When Morris Gelblum started Sweeps in 2004 as a Brogden High School junior, he just wanted to make some extra cash. Ten years later, his business is thriving—without outside funding or mass marketing tactics.
Sweeps is an odd jobs service that employs college students, and the first startup to graduate from the Raleigh-based StartupREAL accelerator program. More than 500 students have used Sweeps to find and then complete upwards of 2,800 jobs. The company won a 2013 Chapel Hill Business of the Year Award along with multiple service awards. And now Gelblum is ready to grow Sweeps nationally, starting with Charlotte and Wilmington campuses this summer. His goal is to make Sweeps the “best way to hire the right college student everywhere.”
Gelblum entered the StartupREAL program after the accelerator started up last year. He wanted mentors and experts to help him determine how to grow the company beyond the Triangle, and he didn’t want to give away equity to do so.
StartupREAL co-founder Blake Callens invited Gelblum into the accelerator because he wanted to bring on a business with leadership who knew the basics.
“Morris already had everything set up, he just needed to grow his business. He was already profitable. Why would he give up part of his company for an investor?” Callens says.
StartupREAL, unlike most accelerator programs, is an all-volunteer organization, which coaches startups but does not invest money or take on equity in the businesses. Instead, its expert members meet with startups to discuss company concerns in areas such as leadership, human resources, marketing and business development. During Sweeps time in the program, it got much-needed public relations and marketing help and relaunched its website. StartupREAL also helped Gelblum determine how to scale the business.
“It seems like the model now is to take on funding rounds and push off the question of how to build real revenue and a profitable business,” says Callens. “That’s not right for every business.”
Gelblum echoes this sentiment. Not having outside financing can slow down the speed of growth, says Gelblum, but it also provides freedom.
“It really makes you focus to know you can’t spend more money than you make,” he says. While Gelblum says he is open to considering outside financing at this point, he is not actively seeking it.
The how and why of Sweeps
So how does a startup company survive without outside investors?
According to Gelblum, it is all about “earning the growth by providing an awesome service.” He and his mother (pictured above) started Sweeps initially as a cleaning company. They marketed their services by going to local offices and posting flyers, and their business grew by word of mouth. “It worked. We got clients,” says Gelblum. “It’s all about trust and repeat customers.”
It was during college at UNC that Gelblum realized how many students could benefit from having extra work on the side like he did with Sweeps. It was around 2009, right after the economic downturn, when he realized the “huge disconnect between people who needed work and those that could hire them.”
Gelblum brought on additional staff and developed the business structure Sweeps has today. College students apply to be a ‘Sweeper’ (a worker offering a variety of services), then go through an interview and onboarding process. Once they are approved, they join an email and text group. New jobs are posted each day, and Sweepers compete for them by responding to the message. Gelblum says the job is awarded based on Sweeper rankings (established by client reviews), but there is also a human component. “We still hand-pick Sweepers for each job,” he says.
Job posters can request help in many categories including moving, cleaning, tutoring and technical help. Jobs can be completely random as well, like when the startup SnapYeti needed someone to wear a Yeti costume for a conference after a previous hire backed out. According to Gelblum, Sweeps had a Sweeper ready within an hour. Other jobs have included yard work and setting up an email account for a grandmother to communicate to her grandchildren.
Sweeps differentiates itself from competitors by being an all-inclusive, safe, efficient solution for odd job needs. It charges job posters a $25 flat fee per hour. Gelblum says a portion of that goes to insurance, part goes to the Sweeper (who averages over $15 per hour), and the rest goes to the business. It is also the first business of its kind to offer comprehensive insurance (something competitors Craigslist or TaskRabbit do not have, according to Gelblum).
Growth despite challenges.
Gelbum says one of his biggest obstacles is promotion—people today are inundated with advertising. Sweeps has been able to grow by word of mouth and presence on web review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List. It currently has a 98% approval rating from clients, and Gelblum says he receives emails every day from people satisfied with the service.
That’s despite being up against some big competition. The San Francisco startup TaskRabbit has raised nearly $38 million through multiple funding rounds. While it is currently not active in the Triangle, TaskRabbit already serves 18 major cities across the country and continues to expand.
Craigslist also hosts user-posted ads for odd jobs. On Tuesday alone, Craigslist had more than 300 local ads posted for moving services, one of Sweeps staple offerings.
Gelblum says Sweeps may not grow at the same speed without a boost from outside funding. It is something he admits he’ll consider. It would “help accelerate growth and allow us to reach our potential faster,” he says.
But he’s still hesitant to focus on funds-raising. He feels his business can grow with the solid foundation he has built, and with the help and affirmation StartupREAL has provided.
StartupREAL will host a graduation party for Sweeps in summer 2014. Stay tuned by following its blog.