Silicon Valley’s Laundry-App Race — New York Magazine

Silicon Valley’s Laundry-App Race — New York Magazine.

Inspired by Silicon Valley guru Paul Graham’s seminal essay to “do things that don’t scale,” they sourced cookies from bakeries in their three markets—snickerdoodles in San Francisco, frosted red velvet in L.A., classic chocolate chip in Washington, D.C.—which the ninja delivered, wrapped, along with the freshly laundered clothing. The gesture added another logistical wrinkle to an already complicated business, but it was worth it. “In the beginning, people loved it,” says Metzner. “Our social media went crazy, like, ‘Oh my God, Washio is the best!’ ”

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Remember the scrub board? One imagines people were thrilled when that came along and they could stop beating garments on rocks, but then someone went ahead and invented the washing machine, and everyone had to have that, followed by the electric washing machine, and then the services came along where, if you had enough money, you could pay someone to wash your clothes for you, and eventually even this started to seem like a burden—all that picking up and dropping off—and the places offering delivery, well, you had to call them, and sometimes they had accents, and are we not living in the modern world? “We had this crazy idea,” says Metzner, “that someone should press a button on their phone and someone will come and pick up their laundry.”

We are living in a time of Great Change, and also a time of Not-So-Great Change. The tidal wave of innovation that has swept out from Silicon Valley, transforming the way we communicate, read, shop, and travel, has carried along with it an epic shit-ton of digital flotsam. Looking around at the newly minted billionaires behind the enjoyable but wholly unnecessary Facebook and WhatsApp, Uber and Nest, the brightest minds of a generation, the high test-scorers and mathematically inclined, have taken the knowledge acquired at our most august institutions and applied themselves to solving increasingly minor First World problems. The marketplace of ideas has become one long late-night infomercial. Want a blazer embedded with GPS technology? A Bluetooth-controlled necklace? A hair dryer big enough for your entire body? They can be yours! In the rush to disrupt everything we have ever known, not even the humble crostini has been spared.

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“This thing, it’s alive,” he says now, holding up his phone. “It knows the weather, it knows what you like to eat, it knows your location, it knows what you like to buy.” He was particularly fascinated with the on-demand car service Uber, which was quickly building an empire on the back of smartphones. “We’re just going to see more and more businesses that we never would have seen before that exist on the premise that everyone has one of these in their pocket,” he says. “It’s like [Marc] Andreessen said. Software is eating the world.”

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That was one thing Argentina had over the U.S., he told Dulanto, who had sold his juice bars and was crashing on Metzner’s couch. The lavanderias. “These women would just stay there all day and do laundry, and your clothes smell incredible, they fold them perfectly, they package them perfectly.”

What if, Metzner proposed to Dulanto, they started a service where people could order their laundry picked up and delivered on their smartphones? Kind of like, he said, “the Uber of laundry?”

Of course, they wouldn’t have to actually do the washing. That they would outsource: to wholesalers, maybe, the types of cleaners used by hotels. They’d charge $1.60 a pound, and though they’d lose part of the margin, they could avoid the costs of rent and expensive machinery. And if they hired drivers on the Uber model—people who used their own cars and their own phones—there would be no need to buy and maintain vehicles. They’d just be the middleman, organizing the transaction and taking a slice of the ­profit—which, admittedly, was not huge with wash-and-fold. But once they had the laundry, the dry-cleaning would follow. Profits are higher on dry-cleaning, because who knows what dark alchemy is required to remove stains? No one, and everyone is willing to pay a premium to stay ­uninformed. The trick was to think big: “That’s where the numbers become exciting,” Metzner says. “Let’s do it in 50, 60 cities,” he told Dulanto. “Let’s literally go into every market.”

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“The laundry and dry-­cleaning industry, it’s all, like, old people,” says Dulanto in the nose-wrinkling manner of someone for whom aging is still an abstract concept. “They’re not tech savvy, and they still put up those really ugly stickers with that ’90s clip art.”

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As an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, he’d started his own company, Insomnia Cookies, to fulfill the theretofore-unrealized desires of college students to have warm cookies delivered at two in the morning. It now has 50 outposts.

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…when people in a privileged society look deep within themselves to find what is missing, a streamlined clothes-cleaning experience comes up a lot. More often than not, the people who come up with ways of lessening this burden on mankind are dudes, or duos of dudes, who have only recently experienced the crushing realization that their laundry is now their own responsibility, forever. Paradoxically, many of these dudes start companies that make laundry the central focus of their lives.

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“I’m positive that we could go on Craigslist and post an ad for a delivery driver, and find plenty of people with crappy cars who would work for minimum wage,” he says, grabbing his laptop and flopping onto a couch in the Washio break room. “But I mean, you are going to get crappy people who don’t want to put their best effort forward and have a shitty vehicle that looks not nice. We decided to go a different route, where we can have premium people doing ­premium work.” He presses play on a promotional video of a pretty brunette in a Washio T-shirt, leaning against her black Mercedes. In Los Angeles, a lot of the drivers are actors, and their headshots are tacked on a bulletin board at the office. “That guy,” he says of one hunky blond we see picking up a bag of laundry to take out, “he could be in Twilight or something.” They chose the name ninjas in part to signify the company’s relationship to Silicon Valley, where the title is handed out freely. “It stems from Disney, which called everyone a cast member,” explains Metzner, in his stonery-didactic way. “All of these ­nameifications, or whatever, is basically to get everyone to think they’re not doing what they are actually doing, right? No one wants to be the trash guy at Disneyland. ‘No, I’m a cast member.’ At Trader Joe’s, they’re all associates. What does that mean? It means nothing, but I would rather be an associate than a cashier. It helps people elevate themselves and think they are doing something for a greater good.”

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In New York, hiring drivers on Washio’s Uber-inspired model wasn’t an option. FlyCleaners had to use trucks, and because of the traffic and narrow streets, the trucks had to be efficient. They built racks for laundry bags, and Tiemann, whose hobby is pimping out cars for the Bullrun, the annual race in which billionaires in souped-up vehicles race each other cross-country, outfitted each one with a tablet that provides drivers with order details, alternate traffic routes, selective streaming from accident-mapping services, and direct communication with headquarters.

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“People with money are going to figure out ways to invest their money to make more money,” he says. “If you look at finance, like when credit-default swaps were huge, right, everyone was investing in that. And when subprime was huge, people were investing in that. Now, it’s Silicon Valley.” He looks up at the television above the bar, which is showing the Lakers game across town. A shot of Ashton and Mila, sitting courtside, appears onscreen. The chyron informs us they are engaged. Metzner tips his beer toward them in congratulations. He’s not worried. “It’s like Vegas,” he says. “The excitement of winning far exceeds the downside of losing.”

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