PathJoy brings its economical on-demand maid service to LA and Seattle

By Michael Carney , written on January 17, 2013

From The News Desk

If you’re not having your home cleaned by a maid, what’s stopping you? Is it price? Is it convenience? Is it the fact that you’re a man of the future and you’re waiting for cleaning robots? PathJoy is a startup that can help with the first two, and given it’s Uber-like on demand maid ordering service, it’s not that far away from the third.

The Y-Combinator alumni company launched in the San Francisco Bay Area in July and has been massively popular in the region. According to co-founder Aaron Cheung, Pathjoy has completed “thousands of cleanings” in the past few months, and referrals have reached a point where the comany can barely fulfill 50 percent of the incoming demand in its initial market.

Today, the startup is spreading its wings and expanding its service to Los Angeles and Seattle. One of the biggest reasons for its popularity is that PathJoy costs only $20 per hour, while traditional maid services cost $40. This makes professional cleaning realistic for a much larger market than would typically be the case. All of PathJoy’s maids are background checked, licensed, bonded, and have years of experience, in addition to training by the company. The other reason for the popularity, at least in my personal experience, is that their maids do a fantastic job.

PathJoy’s service works as follows. Services are booked through the company’s website, which whether on desktop or mobile, looks like an HTML5 app. First a users indicates the number of bedrooms and bathrooms in their place. Next they’re asked to indicate the square footage in increments of 500 square feet, in other words 500-1,000 sqft, or 1,000-1,500 sqft.

With these basics squared away, users are presented with a simple menu of extra services like laundry, cleaning inside the fridge, cleaning the oven, and cleaning windows. These aren’t additional charges, so much as they take more time to complete and thus increase the total cost of a cleaning billed by the hour.

Finally, users enter their address and choose the number of hours they’d like to book. The system recommends a number based on the size of your space and the additional services requested. According to the company, the average standard cleaning takes 2.5 hours, meaning it costs $50. That data is based primarily on San Francisco city apartments, which typically take two to three hours. Palo Alto and Mountain View mega mansions, take four to five, so do with it what you will.

Pick a day and time and the booking process is complete. Services can be cancelled or rescheduled at any time, and email reminders are sent prior to arrival, including introducing your maid. Maids arrive with all the equipment they’ll need, including a vacuum, mop, cleaning solutions, and rags. During a first time visit, they’ll ask the homeowner for a tour of the space and any special instructions. Then the customer can stay or leave, as they choose.

So, as I hinted above, I tested out the service prior to its official LA launch. By way of full disclosure, I didn’t pay for the cleaning itself, but I tipped Rita enough that I might as well have, so I don’t feel terribly conflicted giving you my opinion: PathJoy kicks ass! At first, given how spotless my home was and how pleasant my experience, I figured I was getting the “food critic at a restaurant” treatment. In other words, there’s no way it could be consistently this good. Then I talked to a few friends in SF who have been using the service for months and their experiences were equally positive.

Gushing user reviews aside, how viable is this thing as a business? On-demand mobile car washes sounded like a great idea too, but Cherry was not long for this world. PathJoy pays its cleaners between $12 to $15 per hour for their work – this is more than Merry Maids and Molly Maid for what it’s worth – meaning its gross margins are 25 to 40 percent. Not a bad start. The company must also pay for insurance, training, and front the cost of equipment which each maid pays back over time. PathJoy won’t make a killing on each home, but given its technology enabled lean operation, it should be sustainable at scale. Cheung claims that it can reach profitability on a market by market basis. Its biggest challenge might actually be finding enough qualified maids willing to operate within its model.

The magic of PathJoy, other than the convenience of bringing a traditionally offline transaction online, is its sophisticated automated booking and reservation management system. Like Uber, which dynamically routs the closest car to a waiting customer, PathJoy is constantly determining which cleaner to send to which appointment based on proximity to their own home and other bookings in the area. When users cancel, or maids call in sick, this whole game of musical chairs must be played again. In San Francisco, the service has been popular enough that the company has had to start a waiting list and then book and notify standby customers when a slot becomes available.

“With the help of technology and a lean operations model, we're cutting the price of maid service in half, and in turn, increasing demand for professional cleaners,” Cheung says. “We'll be able to create jobs for a lot of un- or unemployed individuals. There are 60 million households in the US that can afford $20 per hour maid service, and we want to put a cleaner in every one.”

Since graduating Y-Combinator nearly two years ago, PathJoy has raised an undisclosed seed round from First Round Capital, PayPal and Slide founder Max Levchin, Paul Graham, 500 Startups, and Y-Combinator. Its founders Adora and Aaron Cheung spent time in the cleaning industry themselves in an effort to perfect the model.

Questions remain for PathJoy. The company is too young still to have concrete data on customer and maid attrition, but instability in either group would be costly. Maids are finding themselves booked solid through PathJoy, which is a plus, and the booking convenience is a major value add. But most could make more on an hourly basis if they were to work independent. Similarly, customers rave about the service, but convincing them to be bi-weekly, or monthly customers, rather than quarterly or “before I have guest over” users, will be the ongoing trick.

Cheung tells me that the company is keeping a close eye on both churn figures, and doing everything in its power to incent and reward both groups to stick with the service. Maids are regularly invited to regional community events, and customers are offered $10 referral rewards. A natural next step seems to be offering discounted subscriptions or bulk purchasing options. Maybe a paid VIP option could give members priority booking or choice of their cleaner. At least with options such as these, the company will have increased transparency into future bookings and revenue.

My maid Rita wasn’t wearing french maid’s outfits and there was no mint on my pillow when she left. But those are about the only two things I could complain about. The rest was as promised. Dead simple, convenient, reliable, and, most importantly, affordable maid service. Assuming the company can replicate this experience thousands of times per month in multiple markets, PathJoy should have every opportunity to succeed. Here’s hoping they’re secretly developing a robot maid behind the scenes.