Homejoy, The Startup That Makes All New Hires Scrub Toilets

At the house cleaning marketplace Homejoy, learning how to wield a sponge is seen as key to understanding the unique problems in the professional cleaning industry, and making sure new employees are a good cultural fit.

As the CEO and cofounder of San Francisco-based Homejoy, Adora Cheung has brought the house-cleaner matching service to 31 markets in the U.S. and Canada, making it easy for college students and busy professionals alike to find and schedule professional cleaners for $20 a hour. And though she may be the boss, don't think she--and all her employees, for that matter--don't know their way around a toilet brush.

Cheung developed her mopping chops during a month of industry research working for a professional cleaning company. She learned some tricks of the scrubbing trade, but more importantly, began to understand in a real way the problems faced both by professional cleaners and owners of messy houses--so much so that Homejoy's initiation for new hires (yes, even execs and slobby engineers) is to have them go on a test clean.

A five-star review isn't a prerequisite for the job, but it's looked upon favorably, and those who do well are invited to help pitch in when a cleaner has to cancel unexpectedly. The ritual is also a gauge to see if a candidate--who literally has to roll up his sleeves--is a good fit with the company's culture. "Passing the clean is a badge of honor," Cheung told Fast Company. "We only hire people who we know will fit culturally."

Sales representative Elizabeth Farmer at a test clean in San Francisco.Image: Alice Truong/Fast Company

In addition to inspiring Homejoy's initiation ritual, Cheung's experience scrubbing sinks and toilets helped her understand the inefficiencies that plague cleaning companies, from suboptimal scheduling to how cleaners traveled around the city. "It became much easier to think of what tools we should be building," she said.

To further help employees understand the Homejoy experience, Cheung said the Financial District office is organized in such a way that all new hires spend the first week sitting next to customer service. That way, they can hear the calls coming in and out and the issues customers have. The engineers, meanwhile, are seated by the entrance, so they can interact with the cleaners who stop by to find out how they use the platform.

The idea for Homejoy is rooted in Cheung's personal struggle with dust bunnies. Lured by Silicon Valley's tech scene, she put her Ph.D. studies at the University of Rochester on hold and moved out to the Bay Area in 2007 to work as a product manager at the now-defunct Slide, which was acquired by Google in 2010. Having left in 2009, Cheung spent three and a half years brainstorming startup ideas with her younger brother Aaron, an MIT grad, while working out of his apartment--which was unkempt, to say the least.

Brother-and-sister cofounders: Adora Cheung, left, and Aaron CheungImage: Homejoy

"It was so gross I'd literally go to a restaurant to buy food so I wouldn't feel bad for using the public restroom there," she said. To help them focus, they decided it was time to find a cleaner, but the process took far longer than they expected. Going with an agency would cost them $35 to $60, which was a bit steep for the entrepreneurs at the time, and the people they found on Craigslist were unprofessional. Realizing this could be the ticket to their big break, they began seriously looking to transform the cleaning industry.

Today, Homejoy has about 1,000 cleaners on the platform. The company declined to share customer numbers, but Cheung said its "growth rates are in the double digits month over month." In December, the Y Combinator alum raised $38 million led by Google Ventures, Redpoint Ventures, and Max Levchin, a PayPal cofounder who also created Slide.

During a test clean last month, three employees got to work on a mansion occupied by engineers who work in the Valley. The bachelors who live there volunteer their home every so often in exchange for free cleaning services. Though the Homejoy crew has told them they don't do laundry, a service that ordinarily comes with an additional charge, during test cleans the undeterred men often leave notes atop mounds of clothes that say something along the lines of "Please, please do my laundry."

The six-bedroom, three-story updated home in the Nopa neighborhood is what Homejoy's San Francisco city manager, Lynne Tye, calls an ideal place to learn the ropes. The employees-cum-cleaners are taught how to handle certain situations--e.g. clean around the marijuana paraphernalia--and at the end, they simulate a walk-through where the cleaner explains to someone role-playing as a client what he or she did. Near the end of one such walk-through, a sales representative began focusing on the tasks she never got to. Because most people are clueless as to what cleaning actually entails, Tye tells the representative to instead be assertive and focus on what could have been done if more time was allotted. In between these simulations, Tye shares a few of her favorite cleaning tricks, such as:

  • To tackle stubborn microwave stains, heat up a bowl of water and wipe down the inside after it steams up.
  • Let the cleaning supplies do the heavy lifting. Wait before you wipe.
  • Make hidden items, such as shoes under the bed, visible, to avoid mistaken claims being filed.
  • If there's miscellaneous change, stack it up. Also stand up lighters for a more polished look.
  • Shake out, never vacuum, the bear rug. You don't want to ruin someone's trophy from Alaska.

Amid growing responsibilities, Cheung laments that she isn't able to go on as many cleans, which she used to do about once a month. But over Thanksgiving, a day the company took off, she realized there was still one standing appointment on the books. Instead of canceling, she decided to take up the challenge with Tye, the city manager. With cleaning supplies and bucket at hand, the pair went to a home near Dolores Park, scrubbing and straightening things out for two hours, before rushing home to gobble turkey.

[Image: Flickr user cdsessums]

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2 Comments

  • April Smith-Benton

    their "algorithm" seems to have some holes in it ... they base cleaning time on amount of bedrooms and bathroom verses actual square footage of a home. i have a 1470sq foot house and my friend has a 2200 sq foot house we both have the same amount of bedrooms/bathrooms and they quoted us the same price. yet my friend has an extra 730 sqft to clean. doesn't seem quite right ...

  • I am really interested in the "test clean" theory vs. the days or weeks of training that employees get at an actual cleaning service. There are several certifications within the cleaning industry - The House Cleaning Technician Certification from IIRC and the Residential Cleaning Seal of Excellence offered by The Association of Residential Cleaning International. With the advances in materials used in homes (marble counter tops, bamboo flooring) it is critically important that the person you are giving your keys to is not only knowledgeable in how to clean your home, but has been vetted through a background check and a thorough interview and training process. Quality assurance is critical in the home cleaning field.