On the surface, window washing and being an executive chef have as little in common as two professions could.
However, for Paul Houngmany of Calgary, Alta., they served as the bridge into the world of franchising with Elite Window Cleaning.
Having opened his franchise just a few months ago, Houngmany spoke to Canadian Business Franchise about everything he has learned so far in his journey, and why he believes window cleaning is a great market segment to get into during a pandemic.
Canadian Business Franchise (CBF): Did you always envision yourself as an entrepreneur?
Paul Houngmany (PH): No, I didn’t always aspire to be an entrepreneur. I started my professional career as a chef and that’s all I’ve done for about 25 years. Like most young professionals, I envisioned travelling the world and becoming famous, but reality had other plans for me. I always dreamt of owning my restaurant but never thought seriously about what it meant to own a business until about two to three years ago. Even then, I really didn’t know where to start or what the first steps would even be.
CBF: Why did you choose franchising?
PH: I chose franchising because I knew I had no idea what it took to own a business. I knew there were a lot of obstacles and behind-the-scenes details I needed help with. The best option for me was a franchise system that was a turnkey solution to get me off the ground. A good franchise system is like joining a team where you’re free to be as successful as you want, but at the same time, the success of other owners also boosts your company’s visibility and indirectly contributes to your own success. I think franchises are a great way to get your feet wet in entrepreneurship, but also a great system that can get you as far as you want to go.
CBF: How did you discover this franchising opportunity?
PH: The first step I took when exploring franchise options was asking the banks for a loan. I mentioned I didn’t know what I wanted to do and asked for insight on where to start. They referred me to several companies which specialize in matching people with franchises, and that’s when I started working with Grant Bullington, who is a franchise consultant for Frannet (and a CBF contributor.) Grant coached me through the entire process. He understood the skills I had, and ensured I match with the right franchise opportunity that met my needs.
CBF: When did you buy your franchise?
PH: I bought my franchise in January 2022. I worked with Jennifer Bauer from Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to secure financing, which required a few hoops to jump through. The process was a great learning experience, as I was required to write up a detailed business plan. This gave me the opportunity to really think through the intricacies of running a business. Some of these details were cash flow projections, identifying competitors in your space, and strengths and weaknesses in your business. Highlighting the challenges of the business forces you to ask yourself tough questions and challenges your motivation to follow through. In the end, I was grateful I went through the vetting process, as it was a valuable first lesson in being an entrepreneur.
CBF: What was involved in opening your franchise?
PH: After purchasing the franchise, the next step was getting the business operated, which I was familiar with—as having management experience was an asset. Although, just because I was familiar with it doesn’t mean it was easy. Hiring employees is challenging today because there are a lot of companies competing for a small pool of candidates. Securing vehicles for my business was especially difficult because the demand outweighed the supply due to COVID-19. I had to wait several weeks, but luckily, I ordered early enough to get the vehicles and had them wrapped with our company logo in time for opening week. A great benefit of franchising is promotional material already being available for my business. When it came time to promote in Calgary, the process was quite easy and straightforward. The only decisions I needed to make were which radio stations I wanted to go with and what information to include in my marketing materials.
CBF: Describe your opening day.
PH: Opening day was April 4, 2022. Our franchise co-ordinator, Greg Przada, came down for opening week to provide support and guidance for any challenges we would face in our daily operations. Of course, there were tons of questions and problems to work through, so having him there was essential to our success. Nothing can beat the feeling of completing that first job and seeing how happy your clients are. After months of spending time and capital on an idea, I felt proud that I could finally see everything coming together.
CBF: What does a typical day of running Elite Window Cleaning look like?
PH: A typical day for me would be to meet my team at the storage yard and have our daily pre-service meeting. In this meeting, we talk about working safely first, since it’s a top priority for my team. We then review the schedule for the day and talk about any challenges and solutions from previous jobs. It’s a great way to share information and to talk to everyone at once before we all go our separate ways. Most of the time, my team works in groups of two to complete the scheduled jobs. However, on the occasion when there are large or challenging jobs, I go with my team to support them in any way I can. Typically, my day-to-day involves growing the business by providing quotes, networking, advertising, and keeping jobs in the pipeline to not only support the business, but to support my hard-working team as well.
CBF: Do you feel your educational background helps in your day-to-day tasks and overall business decisions?
PH: My life as a chef has prepared me well for being an entrepreneur and fits perfectly into owning a window cleaning business. The skills I found most valuable were attention to detail, frugalness, sense of urgency, and the ability to dig in and grind when things get challenging. Both cooking and window cleaning require a high level of dexterity and good hand-eye co-ordination. I was able to pick up the basic skills of my new career easily. As an executive chef, I also had ownership of food and labour costs. This exposure gave me a good understanding of fiscal responsibility and the understanding of the targets needed to make profit. Being a manager also gave me valuable experience in how to motivate and challenge my team, which enabled them to become the best version of themselves.
CBF: What have been the highlights and challenges of running your franchise?
PH: The most challenging part of running a franchise is when I feel I’m not the expert in my field. There have been times when I’ve said, “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure,” but being a franchisee, I know there is always someone I can reach out to for support and guidance. It is reassuring to have a team that has your back—this not only applies to the franchisor, but also to the team of franchise owners who have been very generous with their knowledge and expertise. The support has been amazing and there hasn’t been a time where I felt underwhelmed by the franchise’s response or felt like I was on my own.
CBF: Is there anything unique about your market?
PH: The advantage of Calgary is that the city itself is not very old compared to other Canadian cities. This means most of the homes and buildings are relatively new, with newer windows, which are easier to get clean. The disadvantage is our water contains a high amount of dissolved minerals, which makes it harder on the water filtration system we use to clean windows.
CBF: How do you make your franchise stand out amongst others in the market?
PH: We stand out in the market with our commitment to $98 exterior window cleaning for homes up to 260.1 m2 (2800 sf). The more traditional method of counting windowpanes and quoting prices makes the booking process slow and unnecessarily drawn out. We also use a pure water system and water-fed brushes to clean windows rather than the traditional bucket and squeegee method. This system removes all dissolved minerals from tap water, so when the water evaporates, it leaves a spot-free shine on glass. The filter, when used in conjunction with extendable poles that can easily reach up to four to five storeys, creates a more time-efficient cleaning process. As a result of this efficiency, we’re able to pass on the savings to our clients, which equals affordable, clean windows and happier customers.
CBF: How has the business evolved since you started?
PH: My business started only a few months ago, so not much has evolved just yet, but personally, I’ve grown and learned a lot since day one. I now have a greater understanding and appreciation for other business owners and the hard decisions they need to make daily.
CBF: What are your future plans?
PH: The great thing about this business is there is no shortage of dirty windows. Since more people are working from home, they’re noticing how dirty their windows are during the brightest parts of their day. People are wanting cleaner windows at an affordable price, and we’re ready to provide that service to them. My hope is to scale my business up and keep growing, learn to be a better entrepreneur, and be the premier window cleaning company in Calgary and beyond. I feel fortunate to have the support of my family and friends. I’m just an immigrant kid from Laos getting a shot at living the Canadian dream.