Purple Fig – Austin’s Green Cleaning Company with a Heart
“Purple Fig is a natural cleaning service in the greater Austin area — all the clean with none of the chemicals,” said owner Amanda May. “We make and use only green cleaning products, which we ship nationwide. We provide free recipes for everything we sell, and we’ll teach anyone how to make what we sell. Our goal is to create healthy, clean homes.”
A green cleaning company that gives away its trade secrets? When we heard about ecopreneur Amanda May and her Purple Fig Cleaning Cooperative, we were intrigued by both her green-cleaning methods and her business model. We wanted to know what drives a businessperson to be so generous with the information most companies would keep to themselves. We spoke with May by phone from her Austin, Texas, home. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
MAY: My training is as an accountant. I worked as an auditor at a public accounting firm for a year, sitting behind a desk all day. I enjoyed it, but it just seemed so unnatural.
There were really two issues that motivated me to start my company. One was that I wanted to clean homes in a healthy way, and the other was that I wanted to treat my workers fairly.
Living in Austin, I see so many cleaning companies that employ illegal aliens. Even my grandmother, who lives in the Austin suburbs, used to employ an illegal alien. (She uses Purple Fig, now, of course!) The woman who owns the cleaning company dropped off the girl to clean at my grandmother’s house. We never see the owner. Who knows how much she’s paying the cleaning girls? They might only be getting a dollar or two an hour. That’s terribly unfair.
That is a huge deal for me. In college I worked for a man whose construction company built wrought iron fences. The construction company employed a lot of illegals, and when the men were given their paychecks, they had to hop in cars and drive very fast to cash those checks before the owner’s account ran out of money. They knew the check might not go through. That was a horrible thing. Very often, the checks were bad.
Starting off, I wanted this to be a really great place to work, where people are treated fairly and are provided a living wage for hard work. I’m looking into workers’ compensation now. Meanwhile, we have 24-hour health insurance. If an employee is cleaning and slips, the medical insurance will cover it [if they report it within 24 hours]. Because we don’t yet have the workers comp policy, we need the 24-hour policy. But whether my workers are at their jobs or at play, they need to be covered. After working at Purple Fig for three months, our company pays a large portion of the employees’ medical insurance premiums — and that includes pregnancy coverage, which not all policies have. This is how things should be.
BPGL: How many employees work at Purple Fig?
MAY: We have two full-time and one part-time staff, not counting me. The ladies who clean are compensated as soon as they get to the office and pick up supplies. They’re paid while driving to the client’s home, for both mileage and time. So often, people in this line of work put in hours they don’t get paid for. I won’t let that happen.
BPGL: You certainly have the interests of your workers at heart. Did something happen that made you especially conscious of the work/life issues of workers?
MAY: When I was at the accounting firm, my parents were living in Amsterdam. I wanted to go visit them, so I requested two weeks of unpaid vacation. My request was denied — even though I had nothing on my schedule. That was the last straw for me to quit my office job. In order to be productive, healthy, happy, creative, and all the other things we’re supposed to be, you have to have adequate down time and enough money to spend. By denying me vacation, that’s denying the human aspect of an employee.
BPGL: Are you happier — or more stressed — having your own business?
MAY: I am definitely happier, because I can control my own time. There is a lot of stress. And I must say, in the year or so that we’ve been around, making payroll every week has sometimes been an issue. It’s a struggle, but it’s never not happened.
BPGL: Is the economic downturn affecting your business?
MAY: No. I’ve been expecting it to, but we’re going to be hiring another full time cleaning person in a month or so. We’ve had a few clients cancel. But for every two that cancel, we get another 25 new requests for service, We haven’t seen it in terms of the cleaning side of the business.
BPGL: If you get 25 phone calls for new service, can you expand that quickly?
MAY: Yes. Most people want to start service very quickly. My manager also cleans part time, makes the schedules, and talks with clients. She has a quick turnaround time.
My business model, how I see what we do, is that we are a cleaning service. We make and sell green cleaning products and give seminars —we’ve held two so far. We explain how to use baking soda and vinegar, and how the cleaning products work. The attendees make cleaning products in class. We explain all the tips of the trade. Everyone has a hands-on experience and makes cleaning products in class. Just because a product has a pre-printed product label, that doesn’t mean the product is right or good or okay or healthy.
I want the people at our seminars to have a better understanding of how these things work. It’s very simple. They leave with the recipes on the bottles they’ve made, so they can make it themselves. They stop thinking big corporations are the only ones that can fill their needs. It’s a small step to self-sufficiency.
BPGL: Are you using your own, unique recipes, or do you use recipes you found elsewhere?
MAY: I did my own Internet research; I didn’t have any training in it. But I’m working with someone who has a minor in chemistry and is very interested in how big corporations are poisoning us and making us sick. We’ve done preliminary testing in Petri dishes, where we swabbed the toilet after using our cleaners.
I’d like to show the university our preliminary tests to see if this sounds like a good project for a student. There hasn’t been hard scientific research on the effectiveness of homemade cleaners. If you can show people it’s inexpensive to make your own cleaners — and it works — there’s nothing holding you back.
I did some reading about the history of cleaners that are intended to kill germs. What the marketers don’t tell us is that these cleaners kill the good germs along with the bad. Of course, the companies didn’t want to tell us that their chemicals kill good germs, too. Instead, they created a campaign to train us to kill all germs. It’s a fear campaign. I think that’s why this whole green movement has to be the opposite, though sometimes it, too, takes on the same fear angle. We’re told you, “You have to do this for your health,” or “You need to do this for the world.” But the reason you do this has to be important to you. We talk about creating healthy spaces.
When we’re able to get a loan, a large portion of that will go to testing and proving or disproving these products. A lot of small business loans that I’ve looked at require a business to be around at least two years, so we don’t yet qualify for those.
BPGL: When people take your workshops, do you find that they sign up for cleaning?
MAY: They mostly take the cleaners they make and clean their own homes. It’s in our business model. The most you can pay us is to clean your home for you. The next step down is for us to sell our cleaning products at farmers’ markets or in local stores. Then, the next step is seminars. Finally, we have a small pamphlet that will someday turn into a book. So, we have varying levels of how we can generate revenue.
BPGL: What’s the status of your book?
MAY: The book has gotten pushed back; right now, we’re getting really nice labels with UPC codes. On the Purple Fig website, we’ll have a page with our recipes. Our pamphlet will have other tips, like “Put 10 drops of tea tree oil in your wash to kill mites,” and “Don’t mix vinegar and hydrogen peroxide.” It will be a written version of the seminar. We’ll give them the pamphlet at the seminar. We’ll also tell them places to dispose of computer equipment and old paint, and give them a frequently asked questions list for recycling. As we go into Spring, we’ll help people safely dispose of what’s in their garages.
BPGL: Are you creating laundry products as well as green cleaning products for the home?
MAY: We haven’t found a great recipe for laundry. It tends to separate out. The top gets watery and the bottom gets sludgy. In cleaning products, what makes them so bad for humans is the emulsifier and preservatives. We haven’t found a decent enough emulsifier to make the laundry detergent friendly enough for people to use.
The only current product we use with an emulsifier is the furniture product; it uses soy lecithin to mix the water and oil together without separating. Of all our products, the furniture products will be our most successful. In conventional cleaning, the furniture polish is the most toxic. The shine that it leaves is made from petroleum-based products, and those give off a lot of VOCs. This has been linked to childhood asthma and autism.
BPGL: Were your parents into natural cleaning?
MAY: Not really. But I am the daughter of a petroleum engineer. When I was little, my father would get the essential oil of eucalyptus and spray all around the house to keep the roaches away. He bought natural peanuts and ground peanut butter himself.
BPGL: What’s your sales pitch?
MAY: When people call us, we market pretty effectively. When people have seen the flier or heard about us, they find us really desirable. They say, “We want our house to be clean without chemicals.” So, we’re seducing people to do the right thing.
We charge $32 per hour. We provide our own supplies, except for the toilet brush. We do not use synthetic chemicals; we use only all-natural essential oils, vinegar, and baking soda. We don’t work weekends or nights, though we may hire differently for restaurants and businesses as we grow. We service a specific area of Austin. If the house is outside that area, we add a mileage charge at the IRS rate, which is what I pay my employees.
BPGL: When someone wants to be your client, do you have them sign a contract?
MAY: I don’t believe in contracts. People will continue to use us if they like us. You shouldn’t be forced to pay for someone, if you don’t like their services.
We have a client intake form. It gets all the details pertinent to what we need to know: Will someone be there? Will you hide a key? Things like that. We have key procedures. When we arrive, we start in the bath, then the kitchen, then dusting, and floors. That’s what we do, in the order we do things. This business is all about process.
BPGL: What training do your house cleaners go through?
MAY: We have our procedure manual and training manual. Our manager, Missy, goes over both of those when people start. We give about 60 to 80 hours of training initially. The person being trained is always with someone else who is training them and going over their work and making sure they’re getting a feel for the job. In cleaning, it’s all about getting an eye for scanning a bath that’s been cleaned to know quickly what is out of place. An important thing I tell our cleaners is that a room has to both appear clean and be clean. This comes from my accounting background. If the tub is clean, but there’s a big hair on the floor, it doesn’t appear clean, even though it is.
BPGL: Did you start by doing the cleaning yourself?
MAY: Yes. I quit my job and put my fliers up in coffee shops for chemical-free cleaning. It was about three months before I hired my first employee. That was because of demand. I would be cleaning and receiving calls and scheduling future appointments while I was cleaning. I was working 12 to 14 hour days. It was crazy. The demand has been tremendous.
BPGL: Have you thought about franchising?
MAY: Possibly in a year. By then, I’ll be comfortable with our process and procedure and be more organized.
BPGL: Will you change the name when you franchise?
MAY: I will keep it the same. Everyone responds so positively to the name Purple Fig. I wanted it to be a fruit and have nothing to do with cleaning. I felt that this service does so much more than that. In terms of what we have to offer, how informed our employees are, how prepared we are at each house. We keep notes. If we cleaned ceiling fans, that’s on the notes. We try to keep the same person at the same house. If not, there are notes. Sometimes, in the notes, you might see, “Please wipe the molding really well this time. While I was in school, I was a waitress at a Four Seasons. I learned that customer service is very important.
BPGL: Is it hard to find workers for your business?
MAY: I haven’t had any trouble so far. Since we’re so small, we have to be very picky. Training is very expensive. The feeling I get is that it’s hard to find hard-working people. We try to make sure we have the right person. We do green cleaning, but we also focus on giving good service. There’s no job that’s below me. I think working is an honorable thing — to have a job and pay your bills.
In this economy, it’s the perfect time for people to start their own business. People losing their jobs are being forced out of their comfort zone. We’re all going to have to live differently, like it or not.
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