Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Brian Winch, owner, author, and creator of Cleanlots - America’s Simplest Business. I manage a simple environmental service that provides daily litter cleanup for property management companies. Our service is performed after hours on foot using unique hand tools. Almost as easy to do as going for a walk!
I started this business in 1981 as a side hustle with little money, education, and skills but plenty of passion, patience, and persistence. I quickly grew this gig into a successful full-time one-man operation, then scaled it into a yearly 6 figure business that utilizes an army of people to keep my city litter-free.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was working a full-time job at a sporting goods store when I realized that I couldn’t see myself doing this for the rest of my life. I didn’t really mind the work but didn’t enjoy working within the same four walls every day, making the same income regardless of how hard I worked and having to put in my time before being able to go home.
The great thing about starting your business as a side hustle is being able to learn and grow and eventually be in a great position to decide for yourself if you want to quit your job or have the best of both worlds.
I started thinking about the possibility of working for myself rather than someone else. But what kind of business? I didn’t have much going for me as previously noted. So I started to evaluate opportunities to match my interests and resources. Keep in mind there was no internet in 1981. I bought a number of business opportunity magazines from the news-stands and started the process of elimination.
I narrowed my possibilities down to some type of cleaning service. One could get into this business fairly inexpensively. The necessary skills could be quickly learned. And fortunes have been made cleaning up after people.
The memory of one of my dad’s side gigs popped into my head. He was working as a
janitor full-time and needed to supplement the family income. He had a few gigs (at the time the terms used were part-time or spare-time job or moonlighting) such as cutting grass or shoveling snow. The one that came to mind though was his cleaning up litter outside a nearby shopping plaza. He had taken me along with him a couple of times when I was a kid before he went to work and I school.
All we had to do was walk around the property - sidewalks, parking lot and landscape - and sweep up any litter material (cups, cans, paper wrappers, cigarette butts) into our litter collection tools. Since this was done more than once a week it didn’t take us very long to do. I enjoyed working outdoors and it was almost as easy to do as going for a walk!
I decided to test the market for this service. Unfortunately, my dad had passed away a couple of months before so I didn’t have his experience to call upon. I started calling property management companies to gauge their interest in this service. The big Yellow Pages directory was how I found companies to call. This was the internet of the day! I made about 4 or 5 calls when a prospect requested prices for 3 properties. I did the best to provide what I thought at the time were fair prices for service, submitted contract proposals and obtained my first client!
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The “schools of hard knocks” had begun! After deciding what legal structure my business was to take, I had to research and obtain any required licenses, insurance, and tax accounts. If I wanted to get paid I needed to submit invoices and set up a business bank account in which to deposit them. I set up a simple accounting system to keep track of my expenses and income.
My marketing at the time consisted of a display ad in the Yellow Pages phone directory and cold calls to prospects. I would snail mail a sales letter on my company letterhead or professionally typeset postcard.
Besides a couple of different types of brooms, all I needed was a litter collection tool. I quickly found one that makes my work faster, easier and thus more profitable. I bought a couple of cases of trash liners and using my own truck, I was good to go.
The total initial start-up investment was about $250 (in 1981 dollars of course).
Describe the process of launching the business.
I quickly learned the importance of developing and refining an elevator pitch. Introduce yourself and your company then very briefly explain the benefit of your service or product to them and ask whom you can send more information? In my case, I can offer a better litter cleanup service for less money. I’m not trying to sell anything with this initial phone call, just obtain the appropriate person’s contact information and forward information that details the benefits to them if they engage my service.
With experience, I became more proficient at this game. One client grew into several. Technology evolved and so too did my methods of communication. Instead of my display ad in the phone book, I claimed free directory listings and built a website. It’s now easier than ever to find prospects and be found by them.
The biggest lesson I learned was - if you work your business, your business will work for you. If you’re passionate about what you do, you’ll find ways to fight through red tape and obstacles. You’ll learn how to sell people because when you’re starting out alone by yourself you need to. There’s no one else to do your work. And this is the best way to learn.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Besides a website, a basic profile (free) on LinkedIn works great to connect with your prospects. Simply type into the search bar “property management companies” or “property managers” for results. Send an invitation to connect. When they accept, ask if they would like to learn how they can “benefit” from your service? This starts the conversation.
Referrals are a result of satisfied clients. Offer extra value over what you do. We act as an “extra set of eyes” for our clients. We notify them of any property damage, burned out lights, graffiti or illegally dumped items such as mattresses and sofas the first opportunity to do so when we’re on-site cleaning. This helps build and cement a relationship. Who do you think they’ll call when they need someone to clean their other properties? We’ve had some clients for up to 30 years!
Don’t forget to create tiny posts or update any service information on free search engine listings such as Google My Business. This helps with SEO.
You can specialize and be the very best at one thing (product or service), and develop related products or services. But don’t stray too far from your core.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I manage an operation today that services about 150 properties and bills out over $500,000 a year in litter cleaning work. This has been a great business for me. It has provided work satisfaction knowing I’m making a difference in reducing the amount of litter in my city. It has provided me a great lifestyle. So why not share this green opportunity with others?
I can’t compete with you in your city and you can’t in mine. If this is a business opportunity that interests you then check out my book, Cleanlots - America’s Simplest Business. I’m still cleaning litter from commercial properties. But I’m also sharing my experience with others in my book and offering FREE support. Details at cleanlots.com
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
You don’t need a lot of money, a college degree or special skills to start and become successful in business. I’m living proof! You need to be passionate about the service or product your business sells. Otherwise, you won’t make it. Don’t chase the money. The money will follow provided you are very good at what you do.
You can specialize and be the very best at one thing (product or service). You can always develop related products or services but don’t stray too far from your core. Early on we had a couple of clients ask us if we could provide other services such as snow removal and lawn care. We obliged fearing we would lose them if we didn’t. We found that the service hours didn’t mesh, we didn’t enjoy this other work and didn’t do as good a job. We stopped the extra work and lost only one client. Don’t risk your reputation.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We’ve been using the same litter collection tool since 1981. Nothing else has come on the market that is superior. I reveal the exclusive source in my book (it’s not me) so you too can benefit from its use.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley greatly influenced me when investigating business ideas and entrepreneurs. It profiles self-made millionaires and how they often came from humble beginnings and less than glamorous businesses. They could, in fact, be living next door to you.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Do an evaluation of your skills, interests, desired work environment, financial resources, personality type, and emotional supports. Don’t fall for the scams that promise riches for doing little work. If you’re passionate about your business the rewards will come.
Being self-employed is hard work. You wear many hats. The hours can be long and you can suffer sleepless nights worrying about where and when you’re going to find the money to pay your bills. The great thing about starting your business as a side hustle is being able to learn and grow and eventually be in a great position to decide for yourself if you want to quit your job or have the best of both worlds.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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