‘It's risky - but we know what we're doing’ - Dylan Goggs, CleanStart

There's no guide to steering a social enterprise through a global pandemic. How do you shore up cash? How do you keep your customers on side? How do you reassure and guide your team, keep everyone healthy, and stay semi-sane yourself? This week's Voice from the frontline comes from the Vancouver-based CEO of CleanStart, which hires and trains people who’ve faced barriers to employment to do rubbish removal, cleaning and pest control services – and which recently took a leap of faith to keep on its staff, while serving some of the city's most vulnerable neighbourhoods. 

“Early in this whole Covid-19 crisis we decided to research what it actually meant and look at the risks and the statistical data. We had a choice: either, we're going to shut down or we're going to try and do something that would continue employment for a lot of our employees. 

And we decided that we weren’t going to close down. We realised that we could actually provide essential disinfecting and sanitation services, and we felt confident that we could offer these services to clients. Our client base is about 80% nonprofit or social housing groups and they jumped at the opportunity.

The first risk was the financial risk. Can we get the right gear? Yes, we can. But it was in short supply. So me and my wife bought a lot of stuff up front on our own credit cards. There was a lot of confusion at the beginning [of the crisis] as the government seemed to be telling people to stay off work. And there was a lot of fear. We’d be working in a high risk area – nobody is social distancing. 

We’d be working in a high risk area – nobody is social distancing

So we're going to social housing where there are shared bathrooms, a shared kitchen area, providing complete cleaning and disinfecting. We go down every single doorway within the building, disinfecting and wiping clean all of the surfaces. 

The government is offering an employment insurance option to individuals who have been laid off. We didn't lay off any of our staff, but a few individuals chose to self isolate. About 95% decided to stay on. And then we had to double the size of our business in four days essentially. So it was pretty intense. Right now we've got about 50 employees working seven days a week, cleaning about 40 buildings a day. We connected to a CCC [community contribution company, a hybrid legal structure used by some social enterprises in Canada] consultancy firm called C3 Hub who specialise in social enterprises development, so we got their professional approach. And we also partnered with another social enterprise called Embers who do employment services for the construction industry, and had about 20 new people come through them. 

Now we’re working seven days a week rather than five. We were always thinking we should probably do weekends but we're quite laid back and not just primarily motivated by profit. But after this settles down, we’ll be seven days a week now we've understood what that looks like from an HR and scheduling perspective.

It's actually quite a simple service compared to some of the other stuff we do, like pest control. So some of our team are enjoying it, everyone's starting to relax. Yes, it's risky. But the reality is we have the correct PPE, we have training, we know what we're doing. We can still have a laugh, basically. 

Some of our team are enjoying it… we can still have a laugh

High risk work for high risk people

We try to support and hire people with barriers to employment. We’re in the Downtown Eastside community, which is Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood – there's a lot of people that have concurrent disorder, which is a drug addiction coupled with severe mental health. But we're trying to broaden our spectrum. We also hire people that are new to the country, who don't have traditional barriers like mental health addiction or disability [but who may face other challenges in finding work]. We believe in supporting people at where they're at.

Technically, we all have barriers to employment at some level. I know for me, at least, I had some health issues that were kind of the catalyst for starting this 10 years ago. In 2009, I had a tumour on my spinal cord that got removed. I realised that I couldn't operate as normal. Before I moved to Canada in 2004 I was actually a breakdancer with marginalised young people in the UK. I was used to being very physical, but I had to really adjust my life. I have severe nerve damage in one of my legs so I now live with chronic pain, that's just a daily reality that I have to deal with. I have advocates and I can take care of myself. But some of our employees don't have that support system.

A growth opportunity

Our revenue has increased by about 60-70%, but we know that is only for a temporary period. We created a brand new service and didn’t put our prices up – we probably should have due to the risk. So we're just getting into the cycle now of facing some of the business realities of cash flow. We had 50 people to pay on Friday. 

Scaling in a week is insane. But we did it

This has done a few things. The first is, it shows us that we can actually scale relatively quickly. I won't say that’s not stressful. For sure – scaling in a week is insane. But we did it. There could also be an opportunity for us to create a dedicated cleaning team that will use some of the techniques we’ve developed from our Covid-19 disinfecting and sanitation services, which may develop into a full janitorial division of CleanStart BC.

Pulling together

With the Downtown Eastside the fear is that if it really does hit this community, it could be devastating. For other cities in North America that haven’t handled it perhaps in the way that they could have, it’s become a real problem for that type of demographic. 

And so in Vancouver there's a big network of nonprofits, businesses, and government coming together because of the crisis, and they meet three times a week on Zoom. And that's the way that we're trying to network and support each other. So we're asking each other: what are our needs?

There's also been funding. We got a lot of our PPE funded by Central City Foundation. There's been really creative ways of organisations coming together. 

I think I worked for five weeks without a day off, which was bonkers. And then my body kind of just gave up for a few days and so I had to just take some time. 

But I’m feeling very optimistic and grateful, very thankful for my family, very thankful for my staff. What this has taught me is to hand over to the team more. It’s allowed me to do the role that I should be doing anyway. It's kind of forced me into a role that is comfortable and that I need to be doing in the future.”

Dylan Goggs was speaking to Sasha Gallick. Read more about CleanStart.

Photos: CleanStart three-quarter truck; some of the staff (credits: CleanStart).

Check back soon for more stories from the frontline of running a social business through the Covid-19 crisis. If you'd like to share yours, email us at news@pioneerspost.com