It can be a dirty job, but someone has to do it. It also can be a laborious and sweaty task, as was apparent as Sean Little worked recently to put a shine on a late-model Porsche and clean its black interior.
The kicker was that Little, 39, was performing his job at the intersection of Veterans Parkway and Whitesville Road -- in the parking lot of a Columbus business.
That's the typical work environment for the California native who has detailed vehicles nearly two decades, including a stint in Las Vegas. In 2005, the Columbus resident launched Total Mobile Detail, which specializes in washing, waxing, vacuuming and generally getting cars and trucks spic-and-span at a place of business or at someone's residence. Little estimates he does between 40 and 50 vehicles a week, with the price tag ranging from $20 for an interior car cleaning up to $225 for a "super complete detail" of an SUV. Boats and RVs also are part of the mix on occasion. A large number of the cars he works on are black.
"They look the best when they're clean," he said
The Ledger-Enquirer visited Little on the job recently as he laid out a mat to catch water in the parking lot, used a generator and water tank to wash off the Porsche, and finished it off by cleaning the windows inside and out.
He discussed his work, the life of a mobile businessman, and some unique experiences he has had through the years. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
So you are a one-man show?
I've trained so many in the past. It's so hard for people to stick with it. Or they'll do it for a month and think, hey, they want to go out and start their own business, and fail within a month. You've got to know what you're doing. Ninety percent of my business is referral.
I see you sweating. People need to realize it's not easy?
It's hot out here.
Can you time your jobs during cooler parts of the day?
To be honest with you, I work all day long. I typically stay booked up three or four days in advance.
How did you decide to do this?
I've been doing this since I was about 20 years old. I started out in Las Vegas (working for someone). I had a good time out there and eventually I moved down to California. Most of my family's from California. I visited my Dad out here a few times. He lives out in Seale (Ala.). He has a farm with horses. It's just so much more laid back here. Your money goes so much further. Traffic is so much easier.
How did you decide mobile was the way to go?
When I first moved here to town, this was kind of a new thing. Back in '05 there was one or two other companies. One just quickly faded out. Another was a good competitor of mine, and he passed away. But I've just been doing it ever since.
What's the biggest challenge of your job?
Time management. Balancing stuff out. I'm kind of a one-man show answering the phone. I do it all. I really don't get a whole lot of rest. I've got the bluetooth going. A lot of times people think, hey, I'm talking to myself. I'm really not, I'm on the phone.
Juggling everything is the key?
And trying to stay true to a promised timeframe of getting to your customers. That's what's important. That's where the value's at ... You heard me on the phone. I was telling that potential client I typically stay booked up three or four days in advance. It's pretty hard to do same-day kind of stuff. Sometimes I can do emergency stuff, like (interiors) shampoos and that kind of thing on carpet.
An emergency would be somebody spilling something in the vehicle?
More like vomit. I do a couple of the little day-care buses, and incidents happen.
Where does your commercial work come from?
At some of the larger businesses here in town, like at various hospitals.
Do you cluster those appointments together?
I do when I can. But as I said, when you stay booked up days in advance, it's kind of tough. Sometimes a customer will work with me and call ahead and say, hey, I've got X amount of cars and let's book a day, which works out great.
What's the percentage of work for you, individuals versus business?
80-20, individuals. Some customers have second houses on the lake and I do boats and that kind of stuff. I go pretty much all over the place.
Do you prefer houses where there might be more shade?
It's not necessarily always the case. But it's usually quieter.
Did I see online where you worked on a fire truck and a Golden Flake delivery truck?
The Golden Flake truck, to be honest with you, was a guy I ran into at a gas station one morning and he said, hey, this is what I've got. He had it parked right there and was unloading chips and asked me what I would charge. I gave him a card and two weeks later he gave me a call.
The fire truck?
That was an interesting thing. I was contracted by a local home restoration company. The fire station had had a fire in it. They have several fire trucks and one had some stuff in the back that had ignited. It was a volunteer department so they didn't have somebody there. It kind of torched the whole inside. There was lots of real thick stuff (soot). They needed somebody to clean up the trucks. Those trucks are expensive, with all of the stainless steel on them. ... It was an all day, everyday event for about a month (minus weekends).
Is that the most unusual thing you've done?
I've washed a train before in Las Vegas. It was Union Pacific Railroad. I believe it was eight passenger cars, and each one was 80 or 90 feet long. We had a whole crew out there. I was working for somebody at the time.
That's common in Vegas?
No. Where else can you get them cleaned, though? Who are you going to call? This was in the desert, where stuff just sitting out in the middle of nowhere gets dirty.
Have you done a plane at all?
I've done several planes. Some of the larger turbo-props, but mostly smaller Cessnas. I have done one here in Columbus and a couple in Las Vegas.
How long does it take to do a plane?
It was me and an employee. I want to say we did 40 hours on it. It was an eight-passenger turbo-prop.
Is a plane job just like doing a bigger vehicle, or is there special care?
They more or less clean up the same way. They do have their special products for the glass and there are some special sealants you can use on them.
What's the worst condition you've seen a car or truck in and been asked to clean?
It was an interior detail -- it was years ago and I was just getting started -- on an Expedition that had just come out and a lady had given birth in it.
What did you do for that, shampoo?
It was, uh, shampoo, repeat, rinse, lather, repeat.
Do you come across vehicles people seemingly have never washed?
It happens. And they'll always say this is probably the dirtiest one you've ever seen. My go-to response is I've seen worse. And I probably have.
Do you wash a lot of engine compartments?
I do. You like to keep your engine clean in case you were to have leaks; you would know where they're coming from ... I've gotten calls from customers who had a leak, they took their car to the mechanic, who opened up the hood and couldn't tell what was going on because everything was literally covered in oil and grease, and they wouldn't clean it. So the customer called us up and we took care of it.
What's the worst mistake people make washing or cleaning their own cars?
They don't understand what the products do; they don't understand how to use them effectively. Start with the right soap, a basic thing. Dish soap is by far the worst thing you can do. It's designed to strip grease off your plates. It's a de-greaser and it will strip wax from vehicles. ... And you've really got to be able to understand the difference between a polish and a wax.
What is the difference?
Think of your grandma polishing her silverware. She can wash them or whatever and they look better. But they're still kind of grungy. A polish will polish the grunge off of something. That (white) car you saw drive by (with streaks of dark mildew), that would be a great candidate. A wax is literally something protective. A wax is not going to restore anything.
How often do you recommend folks clean their vehicles?
I would try and recommend at least weekly washing and vacuuming. On the waxing end, if you park your car in a garage and use a quality wax, it should last you at least six months. Paint sealant or something like that could last over a year.
Waxing can be easily overlooked, I presume?
Most people don't think about it until they're trying to restore it. Doing it on a regular basis is always best.
Do you get into restoration?
I've gone so far as wet sanding complete cars, and rubbing orange peel (paint imperfections) out of cars, and then doing a seven-stage high-speed buffing down to the wax and sealants ... It was a local car, and if you were to pull up to it at an intersection, you would know. The paint looks like a mirror.
You started prior to the recession. Did you feel the downturn at all?
I've had sales growth every year since the beginning. It was kind of a new thing in the beginning (2005), and it's starting to catch on now. We get a lot of business from military that are from out of state, who might be more familiar with our kind of service and are more inclined to call. I get a lot of those ... You've also got to go after customers. The outbreak of social media has made it a little easier for us, an easier way of communicating and getting the word out to potential clients and customers.
Is this a cool job?
People seem to think so. I won't name names, but I've met some A-list entertainers, I've met some A-list athletes, self-made millionaires, entrepreneurs (in Vegas and California).
To be honest with you, you kind of learn a little bit from anybody and everybody that you meet, whether it's somebody who owns a casino or the secretary down the road.
What's a good piece of advice for operating a mobile business?
Learn what you're doing. I've encountered people who don't know what they're doing, and they've angered a client or a customer of theirs. They'll call somebody else out to try and fix whatever they've done. A lot of times it's not fixable and they've kind of given the industry a bad rap.
What's the most exotic vehicle you've worked on?
I've done everything from Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Rolls-Royces. On one driveway there was a Lamborghini Diablo VT Roadster - the top comes off -- a Ferrari F355 and a Mercedes SL600 V12, which looks pretty weak compared to the others. But that's still like a $150,000 car. And the gardeners across the street were watching us. We popped the doors on the Lamborghini, and they were like: Is it cool if we come check those out? I had to tell them I can't have you on the driveway.
Finally, is it hard being a one-man business?
It is. I'm a tired guy. (laughs) ... An example, I worked 6 a.m. 'til just about 8 p.m. the other night, about a 14-hour day ... Sometimes I just get booked up and that's the way it is.
Name: Sean Little
Hometown: Born in Salinas Calif., but grew up in Laguna Hills, Calif.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1994 graduate of Laguna Hills High School
Previous jobs: Swimming pool construction (rebar, plumbing and excavating); also delivered pizzas at night for a year while he was waiting for Total Mobile Detail to take off
Family: Wife, Emily, a physician assistant with a local doctor; his retired father, Wendell Little, who lives in Seale Ala.; his mother, Linda Bykowski, and stepdad, Ron Bykowski, both retired and living in Carlsbad, Calif.; his parent-in-laws, Larry Ferguson, and Paulette Bragg and stepfather, Michael Bragg Leisure time: Enjoys surfing, golfing, hanging out at the beach; and also is a huge San Diego Chargers fan. "Go Bolts!," he says
Of note: Enjoys involvement with charities, including those associated with Alzheimer's disease. He has had multiple grandparents diagnosed with the disease.