What is it and who is it suited to?
Window cleaning is not all buckets and suds and step ladders. It’s a lot more dangerous than that. If you believe research conducted by Churchill Insurance way back in 2004, window cleaning might even be the most dangerous job in Britain. Thankfully, it’s not quite as risky as such surveys suggest: things have become a little safer with the passing of time. “Window cleaners now have equipment that allows them to completely eliminate the need to work at height,” Damian Whittaker of the British Window Cleaning Academy (BWCA) explains, “Modern window cleaning is no longer the dangerous job it once was.”
Perhaps because of this dangerous reputation, window cleaning has suffered from something of a poor public image in the past, but don’t let that deter you. Window cleaners come from all all walks of life. While a City background may not be what you expect from the MD of a successful window cleaning company, there are many who have just that.
Christopher Turner, who set up The London Window Cleaner in 2006, for instance, is a former hedge fund manager. “I was actually in a hedge fund for the charitable sector; and I spent eight years in charity work before I left,” he says. “There are lots of people in the business from the City. I got out because I wanted to go back to something that was fundamental, something practical and useful and that would always have a market.”
A City background is not a prerequisite of course – although it might help with your start-up costs. Window cleaning is often a family business and, according to Damien of the BWCA, there are a few husband-and-wife teams around. Like most start-up businesses, entry is limited only by commitment and interest. In times of downturn especially, many people who have lost their job use their redundancy payment to start a business in something like window cleaning. So if you want to take up your squeegee and ladder, don’t let the scare stories put you off. Read on for our tips on how best to start up.
As you would expect from a straightforward proposition like window cleaning, a business in this area does not carry sky high start-up costs. But even if you aim to set up your business with as little investment as possible, there is more to consider than sponges and buckets. “There are certain items that will need to be paid for upfront, such as insurance and training,” advises Damian Whittaker of the British Window Cleaning Academy. “And you will also need to pay equipment and vehicle lease deposits.”
Starting out, you’ll still need to consider the cost of following:
It’s a good idea to decide how big you want your company to be, too. You can start off very small (just yourself), but no matter how small you are to begin with you should build your brand on what you expect to achieve. Because as workable as a micro business is, a bucket and ladder will not get you very far: it is worth considering your strategy and long-term goals before launching into things. “You can grow from small beginnings, but you will hamstring yourself,” Christopher Turner of The London Window Cleaner explains, ”because you’ll be limited to one kind of client. Somebody who starts out by investing a couple of hundred quid in a ladder and a bucket and a squeegee won’t really have the potential to grow.”
So although you can buy equipment for as little as £100, you should allow for an initial investment of a few thousand pounds in your venture. Even if you plan to start off on the lowest rung, some backing will allow you to invest in training and marketing, and to grow. When Christopher started out, for example, he says he had ‘reasonable’ backing in terms of cash. So straight off, he was able to purchase a number of vehicles and to invest in a website and logos for his vans. This route comes recommended as it sets your business up on a firm footing. “Again, it depends on the kind of company you want,” he says. “If you want a turnover of a million quid in three or four years, you’re going to have to pitch yourself that way.”
Visibility is important for a window cleaning company. Consider how you will achieve this: through marketing, through painting your vans, or perhaps by creating an impressive website and online presence? Christopher took the name The London Window Cleaner some six months after starting up the company, and then worked very hard to ensure that the website was top of Google rankings, for instance. “So now, if you Google London Window Cleaner, you’re sure to come across our site,” he says. “We do no advertising, and have no advertising budget. We just operate from our website. So our company name and our profile on the internet is absolutely crucial.”
At the start, you will have to go out, and work hard to get your name out there. It can take time. For The London Window Cleaner, it took probably two years to get that investment back. “Nowadays,” Christopher says, “companies call us and we to come in and give a quote. But we do very little active marketing because of the position we worked to establish in the market.”
In the early stages, especially if your focus is residential, some footwork will not go amiss either. Damien Whittaker of the BWCA believes flyer posting is a good way to spread the word. And there are advantages to canvassing in person too: “By knocking on the doors of householders, you have an opportunity to promote and offer your service face-to-face and then to immediately answer any questions that may come up,” he explains. “There’s no doubt that it is one of the most effective ways to build a residential window cleaning round quickly.” Be aware, this can be done any time after 9am but you should avoid doorstepping later than 7pm at night.
The BWCA also has it’s own accreditation programme called ClearChoice. Damien says ClearChoice members can use their membership card and online profile to help them win new business.
In the window cleaning business, there are two main areas: commercial and residential. If you are a small scale operator, the residential market will most likely be your target. For this kind of work you could go for a traditional kit containing squeegees, sponges and a scraper and blades; but if you have the funds, you should really invest in a water fed pole and filtration kit, or ‘reach and wash’ system. This is made up of a 20 metre pole which runs with purified water.
A system like this will allow you to work more quickly, and without access to domestic water supply. You will also be able to reach upper floor windows without the need for climbing equipment such as ladders or a cherry picker. “You need a water purifier as well, which needs to be brought to each different location,” explains Christopher Turner of The London Window Cleaner. “It is a big investment. We have vehicles which have to carry over a metric tonne of water.”
If you take a long-term view, this kind of equipment will pay for itself many times over. “Residential window cleaners using a system like reach and wash are able to earn at least £25 per hour,” says Damien Whittaker of the BWCA. Once you have made the initial investment in a system like this, the overheads are low and it’s quite possible for a window cleaner to take £200 a day in income, he says.
As a rule, domestic window cleaning is not where the big money is found, though. If you want to grow your company and step into the big league, commercial window cleaning is probably the market you should aim for.
In commercial window cleaning, there are four main areas. You have general window cleaning, which requires a bucket, a ladder and a squeegee, and is done by hand: this is just for internal work, for inside office buildings and so on. The second area is exterior high level, cleaning buildings of up to 60ft with the reach and wash system, as detailed above. The third area is abseiling, which requires specialist individuals. And the fourth is crane cleaning, where you bring in a high level crane and cherry picker, and reach over the building to reach the windows.
If you want to cover all four of those areas, you will need substantial investment from the outset. “The cranes are always rented in because they’re jolly expensive to maintain.” Christopher explains. “We tend to focus more on abseiling these days. People see them and they say, ‘Wow, that looks professional.’”
Rules and regulations
Perhaps the most important consideration with a window cleaning enterprise is health and safety. Before you even consider setting up shop, you should expect to spend time swotting up on health and safety. Taking courses, joining relevant industry bodies and reading up on government requirements: that’s all part of your initial investment.
“Training is very important,” says Damian Whittaker of the British Window Cleaning Academy. “It will not only equip you with the skills you need, but will also give you the confidence to build your business.” Christopher Turner of The London Window Cleaner agrees: he spent some five months researching the area. This is not a bad idea when you consider it will form one of the keystones in the reputation you build for your business.
When you’re first starting out, unless you are already an experienced and fully qualified window cleaner, it will be necessary to invest in staff and provide training for them. You should arrange training such as the Federation of Window Cleaners and Institute of Occupational Safety and Health-accredited “Cleaning Windows Safely” one-day course, which covers the use of water fed poles and portable ladders, for your staff.
There are many other courses too, which include one day risk assessment and policy courses, approved by the HSE and the IOSH. And as well as seminars such as their Introduction to Window Cleaning, and courses in Marketing a Window Cleaning Business, the BWCA runs a course in Health and Safety for Window Cleaners. “We found training to be very important and we update it regularly,” says Christopher. “It’s important that staff get their qualifications in cleaning.”
If you are comitted to building a good reputation as a window cleaning company, you need to take health and safety very seriously. You should meet with environmental health officers in different areas, and ensure you have the best health and safety documentation out on the market.
Intimately connected to health and safety, of course, is the issue of insurance. Be aware, insurance rates in the window cleaning industry can run quite high. “Insurance is mega hefty,” admits Christopher Turner of The London Window Cleaner. Having a dedicated broker is helpful. If you can present a sound health and safety record and a clean history, you can prove to the insurance broker that you operate in a safe manner: this should help bring your premiums down.
The nominated insurance brokers of the Federation of Window Cleaners is Allied Insurance Services Limited, and they offer exclusive offers on public and employer’s liability, underwritten by Hiscox, for Federation members. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, few companies in the UK sector are prepared to insure small window cleaning companies, which makes things difficult as there’s less competition and so insurance can be expensive. But, Christopher assures, a broker will help you get the right price.
It’s worth noting, that since 28th February 2005, a sole trader or single person in a limited company is no longer required to have employers liability cover. However, if have any hired help, even if it’s just seasonal or temporary workers you’ll need to make sure you’re covered.
Tips for success
Don’t be afraid to pick and choose your customers. As Christopher Turner of The London Window Cleaner explains: “We will turn down customers who, for instance, may have a very public building that they only want cleaned once a year. That means it’s revolting nine months of the year -- and it’s my name on that building! People will walk past, and see, and think ‘that company’s no good!’”
Choose customers who will invest in your service. If their windows look great, this wil reflect well on your business.
Join the Federation of Window Cleaners from the outset. They provide good advice which is invaluable in the early stages. The Federation also have legal teams, if you have any issues, and they can also point you in the right direction if you have queries regarding health and safety and insurance.
If you live in Scotland you’ll need to apply for a window cleaning license from your local authority.
Your name should give people an indication of the business you’re offering.
Keep the same faces in the company; it encourages a sense of trust. Clients will view you as a family business.
Make a decision at the outset on whether you will aim to compete on price alone. If you decide you will be the cheapest in the market, your business plan will be very different than one that is based on quality of service alone. Decide on the kind of service you will provide: will it match, or go above and beyond, what others can provide?
If you genuinely believe you can devote a large proportion of your life to setting up a company, such as a window cleaning enterprise, it will be worth it. Financial reward should not necessarily be your primary drive though, because, as Christopher Turner of The London Window Cleaner puts it, “I’ve never gotten anywhere near the salary I had when I was in the City.” You’ve got to believe you’re getting more out of life in setting up a company that’s your own.
Federation of Window Cleaners
Institute of Occupational Safety and Health
Health and Safety Executive
The British Window Cleaning Academy