When I first spoke with the founder of Houston-area Lolli Maids, Chris Robin, he was stuck in traffic. This isn’t surprising, since Houston has some of the worst traffic congestion in the U.S. “I’m either stuck in traffic, training staff, or cleaning,” Chris said of his daily routine. Despite the hours spent in his car, he loves running his own business. “It feels wonderful to be an entrepreneur. I wake up and feel like I have a piece of clay that I’m molding. You’re always sculpting, shaping your destiny,” he said.
After a decade in the corporate world working for companies like Dell and Compaq, Chris was laid off during a downturn. When he found his savings dwindling and unable to find another corporate gig, he posted an ad on Craigslist listing his services as a house cleaner. He was surprised by the response, and found himself back on Craigslist looking for someone to do the actual cleaning. There he found Almita, a maid with 20 years experience who he hooked by saying that his (as yet non-existent) cleaning business was overbooked and looking for someone to do an extra job. She agreed to the cleaning and once it was complete Chris paid her. From there, Chris kept putting up listings and got a few more jobs that he hired Almita for. He realized that he couldn’t make money with this plan unless he started doing the cleaning, so he sent himself to the next job. “I didn’t know what I was doing or what I was supposed to clean. I stayed in the bathroom, cleaning, for two hours. That must have been the cleanest bathroom I’ve ever seen. But I was trying to stall because the customer was home and I didn’t know what to clean next,” he said.
He spent six hours on that first house and then repeated this process ten more times, each time getting a better idea of customer expectations and needs. As business grew, he reached out to Almita again for help and gave her a few jobs each day. After a few months, she gave up the regular houses she’d been cleaning on her own and hitched her wagon to Lolli Maids. When there was enough work to hire a few more people, Chris stepped back and started focusing on the business side of things. He focuses on providing a quality service, and not over-scheduling his cleaners so that they have enough time to do a final review of the house when it’s done. “If you give it an extra 15% once the cleaning is done, that job will be perfect,” Chris said.
Business is booming, but the bottleneck preventing more growth is his ability to hire people. “We could grow the business faster if I wasn’t picky about the people I hire. I do a full background check, interview them, see how they work with other people, and see how they clean. I make sure they’re trained properly and work with them myself. The only reason we haven’t grown another 35% is because I can’t hire enough good people. I’d rather grow slow with a focus on quality and a good reputation than to grow fast and end up with nothing.”
One of the ways that he tests potential employees is by putting cleaning supplies in front of them and seeing how they react. If the cleaners grab the products and head for the kitchen or bathroom, they’re on the right track. If they look like they aren’t quite sure what to do with the supplies, they’ll probably be weeded out quickly.
On the job, Chris likes to walk the property with the client before the team gets started. There are several benefits to the initial walk-through, like discovering damage that might be blamed on the cleaners, or pointing out issues that may be too tough to tackle in one session. The biggest advantage of the pre-cleaning walk-through is that Chris gets a feel for what’s important to the client and is able to focus on accomplishing that.
While every customer’s house is different, Chris notes that you can sum up a house’s main issue quickly once you walk in. The issue might be dust, clutter, pet hair, or any combination of those. His approach is to eliminate the big issue first to be able to see the extent of what remains. The team will clear up clutter, placing cushions on the couch, picking up clothes and toys off the floor, placing shoes in the closet, before they see what else needs to be done.
Despite all these precautions, the team sometimes finds surprises. One of his maids called during the middle of a job to let him know that she had just found a cache of semi-automatic weapons in the house along with stacks of cocaine bricks and guns under the pillows. “It wasn’t the first time we found a gun under the pillow. We’re in Texas and we’ve got a lot of gun-happy people here.” For this particular house, Chris put a note in the client’s file to remind himself not to accept another booking, penciling “semi-automatic weapons” by their name.
Chris loves all the challenges he encounters, saying it’s his favorite part of the job. He also loves dealing with customers, and has discovered that he talks a whole lot more than he used to. “I probably talk too much, but before I started this company I didn’t talk so much. I’m a people person. Dealing with so many things all the time, I find myself talking all the time. I don’t know how to shut myself up!” All that talking also has led to some television appearances for the Lolli Maids crew—they’ve been on MTV’s “Grossbusters” and SpikeTV’s “Bar Rescue.”
Working long days all week long, Chris considered the benefits of getting a hobby. “I might take up stamp collecting,” he joked. In reality, he’s working seven days a week—while the team takes Sundays off, he’s working on payroll and creating the schedule for the next day.
With his solid work ethic, it’s not surprising that he considers a role model “anybody who started from the bottom and worked their way up. My dad taught me to work hard, to do it yourself and not rely on other people to give it to you. If you want something out of life, go get it.”
His previous corporate background helps him relate well to customers and anticipate their needs. “They’re busy, they make a lot of money and want to spend time with their family. Cleaning is the last thing anyone wants to do. We’re doing a good thing by providing a service that lets families spend time together. We say, ‘Get back to what you love.’ ”