The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0074

Rug Life

Like what we've got to say about business? You'll love Basecamp >

Jarred Lustgarten left a Wall Street career to start a rug-cleaning business with $600 in borrowed money and a stack of flyers. A decade later, J.L. Carpet & Upholstery is profitable and Jarred has a very visible reminder on his hands of his commitment to his vocation.

Rug Life Tattoo


The Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:00:03] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Have you ever had a group working on something where some people were using text messages, some were sending out email after email, and some were even dropping sticky notes on your desk with tasks on them? It’s a mess and easy to get lost. Basecamp puts all your internal communication in one place so nothing gets lost and you can hold everyone accountable. It’s easy to learn, your team will figure it out and start using it the very same day you show it to them.

[00:00:30] Go to Basecamp.com to set up a free 30-day trial.

Wailin: [00:00:36] This story starts with a tweet. Actually, it starts with a couple of rugs.

Irin: [00:00:40] My name is Irin Carmon. I am a senior correspondent at New York Magazine. My grandfather was from Morocco and I was actually on assignment writing about where he’s from and purchased a couple rugs at the Marrakesh market. One is a deep red and it has traditional Berber drawings and markers on it. It actually has a teakettle drawn on it. And the other one is a little more of a light pink, a little bit of a center pile. Kind of a Mondrian-style is how my husband, who’s an artist, likes to describe it. Love these rugs, but they’re very deep pile and we have a dog so they really do need to be professionally cleaned.

Wailin: [00:01:18] Irin found a recommendation on a neighborhood Facebook group for a business called J.L. Carpet & Upholstery. And the guy who showed up to pick up her Moroccan rugs turned out to be the company’s owner.

Irin: [00:01:30] He immediately knew exactly what kind of rugs they were. And he actually told us that in between cleanings, we could put the rugs in a large dryer and just kind of let them shake out. You know, business people aren’t usually telling you how to use less of their services…

Wailin: [00:01:46] But that wasn’t the only thing that stood out to Irin. As soon as he left her place, she tweeted, “Just here to share that the representative from the rug cleaning service had ‘Rug Life’ tattooed across his knuckles.”

Irin: [00:01:57] You know, it reminded me of the old quirkiness of Twitter to just be able to say, hey I saw this cool thing. This guy is really dedicated to his craft. I just looked and I think there were 4,888 likes. And the other thing that was cool was a lot of people actually knew exactly who I was talking about. Like Harry Siegel who’s a columnist at the Daily News. Another person who I don’t know responded and said, I’ve used that guy. The rugs that I picked up in Afghanistan, he immediately knew what part of Afghanistan they were from. So it was cool, also, to feel like, as I replied to Harry, New York can still be good.

Wailin: [00:02:36] I was one of the people who replied to her tweet and I got a response back from the Rug Life guy himself.

Jarred: [00:02:42] My name is Jarred Lustgarten and I own J.L. Carpet & Upholstery Cleaning as well as New York Rug Life.

[00:02:50] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:02:51] Hello and welcome to Rework, a show about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:02:56] And I’m Shaun Hildner. Today on the show, the story of Jarred Lustgarten and how he left a Wall Street career to open a rug cleaning business that’s now a decade old and profitable.

Wailin: [00:03:07] He talks about his approach to customer service, the one kind of stain that even he can’t remove and how he’s turning Rug Life into its own brand.

Jarred: [00:03:25] I started the business about maybe 10 years ago. I had been working in finance. The last job that I had, I was a prop trader and I was trading some gold options and it didn’t end well and I got blown out. And I looked on Craigslist. I was like, I need to just kind of turn my brain off for about six months or whatever. So I looked on Craigslist and I saw an ad for carpet cleaners. It said, carpet cleaners, $1000/week. No experience necessary, etc.” I answered the ad, I went out, I met with the guy. It wasn’t $1000/week it was something, like a regular carpet cleaning company out of Long Island. They were super cheap. They were doing very basic and vanilla work and they had one type of shampoo that they used. Their clientele were people who weren’t looking for miracles. It was very inexpensive, like two rooms, a hall and a stair for $60 or something. I got $12 out of that.

[00:04:25] It wasn’t a good fit for me as far as working for this guy but I thoroughly loved cleaning the carpet. The emotional intimacy of going into people’s homes every day and that kind of stuff. So I felt like I was contributing to society or something. I was showing up to people’s homes, they had a need, I was meeting the need, and they were mad when I got there and glad when I left.

[00:04:49] The instant gratification is what really attracted me to the business. Aside from being on my own, in my own vehicle and nobody around me and that kind of stuff. In the beginning that was the seed that was planted. Within a couple of months I basically turned in my equipment. I borrowed $600 from my dad to buy a used machine, because I was very close to moving back home. At the time I was a single father, I had an 8-year-old kid with me, my son. I was like, we have to put our balls on the table. So I borrowed the money from my dad, I got a machine.

[00:05:25] My best friend at the time was a tattooer. He made some pink fliers for me and I spent all the money I had on one gallon of soap and a button-down shirt with my name stitched in it and I went out and started handing out fliers.

[00:05:40] I would stand on street corners in the middle of Park Slope, Brooklyn and just hand out fliers or my son would help me after school or on evenings. We’d run up and down the avenues and put them in people’s doors. I’d go to pet stores because I knew that dogs pee on carpets so I’d go and I’d put little coupons there. I would speak that everybody I could. Every time I saw a dog or a cat, I would pet it, let them know who I was.

[00:06:06] And I’m trying to think back now to try and remember how it was. Because many years into the game, you almost forget what it was like to have nothing.

Wailin: [00:06:15] Do you remember your first customer or what it was like to get those first couple of phone calls?

Jarred: [00:06:21] Oh my God, let me tell you. This was so long ago that I didn’t have a Blackberry or anything. I had a regular flip phone. I remember like, you’re driving around the phone rings. And I would just light up, like, oh my God, the phone’s ringing, the phone’s ringing. And then somebody would be on the other end. And they’d tell me their tale of woe. I would be nervous to give them the price. So I’d say, like, $75. And then I’d wince and pray, and they’d say, okay. And I’d be like, oh my God, they said yes. And then I would show up and basically put on a show. When I was working with the other company, what I found that really was going to put me a leg ahead of everybody else was, you know, in the service industry specifically, the customer service part of the service industry is very, very lacking. So I was showing up on time without smelling like cigarettes and had a uniform on. And that’s how my name really started spreading.

[00:07:17] What separates me from the other people is the experience that we provide. Even when people look up my reviews online, it’s 90% about their experience. We called, they answered. The quote was reasonable. The person showed up on time. There was no 4 hour window, they gave us an exact appointment, and my couch looks fantastic.

Wailin: [00:07:39] How did you figure out what to charge, especially at the beginning?

Jarred: [00:07:44] I was going on initially what the cheaper company I used to work for, kind of what they were charging. And then I was in a client’s home and this was in the way beginning. After I was finished, and she was so happy, this lady in Park Slope where my business really started taking off before I went city-wide. She looked at me, and she was like, Jarred, you need to charge more money than this. I couldn’t believe she told me that, because I was just like, hey, look, this is the price. You could pay more if you want, but this is the price. And then over time, as my business started expanding and I started getting more jobs, then I had to hire people and move onto the next level. Then the margins basically were dictating what the price would be. I needed it to find a space where it would be fair for the customer, fair for us.

Wailin: [00:08:33] I mean, at the beginning, it was just you, right? So how many jobs could you handle in a day?

Jarred: [00:08:39] In the beginning I could maybe handle three jobs in one day. And even now, like, we stick to that model. We’re like, okay, we only do three stops in a day, no matter what. That way, we don’t have to compromise time for anybody’s appointments and we don’t have to rush back and forth, and in New York City, it’s at least an hour drive in between each stop. We really don’t want people waiting around for us. But in the beginning, if they called me at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I would run there at 7 o’clock at night, because I had a kid to feed and I had to keep the lights on, and that kind of stuff.

Wailin: [00:09:13] Did you have to do a lot of on-the-job learning, even in the early days. Did you encounter certain kinds of jobs or situations that you hadn’t seen before working for the other guy?

Jarred: [00:09:25] Yeah, like, I had a friend of mine that he had a laundromat. And he gave me a couple of tips because he bought the laundromat from carpet-cleaning money from a business that he had many years ago. So he was just like, listen, just use these chemicals and it’ll kind of keep you out of trouble. The saying is, you know, it’s all good until it’s not. So, everything was working until one day I was looking at this fabric. I didn’t know what it was and then cleaned and I turned a whole sage green couch, I turned the whole thing pink in one day. I was like, oh my God. I was like, scared. The only thing I did was really go back to the customer and when they called me, I said, listen, I’ll do whatever it takes to make it right. And they were just so appreciative. Honestly, I was shocked, but they didn’t even really care. They’re like just refund us for the cleaning, we don’t really care that much about this couch. Our kids play on it and whatever, and good luck. And oddly enough they still use me.

[00:10:22] That’s when I started finding these little chat rooms online for cleaning dorks like me. Once I started cleaning on a regular basis, that’s when I was like, okay, I really need to educate myself. And I started taking classes and that kind of stuff, too.

Wailin: [00:10:35] After you started taking these classes and learning more about different kinds of fabrics and different kinds of chemicals to clean them, did you ever figure out what happened with that green couch that turned pink?

Jarred: [00:10:46] Yes. It’s funny because I’ve fixed that type of problem for other cleaners since then. Not to get super-duper technical, but—

Wailin: [00:10:56] Oh, you can get super-duper. I’m curious now.

Jarred: [00:10:58] Okay. All right, great. So here’s what happens. Many, many years ago, they made this law where they have to put a flame retardant inside a cushion that has any feathers. That way, if you fall asleep with a cigarette, cigarette hits the cushion, then, blah blah blah. Many times, it’s like a pinkish or red color and it’s inside the cushion. Over time, it will wick all the way to the top where the fabric is, especially after it gets wet. So, since I was using a machine that uses water, what it did is it activated those dyes that are in the flame retardant and they wicked all the way to the surface of the fabric.

[00:11:33] So, I thought I was just using the wrong chemistry when in reality that sometimes that stuff happens on its own. I’ve gone into people’s homes and I can identify right away, now, but I spent months and tens of thousands of dollars educating myself with industry leaders who really, oddly enough because they used to see me online, they almost, I would say took pity on me, but they were like, there’s this little guy in Brooklyn operating by himself and we need to help him. They’re the best, and I would not be anywhere without them.

Wailin: [00:12:04] I mean, it sounds like your job involves a fair amount of detective work, right? I’m just thinking about the carpets and the rugs and the upholstery I have in my house, and if you asked me what is this? I mean, I don’t know. So, you have to be able to just know what you’re dealing with each time you walk into a home, right?

Jarred: [00:12:23] Absolutely, yes. There’s so many variables involved. The main variable, oddly enough, is the customer. Because the customer will tell you, I didn’t touch this. Because we’ll say, okay, tell me what happened, like, your dog peed on the rug. And they’ll say, no, I left it alone. But normally the original sin is okay, but once people go in a panic, they go underneath the sink and they get the Resolve, the OxyClean, the this, the that. They make a big sandwich and that’s typically where the problems lie. But an effective, educated cleaner will normally not have any problems. But at the end of the day, sometimes we win, sometimes the fabric wins.

[00:13:05] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:13:09] After the break, Jarred shares the absolute worst thing to spill on your carpet. But first, why don’t we have Lexi from the Basecamp Support Team talk a little bit about the kinds of companies using Basecamp?

Lexi: [00:13:19] We have a huge variety of different customers and kinds of companies or endeavors that use Basecamp. And that’s one of my favorite things about the job is to see how different people use it and what they use it for. Everything from a Major League baseball team. Lots of architecture firms and artists and people who have their own small businesses like that. Lots of schools and churches, event planners, especially wedding planners. And, I’ve seen a lot of couples just using it themselves to plan their own weddings. Lots of snack companies and in particular, a lot of coffee companies, which I feel like really resonates with us here at Basecamp. And I like the idea of a lot of really over-caffeinated people using Basecamp to streamline their thought process and work because I relate to that a lot.

Shaun: [00:14:05] No matter what you do, Basecamp can help you do it. Learn more and try it for yourself at Basecamp.com.

Wailin: [00:14:15] What are the most difficult kinds of stains to get out. What are the situations you walk into and you assess and you say to the customer, I just have to be honest, science can only do so much for this issue?

Jarred: [00:14:28] Okay, keeping it all the way 100, the worst thing is those little icees that the kids get in the summer time that are like neon green and blue and red, those 50 cent icees. It’s over.

Wailin: [00:14:44] Really?

Jarred: [00:14:45] I promise. I don’t know, first of all, whatever chemical that is that they’re making money off of selling them for 50 cents, I don’t even know. And the fact that people are eating it is even crazier. Not that I’m judging because I do that stuff too, but when that gets on the rug, on the couch, it’s over.

[00:15:05] Because think about it this way, there are dyes that are in the food, they’re either natural dyes like grapes, with wine. And then there’s synthetic dyes like Snapple apple has red dye number 5, whatever that number is. Because yeah, apple juice is not really red. So when you spill something on your couch or on the rug, you’re literally dying the rug. If we can get a stain out of the rug, we can always do a color correction where we can blend the stain in and that kind of thing.

[00:15:33] With a couch, the fabric is very, very thin and it probably, it’s over.

Wailin: [00:15:39] That’s interesting, the service you offer being able to color-correct, let’s say, a rug. That sounds like something that you would have added later on as you got more specialized.

Jarred: [00:15:48] Absolutely. So what happened was, my mentor, Lisa Wagner, the lady who took pity on me, planted the seed of, if you just specialize in one or two niches and become an expert, you can charge a premium. So as we stated getting into really the thick of the rug game, we were like, okay, well, how were these rugs made? Oh, they’re made with dyes. So if we can’t get this dye out, can we do a color correction? We try and stay in our lane but it was years into our business that we discovered another way that we can fix problems that other people can’t fix.

Wailin: [00:16:24] When did you get to the point where you started to feel like, you know? I think this is a business that is going to be sustainable and you weren’t worried that it was all going to go away overnight.

Jarred: [00:16:37] Here’s what happened, also. In the very beginning, I said to myself, I’m going to go to community college at night. I went for an LPN which is a lower level nurse. But within six months I was going so hard at getting jobs that I dropped out of that school and that was it. Because I knew, this has to be everything. You should never start a business unless you absolutely have to. Because that’s what it’s going to take. If I didn’t close jobs or I didn’t get customers, the lights were going to get turned off. And there were times when we were swapping the ConEd bill and the cable bill and then the cable went away. I was blessed with the gift of desperation.

Wailin: [00:17:20] Did your business grow especially at the beginning via word of mouth? You mentioned you were working a lot in Park Slope. Was it families referring you to other families?

Jarred: [00:17:29] In New York, and I’m sure now, everywhere else throughout the country, there are online communities of parents. A big one in New York is called Park Slope Parents. There was thousands of members and whatever. So one mom would be like, listen this guy just came and he took our rugs and he cleaned them and brought them back when he said he was supposed to and everything looks great and it doesn’t smell like pee. And then it would explode exponentially that way. I’d go into somebody’s home and it’d be a kid’s mom and there’s Play-Doh everywhere, you know, that kind of thing? So, that’s who I really focused on because I knew that they would spread the word.

Wailin: [00:18:06] Are they a fairly demanding profile of client as well?

Jarred: [00:18:10] They’re people that they’re in the fight, just like you. My husband is working full time. I’m working full time. They’re going nuts and they have these kids, and we all have these little apartments. They don’t want bullshit. What really starting separating us from other people initially was that like, yes. We do give exact time appointments. From the time I started my business until now. Most companies, whether it’s a plumber, an electrician, the cable guy. They’ll say, listen. We’ll be there between 10 and 1 and or 10 and 2. I would pay him an extra $100 to come at 10 on the dot so I can get along with my day.

[00:18:43] There’s also a lot of bait and switch in our business. They’ll say, okay, we’ll come clean your couch for $99. And they get there and they put on a show and it’s like, now it’s going to be $300, and you have half a wet couch. When I say, okay, this is the price. They’re so happy that this is the price. Now, we clean probably 100 couches a month without blinking and maybe that amount of rugs as well. Maybe 100, 150 rugs a month. It’s a mathematical equation that we’re going to have to go and touch something up.

[00:19:16] When people called and they’d say, Jarred, this cushion, it dried a little funny, like, I don’t know. We were like, okay, no problem. They’re calling waiting for the fight, and we don’t put up the fight. We just say, okay, we’ll be there tomorrow. And they’re like, really? Yeah. We’ll be there tomorrow, don’t worry. Obviously there’s no charge. Sometimes these things just need an extra shot. And when our reputation started moving that that’s how we did business, honestly that’s when the business itself was born.

Wailin: [00:19:46] When did you get your tattoo?

Jarred: [00:19:49] The Rug Life tattoo I got a year and a half ago. I’ve wanted for a while and I was saying to myself, once you do this it’s over. It’s over. I mean, I have another small tattoo on my neck behind my ear. It’s a New York Yankee tattoo. That was very symbolic, too, because I got that maybe a year and a half into my business when my Series 7 was expiring from working on Wall Street. I said once this expires, I’m going to put this tattoo on my neck. That means I could never go back. I could never put a suit on again and have these people at J.P. Morgan or whatever tell me what to do. I’m going to be free.

[00:20:34] So a year and a half ago, I was looking at my hands and I was dreaming about it, Rug Life. I was so happy I did it, let me tell you. I close more deals with that tattoo than anything else I’ve done.

[00:20:46] Now when I pick up rugs, can people see that. They’re like, oh my God, we have the right guy. Wailin: [00:20:50] And then, what is going to be the specialty of Rug Life, the business within a business that you started?

Jarred: [00:20:57] Everybody, they typically say the same thing. Like, all right, it’s $200 to clean the couch but I have this mattress, I have this rug. You start tallying everything up and okay, this is going to be $1300, and they’re like, oh my God, that’s a lot of money. And we understand. We’re going to go and we’re going to sell these packages. So we come into the home, and we’ll clean $1000 or more worth of stuff but we allow the customer to pay over time. You can make three payments. That really helps out a lot of people because to have everything done at once is really… it’s a lot of money to absorb at one time, especially here in New York. And typically, we find a lot of our customers are expecting mothers or people who are selling their apartments and they need everything done. And they need it to look good. Our Rug Life brand is specifically only going to sell those packages and then my J.L. Carpet brand is still you can buy things a la carte.

[00:21:51] The times that I’ve explained it to people, like, oh my God, that’s a fantastic idea. But what if they cancel their credit card after the second payment or whatever. And this is really where we do it on the honor system. I’m willing to take the risk because I believe in humanity. I’m sure there’s going to be a percentage of people that may take advantage of that and jerk us around and that’s fine. But there’s so many more people that we’re going to be able to help. That say, okay, we’ll come and clean your sectional, every mattress that you have because the baby’s coming, and then the dog peed over here. And look, we’ll do it all, and just don’t worry about it.

Wailin: [00:22:27] When you think back to your life in finance, does it just feel like a whole other life, does it feel like a million years ago?

Jarred: [00:22:35] Absolutely. But I would never be where I’m at without that experience. I was like, 17 or 18 years old and my first job, I was a runner on the New York Mercantile Exchange. There were thousands of people and you’re just running around with tickets and all these other things and I learned a lot about punctuality. The market opens at this time so you have to be here. My next step, when I become a retail stockbroker on the telephone. These guys, they were like, it was unbelievable. Relentless, relentless, relentless.

[00:23:10] The reason why we make all this money here is because we just stay on the phone. So all of these things are that the seeds they really planted but the most important thing that stayed with me, working the numbers.

[00:23:20] So I knew when I was standing out on the corner with those pink fliers. Whether it was 100 or 1,000, it didn’t matter. The number was going to come when the phone was gonna ring. And it’s just, was I willing to die on that corner? Was I willing to walk through my own fear? What am I willing to do? What am I willing to sacrifice? Who do I want to be?

Wailin: [00:23:43] What do you think about when you’re cleaning a rug? It seems like it’s very solitary alone-time, meditative work? What do you usually think about?

Jarred: [00:23:53] It’s funny that you say that because that’s literally, it’s like break-time from reality. My shop is off the beaten path, you can drive past it 100 times, people won’t see it and we have a huge wash pit in the basement that nobody—not that it’s a secret, but it’s not open to the public. So I can go in there. I can be with myself, by myself. I listen to audio books. Podcasts. My hands do the magic and my brain is absorbing information and that kind of stuff. Even if it’s just music. It is super meditative, even though I do my own meditation, whatever. It’s very soothing. I wash three or four rugs and I come out of there and magically the world gets their act together. Nobody bothers me anymore, the lights are green and I’m a lot less agitated.

[00:24:44] What I’m really happy about is the richness that I have in my life. Our business does very well. We’re profitable and all these other things, and the best thing about owning a business is it allows you to say, okay, who do I want to be? I have this freedom now. So the best thing that I could do was provide a place for my kids to come and work so they could follow their dreams. There’s no contract that I could sign with somebody for doing this amount of work or whatever that is worth my joy. Or making enough money that all of our bills are paid. Can I provide good experience for my children, and whatever, yes? Can I relatively eat whatever I want in New York City, whenever I want. Absolutely, yes. And that’s a big thing for me because I’m a huge foodie. I can go to the gym whenever I want. It’s like, my time.

[00:25:38] Working a business is about buying back your own time and then providing opportunities and experiences for other people. So, I think that’s what makes me successful to me. And it’s not about P&L. There’s no number that I’ve found that would be able to replace that freedom and that’s really what my life boils down to.

[00:25:59] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:26:02] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art. Special thanks to Avinoam Hennig.

Wailin: [00:26:09] You can find Jarred’s business at JLCarpetandUpholstery.com and NewYorkRugLife.com. We’ll put a photo of his Rug Life knuckle tattoo on our website Rework.fm where you’ll also find show notes and episode transcripts.

[00:26:25] Irin Carmon is on Twitter at @irin. That’s I-R-I-N. She’s the co-author with Shana Knizhnik of the 2015, Notorious R.B.G: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

[00:26:49] Did you feel like a special kinship with Jarred and his tattoo because both of you are known for kind of plays on hip-hop pop culture?

Irin: [00:27:00] You know, I never thought of that that way. Anybody who knows me knows that I know nothing about pop culture. It’s really my co-author Shana who came with The Notorious R.B.G. and is much more tuned-in than I am. But it is a funny coincidence.