Make Your Employees a Priority: Student Maid Q and A

Ash Kumra By on December 7, 2017

1. What is your mission?

Though I started cleaning houses, so I could afford a pair of jeans by the time I officially launched Student Maid the mission of the company was already about so much more than making money. I saw how a flexible job with a supportive work environment impacted the students I hired, and it made me want to keep my company going so I could help these people become successful. Today, our goal is for every person we hire to leave our doors better than when they came in. We want them to learn the skills they need to succeed in life, no matter where they go or what jobs they take.


2. Why was this created?

In the early years of my company, I hired a great HR intern. I trusted her so much and felt she was so capable that I put her in charge of payroll. Long story short, the first time she submitted payroll, she messed up. Immensely. She accidentally overpaid 27 people by a grand total of $40,000. (I almost had a heart attack.) I could’ve tackled the problem myself, but instead, I decided to call her—not to criticize her for her mistake, but to ask her if she had any ideas about how to fix it. Once she’d calmed down (she nearly had a heart attack too), she did. She said we should call every employee and ask them not to spend the money. So that’s what we did. And a week later, all the money was returned to our account. So even though she’d made this huge mistake, the intern, Lizzie, was so proud of herself for fixing it pretty much on her own. She felt empowered. So that became my inspiration for making my company a place where people can learn from their mistakes instead of fearing them. I wanted to create an environment where people can grow and become confident in their abilities, and that starts with giving them the power to make big decisions and fix problems when they mess up.


3. What is your background specifically that helped you launch this?

I was 19 when I started my business. Aside from running a roadside stand where I sold stuff I found in my house when I was 6 (a business that quickly got shut down once my parents figured out I was selling their things); I didn’t have a background in business. So, my biggest teachers were leadership and business books I read when I was just starting out. Every weekend, I would go to the bookstore, pick out some new titles, and spend hours and hours reading and highlighting books. I even took a speed-reading class, so I could read entire books in one sitting. Every time I read an idea I liked, I tried it out at Student Maid. One book was about how to give people a “celebrity experience,” so I literally bought yards of red fabric and laid it out in front of our office door, one morning, so my employees felt like stars when they walked into work. Not every idea was a winner, but it didn’t matter. I learned by trying things, screwing up (a lot), fixing my mistakes, and following my gut. The most important thing I learned is that you have to give yourself a chance to try, and if you mess up, that’s okay. It just means you need to keep trying and learning.


4. Do you have any co-founders and if so how did you meet them?

I don’t have any cofounders, and honestly, it was lonely for the first couple years. I became friends with other entrepreneurs who did have cofounders, and I found myself a little envious of them for having someone with whom they could share the struggles of leading a startup. What I did have, though, were amazing mentors, and one of them helped me see that I could have that kind of close relationship with the people who I’d hire to lead my company alongside me. Our leadership team is almost entirely made up of people who I hired to clean houses when they were students and who decided to stay with the company when they graduated from college. Today, I treat our leadership team as if they are my cofounders: We make all decisions together, celebrate our wins together, and we support each other when times get tough. You never know how someone you meet today will impact your life later, so nurture those relationships every chance you get.


5. How did you validate your business and what are the best ways you would validate a business?

When I think about success, I think about how many people who worked at my company will look back and say, “Student Maid is the best part-time job I ever had.” I want that number to be as close as possible to 100% of the people who have come through our doors. As far as validating other businesses goes, I look at how they treat people. Do they focus only on the customer? If they do, then they probably care less about making their employees happy, which I don’t believe is the way to run a business. I believe that if you send the message to employees that you care about them and that they are your priority, they will make your customers feel the same way.


6. Take us through a normal day at work.

I pretty much live in airports. I’m constantly flying around the country, working with all kinds of organizations to help them create better work environments. In between workshops and speeches, I meet with my company’s executive team via phone or Zoom (a video conferencing app.) Once a month, I make it a priority to fly back to Gainesville, so I can meet with the executive team in person and put all my focus on them and Student Maid. Those few days are so important to me. It’s the only time I have to spend with my team and our student cleaners, so I make sure I’m fully present and not trying to take other meetings or phone calls. I spend time in our office getting to know our cleaners better. I love to make a batch of chai tea lattes and invite the students to sit and chat with me. It’s only a couple days, but it makes such a difference when it comes to building meaningful relationships. It’s not the time we have, it’s making the time count that matters.


7. What is your business model?

I didn’t know this when I started out, but I chose a tough business model. We mostly (but not exclusively) hire students, and the unofficial rule is that they move on to bigger and better things when they graduate. That means that although some students start working with us when they’re freshman or sophomores and can stay for a few years, others stay with us just a few semesters, so our turnover is pretty high. So, we try to fit as much into those semesters as we can: We offer workshops and training on things like communication and conflict resolution, and our hope is that our students not only practice these skills at Student Maid, but that they take them with them into their future careers. It’s hard to have people constantly leaving the company, but it’s so worth it to hear from them later down the road and learn about all they’ve accomplished. For example, one of our alums now runs his own weight loss clinic in Louisiana, and he used our core values as a model for his own. As a result, he said that nurses prefer to work with him instead of bigger clinics: They say they greatly prefer the work environment he’s created.


8. What are your company values and what was the last thing you did that lived by them?

  • Take your moral fiber
  • Roll with the punches
  • Jump through flaming hoops
  • Don’t leave us hanging
  • Be classy not sassy
  • Own it
  • Unleash the creative dragon within
  • Pay it forward
  • Speak now or forever hold your peace
  • Raise the roof

We recently chose to part ways with two clients because they weren’t a good fit for us. Yes, you read that right. We turned down revenue because it was coming from people who didn’t treat our students fairly. While it’s hard to turn away business, it’s 100 percent worth it. It sends the message that our values are the most important thing in our company if we’re willing to make financial sacrifices to uphold them.


9. When does one start to build a team, and what is your process for building a great team?

I knew nothing about team-building when I first started my business. I didn’t realize that it was my job as a leader to bring people together. I learned how to do that by first doing exactly what you shouldn’t do: I isolated myself from the people I hired, letting them do all the hard work while I sat around and waited for them to come to me if they had any problems. And what happened? After two days of that, 45 of the 60 people I’d hired to do this huge job all walked out on me at the same time. Ouch. At the time, I had no idea I’d done anything wrong. I was just doing the things I’d seen bosses in movies do. But I knew I had to get those people back to work because I couldn’t finish this huge cleaning job by myself. So, I bribed them all with early paychecks (and pizza) and asked them to meet me at my house that night. Surprisingly, they all showed up—and I was able to win them back. How? By being vulnerable. I told them I was sorry, that I didn’t know what I was doing, and that I really did care about them; I just didn’t know how to show it. Amazingly enough, they all gave me a second chance. From that moment on, I was right there next to them as they worked, helping them and encouraging them. We became a team by standing side by side and helping each other.


10. What was the best piece of advice a mentor gave you, and how do you apply it in your business?

The best advice I ever got from a mentor was this: When you’re afraid of doing something, think about the worst possible outcome. Then, think about what you would do in that situation and really wrap your head around it. Voila: You’ve now thought of the worst-case scenario, and you know how to handle it. What’s there to be afraid of?


11. Let’s say you write a book about business, what would the first 3 and last chapters talk about?

Hey, I just did that! It’s called Permission to Screw Up. You’ll have to read it yourself to find out!


12. What have been your favorite resources to learn more about your industry?

There aren’t a lot of resources out there for leaders in the cleaning industry, so I’ve mostly learned by reading books by leaders in other industries and adapting their ideas to fit my company. And, of course, my team and I have figured a lot out on our own through trial and error. These days, we try to help other companies in all kinds of industries by teaching them our best practices and biggest lessons learned.


13. We have a large audience who want to be entrepreneurs that have day jobs. What would be the process that you would walk them through in order to be a full-time entrepreneur?

I’d say they have two options: 1) Dive straight in and risk it all. Quit your job, get a loan and just go for it. It might not work, but at least you never have to wonder what might have happened if you went for it. Or 2) Work on your business at night, on the weekends, on your lunch break—every second of your spare time—and then slowly scale back your other job until you know you can afford to go for it. I chose #1. It all depends on what your financial obligations are, of course, but when you’re young (I was 19 when I started), your risk is significantly less. Going all in is a lot harder to do when you have a mortgage and a family.


14. What does respect mean to you in business, and who is one person in business you respect?

At Student Maid, we believe in a concept we call “standing at the line.” That means you are performing to the best of your ability every single day. Most days, that means doing your job the best you can, but others, like the days you’re sick or have an emergency, it means being honest about your limits and communicating to your teammates when you need a break. Meeting your team at the line builds respect and trust. It means we’re all doing our best, and that’s all we can ever ask of people.

One of the people I respect most is Marty Schaffel, who is one of my mentors. Marty and I think a lot alike, and he has taught me so many things. He’s the one who helped me realize the concept of the line and that just because you have to let someone go doesn’t mean you’re a bad leader; it means you were standing at the line and they weren’t.