Simon Brooks rolled into Silicon Valley with his border collie-black lab mutts, Lexy and Chelsea, and his life savings tied up in a promising wordplay app.
The British ex-pat and lifelong language buff had already released a Dictionary.com-powered word game called Gadzookery. Buoyed by that success, he pawned his belongings in a weekend yard sale, gave the bank back the keys to his house outside Louisville, Kentucky, and headed west.
He arrived late 2013 in Mountain View, where he slept in his dinged-up ’99 Lexus between 16-hour shifts at the Hacker Dojo, a 24-7 startup incubator that famously spawned Pinterest. Six months later—spring of 2014—the money dried up.
A Kickstarter to raise money for his Scrabble app spinoff failed to gain traction, despite a supportive tweet from the wildly successful Words with Friends creator Paul Bettner.
“At that point, you’re stuck,” says Brooks, whose restive bent lured him years ago from his native London. “Once you get to that point—no access to showers, food and all the rest of it—it’s really hard to get out.”
Broke and famished, he kept his mind off the hunger by dividing his time between the dog park and the Dojo. Sleeping proved a pain, so he worked the long hours. Last summer, he finally got a break, but it had nothing to do with his word game.
“Here’s me thinking I’ll educate the world with this game I’m making and someone asks me if I could clean toilets,” says Brooks, 46, a wiry 5-foot-10 with gray eyes and a thatch of sandy brown hair. “I was offended.”
But the offer from Dojo management spawned Squiffy Clean, Brooks’ fledgling janitorial startup that aims to “clean up the cleaning industry.” The $51 billion professional cleaning sector, he discovered, is rife low pay and workplace abuses.
“It’s horrible,” says Brooks, who launched Squiffy without a cent to his name by convincing his first customer to buy equipment by paying ahead for service. “I was shocked.”
Night shift janitors, he learned, are easy targets for abuse. ABM Janitorial Services, the nation’s largest janitorial company, stands in dubious company. It’s among a group of only 15 American corporations to have been probed several times by the federal government for sexual harassment.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued ABM three times since 2000 for botching sexual harassment complaints. Two of those cases included charges of rape. In all cases, the company settled and promised to bolster oversight.
A PBS documentary—Rape on the Night Shift, which uncovered the sexual abuse of women who clean shops and offices—convinced Brooks to dispatch his workers in teams.
“We go out in a group,” he says. “Safety in numbers. We want to do better by our people.”
Rather than paying the industry standard of minimum wage, he says, Squiffy offers $17 an hour and encourages homeless job seekers to apply. Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit that offers job placement and training for the homeless, has been in talks with Brooks as a potential partner. Brooks has also promised to give his first 25 cleaners equity in the business.
“We’re inherently all about breaking down stereotypes about homelessness,” says Chris Richardson, a regional director for Downtown Streets Team. “They want to work, they want opportunity. So we’re excited about what Simon is doing and look forward to working with him.”
Devashish Sarkar, who retired as CEO of BBC Worldwide to become an independent television producer in Palo Alto, featured Brooks in a soon-to-release documentary.
“I was struck by his being homeless in the very heart of Silicon Valley’s vast affluence,” Sarkar says, “that he was making a business literally out of trash, as opposed to algorithms and big data, and that unlike the rest of the world who were dying to come to Silicon Valley, he was here because he was ‘trapped.’”
Silicon Valley, he points out, can pull people in and leave them stranded. Nearly three-quarters of the region’s tech workers between the ages 25 and 44 are foreign-born, according to the Silicon Valley Index released this month. About 37 percent have come to the United States specifically to find a job in the tech sector, per the report.
Brooks set his personal ambitions aside—“only for now,” he clarifies—to channel his somewhat frenetic entrepreneurial energy into a means to survive. Still just months into his blue-collar venture, he says the biggest challenge has been paying operating costs.
“Everything we get goes back to wages, rent and overhead,” he says, stationed at his desk in his new Palo Alto office. Before he branches out, Brooks wants to bring his contract cleaners onto company payroll. But he needs more cash first. Using a microfinance lending platform called Kiva Zip, Brooks is asking for a $10,000 loan, the bulk of it for working capital.
Sam Geil, a consultant who stepped up as an advisor for Squiffy, says he’s heartened to see Brooks invest in blue-collar jobs in a region known for its chasmic divide between rich and poor. “The tech thing is overstated,” says Geil, who ran a cleaning corporation, among others. “We need this other type of work, especially since the wealth gap is getting wider.”
One way to change the business paradigm, Geil says, is to give working-class employees ownership in a company. The higher wages, of course, will make service costs increase. But, Geil says, moneyed Silicon Valley firms have something of an ethical responsibility to hire contractors that treat their workers well. “People want to pay as little as possible in this industry,” Geil says. “The problem is they don’t understand the value. Or the human impact.”
Eduardo Torres, a 26-year-old father-to-be, found Squiffy by way of a Craigslist ad a few months back. Seven years in the cleaning industry, he says, he only ever found minimum wage jobs, so the $17-an-hour offer looked like a scam.
“I applied anyway,” he says. “I got the job right away and began cleaning that night. The biggest thing for me was that he offered ownership. That’s what a company should do.”
While not a case of rags-to-riches, Brooks’ story—that of a homeless man who took it upon himself to create jobs—appealed to Torres.
“That means a lot,” Torres says,“to see someone who wants to do something more with his life.”
Four months ago, Brooks’ dogs died and he buried them under a sapling. To cope with the grief, he devotes all his time to growing Squiffy—a portmanteau of “squeaky” and “spiffy”—into something he can scale up and out.
“I’m still going to make my app,” he says, turning to his desktop computer to pull up an old crowdfunding website for his tabled word game, which has since been pulled off the app store. “There’s so much more I want to do with my life.”
A “job,” he quips, stands for “just over broke,” shuffling from paycheck to paycheck without getting ahead.
“I don’t want a job,” says Brooks, who now lives in a rickety RV on loan from a friend. “I want more than that. … I don’t need or want a private jet, but … I’d love to open an animal retirement home that’s open to the public.”
A job of the paycheck-to-paycheck variety, he says, won’t get him to that modest dream.