One of the biggest challenges of running No More Dust Maid Services is not knowing exactly what the business might look like in a post-COVID world.
What it looks like now involves deep cleanings of COVID-19 patients’ houses, arranged by relatives who want them to come home from the hospital to a sweet-smelling, freshly vacuumed, deeply disinfected abode. It involves free cancellations for any customer who wakes up the day of a cleaning with a fever or other potential COVID-19 symptoms, and it also involves customers giving employees grace when they’re not feeling well. It involves regular customers holding off their next monthly cleaning because cases are on the rise once again.
No More Dust’s owner, Poiette Noel, didn’t know when she decided in early 2020 to start the company that there was a pandemic just around the corner. She was hoping to start a business as a side gig to get money to invest in real estate; after participating in an entrepreneurship program that promoted and walked participants through the process of starting service-based businesses, she decided on a residential and commercial cleaning service.
But like most businesses that opened just before the pandemic, No More Dust was left in the lurch when Maryland’s stay-at-home order came.
“It was kind of like, ‘OK, I just started this business, and now the whole world is on lockdown,’” Noel recalled.
Although cleaning businesses were allowed to continue operating, running her business during a global pandemic quickly proved to be different from what she had come to expect during the entrepreneurship program and throughout her own months of research.
Cleaning supplies, especially the disinfecting products No More Dust used in houses where there had been COVID-19 exposure, rapidly became hard to come by, for example. Door-to-door advertising, a staple in the home services industry, was out of the question.
At first, the new company was getting as few as five appointments per month. Now, business is much steadier — No More Dust does about 50 cleanings each month, a fifth of which are disinfections — but it’s still hard for Noel to gauge just how well her business is faring.
She doesn’t know if she would have more business were it not for the pandemic, with more customers willing to invite strangers to work in their homes; less, without disinfection services being offered; or around the same amount.
“That has been a difficult thing to gauge because I’ve applied for a ton of grants, and the first question they always ask is, ‘How has COVID affected your business, comparing your 2019 numbers to 2020?’ And I’m like, I don’t have those numbers,” she said. “I can assume pre-COVID cleaning businesses were probably doing way higher numbers than I’m doing now, but it’s just hard to really gauge what that looked like.”
But starting her business amid the pandemic has been motivating for Noel, as well. As other businesses struggled, hers soared well beyond what she expected, with business especially beginning to boom over the summer, as patrons decided they wanted to support Black-owned businesses in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
What was originally imagined as a side project is now something Noel sees growing in scope, with expansions planned for the later in 2021 and into the coming years.
“Starting off, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if I would be able to manage it,” she said. “Expanding was definitely something I decided along the way, as I got into the groove.”
Her first goal: convert her seven contractors, many of whom are also women of color, to full-time employees with benefits. Her dedication to paying her employees livable wages is a central tenet of her business model. Too often, she said, she’s watched her friends give up jobs that don’t offer them the flexibility and salary they need to support their families.
“I get customers that call and say, ‘Oh, I only paid this last time I used another company. Why is (No More Dust) so (expensive)?’” she said. “I can’t, knowing what I know and being educated as I am, I can’t be comfortable with paying people low wages for manual labor.”
She also pictures No More Dust expanding beyond its 10 existing service areas, which include counties throughout Maryland as well as Washington and Northern Virginia, up the East Coast to New York and Philadelphia.
At first, it didn’t seem tenable for her to provide service in areas too far for her to drive on a regular basis — she lives in Prince George’s County, and originally planned to only provide service in the Washington metro area. But once she developed No More Dust’s business model, which is based on ensuring she has “teams” of employees available in each service area, she realized the possibilities were endless.
“The expansion is kind of a five-year plan,” she said. “But it’s definitely on my goal list.”