Army Veteran John Schroeder Launches Contract Cleaning Business
After retiring in January 2017 from a 33-year career in the United States Army, John Schroeder took a year off to relax, travel, sell his house, and knock a few items off his bucket list. He was happy to have more time to spend with his family, devote to his hobbies, and volunteer with the Department of Defense, but he also realized he wasn’t actually ready to retire completely. He decided a part-time career would be the perfect way to keep his head in the game but still be “mostly retired.” Starting his own business afforded him the opportunity to work as much or as little as he wanted. “I wanted to control my own schedule and priorities, and the best way to do that was to start my own business,” Schroeder says, “I can bid on the projects I want and say no to jobs that don’t work with my schedule.”
Schroeder took project management and event planning courses at Madison College in 2017. That fall, he learned about dry ice blasting, a non-abrasive, non-flammable, and non-conductive cleaning method. “Dry ice blasting is an environmentally friendly way to effectively and efficiently clean, utilizing carbon dioxide pellets propelled at high speed,” says Schroeder. “It is environmentally responsible and uses no secondary contaminants, such as solvents or grit media, to clean. Additionally, the use of carbon dioxide to clean eliminates a secondary waste stream.”
Schroeder decided he could become a contract cleaner using dry ice blasting and remain fully in charge of his time. To augment his business skills, he enrolled in the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Entrepreneurial Training Program in January 2018, which he says was incredibly helpful.
“The ETP provided relevant information for starting a small business,” he says. “The facilitators and subject matter experts, as well as the other students, provided a wealth of knowledge in preparing me to begin the start-up.”
Schroeder says he appreciated the insights of both the instructors and his fellow students. “Between the instructors and the students, there were numerous ‘lessons learned’ shared, along with helpful tips and sage advice,” he recalls. “Everyone in the class contributed to the discussion, and the vast diversity of business plans and entrepreneurial backgrounds made for an outstanding learning environment.”
Schroeder made good use of the UW-Madison library system as he developed his business plan. “The resources of the UW-Madison library were incredible, and the staff there was extremely helpful in developing my initial customer list,” he says. Schroeder used the library database to pull up complete lists of every plastics manufacturing plant and automotive manufacturing plant in Wisconsin. Those lists, which added up to about two hundred names, were the basis for his initial email blast introducing himself and his company.
“I sent several hundred personalized emails via LinkedIn and website contact forms,” says Schroeder. “One LinkedIn email to a supervisor at a Milwaukee restoration organization led to a project manager reaching out to me and hiring me for a job.”
The ETP requires students to complete a business plan in order to “graduate” from the course, and Schroeder submitted his in June 2018. He launched Green Clean Dry Ice Blasting, LLC, a dry ice blasting industrial contract cleaner that serves multiple sectors in Southern Wisconsin, in August 2018.
“The fact that completing the business plan is a requirement of successful completion of the course was very helpful,” he says. “It would have been too easy to procrastinate and not complete the plan, and having the deadline was critical to my early success.” Schroeder bought his machinery from Cold Jet, LLC in Ohio. The entire cleaning system, including the machine, a dryer/cooler for the compressed air, and the industrial sized air compressor will be brought to the customer’s site to conduct the cleaning. The entire business can be stored at a residence, so no shop or garage space is required, and there is no mess at home. “The whole business fits in my van,” he says. “I rent an air compressor for jobs, do the work at the job site, come home, reset the van, do paperwork, and I’m done.”
Dry ice blasting is similar to sand blasting, in which media is accelerated in a pressurized air stream to clean or prepare a surface, but instead of using hard, abrasive media, soft dry ice is accelerated at supersonic speeds, which creates mini explosions on the surface that lift the undesirable material off the underlying substrate. Developed in the 1980s to remove paint from aluminum aircraft skin, dry ice cleaning ended up being better for cleaning industrial machines and restoring old structures. “Many plastic plants own dry ice blasting machines, even robotic ones, to clean molds every few cycles, so material doesn’t get caught,” says Schroeder. “Dry ice blasting also works really well to take the greenish hue off of copper and remove grimy effervescence from brick. It can be used across numerous industry sectors.”
Recent Green Clean historical restoration projects have included cleaning the brick on a basement-to-roof chimney in a private home in Kenosha. “It was beautiful Chicago brick that looked like Cream City brick,” says Schroeder. “The owner was building a living space in the attic and a sound studio in basement and wanted to clean up the exposed brick.” Another cleaning project involved seven days of cleaning the rafters and walls of a 30-foot by 100-foot 100-year-old barn in Grafton that the owner was making into a private party space. Green Clean recently spent three days cleaning a 160-year-old Norwegian cabin near Stevens Point. “The owner took off the old siding and is making one exterior wall into an interior one, so I cleaned that and brightened the wood,” says Schroeder.
Other dry ice blasting applications include the paving industry, where dry ice can remove hardened tar and asphalt on trucks and pavers. Now that Green Clean is in its second year of business, Schroeder is focusing on marketing methods that will help the business grow. He’s using mostly inbound marketing techniques, combined with strategically selected networking. His equipment supplier, Cold Jet, sends him local leads via the company’s worldwide contract cleaner website, which allows potential customers to contact local providers.
“The majority of my marketing and advertising right now is via social media and the internet,” he says.
Additionally, I attend the Plant and Facilities Maintenance Association (PFMA) exposition annually at State Fair Park in Milwaukee, in order to network with plant and maintenance managers.”
Schroeder knows exactly how many hours he would like to work each week and how many customers he needs to maintain to hit that number.”My long-term goal is to establish and maintain a number of repeat customers, which will allow me to maintain steady work eight to ten days a month,” he says. “While it doesn’t sound like a lot of work, with the margins I am able to maintain, that is the amount of engagement I am looking for in order to be successful.”
Schroeder says the SBDC’s ETP program prepared him well to run a business. “I think the requirement to complete a business plan is essential,” he says. “Three-quarters of the program’s cost is covered if you complete the business plan, which is genius. It forces you to go through all the steps, beginning to end.