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Entrepreneur Who Couldn't Afford A Vacuum Cleaner And Spent The Last Of Her Savings On Fliers For Her Cleaning Business Now Boasts $4.5 Million Annual Turnover

Entrepreneur Who Couldn't Afford A Vacuum Cleaner And Spent The Last Of Her Savings On Fliers For Her Cleaning Business Now Boasts $4.5 Million Annual Turnover
Rachael Flanagan outside her headquarters (PA Real Life/Amy Reed at Flashbulb Photography)

This successful entrepreneur could not afford a vacuum cleaner and spent her last $25 on flyers to launch her cleaning firm. Now, she boasts a $4.5 million annual turnover – forecast to rise to $10 million in the coming years.

Rachael Flanagan was 18 when she started Mrs Bucket after being told she had no aptitude for business. Just four years later, she won the Great British Entrepreneur Award's Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

“I didn't even have my own Hoover or mop and bucket, I had to use my customers', but I had a white t-shirt embroidered with 'Mrs Bucket' that I got at the market," Flanagan said.

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Rachael and some of her team (PA Real Life/Amy Reed at Flashbulb Photography)
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“I used my last £20 to print out 5,000 flyers and started leafleting the area. Over the summer holidays I had a car full of my friends. We'd go around all the estates leaving flyers, then put them under the windscreen wipers of cars at the school," she continued.

“I built up my business from there and by 21 I had 18 staff working for me. All my mates were at uni drinking, and with loads of debt, but I was working ridiculous hours for this bigger dream – on my own mission."

Rachael Flanagan (PA Real Life/Amy Reed at Flashbulb Photography)

People told Flanagan she was “just a girl from Wales who could not run a business," but that fueled her ambition to prove them wrong.

Now Mrs Bucket has a turnover of $4.5 million and employs 250 people across Wales and Bristol – with plans to more than double this in the next five years.

Flanagan used to help her dad Steve Flanagan out at his catering company when she was 15, working as a silver service waitress. But she first put her entrepreneurial skills to the test when she was just 11.

“When I was about 11-years-old my dad brought an old till home from one of his canteens and I transformed his office into a sweet shop, selling sweets to my friends," she said.

“He would take me to the cash and carry and I'd borrow the cash for stock from him then, when I'd made some money, I'd pay him back."

Rachael Flanagan (PA Real Life/Amy Reed at Flashbulb Photography)

Going to college when she was 17 she began cleaning the family home help her mom. And, earning some extra pocket money in the process.

“I loved cleaning, I found it really therapeutic and it would take my mind off other things," she said. “I like seeing a visual result at the end."

“My mom would come home and the lounge would be sparkling clean. I researched how to make the beds like they did in the hotels, too, as I wanted to put my own stamp on everything."

Studying business studies, media, art and IT, she started to wonder if she really wanted to go to university like her friends.

“I just kept thinking, 'I want to do cleaning,'" she said. “Then when I had my business studies exam, we had to come up with a business plan and I just spent two hours writing about the cleaning business."

Rachael Flanagan (PA Real Life/Amy Reed at Flashbulb Photography)

“On results day I remember tearing that piece of paper open and thinking, 'I've really not done well.' Then, when I saw a 'U' for ungraded, I thought, 'Stuff it,'" Flanagan continued.

“I think that's where my drive came from. I had this fire in my belly and failing did not put me off. The adrenaline just kept me going. Every person I spoke to was like, 'Are you really going to do that? Why do you want to do cleaning?' They were quite down on me."

And all of this without her degree.

“I didn't tell my mum for three years that I'd failed that A level. To this day, I've never even gone to pick up my A level certificates, because they didn't mean anything to me," she said.

Jean Evans, a friend of her mom's, also encouraged Rachael to keep pursuing her dream.

“She told me to make my service unique and to stand out. She came up with the name Mrs Bucket, pronounced Bouquet, like Hyacinth Bouquet in the TV show Keeping up Appearances," Flanagan said.

Rachael Flanagan (PA Real Life/Amy Reed at Flashbulb Photography)

From the outset, Flanagan's business attracted praise and started to grow rapidly, so, after a few months, she had her first employee – a woman who had worked in one of her dad's canteens.

She kept her own books and worked 60 hours a week cleaning.

“I also had a little workshop to do the books from, although I couldn't afford to put money in the meter for electricity," she said.

Rachael Flanagan (PA Real Life/Amy Reed at Flashbulb Photography)

“And every time I took someone on, I shadowed them for a couple of weeks to make sure they were up to standard," she continued.

“I'm fussy and have high standards. I'd look for the little things like whether they cleaned in the corners, their attention to detail and whether or not they cared about what they were doing."

Flanagan then joined the Federation of Small Businesses network, where she got her first mentor, who helped her to devise business and marketing strategies.

He also put her forward for the UK Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.

“When nominated, I had to be interviewed and I remember one of the judges coming in her black Mercedes to my tiny workshop with no heating in it. I was really nervous, but then I thought, 'Stuff it, I just need to be myself,'" she said.

“For the event, my whole family came to London. I was on the table furthest away from the front, so thought I stood no chance of winning."

Rachael Flanagan (PA Real Life/Amy Reed at Flashbulb Photography)

“I'd actually gone to the bathroom and was chatting to the housekeeper when my mom came flying in and said, 'You've won!' I walked through these velvet curtains and 200 people stood up and applauded. It was like walking on water," she recalled.

“It was a real big moment for me because it boosted my self-belief. I knew I was doing the right thing. Before, I think I'd been holding back, thinking I wasn't old enough or experienced enough."

With her confidence boosted, Flanagan knew she had to give up cleaning herself and learn more about strategy to help grow the business. As she began to network, she met Nigel Botterill, one of the UK's most successful entrepreneurs who set up the Entrepreneurs Circle to support other business owners.

“He gave me a lot of encouragement and connected me with other business owners, who would ask me if I had thought of doing commercial cleaning," she said. “We won our first commercial cleaning contract in 2010, when I was 23."

Rachael Flanagan (PA Real Life/Amy Reed at Flashbulb Photography)

“Turnover at this point was £500,000 a year, then I was at a business event and they asked people to stand up and say what their goals were. I stood up in front of 500 people and said, 'This year I will double the turnover of my business,'" she added.

“After saying it out loud I had to make it happen. Lots of people had said to me before this point, 'You're just a Welsh girl, you'll never do it.' But I wanted to prove I could. There were some hiccups at the beginning."

"At one point I nearly went bankrupt because we had cash flow issues. I had to find £16,000 in a day to pay wages. I just cried on the end of the bed thinking, 'What am I going to do?' In the end, I borrowed it from my family. But I wasn't chasing up payments and it was a lesson I had to learn for myself about managing cash flow."

Winning more and more commercial contracts, the business grew and grew and, the following year, when she was 24, its turnover was a million pounds.

In 2018, Flanagan sold the domestic side of her business for an undisclosed sum, turning the firm into an entirely commercial cleaning company.

“Because of the hiccups in the early days, I made sure we had proper systems in place to manage cash flow," she said. “The Welsh government provided financial support for bespoke software development.

“Now, we keep growing as we make sure we are providing a professional service. We used that software to create systems to make sure everything runs smoothly and if there are any problems, we can swiftly act so the customer doesn't notice."

Her business is continuously on the rise.

“We have 250 employees and will be expanding to five or six hundred. We're across the whole of Wales and have just set up in Bristol. We're looking to get into the education market, too, and see where that goes."

Keen to also give something back, Flanagan runs a network called Business and Bites to help young entrepreneurs and start-ups.

Since becoming a mom alongside running her business, she has become an expert in time management.

“I'm really organized. I'm a planner and schedule everything so I still manage to go to the gym three times a week and do a circuit class," she said. “With children you really have to be in the moment with them, so you can't do work stuff at that time."

Everything about this experience was unexpected for her.

“When I was starting out with my flyers, I didn't expect my business to get this big," she continued.

“I've had some amazing opportunities – attending the NATO summit in Newport, South Wales, in 2014 with world leaders like Barack Obama, which was a hell of an experience, and I've visited Downing Street twice, meeting former Prime Minister David Cameron at a St David's Day reception to recognize Welsh businesses."

And she continues to be an inspiration to many.

“I'm always so busy looking for more ways to grow, but I probably need to stop, look around and think, 'Yes, I've done a good job'."