Five years in her role as CEO and co-founder of SweepSouth, Aisha Pandor tells Fast Company SA how the journey has been.
What is SweepSouth?
SweepSouth is an on-demand domestic cleaning service that brings technology to the domestic services industry and takes the hassle out of having to scramble to find a domestic cleaner. Operating in many ways like an Uber for domestic cleaners, SweepSouth connects people looking for a domestic cleaner with experienced cleaners who have signed up and been vetted by SweepSouth. In short, SweepSouth is South Africa’s most convenient way to get a home cleaning.
Tell me how you came up with the SweepSouth app?
One day during December holiday time, I was trying to find a stand-in domestic worker to help out around the house. As I’m sure many people can attest, this can be a very difficult process. This was when the seed of the idea that ultimately became SweepSouth took root. Essentially, the idea was to organise domestic work to meet the mutual needs of employers and domestic workers (many of whom are unemployed or underemployed) in this vital and under-appreciated sector of the economy.
Who are your typical clients?
The majority of our clients are your average South African home-owner. While the initial idea was to provide on-demand domestic workers, as in when you need them, we are seeing many clients requesting recurring bookings and using us on a very regular basis. This means that for some of our clients their SweepStars – what we call the domestic workers who use our app – are their primary domestic workers. Additionally, we have a number of businesses that make use of SweepSouth for office cleaning needs.
You left a career in academics to focus on SweepSouth; what did academia teach you that you use in your current position?
One of the biggest things I learnt in academia was how to learn quickly, well, and independently, and apply that knowledge in a number of different settings. As a researcher you use your knowledge to develop hypotheses, and use that research to test those hypotheses in a setting that in many ways is new (experimentation). This is exactly what you do when starting an innovative tech business. You come up with an idea which you try to flesh out with some early market research to support it, then execute on building and executing on that idea in an innovative setting. Then you keep experimenting and iterating as you go along, based on the feedback you’re getting from the market. So, there are many parallels. I also developed a strong work ethic as a researcher, spending birthdays, New Year’s Eve, and some nights sleeping in the laboratory and missing out on many important friends and family events. This really prepared me well for the 16 plus hour work days and seven day work weeks that come with entrepreneurship, especially in the early days.
What do you find most meaningful about your work?
When my husband and I started the company, it was because we were looking to answer a personal need. We were young professionals working 16- to 18-hour days and were frustrated with the idea of how difficult it was to find someone to help manage our household. Very early in the journey, however, we realised that SweepSouth needed to be about more than just helping people find someone to assist with home-cleaning. As we met more and more of the women on the platform, we started to understand not only the importance of creating job opportunities through the platform, but of doing so in a way that respects the dignity of workers in the domestic space and allows them to dictate their own schedules. With 70% of domestic workers being single mothers and more than 83% being the sole breadwinners at home, we’ve come to understand how vital this mission is. While we’ve faced challenges along the way, we’ve made massive strides over the years.
We’ve provided tens of thousands of work opportunities to thousands of women in the six cities we operate in, providing income for not just them, but their dependents as well. Perhaps more importantly, we’re also able to provide our SweepStars with forms of security they would not otherwise have had, or that would form part of their living costs. A great example of this is our partnership with Simply, which gives our SweepStars access to life insurance and funeral cover ‒ two things which are especially important to a family who is reliant on the income of a single member. So more than anything, it’s how SweepSouth impacts the lives of our SweepStars which I find most meaningful about my work. I’m also really proud to be a black woman tech CEO when there are few of us around, hopefully inspiring other young women to get into the tech space.
What advice would you give to someone asking about your journey?
Look towards help from mentors as early as possible. The entrepreneurship journey is incredibly hard, so build something you feel really passionate about and for which you should be prepared to put in extremely long hours. Work towards your strengths and surround yourself with people who complement your weaknesses.
What is the best career advice you have ever received and who gave it to you?
I don’t know if I can boil it down to a single piece of advice, but being a first time founder, it’s helped to read about management principles from those who’ve successfully done it before, like Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” and Andrew Grove’s “High Output Management”. Their honest accounts of how difficult it is to lead innovative companies, and their candid advice about how to succeed and what not to do, have proven invaluable.