They're almost a cliché at this point: Entrepreneurs who talk about how they aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves, dig in and get their hands dirty. But for Adora Cheung, CEO and cofounder of Homejoy, those platitudes take on true meaning, because she actually did it. When she and her younger brother, Aaron, launched their website in July 2012—which reduces the work of finding a trained and trustworthy home cleaning pro to a few clicks—she did the first few jobs herself (and continued to do at least one a month through late last year). And she learned a valuable lesson.
"I quickly realized that I wasn't that great of a professional cleaner!" she says. "So I got a job at a cleaning company and learned how it worked, how to clean. It was very insightful; cleaning is a hard job. The training allowed me to be able to understand what the professionals go through on a daily basis." It's an understanding that she also wants each of her 100+ employees to have, so every one of them, from the engineers building the platform to the customer service reps who handle client phone calls, must personally test clean a home.
Though her passion for the business is unbridled, Cheung admits that home cleaning is an unlikely path for an engineer from a small town in South Carolina. After getting her computer science degree at Clemson University, she found herself at the University of Rochester earning a master's in economics. But the startup scene soon lured her to Silicon Valley, where she worked as a product manager at social sharing widget company Slide, Inc., before she and Aaron (also an engineer) joined Y Combinator. Over the next couple of years, they brainstormed several business ideas—including Task.fm, which they cofounded—that ultimately weren't the right fit. But it was a dirty bathroom that ultimately led them to success.
"Aaron and I were sitting in his apartment working on something completely different, and his place was very messy. His bathroom was so bad that I would literally walk down the street and buy a sandwich at a café so I wouldn’t feel bad using their bathroom," she says. "Aaron knew he needed to clean, but we were working really hard on a project and figured if we got someone else to do it, it would be much faster and, honestly, better." The search for a cleaner took forever and yielded two extremes: expensive agencies ($50/hour on average) and people listing inexpensive (but untested) services on Craigslist. "What was supposed to save time did exactly the opposite. And the more we looked into it, we discovered many of the inefficiencies of the cleaning industry. It hadn't been updated to reflect how people work today or the available technology," she says.
So the siblings took on the task, using their engineering backgrounds to build a platform that eliminates the hard work from the equation. The site simply asks users a few questions (where you live, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and when you want your cleaner to arrive) and it estimates the job length and matches you with a pro. All that for $20/hour, with a 2.5-hour minimum. The best part: Cleaners are background checked and certified, bonded and insured, and their service is 100% guaranteed. "It's simple, convenient, and you can trust it," Cheung says.
It's also a boon for the 1,000-plus contractors they employ in 31 cities. The professional cleaners make $12 to $15 per hour depending on the region, plus tips, which is more than the $10.10 minimum wage that is currently being advocated for nationwide. "We believe that the rate we pay them is fair and typically above market. But the most important thing is, we come from a place of mutual respect. We're all colleagues," Cheung says.
Last year's Series A and B rounds of funding, led by Google Ventures, pulled in $38 million, which means 2014 will be a year of expansion. Cheung is optimistic about her company's future, and predicts many suburbanites can expect to see Homejoy available in their area this year. Says Cheung: "It's all about hiring really smart and passionate people who share our mission of making homes happier."