As the Founder & CEO of CleanBeeBaby, Jennifer Beall created the first full-service, eco-friendly car seat and stroller cleaning business. With an emphasis on safety and customer service, Jennifer’s business has taken off, amassing partnerships with Whole Foods, Nordstrom and more. October is National Women’s Small Business Month, and we celebrate Jennifer, a true entrepreneur with a passion for helping moms do it all.
In this exclusive interview with Jennifer, she shares her tips for planning, expanding and marketing a business.
How did you come up with the idea for CleanBeeBaby?
I first came up with the idea for CleanBeeBaby while I was getting my MBA at Kellogg, the business school at Northwestern University. After determining that I was passionate about helping improve work/life balance for busy parents, I spent my first year searching for ways to save moms time and frustration. Since I’m not a mom yet myself, I had many conversations with parents to understand what irked them. In one of my discussions, a mom told me about how her baby had thrown up in the car seat and how it had become a huge debacle to attempt to clean it and properly reinstall it in the car. I had about 50 other ideas in a spreadsheet, but this one quickly emerged as the biggest opportunity!
When did you realize that your idea could become a reality?
I was able to use my second year in business school to write this business plan. While everyone else was working on their “sexy” high-tech start-ups, I was writing a business plan to clean baby poop (which is not very “sexy” at all!) I think that's why it was such a surprise to me, and everyone else, when I won first place in the Kellogg business plan competition. The external validation gave me the confidence and credibility to raise money and start the business after graduation.
However, there was one catch. I was fortunate enough to have my degree sponsored by my pre-MBA employer, so I was obligated to fulfill my commitment to the company. It felt like a really tough choice of “Am I going to pursue this business opportunity full-time, or am I going to return to my job?” In the end, I made the decision to do both. For a year and a half, I worked full-time in a 60 hour/week strategy job, while running CleanBeeBaby in the evenings and weekends. It was definitely exhausting, but it worked out well, as I was able to get CleanBeeBaby off the ground and save money for my living expenses when I did jump into the business full time. This allowed me to reinvest more in the company instead of having to pull money out to pay myself.
What were the main hurdles to expansion?
My long-term vision has always been to franchise the company to grow nationwide and beyond. As we launched in LA, we were fortunate to receive a lot of traction, press, and celebrity attention without an expensive PR firm.
In working with our franchise consultant, we determined that we needed to understand how our business model would work in a different city, with different weather and different customers, before we could launch the expansion. While a second location in SoCal would have been an easier option, I figured that if we could make this business work in New York City, we could replicate it anywhere in the country.
Naturally, there are difficulties as we work through this. For instance, in LA we clean the items outdoors while the parent shops inside a local baby retailer or grocery store, but in NYC, our customers drop off their items at the store, we pick it up and clean it at our location in Midtown, and then return it to the store later that same day. For this reason, people think of us more like a dry cleaner, and less like a car wash, so we’re considering whether we should change our product descriptions and packages to better adapt to the local market.
What is your hiring philosophy? How involved are you in hiring?
I’m very involved in hiring but my role has evolved as our business has grown. When I first started, I did a lot of the day-to-day work myself. Now, I have 12 people reporting to me that run most of the daily operations, but I still make a lot of decisions about everything from smaller matters, like selecting hybrid options for our company vehicles, to bigger tasks like fundraising for our second round of financing.
Our most important core value is delivering high quality customer service and creating a long-term relationship with our patrons. I’ve learned my lesson with problem employees in the past. I previously interviewed people in a coffee shop and asked them hypothetical questions, such as: “What would you do if this type of customer situation arose?” Now, we actually do on-site trials, where applicants come in and clean at our events for an hour, and I work with our current managers to see how they perform. This lets us see their natural instincts: do they jump in right away, or do they look for more hand-holding? How is their attention to detail? Are they friendly and warm with customers? This interactive hiring method enables us to get a feel for how people will really perform at the work site when they are trusted to be the face of our business day-to-day.
How do you create a customer experience that keeps people coming back?
We aim to deliver a service that people value, adopting the philosophy that “the customer is always right.” I believe that if a mom loves your service, not only will she come back, but she might tell a friend. However, if she has a bad experience, she probably won’t come back and might tell 5 friends to steer clear. Because of this, we work really hard to make sure every customer leaves happy and has a clean, safe stroller or car seat for their child.
I’ve also noticed that some other businesses that help with car seat installations take the approach of overwhelming the parents so that they feel pressured to hire the installer to come back anytime the seat needs adjustment. We focus on education and empowerment, which I believe leads to more loyalty. Even though we’ve shown them how to do it on their own, they are happy to come back again because they trust us and like us! Parents are overwhelmed enough as it is, and we are thrilled to help take something off their plate that causes them a lot of guilt and anxiety.
What have you found works so far in marketing CleanBeeBaby?
Our core business model is really about marketing and building great partnerships. We partner with retailers that have brick-and-mortar space and help them to drive foot traffic to that store. A lot of our baby store partners feel they are primarily competing with major online retailers like Amazon.com. Therefore, having an on-site service like CleanBeeBaby creates a unique differentiator for their stores that Amazon and other websites can’t provide. In addition, we build a captive audience for the retailer, as it’s easy for parents to stay and shop in the 30 minutes we’re cleaning their products – so it’s a great opportunity for the store to showcase their items to the customer.
We also partner with traditional retailers and baby gear brands – a few of our partners include Whole Foods, Westfield Malls, and Bugaboo strollers – to create opportunities for customer appreciation events. For these events, our partners often purchase cleaning services from us in bulk and distribute them to their customers for free. For example, we just had an event with Nordstrom where they purchased 100 cleanings from us. Their personal shoppers called VIP customers asking “Would you like a free stroller cleaning on Saturday?” This was a win-win because it brought customers into the store to shop while they had the service done, and we were able to showcase our services to new audiences. I’m always very open to trying new partnerships with mommy bloggers, expos, parenting groups, retailers and gear brands because sometimes our best partners can come from unexpected places.
If you had one piece of advice for someone starting their own business, what would that be?
There are several pieces of advice I could offer! To start, I definitely recommend raising twice as much money as you think you’ll need. By having more on hand from the start, you will avoid constantly thinking about having no cash in the bank, and can focus more on building the business and growing it at a faster pace. This is especially critical in businesses where getting to scale is critical to success.
Finally, when it comes to marketing, focus on developing partnerships that will give your brand credibility. For instance, when we launched I offered our services for free to the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. Our staff still volunteers our time to clean the loaner car seats that they provide to families in need. To tell our customers that “Children’s Hospital trusts us with their car seats” really provided us with a lot of external credibility and validation when we were a brand new business.
For the latest updates from Jennifer and CleanBeeBaby, visit their website.