Ty Webber, along with his wife Caterina Vitanza, are co-founders of Maid Fresh, a residential cleaning service located in Ottawa, Ontario.
Ty was born in Malaysia and lived there for a majority of his childhood. “The universities there were not as good as overseas. So, my older brother went to Australia, and my sister went to New Zealand for school.” A few years before Ty was old enough to attend university, his parents felt that the family was being torn apart, and looked for a country that they could all settle in. “So, we applied to Australia, England, and Canada,” he says, “just by chance it was Canada that said yes first.” The whole family, including his brother and sister, immigrated to Ottawa in 1977.
When the time came, Ty decided to attend Carleton University for a degree in science but ended up dropping out after the first year. He instead got a job at the Chimo Hotel (now a Holiday Inn) and quickly climbed the ranks from a busboy to manager within 2 years by the age of 21. However, “After about 3 years as a manager I decided it was too much work; working 80 to 90 hours on salary,” he recalls, “At this point, I was more mature and ready to go back to college.”
Ty studied electronic engineering for 3 years and received his college diploma. From there, he picked up a job rather rapidly in high tech, as he already had experience in a managerial work, along with certification in the discipline. At the time, high tech was booming in Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa, so he knew there was an opportunity in the industry. He began in the repair dept, increasingly took on more responsibilities and became a director of operations in later years. His wife also worked in the tech industry.
Years passed, and Ty wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about working his job in technology anymore. “I didn’t like the politics in higher management and I knew there was going to be a downturn in high tech,” he recalls, “I didn’t want both of us to be dependent on the same sector.” At the time, Caterina was on maternity leave with their twin daughters. “I did some research and decided that maybe we should start a small company.”
Together they had to decide what type of business they wanted to establish. Ty began by looking at both of their skills and separated dreams from reality. “I clearly did not have a product in mind, as there was no product I could come up with on my own. Since there are only two kinds of businesses, products, and services, I knew that it had to be a service,” he said. “So, what can I provide as a service knowing that my wife would have to be the key person involved during its first few years.”
Ty did some research and found that there was an opening in the residential cleaning market. There were only a handful of major competitors at the time and all were franchise based. Surprisingly none of them had made a presence on the internet. “Coming from high tech, I knew the internet was very powerful,” he mentions, “I looked into them further and didn’t like their business models. I felt that they were taking advantage of their employees and not treating them fairly. On the customer side, there were considerable improvements that could be made.”
Ty felt that not only did he want to treat these employees with more respect, but he also wanted to come to the job a little more professionally. His goal was to shift the business from a blue-collar industry to a white-collar industry which would make a difference to the customer, and he figures that they wouldn’t mind paying a little extra for somebody more reliable, consistent and professional.
Another benefit of the residential cleaning business is that there are barely any overhead costs. “I didn't want to go into debt,” he says, “If there is no work to be had, then I’m not paying anybody because they work by the hour. I’m not earning any money, but I’m not losing any either.” The major costs associated with the business were small investments such as cleaning equipment, insurance, and a vehicle.
So, they decided to open Maid Fresh. At the time of launching the business, Caterina was working at a restaurant, where she acquired her first few high-end clients through word-of-mouth. Ty on the other hand was still a director of operations at the tech company in Kanata. “I didn’t want to leave my job until I was sure that this would work.”
About 5 or 6 years later, the company was really taking off and Ty had to make a very crucial choice. “I had to make the decision to keep it running with my wife or take it over and expand it. So, I left my job as director of operations, and now we are both key to this company.”
Ty used all his managerial experience to his advantage “when you work for smaller companies you can’t only have one hat, you normally have to take on multiple roles in the company,” he mentions, “you not only learn the operational aspects of a company, stuff like manufacturing, change control, inventory management and so forth, but you also start learning about the business side which includes sales, marketing, and finance.” These business skills came extremely useful in getting the business up and running.
The first challenge they faced was finding the right people for the job. “Anybody with a business will tell you that the hardest thing to overcome is getting good people to work or you.” If your business is lacking good employees, then ultimately the product or service that you are trying to deliver to consumers will ultimately fail as well.
In the case of Maid Fresh, they look for people who would get along chemistry wise, as they would be together in the same group of 4 for extended periods of time every day. “You can be the best worker, but if your irritating or if there’s something quirky about your personality then it's tough because you work close corners,” Ty expresses, “You can’t run away from someone you don’t like on the job. You’re either in a house or in the van, there’s no escape.” So other than personality, Ty also looks for those who are physically fit and who are satisfied with the pay, and he’s looking to reduce turnover as much as possible.
To this day, Ty and Caterina remain co-owners of the business and are still involved with the company’s day-to-day operations.
I asked Ty what he thought were the most important qualities/skills that attributed to his success and that he would advise other up-and-coming entrepreneurs to follow. He responded with:
Ty is a great ambassador of the level of commitment required to start your own business. “My day started at 6:45 this morning and is not stopped until about 9:00 to 9:30 at night - Monday through Friday - and we each work about 4 hours on Saturdays and Sundays,” he says, “I have only taken one day off in 13 years and that is because I came down with pneumonia.” If you can’t put in the hard work, then this might not be the career path you should pursue. There is no escalator to success, you have to take the stairs.
- Passion for being in control
Being an entrepreneur requires the right kind of mentality. “I don’t mind putting in more hours to get the same pay [as a director of operations] as long as it is under my control,” Ty said. “Employees don’t plan. They come in, do the work, and go home. You are responsible for all the planning.” This means that as a business owner, you are in charge of making the major behind-the-scenes decisions that directly impact the company's everyday operations. You must be prepared to take on that amount of responsibility.
- Differentiate from others
A common misconception is that to be competitive in today's market, your product or service must be the cheapest available; however, this is not necessarily the case. “If your business advantage is that you’re the cheapest, there’s always someone who will go $0.10 cheaper,” he says, “so now you’re not the cheapest and you’ll have to keep cutting [on quality] to become even cheaper.” If you want to be competitive, do it by having a product that offers significant value to the customer, and that differentiates you from others alike.
- Have a full understanding of all aspects of the business
It's crucial that before you open a business, you know how to run all its operations. “You can’t just say, well I’m brilliant at finance so hey, I think I’ll be successful. No. You need to be more of a generalist; where you know a little of everything,” he mentions. An alternative is to hire people that complement your weaknesses - and is why partnerships are sometimes advised. However, note that they will take a bite out of your payroll and if they leave the company, you may have a new competitor.
- Be realistic
There’s a frequent association with being an entrepreneur and becoming rich and famous but owning a business does not mean that you will become either. You have to be realistic when it comes to decision making and growth, or else your forward thinking may result in a costly mistake down the line.
I also asked Ty what he thought were the most common mistakes made in today’s entrepreneurial practices. He answered with:
- Biting off more than you can chew
Growing too fast or trying to expand your product line is always extremely risky. “I have seen so many companies do extremely well with their core products but try to diversify because they feel that they cannot continue to only sell one product line to succeed.” If you are going to diversify and expand, ensure that you have done an adequate amount of market research, and developed a well thought through plan to bring it into the market. It only takes one bad idea to ruin an entire company.
- Spending on unnecessary costs
If your costs are higher than your revenues, then you’ll be running deficits. Ultimately when you're starting a business, and even throughout the process of growing your business, it's important to reduce expenses as much as possible without taking away from the quality of your goods or service.
- Have a contingency plan
Sometimes things don't always go as planned. This can be a result of a change in the economy, or a change in consumer behavior, hence why you should always have a backup plan in case things do go wrong. As Ty puts it, “a lot of people fail because they don’t plan for failure.”
- Vigilance of small problems
When you see a minor issue within your business, fix it as soon as possible rather than letting it grow into a much larger concern down the line. “Some people will see a small fire in the business the size of a wastepaper basket, and they will ignore it. Next thing you know the paper basket engulfs your entire office.”
- Communicate with your customers
Business owners tend to think they know what their customers need or what will make them happy, but they don’t necessarily gather this information from the customers themselves. If your client base is not content with the good or service you are offering, then ultimately your business will fail. Therefore, you should periodically reach out to customers and ask them for criticism or advice to improve the product or service you’re providing.