Brilliant ideas can come from the strangest places. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook started as an interfacing app for Ivy League kids. Uber came to its creators’ minds when they had trouble hailing a cab. And Wash Cycle Laundry founder Gabriel Mandujano? He was thinking of dirty diapers when he came up with his business plan.
But more on that in a bit.
Wash Cycle, which has been around for six years, puts its own spin—pun incredibly intended—on industrial washing. They supply some of the standard laundering fair, including linens, sheets, towels, custodial supplies, floor mats, and clean clothes in bulk for universities and hospitals. They commit to the environmental bit, using all-natural detergents and high-efficiency laundry machines. But it’s the trip that the laundry takes that really sets it apart: Wash Cycle’s wares are carted around via bicycle to their local facilities. The company currently has campuses open in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and currently employs roughly 50, just about 40 of whom are stationed in Philly. (It also had a short-lived franchise in Austin, Texas.)
“Our work is directly in the city that we serve,” says Leigh Goldenberg. “Many of our commercial competitors are sending laundry maybe 90 or 150 miles away. But we’re never more than three miles away from our customers.”
Commercial laundry isn’t the sexiest business to be in, much less to disrupt. It’s not the music industry, begging for a Spotify, or the taxi industry waiting for Lyft to whisk it away and give it a mustache. It is, however, an industry that is worth nearly $20 billion, per a study completed in 2009, and one that, according to Mandujano, had fallen into something of a rut. Back at the turn of the decade, Mandujano had worked at a pair of nonprofits and was looking to take his next step.
“I was always really interested in grassroots economic enterprises and sustainability. I wanted to start a social enterprise,” he says. “I wanted to do something that I could do cleaner and cheaper. I wanted to do something that would be institutionally-procured, and the big guys in Philadelphia are hospitals and universities—what do they purchase?” Mandujano says he also wanted to create career pathways for people who lacked a secondary education.
Mandujano had to do some soul searching before he came up with an outfit that met his lofty criterion. He bought a book on solar panel installation—green energy was all the rage in the early tens—and was exploring moving into the solar energy game. Then a friend who had just had a baby told him that there was no cloth diaper service in Philadelphia; the nearest one was in Lancaster. Surely, there is another universe where Mandujano is a mover and shaker in the diaper disposal game, but it’s not this one.
“The diapers started getting me thinking about laundry. Pretty soon, I decided that diapers weren’t where I wanted to go, but laundry seemed pretty interesting,” he says. “Every time you eat at a restaurant or go to a hospital or stay at a hotel, you’re probably sleeping on something or wiping your mouth with something that has been provided by a third-party launderer.”
Mandujano realized that there was an opening in this world, but a small one.
“A lot of times, with the existing commercial laundry providers, their goal is to be very big. If you’re a hospital that’s laundering millions of pounds of standardized linens, you can normally go to one of these guys and get great service. But there’s stuff that falls in around the cracks, and a type of business size that doesn’t get great service,” he says.
In other words: The hospital at Penn is probably doing fine, but a 40-bedroom nursing home is likely to be overlooked by a major commercial launderer. This was Wash Cycle’s entrypoint; the earliest investors included the Untours Foundation and the Patricia Kind Family Foundation. Since then, it has moved from servicing bite-sized businesses, to larger businesses, to hospitals, to universities—the outfit now has an exclusive laundering deal with Georgetown University, in D.C.
“We try to build credibility at each level, and then try to move onto the next theater,” says Mandujano. Now, he says, the company is moving into serving specialized medical service providers, like long-term care and sub-acute behavioral health facilities. He claims that Wash Cycle is squarely comfortable in its niche, but that the business is expanding rapidly. “We’re eager to keep on growing. I don’t know that what we do is exactly what anybody else does, but we’ve already run into some of the big guys, and I suspect we’ll be seeing each other more,” he says.
“I was always really interested in grassroots economic enterprises and sustainability. I wanted to start a social enterprise,” he says. “I wanted to do something that I could do cleaner and cheaper. I wanted to do something that would be institutionally-procured, and the big guys in Philadelphia are hospitals and universities—what do they purchase?”
But even as business picks up for Wash Cycle, which Mandujano has said is profitable, he’s trying to ensure that his company doesn’t slip into the low-wage, long-hour drudgery of your standard commercial launderer.
“There are a lot of commercial launderers out there who want their employees to do as little as possible and to make their jobs as simple as possible,” he says. The average commercial laundry employee in the U.S. pulls in around $9 an hour. Wash Cycle, according to Mandujano, starts employees in Philadelphia at $11 an hour and grew its average weekly paycheck size by 46 percent from March 2015 to October 2016, allotting more responsibilities to employees, including some that he says would normally handled by “more senior-level managers:” Employees can be involved in the hiring process, managing a small facility and even drafting profit and loss statements.
“There’s a lot of messiness that comes with that approach,” says Mandujano. “But at the same time, we’ve found that our profit margins and our wages increase together.”
And what about the bikes? Laundry handled by Wash Cycle is carted around the city on bicycles with little trailers attached to the back; the advantages of this non-conventional delivery method are plentiful. “If you think about gas, and tolls, and wear and tear on the vehicle, and parking tickets, and insurance and paying someone to sit in the car the whole time, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” Goldenberg says.
But the question remains: who will disrupt the Philly diaper disposal old guard?
Stay tuned.Photo header courtesy of Wash Cycle Laundry