The idea for HomeJoy started with a dirty apartment.
Back in the summer of 2012, CEO Adora Cheung and her brother and cofounder Aaron were both engineers, working on ideas for tech companies out of Aaron’s Palo Alto apartment. After three years in the messy space, Aaron decided to find someone else to clean it, but the process wasn’t easy. The siblings found that there were basically two choices: get a random person from Craigslist, or hire a background-checked crew from a service like Merry Maids, which would run them $40 to $60 an hour. “For lots of staring entrepreneurs, that’s above our price range,” Adora says. “But if you go to Craigslist, you don’t know who is going to show up. It was too scary for us.”
Meanwhile, none of the startup ideas they had been working on were panning out—even the one they had entered Y combinator with—so the Cheungs decided to take a look at the home cleaning marketplace. As they checked out cleaning services, they found that though companies were charging clients around $50 an hour, they were paying the people who actually did the cleaning about minimum wage. “You look at those margins and you wonder where that’s going,” Adora says. “It’s just going toward super inefficient operations. We knew pretty much right away that we could use technology and more efficient processes to run a platform that was a lot more effective.”
On the client side, they built a platform to make it easy for users to book a cleaning online. It may sound pretty basic, but the space was still pretty archaic. “It’s a welcome to the 21st century type thing,” she says. “It’s a very old industry and it takes something to push it forward.”
On the operational side, they made it easier for professional cleaners to sign up for jobs. In the past, cleaners who worked independently would have to hustle and rely on platforms like Craigslist to find work. Those who worked for services would usually have to drive to an office, get their jobs for the day, complete them, return their supplies to the office—and walk away with just a fraction of the fees that their clients paid. Now, HomeJoy’s cleaners can pick the jobs they want to take and set their own hours. Of the $20 per hour charged to clients, cleaners take $15 and the company gets $5. “In this day and age, everyone has access to the Internet, a mobile phone, a computer at home,” Cheung says. “They can just get up in the morning and find out what they’re going to do for the day, travel to the homes they’ve accepted along the way, and then go back home.”
Though Homejoy dropped the price of a cleaning far below most services, the company still had to offer one of the biggest advantages of a traditional service—background checks. “Safety to clients is number one, “ says Adora (pictured above in Homejoy’s bright yellow T-shirt).
Homejoy not only conducts criminal background checks, verifies government IDs, conducts phone screeners, and brings in potential cleaners for in-person interviews, it also requires a “test-clean.” “They’re essentially asked to clean a certain area of the home,” Adora says. “We’re looking to see if they’re using the right tools and chemicals, and to see if the house is sufficiently clean. Efficiency is very key to us. Our clients are paying on hourly basis.”
Because the cleaning industry has operated the same way for so long, most of HomeJoy’s competitors are old-school analog businesses—either local mom and pops, bigger, older chains, or individuals seeking their own way in the marketplace. There are a few tech companies getting into the mix, though—Mountain View, CA -based Hipstermaid, for example.
One part of Homejoy’s efforts to bring cleaning services into the world of tech is immersing tech professionals in the world of cleaning. “As part of orientation, everyone at Homejoy must clean a home, from engineers to marketing managers,” she says. “It allows them to get in the frame of mind of a cleaning professional. It allows everyone in the company to up level their creativity and innovative thinking in terms of how they can serve the marketplace much better.”
The company has also started its own non-profit, to raise money to donate to other foundations that support its mission of bringing happiness back into the home, and to support its own projects. Recently, Homejoy hosted a town hall meeting for 300 people to explain how the new health exchanges work. The company also asks its 100 employees to donate 1 percent of their time to foundation work.
To date, Homejoy has raised $39.7 million from investors like Google Ventures, First Round Capital, and Redpoint Ventures.
A year and a half in, Homejoy is now offering its services in 31 different cities. The company says that it has partnered with thousands of cleaning professionals who have cleaned thousands of homes, but declines to reveal whether it’s profitable or any other specifics about its financials. The company is finding that its cleaners like that they have such a flexible platform, Adora says—people who want to work part-time can pick jobs based on their schedules, and those who want more work can pick up more and more jobs based on their performance. Adora has also found that Homejoy is attracting people who have never gotten their houses cleaned professionally before.
“They thought it was cool initially and now the feedback we’re getting is that they get addicted to getting the service over and over again,” she says.
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