Homeless Techie Launches Squiffy, a Janitorial Startup

Simon Brooks rolled into Silicon Valley with his border collie-black lab mutts, Lexy and Chelsea, and his life savings tied up in a promising wordplay app.

The British ex-pat and lifelong language buff had already released a Dictionary.com-powered word game called Gadzookery. Buoyed by that success, he pawned his belongings in a weekend yard sale, gave the bank back the keys to his house outside Louisville, Kentucky, and headed west.

He arrived late 2013 in Mountain View, where he slept in his dinged-up ’99 Lexus between 16-hour shifts at the Hacker Dojo, a 24-7 startup incubator that famously spawned Pinterest. Six months later—spring of 2014—the money dried up.

A Kickstarter to raise money for his Scrabble app spinoff failed to gain traction, despite a supportive tweet from the wildly successful Words with Friends creator Paul Bettner.

“At that point, you’re stuck,” says Brooks, whose restive bent lured him years ago from his native London. “Once you get to that point—no access to showers, food and all the rest of it—it’s really hard to get out.”

Broke and famished, he kept his mind off the hunger by dividing his time between the dog park and the Dojo. Sleeping proved a pain, so he worked the long hours. Last summer, he finally got a break, but it had nothing to do with his word game.

“Here’s me thinking I’ll educate the world with this game I’m making and someone asks me if I could clean toilets,” says Brooks, 46, a wiry 5-foot-10 with gray eyes and a thatch of sandy brown hair. “I was offended.”

But the offer from Dojo management spawned Squiffy Clean, Brooks’ fledgling janitorial startup that aims to “clean up the cleaning industry.” The $51 billion professional cleaning sector, he discovered, is rife low pay and workplace abuses.

“It’s horrible,” says Brooks, who launched Squiffy without a cent to his name by convincing his first customer to buy equipment by paying ahead for service. “I was shocked.”

Night shift janitors, he learned, are easy targets for abuse. ABM Janitorial Services, the nation’s largest janitorial company, stands in dubious company. It’s among a group of only 15 American corporations to have been probed several times by the federal government for sexual harassment.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued ABM three times since 2000 for botching sexual harassment complaints. Two of those cases included charges of rape. In all cases, the company settled and promised to bolster oversight.

A PBS documentary—Rape on the Night Shift, which uncovered the sexual abuse of women who clean shops and offices—convinced Brooks to dispatch his workers in teams.

“We go out in a group,” he says. “Safety in numbers. We want to do better by our people.”

Rather than paying the industry standard of minimum wage, he says, Squiffy offers $17 an hour and encourages homeless job seekers to apply. Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit that offers job placement and training for the homeless, has been in talks with Brooks as a potential partner. Brooks has also promised to give his first 25 cleaners equity in the business.

“We’re inherently all about breaking down stereotypes about homelessness,” says Chris Richardson, a regional director for Downtown Streets Team. “They want to work, they want opportunity. So we’re excited about what Simon is doing and look forward to working with him.”

Devashish Sarkar, who retired as CEO of BBC Worldwide to become an independent television producer in Palo Alto, featured Brooks in a soon-to-release documentary.

“I was struck by his being homeless in the very heart of Silicon Valley's vast affluence,” Sarkar says, “that he was making a business literally out of trash, as opposed to algorithms and big data, and that unlike the rest of the world who were dying to come to Silicon Valley, he was here because he was ‘trapped.’”

Silicon Valley, he points out, can pull people in and leave them stranded. Nearly three-quarters of the region’s tech workers between the ages 25 and 44 are foreign-born, according to the Silicon Valley Index released this month. About 37 percent have come to the United States specifically to find a job in the tech sector, per the report.

Brooks set his personal ambitions aside—“only for now,” he clarifies—to channel his somewhat frenetic entrepreneurial energy into a means to survive. Still just months into his blue-collar venture, he says the biggest challenge has been paying operating costs.

“Everything we get goes back to wages, rent and overhead,” he says, stationed at his desk in his new Palo Alto office. Before he branches out, Brooks wants to bring his contract cleaners onto company payroll. But he needs more cash first. Using a microfinance lending platform called Kiva Zip, Brooks is asking for a $10,000 loan, the bulk of it for working capital.

Sam Geil, a consultant who stepped up as an advisor for Squiffy, says he’s heartened to see Brooks invest in blue-collar jobs in a region known for its chasmic divide between rich and poor. “The tech thing is overstated,” says Geil, who ran a cleaning corporation, among others. “We need this other type of work, especially since the wealth gap is getting wider.”

One way to change the business paradigm, Geil says, is to give working-class employees ownership in a company. The higher wages, of course, will make service costs increase. But, Geil says, moneyed Silicon Valley firms have something of an ethical responsibility to hire contractors that treat their workers well. “People want to pay as little as possible in this industry,” Geil says. “The problem is they don’t understand the value. Or the human impact.”

Eduardo Torres, a 26-year-old father-to-be, found Squiffy by way of a Craigslist ad a few months back. Seven years in the cleaning industry, he says, he only ever found minimum wage jobs, so the $17-an-hour offer looked like a scam.

“I applied anyway,” he says. “I got the job right away and began cleaning that night. The biggest thing for me was that he offered ownership. That’s what a company should do.”

While not a case of rags-to-riches, Brooks’ story—that of a homeless man who took it upon himself to create jobs—appealed to Torres.

“That means a lot,” Torres says,“to see someone who wants to do something more with his life.”

Four months ago, Brooks’ dogs died and he buried them under a sapling. To cope with the grief, he devotes all his time to growing Squiffy—a portmanteau of “squeaky” and “spiffy”—into something he can scale up and out.

“I’m still going to make my app,” he says, turning to his desktop computer to pull up an old crowdfunding website for his tabled word game, which has since been pulled off the app store. “There’s so much more I want to do with my life.”

A “job,” he quips, stands for “just over broke,” shuffling from paycheck to paycheck without getting ahead.

“I don’t want a job,” says Brooks, who now lives in a rickety RV on loan from a friend. “I want more than that. … I don’t need or want a private jet, but … I’d love to open an animal retirement home that’s open to the public.”

A job of the paycheck-to-paycheck variety, he says, won’t get him to that modest dream.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

21 Comments

  1. I find everything about this man, what he stands for and what he is doing, admirable and inspirational. In this age of instant gratification, constant stimulation, and get rich at all costs, he obviously is willing to work hard, long hours without expecting the company perks so typical of Silicon Valley, such as ridiculously high pay checks, on-campus private chefs, and private jets. He is interested in creating jobs for people who don’t have the benefit of higher education and high-tech degrees, who represent the majority of our society. Silicon Valley has become the land of an overpaid, mostly foreign-born generation who contribute nothing of value to the communities they live in. It’s hard for me to fathom that so many people in this country are so concerned about Hispanic people crossing the border to find work such as harvesting our crops, cleaning our homes, and maintaining our yards, all jobs that this generation wouldn’t dream of doing, while we have corporations sponsoring foreigners on H1Bs to come here by the hundreds of thousands to claim high-paying, high-tech jobs that could employ the hundreds of thousands of US college graduates every year. Simon Brooks is a true breath of fresh air in the stale, overblown community that is Silicon Valley. I wish him the very best of luck in this venture and sincerely hope that all of the moneyed Silicon Valley firms realize they do have an ethical responsibility to hire contractors and vendors who treat their employees well.

  2. Am I supposed to admire this guy or feel sorry for him? It sounds like he gambled on the chance to get rich from his app and lost. Now, he’s after money from others to finance his next venture, because having a mere job isn’t good enough for him. I doubt this will end well for those who choose to go into business with him.

    • Pete Malloy – I find your comment discouraging and depressing. If everyone stopped after having their first good idea shot down, this country wouldn’t be what it is today. And most certainly the tech industry would be nowhere. Entrepreneurs are people who have many great ideas, and maybe a few not so great, but even great ideas have to be in the right place at the right time. True entrepreneurs understand this and keep presenting ideas until one lands in the right place at the right time and successfully takes off. It shouldn’t matter to you at all if the person coming up with the next great ideas does so to get rich or not. What do you care as long as the idea is a good one that serves a purpose and has benefits to people, the more people the better.

      • You can choose to take people you don’t know at face value if you’d like. I don’t. If this guy can build a successful business, then good for him. But I would view anyone seeking money from the public (which comes with little accountability) for supposed business purposes with a certain degree of caution, especially someone without any track record. When the seeker of funds also attempts to attach an altruistic angle to his business proposal, I see even more reason for caution. The good news is that he’s given you the opportunity to personally contribute to his venture, if you feel that strongly about it.

        • I think anyone considering making an investment in anything needs to seriously investigate and look at all angles before committing money to any venture, with or without a track record. I believe that is what venture capitalists do for a living. And I think giving the general public the opportunity to invest in a venture is a good thing as it does allow people to choose whether or not to make an investment in something they may believe in. You appear to be a person who never takes risks and there is nothing wrong with that. But I believe the “track record” of the human race is that we have gotten as far as we have by taking risks of all types.

          • True, but the track record of the human race is also that there will always be those seeking to capitalize on the good nature of others for their own personal gain.

        • “When the seeker of funds also attempts to attach an altruistic angle to his business proposal, I see even more reason for caution” Well said

    • I missed this comment. COMPLETELY agree. Doesn’t seem like a smart man to go to business with.

  3. This is Simon. I started Squiffy Clean six months ago with a mission to clean up the cleaning industry which is known for its low pay and culture of fear. The industry is rotten and needs cleaning up. There is an appetite for ethical vendors, recently Facebook demanded from their vendor that they upped janitor pay to a living wage. Next time you see the janitors in your building ask yourself if they’re fairly paid and treated well. Wonder about their life for a second. We’re creating decent jobs for those willing to put the effort in. The more traction we make the more chance other cleaning companies will have to improve conditions for their workers.

    We’re also developing software which will get the customer their price instantly instead of the standard one week following a high pressure sale pitch walk-around. We do this by gathering over 700 cleaning related data points per building. This data gets scrubbed and recycled. When a potential customer is at our website we can predict from the little information they give us how much time and effort their building will take and price them instantly. This will allow us to scale the business nationwide and easily taking into account local pricing adjustments.

    Our biggest problem is working capital. We have revenue, enough that we could take on our own office in Palo Alto, but getting new customers requires more capital outlay including equipment/supplies and covering payroll until they pay their first bill. That’s why we’re on Kiva Zip now, to get a little working capital so can grow some more.

  4. Thank you Simon for sending out your workers in “teams”. As a mother, one of the only ways I can protect my daughter when she is away from me is for her to understand the importance not being alone. The advice to her is always “there is safety in numbers”. The chance of being raped goes down dramatically if you are not working alone.

    Thank you for this one policy that helps women from being preyed upon. I mean it with all my heart too.

    • Hi Jill, the PBS Frontline documentary shows there’s a need for change. I wasn’t aware of that additional problem in the industry at first, all I knew about was the low pay and culture of fear. That documentary opened my eyes how fearful some workers really need to be. Thank you for your comment, I appreciate it.

  5. A person can be anything they choose to be in life with a little effort and determination. Simon has that determination and proven effort. He will be one of the successes. I wish him well in his ventures.

  6. Some laudable goals there, Simon. I have but one question for you—why did you choose to lease office space in Palo Alto, Silicon Valley’s most expensive office rental market?

    • It’s where our customers are. We need to be near our customers or else we’d be wasting payroll on travel time. Over the course of a month the waste would have been significant. We actually got a very good deal on the 700 Sq Ft office. I also negotiated cleaning the building common areas as part of the contract which helped bring the cost down.

  7. This seems like a roundabout solution to the problem. If companies care for the well being of their support staff they can hire a union company. While this is not the end all solution it helps provide an outside advocate to workplace harassment.

    • Hi Miguel, we have a few cleaners here who have worked for union companies. They’ve told me that the employer paid them minimum wage and then the union wanted a cut from their pay too. Our solution is to pay them well and treat them well to begin with. It’s working as our workers come to work with a smile on their face and that’s what our customers see. I agree that a union company is better than a non-union company who pays poorly but thus far the unions haven’t fixed the problems. We’re hoping our solutions are what cleans up the cleaning industry. The more traction we make the more likely our competitors will take notice and realize retaining their staff needs goodwill, not a stick.

  8. The fear, low pay and exploitation Simon mentions has also entered IT firms.
    Reminds me of my teen summer jobs picking tomatoes.
    Unions aren’t much better combined with bad corporate management making tens of millions of dollars per capita ruined US manufacturing.
    My sister ditched IT for a nursing degree.
    Makes close to $200k for the past several years.
    The US is a debtor nation unable to grow its population
    without resorting to immigration from all sources.
    Obama doubled debt from $10T to $20T.
    The next president, even Trump, cannot head off a future
    1929 depression and will be blamed nonetheless.
    Oil is cheap because there are no jobs due to
    debt and Peak Oil ending exponential growth the world
    enjoyed since 1945 when gas was 17 cents a gallon.
    BTW, the Feds talk about raising interest rates.
    Don’t worry, it’s all talk. 10% will never come back.