An Inspiring Lesson on How to Build a Business Meeting an Unrealized Need

Douglas D. Cerrito is the President and CEO of Hygienitech Systems, LLC, a company that cleans and sanitizes mattresses and other upholstered items using its own eponymous and proprietary system. Founded more than a decade ago, the company now boasts more than 800 authorized and fully trained service providers operating close to 2,000 Hygienitech Systems in 70 countries.

The tale of how Hygienitech came into being is truly inspirational. It serves as a reminder to all of us that the most ingenious and successful businesses don’t always have to be the result of completely new ideas or innovation, but can spring from the recognition of an unmet need and the goal of meeting that need in new and improved ways. Those interested in starting a residential or commercial cleaning business should be  particularly interested.

The story is best told by Doug in his own words:

Hygienitech was truly founded by accident. While vacationing in Italy in 1999, we arrived one day early and the villa we had rented for two weeks was not completely ready for occupancy. The resort manager informed us that the only thing that needed to be done was the mattress cleaning and sanitizing process.

Having never heard of this service in the U.S., it roused my curiosity. About an hour later, while unpacking our suitcases, a small white service van appeared, and when the man got out he put on a white jumpsuit, rubber gloves and a white-paper respirator mask. Since my Italian was severely limited, I asked the resort manager to explain what he was doing. She informed me that prior to a new vacationer arriving at one of their 12 villas, they contract to have the mattresses and upholstered items sanitized―a completely dry and chemical-free process that removes any type of harmful contaminants, including dust mites, bacteria, common viruses and a whole bunch of other nasty things that accumulate in mattresses and upholstery.

I watched him do the process, and he even took a moment to show me what was being extracted.

Having spent the previous 25-plus years in the marketing and advertising field, I then spent the next week or so investigating the mattress cleaning and sanitizing business and its prevalence throughout Europe. I was amazed to learn that it was a mature industry with more than 1,000 companies offering these services to hotels, resorts, private residences and a host of other clients.

When I returned to the U.S. a few weeks later I began looking for companies that offered a similar service, and I was amazed to find that nobody did. I immediately implemented a marketing-research and feasibility study and the results clearly showed that the need was there. My next task was to assemble a team of experts from the medical, manufacturing and electronics fields. Within six months we had a working prototype. It was simple to operate, eco-friendly, safe, lightweight and completely portable. A month later we had a mattress cleaning and sanitizing operation in Southeast Florida and soon after that, we had four service technicians on the road every day, averaging 4 to 5 service calls per technician.

It was then that we decided to offer our system to other people who would like to own their own mattress cleaning and sanitizing business as well as to companies that were already in the service business, such as carpet cleaners, maid service and pest-control companies, as well as air duct cleaners.

Starting out we recognized that this type of service would require some effort on our part in order to educate people throughout North America as to the benefits of having their mattresses cleaned and sanitized. Fortunately, the media helped us out tremendously and continues to do so, educating people through major TV shows, such as Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Oz and Anderson Cooper; network news programs; and a host of other mediums, such as major newspapers, magazines and medical publications.

Asked by’s Entrepreneur Exchange to share his answers to some of our most frequently asked reader questions, Doug had this to offer:

How does someone know if they have what it takes to own their own business? Tell us a bit about how you made the decision and why.

Someone who decides to own his or her own business has to have good interpersonal skills and certainly understand the importance and benefits of the service they’re offering. They need to be organized, professional and have an understanding of the important role that marketing, advertising and promotion have in building a business. Bottom line—they need to enjoy what they’re doing and treat every job they do not as if it is for a one-time customer, but a long-term client.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your first six months in business?

Our greatest challenge was in designing and manufacturing the Hygienitech System and educating people as to the health benefits of our services.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing business owners today and why? Any suggestions for how to address those challenges?

People are very health and cost-conscious these days. Our population is also aging and pretty much staying put. There are a lot fewer people moving into new homes because of the declining values facing the housing market. And because money is tight, homeowners are very reluctant to go out and spend thousands of dollars on new mattresses and upholstered items when there is a low-cost, non-invasive way to clean and sanitize them and keep them viable for many more years to come.

What is the single strongest piece of advice you would have for someone just starting out in business for themselves?

Talk to experts in a variety of fields, such as accountants, bankers, and advertising and marketing people, and also speak with people who are in the same business you’re planning to start so that you can gain some firsthand knowledge of what the business is like.

What would you say is the one thing that new business owners forget about or overlook when they’re just planning/starting out?

They fail to recognize the importance of getting their message out and that there are many ways you can do this for very little expense. We refer to this as gorilla marketing—spending very little to get the biggest bang for your buck.

What marketing strategies have you found to be most successful in growing your business?

We show our people how each client can become a source for new customers by implementing a simple referral program, which rewards people for passing your name and services on to others.

What is it about the business/industry you are in that made it so attractive to you?

It would have to be the simple fact that there is little or no competition.

After the initial start-up phase in business, what obstacles do business owners face as they try to grow their business and remain successful? Any advice for how to overcome those obstacles?

One word…logistics. Being able to efficiently plan each day’s services so there’s little time wasted traveling from job to job is critical. Also doing follow-up calls to customers, knowing their specific needs and keeping in contact with them on a regular basis.

What on-line, software or other resources have helped you the most in managing all aspects of your company? Why and how have they been helpful?

There are several off-the-shelf programs that will help you manage your business such as QuickBooks, ACT and many other similar software programs.

What did you do before you decided to become your own boss, and how have those skills helped you in your current business?

I spent 25-plus years in the advertising agency business, so marketing is something I am very familiar with and can appreciate.

What process do you follow to successfully close on a lead and make the final sale? Any tips?

We use follow-up phone calls, emails and industry updates to keep people informed and in the loop.

Can a Hygienitech business be operated from home?

Hygienitech Systems, LLC, has offices in the U.S. and in Macau, SAR (Special Administrative Region/China) in order to support our 800+ service providers around the world. Those people that purchase our system are able to operate a Hygienitech Services business from their home.

What is/are your favorite motto and/or quote when it comes to business? Any final words of encouragement and/or inspiration for the budding entrepreneur?

Don’t look for a “get-rich-quick” business that makes unsubstantiated and often outrageous earnings claims. Look for a get-rich-slow business, and understand that building a successful and profitable business takes hard work and dedication.