Soren Samuelsson

Sorbo History
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.

Squeegee Invention
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.

AWC: Since our publication, what has been the curve of your business?

SAMUELSSON: Ah, that boosted it up tremendously. Without this magazine, it would probably take me a couple years before getting to where I am right now. Even more. I’m not that professional when it comes to figuring these things out, but I know for sure it would be a couple of years. Because it gets me out all over now. I get into the market that I want the right way.

AWC: What advice would you give someone with a good invention: manufacture it yourself or getting a big manufacturer to develop it?

SAMUELSSON: Do it yourself. That way is best for me. I never took a chance that someone would steal an idea away from me. And because of the window cleaning business, I could afford to do this. When Winifred and I met, we had just $10. We couldn’t even take a picture when we got married. Where we are right now is all from the window cleaning.

I always tried to be the best I can be in anything I have done. I’ve always been that way. I tried to do a perfect job. That’s how I got, I believe, one of the best customers in the desert, because I am a perfectionist. So I got a solid, good business here.

I find that during the year, I raised my prices a lot. When I started out, I had to go lower to get the jobs. People expect that from you when you’re young, that you should do it cheaper. And other guys did it before.

Then after that, when you build up enough customers, you can afford to lose a few and still be able to pay your payments for rent, house, and whatever you’ve got. We had a family so I couldn’t take too big chances, but I worked it up so I had enough income so we could live all year around without having another job.

Then I started to raise my prices. And, of course, I lost a few customers. But they wouldn’t have been around now, anyway, because they would’t pay for the job. There were some new customers after that. And then it was time to raise the prices again. Then I lost a few again. Actually, I got rid of all the customers I had in the beginning, most of them. I’ve got new people, completely.

I haven’t actually been working myself for many years. When we started to use the 36" squeegee, we notices we could do another house a day on a crew of two people — $50 house a day more. So that’s around $25 easy on each person a day. That really proved to me that the product helped.

AWC: What are some of the things that you worry about in the business field?

SAMUELSSON: I’m always worried. I’m always worried if I will fit in. Whatever I do, wherever I am I always worry if I’m good enough. I think that’s why I’m so good as I am at this thing that I’m doing because I want to be the best. I think if I can make people happy around me, then I feel I did something good, you know, then I feel good too.

Squeegee Creator
AWC: As a child, were you tinkerer?

SAMUELSSON: I always did that because we were not a very wealthy family. My dad was working on the railroad and he was the type of person that, when you start in a place you stick with it until you die. You never change job. That’s the way I grew up. I had that thinking as I grew up. A little bit older, I started thinking on my own.

When I was a kid I never got the things other kids had and I felt very bad about that. I had ten brothers! Other guys got shotguns, playing cowboys when you’re a kid, you know, and we never got that. So what I did was to go in the hot house where we had wood and made my own things. I made a shotgun myself and I played with that.

The only thing I got when I grew up was a bicycle. I still got it. It’s still home in Sweden. I use it when I go over there. That way, it helped me to be handy because I had to make things myself. I had to figure out the way to make these things so it looks like the other kids’.

AWC: Did you go to college?

SAMUELSSON: No, I just had high school. I went to car mechanic school and welding school in Sweden.

AWC: How is your window cleaning customer relations?

SORBO: Informal. I never signed a contract with anybody. It’s just by handshake. Come every month, and go every month. What I always did was be there on time. I’ve never been late for a customer without calling them. And that might have happened ten times in all these years. I’m very tight when I schedule customers, because I know how long it takes me and the people working for me to do a house. We never had a lunch break in ten years in my company. We work from 8 a.m. to 4:30, 5, or 6 p.m. and we never had a break. We eat when we drive the car between houses. You have ten minutes to eat between every house.

I got used to this when I started working alone. I noticed that if I took a lunch break, I would have to cut the time for a house in half someplace. I didn’t want to do that. One reason was that I didn’t want the customer to have me in the house for too long, because they want the guy who comes to go in and out fast and have it done perfectly. So I never had a break myself. This includes all the many years I worked myself, alone.

It was my worker’s choice. I asked them if they want a lunch break and they don’t want one. They got used to it, too. they get tired all day and get more done, and get to go home sometimes a little earlier.

AWC: How did you develop the "Quadropod"?

SAMUELSSON: The "Quadropod" was very easy. I had problems with my back for a year and a half - a pinched nerve in my lower back. I started to figure out how many times you bend over when you do this work in a day, and I figured it’s about 300 times or more. That’s a lot. So I had to design a device where you don’t have to bend, so other people don’t get the same problem.

It’s a terrible problem. You can’t sleep when you have this problem. I’ve been sleeping on plywood now for the last year. All I got in between is a sleeping bag, so it’s hard. That’s how I sleep now. I slept on the floor last night because I can’t sleep in bed.

So one day I worked on a house on the outside, I saw one of those flower stands made of just steel wire that big, 1/8". Just a round ring with four legs on it. And the things fit in my buckets. I put my bucket on the top of that thing. I said, "Look at this - this looks pretty good." But it was very wobbly.

I took the idea home and I developed it into a three-leg thing where you lift it up and can walk in-between furniture without getting it stuck. You can pass any type of furnishing.

History of the Squeegee
AWC: What changes have happened lately?

SAMUELSSON: What we’ve been up to is adding wheels to the "Quadropod" since people were requesting us to do that. In the past year we have been able to reduce our squeegee and "Docket" price 20%, making contacts by going to trade shows including the BSCAI’s in New Orleans and the window cleaning show in Lubbock, Texas. We’ve been getting phone calls from all over the country from window cleaners who have said they have saved 25% in time using the big squeegees.

We’ve developed new clips to put on the side of the "Quadropod" - we call them "work-stations" now. You can keep everything on the "Quadropod" that you need when you clean windows, including an air pump to blow out debris inside of the tracks (window or door) before you wet the windows.

And we’re coming out with a more economical version of the "Sorbo 3 x 4 Squeegee". It’ll be without the black color - just have the natural color of aluminum. The retail price for an 18" channel, for example, would be around $5.50 - $6, which is a dramatic reduction in price.

AWC: Well, that is important news. In that bracket, you certainly will become more competitive. To conclude, what keeps you going?

SAMUELSSON: The window cleaning business is such a beautiful profession. Everyone who is a window cleaner knows how free you are when you clean windows. What I want to see is the window cleaner making more money without having to work hard. That’s why I’m trying to develop products - to make it less work.

AWC: Thanks so much, Soren, for the interview and for all you are doing to help the profession.
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