Why most window cleaners will die broke Part 1 by Carl Phillips
Ok, It’s now 3am, but I’m already sitting here in my office with a freshly pressed shirt, my favourite suit and a nice hot cup of Kenco coffee. Less than an hour ago, I was in bed,but was awoken by my own frustrations about the window cleaning industry. It says something that 21 years in to window cleaning, it can still keep you up nights huh?….
I also know myself well enough to realise that when I get something stuck in my head and it won’t let me sleep, the best thing I can do is to get up and sort it out. This time that meant a hot shower, coming into the office and sitting here with my lap top writing these thoughts to you.
Firstly, a brief warning.It’s early, I’ve been contemplating these thoughts now for months in some form of other and now they’ve filled so much of my brain, they are overflowing,which means the following may be direct. I’m tempted to apologise in advance but I won’t, sometimes the best thing a friend can do is to tell you straight.
These thoughts started as little niggles when I first brought the concept2o machine to market in 2005.The whole thing seemed to me well timed, well thought out and rather well executed for me and my young team, but concept2o was never received with the warm welcome I expected. There was a huge focus on the price of the machine and for most window cleaners; the price stopped any further consideration. Of course I knew this would be the case for some, but the sheer number of window cleaners who quote price as the reason for not purchasing was, and still is,staggering.
Then there were the forums, where you had window cleaners stating with authority that you don’t need to spend ‘that kind of money’ for professional systems. But that wasn’t the surprising thing for me. The surprising thing was that window cleaners with many years of experience would say the same thing to the new starts. “No you don’t need to spend that kind of money on a system just do-it-yourself or buy this really cheap kit from x or y supplier that’ll do the job”
At first, this may seem like good advice. But only at first. This kind of thinking will keep you poor.It’s the reason for the headline. I honestly believe that if you think like this, you will go through your whole window cleaning career and end up dying broke. How do I know your poor if you think like this? Because I was when I thought like that. Let me tell you about my story.
The very first time I saw a pure water system in operation was in 2003 in Cardiff city centre. I loved the idea and got a quote from one of the only suppliers around at the time,Ionic. My wife thought there was something wrong with me because there I was, doubled up on the floor in paroxysms of laughter. It was sometime before I was able to breathe again properly but when I showed her the quote, the hilarity started all over again…
Umm. No. 12k on a machine that may or may not work for my business? I think not. I was lucky at the time to spend a couple of hundred quid on rubbers, squeegees and cloths in an entire year and to jump to that outlay; plus having to buy a van and running costs…seriously, mate…
In fact, my first system was a DIY. I remember clearly driving to work passing the only professionally purchased machine operator in the town at the time, belly laughing at his stupidity and smirking at my own genius and wily cunning that I had got pure water for a fraction of what he spent! What a chimp!…
Obviously, something changed. I now manufacture the concept2o systems; some of the most expensive kit money can buy. So what the hell happened? How can you go from laughing at the idea, to totally investing in it, then trying to get others to do the same?Well the short answer is – necessity.
I have never told anyone this before. Very few of even my closest friends know, because truth be told;I’m embarrassed and don’t like talking about it. But, like it or not, this is what changed my mind about window cleaning and in all probability, if this had not happened to me I would still be going out to work every day with my little system, having rainy days off, moaning about the weather and laughing at other window cleaners…
My wife and I had purchased a little terraced house in the south Wales valleys in a little backwater town of Sengenydd. The house was recently renovated and was very nice inside but the village was dead. Full of drunks and young thugs who tore empty houses apart to sell the copper pipes, lead flashing and roof tiles then burned the rest down. Our next door neighbour used to sell alcohol and drugs to kids that he smuggled in from France and there were always police in the street for one reason or another. We hated the area, but loved the house. We decided to move and only 2 years after starting our married lives there we put the house up for sale.
For a year nothing happened. We still went to work on the windows, changed over to pure water,earned just enough to pay the bills, go on a holiday once or twice a year, had a little in savings, less than a grand but hey. Life was Ok. Then someone made an offer, which we accepted immediately.
Then two things happened.Firstly we sold our house but did not realise the cost of selling. We didn’t know about property tax, or mortgage ‘early repayment fees’ and the solicitors fees were also far more than expected. In all we came out of the sale, 5k in debt to the mortgage company. Not to worry, we moved in with my in-laws until we could pay off the debt and save another deposit. Then house prices started to shoot up and we were caught without a home. That 30k house we sold was worth 3 times that just a little more than a year later meaning we could no longer afford a mortgage.After all, my accounting was poor back in the day. Then things turned bad at the in laws, we had to move out and for the first time in my life, I was homeless. We did not know where we were going to spend that night.
Being homeless is hard,being homeless because you didn’t do the math properly is worse, it was my own entire fault and I was very guilty and rather depressed about the whole thing.It was only because of the kindness of my brother-in-laws, girlfriend’s family that kept us from sleeping rough. They gave us the sofa in the spare room and so, while we got back on our feet, we slept on a sofa in a strangers home for nearly 6 months.
When that happened, it was clear to me that something needed to change. I had to be a lot more serious about work. Times can change very, very fast. One minute we were doing all right, the next we were homeless! That forced me to look very seriously at window cleaning, could it really support me long term? If it could, was I doing something wrong? Could I actually make it a real business to be proud of,something that I did because I enjoyed it, and not just to pay the bills and work half day? The answers to those questions changed my life.
This is what I discovered.No one leaves school wanting to be a window cleaner. None of the window cleaners I have ever spoken to have told me that when they were taking their options, they thought window cleaning was going to be the one career path they yearned for. No, just like me, almost everyone falls into it for whatever reason. Mine was through my brother in law. He moved from London to marry my sister. He lived in Cardiff, but travelled to work in London 3 days per week to clean windows. When I left school, I wanted to join the fire service and until the next round of recruitment, which was a good few months away, I helped him out. We would leave at 5 am start work at 9am, finish at 6pm and be back in Cardiff at 9 or 10pm depending on traffic. Everyone I’ve spoken to has a similar story, helping a friend, or a short-term solution while looking for a’proper job’…
But there are two things that keep window cleaners, window cleaners. Which means there are only two types of window cleaners in the UK. Which one are you?…
Two types of window cleaner
Window cleaning is great money. I was once dropped by a customer because he had a doctorate and lectured on biosciences in Cardiff University. He actually cancelled his service because he thought me charging him £20 for his 3 story 5 bedroom detached home meant I was earning more money than him because I could clean it in half of an hour. As it turns out he was only on £30 per hour and so technically he was right! I was on £10 more per hour than a doctor of bioscience. (Whatever that means..)
I don’t know of another trade where you can earn so much money, with so little training/education and have the clients expect you to return every month, month after month, year after year. On some days, when my wife and I wanted to go away, and quite often during our homeless time when we were really down on funds, we could go out early, work like dogs all day but come home with hundreds and hundreds of pounds. Our highest earning day ever on ladders was £600 and £870 using water fed pole, yep you read right. Shame we didn’t have enough work to do that everyday huh? Now I must admit, they were extreme days, and everything has to go right for that kind of money. We chose only our easiest to do, highest value jobs, that was far from the norm unfortunately, but it is possible.
And that’s the first reason why people stay window cleaners, they can see that there is great earning potential, even if those numbers mentioned above are very rare,earnings of two or three hundred are common and that’s a good days pay in anyone’s books.
So it’s quite possible that’s the reason why you’re a window cleaner too, full time money for part time wages. When you think that a good days wage, if you were a factory worker,would be £60 or £70 per day, suddenly window cleaning looks very appealing indeed. So there we have it, group 1 are window cleaning because of the money,what about group 2?
Group 2 window cleaners stay window cleaners because of the lifestyle. Window cleaning is very flexible. I cleaned windows in a number of ways over the years. I have tried working very hard for two long, full days then having 5 days off! Then I went through a phase of working 5 days but only 2-3 hours a day flat out then going home and playing drums in a rock band, which was quite a cool way to live. Then working easy days for 3 weeks and then taking a week off per month, which was also nice. Of course, if I had bills to pay or wanted a new car or to go on holiday,I could just knock a couple of houses in the streets where we already worked to get a couple of extra customers per day which soon made the piggy bank jingle.
So you maybe a group 2 window cleaner, you stay window cleaning because it pays some of the bills, but more importantly, gives you time to do what you enjoy doing. Don’t wanna work today? No problem, catch up tomorrow, raining is it? Stay in the warm and dry and catch up tomorrow, kids got something on in school, friend needs a hand,house needs a paint? the possibilities are endless. The best bit? All that without a boss breathing down your neck telling you when to be in and what days you can or can’t take off.
I said earlier there are two kinds, you will know which group you belong too and what resembles your reasons best, but more often than not, as in my case, you like both the flexibility and the money. Now if you’re like this and I guess most of you are,then why rock the boat?
The ugly truth
The truth is, there is a serious down side to window cleaning; you are self-employed. Most of us know how precarious self-employment is. You don’t have to be a genius to work it out and many of us have already had first hand experience of it, but what makes it so precarious? What is this Achilles heel? It’s simple; Self-employment relies solely on you. That’s why you will always remain poor if you continue the way you are.
Next issue: Carl looks deeper into the Ugly Truth of window cleaning and then moves to the secret of success. Be a winner.