Reflections While #StayingHome: Lessons From The Development (And Expansion) Of My Startup, Washmen
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The entire world is currently in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, and while we heed the global call to #stayhome, this time spent away from external distractions has allowed many among us to self-reflect- including me. In my case, I’ve been thinking about my startup, Washmen, which I launched with my co-founder Jad Halaoui in the UAE in 2015.
Until Washmen, there had been no tech intervention in the UAE laundry industry- digitizing the customer experience as well as the supply chain gave us a clear edge over the rest of the industry. Also, the fact that we were new to the industry allowed us to think of problems from a completely new lens, unbiased by years of doing things the way they’d always been done. We credit our success to this oversight. We noticed a similar theme in other geographies too- one of the best laundries we’ve seen globally is in China, and it was started by someone who had been an architect for 35 years before turning his attention to laundry.
We started Washmen with a clear tech advantage over our competitors, and we then capitalized on this- our ability to see problems from a new lens allowed us to innovate. We identified gaps in the classic value proposition of a laundry and launched the “Wash and Fold” concept, which has been very successful in solving a problem customers have that was previously unaddressed by retail laundries. We were also able to leverage the safe environment we are in to launch “at door” pick-ups/drop-offs, which further widened the convenience gap between an at-home and in-store service. Multiple innovations like these propelled us to the forefront of the market, and I firmly believe it’s because we came in new to the industry, with no status quo bias.
In the beginning, there were a few challenges for us to overcome in the laundry business. Our biggest challenge when we first started was the fact that we thought being asset-light was the best way to operate. After all, the same business model, which was being lauded as the future due to the likes of Uber, Airbnb, etc., was being taken and applied across all industries. However, we found that in the laundry industry, whilst it meant lower capital requirements, it led to lower quality control, and an inability to innovate, despite partnering with the best laundries in the country. As such, our transition into a vertically integrated laundry was the single biggest driver of our ability to provide the ultimate customer experience.
Another challenge was the market itself. It’s crowded with low quality providers who provide “a service” at an ultra-low price point, cutting corners each step of the way. Educating customers that “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is” applied to laundry was, and at times still remains, a challenge. While we operate as an app-based concept, I don’t believe it is a guaranteed way to generate more clientele than a solid storefront would. I don’t believe just having the business based on an app, instead of a brick-and-mortar building, has changed our business methods or productivity in anyway. It’s actually a lot more than that.
Apps, physical stores, drive-through restaurants- my ethos is that it doesn’t matter what establishment in which your business is run from. At the end of the day, the customer is looking for a value proposition that they believe is worth parting with their hard-earned cash. They will only find this to be true when they are offered a service that is one, or many, of convenience, high quality, reliability, value, etc. I truly believe that having an app in itself means nothing. Does this app allow you to do something in a shorter time than you would have otherwise? Does it make you feel comfortable that this task is being handled in the best way? Does it allow you easy access to talk to someone if you ever have any worries or concerns? Is the service behind the app actually being completed to a high-quality level? Do you feel like the company on the other side of the app listens to you when you have something to say? These are the things that make a difference in the success of not just app-based businesses, but all B2C enterprises.
A Washmen employee at work.
When it comes to growth, in terms of our business model, whilst being asset light posed its own challenges further down the line, it did allow us to incubate and grow an idea into a fully-fledged business with relatively little capital. As for our management style, ours is one that is close to the ground. We’re hands-on. We stay close to our customers, close to our laundry partners (when we had them), and close to our employees as well. This allowed us to iteratively optimize our offering and achieve a product/market fit, whilst solving our employees’ and partners’ pain points simultaneously. This, in my mind, has led us to understand the full value chain of the laundry industry better than most, including those who have been doing this far longer than us.
While growth is a painful process both in business and in life, it must be done naturally. I don’t think there is such a thing as a hack to business growth. Our early growth was fueled primarily by word of mouth. We built a business that people were excited to use and to tell their friends about. This led to huge growth beyond the typical digital marketing acquisition channels, but it was the result of lots of hard work and good management, so I wouldn’t necessarily call it a hack. As we prosper, our focus is to cement our domination in the UAE in 2020 courtesy of a number of new and exciting things we’re developing, as well as ramping up our marketing efforts. After that, the UAE will become our innovation hub, and we have exciting plans for expansion.
Once we do expand beyond the UAE’s borders, I feel there will be some challenges to expect with such growth. Understanding the nuances of product-market fit in other geographies will undoubtedly be a challenge. Our business model is not cookie-cutter, as every market has unique characteristics i.e. disposable income, population density, costs, etc., but luckily, the intrinsic that have been key to our success here, as well as our developed expertise in cleaning, are universal. While I have plans in place for international expansion, I can’t reveal much at this stage- however, the next two years are shaping up to be very exciting for us. Stay tuned!