Can smartphones help you clean your house?

By Kim Gittleson
BBC News, New York

  • Published
Woman holding a feather duster
Image caption,
Uber's on-demand car service has inspired a raft of companies looking to disrupt the cleaning services industry

On-demand smartphone technology has altered the way consumers book everything from cars to hotels. A spate of technologically-savvy companies now wants to use those same methods to transform the way we clean.

Adora Cheung and her brother, Aaron, used to spend marathon coding sessions in Aaron's San Francisco apartment, frantically working to build the next hot start-up. Finally, one day Adora looked around her - and realised the place was a disaster.

"We were basically coding 24/7 and his place just became a mess - I mean, he's a bachelor," she says with a laugh.

Unwilling to sacrifice precious work time to vacuum his floors, the two set about trying to find a cleaner - a process that they very quickly discovered was harder than it seemed.

"The cleaners would never answer the phone or the quotes would be really high - and then once we did find cleaners, it was hard to schedule," she says.

So the siblings started Homejoy in July 2012. It's a simple website that looks to better connect cleaners with customers, and to streamline the logistics of finding, vetting, pricing, and scheduling a home-cleaning.

Image caption,
Homejoy founders Aaron and Adora Cheung initially cleaned customers' homes themselves

At first, Ms Cheung and her brother cleaned customers' homes themselves. But demand quickly outstripped the capabilities of the Cheung siblings, and now the company has expanded to 26 cities in just six months, contracting with hundreds of cleaners along the way.

"Cleaning has always been seen as a luxury business so only the top 1%-2% of Americans can use it," says Ms Cheung.

"The fact is it doesn't have to be that way."

Ready for disruption

In the US, the home cleaning market has always been remarkably fragmented.

According to research firm the Freedonia Group, in 2011 there were more than 600,000 cleaning businesses - a reflection of the fact that many are small companies with only a handful of employees.

While 600,000 firms might seem a lot, the reality is that as more and more US households become two-income families and as the population ages, the demand for cleaning services is growing - and the industry is barely keeping up with demand.

The Freedonia Group estimates that by 2016, the market for residential cleaning services in the US will grow to $14.3bn (£9.15bn, €10.70bn), up from $11.2bn (£7.20bn, €8.40bn) in 2011.

Homejoy and its competitors all make the same basic point: the cleaning services industry is one of the last areas untouched by the shift towards on-demand ordering, and as a growing industry, it's ripe for disruption.

"The way people have bought cleaning services hasn't changed in such a long time," says Oisin Hanrahan, the founder of Handybook, a company that operates in eight US cities which allows customers to schedule everything from cleaning to IKEA bookshelf assembly.

"If you think of all the other services that have evolved - Amazon for online shopping, Uber for car services, the way you buy hotel services, it makes no sense that there's not a logical way for us to buy these home services."

Mr Hanrahan argues that while the issue of trust may have kept innovators away from the space - if you think about it, booking a total stranger to come into your house sight unseen is rather scary - as people have become more comfortable with on-demand services like AirBnB and Uber, the mental barriers have started to come down.

Now, "the market is absolutely enormous and at the moment we're only scratching the tip of the surface," says Mr Hanrahan.

Uber for maids

Image caption,
Handybook's Oisin Hanrahan thinks young professionals no longer possess cleaning and handiwork skills of earlier generations

But how better to scratch that tip? Enter the techies.

Take Homejoy, which, like its competitors, uses a complicated algorithm to match cleaners with customers.

Homejoy scours Yelp reviews, posts Craigslist ads, and uses word of mouth to find cleaners who might be self-employed or eager to leave their corporate job, which can often pay as little as $9 (£5.75, €6.70) an hour.

It then tests, vets, and trains cleaners, who list their availability and their geographical preference.

All this information is entered into a database, so that when a Homejoy customer goes to open the app on their phone to demand a cleaning, the system can maximise the cleaner's time for the day and ensure that every customer can find a cleaner who fits in with their schedule.

"We're able to perfectly match supply and demand," says Ms Cheung, who argues that Homejoy's system benefits not just consumers - who get a lower price and more convenient scheduling - but cleaners as well, who often earn more than the industry average and can better plan their commutes.

"We're part of this trend where you can use technology to make things super-efficient in ways that you've never been able to before," says Ms Cheung.

Home economics

Homejoy, Handybook, Exec, and others all say that while improving the efficiency of the cleaning services industry was their initial goal, their ambitions are larger: to make cleaning a basic service and to change, however slightly, the housework equation.

"You spend something like 6% to 9% of your life cleaning - that's a crazy amount of time that potentially could be better utilized for something else," says Steve Gutentag, the founder of New York City based GetMaid which aims to outdo its competitors by allowing customers to book a cleaner who will arrive within ninety minutes.

It might sound grandiose but in a way it makes sense.

Image caption,
Homejoy recruits cleaners using word of mouth and by placing ads on sites like Craigslist.

Economists have long known that there is a cost to housework. According to one study, if the value of housework had been included in GDP calculations in 2010, it would have added 26%.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that on average, Americans spend 22 hours a week all on this unpaid, uncounted work.

"I'm not gonna put lipstick on the pig - there're definitely people who appreciate these services because it's just more convenient," says Mr Gutentag.

But for those of us looking for just that little extra justification to go easy on the dusting - and the price point to indulge - a little economic rebalancing doesn't hurt.

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