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Predicting the Future: "House" Cleaning


I reviewed our Roomba recently. I was bothered that so few gadget reviewers compared the cost of the device to the cost of hiring someone to do the vacuuming for you, and decided to dig deeper into the house cleaning industry to see if there were any interesting trends. I figured if people move into smaller spaces (part of the densification trend), and own more virtual goods (cases full of media need to be dusted, and books in particular generate a shocking amount of dust; virtualization ought to reduce the amount of cleaning needed), maybe they would tend to hire less help over time.

Wow, did that theory blow up on me. Fast. Welcome to the world of schedule one-off apartment cleaning on your mobile device. TaskRabbit is a service which lets you, with money and a to do list, hire that person over there, with time and a Can Do attitude, get together to exchange money and services. While you can hire people on TaskRabbit to do everything from scan your CD collection into iTunes to clean your house, there are also specialized services. Uber, for example, will put a driver at your location on demand to take you where you need to go. And PathJoy and GetMaid will let you schedule n-hours of cleaning on your mobile device. The payment setup and business model is a little different, but both emphasize high quality, bonded service providers, fluent English. GetMaid charges a supplies fee and expects you to have a mop, broom and vacuum on site. PathJoy ... does not. Yelp reviews on PathJoy are unlike anything I have ever seen before in my life: overwhelmingly 5 stars, with a smattering of 1 stars. Nothing in the middle. It is weird. And the people who love PathJoy are NOT traditional cleaning service customers: they are people who generally take care (or not) of their own space, but have someone in once in a while to catch up. They are more typically in apartments than houses. And they are more often men than women. As Curves did with gyms and middle-aged women, PathJoy appears to be creating an entirely new market for cleaning services.

During the 1990s boom, restaurants went out of business and/or shortened their hours despite seas of customers (this was in Seattle) because their servers were getting jobs at web startups -- waiters were learning HTML, literally. In some ways, TaskRabbit, GetMaid, Pathjoy, and so forth are all attempts to deal with our new "normal" of underemployment. If we return to a world of full time employment at regular hours, we're all going to be angry that these things are no longer available to help us keep up with the rest of our lives. But I don't think that's going to happen any time soon, and this does create some life-work balance choices that were otherwise missing.

I've been trying to find anything at all about what it is like to work for PathJoy as a cleaner and not succeeding well at all. It sounds, based on the rah-rah-invest-in-us stuff that PathJoy and GetMaid are both hiring cleaners away from existing cleaning services. They can do this in part because the existing services pay very poorly and offer few benefits, but charge a lot to the customer (cleaner gets $10/hour or less; service charges $30/hour or more, type of thing -- typical temp work set up, in other words). PathJoy is offering the cleaner a bigger fraction of the total charge, and a lower total charge, and they are claiming this works because they don't have phone (re)scheduling: you schedule through the web or a mobile device.

PathJoy has also addressed the cash flow problem, either in part or in whole, for themselves and possibly also for their cleaners. Small services often charge their customers 3 weeks or more after the cleaning was done (I am NOT making this up); I don't know when they pay their employees, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that was in arrears also, outside of states like Massachusetts where there is law preventing that. PathJoy's online scheduling also apparently handles electronic payment, which means instead of having to pay their employees before collecting from their customers, they may well have reversed things, so that they are able to collect from their customers before they are required by law to pay their employees (even in states like Massachusetts).

I apologize if your eyes glazed over, but this is a FUCKING HUGE DEAL. This is free cash flow, and the bigger your scale, the bigger the pile of cash you have floating around. True, you do have to pay your bills, but you have it for at least a little while, and Amazon proved that free cash flow could be used to scale a business so you didn't have to borrow money and pay interest to accomplish the same goal. Which saves you even more money.

I remain unconvinced that PathJoy can sustain a $20/hour cleaning fee; I think they'll find pretty quickly that they have more customers at that price point than they can find (good) cleaners to serve, and if they reduce the cleaner quality, it'll harm their reputation. _At least in the Bay Area_. Their jobs page suggests they are expanding into places like Texas, however, and the economics will be Very, Very Different there. While PathJoy is expanding eastward and may not reach the east coast before GetMaid takes over that market, if GetMaid (with a much higher hourly rate, and a contract-to-existing-services setup, at least for part of its area) screws up badly enough, PathJoy ought to be able to "clean up" in places like Orlando, with lots of apartments with two employed parents who don't have a lot of time to keep up on the domestic arts.