It’s natural to face many challenges when journeying on a new path. The question is, how do we turn adversity to an advantage? In our first episode of 2022, Theodore Moore joins us to discuss the founding of Elohim Cleaning Contractors. He shares how he started the business with a few hundred dollars and some used office equipment he fished out of the garbage. Ted’s story emphasizes the power of hope and the value of helping others. Listen in as Ted discusses ways to navigate the trials one might face while setting out on their own path.
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How Adversity Became An Advantage With Ted Moore
I’m speaking with Ted Moore, the Founder of Elohim Cleaning Contractors. It is a business he started with a few hundred dollars and some used office equipment he fished out of the trash. For those of you who are familiar with the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program, you will recognize Ted is one of the featured entrepreneurs. For those of you who are not, you will want to tune in. Ted has an amazing story to tell.
Growing up in Brooklyn, raised by a single mom with ten siblings, Ted had a really rough start to life, yet his early childhood experiences shaped his mindset in a way that ultimately enabled him to create meaning and prosperity in his life. In this episode, we discuss the mindset and the strategies that enabled him to overcome the odds and ultimately become a successful entrepreneur. To me, this episode speaks to the power of hope as the belief that the future will be better than the present, coupled with the belief that I have the power to make it so. Without any further ado, I hope you enjoy my conversation with Ted Moore.
Ted, welcome to the show.
Thank you. I appreciate you inviting me.
We have known each other since 2009 or 2010.
It was somewhere around there or it could have even been earlier.
We were going across the country interviewing entrepreneurs for the Ice House Project. You were in Philadelphia. Somebody introduced me to you and we connected there. You became one of the featured case studies in the Ice House Program. What I would like to do in this interview, and I’m so excited to have this conversation, is to share your story with the world outside of the Ice House Program.
Tens of thousands of kids around the world have been impacted by your story already. I want to get this out to the whole world to know not only what it is you are doing but where you came from, how you did it, and why you did it. Let me ask you this. Can you tell us a little bit about where you came from? What was life like as a young kid?
Life was really hard as a young kid. I was born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn. I’ve got married at an early age. I had to leave before high school because of incidents. It was extremely rough, and I thought in my life that I would just have it rough the rest of my life.
Were you aware of that belief or did you only become aware of that belief? You assumed that the situation you were born into was the situation you were trapped in. Is that what you are saying?
At a young age, yes. Ironically, I remembered it but I could not have been any more than 3 or 4 years old. The first time my family got dispossessed was the first time that my family got evicted. I was standing there and truly believe that is why I’m blind in one eye because I remember the people pulling the curtains off the wall and windows. What then happened was we moved to a house. I remember somewhere around five years old my mother and father got into a fight. We are talking about a family of eleven. I assume that my brothers had seen my father hitting my mother enough that they decided to chase him away.
I was five years old and my brothers had to be somewhere around 15 or 16 defending their mother and chasing my father away. I remember pulling a monkey wrench to go help my brother defend themselves against my father. I have never seen my father again after that until I buried him. My mother was taking care of eleven kids by herself. Some of my brothers were older. One of my brothers got married. This was during the Vietnam War, so my other brother was drafted. I was left with one more brother who was mentally challenged.
My mother was going through these hard times with both of her other boys going down. One was married and one was drafted. Now, she had a mentally challenged son plus all of these seven girls. I watched my mother put my mentally challenged brother away in a place on Staten Island called Willowbrook because she couldn’t handle him. I couldn’t have been any more than 7 or 8 years old. I decided right then and there that this was not going to happen to me. I wasn’t going to get put away, so my mindset at that time was maybe if I only had some type of job to help my mother put food in the house so we can eat.
You interpreted that your mom could not handle your brother so she put him away. You were not thinking that someone was going to come and take you away. You were thinking, “I’ve got to be a good kid. I’ve got to contribute.”
I was like, “I’ve got to contribute or else I’m gone. I don’t want that to happen to me.”
Are you saying that that is the inception, let’s say, of your entrepreneurial path like, “I’ve got to contribute?”
That was my mindset. I didn’t want to be a part of it. At this early age when they pulled this curtain down, I believe that is what hit me in the eye and ruined my eye. When they and my mother were going through this eviction and whatnot, nobody paid attention, so I wound up blind in one eye. For half of my life, I went through the name-calling of cross-eyed, one eye socket or cyclops to name a few.
You name it, I’ve got it. I had to live with that. I was a decent kid but I remember listening to my mother’s conversations. I don’t know who she was talking to but she said, “He can’t be a police officer, a fireman or even be a garbage man because of his physical condition,” and that made me think more about maybe this lady might put me away.
She was starting to talk about maybe there is nothing useful you can do.
Also, even when I grow up. They gave me no incentive to grow up to be something because nobody, at that time, was talking about a lawyer, a doctor or an entrepreneur.
I interviewed another guy that is in the Ice House Program named Ryan Blair. He was a gang banger in South Central. His mom started dating an entrepreneur that helped get him on the right track. One of the things he said to me was the message you get as a kid heading in the wrong direction is not that you could be something great. It’s that you should avoid being something terrible. I think that is what you are saying.
Realistically, I didn’t get a bed of my own until I was 12 or 13 years old. I slept on a folding cot with my mentally challenged brother until she put him away, and then when she put him away, I slept on a folding cot in the dining room. This was the way we were living.
I want to make sure I’m understanding. I’m not putting words in your mouth but it seems to me what you are saying is you somehow interpreted the situation in such a way that you said, “I’ve got to go out and figure out how to make myself useful to be able to contribute.”
As I said, I did not want to get put away. After I have seen that happen to my brother, that frightened me. I was 6, 7 or 8 years old, somewhere around there.
You didn’t want to be a burden to your mom. You wanted to be a helper to your mom.
I’ve got up every morning and I would go to the next-door neighbor for soda bottles. I would go to the grocery store and polish apples first thing in the morning before going to school. We are talking in elementary school, not middle school. Being there, I go to the other grocery store. In the darkroom, I hold the eggs up to the light that they had at that time to see if there were any chickens in the egg and box them. I left, went to school, came back from school at a young age, and went to the barbershop. I went out and solicited these jobs.
Your entrepreneurial origin was your response to that situation.
I went to the cleaners and I would put the strip for the pants that they had at that time on their hangers. They had these little brown strip things that they used to put on before. I used to go there, sit there, and make racks up for the presser to be able to use the hangers to hang the pants once he pressed the pants.
How were the people that hired you in the grocery store or the barbershop treating you? Were they looking at you like, “Look at this little guy. He is hustling?” Did they think you were cute? Were they annoyed?
Nobody ever made me feel like I was annoying. They always treated me with respect, and that’s crazy. They treated me with respect because I respected myself, and I talked to them with respect. I showed up when I said I was going go to show up and I did what I said I was going to do. They didn’t have to worry about the cash register or a can of tuna fish being stolen.
In 1987, I had already failed in one business. I was broke. I had no money and a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed. I took a borrowed ladder, went up in a rich neighborhood where I’m not from, and went knocking on doors and cleaning leaves out of people’s gutters. All I had was enough of that common sense you talked about to show up when you say you are going to show up and do what you said you are going to do, and people start to rely on you, and then you can grow from there.
That’s what I did. That was the beginning of my entrepreneurship, and then around the beginning of middle school, she moved me from that neighborhood. She got another rented house in a better neighborhood but for me, I still had to find work. My mother didn’t say I had to find work.
Didn’t she put that on you?
No, but I knew what I needed to do. In the new neighborhood, I was babysitting for somebody and was helping out in the grocery store. There was one grocery store in the neighborhood and I was respected enough to be able to come in there and help the person in that grocery store. I had to do something.
That is a powerful part of the story. You create your own luck. When you show up and take whatever you can find and people start to realize they could rely on you, other opportunities follow. You were going to the grocery store before school and to the barbershop after school. Tell me about school. Were you excelling in school? Were you a good student or a bad student?
I probably read on a 3rd to 4th-grade level up to high school. I don’t even know how I’ve got through middle school, and it wasn’t that I was not trying. It was being blind in one eye. My eye tearing up every time I go to read for a long time made it difficult for me at that time.
Did you see school as a place that is your sanctuary or as the path forward for you?
I did because I wanted to stay there regardless of how difficult it was but circumstances that happened made me have to make a decision because I wasn’t a bad kid. I wasn’t a kid that was looking for trouble or ran with a gang. I don’t know what it is to run with a gang of guys or people that are going to allow trouble to come into my life. I stayed away from that.
Did you attribute that to being in the grocery store or barbershop? You were hustling. I’m sorry I don’t have a better word but you were figuring out that you have the ability to make things happen. You have some control over your situation is what I’m trying to say.
I realized that I was a male, and what happened was I wanted examples of what men really were. As I said, my brother has gone to the service, my other brother was married, my other brother was mentally challenged, and my father was gone. My life coming up was Leave It to Beaver. I was watching those types of men.
That was the North Star you were using to guide you. You were like, “That is what a decent man looks like.” That is super interesting.
That’s what I did, and I knew from Leave It to Beaver that the male was always helping the woman. The male went out, worked, and took care of the woman. My mother was here with these seven girls by herself, and my brother told me before he left for the service that I was the man of the house. At 7 or 8 years old, I wasn’t ready to be the man of the house but I had to figure it out. From watching these different characters on television, I had to figure out what the man in the house had to do.
Were there other influences? Did you see other kids? Did you have any role models in your physical life?
The role models were the people that I looked up to at the grocery store, barbershop and cleaners.
The people that owned the businesses or ran the businesses were your role models.
I had to be careful even then who I looked at.
You were trying to stay out of trouble all your life. You were not a great student. You were struggling in school. You are blind in one eye. There were a lot of challenges at home. It is difficult, I can imagine, to try to focus in school when you don’t know what is going on at home and everywhere else. It’s so interesting to me that what was some people would look at as this crushing experience wound up making you stronger in some kind of weird way.
It did. I don’t really understand it, and then my mother got a boyfriend, and the boyfriend was a mechanic. He took me under his wing and allowed me to come in after school and work on cars with him. He owned the business.
You’ve got another entrepreneur in your orbit.
During the summer, I worked full-time with him. During the winter, I worked after school. I did that for years. In the summertime, he started me out an hour before the business opened cleaning the dog mess up.
You started at the very bottom.
I didn’t understand the character that it would build in me but he started me about being on time and what a business owner had to go through because he was there with me at 7:00. The business opened at 8:00, and he didn’t play coming in late. He then started me with cleaning tools. I was like, “You have me cleaning tools all the time. You are not teaching me anything. Why are you not teaching me anything?”
He was my Mr. Miyagi because with me dealing with these tools, wiping them down, feeling them, and looking at the sizes all the time, I began to know and was able to walk over these tools. If he asked for a 1/2 inch wrench, I can go over and pick up a 1/2 inch wrench or a 1/2 inch socket or 3/4 socket.
This guy knew what he was doing. He was like an uncle Cleve.
He was my Mr. Miyagi. He has passed on now but a couple of years ago, I said, “I had a Mr. Miyagi.” Also, he was giving me a trade that couldn’t last a lifetime. I didn’t stay in that business but he was building a character in me and giving me a trade that could last a lifetime.
That is a beautiful story. That’s like the Ice House. Clifton, my co-author, was in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s or 1950s born to a teenage mom. He goes to work at the Ice House. His uncle pulls him out of the cotton fields and said, “I want you to work alongside me at the Ice House.” It is the same thing. It’s like uncle Cleve at a fourth-grade education but he taught his young nephew how to think like an entrepreneur through observation. You told me that you dropped out of school in the eighth grade.
It was more so close to the eleventh. It was either the 10th or 11th. What happened was I’ve got a smart mouth with my gym teacher. My gym teacher had no idea that, even since high school, I was pulling engines out of cars and whatnot. I was extremely strong. He took me out of the class to teach me a lesson. He was going to rough me up. What happened was he found out that I wasn’t that easy to handle, and I wind up with his neck around the pole on the stairs and almost choked him out because I fought back. It scared me to death because I was fighting a teacher.
If you fight with a teacher, you are done. You are going to prison.
I thought I was going to jail. I went up to tell the dean and the dean didn’t do anything about it. I then went home and told my mother but my mother was so tired from working at night, and she was tired of raising kids. Don’t forget, I was number 10 out of 11.
She can’t deal with it. She has no room left to cope with that.
She didn’t go up to the school to handle my situation. I thought it was best to leave school, so I don’t go to jail.
You were saying, “If I’m going back to school, this is going to wind up turning into an incident. I’m going to wind up on the wrong side of this.”
I was afraid if I went back to school, I was going to go to jail.
Take us from there. You dropped out of school at 10th or 11th grade. Then what happened?
I was still living at home with my mother. Here I was at 15 or 16 years old and we had a difference of opinion. We had a rule in the house that most people have, which is the worst rule in the world. It was whatever goes on in here, stays in here, and that would one of the worse teachings ever taught.
The family is closed off.
That is why there is so much abuse. I remember the story quite well. As I said, she had a boyfriend. She was working down there with her boyfriend and she was telling her boyfriend about things that were going on in the house. She was telling her boyfriend about one of my sisters. When I went home that day, I told my sister what mom said.My sister approached mom and mom denied it, then mom called me and asked me, “Did I say that?” I said, “Yes, ma’am.” I was always polite. I never thought about disrespecting her. She said, “Are you calling me a liar?” I said, “No, ma’am. I would never call you a liar.” She said, “Did I say that?” I said, “Yes, ma’am,” and she slapped me four times across my face. My hands never thought about leaving my side but I knew it was time to leave home.
You were outgrowing that environment.
I was working on cars and other things like that. I have had other jobs in gas stations and whatnot. I was making money. Back in those days, it was easy to rent in efficiency.
Was this in the late ‘70s or mid-‘70s?
It was in the early ‘70s. At sixteen years old, I was on my own. The first thing I did was rent a room. On that same night, I left home. I went looking for a room. I have been hustling all my life. I was in the mechanic thing with changing the oil and pumping gas, so I always had money but I never thought about getting into drugs and alcohol. I did the normal stuff that everybody else did.
I did the smoking of weed and the drinking at that time but I was more geared towards living and not killing myself. I’ve got my first room, and at that time, I had a girlfriend that was a little older. She had a fire in her house, so we wound up moving into a room together. From there, I’ve got my first efficiency. At sixteen years old, I left home and never returned.
You were out on the street. You had to make it happen but you’ve got a work ethic. You had it already figured out. You had some skills, and it is not just the skill but you said something earlier that is important. Even when you were seven years old, you hustled up those jobs. You made it happen. No one connected you to somebody. You knew how to do that. That is an important piece of the puzzle.
I still don’t know where that mindset at that age came from.
That is the hard question I don’t know I have an answer to. If I listen to your story, the hope circuit in your brain is open. As bad as the situation was, you still had hope that the future is going to be better than the present coupled with the belief that you have the power to make it so.
I have to. There is nobody that’s going to do it for me.
You could put somebody else in that situation and they could interpret it differently. They could say, “I’m stuck. There’s nothing I can do,” and it might be a person of equal or greater talent but if they interpret the situation pessimistically, they are not going to get out of that situation.
I had to make it happen. Along this road, mind you, I ran into the bad boys and the people who wanted me to sell drugs. As a matter of fact, up in New York, I was somewhere around seventeen years old and I was working in this gas station. I was no longer at my mother’s boyfriend’s job. The owner of the gas station was a drug dealer and he was also a number runner.
I had been working for him for a while. He drove this big, fancy, canary yellow ‘75 Caddy. His partner was driving a big, red Caddy. He was into the gas station but he was also a nighttime number runner because they had what was called the Night Trotters. For anybody from New York, they might know what that is. I don’t know if that was all over the world. What he did was he started me off by picking up his books for him. I didn’t go on the street and write numbers but he gave me this brand-new Mark IV, and at night after working at the gas station, I would go around and pick up numbers for him. It was just a slap on the wrist. You weren’t going to jail for life. What I wasn’t aware of at that time was this was the beginning of my bad side coaching because he started me out with just numbers.
He was almost like the evil side of Mr. Miyagi.
One morning, I’m at work and he got me driving this nice Lincoln Mark IV. They called his partner Junior. He said, “I want you to go to Junior’s house and pick up a package from me.” I had no idea what the package was. I was still, to the world because I tried to stay out of the world. I get to Junior’s house and I was picking up a kilo of cocaine. I was already committed because I didn’t know what I was going for. I bring it back to put it into a cooler down in the basement of the garage.
After my number run, he wanted me again to pick up that package and bring it to him. Once more, I’m committed but the next morning when I walked into the job, I took the keys to the Mark IV, I dropped them on his desk, and I told him, “If this is what I have to do to keep this job, I’m not interested in this. I’m not going to stay any longer.” Where did that come from? It was from a young kid who was getting paid really well. I don’t know where that came from but that is not something that interests me. I was not interested in becoming somebody’s drug dealer, moving drugs or being in trouble.
It is so fascinating to me because so many kids in a similar situation or who go down that route will happily take those keys and start making those runs but it’s interesting to me that maybe you learned at an early age that you can make your own thing happen and you don’t have to be part of that.
You are right because already with the education that I’ve got with my hands in the mechanical field, I knew that I could do better and make enough money to live without doing that. My real Mr. Miyagi, the first guy that started teaching me about cars taught me everything electrical about cars like brake lights and tail lights. I was able to take a test light and fix any electrical problems that were on the car. Cadillac used to send their problems over to him to solve. At an early age, I had a specialty in even the mechanical field as an electrical specialist.
It is a little niche. You leave the drug dealer situation as a young kid in your late teens, where did you go from there?
I stayed in the mechanical business until I was 21 years old. I wound up back with my Mr. Miyagi until I was 21 years old. I called him. Mr. Smith was his name. At 21, I married and moved to Staten Island. I knew that I was ready for marriage for a simple reason. My mindset was first, I had to learn if I could take care of myself before I could take care of anybody else. I had been out on my own for over five years and I hadn’t gotten dispossessed or evicted.
You were doing it. You were self-sufficient.
I then took on a wife, but don’t forget, I moved to Staten Island. I’ve got a job working in a mental institution. It was given to me, and because this lady was high up in HR, she got me a job as an aid in a mental institution. What I had to do was write reports on the patients in the morning but I couldn’t even spell, “Slept through the night.” She had to bring me into the office and teach me how to spell, “Slept through the night.”She was willing to do that but it didn’t happen on that job. I wound up losing that job, not to my own, but again, somebody grabbed me. I didn’t want to fight but I wound up in a fight, and it was a dismissal for both of us. Maybe I was a week or two away from going into the service because I wanted to experience service life. I wasn’t supposed to be even accepted. I’m far out from the door. Don’t ask me where I got this convincing stuff from but I convinced the doctor that was doing the eye examination that I wanted to experience Army life.
You convinced him to look past your blindness.
I’ve got a little bit of a chance of Army life until I was in the Bootcamp. They caught my bad eye. I was able to get an honorable medical discharge, which made me feel even good about myself because with no education, at least I wanted to contribute to the service, to my country and was willing to go through whatever but the real reason that I went in was that I don’t have a freaking pair of shoes to put on my feet. My shoes had holes in the bottom and I was trying to take care of my family. At least in the Army, I’ve got a pair of shoes. My family came first.
This is an incredible story. I see this young guy in this environment and there is so much pulling against you, distraction, and opportunity to get in trouble but you keep trying to navigate towards something better.
It was God’s will. Here I was at 22 or 23 years old, married. The marriage is not going well. When there are money problems in the house, there are always fights in the house. I was 21 or 22 years old living on Staten Island. I’ve got one child, which is not even mine because I married a girl with a child at that time, and I was trying to take care of them. With all of this going on, I couldn’t even afford a pair of shoes for myself.
Probably at that time, I had made some bad decisions that I was addicted to alcohol and drugs but I didn’t know anything about addiction at that time, so I figured maybe the Army would straighten me out. I was running from myself but that didn’t work. I was now back home with no job and I still had a family to take care of. I looked up janitorial services and found a janitorial job inside the dumps, and the only way to get there, because I didn’t have a car, those great Army boots helped me walk into the dumps every day and clean those floors. I was in it long enough to get what I needed.
That introduces you to the world of janitorial services and you somehow became a construction laborer.
That was also interesting. I didn’t know what shaping was but I heard these guys that lived in my neighborhood or my complex talked about shaping, which meant that they would go out looking for work because they had union books. By having union books, they were able to go to these different union jobs and look for work. I was like, “Can you take me with you?” They were like, “No, because you don’t have a book,” but I heard how this thing goes. I listened very well. I had a little bit of a car, so I started going to the different construction sites and started getting turned down because I didn’t have a book.
You said something that you were listening or observing. This is just a theory. I don’t have any evidence for it but since you were seven years old, you realized, “It is up to me to figure stuff out.” You were not thinking someone else is going to tell you what to do. You were thinking you’ve got to figure it out. Your senses are attuned to your environment in a way that someone with a different mindset might not be attuned.
It was crazy because I go to this one job back in Staten Island and there were all these mafioso things going on these construction sites. I go into some jobs and I ran into this guy that had hands like a baseball mitt and stood about 6’4”. His name was Joe Vilente. I don’t even know if he’s still alive. I walk up to him and he growls at me like, “What do you want?” I said, “I’m looking for work,” and of course, he asked the magic question, “Do you have a book?” I said, “No, sir.” He said, “They don’t have work here for you.”
As I said, I kept my ears open. I heard his daughter come running up to him and said, “Dad, they can’t fix my signal light, and they want to keep my car for a couple of days to fix it.” I asked him, “Would you mind if I looked at the signal light because I know a little something about cars?” With a really rough voice, he said, “Go ahead.” I went and grabbed my test light out the back of my car. I went through the system and there was one wire broken up under the thing. I fixed the signal lights and told him it was working, and she told him it was working. He said, “You work here. You go tell so and so that you work here.” That is how I’ve got my union book.
This guy I follow, Naval Ravikant, an Indian investor and philosopher, talks about different kinds of luck. There is luck where you are walking down the street and you find a $100 bill. That’s random but then, there is this other luck, which is hustle luck, where you are out there shaking the trees and a piece of fruit falls out of that tree. A lot of times, it doesn’t but every once in a while, an apple falls out of that tree. That is the hustle luck that you are talking about. You are making the luck.
I had never earned that much money an hour in my life.
He got you a book. He got you into the union.
The union rep came out and told me how much it was going to be and how much my due was going to be. Here I was now at 25 or 26 years old making $19 an hour.
This was in 1979. That was a lot of money. That is $40 or $50 now.
Not a dime of that money never went to alcohol and drugs.
What prompted you to say that?
I know I had an addiction to alcohol and drugs but by the time I’ve got that far along the road, I had already had enough. I didn’t do any rehab or detox. It was more important for Teddy to feed his family than to feed his own addiction.
There is something inside of you that is guiding you.
Up until now. I don’t mean anything offensive by this but when I was going through all of this stuff, in my mind, sometimes I would say, “I wish a White man would come along and help me,” and I meant that when I said it. It was because of the way that we looked at life back then that the White guy had it all together, and if I could just find a White friend that can help pull me out of this crap, I don’t want him to give me anything but at least take me under his wing.
It is like another Mr. Miyagi but a White guy. You felt that a White guy was going to introduce you to the promised land or the real world.
That is a perfect way to put it but that really wasn’t what I needed. When I think about it, when Joe Vilente came along, the White guy helped pull me up another notch.
It didn’t come into the package that you were looking for.
It didn’t come under my wings but I’m grateful that it came at the job.
Now, you’ve got in the union, making good money, got some stability, can buy some shoes, and could feed your family. You did that for a number of years, didn’t you? You stayed with that.
I did that up until 1990. In 1990, I had saved up enough money to where I can move. At that time, I was married, and my wife had come down to Pennsylvania to a church convention and said that she wanted to move there. I was a by faith kind of guy. As I said, it was always about family. Do you know how you say, “Happy wife, happy life?” I believe it was August when she came down to a convention.
On October 19, I was in Pennsylvania. I traveled back and forth with the raggedy car that I had into construction for a while until it became too dangerous for me. I had to get up at 3:00 or 4:00 to work by 7:00 in the morning. I did work all day and drove all the way home, and this happened over and over. It was getting dangerous for me to do that, so I moved my book to Pennsylvania.
You’ve got the job with the union and you were making a living wage. You could support your family, and you did that for quite some time. You are not really an entrepreneur. You were working in a union job but you are being entrepreneurial. You were showing up and bringing yourself to your job. Can you bring us up to speed on how Elohim Cleaning came to be?
What I did was I moved my book to Philadelphia and when I’ve got here, I didn’t know anybody, so I still had to do the same thing I have always done. The union wasn’t providing enough work, so I had to go out and look for union work. About every job I ever had in Pennsylvania, I landed myself. One thing about me is I was always trying to be a worker among the workers.
What do you mean by that?
I didn’t come to work to go in the corner somewhere, and you and I are chopping it up while I was supposed to be working. I’m here to work. If we want to chop it up, we could chop it up at break or lunch but the other hours belong to the person that I worked for. That is the way I carried myself on the job.
Did that get you noticed?
I can imagine it was in a positive and a negative way.
It was both. You are right because some union guys felt like they could slow the job down. I tell them, “I’m sorry. I’m here to do a job.” The end result in a union job is you are going to get laid off sooner or later. What happened was when they had seen that I was that guy that would show up half an hour or an hour early, the person that was in charge there or the superintendent began to give me responsibility.
The next thing I know on one of the jobs that I was doing, and that was close to my last job, I had fifteen guys under me. Here I was, this superintendent, on a job and everybody was working for me but I treated them like I wanted to be treated. I didn’t step on anybody because I was now above them as far as right. My area was always the cleaners because that is the way I would operate, so when I began to do it, I began to teach this to the guys that were beneath me.
You became Mr. Miyagi to these other guys. You were trying to bring them up in a way other people had schooled you.
I would tell them, “This is your area from 7:00 to 3:00 except on your break. As long as your area is clean and I walk up in your area and you are talking, I don’t care because your job is done but I don’t want to see you in somebody else’s area during that time you were supposed to be in your area. I hold you responsible for your area.” Before I started teaching these guys, they thought that leaving a pile of trash would save them work for tomorrow.
You had to train them to think differently to go against the grain.
That is right and it worked. I don’t know how it worked but it worked.
You were leading by example though. They saw you doing it, and then you’ve got respect for it. That’s super interesting. In the back of your mind, were you thinking like, “I’m going to start my own business,” or were you thinking, “I’m set in the union. This is good. I’m supervising fifteen people and I’m making good money?”
I knew that comes to an end because every construction job comes to an end. What happened was this particular job that I’m telling you about with these fifteen guys, we kept it immaculate, and it was Merck Pharmaceutical.
Was that a building that was being built for Merck?
Yes. I will never forget. It was building seventeen. I was in everything. I kept the mechanical rooms, the office space, and everything that they were building immaculate. I thought anyway that it was immaculate.
Your job was to manage the construction site. It was not to build anything but to manage the site and keep it neat and organized.
Even in the construction field, the electricians don’t want you touching any of their equipment or the stuff they have to put up. The pipefitters and the plumbers are the same way, and I had to win the trust of all of these different trades to where they allowed me to put everything in an area where they could find it. Now, not only am I working with these fifteen laborers but I’m building a relationship with electricians and plumbers.
What you were doing was extraordinary. You were not looking at keeping the construction site clean. You were thinking like an owner. You were understanding the broader complexity of the system. You were not just thinking, “I’ve got to keep this room clean.” It is this mindset that you have but you don’t know you have it or you don’t know where it came from but it is causing you to think in these ways. That’s so interesting.
This particular job went on until the total end. When the building was finished, I was down to five laborers. Everybody else was laid off and whatnot, and then they bring in these eight different people. They started cleaning and wiping down the building.
That was the final cleaning of the construction. Your job was to keep the site or the building itself neat and orderly. The job was winding down. They were laying people off one at a time. It’s not like you were being afraid like you were going to get taken away from your mom. It is a similar thing there. You were trying to make yourself as useful as possible. You were the last man standing but then you see they brought in an outside crew to do the final cleaning. Is that what you are saying?
That’s right. I looked at what all they had to do. They came in with some rags. At that time, it was like alcohol rags because it was a pharmaceutical building, and they wipe everything down. They also did very little mopping. I said to myself, “If that was all I had to do, I would have done that for them,” and by then I had a rapport also with the people in the office.
I was talking to one of the ladies in the office about it. She said, “I’m going to show you the contract of what they are paying those people to wipe the building down.” When I saw it, it was $350,000. I said, “I could do that for them.” I’m not proud of it. I said it was the first time you ever met me and I was able to obtain a copy of that contract. I patent my solicitation to the copy of that contract.
What do you mean by that?
I made it my own because I started a business. The bell went off the minute I knew what they were paying those people to do that contract.
You were like, “I don’t need to be a laborer anymore. I can own a business that does this.”
It took me another five years to implement that bell that went off because I was still working for somebody else.
You kept going as a union laborer but the bell went off in your head like, “I’m going to start my own cleaning business. I’ve got to find my own contracts.”
Going back to the electricians, the carpenters, and the plumbers, I had rapport with all of them and their bosses, so now, I know a lot of people. I’ve got a reputation for showing up and doing the job and somebody took a chance.
All of that groundwork you were doing for decades beforehand started with cleaning the tools at Mr. Miyagi’s shop.
Also, not quitting because I had to clean up the dog puke, wipe down the greasy tools, and show up at a certain time.
A casual observer might read this story and think you’ve just got lucky but you were out manufacturing luck. That is what you were doing by building this foundation.
You have to. Now, things are slow but because of the Federal Government, I’m not hurting but that doesn’t mean that I sit still and do nothing. That means that I do something. All I have got to find is my next niche or my next way in. I’m calling my contractors from the last couple of years and I’m telling them, “I’m not looking to be paid in advance any longer or for you to fund. I’m looking for jobs that I could fund.” I never thought I would get to that point. I was saying, “If you’ve got a job and you haven’t selected a cleaning yet, I don’t need a quick 30-day pay any longer.” I’ve got some financial stability that I can take care of the job until you can pay me.
It gives you a competitive advantage now. Here is the common thread that keeps coming back here. You may or may not be aware of the way you are thinking, and maybe I’m wrong but you are thinking about what other people need. That is part of your secret. You are looking at the bigger picture. You are like, “What is missing here. What could be improved? What do other people need? These guys need to trust me with their tools, so I can move the tools and clean up their area without them getting upset.” Empathy is really your magic sauce. You are like, “I’m concerned about other people’s needs,” and that’s what’s exposing the opportunity.
It has always been like that for me. As long as I can help somebody else, God is going to take care of me. That was his job. It was not my job.
I’m agreeing with you. I think we all come here with some kind of gift. You’ve got to figure out what your gifts are and how to help other people with your gifts, and then everything else works out. You see this $350,000 contract, and you know you could do that, make money, and have money left over at the end of the day. It took you a while to get it together but how did you start Elohim? If I remember it correctly, it was not some big $350,000 contract.
The first thing I had to do was find out how to start a business. I was thinking, “What does it take to be known as a business?” The union was giving Free Law time, so you had time with lawyers for free. I told the lawyer, “I want to start a business. Can you help me?” He said, “What kind of business do you want to start?” I told him about a cleaning business.
He told me exactly what I had to do to get an IEN number and all of that other stuff. I was like, “How do I do that?” He said, “I do all of that. You have to have the name for a business.” He was a Jewish lawyer, and I said, “The name of the business is Elohim Cleaning Contractors.” He said, “You can’t,” and I really don’t like the word you can’t.
I said, “What do you mean I can’t?” He said, “You can’t use that name.” I said, “Why?” He said, “You are not allowed to put a business in God’s name,” so I said, “I’m sorry. That is the name God gave to me and I want to try to use, and if it doesn’t pass, I will come up with another name but that’s the way I’ve got to put it in.” He was more excited than I was when the paperwork came back. The business was in that day. I knew that it belongs to him, and I had to return it. I can’t take the credit. It was June 15th or 16th, 2002 that I have not worked for anybody else.
What did you do? A lot of people wouldn’t know what to do. They don’t know the first steps to take. The first thing they think of is, “I’ve got to go write a business plan and get somebody to give me money.”
Number one, I had my children around me and I was able to coach them into the written aspect. Remember what I told you. My reading and writing ability was not that great at that time.
You were not confident in your ability to read and write.
I could dictate very well what I needed to be said. If I didn’t tell people that I didn’t have a great education, they wouldn’t know. I don’t hide anything. The other thing is I never talk street slang like a lot of our Black brothers do. I talk street slang but not daily and not when I’m doing business.
Can you say more about that? What’s behind that?
I’ve got that more so from my brother who was ten years older than I was. I had never heard him talk street slang. He carried himself differently. Don’t forget I didn’t have a father figure and he was the closest thing to an example when he came over from the service. Everything was always proper when he was talking.
He was my example of a real Black male, not a street Black male, so I patted myself after that. I even had to learn because I’m a big guy. Being a big guy, sometimes I can be intimidating from my voice. I said to myself, “You cannot go to jobs and be loud and boisterous. You have to learn to talk because some people stereotype you as intimidating. You have to learn how to bring that voice down, so you don’t intimidate. There is so much you have to do in life.”
Again, you are much more aware of your environment and interaction with the environment than the average person. I don’t know what the average person’s awareness is, so maybe I shouldn’t say that. I want to come back to the start. How did you get started? You had an idea. You’ve got to establish a legal entity and get those things out of the way. What did you do next? I know some of the stories from the Ice House Program but I want the audience to know this. You started with a couple of hundred bucks and were pulling office furniture out of the garbage to try to make this work.
I started laboring by taking shingles off of roofs. That was one of my first jobs.
It was a few hundred dollars. It was not any big multi-thousand dollars contract.
That is how I really started. I didn’t start with a $350,000 contract. I started taking shingles off the roof. I started doing clean-outs in housing.
You were doing residential cleaning.
If the house was abandoned, I didn’t care how bad it was. If you wanted it cleaned out, I cleaned it out. I was really the first 1-800-GOT-JUNK.
He was another one of the Ice House Entrepreneurs.
Is he now?
Yes. He was in the Ice House Program. I interviewed him not long after I interviewed you. His name is Brian Scudamore. He told me he built that to $250 million in revenue. You told me you were fishing used office equipment out of the garbage.
I wish I could find pictures of what we used for office equipment. I had a computer I had inquired about. I’m not proud of that either and that didn’t work that great. I had a fax copier. I don’t even remember where we’ve got it from but it was also the telephone.
It was the fax, copier, and phone all-in-one.
That’s right, so if you were doing one, you couldn’t do the other.
You were also doing it from a spare bedroom in your house.
I’m sitting in the extension to that bedroom because for many years, I have never seen a need to move my office or rent a space.
You are not trying to up your lifestyle. That’s not what’s driving you. You are in the same house.
I’m in the same house from years ago, and it was perfect. Warren Buffett said that he only needed three-quarters of an acre of land. That’s what he lived on. Don’t forget I’m always listening. To me, if Warren Buffett can make it off on three-quarters of an acre of land and I have three-quarters of an acre of land, where do I need to go? I will make the space work.
There is something deeper underneath that. You are not motivated by prestige. Do you see those things on social media where they show a ghetto kid wearing $300 or $400 tennis shoes, all this bling, and then they show a billionaire wearing jeans and a T-shirt? I think people misunderstand that. Once you figure out how to make your own thing happen, you don’t need those things as much.
You don’t need to be showing off to other people. I will go back to Warren Buffett. He said something that there is an internal scorecard and an external scorecard, and you are better off if you need the internal scorecard. That’s what I keep hearing from entrepreneurs. They are like, “I’ve got plenty of money in the bank. I’m not trying to impress anybody.” Money is a freedom thing. It’s not a status thing.
It doesn’t mean anything because it could be gone tomorrow.
I want folks to know how you pulled together a couple of hundred dollars with your children. You were still working on the side. This started as a side hustle. It’s not like you dropped everything and went for it. You’ve still got to keep the lights on.
I will tell you another story. I don’t know if you have ever heard this one. I’ve got together with the kids. My son was still young. He was still in high school at that time, my daughter was out of high school and she has a set of twins. She needed more money to take care of her twins, so she left the business because she had an opportunity to work in other places for more dollars. I can respect that. That’s what you’ve got to do because you’ve got to feed your kids.
Also, in the beginning, you don’t know where it’s going. You don’t know what it’s going to become.
Here’s what happened. I still stayed to work the business, and the next thing I knew, I had close to $100,000 in the bank. She was struggling at that time. She had bought some type of Toyota Camry that was used. She had it for one week, and the windows fell down, and then the transmission went out. When I found out about this, I said, “Go out and look for a new used car. Let me know what you decide and what you need.” She went out and looked.
I remember the dealer was right there in Philadelphia. She showed me the car. At first, when she showed me, it wasn’t really what she needed, so she went and brought something else out. I was like, “This would do.” She was at the dealership and was negotiating with the dealer about the price. Once they came to the price, I threw the company’s checkbook on the desk to sign the check. She said, “Huh?” I said, “When I told you you were my partner, you were my partner. This is the money that I saved while you had to do.”
That is also the evidence. The business is real. There is something solid going there.
It is crazy because I never did this to get rich.
I hear that a lot. The money will take care of itself. People set out to make money. I have interviewed people that were worth hundreds of millions of dollars. They were very wealthy entrepreneurs. I kept hearing them say, “It is not about the money,” and I kept thinking, “What the heck? Why do I keep hearing this?” I understand it now. It is like the money is a scorecard that I’m doing something useful for humanity. The money is nice. I’m not going to push it off but I’m not just driven by money. We are doing people a disservice by telling them that the entrepreneur is somebody who takes a risk in exchange for a profit. That is misleading. I don’t like that.
It has to be about helping others.
There has got to be a purpose component. I still want to come back to something. I need you to explain to me how this first job cleaning shingles off a house evolved to a bigger contract. It didn’t happen overnight. You didn’t walk out the door with a $350,000 contract.
Solicitation. It is selling yourself, getting in front of the right person, and not being afraid to get in front of the right person.
Can I trace that back to you being a seven-year-old kid knocking on a grocery store door?
I’m still being humble enough to this day, back to what we talked about before, and calling some of my clients saying, “I’m not looking for a hand down. I’m looking for a hand up.”
Here you are many years later, you’ve got this business. I know you have had huge contracts. You wound up with $300,000 contracts at some point.
My biggest contract was somewhere around $900,000 at one time.
Was there ever a moment where you went like, “I’m doing it.” Did you ever have that moment?
It was crazy because besides the roofs and the little clean-outs on the houses and whatnot, the first time that somebody wrote me a contract for $35,000, I was like, “Somebody is going to pay me $35,000 to do a job.” In my mind, I was like, “I don’t want this year to leave.” I had $35,000 and the other small jobs I had.
What I’m interpreting with what you are saying there is like, “I don’t want this to be a one-off. I want to see if I could replicate this.”
That’s right, but then the year left. The next thing I know, I have a $77,000 contract and a $50,000 contract in the same year. I was still new. It has only been two years. I had a couple of small jobs going but a $75,000 contract or $50,000 contract, I was like, “I don’t want the year to leave.” The next thing I know, I have a contract with the Federal Government for almost five years for $350,000. I’m cleaning the Comcast building, which is the largest building in Philadelphia and I’m working at the children’s hospital cleaning their new construction building and doing the final cleaning. Remember what we were saying that you keep what you have by giving it away?
You’ve got to give it away to keep it.
What I did was, my son, who has been by my side for all of these years, now has his own business called For Elohim. He is in the cleaning business, and all residential work is his.
You have got the commercial side and he is doing the residential.
I didn’t need to be greedy and keep everything.
You know you were going to be okay once you’ve got to that point.
I said to him, “Why not make sure that God forbid, anything happens to me or if my business goes down, you are still okay?” He still runs my business but he has his own.
That is like a spinoff or almost like a subsidiary of dad’s company. I have never met your son but I met Serena, and you, by example, have instilled an unbelievable work ethic in your children. They are fortunate to have a father such as you. A lot of kids don’t have that. You didn’t have that.
You are right, and because I didn’t have that, I wanted to make sure that in life, my kids always knew where I was and I was always able to possibly give them guidance because if that mind of mine would have gone south at any time not having a father, my brother who used to chastise me is now in the service, my other brother is married, I’m the little Black kid on the street by myself.
I want to try to string some ideas together here if I can. What made this work? You came from this really challenging situation, and somehow, you’ve got the idea in your head that you had control over it. I have studied this idea of what psychologists call Learned Helplessness. Now they know that it is not learned. We are born helpless and we only learn control but one of the things this guy wrote, the psychologist’s name is Martin Seligman, “Early experiences of control protect us against the ravages of uncontrollability later in life.”
He has also gone on to point out that this research that people who learn to optimistically interpret adversity wind up being stronger, healthier, and happier than people who have never suffered adversity in the first place. Stop me if I’m going too far here but it sounds to me like, whether you know it or not, or you are aware of it or not, you transformed your adversity into an advantage.
I had to make it work.
What is it in you? Why were you so hopeful in the worst situation? You were eleven kids, the teacher was beating you, you were at odds with your mom and living on a cot but that hope circuit is open in your brain somehow. Somewhere, you’ve got the idea like, “I’m going to make it.”
I never allowed that hope circuit to close.
Are you doing things that you are aware of to keep the hope circuit from closing?
I stay positive.
Are you aware of your self-talk? Are you aware of the story and your own internal dialogue in that regard?
You have to look back to go forward sometimes. A lot of people say, “Don’t look back,” but you’ve got to look back, and that’s what I do. I have been doing it all of my life. At the end of every year, I evaluate if I made any positive moves from the year that has passed and measure. It can be the smallest measurements like, “I was able to do a car or a house this year.” It is not how much money I’ve got in the bank. It’s how I was able to live throughout this year.
What is also interesting is you have this level of self-awareness. I like to say it like this. A mindset is a belief system that is perfectly designed to create the outcomes that it is creating.
I have always said, “God gave every male.” Women, please don’t take this wrong because women have it too, but God gave every male the ability to build shelter for himself. We were born with that instinct of shelter and family, so if we keep that avenue open, we can’t fail.
There is more there. Humans are born with the innate tendency to become all that they can become. There is an internal drive towards self-actualization. This guy Maslow said, “Unless you plan on becoming all that you can become, you are probably going to be miserable every day of your life.”
What am I going to do? Pity me every day because poor Teddy didn’t have an education, didn’t go to school, didn’t have a job or didn’t have food to take care of his kids? Pour me a drink. That is what it would come to.
This is such a great story. I heard you say that you learned at an early age that you have some control over your life and that is what you focus on. You are tuned to your environment. You are not afraid to go out and knock on doors, and show up and bring yourself. You said to me one time, “If all I’m going to be is a broom sweeper, I’m going to be the best broom sweeper there is.” That’s a classic Ted Moore line. What is it in your mind that made this possible? How did a guy like Ted Moore that came from unimaginable poverty get to where he is now?
I can tell you this. It is from giving. It was when that guy at the grocery store gave me the opportunity to polish his apples and put them in the window. The guy in the other grocery store gave me the opportunity for me to be able to put those eggs up in the air and caught them for him. The guy in the barbershop allowed me to sweep the hairs off the floor. The guy in the cleaners who gave me the opportunity to be in that cleaners and do the hangers, and Mr. Miyagi, who gave me the opportunity to learn about cars. Everybody was given to me. How the heck could I go through life and not give back? All of this was freely given, so how can I not freely give back?
I have been saying this for some time and people don’t get it. Thinking about others is the golden secret of an entrepreneurial mindset.
I was blown away by this young man. I’m going to tell the story, and I wish you would have been at our fifteenth-year celebration. This young man came to me and said, “I’m tired of the streets. I don’t want to do the streets anymore. I have been to jail. I’ve got this bracelet on my ankle wrist but I need work,” and I said, “That is not a problem. You’ve got work.”
He showed up every day for four years. He came to me and said, “The court is finally calling me in. They are going to lock me up for a while. All I want to know is when I come out, do I still have a job?” I told him, “As long as I’m in business, you have a job. It doesn’t matter what you have done in the past or what you were doing. It’s a matter of now.” This young man was in the union, so I made sure that his book was paid. I have seen myself being sent to jail but I have also seen myself trying to change.
He’s trying to reach for some better.
This guy now runs crews like I used to run crews of 15 to 20 guys in the union, so it’s like I was watching me grow up again.
You are making the world a better place in the process. That is a beautiful story. I want to thank you for taking a couple of hours out of your busy day and your life to share this story with us. I hope a lot of people get to know this. I’m grateful for the opportunity.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to do this. I’m just sharing my life. There is a song that said, “If I can help somebody, then my living will not be in vain.” That is where I’m at. I’m done right there.
That is beautiful.
- Elohim Cleaning Contractors
- Ice House Entrepreneurship Program
- Ryan Blair
- Naval Ravikant
About Ted Moore
Ted is the President of Elohim Cleaning Contractors, where he is passionate about growing their business and providing outstanding service.