Cleaning Up!

By Jan Falstad Billings Gazette, Mont.

Two Billings friends came up with the idea to start their own business when they were cleaning Trinity Lutheran Church on Grand Avenue for a national cleaning service.

"It was one of those days when we weren't happy with our boss. She's normally great, but that day we fell out," said Ruth LaFrombroise. "So, Rebecca and I started talking, saying we should be working this on our own."

Unlike many just-talkin' entrepreneurs, LaFromboise and Rebecca Smith got serious. They spent the next year-and-a-half taking financial courses, writing a business plan and saving start-up money.

Last October, they launched their first business, called Maid For You, a name they came up with after about 100 other ideas had already been taken.

The pair set deadlines and goals. That helped them stand out at the District 7 Human Resources Development Council in Billings where they studied business and saved start-up money under the federal Assets for Independence program.

"They were unbelievably motivated and ready to go," said asset development coordinator Jace Christensen. "They blew through the program almost faster than I've seen anyone do it."

By learning to save $150 a month through the program, Smith and LaFromboise each built nest eggs of $1,000. Their accounts were matched by $4,000 grants, giving them a total of $10,000 to start Maid For You.

Half of the money was spent setting up a website, buying cleaning and office supplies, paying for insurance and bonds and starting some advertising.

They have budgeted $550 to participate in the Home Improvement show in March and are joining the Chamber of Commerce to generate customers.

Now a serious, if fun-loving, businesswoman, LaFrombroise said she had to shift her attitude before starting her cleaning career five years ago.

"I never even knew maid service was used in Montana. I thought it only existed for the rich in fancy cities," she said.

They are halfway to their goal of 30 clients, most wanting bi-weekly cleaning. Among their handful of commercial clients are the Indian Health Board and Billings Flying Service, whose owners also hired them to clean their home.

The cost is $26 per hour for a minimum of three hours, but that's all it takes them to clean most homes. Seniors are $23 per hour.

"Once we get to cleaning a house, we get it done. We're good," LaFromboise said.

On Wednesday, they called a prospective client who had visited their website, setting up an initial appointment to meet.

LaFromboise set up an office in her basement after telling her husband he had to move his Raiders-themed Man Camp to the garage.

Right after they started Maid For You, another major cleaning company, Merry Maids, opened a Billings office.

"I was worried because that is a big franchise," LaFrombroise said. "But a lot of people like helping out the small businesses."

Smith started cleaning homes at age 17 and, at 22, she has five years experience. She worked one or two other jobs while cleaning, which made her appreciate this trade more because she likes to make friends with her clients.

"You can have a good relationship with the cleaning customer, as opposed to retail where the customers just come and go," Smith said.

She met LaFrombroise, 32, at their previous cleaning job and the two quickly built respect.

"I would never have another partner. She's very trustworthy and that's hard to find," LaFromboise said.

For her part, Smith said she'll be happy when they line up more clients and when they are adding fewer items to the "don't do this again" list that they keep to correct their inevitable business mistakes.

Their first Maid For You cleaning job produced their first entry.

A man hired them to clean his RV, after telling them not to open the refrigerator while they were scouting out the job.

They agreed, but found out later that the man had failed to tell them all his food had spoiled when the power was cut off.

They finished the job, as promised, eliminiating all the critters in the refrigerator, but wound up throwing away all their cleaning supplies.

"That was lesson No. 1: Always look at what you are going to clean before accepting the job," Smith said.

The two are learning bookkeeping together, in case one of them gets sick, and are getting ready to install a software accounting program.

When the client calendar fills up, Smith will relax more.

"The thing that keeps me going it knowing it will get better," Smith said.

While talking about their future Wednesday, LaFrombroise came up with a spur-of-the-moment marketing idea: a cleaning special for expectant mothers: three cleanings for $174, a $60 discount.

"We just made this up now to get more clients," she said.

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