The whirlwind of Debbie Sardone – from McDonald’s job and cassette tapes in the mail, to Oprah

Debbie Sardone, photo by People magazine

One of my favorite parts of the job is interviewing amazing people in the cleaning industry and hearing their stories. The most inspirational person I’ve met so far is Debbie Sardone, who you might remember from our profile of Cleaning For A Reason, the non-profit Sardone founded to provide free cleaning services to women undergoing cancer treatments. I was lucky to spend some time with her recently, which was an accomplishment in itself considering Sardone is currently running FOUR active businesses.  

Starting a cleaning business from scratch

In 1981, Sardone had a baby and was on the lookout for some extra income. She put an ad in the paper and got her first cleaning job at $5 an hour, which was “big money in 1981… my husband was making $8.50 an hour as a police officer at the time. His salary covered the bills, but not the frills.”  Her first cleaning job netted her $20 for four hours of work, and she was able to bring her baby along to the job where he slept while she cleaned. Her client was pleased with Sardone’s efforts and asked her to come twice a week. “You gotta be kidding me, who can afford this?” Sardone asked herself and then happily accepted the $40 for two half days of work a week, worth about $100 in today’s currency valuation. “I realized I was good at it, I could work around my baby’s schedule, and I couldn’t believe the money I was making!”

She continued to refine her skills over the next eight years, morphing from a house cleaner into a business owner and realizing she needed to take her business to the next level. “I needed to stop doing the actual cleaning and learn how to grow and manage the business. I made a decision on my 30th birthday to get out of direct cleaning and seven years later my business was a million dollar maid service, which is very unusual. I’ve sinced learned that 93% of maid services in the country gross less than $500,000.”

Jeff Campbell’s book, Speed Cleaning

So how’d she do it? Sardone said she learned through trial and error. In those pre-internet days, she went to the library to find information on cleaning and on running a business. She credits Jeff Campbell’s book, Speed Cleaning, for being a huge influence on her, giving her the process she needed to systematize her cleaning. Sardone essentially used this book as a training manual to train ten other people in her organization to take over the day-to-day cleaning tasks.

She admitted to always being a bit of a process nerd– as a fourteen-year-old, she received a special work permit to work after school at McDonald’s and was more interested in their business model than their food. Of her McDonald’s training, Sardone noted:

Everything had a system and a process. They told you exactly how to pick up a bag of french fries and hand it to a customer. It was a very specific way, and if you did it wrong you were corrected by a manager. This is why they’re so successful. They have a reason behind everything they do.

Another pre-internet tool that Sardone found useful was receiving business tips through the mail. “I had a subscription from a consultant who would mail cassette tapes either once a week or once a month, I don’t remember. I don’t even remember his name, but I learned a lot about marketing and business through this subscription.”

Side note– I asked Sardone who cleans the cleaning business offices. “Our best employees clean the office if they have a last minute client cancellation. Because otherwise they would lose money for the day and their childcare is still going to cost the same amount whether they worked a full day or not. Our most reliable cleaners, if they get an unreliable client, can fill out their hours at the office or over at my house.”

[Dec 2016 Update: Debbie has a great post on Huffington Post about how she got started!]

Cleaning For A Reason… and Oprah!

With her systematized cleaning process in place, she built a business that works well no matter who does the individual work, and her business became one of the largest independent cleaning services in the country. A few years later, Sardone received a call from a woman who couldn’t afford a cleaning service while she was going through chemotherapy, and Cleaning For A Reason was born. This fantastic nonprofit provides free house cleaning to women who are undergoing cancer treatment, and we did a full profile here.

Oprah spotlights Cleaning For A Reason.

Sardone spoke about the impact of having celebrities mention her non-profit. “Oprah was visiting Texas to revisit her roots, and her plan was to sit in the Channel 8 newsroom where she got her start. Because she was sitting there reading the stories, I think we were chosen as a feel-good story for Oprah to read on-air, so it wasn’t all crime and murders. She read our story and then when she was back in Chicago she mentioned us on her show.” The Big-O effect was definitely felt, as calls came in from cleaners who wanted to help and cancer patients who needed the help.

Cleaning consulting and mentoring

Looking around for a new challenge, she realized that people would pay to learn what she had taught herself through experience and research. That’s when she launched another of her businesses, her cleaning business consultancy that teaches cleaning services what they need to do to be successful. Helping others with their business provides Sardone with her favorite part of the job.  

Debbie Sardone loves helping people.

“I’m extremely wired toward helping others and I love consulting with business owners. On Tuesday night, one of them said, ‘Debbie, your consulting has changed my life.’ That meant the world to me. It’s ten times better than being paid money. They had been failing in business, not making money and had not had a paycheck. After we met, they finally had answers to the problems they couldn’t figure out. Helping another person is the most rewarding thing for me, which is probably why I was drawn to cleaning. I love the feeling of standing back and looking around once the job is done, knowing that the owner would walk through and say ‘Thank you!’”

As part of her consulting gig, Sardone started a podcast at the beginning of this year, speaks at several conferences around the world, and offers private coaching and mentoring.

Green cleaning products

Red Juice, a heavy duty cleaning product

Sardone wasn’t kidding when she mentioned how influential Jeff Campbell, the author of Speed Cleaning, has been on her. Campbell founded his own professional cleaning products company in 1985 to provide the supplies and tools he advocates in his book. In 2011, Campbell sold his business to Sardone, who trucked all the inventory from California to her home base of Texas.

She’s proud to promote green cleaning — all the cleaning products offered are non-toxic and manufactured locally. “Our blue juice and red juice are the two signature products that really started the company.” The red juice cleaner includes ingredients like seaweed and soybean extract, making it sound like the perfect cleaning product to use in sushi restaurants.

Reading books

Sardone never seems to have a spare moment, but if she does, she spends it reading. She’s currently reading Charles Koch’s Good Profit: How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World’s Most Successful Companies. She enjoys reading books the “old fashioned” way, on paper instead of an e-reader. “I like to be able to read on a plane when they tell you to put all electronic devices away. I also like to highlight things, write on pages, and put big stars to go back and review things.”

Tips for entrepreneurs

One of the hardest parts about transitioning from being actively involved in running your own business and handing over the day-to-day work to a trusted team is that entrepreneurs feel that no one can match their particular quality or skill set. “We’re perfectionists. It’s very hard for entrepreneurs to delegate because you have to lower your standards. You think there’s only two standards: your standard and the crappy one. It’s not true, there’s your standard, which is perfection, and crappy, which is your competitors’ standard, and then there’s excellence. Your company can achieve excellence without you being actively involved. You just have to put the right tools and strategies into place.”

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