Laura Spaulding’s days are often full – literally – of blood, gore, mold and mice.
She’s the founder of Tampa-based franchise Spaulding Decon, which offers what one might call extreme cleaning services: professional sanitation of grisly crime scenes, former drug kitchens, hoarders’ dens and more. And over the years, she and her teams of biohazard technicians have seen it all – from the remnants of a gruesome murder-suicide that left remains scattered in several rooms of one home, to the aftermath of a Christmas Day double homicide in another.
But no matter what the job may be – or how stomach-churning – the Spaulding Decon teams show up in heavy protective suits, gloves and goggles to try and make devastated places look and feel like new.
It’s not work for the faint of heart. Spaulding, a former cop, first came up with the idea following a fraught conversation with a murder victim’s mother. The bereft parent asked Spaulding how she should handle the chaos – and the blood – left behind in her child’s home after the investigation concluded. Spaulding didn’t have an answer – distressed, she created one herself.
Almost 20 years on, Spaulding Decon is going strong. Though she declined to disclose specific revenue figures or employee counts, citing ongoing talks with investors, she did share that annual earnings are in the millions of dollars, and that she has opened dozens of franchise locations all over America. She and her business have been written about by The Wall Street Journal, Inc. magazine, Business Insider and more.
But those ongoing VC pitches and bank meetings are what truly get Spaulding – who has personally dealt with human remains so deteriorated they resembled “a puddle of soup” – worked up. And with good reason. The only loan she’s been able to secure to date – for $3 million in 2020 – came with a major caveat, she says: put up $12 million in assets, or no deal.
Her past efforts to win cash infusions went even worse – leading Spaulding to conclude that sexism is largely to blame. In her business’ early days, she reports being stonewalled by lenders and investors alike, who then easily approved a white male friend’s application. When she wanted to become a franchise later on, “one bank … sent four old, white men to my office three times to grill me on our business practices … before ultimately denying the loan,” she says. The others didn’t even make that effort.
And while she’s gotten some interest from VCs, “what they want is over 51% equity,” she says, which is a non-starter. “I built this myself, and you come in with a check to take it over?”
She’s far from alone in her struggles. Research shows that women receive, on average, 2% of all VC funding given out annually – with the amount slightly decreasing from year to year. They’re not faring much better at the banks. As of 2020, loans for women entrepreneurs were about 33% smaller than loans given to male business owners.
Making it Work
Spaulding was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but moved often due to her father’s work, living everywhere from Bolivia to Tampa. Her family encouraged her to follow a more traditional path – and initially, she did heed their advice.
After graduating from the University of Tennessee in 1997 with a criminal justice degree, she joined the Kansas City Police Department. Spaulding stayed there for 7 years – and was miserable for three of them, after getting transferred to a department she referred to as “a slow, boring boys’ club.”
She earned her MBA from Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, at night as part of an exit strategy. Not long after finishing the program, she had the fateful conversation that led to starting up Spaulding Decon. When she first launched in 2005, “it was bare bones [without startup funding on hand]. I was printing out my own business cards – those crappy, perforated ones,” Spaulding recalls.
For 3 years, she poured any profits earned right back into the fledgling business and worked in medical sales by day to pay her bills. Then, the 2008 recession hit. For most entrepreneurs, this would be the “struggle” portion of the story – for Spaulding, it’s when her company truly took off. “I was getting all the banks contacting us to handle homes in foreclosure” she says. “Our sales doubled, [and] we just kind of kept up momentum” after that.
The company began franchising in 2016, and now has locations in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania and numerous other states in between – no thanks to the VCs or banks she’s reached out to for assistance, of course.
There have been other challenges as well – the company’s high turnover rate, for example. The average technician lasts between 6 to 12 months on the job, Spaulding says. “There’s a mental component” to employee burnout, especially when dealing with grieving families or complicated hoarder situations on a regular basis. But “it’s more about the physical work,” due to both the exertion of the deep cleaning itself, and the weighty, oppressively hot gear that’s required to keep workers safe from all they’re exposed to.
She knows the toll it takes firsthand. At age 48, she still does jobs herself, but admits that “I’m a lot slower.”
Slower, maybe – but certainly not stopping. That $3 million loan she got is being used to build new headquarters that will house a call center, work she outsources currently. She also wants to open more franchises in the U.S., and expand into Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. “But we’re bootstrapping everything, so we have to [grow] strategically,” she adds.
While it’s a constant hustle, Spaulding is motivated, in part, by the very tangible, visible results of each completed job. “I like to see change and progress, and I get to do that with every single client we have,” she says.
But the biggest draw, Spaulding says, is owning a company that helps people move past “the worst events of their lives.” It’s enough to make each harrowing assignment feel “so rewarding.”