(Editor’s note: This is the second in a multi-part series of summer stories taking a closer look at how a group of diverse LGBTQ entrepreneurs survived and thrived during the pandemic. The series is sponsored by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.)
Spaulding Decon’s 4.2 million subscribers likely tune in to the company’s popular crime scene cleaning up TikTok to watch technicians clean up blood or dismantle drug labs, but sometimes the founder and CEO Laura Spaulding slips a little more.
“Today we’re going to talk about the affordable housing crisis,” Spaulding, a former Kansas City police officer, told viewers in an April teaser; later, a young woman recounts how difficult it was to survive outside the benefit threshold.
Spaulding founded his multimillion-dollar biohazard cleanup business in 2005, and in 2016 it became the nation’s first franchised decontamination service.
However, the onset of the global pandemic threatened to derail the success of this lesbian entrepreneur.
When states locked down in 2020, in a desperate effort to slow the death toll from the pandemic and contain the spread of the disease, many companies struggled. According to data from the Commerce Department, real GDP across all industrial sectors fell sharply in the second quarter of 2020 as the world plunged into an economic recession.
Spaulding said surviving the crisis meant being able to navigate a new environment quickly. His business survived, in part, by reaching out via social media to the millions who found themselves unexpectedly locked down.
“We actually grew our business during the pandemic,” Spaulding told The Blade. “Other brands may not have done it because they were in crisis mode. But we showed viewers a glimpse of what disinfecting for COVID looks like. We gained a ton of subscribers because of it.
In 2021, Spaulding Decon made Inc. Magazine’s list of the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies, an honor that gave Under Armour, Patagonia and Microsoft their first national recognition.
Inc. noted the “unprecedented challenges” this group of winners faced in 2020 not only to survive, but also to thrive with a three-year average growth rate of 543% and a combined median income of nearly $11 million.
It was a feat Spaulding said she never imagined possible. When she launched her business, she did so with little outside investment and sheer determination.
“I’m just a regular person trying to build a business,” Spaulding said of his challenges. “[Being a lesbian business owner] didn’t bother me or benefit me either. I never got a contract because of that. But it will only bother you if you allow it.
And she said the struggle for the job is real. Technician turnover is high.
Working long hours in protective gear can be physically demanding, and cleaning up after a violent death can take an emotional toll, but Spaulding enjoys working alongside those struggling with her.
“The people I work with are amazing,” she said. “Since COVID, we’ve been operating with fewer employees than we’ve ever had, but I love being with them, side by side. We’re mission-based.
“You can change people’s lives”
Today, Spaulding lives with her partner of four years and co-parents a 4-year-old, a 3-year-old and a rescue dog named Sammy, a retriever mix. But in 2005, she was a police officer dealing with the mother of a distraught homicide victim who wanted to know when they were coming back to clean up the crime scene.
Spaulding told the Story Exchange in February that she felt bad for the mother who had just been through so much, but the only answer she had for her was “We don’t do that.”
So Spaulding quit police work and took up crime scene cleanup. The job was tough, but years later, she has no regrets.
“You can change people’s lives by putting things back to where they were before the incident,” she told The Blade. “Especially the suicide cleanups because they don’t have to see it. You can’t get rid of the memory of [seeing the person like that]but we can reconstruct this piece.
Even before the pandemic created a captive audience, the media was interested in Spaulding Decon’s work due to the inherent drama.
“We were approached with reality TV producers. But they were never able to sell it because they thought it would be too graphic,” Spaulding explained.
“So I was like let’s do it ourselves and post it on YouTube, and that’s how the social media series was born.”
Currently, Spaulding Decon’s Crime Scene Cleaning YouTube channel has over 800,000 subscribers, and while much of the content can be graphic, some can be quirky and unexpected, like the 1980s ET Atari game discovered during a hoarding cleanup.
As the pandemic enters its long-term, less acute phase, Spaulding Decon’s social media presence and popularity continues to hold. His Crime Scene Cleaning series now has a spin-off focused on in-depth interviews with people dealing with a variety of topics.
“We get DMs [direct messages] on our social networks to find out how to clean this particular thing? Spaulding explained. “And we’ll do videos on that to make sure people are educated.”
This desire to educate drove Spaulding to develop his franchise in a new direction.
“We have a spin-off called ‘Talking Decon,'” she said. “Where we do more survey type interviews. The last one was with a victim of human trafficking.
This new series offers a chance for the former cop to engage the community in a meaningful way.
“We take an educational approach to social media. So we have a cult-like sequel,” Spaulding said. “And we stay in communication with followers and fans.”
NGLCC: It’s a ‘community thing’
Spaulding has worked hard to make her business a success and she thanks her staff and technicians for working just as hard in their “labour of love”.
However, his biggest advice for new entrepreneurs and LGBTQ business owners is to find a mentor to learn from early on.
“You’ll get to where you need to be faster than by learning from your mistakes,” she added.
Spaulding also highlighted the support she has found as a member of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC). She found it nice to be able to exchange ideas with “our own people” in a safe and comfortable environment.
“It was more of a community thing,” she said. “And it’s important that all minorities stay at the top of your game – it’s not a level playing field. It is lifelong education. It’s about constantly finding things you can do better to beat the competition.
Professor of Economics MV Lee Badgett, a leading researcher at UCLA’s Williams Institute, has studied the benefits of LGBTQ equality on the economy. His books have debunked the myth of gay wealth and instead highlight the economic challenges LGBTQ people face due to discrimination.
“The basics,” Badgett told The Blade. “Is that for an economy to work as well as it could, everyone must contribute as much as they have to offer.”
Justin Nelson, co-founder and president of the NGLCC, also explained that resilience and community are important.
“Our community is buoyed by our resilience and our commitment to help each other through good times and difficult times,” Nelson said. “It’s never been easier to go online or check with your local affiliated LGBT Chamber of Commerce to make sure you’re supporting brands that support our community.”
And Spaulding is committed to continuing to grow its business. An avid reader, she has just finished “Who Not How: The Formula to Achieve Bigger Goals Through Accelerating Teamwork” by Dan Sullivan and enjoyed his insights.
“You can’t do it all alone,” she says. “I came in thinking I had to do and pay for everything myself, but sometimes you have to find the ‘who’ – that person who can help you do something, instead of just figuring out how to do it yourself- same.”
His new goal is to grow his business from 56 locations to 100.
“I think it’s difficult,” she said. “But doable.”