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The unexpected business lessons I learned from crime scene clean-up

While building a successful crime scene clean-up franchise, I learned a number of key business lessons that apply far beyond this niche field.

Business inspiration can come at any time, in any way, shape, or form. While many moguls brag of joyful “aha” moments, the reality is much more complex and not always an immediate joy. In fact, when an opportunity is born of real need, the origins can be downright morbid.

It’s something I think about all the time as the founder of the crime scene clean-up franchise, Bio-One. Believe me when I say that I didn’t dream of scrubbing blood off of ceilings and ripping up carpets as a child — who does? But I am nothing if not resourceful, a trait that has led me to discover opportunity in places that most people don’t even want to look. More often than not, it’s these dark corners that are most underserved and in need of savvy business acumen.

For me, it started with a tragedy: After a man in my parish took his own life, I offered to check on his widow with a friend. The poor woman was expected to clean up the remains after 36 years of marriage; she could hardly leave her futon, let alone lift a mop. While several friends took her out to lunch, I took it upon myself to clean. I know now that I did about 1,000 things wrong that day, but I did at least two things right: 1) helped a good woman in her time of need, and 2) set out to fix a tremendously flawed industry.

As anyone who has seen the movie Sunshine Cleaning knows, this job is one that requires compassion as well as technical ability. Fixing, standardizing, and replicating this business wasn’t easy, but the nature of the work taught me a lot about what makes a successful franchise. 20 years later, I can tell you with confidence that it’s more than just profitability, and that the lessons are universal.

Here are four lessons I’ve learned from decades in the crime scene clean-up business.

1. Help comes first, business second

A good franchise is just that: good. The fundamental “help first, business second” has been a guiding light for my company from the start, and one I could not have built a successful franchise without. It’s true that most franchises provide “help” in some way, but the crime scene clean-up industry proves just how sacred this notion is.

It’s rewarding to help when no one else can, not just emotionally, but ultimately when it comes to expanding your business. If your service is effective, impactful — and scalable on top of everything — you aren’t just growing a business: you are maximizing the help you provide. This frame of mind makes a big difference in business because it puts the customer and quality of service first at all times, preventing greed from taking over the driver’s seat. It’s also a strong and attractive employee value proposition (EVP) like-minded talent will be drawn to.

Many successful executives and authors have vouched to the value of the Golden Rule in business and I couldn’t agree more. Make sure your business provides the service you would want to be provided to you or your nearest and dearest.

2. Niche creates necessity

When you think of a franchise, you may think of fast food joints like McDonald’s first and foremost. But the most promising franchises aren’t restaurants anymore; instead, they are anything but obvious. When I realized how fragmented and broken crime scene clean-up was, I realized how badly the industry needed disruption. No one else was doing anything about it and the lack of standardized procedures I witnessed was a huge liability.

From this comes another important lesson: the value and challenges of evergreen niche. An evergreen niche is a specific service that, rather than being trendy, will always be needed; it has inherent value if the market is underserved or wrongly served.

The challenge is setting yourself up properly to conquer your niche. There was a reason crime scene clean-up hadn’t be franchised successfully prior to my company, for instance. You have people who are really good at the technical side — in this case, cleaning up blood and guts — in addition to people with the business skills to build a successful franchise. Luckily, I had the drive to learn the trade and the knowledge to scale it. Those looking to fill a niche in business should wade in with full knowledge that value will only be extracted if they execute it correctly.

3. Hiring and empowering great associates

A franchise is only as good as the people it employs. You might be surprised to hear that there are people attracted to businesses like crime scene clean-up for the wrong reasons. No, I don’t mean weirdos with morbid interests (though I won’t rule it out), but people who have strong stomachs and want to make a quick buck without putting in the emotional labor. The strong stomach part is important, but the latter brings me back to the “help first” foundation. For this reason, we don’t look for specific background or resume when recruiting — we look for people with emotional intelligence that will be able to interact with families sensitively and help them through these tragic moments.

For any franchise or business, hiring the right people, for the right reason, is key. But it doesn’t end there. Associates need to be trained and empowered to do well and, when appropriate, become leaders in their own right. Some entrepreneurs are reluctant to do this because they feel like it takes away from their own power, but I’ve found that the opposite is true. Hiring great people, showing them the ropes, and setting them up for success will only strengthen your company as a whole and you, the founder, by proxy.

4. Don’t reinvent the wheel

Lastly — and it’s a point I drove home in my book Maverick Franchise — building a franchise doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. When I first entered the crime scene clean-up business, there was a lot wrong with how things were done, namely in the fact that there were no standards or consistency among different businesses. But there are, and were, genuine experts out there who understood the methodology. I learned from them and made the best practices part of our business plan.

I didn’t reinvent the wheel when it came to crime scene clean-up or the “franchise” model. But I did “build a bike,” so to speak, by identifying a roadmap to success and creating a vehicle to follow it carefully. This allows my franchisees to hop on the bike without changing the tires. Everything is in place, from our processes to our values, so that they can be successful with minimum effort spent re-imagining the business side of things.

This lesson speaks to the value of strong processes and reliable intelligence. It doesn’t need to be “new” to be great.

I’ve learned that just as inspiration comes when it pleases, lessons are learned in mysterious ways too. Whether you are dealing with guts, donuts, or haircuts, these lessons should apply. Creating a useful business that empowers others to carry out your mission is a goal all founders should strive for. It’s how we as leaders provide guiding lights and lasting legacies even and especially where things get messy. 

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