Elba Ceilhan grew up cleaning. Both of her parents were professionals. They owned corporate office-cleaning businesses and her mother led housekeeping teams in some of the country’s finest five-star hotels.
They made sure Ceilhan learned how to get deep into the work and really clean.
“Whatever you were doing the night before or later that day, it didn’t matter,” she said, “you were cleaning on Saturday.”
Her first job was cleaning office buildings with one of her parents’ businesses.
After years in the military, Ceilhan now is a senior intelligence analyst for a defense contractor. She’s working overseas in Afghanistan right now and has traveled a lot throughout her career. Her parents always moved with her. And once they landed here, they suggested Ceilhan start a cleaning company of her own so she could stay in the country and be with her daughter, who is now 4.
With that, Ceilhan returned to her roots. She started Millenium Cleaning about 18 months ago with $20 and a vacuum. She had one woman working for her part-time. Most of Millenium’s clients in the beginning were Ceilhan’s friends and people who were referred by friends.
“It was business moms and moms who work — women like me who don’t have a lot of time,” Ceilhan said.
After a few months of nudging along, Ceilhan wondered if there was a way to speed up her business’ growth. It turned out that there was, but it would come with some major growing pains.
She sold a LivingSocial.com coupon last December, offering Millenium Cleaning’s deep cleaning services at a 50 percent discount to clients.
“We were talking about if we sold 50, how great it would be,” Ceilhan said.
They sold almost 400 coupons.
“The three-year business plan happened in 12 hours,” she said. “We were not prepared for that at all — not mentally, not spiritually or physically.”
The company went from one employee, a laptop in the living room and a vacuum to 12 employees, including a secretary, and a physical location at 1730 Monterey Road.
Ceilhan brought in her mother, Gina Drevnak, for guidance and they set out to hire people. But hiring staff for a cleaning company is no easy task, Drevnak said.
First, the work is brutal, she said: “It’s the best workout you’ll ever get.”
In her cleaning days, she would sweat and ache and go home smelly and exhausted every day, she said.
Second, the employees have to be able to pass thorough background checks because they will be going into clients’ homes, often when the clients aren’t there. So they have to be trustworthy and honest, able to drive and have a valid license and auto insurance.
Beyond that, they need to be trained.
“We specialize in deep cleaning, from the floorboards to the ceiling,” Drevnak said.
That means employees needed to learn how to clean under the burners on the stove and move the refrigerator to get the dust bunnies behind it. They even clean furnace vents, she said. Not everyone knows how to do a lot of those things.
Trying to keep up
Between Ceilhan and her one employee, Millenium was able to keep up with the first people to call. They hired and trained four others along the way to keep up with demand.
But it wasn’t easy, Ceilhan admitted.
“You have your laptop,” she said. “You have your cell phone. Now, imagine that overnight 500 people are trying to get through. We couldn’t get to the voicemail fast enough to call people back. It was a scheduling nightmare.”
The surge of business, while welcome, was completely overwhelming and much, much bigger than Ceilhan ever expected when she signed up for LivingSocial.
The coupon pays just a fraction of the cost to the company, and the money, especially in the case of Groupon, trickles in, Ceilhan said.
As tremendous as the coupon was for Ceilhan, she’s read of business owners who were even more flooded. A cupcake company in Germany recently sold 10,000 coupons for cupcakes.
“They tell you, you have the potential to get 10,000 exposures or whatever it is,” Ceilhan said. “But that number isn’t real. It’s on paper.”
The growth was a challenge and Ceilhan said she knows some of the people who bought coupons had trouble getting through and that some people were upset. But she tried to get back to everyone and tried to make it right.
More coupon issues
The LivingSocial coupon, in the end, was a success. Millenium has retained about 40 percent of those customers as at least occasional clients, Ceilhan said.
After that coupon started to approach its expiration date, Ceilhan said she was ready to try again and sold Groupon vouchers in the summer.
This time, they sold almost 500.
While significantly more prepared for the new business this time, Ceilhan said the Groupon experience has been much rougher than LivingSocial was. Part of the problem was a lack of commitment from Groupon to cap the coupon sales.
Other issues, resulting mostly from bad timing, have forced the company to make apologies to Groupon customers and extend its coupon expiration date, Ceilhan said.
“We do deep-cleaning and that’s the coupon we sold,” Ceilhan said. “A move-out cleaning is a different product.”
But since they sold the coupon in the summer, a lot of the people who bought it wanted to use it for a move-out cleaning. There are a lot of problems with that — the biggest being that someone moving out is highly unlikely to become a repeat customer. And building repeat customers is the whole point of Groupon and LivingSocial.
The other issue with customers who want move-out services is that they want immediate attention and have very tight time windows when they can schedule a cleaning service.
All of that was a recipe for disaster, Ceilhan said.
But she says she’s not turned off by the coupons entirely. She’s learned a lot about the online coupons and how to use them strategically to grow her business without overwhelming it. She said she would sell coupons in the winter again, but never in the summer
She’s hopeful the business will continue growing and she’ll eventually be able to stay put in town with her daughter, running a business she believes in.
Ceilhan, like her mother, loves that her clients go home to a clean house at the end of the day.
“We’re like termites,” Drevnak said. “We go in and eat all the dust you have.”. CSBJ