Successful cleaning business owner uses improv as a gym for his brain

The Tidy Maids crew
The Tidy Maids crew

As Paul Tollefsrud and I start to chat on the phone, he takes a brief second to ask his wife, Dara, to watch their Scottish terrier to make sure it doesn’t make a dash out the door while he’s talking to me. They have 2 Scottish Terriers and 3 Pomeranians that they enjoy taking for walks around the area, but Paul laughs when I ask if pet hair was the reason they got into the cleaning business. “Our dogs are pretty neat and tidy,” he said.

Paul
Paul Tollefsrud

Dara and Paul have been running The Tidy Maids in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina for the past ten years. First starting out in Raleigh, they founded and ran the company for four years before deciding to sell the business at the end of the recession. They took a year off to do some consulting for other small businesses, but missed the cleaning business, so started the Durham/Chapel Hill branch of The Tidy Maids in 2011.

The early days

“It started out as a part-time job for my wife, who had worked in the cleaning industry before but was working in retail for 5 or 6 years. The company started small but we got to 40 or 50 clients quickly, so I quit my other job to come on full time with The Tidy Maids. We hired a few more crews and evolved from there. I had been the general manager for a wholesale retailer and was glad to get my nights and weekends back… no more calls at 4AM!”

Dara Tollefsrud
Dara Tollefsrud

Paul and Dara build their business from the ground up starting in the recession and were surprised how well business grew. Early on, they didn’t have an office, so they found it difficult to recruit employees. “People were leery about meeting you in a Starbucks for a job interview,” said Paul. Luckily, they were able to fill some of the gaps with family, taking advantage of the fact that Paul’s uncle was semi-retired and his father was in-between jobs. The ability to have family members slot in as needed gave The Tidy Maids a bit of breathing room in order to hire, develop, and train the fantastic staff they have today.

Secret to an amazing staff: training

Cleaning business owners must manage the delicate balance of having enough help on hand matched with enough demand from customers. The Tidy Maids has seen a lot of success using Indeed.com to recruit workers, while Craigslist seems to be bottoming out in the area, only producing a handful of leads when they last tried it.

After touching on where to look for employees, Paul turned to what’s clearly the secret sauce for The Tidy Maids—retention of quality staff. “We have a training program where new employees become certified. I believe that giving extra attention to new employees really makes them feel connected. And we expanded our orientation program from 15 minutes to two hours, which gives people a better feel for the business and they get to know the owner or manager better. I’m biased, but we have the best employees and trainers!”

Paul has found that by giving a longer orientation session, he’s been able to cut down on the no-shows—people who say they want a job on a Wednesday, but on Thursday are nowhere to be found after all the tax paperwork has been filled out.

Another thing that helps is to recognize early on when to get someone out the door. If the individual isn’t performing well, be sure to stick to your guns and usher that person out of your organization. Otherwise, your good employees will have to pick up the slack for that person.

Sandie the superstar
Sandie the superstar

One of his superstars is Sandie, who has been with the company for over six years. “She’s wonderful, she’s the real backbone of the company. Sandie comes into the office early to make sure that there’s someone there in case people want to get in early to have coffee and chit chat.” Sandie’s brother fixes the vacuums for The Tidy Maids, and she’s responsible for shuttling all the ones in need of repair to him, along with making sure the inventory of supplies meets everyone’s needs. “She goes above and beyond on a daily basis to make sure things are running smoothly,” said Paul.

Cleaning for a reason: compassion

Dara and Paul recognized the value brought by working with the organization Cleaning for a Reason, a non-profit that matches cleaning companies with women who are undergoing cancer treatment. They joined the organization soon after starting their business and absolutely love it.

“It’s a great organization. The patients that we take on are very appreciative. It’s nice to be able to do something for the community and Cleaning for a Reason makes it very easy to do that,” said Paul. “They handle the paperwork and vet the patients so you’re confident that your goodwill is not being taken advantage of.”

Advice for anyone starting a cleaning business

He’s been running his own successful cleaning business for over a decade, so it took Paul a moment to collect his thoughts on what to tell anyone starting out. “Build your systems and processes early on because whether you have 300 clients or 3, once the train starts rolling, it will be hard to backtrack.” This includes little things you might overlook, like deciding that you might not need an employee handbook or a detailed orientation process if you only have 2 employees.

Another tip is to have a sales guide or “cheat sheet” that other people can use to provide pricing for your services. One thing Paul has noticed is that the shelf life of a lead has now dwindled to around ten minutes. Previously, you could return a potential customer’s phone call within a few hours and still have a shot at getting the business. With today’s time-starved customer looking for an instant solution, you might lose the lead unless you answer the call or immediately call back.

Improv is like going to the gym for the brain

Until a few years ago, Paul was doing improv comedy with a local troupe, but that became too time-consuming as he was also running a successful business. “I equate this with going to the gym for the brain. It’s really fun, and it gives you a different perspective. It also helps you to be able to speak on the fly. While I wasn’t afraid of public speaking, it wasn’t my favorite thing, but improv definitely helps you speak on the spur of the moment. You realize, ‘I performed comedy in front of 400 people’ so you’re less afraid to speak to other groups about things you know about.” After putting in about 40 hours a month with the troupe, Paul cut the cord to his improv for a while to focus on the business and on spending time with Dara and the dogs.

If you’re looking to hire a high-quality cleaning service in the Durham or Chapel Hill, NC area with great customer support, check out The Tidy Maids.


If you’re a cleaning service professional who would like to be featured in our magazine, please let us know!

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