Having someone else do your laundry for you isn’t exactly a new idea. “But what if we made it into an app,” asked some entrepreneurs. “HOLY SHIT, HERE’S A BLANK CHECK,” shouted a bunch of investors, and just like that, Washio was born. Washio was a San Francisco-based startup that picked up dirty clothes from your house, cleaned them, and delivered everything back to you. And because they couldn’t work “bacon” into their whole image, the company went with the internet’s second favorite thing: ninjas, which is what they called their employees. It was a cute concept to be sure, but it didn’t last. Tyler, who worked for Washio, explains why:
Research by Evan Symon.
It Looked Super Shady From The Outside
All businesses love repeat customers… provided they don’t come by too often. This applies to everything: hot dog vendors, animal shelters, proctologist offices, and, yes, laundromats. When you have the same people (sorry, ninjas) dropping by ALL THE TIME and hogging all the machines, it kind of starts to look like an analog DDoS attack on your business. Tyler explains:
“We didn’t have our own facilities, so we needed to use the neighborhood laundromats … Before Washio went out of business it got harder and harder to find laundromats. We inadvertently helped closed some (more on that in a bit), and many owners thought we were to blame, so we weren’t allowed in. At other laundry places we had so much with us that the owner wouldn’t let us in because they were afraid we’d hog all the washers and dryers.”
”One of us had actually taken over half a laundromat on one occasion, and it was the case of one of us being inconsiderate one time and ruining it for everyone.”
But also consider that Washio’s ninjas were hauling other people’s clothes, which meant a bunch of guys often handling bags full of female underwear. Now, San Francisco is super liberal but it also means they got a big perv problem, so Washio’s employees often got a bunch of people’s panties in a bunch.
“[Once] I walked into a laundromat and started several loads of clothes from 3 female clients,” Tyler says. “One of the other patrons noticed this and alerted the manager. She faced up to me. ‘Whose are these?’ … ‘We’re a laundry service.’ ‘Who?’ ‘We’re called Washio.’ ‘Never heard of you. Did you take these clothes?’ ‘No, they hired me to wash them.’ ‘Here?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘But they aren’t yours.’ ‘No.’ I had to call two [clients], one of them a brand-new customer, and have them explain to her that I was legit. She had brushed aside my attempts to show our website on my smartphone.”
The customer stopped using Washio after the incident, which nobody on Earth could blame her for.
Some Of The Company’s Gimmicks Backfired Hilariously
In the beginning, Washio was banking on making bank and standing out with add-on services. But what extra things can you offer people who just want their laundry done? That you’ll fold it in the shape of their favorite Backstreet Boy? That you won’t rent the laundry out to stray dogs “unlike some other services out there”? No. The answer, obviously is cookies.
“To attract more people we had to give more. So we gave big cookies. Not only when you signed up, but with every order. These were the expensive cookies too, the ones that cost at least a few dollars”
”We were told to always sell the cookie part, and you can tell in interviews or in other articles. ‘It’s so great you get a cookie!’ ‘No laundromat gives you a cookie!’ But that’s how we sold it and set ourselves apart. Not only is your laundry done, but you get a cookie.”
”And honestly, most people were not excited for that … most people who I personally handed their laundry back to were like ‘Oh. A cookie. Thanks, I guess.’ or ‘No thanks.’ Really. I had three customers who were excited for them. Everyone else was mildly surprised at best and screaming that they had diabetes and stop trying to give them cookies at worst.”
Maybe they should have went with booze instead? The slogans practically write themselves: “Have a brewski with your clean underooski!” or something. In any case, the cookie idea didn’t really work but it at least made sense on paper. Some people like getting free cookies. But no one likes getting free underwear.
“We had an underwear promotion for a while too. Have an order of laundry? Free underwear.”
“Cookies people tolerate. You give them underwear and some people see it as an insult. My route most people were OK with it or tried to return them because they didn’t want them, but one guy got offended. I did his laundry, and underwear was in there. But he thought I had seen his underwear, thought I thought it was terrible and tried to give him new underwear. He told me ‘I’m not a charity case. You keep them sport.’ That was another customer who never used us again.”
Stolen Clothes Were Definitely A Problem
“Washio and other laundry services would pick up clothes and drop off clothes from your door. If you weren’t home, your clothes could be sitting out there for hours. For as wealthy as San Francisco is, there are still lots of people who will take clothes like that. It happened pretty often. We hang up the bag and an hour later I’m told that they came home to find no bag.”
Washio apparently always told customers to schedule a time they wanted their laundry dropped off, but some were insistent on it being delivered when they weren’t home. The company always got the same excuse: “I’m busy.” And with no other reason given, I’m forced to assume that they were busy stealing other people’s clothes. But they also gave other reasons, like:
“’Because I didn’t want to deal with you.’ That’s something people actually told us. It was better than leaving your clothes in a laundromat and then leaving for a few hours, but it still happened more than you’d think.”
But the clothes-thefts were sometimes also the work of employees.
“I don’t know how he wasn’t caught, but there was another ninja at Washio who liked to take shirts, but only with restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe on them. He always said his goal was to get one Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood and Rainforest Cafe from each place there was one … He worked at Washio for a year and had dozens of them. We got a call about a missing shirt exactly once, and they were the type of person who was paranoid about services like us and made a list of what was being washed … Somewhere in San Francisco is a guy who has lots of (60 or 70) Hard Rock Cafe shirts he took from washing clothes.”
It’s really the perfect crime. No one wants to admit they own a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt to begin with, least of all that it was stolen, and you can hoard as much of them as you want without your partner knowing because if you’re that much into Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts, you are definitely single.
The Company’s Customers Ultimately Destroyed It
In the end, Washio was defeated by their own customers: tech firms. With more and more tech companies buying up cheap real-estate and causing the rents to go way up, a huge number of laundromats were displaced, leading to a laundromat crisis stretching from coast to coast. This made it impossible for Washio to continue their business.
“Washio went out of business because they couldn’t find a buyer and money problems, but at least part of it had to do with laundromats. When more closed it became harder to find economical places nearby to get it done. We were only a middle man and didn’t have a central hub to get it all done. We needed those laundromats. But the tech industry, the same that relied on us, forced laundromats out. And some of those laundromats we couldn’t get into because the owners blamed us went even faster. We were being paid largely by people in the tech industry, but it was that same industry that closed the laundromats we needed.”
And it’s a problem that’s repeating right now as we speak:
“There are plenty of laundry startups in San Francisco and all over the area, but they rely on that same model. Some have stopped operating there, others failed and others are probably going out of business soon … They start big by getting the tech industries laundry, the tech industry causes rents to go high so laundromats have to close, then we close because it gets harder to wash clothes nearby for a profit.”
But to be clear, none of those businesses tried going with my idea for free booze with your laundry so… you know, something to think about.