Jason Ewart spent two summers as a franchisee for a student painting company while studying at the University of Alberta. By his second year, he had won multiple awards for his performance in sales and customer service, and he was running 3 crews. He was learning how to do quality work, how to solve problems, how to treat customers and employees.
All the things that mattered, from the big picture to the little details, Jason was figuring out the old-fashioned way: long hours and hard work. It was a good experience. But it was a student job, a summer gig, a way to pay the bills while he was earning his BSc degree.
In 2006, he found himself with an education, ambition, experience… and a truck. “I knew I wanted to do something on my own, build something from scratch,” Jason says. “While I was in the painting business, people always asked me about window washing and eavestrough cleaning. I felt this was something I could do by employing students.”
“So I started Student Suds with one truck, one employee, and zero customers. I had no capital for marketing. I went door to door. The whole summer, 16 hours a day, knocking on doors in the evening, doing whatever work I could get during the day. Because I was working in the business and I didn’t have too many expenses, I made money that first year. It wasn’t a lot.”
At the end of that first season, Jason made two decisions. He decided that Student Suds was a real business; it could actually grow into something. He also decided that in order for that to happen, he couldn’t work in the business. He had to step back from doing the labour and focus on marketing, managing, and customer service. He had to create systems and processes to help his student employees deliver exceptional service at a reasonable price to his customers.
In his second year, Jason began to make this shift. While a full-time and by then another part-time employee were doing a job (he trained his crews to be efficient, courteous, and thorough), he canvassed the neighbourhood for new customers. He spent most of his time that second year marketing and building the business.
Success didn’t come overnight. No one still really knew what Student Suds was. And the sheer amount of rain that season forced him to re-book a lot of jobs, costing him time and money. Jason was persistent. By the end of the season, 80% of his first year customers had come back. And Student Suds had doubled its sales.
“The mental block isn’t there in the second year. You know what can be done in a day, a week, so you can plan the work out better. And you know how much marketing you need to do to get to a certain level. That really helps.”
Jason spent his winters planning and building systems. Administration, forms, file systems, accounting systems, brochures, payroll, taxes: he did it all himself. He even built his own database to manage customers, employees, estimates, and jobs. He wasn’t a programmer, but he had all winter to learn. It was a lot of trial and error, but he enjoyed the tinkering. He was eventually able to get correct data for his business and analyze what was working. This helped him take the next step.
“By the third year, I had a budget. I was doing Canada Post drops in my target neighbourhoods. I had a bigger truck, two crews, four full-time employees. I hired a manager to go after more jobs, do the estimating, and manage the crews. But I had to figure out the right ways to compensate everybody and make sure they were all organized so that the work got done and customers were happy. The systems made a big difference in my ability to grow.”
By 2011, Student Suds had cleaned the exterior of over 2,000 Edmonton homes. Calgary seemed to be an obvious next target for expansion. But Jason chose to go in a different direction. He decided to keep Student Suds in Edmonton. After spending the first years of the company cleaning the outside of homes, he decided to move the company inside.
“I was looking into Edmonton house cleaning and maid services. There were a lot of companies, but no one was doing it from a student perspective. Everyone had complicated payment plans that seemed expensive or inconvenient for clients. I thought there might be an opportunity for a young, energetic company to provide a better service at a better price.”
In early 2011, Student Suds entered the Edmonton housekeeping market with a basic value proposition to homeowners: Simple, competitive pricing. Responsible, trusted student cleaners. Environmentally friendly cleaning products.
To get started, Jason cleaned a few houses himself. The only way he could understand the work (and build it into a business) was to do it. So he scrubbed, dusted, swept, and wiped. He experimented with cleaning products, tools, and materials. He timed himself for each activity in each different size of home. He listened to his customers’ expectations before he started a job and their evaluations once he finished.
When he felt he had the right systems and the right students to deliver the expected level of service, Jason marketed the housekeeping service to existing exterior cleaning clients. Initial customers gave very positive feedback. Many signed up for the weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly house cleaning packages. The housekeeping business has been growing at a very healthy pace, helped along by everything Jason has learned and put into place since he started the company in 2006. When he lists them off, they sound like commandments.
“You have to maintain the quality of your service even as you grow. You have to train staff, try to show them every situation you encountered. There has to be good communication. You have to keep your word — to clients and to employees. You have to guarantee your work. You have to fix bad experiences. You have to check references.”
In six years, Jason Ewart has built a successful business with Student Suds. He’s now planning the next stage of the company’s growth. When asked for one piece of advice he would give to budding entrepreneurs, Jason thinks a moment. “You have to choose the services you provide and the clientele you’re going to provide them to. Then stick to it. You can’t be in all sorts of businesses. You have to focus.”
Student Suds was one of the first Origami Accounting clients. Jason was spending more and more time on his accounting and bookkeeping as his business grew, researching obscure rules and guidelines online, trying to make sure he was doing everything properly. Unlike other systems he had invested time into, the increasing time he spent here felt to be a waste. Once he signed up with Origami, it was easy letting go.
“I just upload my documents, and Origami does the rest. They keep all my accounts organized. I get monthly accounting, bookkeeping, and tax returns for a fixed monthly fee. The price is about the same as what most firms charge to do just the books at the end of the year. With Origami, I can see and know everything about my financials as I go. So I can just focus on my business and do the things I know how to do.”