles says that if you expect staff to do a perfect job you’ve got to have done it yourself first. “If people do the work themselves first then they know exactly what to expect and can tell staff exactly what needs to be done. By showing all the new staff round myself it means I rarely get complaints from clients about the quality of the work.”

Doing some of the work yourself, at least in the early stages, will also give you a more accurate idea of the time and resources you can allow for each job. Working hours is an issue you’ll have to consider very carefully if you want to run a commercial cleaning business. It’s unlikely that an employer will want his staff disturbed by the sound of a vacuum cleaner during office hours, so a willingness to work outside of the 9-5 routine is a must. Domestic cleaning is a more likely path if you want to stick to daytime hours of working. Once you’ve done your research, and decided on the type of cleaning business you want to run, you will need to build up a reputation and even a recognisable brand. Subscribing to trade organisations which have a compulsory standard for membership can help with reputation, as well as getting satisfied clients to recommend you to friends and family. In terms of creating a recognisable brand you might want to consider having your staff wear a uniform with your name and logo on it, and also making sure all company vehicles have contact details boldly advertised on them. Focusing your attention on a very small locality, and pouring all your efforts into that compact area, can be a good way to start. Not only will this build up your reputation in the neighbourhood concerned, but having all your jobs closer together will mean less travelling time between jobs, saving money on costs and allowing more time for actual paid work.

Cleaning business insurance – and other cleaning business requirements

Any company where you employ staff will have to comply with employer regulations. Cleaning work is traditionally low paid, and if you want a healthy profit margin there’s a good chance you’ll be paying your staff the minimum wage, currently £6.31 per hour. You will need to keep up to date with the regular increases to the minimum wage to avoid facing fines and prosecution as an employer. Click here to see the current minimum wage requirements. The responsibility of employing staff carries with it a raft of additional issues and complications. Employers’ liability insurance is a legal requirement if you take on staff (you can compare quotes here on the Startups website) and, if you’re taking on a commercial cleaning contract, you will also need to consider the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, otherwise known as TUPE. These regulations stipulate that, when you take on a cleaning contract with an office or other business premises, you are obliged to take on the cleaning staff already working there. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website offers comprehensive information on TUPE legislation, as does the CSSA website. Cleaning involves handling potentially harmful chemicals, so you will also need to comply with acts such as the Chemicals Regulations 2002, Dangerous Substances and Preparations (Safety) Regulations, Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations and the Health and Safety at Work Act. You do not need a licence to start a cleaning business. However, staff with Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks may prove a valuable asset when reassuring potential clients of your company’s reliability. If you are cleaning buildings such as schools and hospitals you are also likely to have this information requested by clients. It’s also important to think about training; according to Andrew Large, chief executive of the CSSA, “it is perfectly possible for a cleaner to get by without a qualification, but it’s strongly advisable to get one.” The most basic qualification is the Cleaning Operatives Proficiency Certificate, delivered by further education colleges and overseen by the British Institute of Cleaning Science. There are also a range of NVQ qualifications, overseen by Asset Skills and delivered through further education colleges. Useful contacts British Cleaning Council 01562 851129 Cleaning and Support Services Association 020 7920 9632 British Institute of Cleaning Science 01604-678710

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