Window washers on wheels do the dirty work

By Meredith Wilson

Soon after launching their window washing business, Urban Street Window Works, Scott Baermann and his partner Ryan Hoban couldn’t find a place to park their van to do a job.

“Man, we should really do this on bikes,” Scott said to Ryan.

The pair of cargo bikes they purchased a few days later became their trademark, and the resulting low-overheard, high-profile strategy helps the tiny firm stand out in the market.

“Buying the bikes was our marketing,” Hoban said. “We thought we could position ourselves in the market, be a little sexier than the homeless guys you see washing windows.”

According to Hoban, people were drawn in by the spectacle of guys washing storefront windows from their bicycles.

“We spent a lot of times on jobs just talking to people,” Hoban said.

They would hand out business cards, and after six months, they had gone from eight clients to 30.

Tim Taylor, the owner of Bucktown-based coffeeshop Ipsento, and Urban Street Window Works’ first client, appreciates their branding and enjoys being associated with their business.

“I mean, who else is driving those bikes around washing windows? They brought some coolness factor,” Taylor said.

Taylor appreciates their reliability and their relationship beyond the job. He thinks of their businesses as mutually supportive.

“It really is the season of craft. Craft coffee, craft cheeses, craft grains, craft wine…why not craft window washing?” Taylor asked.

Baermann has been cleaning windows for 10 years. He began with a franchise of Window King in Indiana, and when the parent company dissolved, he opted to continue, renaming his business Baermann Window Cleaning.

When he brought Hoban on in 2011, both men had young families and were living in Chicago, commuting to Indiana every day to clean windows.

“I said to Scott, ‘Why are we driving all the way to Indiana when there’s a lot of glass in the city we live in?’” Hoban said.

They launched Urban Street Window Works – a name Hoban came up with while he and Baermann were walking to a bar – in August of 2012.

It didn’t take long for other people to get interested in their business. A month after they launched, Phil Tadros, entrepreneur and CEO of Chicago-based marketing company Doejo, offered to partner with them.

“He’s a quick mover, that’s what he does, he starts businesses. He was like ‘do you guys need money? What do you guys need?’ It was very flattering,” Baermann said.

Hoban and Baermann weren’t ready to share ownership of their business, so they turned Tadros down.

Jeff Sharfstein, an angel investor, approached them soon after with an offer of nearly $1 million to add 100 bikes to Urban Street.

“Both Ryan and I felt totally out of our league, to be honest,” Baermann said. “He was talking about franchising and we knew we had a lot ahead of us in our city, and we wanted to take it one day at a time.”

Talks slowed down, and Sharfstein became concerned about whether the revenue could support the kind of investment he was looking to make.

“We didn’t really know what we were doing. I think we pushed for some things we shouldn’t have,” Baermann said.

Baermann is open to the idea of investors, but isn’t currently talking to anyone.

“I don’t feel like I really want to give equity away. I’d have to have a good relationship with someone. It has to feel right, I have to have a good gut feeling about someone,” he said.

In 2013, their first full year in business, Urban Street made $55,000 in revenue. It was good money, but “not enough for both of us to support families.” One of them had to go, Hoban said.

When the pair disagreed over whether to partner with Mark Rashkow, who wanted to bring Urban Street into his power washing business, Hoban decided to depart and join Rashkow at Pane Bros. (But Hoban left Pane Bros. nine months later.)

Now, Baermann is focused on expanding the residential window- washing and graffiti-removal aspects of his business, which he estimates make up 40 percent of his revenue.

He is also moving into more traditional marketing, using the Internet and mobile apps to target new customers.

“Yelp has been our best, our number one referral source. We bought ads on Yelp in July of last year. We got five five-star reviews in a row,” Baermann said.

However, Baermann doesn’t like marketing, and has never thought of himself as a salesman.

“I’m not like a planner, we didn’t have a business plan. We still really don’t. I’m just about building a good business that serves people well. I think of the golden rule, treat people how they want to be treated, and it seems to work.”

In 2014, Urban Street Window Works brought in $94,000 in revenue and grew its storefront client base to 80. Baermann has hired a full-time employee to focus on growing residential business, a part-timer to focus on storefronts and a “very part-time stay-at-home mom” to answer the phone.

Going into his third year with Urban Street Window Works, the “make or break year,” according to Baermann, he is optimistic about his prospects.

“I just know we are going to grow like crazy this year,” he said.