Joe Walsh came to Portland in 2005 with a plan to stay the summer. He’s still here. And he’s heading up a house-cleaning company that specializes in elbow grease and all natural products, Green Clean Maine. We called him up to find out what the market is for green cleaning in Maine (based on the size of his staff, 30, we’re going to say it’s pretty strong), got a few tips on unexpected cleaning agents (like baking soda) and learned about the role Ireland played in his decision to make a career out of a sustainably oriented business (pubs are involved).

Growing up in Rhode Island, Walsh worked first in the family construction business, starting as a teenager. After graduating from the University of Rhode Island, he worked in the insurance business and for a startup that made high-end cakes. “I loved being in the startup atmosphere. I felt right at home because growing up working for a small family business, everyone had to pitch in to do a little bit of everything.” He remembers borrowing his parents’ minivan to pick up products in Massachusetts. “The energy is there, when you’re thinking, this could be huge.” The cake company didn’t make it, but he learned a lot. In 2002 he moved to Ireland and bartended and waited tables in Galway. And he developed a whole new perspective on life.

CULTURE SHOCK: How so? “It was the first time I had experienced life in a human-sized, walkable city without a car.” Being part of a culture where people walked everywhere, including yes, to the pubs on those long, late summer nights, made him want the same back home. “Coming back to the States was incredibly difficult.” It was, he said, “like reverse culture shock.” He realized that what he was missing was “the sense of place that you got when you were in these little towns in Ireland, and all over Great Britain, where every place just felt unique and different.” On his return to Rhode Island he worked in community development and became passionate about urban planning and renewable energy. “I became really interested in this idea that you could make money while helping the environment.” California, in the midst of a solar boom, was particularly alluring. “I thought, what an elegant solution.” He sold everything that wouldn’t fit in his Honda Civic and planned to move across country to work in the California’s solar industry.

A SLIGHT DETOUR: But first he headed north to visit friends in Portland, whom he had met in Galway. “I was just going to get some job for the summer. I didn’t care what it was.” Portland’s Buy Local movement was just getting started. “I was totally wooed by the supportive atmosphere and the attitude of Yankee ingenuity.” He interviewed for a contract position – just four months – with a new publication catering to consumers looking for eco-friendly products and services, as well as good deals. His new boss was Heather Chandler, and he was the Sunrise Guide’s first employee.

SUNRISE SUNSET: Walsh’s job was to sell ads for the coupon and discount book, a publication with high ideals but that did not yet exist. He made cold calls, and he walked around with a copy of the Northwest guide that Chandler was modeling Sunrise on, and an ad rate sheet. “I was so unprepared for how difficult that was going to be.” He’d done cold calls before, but in this case, the product was such an unknown. Selling a $200 ad on those terms meant he had to be really persuasive. “That is a big ask.” Selling ads for the second book was easier. And it was then that he had the idea for Green Clean Maine. He’d found a card for a green cleaning service, but when he called the owner to pitch him on being in the Sunrise Guide, he got a surprising answer. “They were like, ‘Oh my God, are you kidding? I would never advertise. There is no way I could take any more clients; I’m already so busy.’ ” He got off the phone and told Chandler. She pointed out that this would be a good business opportunity. He started working on a business plan. (You can see why Chandler won Source’s Pollinator award this year.)

A MOP AND A PLAN: He applied for (and won) a $5,000 business grant from the Libra Foundation and went into business. This might have seemed like a big leap, but as he noted, Walsh is a startup kind of guy. And he loved to clean – although he would like to emphasize that his mother wouldn’t agree. “She’d say, ‘You had a funny way of showing it then.’ ” His room when he was growing up was definitely not pristine. “The way it manifested itself was in my cars. I was like a 16-year-old kid in love with my car. And I just loved that satisfaction of getting everything just so.” He even remembers the date of his first cleaning job: October 2, 2007. “A friend of mine hired me to clean her condo. It was just me. I had a vacuum, a mop and a plan.”

SHELF LIFE: Walsh bought products that were Green Seal-certified, the only third-party certification for commercial cleaning products, but soon eased into making his own products. As he experimented, he realized he could make products for less than the cost of buying commercial ones, and he was convinced his products worked better. “I ended up pivoting to all handmade products.” By the end of this year, Walsh hopes to be marketing his own products through the company’s website. But first he has to make them self stable. “We don’t use any emulsifiers to preserve the oils, so after two weeks, it actually goes bad.” Like, smelly bad? “It starts to not smell good,”

CHEMICAL FREE: Is he completely chemical free? “I wouldn’t say that chemicals are never necessary. I would say that they are not necessary 95 percent of the time.” Like, on moldy shower grout, Green Clean Maine staffers tend to get out a bleach pen. “To me that is acceptable because in all the other rooms in the house I have used absolutely no chemicals.”

TOOLS OF THE TRADE: What can’t he live without? 1. A good plant-based dish detergent, like a Seventh Generation or Planet Earth brand liquid detergent. 2. Baking soda. “It is amazing. It absorbs odors, is a great scouring agent, softens the water.” 3. Distilled white vinegar. But he would like everyone to know that while vinegar does have some antibacterial properties, it is a rinsing agent, not a cleaner.

OFFICE POLITICS: Walsh doesn’t clean anymore; he’s got a staff of about 30 and about 400 regular clients, from Freeport south to Biddeford and to the eastern shore of Sebago. His prices range from about $80 to $300, depending on the size of the house (and the depth of the dirt). “The average transaction price is $140,” he said. Timing-wise, 2007 was good time to get into this business, just when demand was growing for environmentally friendly services. He’s got competitors now, but there’s room in the marketplace. “I definitely think that we are appealing to a wider audience than we were 10 years ago. I don’t really have to sell the green thing.” People, he said, “kind of get it.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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