Disinfecting small spaces where someone has committed suicide. Transporting a deceased person hundreds of miles from a hospital bed to her final resting place.
Business opportunities arise in many forms, and some very profitable sectors today are comprised of jobs many people might find unpalatable. Take the "services to dwellings and buildings" market, which according to financial information firm Sageworks has been producing double-digit sales growth and strong profit margins for the past couple of years. Jobs here include pest control, janitorial services and carpet cleaning.
Many firms in these businesses can charge a premium due to the nature of the work — especially when biohazards are involved. And as a result, they can pay more to get employees certified for special skills, and pay them more in wages for these messy jobs, too.
There's lots of money in doing what most people aren't willing to do. Here are six small firms that are pulling in more than $1 million in annual sales and in markets for which many people might not have the stomach.
San Diego-area CleanEarth Restorations services emergency situations like mold remediation or cleaning up a flooded or fire-gutted house or business. That comprises 60 percent of the company's annual revenue, which runs "well north of $1 million," said Mark Esquivel, operations manager.
The other 40 percent? Situations that may include blood-borne pathogens, such as crime-scene and trauma cleanup, as well as one of its fastest-growing divisions: pet hoarding. "We see more and more cases every year," Esquivel said. Although each job comes with a median price tag of $5,000 to $7,000, some situations can be extreme. He recalled a recent job in which his team made the disturbing discovery of 30 cats in cages, a freezer with a couple of frozen cats, skeletons of four kittens in the couch, five or six dead cats, a dog in a box that was just a skeleton, an opossum and a couple hundred rats.
"You get punched in the face by the stench," he said.
Cleaning Guys made a national name for itself in 2014 as the small firm that handled the first Ebola virus cleanup in the United States. But the company, founded more than 20 years ago by former police officer Erick McCallum, had already built itself into a multimillion-dollar-a-year entity by capitalizing on The Annihilator, its truck-mounted machine that sucks up spills, including oil, neutralized acids and other organic liquids from big-rig accidents on Texas roadways, helicopter manufacturing floors or waterways. It can clean up an area that's 8 feet wide and 50 feet long in 30 seconds. This includes chasing miles-long trails of gunk dripped by garbage trucks. "They blow the lines without knowing it, and there's 50 gallons [of fluid] down the road," he said.
Cleaning Guys' work is split pretty evenly between emergency response jobs and field service work — training clients' employees how to work legally in confined spaces, like tanks and maintaining equipment that uses potentially hazardous materials. The 50-employee firm, which sees about $10 million annually in sales, holds contracts with a handful of large manufacturers, like Bell Helicopter, Halliburton and General Dynamics.
With eight scrapyards in Michigan and one in New York, GLR Advanced Recycling recycles more than 100 million pounds of metal, paper and plastic. The firm buys scrap in the form of things like old cars, refrigerators and objects from demolition sites; it then cleans, processes and packages it, selling it to customers who refine and melt it.
Yet for co-owner Mike Bassirpour, two years of recession in the $105 billion scrap metal market, due to oversupply in China and low global demand, forced him to get creative when it comes to moving junk. So he came up with TheScrapPost.com, a Craigslist-like B2B site for the scrap metal world. "I went to a few recycling conventions, set up a booth and pitched it — people grasped onto it very quickly," Bassirpour said.
The website now has 1,500 members and doesn't sell any ad space. Most customers pay $50 a month to subscribe. The four-employee firm, which Bassirpour runs out of his GLR office, recently launched a broker division, where it actively finds buyers for sellers and takes a cut of the sales. TheScrapPost.com pulled in just over $900,000 in 2015; sales so far this year are on track to hit $5 million. Last year tech veteran Peter Karmanos' Mad Dog Technology bought half the company and helps provide tech expertise.
It's not unusual for those grieving at Alternative Funeral and Cremation Services to find comfort in a display of motorcycles or antique cars flanking the chapel, or even to see a custom-made giant duck blind splayed in front to celebrate the life of an avid outdoorsman.
Alternative's offerings aren't as extreme as some end-of-life firms popping up around the country, but its president Bob Lonning — whose services run about 40 percent less than a traditional funeral — notes that his business is taking on more of an event-planning bent, with customers looking for help booking gatherings at local parks.
"Cremation is up; casket sales are down — the ability to charge for [traditional] services isn't what it used to be," said Lonning. He recently took over the funeral home, which he co-founded with his father. Alternative's revenue hit $2.5 million last year, mainly due to low overhead. Alternative's chapel is small — just 8,400 square feet — and it outsources the hearse and cremation processes. The company is also rolling out its virtual funeral-planning service, where customers can plot via Skype.
One of the advantages 20-employee Ryan Peacock has over its larger, better-known competitors is speed — a necessary attribute when setting out to clean up disaster aftermaths at Silicon Valley's largest tech firms.
The company, named for its young founder, deals with drying out water-damaged industrial and commercial buildings following floods; it also deals with fire fallouts and hazmat cleanup. "If someone suffers a disaster at 2 a.m. and they call one or two [firms], I'm the fastest guy to respond," said Peacock. "We have competitors who are $2 billion-a-year companies, and I can compete with them because we're lean."
Peacock pulls in about $4 million in sales annually, split evenly between the public and private sector in northern California. Many of his early jobs came from technology firms. Hyperion, for example, experienced flooding on every floor of its 300,000-square-foot headquarters just two weeks before Oracle acquired it for $3.2 billion; Groupon's Palo Alto building was flooded so badly, the big restoration firms were quoting a month-long job. "I dried out an 80,000-square-foot building in less than a week," said Peacock, who uses a 10,000-pound dehumidifier in a skid-mounted cage.
Understanding tech clients' risk of losing market share if they're down too long has put Peacock onto his next big idea: franchising his methods. The first few franchises are expected to open later this year in California.
Graffiti is a major bane suffered by storefront owners, but when scratched or acid-etched into windows with knives, screwdrivers and drill bits, it can require replacing entire panels of glass, which can run anywhere from $300 to $5,000. To come up with a solution, Eric John Torrance and his wife, Beth, spent four years experimenting after hours in their southern California garage, until finally they created a polish that restored scratched glass to its original state "within an hour or so," said Eric John. "We decided to leave our jobs, take our savings, and go all in" to launch Remove It Restoration in 2012.
They started spreading the word about their product at Long Beach, California, strip malls, but it was a phone call out of the blue from the vice president of retail operations at Chevron that won them their big break. An initial meeting with the energy giant about a job has led to a multimillion-dollar contract working with 700 Chevron locations. That eventually opened the door to chains like Gamestop and AM/PM and others from Las Vegas to Oregon. Revenues in 2015 hit $1.4 million, and the company, which now partners with window-washing outfits to teach them its removal process, is projected to see $2.6 million in sales this year.