How To Start A Nationwide Brand, Beginning With Your Values – with Alicia Sokolowski of AspenClean
- Alicia Sokolowski owns and operates AspenClean, a house cleaning company in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto
- She was an accountant and was concerned with the products cleaning companies were using
- It took five years to get a natural cleaning product she liked
- AspenClean on 604List
From product development, operations management to IT systems design, there’s a lot that goes into creating a national brand. AspenClean is an award-winning home cleaning service based in Vancouver, B.C and has been featured on CTV, BC Living, among various other media outlets. Alicia Sokolowski shares with us how it all started with identifying something missing in the marketplace. She shares with us how she was able to create a company that aligned with her values and lifestyle when green cleaning companies were just emerging.
So, how does someone launch the biggest house cleaning company in Canada?
We might be the largest non-franchised house cleaning company in Canada. I can’t really confirm that because the cleaning companies are private. They don’t publish their information. Definitely the largest green company. A lot of the other ones are franchises. Whereas we own our offices.
Right. Maybe the largest in Vancouver?
Definitely, I’d say yeah, biggest in Vancouver. We also have the Calgary office and Toronto office and both of them are on the rise.
That’s cool. I’d like to know a little bit about how the company started. Did you use to clean houses? You were an accountant before, right?
I’m a Chartered Accountant by training. I finished business school at the University of Toronto. Then I got my CA with Deloitte & Touche in Toronto. No, cleaning was not my strong point. My husband and I laughed that I’m the Aspen and he’s the Clean.
I started it because I was using cleaning companies and once I had small children, I looked at the chemicals that they were using and thought “Is it really good for my children?” Living an organic, healthy lifestyle, trying to use organic food, and still using harsh chemicals didn’t seem right. When I started doing more research into the whole cleaning industry and its issues, I realized that the cleaning industry was ready for a makeover, so to speak.
What year was that?
That was 2003.
2003 is pre-eco stuff. Is it not?
Pretty much. Yeah, I think Method started at around that time too—
Sorry, which company?
Method. It’s just one of the cleaning products companies. They promote themselves as green but they’re not really. Well, the Seventh Generation was around at that time, but otherwise I think we were one of the first. It was the combination of a cleaning product that I felt needed to be updated. And how the microfiber cloths were made. I found out and was just wondering about the health effects. Looking at some research that was done in various countries on the health of the cleaning employees, it didn’t look great.
I think the whole thing inspired me to start the cleaning service. Little did I know how difficult it was to find and motivate the right people. But that’s why my husband came in and helped. Setting up proper systems to reward great performance. That was very helpful.
So what’s your husband’s training? Is he an accountant as well?
No, my husband is an electrical engineer. But having that engineering mind helped him set up better IT systems and processes on a number of brands. Set up the online booking system. We were cutting edge, very unique. No one else had it. Now, of course, more companies, especially those that are trying to hire top contractors, they have an online booking system. We started it. We were the first ones.
He works with chemists to design our products. So even though he’s an electrical engineer, he has some training in chemistry and he’s really designing the cleaning products with the assistance of the chemists in labs.
Wow. So that’s how that works. I was curious how a company that cleans homes is able to turn around and invent their own cleaning products.
Right. Exactly. It’s not private label. We didn’t just go to someone and say put our name on your best formulation. It was developed from scratch by analyzing all the ingredients, working with chemists, figuring out what’s necessary, what’s not necessary, sort of testing on our teams that would give us their feedback until we came up with the final product.
How long did that take?
Well, we didn’t launch our products the way they are right now until 2009. It took us five years. We had the cloths. We had some versions of the products that we were using, but not in the form that we have right now. We’ve put them into the West Vancouver Whole Foods in 2009.
Did that take longer than expected?
My husband was initially still busy with his professional life. He was working for a mobile telecom. The service business was occupying us and our children were small at the time too. But in 2009, that’s when we launched the product and now we’re re-branding and hoping to launch the new website in the next couple of days.
So when you started with the thought “Hey, we should make our own product” It was roughly 2004? It took five years for you to get a product that you liked using?
Well, that we liked using and packaged it. Because that was of course we were using the products but we didn’t package it until 2009. It probably took us from 2004-2006 to actually develop the product in this form and then to take it to the market it took us until 2009.
And you only used your AspenClean products in people’s homes? That’s why being eco-friendly is your key differentiator?
Our original business plan was to launch both services and products. We launched the Vancouver services first and with the microfiber cloth and the type of product that we were still working on. Because we were running two businesses effectively. We were running the services business and then improving the products and taking it to the market, packaging it and preparing everything else.
Basically, what was on the market, we didn’t feel it was good enough. We wanted the product to be unique. We wanted to be able to disclose all the ingredients. We wanted the product to be healthy for people that are using on a full time basis. So we wanted to avoid ingredients that had any issues with it. That’s how we created the product that’s 100% natural, has some organic ingredients. We couldn’t create something that was purely organic because it still has to be effective. Our cleaning staff are using them. They also buy the products for themselves or they are given some and often when they leave the company, they get a set for themselves at a discount. They get them just because they don’t want to use the products that they used to.
It’s basically because we were looking for a method that would be better than what’s out there, healthier, better for the environment. That’s why we brought it to Ecocert. Ecocert is an organization in France and they certify organic food, cosmetics and now also cleaning products. They were also our resource and our guide even though we omitted some of the ingredients that they allowed just because there were some issues with it. Some ingredient called 1,4-dioxane, it was linked to cancer and we don’t want to include it in our product even though most of the green cleaning products had it but we didn’t.
That’s why it took a while. That’s why just going through all the regulations, making sure that the product is effective so it has all the necessary ingredients. We had a chemist—one of the chemists worked on traditional chemicals and we had a chemist that worked on green cosmetics. All of the ingredients in our products, I’d say, are used to make cosmetics. We use cosmetics grade ingredients because we didn’t want any preservatives in the ingredients. The ingredients that are used to make chemical products have preservatives.
We couldn’t say that our products are 100% natural if it was preserved using something artificial. We use the high grade cosmetic ingredients. We wanted the products to be gentle on hands and not harmful and best for the environment. So people having septic tanks can use it confidently and not worry it’s going to be damaged.
Did you get any investment to start this? You guys are working as electrical engineer and as an accountant and you guys had a house-cleaning services come by and you just kind of funded it yourself? How did that work?
Yeah, we funded it ourselves. We worked for probably for about 10 years prior to starting the business. We had good jobs. That was our next plan; to start a business that would be meaningful, that would contribute to a better world, not just improve our financial being. So far, it’s only one part that has satisfied the financial aspect! It’s still a work in progress. I mean we can’t complain.
It has been 14 years and we’re happy with what we’ve developed and how I think we’ve given work to people that’s a lot more meaningful than what they would get otherwise. We’re definitely good for the environment. A lot of people working here love it and they wouldn’t work for a traditional cleaning service because they wouldn’t want to. It would either impact their health or they already had health issues. I know some of our first employees had asthma. They thought it was other reasons as to why they had asthma attacks. And once they started working here as opposed another cleaning company, their asthma attacks decreased to like, once a month if that. They realized it was really all the bleach and ammonia and whatever else they were using that was causing it.
I could see that. You guys were working pretty good jobs and the opportunity just kind of presented itself.
Well, we moved here from California and we were looking for this next step. We were looking for where we would see ourselves in this world now that we have small children. We live in West Vancouver which is not your San Francisco or Toronto. We were ready for the next step in our lives, I guess. We’re looking for a business that would be meaningful.
So what was your path? You’re originally from Poland, right?
That’s right. I went to high school in Poland and then moved to Toronto. My husband finished electrical engineering at the same university. That’s where we met.
And then you went from Toronto to California to look for something a bit better?
Yeah, the job opportunities were there. In fact, we travelled the world with the company from California working on various projects from Singapore to Switzerland to the UK and then came back to California and decided to move back to Canada where we chose Vancouver.
Back in West Vancouver. That’s amazing. You’re still there. You’re obviously happy. You’ve expanded across the country and stuff. What are the next steps? It sounds like the big push is to get more products or to let the people know about the products. More people probably should know if they’re ever looking for house-cleaning services in one of these major cities across Canada. They probably have seen or heard of AspenClean, but do you feel like that’s the next big step? Is Canada and/or North America or Europe is going to know about the products soon?
We’re hoping that that would be the case. People love our products and even other cleaning companies are using our products. We sell our products at Whole Foods and a few other health food type stores and online, but we’re planning on expanding the product distribution. We’ve added dish soap and laundry. We’re adding auto dish as well. We have a few other products that will be added this year.
We’ll be focusing more on the products’ aspects without neglecting the service but rather, making it easier for people using our service to purchase the products and have them delivered. We’re considering having people come in and resell some of the products just so that we can save the environment even more. Our current bottles are made from 100% recycled plastic as opposed to the previous ones that were only 50%.
We’re always looking at better ways of doing things and minimizing our footprint. But of course the people aspect can never be understated. That’s really what makes any business a success – the people that are on board with you.
That’s the number one reason AspenClean is what they are—is the people?
It’s the people. Absolutely.
Are you one of those people?
I hope so. We’ve had some amazing people working here and that’s really what makes us as successful as we are.
What’s the one thing that just sticks out in your mind as the biggest regret or mistake along the way? Is there one that you can pinpoint or is it a scattered small mess of them?
Good question. I have made a bunch of mistakes. I know we prepared the company for franchising and we’ve invested in that and just to decide not to franchise it.
Why didn’t you decide to franchise in the end?
Just was worried about losing the control over the brand. We’ve decided to open a couple of offices and see if this could be a way to expand. Once we add the products, we’ll decide if this will be the best path forward. So you never know, it might not all go to waste.
Deciding not to franchise in the end, sounds like you’re more comfortable with that path.
Yeah, I don’t know if that means I’m a control freak. But we like to have control over the brand and know what’s going on in all the cities. It seems to be working.
Well, it seems to be working because your online ratings are through the roof. And I couldn’t imagine that’s an easy thing to accomplish. People coming in to your home, cleaning your things, I would imagine that would be a very picky customer and if something isn’t perfect, that’s one of the scenarios where someone would give you a poor review, but for some reason, AspenClean is way, way, higher than I thought.
Well, like I said, the people are the most important part of the business. We have some great skilled staff, good team members and team leaders. We, of course, have a great customer service. Sometimes, we need to manage customer’s expectations. Sometimes, someone might have a bad day that’s why we have our customer service to recover, to basically make sure that we hopefully make everyone happy, as much as we can. We have some amazing people and yes, most of the negative scenarios are remedied into positives. We have processes but also our team members are really good and know how to handle it. We are very lucky. We are very blessed. Most of our clients are great too. They are very happy to share the reviews. We have a lot of regular clients who have used us for a number of years and they just love the people that come to their home and they love sharing that.
That’s fantastic. It sounds like your investment in good people isn’t just the cleaning staff but also customer service staff.
Yeah, you have to think about both. Of course, the cleaning staff—we’re only as good as our team members but we all need help and that’s why the customer service are here to help not just the clients but firstly making sure that they can make their job as easy as possible from here. And of course, address any concerns or issues that we may come across.