Funny Business with Jane Wells

Washio app serves up on-demand laundry service

Scattered across the start-up economy are legions of young Americans who work, work, work. They're all trying to develop the next, big, "disruptive," game-changing, never-before, totally awesome ... thing.

Outsource your dirty laundry with Washio
Outsource your dirty laundry with Washio

These entrepreneurial millennials don't have time to drive themselves (hence, Uber). They don't have time to shop and cook (hence, GrubHub). And they really don't have time to wash their clothes or go to the dry cleaner.

Jordan Metzner is one of those people. A serial tech entrepreneur who took a detour to create a burrito chain in South America called California Burrito Co., the 31-year-old Los Angeles native does not have time for everyday stuff.

"I always had a problem with my own laundry, and I hated doing my own laundry," he said, sitting inside an industrial-looking start-up space in LA's Silicon Beach. "I saw how Uber and some of these other companies were creating on-demand services, and I thought, 'Man, I really wish there was an opportunity to get my laundry done by using on-demand services, or using my mobile phone."

When Metzner couldn't find such an app, he created one: Washio. (Tweet This) He and a partner launched the service with their own money in 2013, becoming the first two drivers, or "Ninjas," going around Los Angeles and picking up people's dirty clothes. They had the loads cleaned and returned within 24 hours. Nearly two years later, Washio has raised almost $14 million from a variety of investors, including celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Nas. It boasts 100,000 users in six major cities, and while other on-demand laundry services have come and gone, Washio has survived and is the largest.

You're making pretty good money even when it's slow. And if it's busy, you make really good money.
Dan Fagan
LA-based actor and Washio 'Ninja'

Here's how the app works: Users download and create an account to make sure their neighborhood has Washio coverage. Then they make pick-up and drop-off appointments for laundry at home or the office. Some people have left their laundry on the front porch, but usually it's better and safer to be there when the "Ninja" arrives. Washio provides special bags to put clothes in, and the Ninja takes them to a distribution center where they are sorted. From there, the clothes are sent to commercial, third-party laundry and dry cleaning services. The clean clothes are returned within 24 hours.

"If you look at the laundry and dry cleaning space, and even more on the dry cleaning side, you see that it's a pretty antiquated industry," said Metzner. "It's one of the only retail locations that exists in which you kind of feel like you're going back to the '70s."

He estimates that the value of the industry is over $10 billion.

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Washio is not cheap, but Metzner said prices are comparable to regular dry cleaning services, and he's working to bring them down. Laundry is charged based on weight, dry cleaning by the piece—wash-and-fold runs $1.70 a pound, while dry cleaning ranges from $1.99 a shirt to $11.99 for a two-piece suit.

His Ninjas are independent contractors, similar to the drivers who work for Uber. One of them is actor Dan Fagan, who uses the delivery service to augment his income between acting projects. Ninjas are paid anywhere from $5 to $7 per stop, and Fagan said he is guaranteed at least $14 an hour.

"You're making pretty good money even when it's slow," he said while making a laundry run in Santa Monica, "and if it's busy, you make really good money."

Plus, he prefers driving by himself instead of carrying customers like Uber drivers do. "I just kind of like being on my own," he said, "listening to my music or NPR."

Source: Washio

On this day, Fagan picked up a load of clothing from Brandon Hale, a mobile advertising account executive. Hale started using Washio a few months ago ... even though there's a washing machine in his house. "It's just convenient," he said. "I'm working a ton, I travel quite a bit, by the time I come home, it's just one less thing that I have to worry about."

The best part? Ninjas always bring a treat.

"Would you like a brownie?" Fagan asked. "Love one," Hale replied.

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The rollout of Washio has not been wrinkle-free. Metzner said the biggest negative surprise was quality control. He expected third-party services to provide consistently clean clothes, but that was not the case. Washio now has monitors at all of its cleaning sites. "We inspect every piece of garment that goes in or out every one of our facilities," he said.

The company recently launched Washio Now, which does pickups within the hour—sometimes as quickly as 10 minutes—in certain neighborhoods. Revenue is projected to hit $20 million this year, and the CEO eventually hopes to go public.

"We provide laundry services for some of the largest CEOs in the country," Metzner said, including "someone who was on CNBC this morning."

There have been a couple of funny stories, like the cat in the bag—literally. A Ninja heard a hissing noise coming from his back seat after a pickup only to discover the owner's cat had somehow gotten into the laundry. On the other hand, no one has expressed shyness about handing over their dirty undies to a stranger like Fagan. "People are so happy when I arrive," the Ninja said.