Silicon Valley boys add power of algorithm to cleaning business

Spongehero
Two Kiwis, hothoused in Stanford University, are taking a crack at the $200 million cleaning industry with their startup, SpongeHero, that seeks to do for the cleaning business what Uber does for taxi booking.

SpongeHero, a startup, is taking a crack at the $200-million cleaning business market by marrying the mundane world of scrubbing toilets with the brain-power of algorithms to lift the quality of the industry.

Kenneth Ho and Charles La are not your ordinary cleaning business  wannabees. The two are real brainiacs who were hothoused at Stanford University, cradle of Silicon Valley’s technology moguls.

The business problem they are trying to solve: to toss the old business model of booking used by the traditional cleaning business for one that is based on smart tracking system powered by mathematics.

The technology behind the idea: a booking system that is powered by mathematics, enabling tri-party communication between the cleaner, the customer and the SpongeHero, including smart apps to track progress of the cleaners.

Ho has worked as an investment banker in Hong Kong for seven years while La is a software engineer for Google who has had stints at Microsoft, Hulu, and worked at Facebook in the company’s foundation years, developing ad targeting systems.

Track your cleaner?

The SpongeHero idea came from Ho, who noted his father’s commercial cleaning and facilities management business had limitations as clients were looking for better way to have their cleaning sorted.

“We noticed that the number of requests from the home and small office market segment was continually increasing and some of the feedback we received was that consumers really wanted a more convenient way of getting their cleaning sorted. This is how the idea of how setting up the platform came about.”

Customers using SpongeHero book for their services online. What the backend of the web booking done is match the bookings with a pool of existing cleaners vetted and approved by SpongeHero. There is also a spot on the website for potential cleaners to submit their interest.

“What the company is striving to do is to improve the communication between the different parties - customers, cleaners, and SpongeHero. One critical component of this communication is better tracking of our jobs, similar to the type of tracking used in express delivery services.

“This will happen in a few stages, and our goal is for cleaners to use their mobile devices to update the platform with cleaning details. This improved tracking will not only help the cleaners update the customers with the progress of their jobs, but ​will ​also ​be ​used as a feedback mechanism to our platform to improve our job length estimation as well as job assignment algorithms,” Ho says.

Plans for upgrading the service include the ability for clients to monitor in real time when a cleaner has arrived and departed the premises, giving them greater transparency on exactly how long they spent cleaning.

In addition, clients will be able to use a new mobile app to manage their existing cleaning schedules and book appointments remotely.

Future upgrades will allow clients to communicate privately with their cleaner and for the cleaner to submit a custom report with details of services provided as well as any relevant notes at the conclusion of the service.

"One of the primary issues Kiwis have when taking on a new cleaner is the risk associated with monitoring their performance - particularly when the client is not present at the location,” says Ho.

The company believes the best marketing tool is by “word of mouth”. “Our model is designed to ensure a high quality, easy to use service that inspires loyalty and social media sharing. We will also be implementing a digital marketing strategy to raise awareness covering search engine marketing, social media advertising as well as public relations.”

The development of SpongeHero has been funded by Ho and La, his business partner, but he expects the need for future funding as SpongeHero works on improving the technological product offering.

Ho is an experienced user of cleaning services. “I used to work in investment banking in Hong Kong and my initial working hours were roughly 9am to 2am everyday. Cleaning was therefore nowhere near the top of priority list. After a few interviews, I managed to find an awesome freelance cleaner who has stuck with me for the past 8 years and still cleans for me whenever I'm back in Hong Kong."

He and La hopes to take SpongeHero to Hong Kong when people there are more willing to pay a bit more for better quality cleaning.

Tech need not be sexy

Isn’t the cleaning business a bit “unsexy” for an investment banker and a high-tech engineer?

“Tech is about improving the processes that we encounter in our daily lives and in fact, a lot of tech companies around the world deal with what may be deemed "unsexy" businesses.

“Uber matches people with drivers, Washio matches people with dry cleaners, and Amazon (initially anyway) matches book lovers with book sellers. Just like those companies, we are trying to inject tech into what has been a relatively traditional industry in New Zealand to bring it back into the modern age.”

SpongeHero is also looking to follow the trend of other tech companies, focusing on driving volumes rather than going for high margins.

Like all startup companies, Ho and his partner gets excited over the potential that SpongeHero can become. “Charles and I enjoy discussing about the geographical regions and products that we'd eventually like to expand to. However, we are remain realistic and grounded and our immediate aim is to make sure the launch is successful.”

          

Charles La (left) and Kennth Ho - SpongeHero founders

And if it doesn’t work according to plan? “Charles and I are under no illusion that this will be an easy process. However, we are very confident that we will be successful. My view is that even if we do fail, it won't put us off the startup dream. Hopefully, we would have gain some valuable insights and learned some valuable lessons through the SpongeHero process that we can put to good use for future projects.”