He’s Changing the Way We Clean Windows
Soren Samuelsson is the founder of Sorbo Products. He has developed four products that are unique and are helping to revolutionize the window cleaning industry. A few years ago, if someone had told me that there was going to be a 48" squeegee developed, I would have expected to see it as part of a circus act, not a tool which could actually be used professionally. Likewise, his determination to make it possible to reuse rubber - that is, to shave off strips of rubber, to create a new sharp edge, rather than simply tossing it out, is nothing less than revolutionary. Soren is friendly and personable, and on his way to becoming part of the American Dream.This interview covers how Soren got started and where he is headed.
AWC: How did you originally get into window cleaning?
SAMUELSSON: It was luck. I came over from Sweden in 1971 just to visit a friend of mine over in Palm Springs, California. And I was supposed to stay there for eight months. I had enough money to actually live there without working for those eight months. At that time, of course, at 24 years old, you spend a little more than you think. So I asked my friend’s father if he knew anybody who would be able to hire me, because I didn’t have any papers or anything at that time. And he knew a window cleaner who had just fired a person.
So we called him up and asked him and he said, "Yeah, come on over, I’ll teach you how to do it." And he did and I worked for him for three years. The reason I quit was because the customers he had (he had been cleaning windows for 15 years at that time — as long as I’ve been cleaning windows now) kept telling me, "You do a lot better job than your foreman." Also, my bookkeeper noticed how much I earned and I paid him 30% of my earnings because he sent me out by myself at the end of those three years.
AWC: What got you inventing products?
SAMUELSSON: That was when I started out on my own. I always tried to make the job more time-efficient. Of course, number one was to do a good job for the customer. After a while, I noticed I could make a lot of money cleaning windows, but then came to a certain ceiling when I couldn’t make any more.
I could make, at that time $160 to $180 a day by myself. I worked alone and hard. I ran instead of walked between windows. During those years, I always tried to figure out a way to save time that other people didn’t even think about. When I had a pole, I moved it around with me to every window so I didn’t have to go back two windows to get some tools I had left there. When I was done with something, I just moved one way.
Same thing inside the house. I followed the wall. You never miss a window if you follow the wall around in every room, and you do everything - you vacuum clean all the tracks first (of sliding windows and doors) and then you go back and go the same direction.
But then I got a complex where they had louvered windows. And that was about 350 apartments. Nobody wanted those units. The guy I worked for before said I could have them because he didn’t want them because they had five louvers in each kitchen. They were maybe three feet high. Every time I did them, I thought there had to be an easier way to do this. All of a sudden the idea came up to just take an Ettore squeegee, flatten it in the middle, and bend it like a tong. I adjusted it to the right angle so it gets the same pressure all across. I did it and it worked. I used that for years, because at that time I couldn’t afford to make a more refined version.
AWC: For a while you were working as a technician, weren’t you?
SAMUELSSON: Yeah, I was more like an installer. I installed machines from Germany for a steel factory, and things like that. I worked for a company in southern Sweden where the office was, but we were traveling all over the whole country. We went to one factory and installed a few machines and then we went to another place. We were probably two, three months in each place. I liked that job very much. That’s where I actually learned how to read blueprints and put things together. It was a very interesting job. I got a lot of experience from there. And of course when I went to school I learned how to read blueprints, too, before that.
AWC: Tell me the process of inventing from the beginning stages.
SAMUELSSON: You have to first think about competition - if they can make a tool cheaper and better than you can do yourself. You have to think about the Japanese - if there’s any way they could do the same job and can make it cheaper than you could do here, and market the product faster than anyone else; These are the things you have to work over before you even start to make your decision to manufacture a product.
What you do is make prototypes, you try them, and then you make blueprints. I’ve been lucky enough to make all my own blueprints, and I’ve probably made three, four or five blueprints for each part I design, because you have to reshape them and try them and put it together and take it apart and redo it, go over it many, many times to work the bugs out. When you get to the point where it is a product you think will work, you try it and work with it for a week or so in the field, and you never seem to get all the bugs out. There’s always something.
We have our own employees testing the products, like my wife, and the guys in our window cleaning company for a long, long time.They had been using the squeegee for a year, year and a half, before we even introduced it to the public. Then, when we introduced that channel up at your window cleaner seminar in San Jose, that’s when really the word came out that there was a new product around. That’s when Mark Heckler tried it, when you saw it in the show up there. So he called me up and said that he’d tried that squeegee and was interested. He tried one and then he bought all the products.
AWC: What inspired you to bother to make an invention that trims the rubber? Were you thinking of trying to create less waste?
SAMUELSSON: One day when I was cleaning windows up in the Thunderbird Heights, the idea just came up, "Why do you have to throw so much rubber away? It’s a waste of material." I said, "God, what a great idea!" I thought about other things, too, but this was something special. So I started to work with that idea first, because I thought it was special. I told my wife and I told this other guy that was working with me, and later I got a little afraid I shouldn’t have told him.
AWC: Tell us briefly about how you formulate your rubber?
SAMUELSSON: Yeah, that was as much luck, really, as anything. The thing that made it was that I didn’t give up. And the guys who where making the rubber for me, they were mad at me all the time. They don’t like me at all. they feel even sorrier that they made a mold for me. They wish someone else made that mold.
I’ve been making, at least five different mixes of rubber. You’ve got around 30,160 different mixes. You mix with natural rubber. You can never find out what will work. They can never find out because there’s so many different mixes you can mix in it. I was just lucky. Of course, I deal a lot with the chemists they’ve got, told them what I wanted. And I don’t know anything about what the chemist mixes in his rubber.
I told him this is what I want. So when we made the first try, it didn’t come out good at all, and I didn’t like it. The second, the fourth - and this took more than a year. We tried and tried and all of a sudden I said this is what I want. This is great. It’s nothing like Ettore’s at all. It’s different, but it’s good. It works with my squeegee very well. And then, of course, I tried different stages. I had rubber left from each stage so I knew the difference; I could feel it. I told the chemist to make two different types to see what people liked. That’s why I ended up with two different hardnesses.
AWC: You have your own cleaning business with 2-3 people working for you, you’re constantly manufacturing tools and assembling them. Could you describe a typical day?
SAMUELSSON: My days start the evening before I go to bed. What I do, I write on a paper, six or even seven things I have to do the next day. During the night I wake up a couple of times, and find more things I have to write down. Not every night, but many nights. So I have a pad, frequently right beside my bed. Last night I wrote up three or four things I was thinking about. So when I wake up I already know what to do that day - I just follow the list.
A typical day would be I get up at 5:45 a.m., and the first thing I do is go to the office and start to write out the schedule for the people who are going to work that day. Then I call Europe, if I need to, or call back east, or Sweden.
When I’ve got that done, I look at my schedule, and most of the time there’s something I have to go to the workshop to do. I do most of it and then, if I have time, I eat. I usually sit down and eat fast and sometimes not at all. I eat when I have time. That’s just about the day. I keep doing things all day.
Before 4:30 I call all the customers for window cleaning and make appointments and after that I continue with developing Sorbo Products again until about 10 p.m. Then I go to bed. Sometimes, I watch boxing. That’s the only thing I watch on TV. Every day is like that.